Review: Spook Street by Mick Herron

9781473621275Spooks retire, but their secrets never do. Twenty years retired, David Cartwright’s once-imperious intellect is now fading with old age. So when toxic secrets and clandestine enemies reemerge, he’s not in the best condition to face them. But that doesn’t mean he’s defenceless.

The brilliance of Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb series is the author’s willingness to utilise and turnover a large cast. In his quartet of spy thrillers, Herron has subjected his characters — the misfits and no-hopers that the Intelligence Service assigns to Slough House to keep them out of the way — to immeasurable trauma and betrayal; he has killed some off, and has retired others. Nobody is safe, which makes every turn of the page a delight. The only ever-present is Jackson Lamb, who remains one of the most unlikable-likeable characters in fiction. A real bastard, but with an underlying sense of justice, which rarely flares to life in company.

Spook Street is a masterful spy novel, reminiscent of the best of  le Carré, with an occasional tip of the hat to 007. Few writers are as capable of the slow-build, the dramatic twist, and the brilliant payoff. I’ve now read five Mick Herron novels over a six week period, and each improves over the last. Herron’s synthesis of action, intrigue and humour is unsurpassed. He remains the espionage writer to beat.

ISBN: 9781473621275
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x 25mm)
Pages: 352
Imprint: John Murray Publishers Ltd
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton General Division
Publish Date: 9-Feb-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: All the Dirty Parts by Daniel Handler

9781632868046The publisher of Daniel Handler’s new adult novella Dirty Parts describes the book as an honest look at the erotic impulses of an all-too-typical young man. This has forced me to reevaluate my adolescence, and my belief that I, too, was an all-too-typical young man, because I wasn’t a sex-crazed teen, and now I feel a little bad about not surrendering to unbridled promiscuity.

So on the one hand, I can’t quite relate to Cole, our narrator, because the allure of sex was never all-consuming; I had far too many comic books and Tom Clancy novels to read. But I can totally relate to first-love and infatuation, and the rawness of adolescence. Those blossoming romances, which grew thorns and cut deeply; the absolute certainty that it all mattered so, so much; that it was all so vitally important, those early relationships, the friendships, the emotions. Confusion over sexuality, over friendships that burst to life and flat-lined depending on the day of the week; confidences broken, new treaties signed. It’s such a frazzled period of our lives, which you can only analyse and appreciate in hindsight, and even then, it sometimes forms a bit of a lump in your throat, or a churning in your guts.

All the Dirty Parts is whimsical, charming, candid and arousing. Few books so succinctly capture a young man’s adolescence; few stories have lingered in my mind as long as this one. Cole is neither a likeable, nor unlikable teenager; he just epitomises the inaneness and heightened-emotion of youth. He is sex-obsessed, every bit the kind of kid I would’ve hated at school, but in the back of my mind, would’ve loved to have been; and then his life gets overly complicated when he falls for a girl, while his best mate explore their sexual identities, which threatens to annul their friendship. Life is a complex, convoluted mess. It sucks, it’s great, we get through it. Handler’s All the Dirty Parts is a wonderful snapshot of this period of our lives.

Published: 19-10-2017
Format: Hardback
Edition: 1st
Extent: 144
ISBN: 9781632868046
Imprint: Bloomsbury USA
Dimensions: 210 x 140 mm

Review: James Bond, Vol. 2: Eidolon by Warren Ellis & Jason Masters

9781524102722_p0_v2_s192x300Despite the exemplary creative team attached, the first volume of Dynamite Entertainment’s James Bond relaunch flattered to deceive. It was  packed with the staples Bond fans expect — shoot-ups, car chases, deadly cybernetically-enhanced henchmen, to name but a few — but lacked that special something. Less akin to Casino Royale, and more like Spectre. Thankfully volume 2 — produced by the same creative partnership of Warren Ellis and Jason Masters — rectifies the first’s missteps, and outdoes its predecessor in every way.

As dirty money is being laundered through MI5 — the United Kingdom’s domestic counter-intelligence and security agency — the Secret Intelligence Service has been neutered and disarmed. ‘Eidolon’ — another word for ghost, or spectre — has infiltrated the highest levels of British intelligence, and it’s up to Bond to terminate their operation. It’s a simple set-up, as the Bond novel plots have been since day dot, when Fleming wrote Casino Royale; but it means the creators get to focus on perfectly-choreographed, wide-screen action sequences, including one terrifically rendered car chase. There’s a dash of sex, plenty of thrills, and even features a visit to Q Branch, although there’s a distinct lack of high-tech gadgetry.

Ellis lets Masters take charge during the action scenes, limiting dialogue, allowing  these blockbuster moments to occur in silence. Masters pulls it all off with aplomb. It is brutal and visceral, but not gratuitous. But when Ellis does have the characters interacting, he nails their repartee. This is a tight script, full of great one-liners and scything commentary. One moment in particular had me chuckling, when Bond dumps a gun in a bin during an escape, and his companion asks: “You’re going to leave a loaded gun in a bin?” Bond’s reply is perfect: “It’s America. I don’t have time to give it to a child or a mentally ill person, so I’m leaving it in a bin for them to find.”

It is a shame, then, that with Eidolon, Ellis and Masters bid adieu. Just as they hit their stride and manufactured the perfect contemporary James Bond adventure, they’re gone. Still, what an exit. Any comic book reader with even a remote interest in 007 will dig this volume; so, too, any readers looking for a standalone action thriller.

ISBN: 9781524102722
Format: Hardback (267mm x 178mm x 19mm)
Pages: 152
Imprint: Dynamite Entertainment
Publisher: Dynamite Entertainment
Publish Date: 14-Mar-2017

Oh, Valentine’s Day

Oh, Valentines Day. A day of unmet expectations. Or inappropriately exceeding expectations – guilty! – when there were none in the first place.

(Because nothing is more awkward than giving someone flowers on Valentine’s Day and getting the text message: “Thanks. That’s sweet. X.” as a response. We, uh, never spoke again).

For those in established, long-term relationships, it can feel like an obligation. Not that either partner hates showering their loved ones with affection; just, why does it have to be on this day, this corporate holiday? Grrr!

For blossoming romances, it’s a chance to go all out. To make it official: we’re boyfriend-girlfriend! Or boyfriend-boyfriend. Or girlfriend-girlfriend. Whatever! As of right now! With these flowers! We’re a thing! It’s real!

Despite it’s corporateness, I love Valentine’s Day. Few days embolden me more to stew in my own personal cocktail of insecurity, honesty, immodesty and self-deprecation. It’s designed for those in fledging relationships, or aspiring romances, to take a chance. Yeah, go on. Send those flowers! Send that card! Tell her you like her!

Oh, it’s not reciprocated? That’s OK. It’s Valentine’s Day. We’re all a little love-crazed on Valentine’s Day. It’s fine. Normalcy resumes tomorrow.

One of my ill-famed Valentine’s Day moments (of which there is a phone book) occurred just out of High School. This girl and I, we weren’t going out yet, but there was a spark, I was sure of it. Or at least, pretty sure. There was maybe a spark. Possibly. One minute I’d think, Yeah, something’s here, and the next I’d think, God, what are you thinking?! But on this Valentine’s Day I woke up thinking: this is it. Time to do something huge. Time to make my move.

It was time to send flowers.

There were problems with this plan. Firstly, I couldn’t afford flowers. Secondly, I was petrified of delivering them: what would I say when she answered the door? What would I say if a parent answered the door?! Thirdly, how would I get to her place? I didn’t drive. The answer was my mum and dad. Which added a fourth problem: telling my parents I liked a girl, and dealing with the repercussions.

Anyway, to cut it short: I borrowed money from my parents, got a lift from them, and arrived at the girl’s house… where I promptly dropped the flowers on the front veranda and dashed back to the car. I don’t think I screamed “Go! Go! Go!” at my mum, but I probably wanted to. Then I whipped out my phone and texted her something like: “Left flowers on your veranda. Hope you like them.” Or something similarly poetic. And I probably added a smiley emoticon, because when your heart is all aflutter, emoji’s work wonders. It worked out OK in the end, though. Somehow. Miraculously. Well, for a while.

I totally get that there are those who view Valentine’s Day as a day of required love, and abhor it for that reason. I guess I have this inexplicable partiality for seeing people loved-up. Not that I want to witness their public displays of affection, you understand, but there is something very unifying and heartening about seeing couples holding hands, leaning into each other, roses, or another gift, in hand.

Some days it feels like the world is full of hate and bitterness. Valentine’s Day might be infested with corporateness, and for those without that ‘special someone’ (and especially those who, quite frankly, don’t want a ‘special someone’), the whole day can feel like a gigantic Fuck You. But there are too few days that encourage humanity to showcase their love and affection for one another. I can’t help but bask in it.

Although the day we shatter status quo on marriage in this country and let any two people wed will make it absolutely pale in comparison.

Review: The Nowhere Man by Gregg Hurwitz

nowhere-manEvan Smoak, the titular character of Orphan X and its sequel, The Nowhere Man, is a highly-trained professional assassin, plucked from an orphanage as a boy and trained to Jason Bourne levels of badassery. But Smoak turned against his programming — naturally — and escaped their clutches, choosing instead to utilise his skills to help those in dire straits as The Nowhere Man. He lives in an apartment complex, in a unit that resembles the Batcave, and waits for his phone to ring – his equivalent to the Bat-Signal. He has no personal life, no real friends or family: he lives for the mission.

It’s a great setup for a series, which is slightly undermined in this sequel, purely because it strips away much of what made the first novel so great. Sure, the action is non-stop and intensely visceral, and the stakes are ratcheted up to the extreme; but the supporting cast — Evan’s neighbours — barely feature, and the book clings onto his convoluted backstory. I had hoped, with the origin story out of the way, Gregg Hurwitz might provide some first-rate standalone thrillers before returning to Smoak’s past, but that’s not the case. In fact, I’m wondering now if the Orphan X / Nowhere Man series is actually a trilogy, because it feels like, come this novel’s end, we’re gearing up towards a grand confrontation in the next book. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — it just feels like there’s more to explore with this character and his world.

The Nowhere Man sees Evan ambushed, drugged kidnapped, and held captive at an unknown, isolated location. His captors want money — Evan has access to almost limitless clandestine accounts — and they don’t seem to realise just how valuable he is. Removed from his equipment, Smoak pits his skills against a determined, psychotic crew, while dangerous figures from his past close in.

There’s not much new here, but The Nowhere Man is a fine thriller, punctuated with plenty of action that’ll keep thriller buffs entertained for its entirety. Only Lee Child’s Jack Reacher kicks as much ass as efficiently as Evan Smoak.

ISBN: 9781405910743
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 400
Imprint: Penguin Books Ltd
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 26-Jan-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Batman Vol. 1 – I Am Gotham (DC Rebirth) by Tom King & David Finch

batmanThe whole purpose of DC’s ongoing ‘Rebirth’ initiative is to relaunch the publisher’s well-loved core characters in their most iconic forms. In other words, make them accessible to new readers, but throw in some bones for the long-time fans, too. Tom King and David Finch’s first volume of their Batman run achieves this. It’s a fun, action-packed story-arc, which introduces two new superheroes into the lore, and leaves plenty of page space for Finch to showcase his artistic skill. It’s a fun romp; but it’s not much more than that. Which is enough, for some; but for readers such as myself, who dip in and out of mainstream comics, there’s not quite enough here to warrant a return for the second volume.

When a couple of masked metahumans with the powers of Superman arrive in Gotham City, Batman thinks they have the potential to be the kind of heroes he won’t ever be: he is only human, after all. With their super powers and impervious dedication to the protection of the city from its own sordid underbelly, Gotham and Gotham Girl are precisely the kind of guardians who can protect Gotham for decades to come. That is, until their perceptions are twisted by one of Batman’s villains, and suddenly Gotham’s most powerful heroes become a force for evil, and the Dark Knight becomes their target for termination.

Tom King is currently penning one of my favourite comic series, The Sheriff of Babylon, but his Batman run lacks the punch of that creator-owned series. It’s not that his writing here is of an inferior quality; just that, by necessity, and the fact this is a mainstream superhero comic book, it has been stripped of much of its nuance. His pairing with David Finch seems wasted, too; while the artist excels at the big moments, and the action-packed pages are wonderful to behold, the quieter moments lack any sort of pop and emotional gravitas.

I Am Gotham is a solid superhero yarn, which sets the board for King and Finch’s run on the title. I’ve read better superhero comics, and I’ve read worse. It is stuck in that annoying middle ground, where there’s not much to say about it, one way or the other. It’s a book I read, enjoyed, and won’t remember.

ISBN: 9781401267773
Format: Paperback  (252mm x 168mm x 15mm)
Imprint: DC Comics
Publisher: DC Comics
Publish Date: 24-Jan-2017
Country of Publication: United States

Review: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

9780241950432To be totally honest, I found The Catcher in the Rye a bit of a grind. While I admired J.D. Salinger’s insight into teenage life — who didn’t feel alienated and angry at the world at one point or another during their adolescence — I found Holden Caulfield to be the most infuriating character. Which is odd, when you think about it: his discontent and cantankerousness, so vividly portrayed by Salinger, are traits I can absolutely relate to: but in this case, I found them irritating.

Maybe my apathy is linked to the fact I’ve read so many stories about characters who’ve unashamedly rejected societal values and parental pressures in order to chase their dreams, and the casual, conversational narrative style is now a stalwart of most YA fiction. It’s only when I truly thought about the context of The Catcher in the Rye — it’s publication in post-WWII America, when individuality wasn’t approved or celebrated, and people were expected to exist within an established framework — that I appreciated its impact. So while it’s not a book I’ll rush out to read again any time soon, it’s one I’m so glad I finally got around to. I wish it had been an ascribed text at school: reading it in my teenage years, when I struggled to fit in and understand my place in the world, might’ve had a cathartic effect. Then again, I had a habit of not reading the books assigned to us . . .

ISBN: 9780241950432
Format: Paperback (198mm x 129mm x 15mm)
Pages: 240
Imprint: Penguin Books Ltd
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 4-Mar-2010
Country of Publication: United Kingdom