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 – The Blinds (Paperback)

The_BlindsThe Blinds is one of those books that piqued my interest on the table in Waterstones ages ago that I only just decided to bite the bullet on. And I’m glad I did; as I devoured most this book in the course of two train journeys. That was fun.

I recall the premise of The Blinds caught my eye. A sleepy, forgotten town in the middle of a desert inhabited by people who’d chosen to have their memories wiped, and given new identities.Eight years of anonymity rocked by a series of murders. A killer in their midst. This is just the sort of thirty-minutes-into-the-future science fiction thriller that I’m trying to be better at reading. But The Blinds isn’t really a science-fiction book – yes, how people’s memories are selectively wiped is touched upon and explained. Instead the book focusses more on why people have had their memories wiped, and the repercussions what this does to the human condition.

The book takes perhaps the more interesting perspective of examine what this technology does to people. Indeed throughout I took away the sense that the story wouldn’t have a happy ending. Certainly from the off we’re presented with an unusual take on the crime techno-thriller that weeps with foreboding and leaves a definite imprint on the mind. I recall the first chapter being intriguing, urging me to dive in.

But enough about themes for now – let’s dive into the nitty-gritty!

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Discovering The Blinds in Waterstones, amongst other great books!

The Blinds is powerful, atmospheric and tense. The town of Caesura, the location for the tale, is a remote outcrop set up to house the “volunteers” in the experiment. Already the story is being kept away from the rest of the world, and the isolation is palpable, ostensibly for the protection of the residents but also it serves as a narrative device to keep the characters in a confined space. And yes, despite being in the midst of the Arizona desert, the setting of the town, a run-down, almost-forgotten collection of bungalows and chalets, feels contained. The events of the story are clearly never meant to leave Caesura, and it’s when they begin to spill out that trouble brews.

Indeed, whenever the residents of Caesura have any interaction with the outside, trouble comes knocking. The premise states that residents, with their memories erases, are indeed free to leave the settlement, they do so at their own risk, and some are never seen again. Early on we learn that The Institute administers the programme, and quickly we become suspicious. What is the Institute? And how at-arms-length are they keeping, how benevolent are they and what are their motivations? Early on I became fairly intrigued to learn how they stood to gain from the programme – it couldn’t entirely be a philanthropic application of new science? And this leads on to the liaison with the government between the town of The Blinds and the Institute. And even the new arrivals that we the viewer follow as they are inducted into the programme. As the plot progresses, these outside influences converge to really impact upon the town.

The premise of having selectively wiped one’s memory (ostensibly as an alternative to prison, to somehow absolve oneself from their crimes; a plot device that reminded me very much of One Way, which I read previously) allows for a unique opportunity in character development. The characters choose their own new names, from a list of former Vice Presidents and movie stars, which is a cool and innovative way of naming characters. But there’s always the interest in revealing these people’s real names, almost more so than their crimes, that does drive the reader on. And none of these characters, as we discover, is a white night or a dark horse; indeed, some of the expectations we have are reversed as the mystery unwraps.

Certainly The Blinds is dealing with some hefty themes – but I was most pleased to realise that the plot behind these themes is strong enough to motor through without becoming too self-indulgent. The story lasts about as long as it needs to in order to convey those themes enough so they persist, ironically enough, in the mind of the reader. Overall the plot itself is interesting enough that readers who may be less attuned to picking up thematic riffs can still enjoy the book – it’s a solid, atmospheric thriller with a dash of Western and a dash of science fiction.

It’s also partly an interesting ethical tale – we have characters that are neither black or white, and the book itself openly ponders why this amazing technology is being used for the lowly task of giving criminals a second chance when there are so many more “worthy” applications. Purportedly there are “innocents” that have been seeded in with the guilty or the witnesses to atrocities that are escaping those memories. But as the book progressed we start to question whether what we’ve been led to believe can be taken on face value. And soon enough nothing we may have assumed as the tale progresses can be trusted. It’s riveting. Overall I found it just added to the unsettling, not-quite-right tone that struck a chord for me.

Prose-wise… it was perfunctory without being overwrought, and I don’t mean that derogatorily. The Blinds employs a light, transparent prose style that I do approve of; it allows the story to flourish through it without wrapping itself up. It’s light enough to carry the action and the plot as demands but not flimsy; it conveys the themes that the author’s clearly putting across – that of what it means to lose one’s sense of identity, and as the back cover states: “identityloss [and] meta reality” – quotes that did somewhat concern me, as I am not really a massively literary reader but there was plenty of plot meat on the bones, so I came away pleasantly surprised.

Give it a read.

Book Review: Artemis

ArtemisMemorably a few years ago I had the pleasure to read Andy Weir’s excellent space-based thriller The Martian, which received a glowing review from myself. The Martian was accessible on account of its relatable protagonist Mark Watney but highly-plausible in terms of the science behind i t – Weir clearly had a keen affinity for space exploration, so the suspension of disbelief to think the events of The Martian could really happen wasn’t stretching into fantasy. It’s a quality I adore in science-fiction technothrillers and Weir’s ability to weave a great, engaging story in some hard science is comparable only to one author I can currently think of: Michael Crichton, whose Jurassic Park I adore as one of my favourite books ever.

Previously to The Martian I’d read the excellent Ready Player One. It received a similarly positive review. However, quite notably… its sequel Armada was a lot less finessed. I remember quite clearly feeling that Armada was the same but not quite as good… not by a long way.

Therefore, approaching Artemis I entered with caution, with the disappointment of Armada keenly felt.

However, Artemis is no Armada.

With Artemis, Weir takes his winning formula – the relatable, easy-going protagonist who’s easy to follow with some fantastically realised extrapolation of science that seems to exist just thirty minutes into the contemporary future – and iterates it well.

The protagonist in Artemis, Jazz Bashara, takes a lot of hints from Mark Watney in The Martian. She’s a not-too-serious, feisty (ugh, what word) denizen of the lunar city of Artemis. She is, essentially, still Watney at her core. The character takes so many hints from Watney that it’s hard not to compare – the fact that Jazz is a young non-practising Muslim woman seems incidental.

Now that might sound like the character is flawed and badly developed, and that Weir only has “one” mould for a protagonist once you strip away the embellishments. That’s partly true but Watney’s personality – and Artemis does reference this so it’s at least somewhat self-aware – is the main driving force behind The Martian and we grow to like the protagonist, some cringey, Dad-joke worthy phrases aside.

The plot too, on paper, looks formulaic, but it’s the rich description of both the city of Artemis and how it works that sells it as a location. We quickly get a sense of the divisions within Artemis, between the rich and poor that exists in most cities. But the action is deftly described, with a clear path of incident throughout, each act raising the stakes, with obstacles that even the most assiduous protagonist simply cannot counter in the time allowed.

Ultimately, too, Artemis seems to be a polemic, hinted at, about how human society adapts to reaching beyond terra firma, and the importance of knowing one’s place in history. The plot becomes more monumental the further down the story we go – we move from a heist and corporate subterfuge to a critique of protectionism and the realisation that events here and now can shape the kind of society that Artemis, as a frontier town of old, in the barren landscape of new, will become. What seems like a business opportunity seems bound to set the stage for the next chapter in society’s development.

That’s not me over-egging it. I got a lot from Artemis, and it’s a fully-encapsulated story. It might be cliched at points, with some Dad-trying-to-be-cool-esque prose that seems a little awkward… but this is not a fatal error. These turns of phrase, while clunky, yes, are little noticeable but hardly catastrophic. If anything, they add to the epistolary hinting toward the narrative structure, in that Jazz is telling us the story in the truest sense. Yes Artemis is trope-laden, but that’s not to its detriment as an enjoyable thriller. The setting adds challenge and isn’t just a backdrop.

Ultimately if you go into it expecting anything more you’ll be disappointed. The allegory and political point-making I alluded to is kept at arm’s length to the core story, as it rightly should be. Artemis is a fantastic follow-up for The Martian, neither a sequel or a prequel but more a companion on one’s shelf, and iterates in generous form on the winning formula of that book.