Review: Blue Moon (Paperback)

I’ve been on a binge of the Jack Reacher books by Lee Child – so much so I’ll be talking about that very soon – and picked up the so-far most current paperback, Blue Moon.

It’s worthwhile to preface why I enjoy these books – often I’ll describe them as the literary equivalent of a packet of crisps, and not a derisory comment – they’re easy to enjoy and don’t require a lot of thought to enjoy, so that makes them accessible. There’s a universality of the protagonist Jack Reacher that makes him accessible to a lot of readers – he’s rough and ready, action oriented, pragmatic but with a moral core. And the mechanism of his nomadic lifestyle, drifting across the country on a Greyhound bus allows him to pop up seemingly anywhere, just when trouble is brewing.

Which is how we begin with Blue Moon – Jack Reacher is riding a Greyhound bus as it approaches a city so unremarkable we never learn its name. He sees an old man in front of him with a bundle of cash. Someone else on the bus is eyeing up the money. The bus stops in the bad part of town. Jack Reacher saves the old man from being mugged. And we begin our descent -from being a good citizen – to bringing the bad guys to some kind of tough justice.

Blue Moon ticks off some of the aspects of my most favourite Jack Reacher books I’ve read so far – it plunges Reacher into a situation with barely any room to breathe. There’s bad guys everywhere and this leads to taut action scenes avoiding capture or discovery. In Blue Moon there’s Ukraininan and Albanian gangs controlling respective sides of town. It becomes, as the story unfolds, a very suspenseful dance to avoid being detected as Reacher unpicks both the backstory behind the Shevicks – the kind old couple who’ve hit desperate times who he helps – and the stranglehold that these gangs have on the city.

Jack Reacher books are formulaic – but that’s not a negative. Indeed, that formulaic nature is a big part of the enjoyability of this ‘literary bag of crisps’ – you know what you’re getting. Reacher arrives on the scene and trouble either erupts in front of him or his morality – righting a wrong he witnesses – leads him to discover the mystery. Blue Moon definitely adheres to the formula as Reacher slowly coaxes out the finer points of the story. It develops at a linear pace, gradually accelerating to the climax. There’s great scenes – tension, action and cunning. Reacher’s efforts to evade the detection of the gangs roaming hit-squads are tense and rewarding. His multi-layered subterfuges are quite juicy and pay off nicely. There’s some stealth and tension that reveals intricate thought behind the plot. And the final takedown at the story’s climax is quite good too – plenty of rough, street justice.

However, considering that, Blue Moon has an ugly side in that it is so gratuitiously violent.

That said violence is no stranger to the Jack Reacher books. It’s always visceral, no-holds-barred but measured in its application. One of Reacher’s traits that’s one I can relate to is that violence is a last resort, and often Reacher will warn his cocksure adversaries of their impending errors. If they choose to continue or not heed the warning, so be it.

But Blue Moon has possibly one of the highest body-counts of any of the Reacher books I’ve read so far. Indeed, Reacher, in the story, recruits a few Marine acquaintances to form some kind of rough-and-tough mercenary force that is utterly unstoppable. Sure, Jack Reacher never seems to lose, but in Blue Moon he walks over the literal piled bodies of those who crossed him. And there seems to be no comeback to that – the police are completely buttoned up to the point they’re side characters who only appear from afar.

I’d like for the stakes to be a bit higher – and for Reacher to have to work more. But for all the intricate plotting that slowly unwraps – not totally perfect, requiring some level of suspension-of-disbelief – is let down and undermined by the impotency of any judicial comeback on Reacher, and the sheer number of gangland heavies that get cut down in the crossfire. Yes, Reacher stays true to his mantra of warning those not to cross him of the consequences, and putting down those who commit immoral acts he “doesn’t like”, but the bulldozer-like approach just left me with a bit of a sour taste.

Jack Reacher is better when he’s more human, and more falliable. Yes, as our protagonist and some kind of masculine hero, we the reader know he’ll ultimately win the day. But in Blue Moon, despite some crisp, meaty scenes of tension and action, it reduces a nominally-dangerous threat – two large gangs jostling for control of the city – down to some kind of circus in how easy – and without any threat – they are disarmed and left for dead.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Blue Moon but I feel it did both the best and the worst of what I expect from my literary bag of Walkers.

If I had to pick a flavour that summed up Blue Moon, I’d say: Pickled Onion. Enjoyable but with an aftertaste that lingers that’ll leave your eyes watering.

Verdict: Recommended

Review: The Silence (Paperback)

I’m gradually learning to be a bit more adventurous with my book choices, and those efforts continue to pay dividends with The Silence.

I picked this book up not quite sure what to expect. This edition was a tie-in to a Netflix movie derived from the book that has middling reviews. I sensed something supernatural about The Silence, which may have been why it languished a little longer on my shelf than it ultimately warranted.

It’s an interesting premise: the apocalypse in The Silence is brought about not by aliens, or nuclear Armageddon, but by the unearthing in Moldova of an ancient, unknown species of reptilian creatures that have developed in the dark. Indeed, Pandora’s Box quickly opens wide and quickly these creatures, christened Vesps, begin to spread, causing havoc across Europe.

The narrative focusses on Ally and her family as they watch this disaster unfold on the news and through social media. There’s a sense of foreboding, waiting and inevitability from us, the reader, watching the Vesp menace get steadily closer to the United Kingdom. Indeed, the story unfolds over a matter of days where the world changes completely, and we follow Ally and her family, joined by Ally’s terminally-ill maternal grandfather and Ally’s father’s outdoorsman-like friends, with whom the families have coexisted in the same, small, sleepy town as the realisation sets in: to survive, the family must flee their lives as they’ve known for ever for an uncertain future far away, where safety from this unknown threat is not even assured.

So far, so good. The tension and sense of foreboding in these initial chapters is palpable, and the atmosphere – one of dread, a knowing that it’s a matter of time, and how these people cope – and don’t cope – really sends an electric tingle with every word. Indeed, scenes of panic-buying at shops in preparation for some kind of end-of-the-world scenario seemed prescient in the climate in which I write this review, with similar behaviour regarding the coronavirus pandemic the world is currently experiencing. Maybe that’s what made these brooding, dread-filled chapters resonate more – my real experience of this so recently perhaps attenuated my senses. It’s effective.

Quickly The Silence becomes a story about the journey, not the destination, but it’s less The Roadwhich I hated, and more One – a novel I adore. The journey is horrifying for various different reasons and it’s traumatic for everyone. The landscape shifts. The objective changes in the face of the facts presented on the road. Society is seen to slowly disintegrate as the journey progresses, leading to new twists.

What I liked about this was, with The Silence, along with One, and other post-apocalyptic books (The Girl With All the Gifts is a fine example) is that the story is about the journey and what it does to the characters. There is, I’ve noticed, not going to be a happy-ever-after at the story’s conclusion. The world has changed monumentally in all these stories. It’s a story of adaptation to survive, and to survive that traumatic transition from the comfortable life you and I can relate to into the horrors thrown against society and the characters we observe this through.

However, it’s not all perfect for The Silence. There’s a number of aspects and concepts I felt were good but not fully developed, which I think is a shame – they needed more time in the oven!

  • Ally decides to chronicle her experience of the Vesp invasion through a scrapbook app on her iPad, and she monitors the results of this through social media. Later in the book, as society slowly falls apart at the seams, “grey areas” without electricity develop across the country, threatening Ally’s memoir through the scourge of a dead battery, unable to be charged. This is nice but I feel it is somewhat shoehorned in as a little bit of an afterthought, with the brownouts beginning toward the last third of the book. And I don’t feel a massive affinity for Ally’s scrapbook as its knowledge being kept for posterity, and it isn’t called up on in the story in any real active way
  • One of the interesting themes is that Ally, as a protagonist, is deaf. The prose handles this pretty seamlessly – Ally “speaks”, but she signs. It’s revealed that the Vesps cannot see visually and are guided by sound. Late in the book we are introduced to a sort-of cult called The Hushed, led by a somewhat one-dimensionally ominous Reverend who want Ally to help their cause, the goals of which are unknown. We meet The Reverend for the first time at random, and he crops up in a series of increasingly-sinister vignettes until the end of the book.
  • The Vesps themselves, while having an interesting take on an origin, are essentially mindless pack animals in their hunting. I would’ve liked to have seen a more intelligent foe to contend with modern society, and I don’t think it would’ve been beyond a stretch of the suspension of disbelief from them having evolved in hidden caves to begin with.

These aren’t cardinal sins by any means – I enjoyed The Silence enough to wish that these had been done. But they’re not fatal errors or omissions by any means. The Silence is by no means a bad book – I certainly enjoyed it, but like I said before, these areas needed more time in the oven to really wring the most potential out of the story. That said, it was a punt that paid off for me and I would have no hesitation in giving it a recommendation – and I think Tim Lebbon is an author whose work I’ll be exploring more about in the future – The Silence was a vocal introduction.

Verdict: Recommended

Review: Midnight in Chernobyl (Paperback)

In my quest to read more non-fiction; buoyed by last year’s acclaim for the HBO miniseries Chernobyl, I took a recommendation to read Midnight in Chernobyl.

I had previously attempted a non-fiction book about the Chernobyl disaster, Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy – however I’d stalled on that one, and thus I found Midnight in Chernobyl a bit of a daunting proposition. History seemed to have a slightly dry, disconnected prose style that didn’t quite resonate – even now I struggle to quite put my finger on why that book hadn’t struck home.

However, Midnight proved considerably more engaging. It is a visceral, technical and compelling account not just of the disaster that took place on April 26th 1986 at 1:23:45AM but the moves that made disaster seem inevitable – missteps and mistakes that combined to create the nuclear disaster of 1986, but also the monumental, and initially misguided efforts to mitigate the disaster.

Midnight in Chernobyl, for me, succeeds because it reads much more like a story than an account. There’s a compendium of characters – including Reactor 4 itself – that all combine to make the chilling effects of the disaster what they proved to be. And the prose is chilling, intense and compelling – I found it difficult to stop reading, wanting to read on to find out what happened next.

Midnight in Chernobyl is clearly assiduously researched; but it also reaches from the late 1980s as the Soviet state begins to implode to today, with some punchy references to characters we’d come to know throughout the story reflecting back. The book is technical, which I liked, but it’s also not unapproachable. It seems to apportion the bulk of the responsibility for the accident primarily, not to the reactor operators (who made some reckless, crazy decisions) or necessarily the deficiencies of the RBMK reactor design that made it inherently dangerous, especially in the wrong hands, but on the Soviet system that pushed all these elements together.

Take for instance, ludicrous, imposed timescales and deadlines: not just to get Reactor 4 running “before the end of 1983” or to complete the botched test that caused the explosion but even to lay the first cubic feet of concrete for the whole plant. These deadlines, politically motivated for some misguided sense of prestige led to construction faults and operator errors that ultimately led to accidents.

This same system placed individuals ill-qualified but for their party affiliations in prominent positions of management, regardless of their skills – the chief engineer of the plant being a factory worker who took a correspondent’s course by mail on nuclear physics, who seemed to be in post more for his buttering-up of the local Communist Party than perhaps due to his competence; indeed, he was asleep at the time of the test. The system’s rigid expectations from its staff – reduced, essentially, to automatons to simply fulfil the Party and State’s will – led to reckless corner-cutting from construction to the fateful test itself.

But the most grievous trait laid bare is a system mired in paranoid secrecy – from whether to evacuate the nearby city of Pripyat to even understanding the true nature of the accident. But the worst example of this broken system is that the accident was completely preventable: the power excursions that came about from the design flaw in the control rods in the RBMK reactor – a fault that would make the emergency shutdown button at Chernobyl “a detonator”. Even the “official” inquiries tried to bury the truth with the reactor under tons of lead, boron, cement and lies.

The chronic mismanagement of the entire Communist system comes out as the biggest villain – not only did it lead to the disaster through a tragic series of isolated events that combined, it made the initial management of the accident ineffective, and hampered the international response in the misguided pursuit of “prestige”. Ultimately the disaster, one the Soviet economy was ill-prepared to cope with, played a major contributory role to the eventual collapse of the USSR.

I was discussing the book with the friend who recommended it, and he summed it up ina way I couldn’t put any more eloquently: “You start off feeling it’s inevitable and come out amazed it wasn’t worse.”

Indeed, Midnight in Chernobyl is not just a visceral, assiduously researched account of the disaster but a prism through which to observe a regime in chaos. It’s a gripping story that doesn’t overwhelm, and I’d highly recommend it!

Review: The Passengers (Paperback)

The_PassengersOne of the most successful things about The Passengers harkened back to my university days. I recall my lecturer, when discussing effective sci-fi, talked about extrapolating something from the current world into some extreme, and taking the story from there. It’s an approach I find a lot more rewarding than the usual galaxies and asteroids that science fiction is usually, inaccurately, ascribed to.

The Passengers extrapolates a multitude of prescient ideas from 21st century society that make for an engaging, believable and thrilling adventure. It’s a decent mix of ideas also, that may sound disparate but do gel together for a thrilling yarn.

Firstly, the idea of the driverless car – after over a century of innovation with automobiles, finally the human element is dispensed with. This is a technology that’s still in the ascendancy today, but taking strides ever closer to what is predicted in The Passengers. Indeed, one of the backstory threads – that all non-driverless cars have ultimately been outlawed – deals with one of the main teething issues experienced at the cutting edge of this technology – interaction with other cars, and the unpredictability of their human operators.

By removing this unpredictable element of human interaction, driverless cars are portrayed as the holy grail to an efficient personal transport system, largely devoid of the chaos and disorder that comes from having a human behind the wheel. The machinery and artificial intelligence simply runs to a set of rules, though an interesting twist that comes about toward the mid to latter stages of the book is quite what those rules are.

Of course, a decent sci-fi thriller takes an ordinary idea and asks one question: what if…? In The Passengers, this question is posed to be what if the driverless cars that have no manual override get hacked? We begin by following a group of seemingly-normal citizens from a cross-section of society getting in their cars, as Passengers, from therein the fun begins.

But the second societal notion that The Passengers plays with is social media and the mob mentality. Invariably, the “unhackable” cars are hacked, and the fate of the occupants is decided not just by the characters we interact directly with, but by a more intangible influence, that of social media. When lives are at stake, this quickly develops into a full-throated trial by social media with life and death at the hands of tweeters we never meet on an individual level but who only seem to exist as shifting masses, who prove feckless and fickle in the face of the evidence presented to them

This is all good stuff to chew on. But who do we meet as our cast of characters?

The main setting for The Passengers is the members of a supposedly-independent inquest into accidents regarding driverless vehicles, ostensibly to apportion blame. Our protagonist is Libby, a bog-standard everyman hero at first glance, introduced as the “token citizen” in the inquest. She’s forthright, fights for justice… all the characteristics you might expect. Indeed, her characterisation is a little thin, almost bordering on the trite; however the book acknowledges this toward the latter stages when we discover quite why Libby is even in the inquest.

We also have MP Jack Larsson, the antithesis to Libby’s good character – a shady, snide worst-of-the-worst politician, almost a caricature. And the mysterious Hacker, for most of the book an ominous (if slightly cliched) vocal presence throughout proceedings. We’re left to wonder what the Hacker’s motivations are – their initial opening is that they’ve taken control of the eight cars because they can, without making any demands. But this soon evolves into a sick game of life and death, with the participants of the inquest having to decide which occupants to sacrifice for the greater good, according to the rules of the game the Hacker decides to play.

On a conceptual and moral level The Passengers is a fascinating and gripping glance twenty minutes into our future – where autonomous cars are played in a sick game of trial-by-social-media, the purpose of which only becomes clear toward the very end of the novel. This collision of some thought-provoking, prescient social issues – driverless cars, social media power, even the art of spin and how facts are presented – in 2019 gels together well; considerably better than perhaps it might seem.

I’d be remiss to not acknowledge some of the weak points of the narrative and prose that are there – for me they weren’t inherent negatives to my enjoyment of the book. Firstly, the characterisation of the people through which the story primarily takes place through is fairly perfunctory – the characters exist for reasons that the plot needs them to, and we don’t learn a great deal about their personalities beyond tropes. This is fine – indeed, this shares a characteristic, that of the characters existing to help the plot, from one of my favourite technothrillers, Jurassic Park. The Passengers is refreshingly unliterary and plot-centric which results in a pacey, thrilling story that keeps delivering.

However I do feel that the narrative could’ve left the inquest room as a viewpoint more throughout the main thread of the hacked driverless cars – too often the societal impacts of the fast-paced change are merely reported as “thousands of Tweets” or a news report of “massed people”. It felt disconnected and a little subdued -I’d much rather be shown these events rather than be told about them by the social media advisor. But the main meat of the plot takes place over a couple of hours of narrative time so I understand if there’s simply not the space in the briskness of the plot to exit the room containing all the characters we experience the story through – who, conveniently, cannot leave – to adequately build alternate perspectives.

That said, despite a couple of glaring errors (why would Level 5 driverless cars have no manual override to stop the engine at all?) I thoroughly enjoyed The Passengers; to the point where the potential weaknesses were there but ultimately became unimportant in my enjoyment. There’s a great, brisk plot that delivers in spades – a sprinkling of social commentary packaged in an engaging, pacey wrapper – a great, engaging read that makes you think (not too much), and is written in an easy, breezy and slick prose that I really dug quite well. This was another random Waterstones table find that caught my eye – fair to say I’ll be seeking out more of John Marrs’ work on the back of it!