Review: First Activation (Kindle Edition)

One of the joys of Kindle is discovering books that I’d thrown on there in a sale but forgotten about; First Activation being one of them.

The story starts out with an interesting premise that does provide a pretty good hook. Ex-Army brothers Harry and Jack are travelling across the Atlantic on holiday but, after experiencing turbulence and finally landing in New York discover the city has been devastated by a strange affliction that leads survivors to claim a life before committing suicide. It’s an interesting take on the classic post-apocalyptic scenario and I did find myself wanting to read on to find out the cause of this.

First Activation is a short but pacy read. It leads straight into a cliffhanger that leads onto the sequel. The sense of atmosphere and impending doom does convey the severity and desperation of the situation. Accordingly, things are not as inexplicable as the party ventures around the devastation of the United States – in the second half it’s quickly revealed that a global conspiracy that promises to re-incarnate humanity from the ashes of destruction. It’s a bit trite and to be expected, almost, but the buildup is exhilarating enough that the revelation is justified.

The characters of Harry and Jack as joint protagonists are the most realised, and after reading the background of the authors, it’s clear that there’s a lot of inspiration from the authors’ real-world experiences in the Army. It was particularly interesting to see Jack’s psychological tension over the various horrors that the group is faced with (almost par for the course in a post-apocalypse). There’s a wide perception that military guys just ‘man up and get on with it’ so seeing Jack’s humanity poking through that perception was good to see. I can identify that, throughout the horrific scenes that a post-apocalyptic scenario would bring about, the affect on the survivors would be real. It’s an aspect to post-apocalyptic fiction that I feel is important to emphasise, but equally important to not overlook. First Activation succeeds in the former; the plot moves so quickly that there isn’t time to dwell on it too long.

Other characters are less well-developed, though there is a sense of connection between them. Unfamiliarity between the members of the group rightly seeds suspicion, along with the inability to trust anyone at face value, lest they be a psychotic killer, but there is a gradual sense of camaraderie and bonding, and during the dramatic scenes in the second half, there’s some surprising and sudden occurrences.

Overall, though First Activation wasn’t a terrible book, if a bit derivative of a lot of post-apocalyptic plot tropes. It’s almost too short – about 200 pages, and I feel that the atmosphere and characters could’ve been fleshed out more if the plot had slowed down a bit and allowed itself to expand with a bit of breathing space. However, I felt the writing wasn’t terrible, though the conclusion seems to be a little hackneyed, I am looking forward to seeing how this mystery is thwarted in the next instalment.

Buy First Activation on Amazon Kindle UK

Review: The Vanished Man (Kindle Edition)

I’ve been steadily working my way through Jeffrey Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme series of thriller/crime novels and the fifth instalment was another enjoyable outing!

The Vanished Man pits quadriplegic criminalist Lincoln Rhyme on the pursuit of an illusionist turned murderer who uses every trick in the book (pun very much intended) to evade capture. Slowly over the course of the novel, the true motives behind the murders and the identity of the murder themselves become clear, but there is a great deal of sleuthing before that.

The premise certainly intrigued me – who would better know how to distract, evade and, a prominent theme, misdirect the police than a magician? As the book develops, it becomes clear that there are no straightforward answers to any of the questions the mystery raises. It’s an enjoyable game as the reader both witnesses Rhyme’s efforts to decipher the Conjurer’s motives and methods as well as making their own attempts. It’s this sense of intellectual game playing that made this book an enjoyable and enthralling read. A large part of the enjoyment of a book like this comes from seeing how the investigator unpicks the mystery and seeing if the conclusions are mirrored in the reader’s mind. The Vanished Man certainly succeeds in this respect; there’s also the added urgency of several races against time to save the next victim from this almost completely unpredictable antagonist. Even, at 75%, when he’d been caught, cuffed and the book looked about wrapped up, an almost miraculous escape sets the plot up for a final furlong – the mystery of how?! always playing on the reader’s mind. It’s very good.

The plot is certainly no slow-burner as events do start to snowball quickly, which leaves little time to ponder character motivations too much; there are certainly moments of introspection but time pressures bring out the best abilities of the characters. There’s a number of plot lines that initially seem unconnected but, of course, they do link up in the eventual climax. Who’d have thought a novel about a murderous magician would touch base with anxieties about American nationalism? The prose is direct but not dull; there’s a certain brutality that doesn’t sugar-coat events. But ultimately, all the philosophical motives aside, it all comes down to one thing everyone can relate to: revenge.

In character terms, Rhyme himself continues to be a deceptively-endearing character; his disability and self-awareness give his personality a barbed exterior that is both matter-of-fact and amusing; however, it’s the moments where this facade is allowed to drop that makes him more relatable and, ultimately, human. The series as a whole does approach the idea of how disabled people are perceived in quite interesting and enlightening ways. The other regular cast that form a support network around Rhyme are competent at what they do – and care as much as he does, but in this book it’s the characters of Kara (who aids in this particular investigation) that give a glimpse into the psyche of Rhyme that other characters perhaps wouldn’t.

Regardless, I certainly enjoyed The Vanished Man a great deal. I’m eagerly looking forward to moving on with the series!

Buy The Vanished Man from Amazon UK

Review: A Calculated Life (Kindle Edition)

I’m finding it hard to quite distil what A Calculated Life is actually about without constant referrals to the Amazon blurb. There’s a lot of hints from what I’ve read so far – about a dystopian police state with a “compliant population free of addictions”; very Orwellian, with a tinge of I, Robot, with genetically-engineered “stimulants” being discriminated against and treated as second-class citizens – this sounds excellent and full of promise but unfortunately, after proceeding to about halfway through the book, none of this seems to be tying together.

I recognise that A Calculated Life is certainly a more contemplative book, wherein its challenging and exploring the concepts that hang as core tenets of the universe. What is a “normal” life in this strange world? However, in terms of a story taking place of this universe, I feel the book falls quite flat.

The protagonist is Jayna, who is eventually revealed to be one of the genetically-engineered “simulants” (though it took me until halfway in to finally work this out), who works for predictive agency Mayhew McCline, an agency that predicts with mathematical accuracy economic and social trends, who over the course of the book appears to be challenging her core programming and trying to learn more about the deviations from routine and prediction that makes her human counterparts, well, human. However, I felt that for the most part, until I realised that she was indeed a “simulant”, Jayna was a completely unlikeable protagonist I couldn’t relate to. Her personality seemed scant, and what was there, to me, felt cold and clinical, channelling the tritest of “introverted nerd” stereotypes, emerging into a classic Buzz Killington-esque shell. Her robotic personality, over-analysing every action of her counterparts, certainly seemed too straight-laced and “well-behaved” to be interesting. As I approached the halfway point, I definitely felt that as Jayna was starting to noticeably challenge her findings and, at the same time, her genetic engineering to discover a “normality” that lived outside the world of statistics and models that she’d been entrenched in for so long; however, by this point it felt too late to get invested into the plot. The disconnect between the protagonist and any of the ominous echoes of the setting seemed to be too wide to be bridged by this point.

Anne Charnock’s prose in A Calculated Life is competent and unobtrusive, without needless embellishment. It does, however, certainly personify Jayna’s boring personality; it’s a bit uninspiring, workmanlike and works to support the mundane banality in the early part of the book that focuses (too much) on the minutiae of Jayna’s life. There’s a clear action deficit that permeates through what I’ve read so far; sure, I understand that A Calculated Life is more contemplative and conceptual, but with the characters discussing situations like the housing lottery that causes a lot of angst among the population, and a lot of description of how conformity and routine heavily impacts daily life, there’s no sense of brutality attached to this sense of conformity, which dilutes its dramatic impact. If at most a strongly-worded letter would be sent to those that disobey or otherwise rebel against the “system”, then why would one fear this oppressive state? There seems to be no impact upon the characters, who instead spend pages having meandering conversations that serve little purpose. Whether these relate to Jayna’s emotional inexperience naivety is almost inconsequential when regardless, these contemplative conversations seem to do little to hurry the plot along. Likewise, there’s a clear absence of any perceived conflict that directly impacts the characters and drives them forward, and this proves fatal to the book; for a relatively short piece (200~ pages; 3,000 Kindle locations) it certainly feels, as I’m progressing, to be getting longer and longer.

In terms of plotting, I’d say the plot in A Calculated Life seems to simmer at best. Approaching the halfway point, I felt an impatience for the plot to actually start to move toward the conflict that the mid-point of a book usually displays. Even at this stage, the plot is still carrying out a lot of the “setup” that you expect in, say, the first third; by this point I definitely feel the plot should be moving from exploring the circumstances around which the characters find themselves to how the characters might be directly affected or affecting these circumstances. A death of a colleague at Jayna’s employer, for instance, is established to take place relatively early on but continues to only be a background event, hinted at but still seeming distant and unconnected to the protagonist. Is this a key event? By this point, it should’ve been established one way or the other.

Unfortunately for me, A Calculated Life didn’t do anything for me. The combination of meandering, tepid plot, while glimpsing at a promising concept and setup, with a dry and uninspiring and ultimately boring protagonist proved fatal in maintaining my interest. A Calculated Life is certainly contemplative, although I’d just wish it was more direct in approaching the themes it purports to explore. Some might find this an enjoyable, thought-provoking read; however, while the book is sound conceptually, the execution was underwhelming.

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Short Story: Port of Call

Port of Call
by Richard Holliday

6,810 words

“Hello?” Jake called, his voice echoing in the darkness. “Is anyone there?”

No response. Just the gentle hum of machinery. To his right, Jake observed the great bulkhead that separated the crew passage from the holding tank stood motionless. A gentle rumble inside murmured. Akin to a metal stomach, Jake thought nothing of it. These noises were the normal thrum of the ship as it ‘lived’. Further down the passage, where the low lights became hazy with the distance, metal banged against metal. A peeling sound followed, with a scream unmistakable with death coming just after. Erupting in an aural explosion into the odd, misplaced serenity of the corridor.

Jake gulped. The clipboard dropped from his hand as sweat trickled subconsciously from every surface of his skin. Doors were banging in a rhythmic pattern. Down the passage. Coming toward him. Frozen, Jake looked down the passageway, waiting for what would no doubt be death.

Unexpectedly, the door behind him flung from tis hinges, impacting the opposite wall and becoming embedded in it. Smoke rose from the crumpled metal as it dissolved into a putrid, jellified mess, leaving a pool of reacted acid forming on the floor. The diseased blood of a mechanical being.

He spun round and looked up at the being eight feet tall that had smashed the door. A drop of viscous and rancid fluid, its composition clearly alien, fell onto his fabric uniform. The patch of embroidered lettering, spelling out Jake’s surname, Green, discoloured and started to smoulder. With a wince, the young man gripped his eyes shut. A sticky heat enveloped his chest, seemingly destined right for his heart.

He screamed for a millisecond before the sound of another door crashing away brought an instant darkness.

Continue reading “Short Story: Port of Call”