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

Book Review: Nobody True

It is with some happy coincidence that this is my 200th post on On Holliday!

Nobody_True

I recall when exactly Nobody True was brought to my attention – my friend and fellow blogger Chris Kenny posted a comment on an Instagram post I’d made.

Seeing Nobody True in Waterstones reminded me of his endorsement so I picked it up to add it to my growing collection of James Herbert novels.

Nobody True is both my favourite and least favourite James Herbert novel I’ve read so far – which is an interesting statement to make.

The premise of Nobody True is something I found appealing – James True has been having out-of-body experiences (OBEs) since childhood. One night his spirit is on an OBE… and his body is brutally butchered. The story follows True as he discovers the culprit behind his physical murder and some truths that shock him to his very core.

Nobody True is, on reflection, a great read for a James Herbert fan; less so a beginner. This is because James True’s story as an illustrator who works up to the position of art director in an advertising agency is one that should ring true to anyone with a working knowledge of the author’s background – the character of James True is heavily based upon that of James Herbert himself, who started out as an art director in advertising before publishing The Rats in 1974. I found this streak of the author imbued into the protagonist really quite charming and as a fan who’s done a little bit of homework to know more about Herbert’s background as an author it’s really rewarding!

I did like the premise of the book – it’s suitably spooky and has plenty of potential but the execution of it was disappointing. Nobody True is told from the perspective of James True’s experience and this narrative is very susceptible to repetition and generally it feels like it needs a good edit for pacing.

Nobody True could easily be 100 pages shorter with no appreciable “loss” of story. Again, this really disappointed me – especially toward the middle. The protagonist for a good deal of the middle seems to be totally incidental to the plot – that is, the protagonist, in being unable to be heard, or otherwise physically interact or effect events as they happen, becomes as incidental and as the reader and it becomes a hard read after several chapters of James True essentially explaining repeatedly how he is unable to affect anything he is witnessing.

That said, the tension does ramp up with a classic, Herbert-esque scene that grabbed my attention back – the assailant who murders James True strikes again with a brutal scene of debauchery and defilement set in a car park. I won’t spoil it here but it’s a grisly but gratifying scene to read – evoking shades of Herbert’s earlier work, like the infamous gym scene from The Fog as a prime example, but obviously a lot of the gory scenes from The Rats, Lair and Domain too.

Reflecting, Nobody True is a really great idea for a story that I feel Herbert nearly got right. There’s plenty of twists once the book gets going (I liked the initial setup of the book, it felt like the scene was set for the reader to make a conclusion about the culprit, only for that to be nicely twisted in the finale).

However, it pains me to arrive at this conclusion but it wasn’t his most finessed work so I can’t rate it as highly as I’d like. The narrative choice was surprisingly clunky and it did drag in parts toward the middle – the pace did lift but for the most part I feel the astral form of James True as a character was just too much of a bystander to events for too long. Also: the use of footnotes was an interesting (if a little unorthodox) device but these too could’ve been omitted as they’re mostly just extra exposition.

It really disappoints me to write this about a James Herbert novel as I really did want to enjoy Nobody True to the extent that I’ve enjoyed previous books like Domain and The Fog. The idea was sound and the execution was 70% there – it just needed a final push from a good editor and this book would’ve been a song. The revelations of the dual meaning behind its title toward the conclusion were good, it’s just getting there felt a tad arduous (my attention was grabbed again by a well-timed gore scene but that scene being where it was seemed to be more by happy accident than by design, which again just leaves me with the aftertaste of mild disappointment).

Nevertheless though, I did ultimately enjoy Nobody True and it’s certainly a book I feel seasoned fans of James Herbert will appreciate – just perhaps not one for someone’s introduction! Ultimately, it’s left me wanting to read more about the use of OBEs as a narrative device… just in a more finessed and agile form. On that basis, Nobody True is rated as recommended, as opposed to highly recommended.

Book Review: The Girl on the Train

The_Girl_On_The_TrainI recently read this after getting a little bogged down with a more clunky read I do hope to finish but needed a breezy thrill to grease the cogs. I picked up The Girl on the Train recently; I’d seen it a lot out and about and I almost wondered in the back of my mind if it was too commercial a thriller to enjoy. But I let my preconceptions slide and bought the book.

The Girl on the Train, while not the perfect thriller, certainly held my attention enough for it to be enjoyed like a thriller. I credit this to several aspects: crisp prose with a strong storytelling style and at the root of it an engaging plot thread.

The prose, as I said, is crisp and well-constructed. The chapters shift point-of-view from one of the three women protagonists around whom the story is hung. It reads a lot like diary entries; each chapter interspersed with either morning or evening sections. As a storytelling mechanic this was different enough and a novel enough approach to propel me through

This I felt complimented the story; normal prose detailing the domestic minutiae of the protagonists day-to-day would’ve been unengaging; instead the prose was filleted right down to what mattered to the story. That’s not to say the prose was unengaging; it was, but neither was it meandering. It’s definitely the style of writing I appreciate more, and it’s a trait in thriller writing I expressly appreciate too; less so the purple, overwritten prose so emblematic to other genres.

The plot behind The Girl on the Train dug its claws in – I wanted to see the mystery solved, and it did, as thrillers do, neatly wrap itself up in threads in the first two thirds of the book for these threads to unwind in the final third. I was gripped and immersed enough to want to know what was happening. The payoff at the end, with the final confrontation, was satisfying and smacked me right in the face a little – an of course! moment neatly subverted until the climax.

But what struck me as a criticism of the book was the characters – three women, Rachel, Anna and Megan – that it revolves around are steeped in suburban melodrama. Rachel, the primary protagonist, is an unreliable narrator in the sense that she’s always drunk but that’s only a surface illusion. The book plays on the reader’s expectations about a narrator who is quickly characterised as an alcoholic and twists it around. That distrust of Rachel as an unreliable narrator (which becomes a key point in the climax) is another reason to stick at it; the story may seem mundane, but an undertone of suspicion and not-quite-right-ness kept up the intrigue. It helps because the crisp prose and initially-melodramatic characters, who can come across as pastiches of suburban living could so easily grate the book to a halt.

It is this suburban melodrama that ultimately drives the story to its ugly twist. The characters, all bored and depressed wives at their core, were melodramatic and the source of their squabble was succinctly suburban. These characters ultimately are all defined by their husbands or their children. I do feel we could’ve seen more into the characters beside those attributes, to get a deeper understanding of them as I feel the characters had so much more to give beside the narrow viewpoint of their husbands (and feeling towards) and children but alas that was what the plot demanded we focus on. These characters are petty, petulant and, strangely enough, that seems not all-to-farfetched in the nebulous world of boring suburbia.

This seemed two-dimensional but on reflection this two-dimensionality fitted the remit of the book. The Girl on the Train tells the story of what happens behind closed doors in sleepy suburbia. Ultimately the image of suburbia is cast aside and the unsettling truth behind it is revealed. Ultimately though suburbia is not a subject area I am particularly interested in exploring but the book held my interest to the very end.

I wavered a little on the rating but ultimately had to settle down to a 3. It’s not a bad book at all things considered and I quite liked it for what it was! There’s enough here to hold my interest and keep me intrigued through a journey through the underbelly of “perfect” suburbia.