Saturday, June 28, 2014

More Repairman Jack

Looking back, volume two of the Repairman Jack series (Legacies) was relatively normal. True, there was a hefty chunk of science fiction mixed in with the mystery thriller - a kind of Mickey Spillane meets Isaac Asimov - but after the surprises of volume one it was relatively straightforward, particularly since the chosen bit of science fiction is thought by some to be real. Conspiracy theorists would have you believe that it actually happened, but was hushed up for political reasons. (And that's the only clue you're getting. Read it yourself!) So the theme of book two might just be what inspired volume three - Conspiracies - because that same idea turns up again, alongside UFOs, secret military societies, satanist plots, and a host of other half-baked theories.

This time Jack's called in to track down one of the leaders of a group of conspiracy nuts, who has gone missing before a conference where she is scheduled to reveal her version of the truth behind many odd happenings. The group is called Society for the Exposure of Secret Organizations and Unacknowledged Phenomena, or SESOUP, pronounced 'sea-soup',  The name gives F Paul Wilson the opportunity to make lots of jokes along the lines of 'bouillabaisse' and 'fish stew'. One of the recurring characters in the series is Abe, Jack's gun supplier, who hides his true trade behind the counter of a sports shop. Abe is the 'voice of reason' who Jack consults whenever his customers become troublesome, or he needs a new weapon. It is Abe, who also doubles as the comedy relief, who is familiar with more versions of sea soup than anyone has a right to be.

Once again it's difficult to tell you much about the book without giving away too much of the plot, but suffice to say the cast of weird characters in Conspiracies is even more creative than in volume one, and almost nobody is what they first appear to be. There are plenty of opportunities for Jack to demonstrate his skills as a righter-of-wrongs, not least in the side story of a domestic violence case. Wilson weaves so many threads and cross-plots into this tale that I admit I'm still not exactly sure who murdered one of the bodies. In fact, given that Jack was the only person who saw the corpse, she might not actually be dead, and could well turn up again in volume four. That's the level of weirdness I'm starting to expect from this series.

Friday, June 27, 2014

An exercise

Sometimes my life seems to take a sudden, sharp turn left. My conscious mind, knowing it should be following a sensible, forward path, tries hard to overcome it, but the demon inside my skull has other plans. The world takes on odd colours; lights are brighter; and objects develop hardened edges. Suddenly I am scared. Everything is too close: traffic, walls, people. And I need to push them away.

69 words
I used to take part in regular writing challenges, but somehow I have diverted from them. I must try harder to keep my creative juices flowing.  This is just as the words came out of my head. I might edit later.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Thriller with a difference

In Jobbing Writer bookworld you can't really beat a decent thriller: detective/private eye potboiler with a cast of miscreants and thugs, and a shining, but flawed, hero will do it for me every time. So when I came across The Tomb by F Paul Wilson I assumed I was in for 400-plus pages of shoot-'em-up hokum. But I was completely unprepared for the plot that followed.

It's a corker of a story and unlike anything I've read before. Repairman Jack puts things right, but he's no fixer of domestic appliances. He's an off-the-grid and off-the-wall soldier of fortune who fights dirty, but somehow manages to make his punishments fit the crime.

When his mother was killed in a pile-up caused by a hooligan's 'fun' idea of throwing a lump of concrete off a flyover and onto a passing car, he sets out to find the person responsible and pays him back by suspending him by the feet off the same flyover, then waiting till a few trucks have gone by.

But that's not the plot, that's just Jack's backstory.

He's a bit like a one-man A-Team: if you can find him, maybe you can hire him. He's expensive, but worth every cent. (The book's set in and around what appears to be New York.) Of course his sometime girlfriend Gia knows how to find him, so when her Aunt goes missing she knows just who to call.

Meanwhile Jack's been hired by a one-armed Indian diplomat to find a necklace stolen from an old lady in a mugging. The customer (they aren't clients - lawyers have clients) insists that the necklace has to be returned by midnight because the original owner, his grandmother, is dying.  Of course Jack succeeds, and is later thanked in a very personal way by the diplomat's sister, who happens to be wearing an identical necklace. (OK. At this point you'd need to be asleep to miss the connection, which would be a shame, because that's the first real hint that this novel is not your usual thriller!)

As the story continues it becomes clear that there's more than a little mysticism going on, including flashbacks to a 19th century raid on a temple of Kali by a renegade member of Queen Victoria's forces, who just happens to be an ancestor of the missing Aunt. That's how the family became fabulously rich, but it's also the time when a young acolyte of the temple lost an arm in a failed battle to stop the looting.

(You still with me here? Should I also point out that the diplomat wears an identical necklace with two large, orange stones that look like eyes?)

That's about as much as I'm going to tell you of the story because I'd hate to ruin such a cracking tale. Suffice to say that Jack finds himself embroiled in a fight with some very unusual opponents, not all of them human.

Since I finished The Tomb at the weekend I've also read Repairman Jack #2 - Legacies, and I've started onto #3 - Conspiracies. There are 15 in all, and I plan to make my way through the lot. Yes, they are that good.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Stranger on a (Tube) train

When you find a book lying around in an underground station with a huge label that says the equivalent of 'take me home and read me' it's hard to resist. Not that the book I found was anything I'd have chosen for myself. On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed it, even though I didn't expect to.

Scott Mariani's The Alchemist's Secret bills itself as "a lightning-paced treasure hunt thriller which will ensnare fans of Dan Brown, Kate Mosse and the Bourne series". True, it's a bit formulaic, with its retired SAS fighter who has a guilty secret and emotional stunting. Then there's the mysterious multi-millionaire who hires him. The attractive female scientist who is scorned by her peers. And the ancient elixir that could save a young girl's life.

Ben Hope earns his living as a soldier of fortune who rescues kidnapped children. He's trying to make amends for the fact that his little sister was snatched while he was supposed to be looking after her many years earlier. Personally I blame the parents who left a child in the care of a 16-year-old boy while they were staying in Morocco, but that would spoil the plot.

He is employed by a very rich man to track down an ancient secret of how to make an alchemical potion that might just save the life of the man's grand-daughter, who is dying of a rare form of cancer. Hope is reluctant to take the job until he learns that the girl is called Ruth, which just happens to be his missing sister's name.

Within a very short time, in true thriller fashion, he finds he is being shot at, attacked in dark alleys, trapped in a locked car on a level crossing with a high-speed train approaching, and various other risky situations. In between all that he meets modern-day alchemist Dr Roberta Ryder who has her own reasons for tracking down the secret of immortality.

It's a complex trail that leads across France and Italy and teaches you a lot about alchemy and the history of the Cathars, a 12th century religious group who fell foul of Pope Innocent III and were all but wiped out in the vicious persecution that followed. Victims were flayed, blinded, dragged behind horses, mutilated, burned alive and otherwise executed for their beliefs. In one attack a monk asked how to tell the difference between Cathars and Catholics, and was told "kill them all, the Lord will recognise his own". 

The violence of the period is echoed in the book by the presence of a character who revels in the nick-name of The Inquisitor, and goes beyond even the tortures inflicted on the original Cathars. The book has an impressive body count on all sides of the treasure hunt, and killed in some impressive ways. It's a bit gory, but doesn't actually stray into the realms of gross. (Unless you have a very vivid imagination.)

I can't tell you how it ends without spoiling some great plot twists. I did see a couple of them coming, but it didn't spoil things too much. Apparently Ben Hope also features in a follow-up novel The Nemesis Program, and I'm considering tracking it down. So that says a lot.

The only problem I have is that booksontheunderground expects me to return this to the tube for someone else to read. I'm not sure when I'll be back in London, so I now have my own mystery to solve. How can I get it there?

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Almost as long as the war

The Pillars of the Earth is set in a time of great turmoil - the first English Civil War, between Stephen and Maud, who both fought for the crown after the death of Henry I. This is the time of the Cadfael books, but Pillars is no police procedural hidden under the gentle mantle of a Benedictine monk.

There are monks, and one of the main characters is in fact a Welshman who has taken the vows of the cloth, but Brother Philip was adopted by the church after his parents were killed by English marauders. The book follows his rise from humble brother through the ranks of increasingly important monastic churches.

Running alongside that is the tale of Tom Builder, a master mason who dreams of one day building his own cathedral, rather than working on the plans of others. Tom's and Philip's ambitions coincide, and the story is based around the ways that the two men's ideas sometimes support each other and sometimes clash.

It's a long book. At just short of 900 pages it does go on a bit, passing through four generations of families in the fictitious town of Kingsbridge. Woven into the lives of all those involved is the Lady Aliena, daughter of the local earl, who falls from grace when her father is imprisoned for treason. She is raped by William, the monstrous son of the man who takes over the manor, and that's where the story really takes off, because she vows to take revenge and restore her brother to the earldom.

It's hard going. Not just for her. Sometimes the book feels as if Follett is labouring to tell the whole history of the period as well as cramming in all of the beastliness and butchery of the era. There are just a few too many hangings, and beatings, and murders, and rapes and thefts, all to show how tough times are and how awful young Lord William is, compared with the old earl. But we know he was no saint either, being one of three powers who allowed an innocent man to hang for the sake of politics.

So it is slightly surprising to discover just a few pages from the end where the whole plot has been leading. Two of the main characters are present at a key event in  history (there's no evidence for this in reality - it's a plot device) and once Follett manages to wangle that, it's as if he loses heart. The last half dozen pages seem rushed after the laborious climb to reach that point. A bit like a roller coaster. Suddenly it's all over.

Now all that might sound like I didn't actually enjoy the read, but that isn't true. I did like getting to know the main characters and the three generations who came after them. And seeing how the various lives intertwined with each other. But I feel as if I was left to drop at the end, rather than having a gentle rounding-up. Yes, I know what happened to everyone, but after the long, involved descriptions of their lives that went before, I wanted more than a couple of sentences each to see them off. I was left feeling cheated, which is a shame.

The Pillars of the Earth
Ken Follett