Reviews

Review: This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borowski

This is a very short and belated review of This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Thadeusz Borowski. I read this many months ago, and through a potent combination of procrastination and inability to actually talk about this book, late reviews happen.

I wanted to read more Holocaust literature, especially from voices who had actually lived and experienced the atrocities. Borowski’s work is translated from Polish and he survived both Auschwitz and Dachau. I’ve read Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, and I think I hold the somewhat unpopular opinion in finding more depth and interest in both Borowski and Levi over the better known Wiesel. It’s difficult to talk about ‘enjoyment’ of a Holocaust novel because you really shouldn’t, and I know I can’t, ‘enjoy’ these stories but you can still get something out of reading them. You walk away with a small fragment of understanding and a large slice of humble pie.

Talking from the historical point of view, these are interesting stories Borowski has put together, but we aren’t told if they are actual autobiographical accounts. You can’t be sure what is recollection and what is fabrication. Regardless of the amount of fictionalization, they are still important and illuminating vignettes of life in a concentration camp.

Borowski’s language is beautiful, thematic and dark. Thadeusz puts dark yet beautiful imagery in contrast with the atrocities of the Holocaust, creating some really haunting literature. There are a variety of stories in this collection, not just the title story, but besides having the Holocaust in common, they all discuss the idea of hope, or the subsequent loss of hope. Borowski describes people arriving in trains at Auschwitz, knowing that they were being led to their deaths, but hoping that it wasn’t going to come to that and following the instructions given to them by other prisoners – walking to the showers in the hope of being treated as human beings. An expectation I think we all can appreciate.

This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen would have to be one of the darkest and most harrowing books I have ever read. It won’t leave me any time soon.

Review: Painted Skins by Matt Hilton

Painted Skins by Matt Hilton, (Tess Grey & Po Villere, #2), eARC from netgalley, Severn House Publishers, December 2016, 256p.

4 out of 5 stars.

Painted Skins is the latest book in the Tess Grey & Po Villere series, and although I haven’t read Blood Tracks, which is the first title, I was still enthralled in the lives of these characters. In Tess Grey, Hilton has managed to build a believable, real and strong female protagonist who carries the action of this series easily. Often female leads in crime thrillers are either infallible action stars who single-handedly take on gangs of bad guys and come out without a scratch, or they are purely the brains behind the operation and then rely on the men around her to deal with the sharp end of the action. Tess and Hilton fall into neither of these traps, and that’s refreshing.

The characters in Painted Skins are great, I really enjoyed both Tess and Po – they come from such different backgrounds and work together in a wonderful way. I loved that although they are romantically involved, there’s no subplot about their relationship – that often gets tedious and stops the momentum in thrillers – but you learn about their relationship while they are navigating the case and trying to save a young woman from a kidnapper.

I will try not to give anything away, but Painted Skins reminded me a lot of Matt Hilton’s early Joe Hunter novels, it is two friends hunting down a deranged individual and stopping at nothing to deliver justice. The bad guys that fill both the Hunter and Grey & Villere series are some of the darkest, bone-chilling monsters I’ve ever encountered in literature. I’m not very squeamish, and I read many thrillers a year, but Hilton’s bad guys always stick with me for years to come, and I have a feeling that this book’s villain will be the same.

Hilton’s writing is great – to the point and polished. Painted Skins is a tightly constructed and well-executed crime thriller. Whenever I am asked for advice on what constitutes a good fight scene I just point to the closest Matt Hilton book.

I will certainly be hunting out the first book in the Grey & Villere series, I can’t wait to return to this universe!

Thank you to Severn House Publishers for providing a review copy of this book.

Review: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, Norton Critical Edition (4th ed). First pub. 1899, 506p.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

It’s taken me a long time to actually rea Heart of Darkness. I was supposed to read it in first year of university, but I skipped it and wrote my assignments on the other novels in the course. I now regret that decision, because Heart of Darkness is a great short novel that would probably have helped me out in my history degree as well as my English studies.

It is interesting to read Heart of Darkness as a text in light of colonisation and post-colonisation. You really get a glimpse into how people were thinking about the ‘exploration’ of ‘new worlds’. Be prepared for lots of mentions of ‘savages’, and archaic language that is now interpreted as offensive, but was accepted vocabulary at the time. It is interesting that at the end of the story, the white people come off as much worse characters than any of the ‘savages’ featured in the story.

I was expecting an adventure text from Heart of Darkness and instead I ended up receiving something more along the lines of a supernatural ghost story. This actually disappointed me – I love action and adventure. However, I think that it makes Heart of Darkness more accessible for many of today’s readers because we’re exposed to supernatural content in books all the time. I wonder what people of the time took from the supernatural element of the narrative.

Heart of Darkness was not my first Joseph Conrad, in fact I read and reviewed The Secret Agent last year for the Classics Club (link to review). I enjoyed the plot of The Secret Agent, and I would say that overall I enjoyed The Secret Agent more than I enjoyed Heart of Darkness. The writing style in The Secret Agent is different, not as descriptive or as full of allegory. The language in Heart of Darkness is certainly more lyrical and beautiful than The Secret Agent but to me, the language makes it harder to get at the story. I enjoyed reading passages of Heart of Darkness out loud, the language is beautiful – if you like accomplished writing, then Heart of Darkness is for you, if you like plot driven and simple prose, maybe try The Secret Agent first, like I did.

I will be picking up more of Conrad’s works, I did enjoy Heart of Darkness, and I’ve heard that Under Western Eyes is related to The Secret Agent, and responsive to Crime and Punishment, which sounds interesting.

Review: Grunt by Mary Roach

Grunt by Mary Roach, ARC, Oneworld, November 2016, 285p.

4 out of 5 stars.

Grunt is a book about war unlike any other I have encountered – and I’ve certainly read my fair share of war books. Mary Roach goes behind the science and technology of modern soldiering, and the issues and advances that scientists are making for the men and women on the front line. This is not a book for the faint hearted, it is full of blood, gore and swearing and doesn’t shy away from some hard truths about the US Defence Force. Grunt is a book for those curious about how uniforms come to be, what happens when you take shrapnel to your, uh, nether regions? Do soldiers get travellers’ diarrhoea like the rest of us? What is life aboard a submarine like?

Roach, of course, has investigated and researched all these topics and more and written a brilliant non-fiction book that is very accessible. Much of the research is communicated by descriptions of her conversations with people in the military, and her experiences while researching. Sometimes Roach throws in a reference from a medical or scientific journal, but most of her evidence takes the form of interviews with experts and those who are actually experiencing the technology and science – the grunts. This makes this book very easy to read and digest, but not something I would be reaching for as a reference text. Its value is purely entertainment, and on that score, it delivers.

Grunt is richly and at times, darkly humorous. There were quite a few times that I was laughing at a dead body or something that may have killed someone – most of the book is framed in a humorous fashion, with quips and hilarious facts accompanying the science and evidence. Grunt is also the first book that I felt physically ill reading (I don’t recommend eating BBQ meat while reading Chapter 9: The Maggot Paradox). I imagine some men would also feel a bit delicate reading through chapters 4 & 5, both of which deal with damage and recovery from injury to the male groin. Entertaining and informative for a woman, but when I read a couple selected paragraphs to my boyfriend, he promptly asked me to stop and made pained wincing facial expressions.

A could of years ago I added Roach’s book Stiff, which is all about the science of dead bodies, to my Goodreads TBR. I’m not sure when I removed it, but I certainly didn’t read it, but I will now be adding that back onto my TBR – Grunt sold me on Roach’s style and approach to writing and science. I’m looking forward to working my way through her back catalogue of weird and wonderful books full of strange and surreal facts. And I’ll be buying Grunt as a Christmas present for a family member who loves war non-fiction and has a really twisted sense of humour. I want to see his reaction to chapters 4 through 5. I might also put a putrid scratch and sniff at the start of Chapter 10: What Doesn’t Kill You Will Make You Reek.

Thankyou Oneworld publishers for the review copy. This book was provided to me in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh, Popular Penguins Paperback, 1930, 189p.

2.5 stars.

Evelyn Waugh’s second novel is a difficult book for me to review. I have little exposure to comedy texts, of either modern or classic authors, and so sometimes I was frustrated by Vile Bodies. I found some of the scenes to be overly short, and was interested in knowing more about the characters and annoyed when we were rushed onto the next scene. Some other scenes (most notably the day at the car races) dragged on for what seemed like eons. I understood that Waugh was setting up the plot and punchline, but found it unnecessary and boring – and the payoff did not warrant the tiresome build up. This would all come under issues of pacing, and I wonder if this was an identified critique of the book back in the 1930’s when it was first published – or if maybe I just need to read more comedy texts.

Waugh’s style is deceptively easy to read. He shies away from complicated sentences and words, but I found reading for longer than half an hour fatiguing, at least until the pace and tone changed about two-thirds through the book – I then powered through the last third in an evening. I had toiled through the first two-thirds over two weeks. I think the fatigue comes from the overuse of character names. Many scenes start with Waugh describing everyone in a room, and that’s annoying – especially because much of the book takes place with groups of people.

The characters in Vile Bodies were hard to keep track of. I found many of them to be similar and difficult to keep track of. My favourite character was Miss Runcible, who was the butt of quite a few jokes but was the most individual if you asked me. Adam Symes is the main protagonist, and much of the plot is centred on Adam’s attempts to marry Nina. The best thing about Adam is that he’s an idiot. I felt no sympathy for him at all, although he did make me laugh quite a few times. I loved when he started writing for the paper, and every visit he had with Nina’s father made me chuckle.

I read the Popular Penguin edition of Vile Bodies, which I find an enjoyable format. I like that the text includes notes on what was changed by previous editors in this text compared to the manuscript. The introduction (which I always read after the story itself) was informative and interesting – it actually illuminated quite a few of the issues/themes that I had felt but not quite understood.

I think that this is the last of Waugh’s works that I will be rushing to read – although if I find myself in the mood to read a comedic classic, I know where to turn.

Review: Nothing Short of Dying by Erik Storey

nothing short of dying

Nothing Short of Dying by Erik Storey, (Clyde Barr, #1), eARC from Netgalley, Scribner, August 2016, 320p.

5 out of 5 stars.

Nothing Short of Dying is the debut offering from Erik Storey, and it’s one of the best thriller novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading. The advance praise and blurb of Nothing Short of Dying make comparisons to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series in the way all lone wolf thrillers currently do – but Clyde Barr, the protagonist of Nothing Short of Dying, has launched a full scale assault on the tradition of the Reacher style novel and now the old man is bleeding out in the wilderness. Nothing Short of Dying novel is tense and full of action, while still evoking a beautiful wild setting.

The comparisons to Reacher aren’t that accurate, in my opinion. Personally, I think the atmosphere of Nothing Short of Dying is similar to that of a C.J. Box or Ace Atkins work – full of flawed characters who are just trying to get by in this world. Storey has Barr operating in a morally grey area that Box wouldn’t usually allow – letting Barr be a flawed and dangerous man walking a tight-line. Plus, his history isn’t as clean and palatable as the standard protagonist we usually see in thriller novels. He has no jurisdiction besides his sense of what is wrong and right, and that makes his character intriguing.

Storey is fearless with his characters – both in characterisation and how he handles them in the plot. In an attempt to avoid spoilers, I will say that something shocking happened half way through the novel, and at first I was shocked and angry, but when I put those feelings aside I saw the author had just plunged another knife into Clyde Barr, and upped the stakes even higher.

The plot races long quickly, if at times predictably, with multiple high tension battles and the odds always seem to be stacked against the good guys. The plot doesn’t focus so much on what the crimes are, or how the criminals came to be where they are now, just that there are bad guys to be brought to heel, and Barr is the man to provide the lesson and a can of whoop-ass.

With a setting that I won’t soon forget, Storey writes landscapes and places in an unrivaled fashion, transporting the reader to the mountains, rivers and forests – I was crawling with Barr through snow and mud, losing my mind in rivers with him, hoping that we were both going to make it to the other side.

Storey has a very sparse writing style – there’s no excess wordage in Nothing Short of Dying – he’s a gifted enough writer that when he does devote a paragraph or two to description, he does so with great effect and the imagery of place is extra evocative.

Without doubt, I will be checking out the next book in the Clyde Barr series, and as the character has such fabulous backstory and character traits, I’m excited to see where Erik Storey will be taking Barr next.

 

Review: Deathlist by Chris Ryan

deathlist

Deathlist by Chris Ryan, (Strike Back, #2), Trade Paperback, January 2016, 320p.

One out of 5 stars

Welcome to a devastatingly honest review of one of the latest books from one of my favourite authors. I have to give a language warning for this review. I’m full of filthy swears.

I loved Strike Back, a five star read a couple of years ago – so when I saw that Chris Ryan was writing a sequel after all these years, let me just say that my excitement levels soared. I love the Strike Back TV mini-series (the UK season, not the continuation on US seasons), and have been waiting for a return of John Porter with baited breath.

How I was disappointed. Devastated. Inconsolable. As I started reading, I was on the bandwagon of wanting to see things get interesting – it was a strange but dated premise for an action novel, but I told myself to be patient and give Ryan a chance to give one of his best characters a fitting swan song. I was confused about the way that Ryan had set up this book. He’d made some authorial choices that made no sense – for example, both of the main characters, who were often sharing scenes and working together were called John. This meant the reader had no idea which fucking John was being spoken about at any point. To add to the inability to tell the two characters apart, both were shit at their jobs, both were over the hill, old and prone to a drink or six. Often one of the characters would run somewhere wheezing and I would assume it was John. See how confusing that is? He didn’t even think to have a John and a Jon, to simplify things for the reader. So, confusion was already raining.

Next we have the alcoholism – which is such an interesting and believable character trait for a SAS man to be battling with. However, Porter seemed so washed up and beyond the brink that I had no idea how he was still serving with the elite unit, even in the training branch. This annoyed me, and then the constant references to his drinking and him quitting being such a large plot point that didn’t seem to add anything to the story. It was just him drinking whiskey and being a fuckhead.

Talking of repetition – if I hear a soldier referred to as a blade one more time, I might take a blade to my eyes so that I don’t have to see it again. Once or twice a chapter, fine. Once or twice a page? I’m hoping that my eye issues get worse and they spontaneously explode. How the hell did an editor let this go?

The plot revolved around the two John’s hunt for revenge after a terrorist attack takes out a whole bunch of SAS recruits and their instructors. The terrorist bombing was stupid too – Ryan made them a sitting duck of a target and then had them all wiped out by a bomb. No one noticed anything odd or wondered about the strange van. So so annoying. There was an interesting conspiracy thread that was introduced way too late in the plot to have been fully effective. Maybe if those elements had been introduced earlier, this novel could have been saved.

Scratch that, there is no saving this novel.

There is no saving something that is so full of casual racism and sexism. I know that these books sometimes have racist characters, but as this is becoming less and less socially acceptable, I expect authors to acknowledge in some way that their characters behaviour and language is inappropriate, whereas the omnipotent narrator of this tale actually uses the phrase “as narrow as a chinaman’s smile.” When I read a thriller from the 70’s I expect and disregard that sort of rubbish – but in a book written today? Nope. I won’t condone that. Have a racist character – fine. Write a racist book – not fine.

Shall we now move on to the sexism? There is a horrible assault on two prostitutes, who were assaulted and abducted just so that two spies could go undercover in their place. This is an actual quote from that part of the novel.

‘We don’t want to hurt you.,’ he said calmly. ‘If you stay quiet, you’ll be free in a couple of hours. You have my word. But if you make trouble, you won’t leave us any choice. Nod if you understand.’

Legs stilled. Then she nodded. it made sense. A Romanian hooker in her thirties working in Valletta. She’d probably been threatened on multiple occasions. By boyfriends… she’d made it this far in life. Therefore she was a survivor. Therefore she wouldn’t do anything to upset her captors.

Because she was a prostitute and had most likely been assaulted before it makes it okay to assault her again? It was overly rapey and this paragraph actually felt trigger-y to me. As someone who has read plenty of crime novels with horrible rape scenes, I find myself to be hard to trigger – but this was the good guys. Good guys hitting prostitutes and threatening them. These women are only referred to as ‘hookers’ if talking about them collectively, or by the nicknames ‘legs’ and ‘petite’ if talking about them singularly. Women are either sex objects or victims for abuse in this novel.

I’m not sure if my constitution has changed or if this is actually too far. The idea that it’s only men reading these books is bullshit – women are also picking up military thrillers, and I think authors need to be a little more mindful that their audience isn’t the stereotypical boys club they believe it to be.

There were two brutal torture scenes wedged in with the racism and sexism – if I was encountering one of these things I would have been able to take it all in stride, but when these misogynist assholes go from abducting women and then hacking off someones toes and then cauterizing the wounds using a blow torch. They say that if he spills the information they will give him a nice death (a bullet to the back of the head) the guy does tell all, but they continue to torture him to death. Torture isn’t cool. It’s something that does pop up in these books, and I understand that it is sometimes used in the real world – but I don’t want torture glorified. Good military fiction writers include their protagonists torturing people to add moral dilemma to their stories, to show the extent to which their characters are willing to go for the objective. I have no compassion for the “good guys” in Deathlist. They have become my antagonists and I’m now rooting for the bad guys to take these two fuckers out.

Deathlist is full of lazy and uninspired writing. It’s full of repetitive word choice. It needs some pretty heavy editing, which would include reducing the first 150p into 50, and that might not even save it. The attack on the regiment is poorly written and doesn’t get across the levels of grief that such an event would entail. It’s meant to be seen as justification for what follows in the rest of the book, but it falls short, which means the rest of the book feels like a homicidal, psychotic rampage. Queue Archer falling into this novel screaming “RAMPAGE” without any of the tongue in cheek snark and irony that cartoon character would usually contain.

This doesn’t mean that I won’t be reading the next book that Chris Ryan releases – I’ve read almost two dozen of his books and loved all but this one.

I hope Deathlist was ghost written.