Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Twelve Reads of Christmas: The Six Sacred Stones by Matthew Reilly

On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love read to me: The Six Sacred Stones, Five on a Treasure Island, The 4-Hour Work Week, Three Wishes, Two Boys Kissing and One Shot in a pear tree.

Continuing The Twelve Reads of Christmas, today I’m reviewing Matthew Reilly’s fast-paced action adventure The Six Sacred Stones.

The Six Sacred Stones is a new adventure for ex-special forces soldier Jack West and his trusty band of sidekicks, after their first outing in Seven Ancient Wonders. Once again, they are called on to save the world, this time from an approaching “Dark Sun”, some kind of super-multigrated black hole lurking behind Jupiter which will soon destroy all life on earth.

That is, unless Jack and the gang can find the Six Sacred Stones, some very special matching diamond Pillars, charge the Stones in another ancient and Special Thingy, then somehow get all the Stones and the Pillars to various exotic hidden-since-ancient-times locations around the globe, where huge upside down pyramids await … and somehow start The Machine That Will Save the Earth. Which was probably devised by an ancient civilisation of people who existed before people began.

Or something. I stopped trying to follow it all after a while and just settled back to enjoy the ride. There are a lot of excited capitalisations: Pillars! Stones! Vertices! Potatoes! (Just kidding about the potatoes.) There are breathless sentences like this:

“He quickly slid up over the cockpit dashboard and stood out on the nose of the Clipper, in the battering wind, between the two flying planes!

(Italics and exclamation mark are Reilly’s.) You get the impression that Reilly is enjoying himself hugely, and if you are prepared to let go of the idea that plots should be at least vaguely possible and the laws of physics ought to be observed at all times, then you can enjoy the read too.

It’s like the old-time Saturday afternoon matinees – highly improbable and wildly entertaining. No one expects realism of Indiana Jones, and Jack West is much the same.

And I thought Jack Reacher was annoyingly perfect in One Shot! Jack West makes him look like a bumbling amateur. (And what is it with all the Jacks? Did someone publish a list of Manly Man’s Names that I missed? Let me guess what was in the Number One spot.)

It’s all ridiculously over the top. The villain is Extremely Evil. No, seriously, he’s a Very Very Bad Man. We know this because right at the start he tells a subordinate who has failed in his mission:

“Now, if you wouldn’t mind, Black Dragon, shoot yourself in the head … You were responsible and so you must pay the ultimate penalty.”

Isn’t that awesome? You must pay the ultimate penalty. Who talks like this?

Well, everyone in the book, actually. There is no characterisation. Unlike Liane Moriarty’s writing in Three Wishes, where you knew whose point of view you were in even from the word choices and syntax of the narration, much less the dialogue, everyone sounds the same. Here’s an eleven-year-old boy:

“the Altar Stone, if re-erected, would be at the very heart of the structure”

But such niceties as characterisation are as unnecessary as the laws of physics. Such things are not part of this book’s appeal.

It’s a very visual book. You could see it making a rollercoaster ride of a movie. Indeed, there are lots of pictures and diagrams included amongst the text, as if Reilly doesn’t trust the reader to follow his written explanations without help. Or maybe he’s just so enthusiastic he wants to share all the fun bits with his readers.

There’s a kind of comic-book exuberance to the writing that is very appealing. You can see Reilly’s done a lot of research and constructed a very convoluted plot that hangs together well. In some of his other books he’s relied on the most appalling and unlikely coincidences to hold his plot together. Thankfully, there’s none of that here (just thinking about Ice Station makes me want to punch someone), and his characters manage to extricate themselves from some truly diabolical situations through a lot of ingenuity and a good helping of preparedness.

But I must warn you – if you read this, be prepared for a truly blatant cliffhanger at the end. Normally, this would be enough to make me refuse to ever read another book by the same author again. I hate cliffhangers with a passion. To me, a novel has a beginning, a middle and an end – and if you’ve taken my money supposedly for a novel, and it’s missing the last of those three elements, I’m a very annoyed little reader.

In this case, my rage is held at bay by the knowledge that I have the next book on my shelf already. But if I’d read this when it was first published, I would have been Highly Ticked Off.

So be warned – it’s an engaging, larger than life read, as long as you’re not expecting anything too firmly rooted in reality – but make sure you have The Five Greatest Warriors on hand before you start, because this is not a complete story. The world is still in peril! Oh Noes! But don’t panic. I have a feeling Jack West will save the day.

Next up, on the seventh day of Christmas, I review the classic self-help book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R Covey.

Monday, 30 December 2013

The Twelve Reads of Christmas: Five on a Treasure Island by Enid Blyton

On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love read to me: Five on a Treasure Island, The 4-Hour Work Week, Three Wishes, Two Boys Kissing and One Shot in a pear tree.

I say, chaps, today I’m continuing my review series The Twelve Reads of Christmas with a jolly exciting book from my childhood. Golly, but I did enjoy it so back then! Better than ham sandwiches with ginger pop – the simply smashing Five on a Treasure Island by Enid Blyton.

Five on a Treasure Island is the first of many Famous Five adventures. I adored these books as a kid, and read the adventures of siblings Julian, Dick, Anne, their cousin Georgina (who liked to be called George) and of course Timothy the dog over and over again. I loved them so much I filled three exercise books when I was about Baby Duck’s age with the adventures of the Romney children, the eldest of whom was a girl named Marina who liked to be called Mark. Blyton fan fic before I even knew what that was!

In this book the five meet when the three children are dumped for the summer on an aunt and uncle they barely know. Mother and Daddy are off to Scotland, just the two of them – how smashing! – and “as you are really getting big enough to look after yourselves now”, as Mother says, the children have to find somewhere else to stay.

That raised my motherly eyebrows, I can tell you. These kids are 10, 11 and 12, and the parents are so close to the family they’re proposing to leave their kids with they have trouble remembering the name of their eleven-year-old daughter. (That would be their own niece.) Nice one, Mother and Daddy!

I guess kids were less cosseted in those days.

However, this seemed like a fine plan to my childhood self. After all, how can you have a decent adventure with your parents hanging around? Disney usually gets around the problem by killing off the parents post haste, so Mother and Daddy should probably be grateful they get some couple time in Scotland rather than, say, a fatal car accident.

And, gosh, but there are adventures! Blyton knows how to hit all the right buttons: a seaside cottage, a sunken wreck in the bay, a private island to explore with a ruined castle on it plus A SECRET TREASURE MAP.

OMG but I loved treasure maps as a kid, and I think this is where it all started. I used to draw them for my slightly younger nephews, and construct elaborate games wherein we discovered “treasure” in the backyard. The Famous Five gave me hours of pleasure even beyond the reading of the books, influencing the games I played and the stories I wrote.

Reading it again now, I’m struck by two things. First, how “innocent” it all was. The bad guys in this novel are the most laughable villains I’ve ever heard of. They may threaten to shoot the dog, but never point their guns at the children. They discover a treasure map leading to a hoard of gold ingots on the island George’s family own, and instead of just turning up one dark night and plundering the place, they arrange to buy the island. So law-abiding! And when they lock two of the children in a dungeon on the island, they most considerately bring down food and water though they’re only planning to be gone for an hour. How jolly thoughtful of them!

It all seems so civilised and non-threatening, compared to the perils children usually face in contemporary children’s fiction. They say the past is another country, don’t they? Things are done differently there.

Sadly, it’s often a country you can’t revisit, either – at least not with the same amount of pleasure as the first time.

The second thing I see as an adult that I was completely oblivious to as a child is the hideous gender stereotyping. Back then I adored George, and rather fancied myself as a tomboy too because of her (though I wasn’t particularly). It’s easy to see the attraction. She’s far more interesting than her jolly nice but rather colourless cousins. She gets to behave badly and have feelings that aren’t all sweetness and light. She’s the most active character in terms of pushing the plot along.

But now, by page 14 I’m already grinding my teeth. Anne, the perfect girly girl, tries to get George to toe the gender line with this speech:

“You won’t find that my brothers take much notice of you if you act as if you know everything. They’re real boys, not pretend boys, like you.”

Oh. My. God. The ultimate threat – my brothers won’t take notice of you! Because that’s the goal of every girls’ life, isn’t it, to be noticed by boys?

And you can’t act as if you know everything when you’re a girl, because that’s what boys do, and they’ve got the monopoly on it.

And no matter how much you try to be like them, you’ll never be good enough because you don’t have a penis, those magnificent pieces of anatomy that magically confer superiority.

The book is riddled with stuff like this – the continuous loving patronising of Anne by her brothers, the careful protection of her because she’s a girl, Dick’s fury at her when she tries to persuade George that boys do cry sometimes. George, of course, never cries, because crying is something girls do.

At one point George does actually cry because some very cry-worthy things have happened. She immediately apologises:

“ ‘I’ve been behaving like a girl,’ she said, half-ashamed.”

Gosh, we can’t have that, can we?? Behaving like girls? How simply beastly!


I still have fond feelings for the Famous Five, because of the joy they brought me as a child. But I don’t think I’ll be rereading any more. The past was a beautiful country, but I’ve changed too much to enjoy the view now.

Coming up on the sixth day of Christmas: The Six Sacred Stones by Matthew Reilly.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

The Twelve Reads of Christmas: The 4-Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss

On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love read to me: The 4-Hour Work Week, Three Wishes, Two Boys Kissing and One Shot in a pear tree.

Continuing The Twelve Reads of Christmas, today I’m reviewing my first non-fiction book in the series: The 4-Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss.

I really wanted to love this book. What’s not to like about a book that suggests you should work less and live your life more, and promises to teach you how to bring that happy state of affairs about? We can all agree that you shouldn’t wait till you’re retired before you start living, right?

Ferriss’s argument is that we should make life a series of mini-retirements, spending quality time on fun and fulfilling pursuits, not remain stuck in the 9-to-5 grind. We should establish an internet business that runs itself to fund our new improved lifestyle, and if we are an employee, we need to switch to working remotely instead of being tied to the office, so we can work from anywhere in the world while we party.

Ferriss himself has done exactly this, and has an impressive list of achievements to show from his new lifestyle, including acting, dancing, motorbike racing, learning other languages and enjoying much martial arts success.

For instance, he won a gold medal at the Chinese Kickboxing National Championships, after four weeks of training. He achieved this with a two-pronged assault. First, he lost a massive amount of weight by dehydrating just before the weigh-in, then rehydrating before the fighting the next day. As a result he fought in a weight-class three below his actual class. Secondly, he exploited a technical loophole that disqualified anyone who fell off the fighting platform three times in a round, and won all his fights by just pushing people off till he was declared the winner.

To me, there’s such a difference between being able to say you’ve won a gold medal, and actually earning one, that reading this made me feel I was in the hands of a snake oil salesman.

To be fair, the book does what it says on the tin: he outlines, in often exhaustive detail, the steps he took to become a free-range member of what he calls the “New Rich”. There are lots of references to books and online resources, many of them on his own website, aimed at helping the reader duplicate his methods.

And many of his points make perfect sense. For instance, most people realise that working from home (if you have the kind of job that allows it) is vastly more efficient than working in the office with all its distractions, meetings and telephone interruptions – not to mention the time saved by removing the daily commute from the equation.

The part I object to is when he gets down to the nitty gritty of how to achieve a permanent working-from-home solution. He outlines a step-by-step plan for employees to prove to their bosses how much more efficient they are at working from home in order to gain permission to work remotely all the time. The plan suggests, among other things, that they should deliberately be less productive on the days they are in the office so as to make their output at home look even better.

And of course the whole point of working from home all the time is so you can travel and win kickboxing championships when your boss thinks you’re working.

Not that he’s suggesting you shouldn’t do the work – see the aforementioned point about how much can be achieved in smaller amounts of time when you’re free of distractions. Plus you can always outsource some of your work to “Virtual Assistants” in India, at a much cheaper rate than doing it yourself. Who knew?

So yeah. I really wanted to like this book. Maybe I’m just not the right audience. I’m sure some go-getting entrepreneurial type could get a lot out of it. And he does have some good ideas for cutting distractions and focusing on more productive behaviours instead of just being “busy”.

But I ended up feeling vaguely dirty for having read it.

So, for something much more wholesome – the fifth day of Christmas features a blast from the past: Five On A Treasure Island by Enid Blyton.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

The Twelve Reads of Christmas: Three Wishes by Liane Moriarty

On the third day of Christmas, my true love read to me: Three Wishes, Two Boys Kissing and One Shot in a pear tree.

Continuing my review series The Twelve Reads of Christmas, for the third day I’m reviewing Three Wishes by Liane Moriarty.

I love Moriarty’s books. This was her first, way back in 2003 (Baby Duck was just a hatchling!), but it doesn’t read like a first novel. She has fabulous control of voice, and can be laugh-out-loud funny and deeply moving all on the same page. When she changes point of view, you know it immediately from the differing word choices and sentence constructions.

Three Wishes begins with a prologue which switches seamlessly between several different narrators – an uptight mother, a waitress, a random guy on a blind date – all telling the story of a crazy incident at a restaurant, where three sisters – triplets! – were having a great night out celebrating their birthday, until suddenly a huge argument blew up, ending in one sister being stabbed in her very pregnant stomach with a fork and another collapsing in a faint and breaking her jaw. These different narrators are clearly differentiated and nicely observed.

But why did this happy occasion come to such an abrupt and violent end? As the triplets’ mother asks, “what in the world started it?”. That’s the question the novel sets out to answer.

“You could argue that it started thirty-four years ago”, Chapter One begins, when the girls’ parents met, had unprotected sex and became young unwilling parents. At least, that’s how Gemma, the commitment-phobic drifter sister, would put it.

“Cat would argue that if she was going to start with their conception, then why not go back through their entire family tree? Why not go back to the apes? Why not start with the Big Bang? I guess I did really, Gemma would chortle – Mum and Dad’s big bang. Oh funn-y, Cat would say. Let’s look at it logically, Lyn would interrupt. Quite clearly, it started the night of the spaghetti.

And Lyn, quite naturally, would be right.”

 – all of which give an amusing insight into the sisters’ relationships. Cat, desperate for a baby and dumped by her husband on “the night of the spaghetti”, would argue till her last breath, just for the fun of it. Lyn, the uptight perfectionist, is always right, though even her “perfect” life has its problems, including a teenage stepdaughter. Not as big as the problems sweet dreamy Gemma has been hiding from them all, though.

The sisters’ relationship is at the heart of the novel, full of the love and hate, old arguments and remembered injuries, passionate loyalty and childhood memories, that bind any siblings. Moriarty does family relationships in a marvellously entertaining but very real way. You’re nodding along, seeing things you recognise even as you’re laughing at the over-the-top antics of the trio.

The chapters alternate between the sisters’ points of view, starting with Cat’s and the infamous night of the spaghetti. The story then weaves its way through the tangle of their lives till it arrives once more at the restaurant of the start, only this time we know what’s going on and how important this night is for all three.

There are also amusing email exchanges between the sisters, and funny glimpses of the sisters’ past, little vignettes narrated by complete strangers about a moment when the lives of the girls influenced their own all unknowingly. This nicely illustrates the theme flowing through the novel of the interconnectedness of people’s lives, as well as being a clever way of introducing family history without interrupting the present-day story.

We get to know each of the sisters very well and care deeply about what happens to them. They are warm, funny, and loving – as well as occasionally bitchy, mean and point-scoring. Very real, in other words. There are developments in the story that felt inevitable, as well as twists you never saw coming, and the plot races along, full of the energy that sparks between the sisters whenever they’re together.

It’s a great read; often funny, sometimes poignantly real. If you like stories about relationships and the give-and-take of life, this is one birthday dinner you won’t want to miss.

Coming on the fourth day of Christmas, some non-fiction for a change of pace: The 4-Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss.

Friday, 27 December 2013

The Twelve Reads of Christmas: Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan

On the second day of Christmas, my true love read to me: Two Boys Kissing and One Shot in a pear tree.

Sorry, but I’ve had that damn carol stuck in my head for weeks, so I’m sharing the earworms around. Today, for the second day of Christmas, I’m reviewing Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan.

Two Boys Kissing could hardly be more different from One Shot, in both style and substance. At its heart are two boys, Craig and Harry, making an attempt to get into the Guinness Book of Records for the world’s longest kiss. They used to be a couple, but now are just friends. Around them and woven through the story of the record attempt are the stories of other boys: Peter and Neil, who have been going out for a year; Avery and Ryan, who have only just met and are exploring the exciting possibilities of new romance; and Cooper who, with no one to love, despises himself more than anyone else possibly could.

Levithan uses these relationships to explore love and friendship in all their messy varieties. There are supportive parents, oblivous ones and angry, disapproving ones. There are the usual teenage problems of coping with bullying, finding acceptance among your peers and navigating those first awkward romances, all with the added difficulty of being gay in a straight world. There is even a transgender character, who was born a girl but is now a gay boy.

We are a long way from the usual teen romance fare.

Having said that, though, Drama Duck, our resident teen romance junkie, loved this book. She needed a little hint to understand who was telling the story, but once she was up to speed with that she raced through it.

Levithan has a beautiful, lyrical style and a mastery of the telling detail. The story of the record-breaking kiss is the story arc the rest of the book revolves around, but he manages to drop hints of the past and future of the characters, so you feel as if you’re seeing a slice of the lives of real people who live on outside the confines of the novel.

The story is narrated by the ghosts or spirits of those who died in the AIDS epidemic, but not in a woo-woo supernatural way. There are no ghost sightings in the novel. The narrators are more like a Greek chorus, who watch the lives of these boys with both compassion and envy, and tell their stories with delight at their passion and energy even while mourning their own lost opportunities. The tone is elegaic and beautiful:

“If you are a teenager now, it is unlikely that you knew us well. We are your shadow uncles, your angel godfathers, your mother’s or your grandmother’s best friend from college, the author of that book you found in the gay section of the library. We are characters in a Tony Kushner play, or names on a quilt that rarely gets taken out any more.”

I found that reference to a quilt particularly compelling, having once seen one of those enormous memorial quilts, contributed to by hundreds of people who’d lost a loved one. That’s what I mean by Levithan’s mastery of the telling detail – that one reference carries so much history and emotion, a whole story in itself.

It’s a beautiful book, and an important book. Not the kind of book I usually read, and certainly not lighthearted entertainment, but a story that stays with you a long time. Highly recommended.

Next up, the third day of Christmas and Three Wishes by Liane Moriarty.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

The Twelve Reads of Christmas: One Shot by Lee Child

Welcome to The Twelve Reads of Christmas, a series of book reviews based on the classic Christmas carol. Today we start with the first day of Christmas (maybe a day late, ssshhh, there was pudding to eat and presents to open yesterday) – but instead of a partridge in a pear tree, I’m reviewing One Shot by Lee Child.

Some of you may have seen the recent movie Jack Reacher, starring Tom Cruise. Oh, the travesty! Reacher’s meant to be a big ugly customer about 6 foot 5. Tom Cruise is at least 8 inches too short and waaay too pretty to play Reacher. Casting decisions aside, that movie was basically the novel One Shot, with a few things about the climax changed. Not a bad movie, actually, if you can overlook Tom’s … er … shortcomings.

And the Reacher books are not bad books, either. There’s a whole bunch of them now, and they’ve made Lee Child a big name in thriller writing. I’ve read quite a few, and mainly enjoyed them, though a couple had violence that verged on torture porn, a little too graphic for my taste. Performed by the bad guys, of course, not by Reacher. Though he’s very comfortable with violence, Reacher’s no sadist.

In fact, Reacher’s just about perfect – the guy that every guy wants to be, and every girl wants to go to bed with (even if he looks nothing like Tom Cruise). He’s a loner, travelling the US on a whim, never staying long anywhere. No commitments, no responsibilities, no phone. An ex-military police investigator, living off the grid and loving it. The guy doesn’t even carry a suitcase: he wears the same clothes for three days, then throws them away and buys a new outfit.

Living the dream indeed.

He’s unbeatable in a fight, smarter than everyone else in the room, a crack shot, and an amateur psychologist who can figure out any bad guy’s motivations and movements, thereby solving any crime – the perfect man. Whatever the situation, he always knows exactly what to do. He’s what writers call “a Mary Sue” – that character so beloved of his or her author that he’s given no flaws. He’s the embodiment of what the author would like to be, perfect in every way.

After a few books Reacher’s perfection can become a little tiresome, but the individual novels rattle along at such a pace there’s no time to do anything but strap in and enjoy the ride, and One Shot’s no exception.

It’s written in a spare, no-nonsense style, very heavy on detail, but nothing flowery. Just the facts, ma’am. The first sentence is typically brief. It’s simply:


I’m always interested in first sentences. They don’t come any shorter than this! The next sentence builds a little on this, adding one more piece of detail. Then the next builds on the piece before:

“Friday. Five o’clock in the afternoon. Maybe the hardest time to move unobserved through a city.”

The whole book is like this, with details – lots and lots of details! – accumulating on each other to form pictures. And you go along with it, accepting the overload, because the pictures Child is building are intriguing. Already by the third sentence you know someone’s up to no good. Why is someone trying to move through the city unobserved?

Here’s another example from later in the first scene:

“He opened the minivan’s sliding rear door and leaned inside and unfolded a blanket and revealed the rifle. It was a Springfield MIA Super Match autoloader, American walnut stock, heavy premium barrel, ten shot box magazine, chambered for the .308.”

The rest of this paragraph continues with the gun’s history, its uses, accuracy, and the type of ammunition it’s loaded with. So much detail might be boring, except you already know this gun’s out of place. The shooter is a sniper in a parking station. So you read on, anxious to find out what happens, knowing it can’t be good.

The detail compels you to trust the narrator – he knows so much about guns, he’s giving you all these facts. He has authority. So you settle into the story, feeling you’re in safe hands.

And whatever you think about the improbability of Reacher’s character, you can trust Child to spin a good yarn. As shown by those opening sentences, he knows how to snag the reader’s interest, and then hold it.

Our mystery sniper shoots down five civilians seemingly at random, leaving so much evidence behind that the police soon have a suspect in custody. And that’s where Reacher comes in: though the suspect refuses otherwise to talk, he asks his defence to get Reacher.

Which raises an interesting conundrum. Why does he ask for Reacher when Reacher is one of the few people in the world who knows he’s committed an almost identical crime once before?

The answer to this riddle leads Reacher through a story full of fascinating twists and turns. A great read if you like your thrillers to keep you eagerly turning the pages and your heroes to be … well, perfect. (And not at all like Tom Cruise.)

Stay tuned for the second day of Christmas and Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan.

Hope you had a fabulous Christmas!