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Friday, 19 April 2019

Book review - Queenpin

Megan Abbott’s third novel, Queenpin (2007) surpasses her excellent previous books, The Song Is You (2005) and Die A Little (2007). She has since published another six crime novels.

The Queenpin of the title is a mob moll called Gloria Denton, who’s ice-cold, calculating and exceedingly good at her business, having been at the top of her game for a couple of decades, reliably transporting stolen diamonds, race-track winnings, fixing the odds, all for the bosses. 

Maybe because age or the business is catching up with her, Gloria takes the narrator, an unnamed young woman under her wing, rescuing her from hum-drum book-keeping in a lowly nightclub and trains her as a go-between.

As we’ve come to expect by now, Abbott gets under the skin of the narrator with ease. This is all so believable, almost like a confessional, with plenty of wisecracks and slick one-liners and period description.

Slowly, Gloria’s tuition pays off and our narrator looks, sounds and acts like a younger version of the Queenpin. But then things start to slide into noir territory as the protégé falls heavily for a loser, a guy who is never going to win the big score, no matter how often he tells himself he will. From there, the tension mounts.

Then there’s a shocking murder, a disinterment, and more than one betrayal along the way, told with grim precision and word-economy.

Riveting, page-turning stuff.

Friday, 5 April 2019

Book review - River of Death

Alistair MacLean’s River of Death (1981) is not vintage MacLean, written the year before the dreadful Partisans, and yet it inspired a movie of the same name!

The hardback blurb says: ‘It takes Spaatz more than 30 years to track down his old SS comrade in South America to exact revenge for his betrayal and the theft of a hoard of gold they had amassed together in the last months of the war. But as Spaatz’s small strike-force makes its perilous way through the final stages of the deadly pursuit, Spaatz has failed to consider there may be others in his party with quite different motives but no less determined to bring their quarry to justice.’

The reissued paperback blurb says: … the classic tale of adventure and the dark secrets of a lost city in the Brazilian jungle, from the acclaimed master of action and suspense. The Lost City: Hamilton knows the way to the ruins deep in the Brazilian jungle - and the secret they hold. The millionaire who calls himself Smith seeks the lost city to avenge a wrong from his hidden past. Their journey down the River of Death is an epic of violence and danger. But the secret that awaits them in the lost city is more dangerous still - as a legacy of theft, treachery and murder stretching back to war-torn Europe comes to a deadly climax beneath the ancient walls.’

We can’t blame the author for the poor blurbs. The identity of Spaatz isn’t revealed until we’re near the end of the book; and there’s no so-called ‘strike-force’. And really there is no dark secret – it seems to be known by most of the group with Hamilton, once their identities are revealed. As for the deadly climax – it mostly occurred off-stage, the hero uninvolved.

So, to the book itself. The Prologue starts during the war, and the event described in the blurb, with Spaatz being double-crossed, and is in the classic MacLean WWII style. Then, again, in the opening chapter we’re in traditional MacLean territory with mysterious characters following other mysterious characters. The main character is in fact Hamilton, an overconfident too-clever-by-half hero-by-numbers that MacLean has used often, but this time with much less depth.

After a lot of padding, to-ing and fro-ing, Hamilton is hired by the press magnate to take Mr Smith and his party to the Lost City of the Mato Grosso that Hamilton has recently discovered. Needless to say, there are ulterior motives harboured by several members of the party.

There is too much dialogue and not enough action for an adventure novel or a thriller.

There are exciting portions in the book, mostly towards the end, on the river, the so-called Rio da Morte, where native tribesmen are encountered and pose a threat. But the conflict never really creates the necessary tension. And we’re never really there with Hamilton et al.

As this is a MacLean novel few people are what they seem!

The book had its moments, I suppose, but overall this was disappointing. A quick relatively light read.

Editorial comment

These comments are criticising the publisher and editor as much as the author. Apparently, MacLean wrote many of his novels in about 35 days and never re-read them once he’d finished them. It is also believed that his later novels (maybe this one included) were ghost-written based on his ideas.

Names. Nearly all writers do it. Get fixated on character names beginning with the same letter. Ancient advice is to avoid this. Maclean didn’t here. We have Hamilton, Hiller, Dr Hannibal Houston, and Heffner.

Consistency. On p27 Hiller trains a rifle on a character called Serrano (and no, he isn’t a ham actor but an antiquities expert). Then while still in the same scene, on p30 Hiller pockets his own gun. (Must have deep pockets).

Repetition. Hiller seems intent on sucking Hamilton into his scheme, and alludes to hooking him, and then gaff and land him (p37) Then a short while later, Hiller had been sure ‘he had his fish hooked: now he had it gaffed and landed.’ (p53)


Tuesday, 2 April 2019


I was drawn to the book Jet by Russell Blake because the cover shares the same model as my book Mission: Prague (see the two covers to compare below).

The similarities don’t end there, either. Maya, codename Jet is a twenty-eight-year-old Mossad assassin. The heroine in Mission: Prague is psychic spy Tana, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto; she was thirty-eight at the time of her Prague mission.

Jet’s adventures are set in the present, while Tana’s are in the past (Czechoslovakia, 1975; Iran, 1978; Afghanistan, 1979).

Tana’s Prague novel first came out in 2008 as The Prague Manuscript. Jet was published in 2012, though the ‘shared’ model did not appear on the new Prague cover until 2017.

Both books are fast-paced.

Jet – the first book in the series
Maya thought she’d left behind her life of violence and had retired to Trinidad. Unfortunately, somebody from her past had talked and sent an assassination squad to eliminate her. From the explosive beginning to the traumatising end, it’s action all the way. I certainly want to read more in the series!

Russell Blake has produced a page-turning thrill-ride that has built up an enviable fan base. And to his fans’ delight he’s prolific. He’s just produced his SEVENTEENTH Jet novel (including two prequels) plus a host of other series; in all, in seven years he’s written about 60 books (and co-authored two with Clive Cussler).

If you like your adventures fast and furious, try the Jet series.  


Secret file – 00/13/417 – Tana Standish, psychic spy

Mission: Prague was released by a MOD accredited publisher, Manatee Books. It is based on a manuscript that came into the possession of the author Nik Morton (believed to be a pseudonym). Investigations are in hand to ascertain the source. It is believed that the work is a collaborative effort by a select group of agents, all intent on telling the story of Tana Standish, psychic spy.

Standish was recruited into International Enterprises (Interprises) in 1965 and her career continued until 1988.

Her story is ostensibly being told as fiction. Mission: Prague involves Standish in a mission in Czechoslovakia in 1975.

Other earlier Standish missions have still to be declassified. They take place in the following theatres: Singapore (1965), Naples (1966), Izmir (1967), Odessa (1968), Pilsen (1968), Karachi (1970), Elba (1971), Gibraltar (1972), Mombasa (1973), and Hong Kong (1974).

Standish – brief biography

Tana was born on May 12, 1937 in Warsaw. At the time of the uprising of the ghetto in 1942, she was five years old. She had two brothers, Mordechai and Ishmael, both now deceased. She was adopted by a British couple in 1942, but her adoptive father Lieutenant Hugh Standish was killed ironically in a car crash two years later. Her mother Vera never remarried.

Tana joined Edinburgh University in 1955 and read Psychology, gaining a BA (Hons) in 1958. Thereafter, she worked for the Parapsychological Research Unit, Northamptonshire – 1958 to early 1965; during this time, she travelled to the US and the USSR, among other countries, to give talks on memory, for, besides possessing psychic abilities, she has a photographic memory.

Two of her later missions have been documented in Mission: Tehran (1978) and Mission: Khyber (1979)

Saturday, 30 March 2019


George R.R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book of his series A Song of Ice and Fire is 1,117 pages long, broken into two volumes, and was published in 2011. 

We’re still waiting on the sixth and seventh books The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, some eight years later.  As far as his legions of fans are concerned, so many of his characters are waiting in limbo that it has become frustrating. It’s quite likely that he has lost a good number of readers due to the tardiness of the two follow-up books’ delivery.

What’s interesting is comparing the books with the TV series Game of Thrones. The scriptwriters and directors of the series have performed wonders in transposing Martin’s vision to the screen, and in so doing have sensibly streamlined his convoluted story arcs, even dispensing with entire sub-plots.  Certain characters who died in the books have survived for the TV series, while some characters in the series have died while still survive (so far!) in the books.

Martin admits he’s a slow writer, and he’s certainly meticulous. That’s not the only reason why the final volumes haven’t appeared yet. Game of Thrones first aired in 2011 and Martin was involved in writing for the series to begin with. By the time season six (of eight) was aired in 2016, all of the published material had been used. However, Martin supplied an outline and original text from the final two books so the story could be completed for the series (as scoped for the film version). Naturally, when the last two books do emerge (Who knows when? Maybe in June 2019 after series eight has aired), the threads left by A Dance with Dragons and its predecessors will be tied up in a somewhat different form than depicted in the TV episodes.

Other distractions were Martin’s involvement with developing about five prequel shows set in the world of Ice and Fire, working with at least five writers.

The story in the books is too vast to review, but it never fails to grip even though told from a host of character viewpoints.

Here are three snippets to illustrate Martin’s writing style:

The trees had grown icy teeth, snarling down from the bare brown branches. (p2, Pt1)
In one short sentence we experience the cold, envisage potential threat and see colour.

Sleep opened beneath him like a well, and he threw himself into it with a will and let the darkness eat him up. (p94, pt1)
Even allowing for the mixed metaphor (wells can’t eat you up, maybe the darkness drowned him?), it still strikes a poetic pose.

The southron knights rode out in plate and mail, dinted and scarred by the battles they had fought, but still bright enough to glitter when they caught the rising sun. Faded and stained, torn and mended, their banners and surcoats still made a riot of colours amidst the winter wood – azure and orange, red and green, purple and blue and gold, glimmering amongst bare brown trunks, grey-green-pines and sentinels, drifts of dirty snow. (p16, Pt2)
An overload of colour and imagery – a gift for the film producers. And you feel you’re there.

And of course the books are not only about swearing and sex, violence and battles, intrigue and betrayal. There’s plenty of humour, notably in the Tyrion sections.

You do need to start with A Game of Thrones, however, and work your way through to this point. Joining the story arc halfway through will not be satisfying, merely confusing!

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Book appraisal - MAKE ME

Lee Child’s twentieth Jack Reacher novel Make Me (2015) offers more of what his millions of readers have come to expect.

It begins with the clandestine burial of a guy called Keever, which is momentarily disturbed by the passing of a delayed night train, which is significant…

Reacher has dropped off at a one-horse town called Mother’s Rest. He’s merely curious how the place got its name, so stopped for an overnight stay to find out; he doesn’t get to know until p491; in the meantime, he meets retired FBI special agent Michelle Chang and learns she’s now running a private investigation business and is the backup called in by her associated Keever...

The pair hit it off and Reacher becomes intrigued by the apparent disappearance of Keever.
Their enquiries seem to upset some locals who object to their presence. Reacher’s first set-piece of violence (p92) deters two of them effectively. Chang and Reacher’s investigation takes them beyond the town (to Oklahoma City, Los Angeles and Chicago) and delves into the unpleasant depths of the internet, where lurks the dark side of human nature.

The pace begins in a leisurely fashion and gradually picks up until the set-piece denouement.

Child has a legion of fans because he writes page-turning stories that pull you in, and this book is no exception. It’s a fast read.

Many fellow writers are not fans of his books – for a number of reasons, not least perhaps because he isn’t ‘literary’ and uses simple vocabulary. [Reacher went and took a shower’ (p68)]. He’s not averse to repeating words in the same paragraph or page. He describes at great length places and buildings that have very little relevance to the storyline or scenes in the plot.

His book titles are often quite odd, too: Make Me is a good example. The only place I found those words was on p54: ‘Plus he calibrated it to make me younger than I am.’ The words may have popped up elsewhere. The meaning can be either ‘force me, if you can’ or ‘you have identified me’ – perhaps!

He’s good at dialogue. There can be pages of it, and not that many cues to signify who is speaking because it’s obvious in the context of what is being said.  When he does employ a speech attribution it is mostly ‘he said’ – Reacher paused a beat and said, ‘Who exactly are you?’ Or: Reacher said, ‘That’s you?’  Occasionally, he varies this: ‘Interesting,’ Reacher said. He doesn’t bother with alternatives to ‘said’ and it works just fine for him and, clearly, his readers.

He injects humour. ‘It’s going to be like picking a lock with spaghetti.’ (p162)

He doesn’t use f-words, settling for ‘bullshit’ most of the time. By doing this he probably alienates some readers who prefer more ‘realism’; yet this is fiction and escapism, so these thrillers don’t have to employ gutter language to strengthen the story. Indeed, he probably gains readership because he doesn’t have his characters ‘effing’ at all and sundry.

He’s good at confrontation and fight scenes. Tension is raised and details are dispensed for what might take only a few seconds but in slow-time seem longer as the words pour out. It is remarkable what can pass in the mind in a fraction of a second at heightened awareness, and he manages to convey this very efficiently on several occasions. Adam Hall’s secret agent Quiller would treat combat in a similar analytical vein.

He’s a master at cranking up the tension in a scene:
‘I’m getting impatient here.’
Wet lips.
Moving eyes.
No response.
Then Reacher… (pp334/335) Very filmic.

So, whatever Child’s perceived faults, his phenomenal success suggests that he has captured that elusive readability trait other writers hanker after.  

Editorial comment

More than once Child writes: ‘Reacher said nothing.’ (for example, pp291, 353 and 407). Sometimes other characters get the same line. Interestingly, there’s a book entitled Reacher Said Nothing by Andy Martin, which looks over Child’s shoulder while he writes Make Me. (It’s now only available second-hand on Amazon, and at silly prices too!)

An observation is made when a magazine is found with a bookmark at the front of an article. Reacher’s assumption is that the magazine owner hasn’t read the article yet. (p108). This doesn’t necessarily hold up: the marker could be there for future reference, the piece having already been read.

A number of significant if minor characters don’t have names. They’re ‘the one-eyed guy’, ‘the Moynahan who had gotten kicked in the balls’, ‘the spare parts guy from the irrigation store’, ‘the counterman’, ‘the hog farmer’, ‘the guy from Palo Alto’ and ‘the man with the ironed jeans and the blow-dried hair’ – the latter is sometimes shortened to ‘the man with the jeans and the hair’. The repetition of these ‘names’ becomes tedious, though they’re probably easier for the reader to identify rather than a single name. I appreciate the predicament; multiple characters with names can become confusing. Sometimes you can identify a bit-player by their description, which I’ve done before: One-eye, Spare-parts, Blow-dry, maybe. One of the most overused words in the novel is ‘guy’; it grates.  

‘Mrs Eleanor Hopkins, widow, previously a wife and a laboratory researcher…’ (p271) Well, yes, she would be a wife previously if she’s now a widow…