Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

I picked this up in Waterstones, partly as it looked interesting and partly because Stephen King recommended it. Not personally, obviously, although how cool would that be if he had.

The blurb on the back mentions that Galaxy ‘Alex’ Stern has been awarded a place at Yale. She will be monitoring Yale’s secret societies as they tamper with forbidden magic, raise the dead and sometimes prey on the living. However, a local girl has been murdered and everyone apart from Alex thinks that the case has been solved.

There is a lot going on in this book, and the first fifty pages can be confusing with eight different secret societies, all of whom specialize in different aspects of magic. There is also a very detailed map of Yale University at the start of the book, which I found myself never actually looking at. Slowly over the course of the book we find out about Alex’s past and that the reason she was drawn to Yale is because she can see ghosts.

I was a little unsure about the style of the book early on, worrying that it might be an adult version of Harry Potter meeting The Sixth Sense. However, once I’d pushed on through the first fifty pages, Stephen King was right, in that it was impossible to put down. The story cracks along at a good pace, with twists and turns aplenty, although a couple are telegraphed. My only quibble would be with the ease in which magical devices are appropriated, seemingly from nowhere. The secret societies have been a law unto themselves for too long, and they’ve never met anyone like Galaxy Stern.

I gave the book five stars, which was a little generous. However, a sequel has been written which I am very much looking forward to reading.

I’ve Reached the End

Finally, after eons, I have finished the complete Jack Reacher series of books.

No Plan B

Jack Reacher is in the middle of nowhere, minding his own business, when he spots a woman being thrown in front of a bus. He follows the killer and Reacher is almost put out of commission. The local police decide that it is a suicide, but Reacher follows the trail. He teams up with Hannah, who has also recently lost someone. On top of this there is 15 year old Jed, who might have found his real father. All roads lead to a prison in the town of Winson.

As with nearly all Jack Reacher books I gave this four stars. It isn’t the best Reacher book, but it probably is the best one co-written by Andrew Child. There are numerous twists and turns, and the ending was very unexpected. If you’ve never read a Jack Reacher book, this probably isn’t the one to start with, although with 27 full length books, where do you start?

No Middle Name

Probably one for the fans rather than the casual reader as this is a collection of Jack Reacher short stories. The book is set out chronologically, so the first story is set when Jack is only 12. The collection adds depth to Reacher character and fills in a few blacks from when he was in the army. The stories are short enough that I could read one and then put the book down to read something else. As I said though, probably one for the diehard fans only.

Undead Ultra by Camille Picott

What could be better than a series of books about running and zombies. Obviously, the zombies don’t do the running, unlike in the George Romero remake where they did. Everyone knows that zombies can’t run!

There are four books in the main series, with a short prequel with different characters, although the main character is still an ultra runner. The prequel is similar to the start of the main series, in that an ultra runner is out on a long training run when he comes across zombies. He only survives because he’s a runner. The he bumps into a father and son out hunting, who are not runners, but between them they make it back to safety.

The main series starts off with Kate and her best friend Frederico out on a long run, when all hell breaks loose. Zombies are attacking people. Can you believe it, real zombies. Kate’s only thought is trying to get to her son at college 200 miles away. The zombies are blind but have really good hearing, which means driving is out of the question. The roads are also littered with car crashes and zombies. The pair of them start running, and on their route they meet a deranged drug kingpin, who uses zombies for protection. They also meet a soldier who lost his whole platoon, as well as hundreds of zombies.

The second book is all about setting up camp with Kate’s son and his friends at their college. However, there are rogue soldiers and a group of bloodthirsty students, along with hundreds of zombies. There isn’t very much running in book 2.

Books 3 and 4 involve lots of running, and lots of zombies, as Kate and her son’s friends try to rescue a camp which has been taken over by the same drug kingpin that we met in book 1. We’re also introduced to Alpha zombies who can communicate and lead hundreds of regular zombies.

Overall I gave the books either three or four stars, although they are definitely a niche series. If you don’t like books about zombies or running, then you won’t like this series. If you like zombie books, but not running, you’ll probably like this addition to the genre. However, if you enjoy books about ultra running, but don’t like zombies, then this series isn’t for you, even though the ultra running descriptions are fairly accurate. I would hazard a guess that Camille Picott is an ultra runner, or is very good friends with people who are.

The Slummer by Geoffrey Simpson

I am a sucker for a good dystopian futures book, and if it was combined with running, then even better. This is in essence what The Slummer is all about; a dystopian future where the main character likes to run. My lovely wife also knows my taste in books, which is why this was such a good Christmas present from her.

The book is set in 2083, and Benjamin, the main character, lives in one of the slums, hence the name Slummer. Anyone who lives in one of the slums is considered to be less than human and aren’t even allowed to vote. They are shunned by the rest of society, even though they make up a considerably percentage of the population.

Benjamin and his father and brother work in the local steel mill for slave wages. They currently have a flat, but their precarious existence means that they could lose it at any moment and end up in tent city, where only the strongest survive. Benjamin likes to run, much to the annoyance of his family as they feel it brings unwanted attention. Benjamin’s girlfriend also likes to run, and when a local five-mile race opens their entries to Slummers, they both sign up. Benjamin wins, even though he’s up against better trained athletes and runners who have had their genes altered at conception to make them better runners. A little later in the story, Benjamin meets an old man who also lives in the slums who used to be a coach, and between them they set up an audacious plan for Benjamin to race at the National 10,000m championship.

I gave this book four stars, and I very nearly gave it five, but the ending sort of petered out and I wasn’t sure about how people knew that they were Slummers, apart from if they were wearing old and tattered clothing. A couple of times in the book it is inferred that it is because they have brown skin, but this isn’t explored further. Are the slums a futuristic apartheid based on race, or is there more to it, because this premise changes the nature of the book. Additionally, if the slums are based solely on skin colour, then by the year 2083 the slums would consist of half of the population, based upon current trends.

Despite this, there are some really good descriptive passages all about running and training, including “Quarters Till Death”, which is the sub-heading of the book. This is basically the legendary Zatopek’s training regime, where you run 400m as many times as possible until you can’t run anymore.

Overall a good book, but possibly one for running fans.

Death’s End by Liu Cixin

Death’s End is the third book in the science fiction series, Remembrance of Earth’s Past by the Chinese writer Liu Cixin. My review of the first two books can be read here.

I’ll start by giving you a quick recap on the first two books. In the first book, Earth discovers that a race of aliens who inhabit a world with three suns are on their way to Earth to take it over, and that there is a secret organisation trying to help them with the invasion.

The second book is all about finding a way to stop the invasion, even though it will not occur for another two centuries. Near to the end of the book the dark forest theory is discovered, whereby any civilization will be destroyed simply for existing, just in case they possess the technology to destroy other civilizations first. Quite a bleak idea. However, at the end of the book the invaders decide to help Earth when they find out that we have the technology to highlight their home world to the rest of the universe, and therefore bring about its destruction.

The third book, Death’s End, mostly follows the life of Cheng Xin as she pops in and out of long-term hibernation. The start of the book looks at how to send someone to meet with the incoming aliens. In the end, only a frozen brain is sent, hoping that the aliens possess the technology to revive the brain.

Earth then loses its ability to fight off the incoming invaders, who have also discovered how to travel at light speed. They will arrive in four years and everyone on Earth has to relocate to Australia, leaving the rest of the planet for them. Earth manages to highlight the Earth to the universe, meaning that it will be destroyed by some other alien race at some point, maybe in 50- or 100-years’ time. The invaders opt to find another planet to conquer. Most of Earth then relocates to space cities hidden behind the gas giants of Jupiter and Neptune, with the aim that if our sun is destroyed, these cities will be safe in the shadow.

I don’t want to mention any further, as it would give away too much of the plot, but suffice it to say, it was good.

The three books are written in an unusual style, which might be due to the translation. The books are also quite long and do drag in places, however, all three books have some amazing ideas and at times completely blow you away. Each book mostly follows one character, and while they do appear in the other books, the story running through each book is larger, in that it is really about Earth’s survival. The books are full of complicated science, and the idea behind the dark forest is one I find to be very disturbing. I would like to think that we might meet some friendly aliens, and that the universe isn’t just millions of different worlds looking at ways to destroy everyone else first, even if it means mutual destruction.

The third book is the best one so far, and even though I only gave it four stars, the average score on Goodreads is 4.4, which is more accurate. A long but rewarding read, even if it is a little bleak.

The Craft of Writing

Recently I’ve been paying more attention to some of the finer details in books that I’ve been reading. I remember at school an English teacher asking the class why an author had written that the curtains were blue. Was it because the character was emotionally cold? Was it because the character was afraid? All I could think was that maybe the author had written about green curtains in a previous book and simply wanted to use a different colour, and that there wasn’t any other deeper meaning.

Narrative

Most books are written in the third person. The reader will often know far more than the main protagonists. Characters can easily be killed off. George R R Martin, the Game of Thrones author, has a different character’s point of view for each chapter. There isn’t too much to add to this, except that Lee Child writes almost all of his Jack Reacher books in the third person, with a couple written from Reacher’s point of view. Most authors will generally keep the same the narrative style throughout a series.

In a first-person point of view, the reader won’t know what other characters are thinking, unless of course the first person can read minds, see Carrots by Colleen Helme. Some people like to read first person books because it means that the main character can’t be killed off. I have a surprise for you, this isn’t always the case. Spoiler alert, The Collector by John Fowles, first published in 1963 is all about a man who wins the pools (the equivalent of the lottery), kidnaps a woman hoping that she will fall in love with him. She doesn’t and he dies at the end, good.

A book I read many years ago was written entirely in the first person, except that the first half was one character, and the second half began with a different character killing off the first character. It wasn’t a very good book. Will Carver, a very dark writer, has one book with three main characters. Two of them are written in the third person and the other in the first person. However, one of the characters kills the first-person character, although the actual death is not written from their point of view. Very unexpected.

Some first-person books are written in the form of a diary, for example The Island by Richard Laymon. Other first-person books like to “speak” to the reader, breaking the fourth wall. One very good example of this is Mister B Gone by Clive Barker, which is all about a demon that has been trapped inside the pages of a book, the book that you are reading, with paragraphs along the lines of “I can see you, about to finish page 31”, which is a little scary. Of course, that wouldn’t work within the confines of an e-book, although that might be a good idea for a short story. Your Kindle has been possessed by a demon and starts off small by downloading 50 Shades of Grey or anything by Dan Brown, and then slowly becomes more and more evil.

Resources

An author who has the resources to devote writing as a full-time occupation has obvious time-based advantages. However, very few authors start out that way. Short stories often allow an author to develop, hone their craft, build confidence and earn a little money before spreading their wings full time.

John Dies at the End by James Wong was written while the author had a full-time job. It is a crazy book with too much going on and at times can be very difficult to follow, almost as if the author snatched a few moments whenever he could to write and then sometimes struggled with the flow. The books flips and changes, and the style is very different towards the end from how it was at the start.

Terry Pratchett, one of the greatest fantasy writers of the last forty years, started out writing part-time. He was a prolific writer who was scorned by critics at the start of his career and then praised by those very same critics many years later. However, the first two books in the Discworld series are in a very different style to those that follow. I would go even further and argue that the first truly perfect Discworld book would be the eighth book, Guards! Guards! where the characters Vimes and Carrot are introduced.

Similarly, Jack Reacher is almost a superhero in the first two books. After that, Lee Child starts to introduce flaws into his creation. Reacher isn’t a very good driver. He lacks the ability to hand out bad news in an empathic manner, and then he starts to make mistakes.

Stephen King often finishes a chapter with the phrase ‘and that was the last time he/she was seen alive’. The film Stranger than Fiction, Emma Thompson plays an author who uses the phrase ‘little did she know’ in every book.

Every writer develops their own style.

My Book

I’m definitely struggling with finding the time to sit down and write. I also don’t think that I’m good enough. Creating a flowing storyline with interesting characters might be beyond my capabilities. I also worry that I would fall into the splatterpunk genre trap of trying too hard to make the violence and horror as grotesque and shocking as possible, rather than working on the plot. Another possibility is that I don’t find the outline of the book in my head very exciting, and because of that I’m not inclined to spend time writing.

Sometimes I think that I would make a good editor. Not proof reading as there is always one more typo out there to be missed as all of my university coursework can attest. As an editor I could point out continuity errors. If a book begins with a cliff hanger, describing something that will occur later in the book, there can’t be anything written about events beyond that passage before that passage has been read. I’m not explaining that very well. If the first chapter describes a near death or possible death and it occurs in chapter 30 on day 100 in the timeline, nothing in the book before chapter 30 should describe events that occur after day 100.

I could imagine giving helpful hints and insights to authors when they’ve finished the first draft of a book. However, would anyone take advice from someone who hasn’t written a book and only their writing experience is a blog that averages 10 views a day. Both Stephen King and Paul Wilson have written books about the craft of writing. Between them they have published well over 100 novels going back over 40 years. I would take advice from them.

Should I take an online writing course? Should I find the time and simply sit at my computer until I have written 1,000 words? Terry Pratchett aimed to write 3,000 words every day. I would prefer to write 500 quality words rather than 5,000 average or completely forgettable words. Terry’s 3,000 words included co-writing Good Omens with Neil Gaiman, one of the funniest books ever written.

Should I stick with blogging and triathlons? That does have a certain appeal. My lovely wife started an online writing course a couple of years ago and the short pieces that she wrote were better than anything I have ever managed. Saying that, are the Jack Reacher books really that good, or do they have an interesting main character, a whole load of implausible events and very good marketing.

I think I will continue to think about writing a book.

Emil Zatopek by Richard Askwith

Who is Emil Zatopek? He was probably the greatest middle- and long-distance runner the world has ever seen. He broke numerous world records and won Olympic medals, including three golds at the 1952 Olympics held in Helsinki, he was the first man to run under 29 minutes for 10,000m and was unbeaten at that distance for many many years.

Emil was born 19th September 1922 in what was Czechoslovakia and he showed little inclination for running when he was young, until he realised that running could make his life easier in the Czech army, with time off for training and extra rations, if he was good enough to represent the army. He surpassed that qualification quite soon, and it wasn’t long before he was travelling around Europe representing his country.

What made Emil different was the incredibly intense training methods he used. While his contemporaries, for example, Chris Chattaway would run a hard session and then take a few days to recover. Emil would push himself as hard as possible, and then do the same the next day. His training set him apart from anyone else. However, he was friendly to everyone he met and would happily share his training methods with his rivals. A standard Emil session would be 40 x 400m with 200m recovery between each one. He might then repeat this later in the afternoon. His training diary indicated that 100 x 400m was uncommon.

At the 1952 Olympics it was thought that his golden days in the 5,000m was coming to an end, so it was suggested that he might enter the marathon as a backup plan, even though he had never run a marathon at that time. However, he won the 5,000m, then the 10,000m and followed it up with gold in the marathon. A triple that has never been repeated and it is doubtful if it ever will. His wife also won a gold medal at those Olympics in the javelin.

It is said that at the start line of the 1956 marathon, Emil stated to his fellow competitors;

Gentlemen, today we die a little

All of this and much more, including how the communist regime hid him away for 20 years, is excellently written in the book by Richard Askwith. If you’re a running fan I would suggest that it is a must, and even if you’re not, it is an incredible story.

Emil was full of brilliant quotes. My favourite is when it gets tough, go harder. I used that when I was running a recent 10km and when I was at parkrun yesterday.

In celebration of his life, on the next anniversary of his birth, I will attempt to run 40 x 400m at the local athletics track and try to run them as hard as possible, just as he would have done.

Reap3r by Eliot Peper

As we all know, I love a good dystopian future book. Reap3r by Eliot Piper was listed in a couple of articles about new authors or new dystopian futures books. I had a look on Kindle Unlimited and as I was available as part of my subscription, I thought that I would give it a go.

There are a number of main characters in this book. There is Geoff, a scientist who developed a vaccine for a virus which had killed 200 million people. There is Devon, an investigative journalist stroke podcaster who manages to interview some highly secretive people. There is Luki, a computer specialist who has created the world’s first quantum computer. These three people are all being paid and supported by a billionaire hedge fund investor. There is also his scary assistant and a government agent.

Warning spoilers.

I don’t like to give too much away when I review books, but I have to in this instance. Nothing happens in the book for the first two thirds. The characters interact and bimble about, but nothing happens. Two thirds of the way through all hell breaks loose when the three main characters realise that they might be in danger of being assassinated.

Reap3r is an App for assassins and the people who want assassinations to be carried out. With the help of the quantum computer, the App is hacked, and all of the assassins are directed to attack each other. RR Haywood would have written a whole book on that simple premise. Anyway, that is the only exciting section in the book. They all escape. The villains are caught, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Overall, a very disappointing book, considering how good the reviews are. I gave it three out of five, which I felt was a little generous. There is an interesting article at the end of the book by the author where he expands upon the writing of this book. He states that he was incredibly excited to finish the first draft, thinking that it was the best piece of writing he’d ever done. He gave the draft to a few close reviewers, who came back with queries and questions. The author went back to the drawing board and the re-write took him twice as long to write as the first draft. Don’t get me wrong, it is ten times better than anything I could ever write, but it was a little disappointing.

Almost “Reaching” the End

Continuing with my play on words with each review of the next lump of Jack Reacher books. Not too many left to go now. I’ll have to find another series of books to begin reading.

Personal (Book #19)

An unknown sniper has taken a shot at the French President, from three quarters of a mile away. Fortunately for the President, he was protected by a sheet of new bullet proof glass. There are very few snipers in the world who can shoot that accurately from that range, and Reacher is one of them, or used to be when he was in the army. It takes practice to be that good, and Reacher doesn’t practice anymore.

Back in his army days, Reacher put away a very promising sniper, John Kott. After serving 15 years in prison, he is out, and is the prime suspect. However, there are a handful of other suspects, including a Russian and a Brit. Both countries send operatives to establish who the sniper was. Another problem is that the G7 are due to meet in London in a couple of weeks, and anyone could be on the sniper’s hit list.

Reacher heads to Paris and then to London, messing with an old school London crime gang, and a new bunch from Serbia. Are one of these gangs hiding the sniper? Are there actually two snipers working together?

Another good book from Lee Child, and the book where Reacher is given the nickname Sherlock Holmeless, which is quite clever. The rookie analyst who Reacher is teamed with adds to the tension, as he has to keep her safe as well. I have to say that some parts of the ending were a bit of a mess, with the crime gangs being a distraction, although the person who is behind it all is also a clever twist.

I gave this particular Reacher book four stars, almost exactly what the global average is. Not too bad, but not the best.

Make Me (book #20)

Reacher the hobo jumps off a train at the non-descript town of Mother’s Rest, simply intrigued by the name and wanting to know the history. He bumps into a worried private detective, who mistakes Reacher for someone else. Curiosity gets the better of Reacher and he teams up with her to help her find another private detective who has gone missing. They end up racing across the country, before the final showdown back at Mother’s Rest.

Why are there so many different people taking aim at Reacher? What exactly is going on in the town, and as they did deeper, they discover that loads more people have mysteriously vanished in the town.

One of the better Jack Reacher books in my opinion. You get a feeling that there must be more going on, and then we find out the horrific truth. The book looks at the ‘Deep Web’, which is something very different from the ‘Dark Web’. I’ve not looked into it, so it could well be made up for the purpose of the book, although the analogy used is neat and tidy.

Once again, I gave this four stars, which is pretty much standard for me, although I thought that this particular book deserved 4 and a half.

Night School (Book #21)

Every now and again Lee Child likes to take us back to Reacher’s army days. This book is set in 1996, and Reacher is working with his trusted team. A terrorist cell has paid a colossal amount of money and killed everyone connected with the transaction, even members of their own team. Something big is going down is Germany.

Reacher has to tread carefully to ensure that he doesn’t antagonise the local German police. Also, there are a number of gangs from the former East Germany who hanker for the good old days of Hitler and Nazis. Added to this, a low ranked soldier has gone AWOL. What has this soldier discovered and is it connected to the terrorists, and how are they linked to the former Nazis?

With no mobile phones and not internet, the detective work is old school, with plenty of secret identities and double crosses. A good story where the ending is much larger than expected, especially for some of the players involved.

Four stars from me, and amazingly, after 63,509 ratings, the average score is also 4.

The Midnight Line (Book #22)

Reacher is one a bus. The bus stops for an hour’s rest in a small nowhere town. Reacher is having a short walk through the town when he notices in a pawn shop a class ring from West Point. Knowing how much pain and suffering it takes to graduate from West Point, Reacher buys the ring with the sole aim to return it to its rightful owner. No one would willingly give up their class ring, although Reacher never bothered to buy one when he graduated. Reacher theorizes that either the ring has been stolen or the owner is in serious financial troubles.

Reacher persuades the pawn shop owner to tell him who he obtained it from, which turns out to be a tough motorcycle gang. Not as tough as Reacher. From there he follows the trail to another town, one beset with troubles from the opioid crisis. Reacher bumps into a local grime boss, a local police detective and a private detective from Chicago. All Reacher wants to do is return the ring and make sure that the owner is OK.

Good story, especially the beginning and the end. The beginning is classic Reacher, violently dispatching a group of troublemakers. The book looks at the fairly recent problems that America has suffered in regard to opioids, as well as looking at how badly a lot of former army vets are looked after by the government.

Strong book with more than a touch of politics. Not quite worth five stars, but I felt mean only giving it four.

Here concludes another foray into the world of Jack Reacher, and while me and my wife were away the other weekend, the hotel where we stayed had Amazon Prime, so we watched the first two episodes of the Reacher TV series. I liked it, and I think we should look at a one-month free trial, just so that we can watch the rest of the series.

Anyway, only four more Reacher books to go. After that, I have the collected short stories to read, and then the next book, No Plan B, is due to be released later in the year.

Quick Dystopian Future Reviews

I make no bones about the fact that I love to read books set in a dystopian future or a post-apocalyptic world. However, not all books hit the mark.

Chaos Rising by Kyla Stone

This is the preview to a seven-part (at the moment) series of books set in America in the immediate aftermath of a huge EMP (Electro Magnetic Pulse) which has stopped everything electronic, including cars, lights and planes. Liam is trapped in Chicago on Christmas Eve with his brother and his brother’s heavily pregnant wife. Fortunately, Liam has all of the necessary knowledge and skills to survive the immediate shock. His brother’s wife also handily is a doctor, which is useful when a plane crashes right on top of them.

This preview book and the whole series have amazing reviews on Goodreads, and all of the books have an average score well over 4. I wasn’t pulled into the characters and only gave the book 3 stars. The rest of the series does feature other characters, so possibly I should give at least the first full book a try.

Swarm by James Flynn

Set in a random small city in America where violence and crime has run amok. Half of the population is either incarcerated in the city’s jail, or works in law and order, either as a policeman, private security or a prison guard.

A professor comes up with a novel solution. All of the inmates will be hooked up to a hive-like computer, harnessing the power of their subconscious minds for the benefit of the town. It doesn’t end well.

I quite enjoyed this, although it does take a while to get going and obviously the science behind it is completely wrong, or I hope it is (yikes!). I gave it four stars, which is marginally above the curve, as the book has an average score on Goodreads of 3.94. Not a long read, but quite scary and an author I will keep a look out for more interesting books.

The Vagrant by Peter Newman

I spotted this book in Waterstones and thought it looked interesting. It was a mess. I gave it a lowly three stars, and that was being generous.

The Vagrant has no name and doesn’t speak as he walks from town to town, heading towards the coast, across a desolate are-torn landscape with only his sword and a baby. That premise intrigued me. However, how did the landscape become so desolate. There are ‘things’ out there. I couldn’t really grasp what was going on, who were these ‘things’, and who are these other ‘things’. It made no sense, although the goat provided some light relief. It was all very chaotic and confusing, deliberately so as far as I could see. I guess people would be drawn in and would feel the need to buy and read the second and third books in the trilogy. I won’t be.

I gave the book three stars, which I thought was fairly generous. The average score on Goodreads is only 3.6. A failure as far as I was concerned.