August cover stories
Thanks to the summer lull in other media to consume such as television shows and podcasts, I’ve actually been managing to read a few fiction books (for leisure rather than anything work-related.) The details may reveal me as disappointingly low-brow – no War and Peace as a little light reading for me I’m afraid, folks – but I thought I’d do a brief description of my recent reads with a recommendation or two.
You’ll see from below that they’re solidly crime and/or thriller based – which is typical for my off-duty reading – so if neither area interests you then feel free to skip this post and read no more – there won’t be a test at the end of the year. Probably.
An action/thriller by the American author James Rollins, it was the Arctic setting that caught my eye – nothing like a little snowy wasteland to read about in the middle of an uncomfortably humid and muggy British “summer”. This book is part Cold War thriller, dosed with some conspiracy traits and topped off with some science fiction (as in proper “could happen” science extrapolation, as opposed to space opera or fantasy – no little grey men here.) It’s fun, not hugely demanding, but well written and a decent pageturner.
Another James Rollins – this was actually the first book I read and bought on Kindle software. It’s actually an earlier book than Ice Hunt by nearly a decade, but pretty much the same sort of action-adventure fare – it’s one third Clive Cussler/Wilbur Smith, one third Da Vinci Code (religious groups are up to all sorts of nefarious behaviour) and one third believable science fiction. It’s as much a page tuner as Da Vinci Code but much better written as a literary exercise, and jolly enjoyable. It proved a good first outing for Kindle books, being a nice easy read that drives you along.
The Satan Bug
Alistair McLean was the Clive Cussler of the 60s and 70s, and despite having authored dozens of titles including many famous from film adaptations (Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, Ice Station Zebra) the books have aged somewhat and have been out of print for a while. I’m a big fan of the film of Ice Station Zebra – the book’s good too – and also of the film of The Satan Bug which could be considered as a 60s pilot for the TV series 24, seeing a Jack Bauer-esque agenct in pursuit of bioterrorists. It’s interesting to see how much of the book was retained for the film – adaptations of novels in the 60s and 70s really did try and adapt the novel and not jettison the entire thing at the first opportunity save for the title and replace it all with CGI. The film does understandably drop the wet and dreary Home Counties setting for the more exotic Mojave Desert, and also dropped much of the middle section where the book becomes a domestic investigation that wouldn’t be out of place in a PD James Adam Dalgliesh outing, which to modern readers feels like a strange mix of genres. The film also dropped the final twist, which is interesting as two Die Hard films essentially nicked it for their own plots. A good, solid read in the dated, “they don’t make them like that anymore” old-fashioned prose style – I enjoyed it tremendously.
Ten Second Staircase
I bought this because I heard the author, Christopher Fowler, on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row. I’d actually read one of Fowler’s books two decades ago (the urban fantasy/horror Roofworld) but in recent years Fowler has moved from the horror genre to detective fiction and introduced a series based on his aged heroes Bryant and May, a perfect match – geddit? No? You won’t be surprised that in the US they’re marketed as the “Peculiar Crimes Unit” series instead. This is a weird, unique blend of crime, black humour and Britishness; a book jacket quote describes the style as “imagine the X-Files with Holmes and Watson in the place of Mulder and Scully, and the books written by P.G. Wodehouse” and that’s pretty accurate. I worried it might be too comic, or veer into complete fantasy with ghosts and ghouls, but it expertly avoided either danger and instead delivered a thought provoking, ferociously clever resolution which also painted a vivid picture of modern London. I loved it, and it’s my find of the year thus far and strongly recommended it. I bought the rest in the series within days, alas in paperback as the books weren’t available for the Kindle from Amazon US for download in the UK. Until two days later, when the Amazon UK Kindle Store opened and the Bryant and May books were all there – timing is everything, and I’ve never been too good in that respect.
My second Kindle novel is this latest outing for Jonathan Kellerman’s psychologist hero Alex Delaware. I first discovered Kellerman’s books when I was still at university in York, over two decades ago, and I’ve been a loyal reader ever since; I think there’s only been one of the two dozen books that’s not been up to scratch, which is a helluva strike rate. Strangely a lot of people seem not to like his style, though, and I can only theorise that it’s because the stories – painting a picture of modern LA – compare badly to the deeper, more complex works of Raymond Chandler from the 30s and 40s. It’s true, Kellerman is no Chandler (who is?) and the books can feel rather thin at times, the details very sparse and the plots simply unfolding without much apparent effort. But I think that’s deceptive and have always found Kellerman’s light descriptions to be enormously effective, and the plots more devious than first impressions would have you believe. This latest one (about two bodies found in a long-abandoned house renovation project in an upscale part of LA) is no different, and with the ever-expanding supporting cast of characters feeling like old friends by now, this is a writer and a series that I genuinely look forward to every new instalment and devour as quickly as I can with great pleasure.