Monthly Archives: February 2012

11.22.63 by Stephen King

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 740
Year: 2011 (Pb, July 2012)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Bought copy

Stephen King 11 22 63It’s been a while since I devoured Stephen King’s horror tales as a youngster. I loved IT, Salem’s Lot and The Shining so much that when I finally visited Massachusetts a few years ago Salem was top of my list (along with the Crow’s Nest from The Perfect Storm) and it was every bit as spooky as I had depended on it being. While I’m not a fan of horror these days, I am a fan of great storytelling and Stephen King at his best is a master of it. I am delighted to say that in 11.22.63 King is at that best. It might be a ridiculously heavy book weightwise but each page of it is perfectly necessary.

Jake Epping is a schoolteacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, in 2011. His friend Al owns a diner decorated with photographs of his most famous guests. One day, Jake discovers Al, ill and aged almost beyond recognition since the previous day when he saw him last. The reason is miraculous. In the pantry of the diner is a rabbit hole, through which you can pass to a warm autumnal day in 1958. You can stay in the past as long as you like, interacting with it, even changing it, but if you return to the present and then go back into the portal, history is reset. Nothing you have changed is remembered. Everything you wanted to change you must rechange. Everyone you met has forgotten you. Almost. And as far as the present is concerned, you have only been gone two minutes.

Al is desperate for Jake to go back into the past, stay there for five years and change an event that he believes has resulted in monumental misery and suffering – the assassination of John F Kennedy in Dallas on 22 November 1963. Even after a test run to show it works, why would anyone want to leave the present and everyone they love behind and go back to not only the past but also a situation where they may be required to force a change in history, possibly through violence? For Jake, the answer is in an essay written by one of his adult pupils, the janitor Harry Dunning, in which Harry described the night that changed his life, fifty years ago, when his father murdered his mother, sister and brother. Jake will go back into the past, not because of JFK or Lee Harvey Oswald, but for Harry.

But just as the present isn’t simple, neither is the past, a state of affairs which is exasperated by history’s resistance to being changed. The greater the change to the past the more robust is history’s opposition. And then there’s love. What are you to do if you fall in love with someone who is from another time?

11.22.63 takes us through five years of the life of Jake – or George as he is known in the past. Through his story and narration we observe the butterfly effect, the ripples of change, the potential for real danger. This is not a horror novel but it is a world in which horror can happen, a strong feeling which is compounded by the references to characters from Stephen King’s earlier novels. There are monsters in this world, hiding in an ironworks or in the Texas School Book Depository.

While George (Jake) has his mission from the future, he is fully immersed in the past and with the people of the past. The evocation of the late 50s, early 60s is utterly believable and full of the most fascinating details. The love story of Jake and Sadie Dunhill is a beautiful one and is set among numerous other relationships, happy and unpleasant, which form the web that Jake makes from his life fifty years ago. On top of it lie the other stories – Oswald and Kennedy, Harry Dunning and his father to name just two out of many.

11.22.63 may be intricate but it is also superbly written. Stephen King is at the top of his formidable powers here. With just a few words or sentences we believe the full history of his characters. We know so little about Jake Epping’s life but we know an awful lot about what he wants. At the very beginning, the very first line, Jake states that ‘I have never been what you’d call a crying man’ but this is an emotional tale without doubt and it moved me to tears more than once. The pace of the prose and the possibilities it suggests make the book, for me, impossible to resist after reading the first couple of pages. There are mysteries too and you have to know what happens to them – not least, who is the Yellow Card Man? Why does he seem to know Jake? And then there’s history itself – it exerts a presence here that is not entirely benign.

There are numerous characters and layers of story in 11.22.63. The novel rewards a luxurious thorough read. There are gifts too from much of its language. For instance:

‘But the nice man had cold eyes. When interacting with his fascinated lady-harem, they had been blue. But when he turned his attention to me – however briefly – I could have sworn that they turned gray, the color of water beneath a sky from which snow will soon fall.’

I would recommend that you not be put off by the bulk of 11.22.63, instead be thankful that it is such a size that it will obsess you for a fair few fortunate days. And afterwards it will not let you forget it.


Dead Men by Richard Pierce

Publisher: Duckworth
Pages: 284
Year: 2012 (15 March)
Buy: Paperback
Source: Review copy

Dead Men by Richard PierceReview
One hundred years ago, Robert Falcon Scott and four other men left the other members of the Terra Nova expedition to Antarctica and set out to claim the South Pole. When they arrived there on 19 January 1912, they discovered that the Norwegian explorer Roald Admundsen had beaten them to it by a mere matter of days. Neither Scott, Wilson, Bowers, Oates or Evans survived the arduous trek back to their comrades.

A century later in London, a young artist Birdie Bowers, named by her parents in honour of their famous and tragic relative Henry ‘Birdie’ Bowers, is obsessed with finding the tent in which the frozen remains of Scott, Bowers and Wilson were discovered and buried a short time after their deaths. The tent was located just eleven miles from a food depot. Birdie believes that the answer to the mystery of why Scott couldn’t reach this safety lies buried in the ice with him. His diary and those of the other men had been rescued but they didn’t provide the answers Birdie seeks, just tantalising glimpses of five men descending into their fate.

Adam Caird is the man who has fallen in love with Birdie, a woman he has taken upon himself to rescue and love and so escort to the other side of the world. Neither of them were looking for love and both find it difficult to speak its language but, as they prepare for their expedition to the South Pole, they learn as much about each other as they do about the men they are trying to find. When they finally reach Antarctica and face true isolation and real danger, they realise how impossible it would be to survive without the other.

For life, love, fear and death are the themes of Dead Men. Removed from society and civilisation, in the white out of a snow storm and with the threat of six months of frigid darkness, Scott and his men, as well as Birdie and Adam, have to face something quite primeval about their existence and place in the world.

Dead Men contains several voices. In large part, we have the present tense first person narrative of Adam, revealing to us his feelings for the younger and extraordinary Birdie as well as his increasing fascination for Scott and his men. The only distraction for me were Adam’s frequent tears. In addition to his story we have pieces from the past, told in third person, as we observe the discoverers of the remains of Scott, the other men of the Terra Nova expedition waiting for rescue from the ice, Roald Admunson, Scott’s wife and so on. This variety of perspectives, times and continents provides a rich depth for the mystery.

There is also another presence at work here and it’s the one that exerts the pull on the lives and fate of the men who explore this ice wasteland as well as those of the people left behind or follow in their footsteps.

Dead Men grips in more ways than one. It is a historical puzzle but it is also a polar adventure, a love story, a horror story and a ghostly tale. It challenges the conventions of what one can expect from a historical mystery – Dead Men is not an action thriller nor is it a conventional romance. It is, however, poetically told and I was as moved by it as, at times, I was frightened. It’s a gentle, relatively short and well-written tale focusing on characters past and present with whom we quickly become involved. We many not know much about the previous life of our narrator, Adam, or too many details about the men from the past such as Cherry but the quality of the prose means we know all we need to with a skilful brevity.

Dead Men is a debut novel by Richard Pierce and it is an excellent one. His meticulous research into the story of Scott’s last expedition shines through, as does the dangerous, cold splendour of Antarctica and the adventurous spirit of the men who strove to conquer her.

Outlaw by Angus Donald

Publisher: Sphere
Pages: 384
Year: 2009
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Outlaw by Angus DonaldReview
When one considers that approximately 8 out of every 10 actors has played Robin Hood at one point in their careers, one could be forgiven for thinking that there is little left to tell about the Hooded Man, Robin of Loxley, Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men. But demonstrating how a good story in the hands of a good writer can always have the power to surprise, Angus Donald sets us straight with Outlaw, the first of a series of novels that tells the tale of Alan Dale, a soldier and trouvère, who serves none other than Robin, Lord of Sherwood, ‘the Godfather’ of the Forest.

The boy thief Alan is already a wanted man when he is delivered into the service of the outlawed Robin by his desperate mother. A thief who has narrowly escaped losing his arm to the harsh justice of the Sheriff of Nottingham, a man also responsible for hanging Alan’s father, Alan has nowhere left to go. Lord Robin provides a haven to such waifs, strays, thieves, wronged men and enemy longbowmen, all wanted one and all. Hidden away in forest manors or even caves, Alan and other men are trained to fight for Robin, to rob the Sheriff’s men and to avenge lost families and homes. Unlike the others, though, Alan is a born minstrel and so he is also taught to be a troubadour by the courtly Bernard. One of Alan’s greatest pleasures is to sing alongside Robin and his betrothed, Lady Marie-Anne, Countess of Locksley, from whom Alan also learns the ideals and arts of courtesy.

Despite the glimpses of courtly love, poetry, song, Templar knights and feasting, this is not the Robin Hood of 1950s Hollywood. It’s not even the Robin Hood of Russell Crowe. The outlaw here might be a charismatic leader and at times a likeable man but he is merciless. In this tough and dangerous world, where his followers must fight for survival in wolf-infested forests, suffering the hellish cruelty of petty Norman lords, not to mention the secret treachery of comrades, there is nothing more tough and dangerous than Robin himself. There are acts he commits here that are so horrible they were difficult for me to read. There are other men that we know from the legend, such as Friar Tuck and Little John but not even they can stomach Robin Hood all of the time. If there is a mystery, arguably it’s why Friar Tuck would choose to follow such a godless man.

Above all, Outlaw is an adventure story and it is a quick and furious read, with exciting skirmishes and battles as well as vivid reconstructions of a life spent in the hall of one’s lord. It’s a novel rich in colour, predominantly green for the forest, white for snow and frost and red for blood, and the blood and gore flood by the gallon.

While the names of most of the characters are familiar, their lives as they are presented here are fresh and their futures uncertain.

This is the first in a series of novels and, as such, there are signs of a storyteller settling down into his stride and voice, but this is an excellent debut novel and I can’t wait to follow Alan and Robin on crusade with Richard the Lionheart in Holy Warrior and King’s Man. I have no idea what to expect but I do know it will keep me on the edge of my seat.

The Breach trilogy by Patrick Lee

Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: about 390 each
Year: 2010-2011
Buy: The Breach, Ghost Country, Good Sky
Source: Bought copies

The creation of a Very Large Iron Collider at Wyoming in 1978 produced The Breach, an anomaly protected by Border Town and the group known as Tangent. This community, comprising many floors housing specialists and military, exists outside the law and the jurisdiction of presidents. For reasons unknown and from a source unidentified, The Breach spits out Entities, objects unknown to science and man, some of which have an identifiable purpose but many don’t. Agents Travis Chase and Paige Campbell have to work them out, if they don’t everything may end. Everything.

When I picked up Patrick Lee’s The Breach last year, I had no idea what to expect. What I got was a trilogy that I read as fast as the publication of the subsequent books allowed. Travis Chase, an ex-convict and dirty cop, stumbles across the remains of a crashed plane. In it is the body of the First Lady with a note clutched in her hand that pleads for the rescue of the hostages stolen from the plane. When Travis finds the surviving tortured hostages, he makes a decision which, from that moment on, affects the outcome of the rest of his life – and the planet.

Ghost Country by Patrick LeeThe Breach trilogy is irresistible, not only because of the appeal of Travis Chase and Paige Campbell, the high-ranking agent at Border Town and the guardian of the Entities, but because of the wondrous imagination of Lee which has created all of the incredible objects which leave the Breach. The Whisper which haunts the first novel, a device that conditions its holder to do whatever he or she is told, is more than matched by the window or doorway into the future that controls the second, Ghost Country. Why is this future world desolate, humanless and overgrown?

In the third novel, Deep Sky, the White House is destroyed by a missile launched by an agency that had planned it for decades. In trying to discover why this act took place, Travis and Paige rely on the Tap, an Entity that allows them to travel through their past into their memories. Finally, the secrets of the Breach and what lies on the other side may be about to be revealed.

Throughout all three novels are other incredible Entities, good or bad, which have extraordinary powers.

I found each of these three novels very difficult to put down. My interest in Travis and Paige, the twists in their relationship, was matched by my utter fascination in the mystery of the Breach and the Entities that it has released. The questions it raises are endless – what is on the other side? what do they want? does mankind have a future? who is trying to destroy the Breach?

Deep Sky by Patrick LeeThe ramifications are huge – we see glimpses of a wasteland future, a president who cannot keep away from Border Town, the one region he has no control over. And then there are the twists… What is the meaning behind the messages sent through the Breach for Travis? All the time we are given memories of the opening of the Breach in the 1970s and its effect on the people who created it.

While the three stories are distinct and separate, it’s the cumulative effect of the three mysteries which makes us fascinated by the tantalising hope of a solution to their puzzles. It’s all on such a grand scale. Patrick Lee’s imagination is fantastic.

While I enjoyed all three books, the second in particularly was gobsmacking. Its premise, to give nothing away, made the first and third books even more worthwhile.

The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan

Publisher: David Fickling Books
Pages: 307
Year: 2012
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Bought copy

Bride of Rollrock Island by Margo LanaganReview
Margo Lanagan’s Brides of Rollrock Island began its life as one story among several in the collection Sea-Hearts. Now it is expanded and the results are wondrous. With the most beautiful prose, Margo Lanagan transports us to an island, a little timeless, on which men live with their silky-haired, large-eyed wives. There are no daughters, just boys, all of whom love their graceful mams, and this relationship between the men of the island and their enchanting women gives life to the heart of this novel.

The men of the island have turned their backs on the local red-haired fiery, spirited women. Instead, Misskaella, the island’s sea-witch, has offered each of them the gift of naming the women that she can draw out from their seal skins. The price is great, huge debt ensues, but the prize is a non-questioning and loving wife who, deprived of her locked away sealskin, is unable to leave the land and her man. These women have to suffer the double pain of losing their seal children and their human daughters. Their husbands are too enraptured to help but their sons are a different matter.

The Brides of Rollrock Island is told by a succession of different narrators, covering two or three generations and regularly referring backwards. The most dominant figure on the island is Misskaella who has ensnared the husbands and terrified the sons. But this menacing witch who knits seaweed on the beach has her own story and this forms a substantial part of the tale. This is one of the true strengths of the novel. The witch we see later on, ugly and predatory, was once a young girl we empathised with, the smallest daughter among many in a family that loved her. But from the moment that she discovered that she could charm seals from the seas, she couldn’t live a normal life again. We see both – the young and the old – and that brings another very human dimension to a tale of witches, seals and enthralled men.

The island is timeless. There is little reference to events or things that could date it. It could also be anywhere. The red-haired women on the mainland know about the men on the island – it doesn’t seem much of a secret – and the sons are accepted as being part land part sea. While some men stay true to the red-haired women, the majority have no power to resist at all. The problem is, though, that Misskaella has warned them all of the high price they must pay, and this doesn’t necessarily refer to money.

The language of The Brides of Rollrock Island is beautiful. The stories are distinct but flow from one to the other. The selkies are enchanting but the human women are full of life. There are moments of wonder here – the boys swimming through the sea, forgetting their human lives, to name just one. Despite the heartache, the worry and the loss, one abiding feeling to emerge from The Brides of Rollrock Island is the power for love.

Pantheon by Sam Bourne

Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 544
Year: 2012, Pb (5 July 2012)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Review copy

Pantheon by Sam BourneReview
As someone born and bred in Oxford, I was particularly excited to read a thriller set in the city at a time when it is both familiar and alien – it’s 1940, the road signs are gone or switched, artistic treasures and government offices have moved into the colleges and museums, and the certainty that a life in academia can be safe or peaceful is gone. Pantheon tells the story of young Oxford don James Zennor who returns home from his morning row to discover that his beloved wife Florence and their son Harry have gone. They haven’t been stolen away, they have left of their own accord. But why?

For the rest of the novel we follow Zennor on the trail of his family, beginning with the clues left from the past, when Zennor met the brave and proud Florence in the beginnings of the Spanish Civil War, a conflict that left Zennor permanently injured, in pain and never able to fight another war. The breadcrumbs lead Zennor to the United States and Yale University, where Zennor discovers that his is not the only family uprooted. But as we learn about the mysterious disappearance of Florence Zennor we also learn more about her husband. This is a man who carries more scars from the Spanish Civil War than the wound in his shoulder. His post traumatic stress becomes ever more apparent to both us and to him and this painful increasing self-awareness is half of Zennor’s battle.

Pantheon is a thriller about eugenics, a subject that preoccupied the Nazis and, as it is shown here, part of a much longer tradition that academia on both sides of the pond took an interest in for years. The stakes are great, driven by the highest ranks of British and American society, and Zenner’s desperation matches his increasing danger. As we follow his panicked search through Oxford, to Liverpool and the docks, and then to America, the forces against him slowly come into focus, sometimes from the most unexpected places, and his isolation closes him in.

The premise of the story is a very interesting one, as is its setting in Oxford and Yale. I can certainly vouch for the accuracy of the Oxford locations. The atmosphere is evocative of both the time and the danger. However, although my interest in the story kept me turning the pages quickly, I had very little empathy for James Zennor – never more than a cold man – and I had no more for his wife. Her secret departure never seemed to me in character and despite the promising beginnings she doesn’t regain the life of her first appearances. There is some amends for this, though, in the range and appeal of other personalities who help and hinder Zennor in his quest.

The final third is far more exciting than believable and while this is often not a problem with thrillers – far from it – this is one of those rare occasions when it might be. Nevertheless, this is a wartime thriller with a difference and it tested my complacency about those dark years.

Many thanks to HarperCollins for the early copy!

Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves by Matthew Reilly

Publisher: Orion
Pages: 416
Year: 2012 (Pb 2 August 2012)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Bought copy

Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves by Matthew ReillyReview
It’s been a good few years since we last spent time with Matthew Reilly’s heroic, maverick marine Shane Schofield (callsign Scarecrow). His last adventure (not counting 2005’s novella Hell Island), appropriately named Scarecrow, was published in 2003. Since then Reilly has been preoccupied with the more child-friendly Indiana-Jonesesque Jack West who has had to overcome gargantuan odds on his quests for variously numbered wonders, stones and warriors. However, although I have become increasingly immune to the West novels, I find it very hard to tire of Scarecrow and his righthand woman Mother. I counted the days to the publication of Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves this February and, when the date finally arrived and I snapped it up, it did exactly what I wanted it to do. It may have been preposterous, it may even have challenged the laws of physics and nature, but it was a thrilling rollercoaster of an Arctic ride from start to finish.

Not since Scarecrow’s first outing – to Antarctica in Ice Station back in 1998 – have the polar regions been this entertaining.

As Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves begins, there’s barely a man, woman or child in France who doesn’t want Scarecrow dead. Shunted off by the American government to hopeful obscurity in the Arctic testing bizarre equipment, it seems that fate is at work. When the mysterious and deadly Army of Thieves turns up at Dragon Island, an Arctic base that survives only as a terrifying reminder of the horrors that were developed there by the Russians during the Cold War, Scarecrow and his pitifully small team is the only force that stands between the Army’s cold blooded torturing leader and the obliteration by fire of the entire northern hemisphere. The clock is ticking.

Fortunately, Scarecrow is not alone. In addition to Mother (recovered from having her leg bitten off by a giant killer whale in Ice Station), who is as noisy in her affections for Scarecrow as ever, there are a couple of other marines, a few scientists, an endearing little fiery robot and a small group of elite French soldiers intent on satisfying the honour of their nation by killing Scarecrow several times over. Luckily for Scarecrow, the end of the world temporarily takes precedent.

I hope that Matthew Reilly had as good a time writing this book as I had reading it. Its aim was to entertain and it certainly succeeded. I smiled and laughed out loud all the way through, not at it but with it. Parts of the tale are so horrifically revolting that I did feel a little weak but only in a fun way. The prose marches along, straightforward, to the point, extremely descriptive and brilliantly exciting. We race along with Scarecrow and his team through a succession of traps and ambushes, all the time given frightening glimpses of what is surely the most unpleasant Army of Thieves that could be imagined. How can one not enjoy a thriller when many of the baddies are named after types of shark?

This novel is every bit as good as I remember the other Scarecrow novels being, although I think the maps in the treebook may make some of the escapades a little clearer than those in the kindle version. I do hope we don’t have to wait as many years for the next adventure of this brave, heroic, loyal and loving (and sometimes wonderfully emotional) marine with the scarecrow eyes.

Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves may, though, have left me with serious rat issues.