Thursday, June 30

Delete This At your Peril - Neil Forsyth

Bob Servant, something of a ne’er-do-well in Dundee, is an unlikely hero – in his sixties, with a somewhat shady past, a self-proclaimed lover of skirt and jazz mags, he is nonetheless a champion of the people.
Or at least a champion of those of us (which is almost everyone) who have received unsolicited emails promising us a percentage of a fortune, exotic friendship, or offers of highly-paid work.
Forsyth presents Bob’s emails with only a brief introduction (giving a little of Bob’s background as a window cleaner with a decreasing clientele, preceded by his position as head cheeseburger creator in the period leading up to Broughton Ferry’s renown Cheeseburger Wars) and the occasional annotating footnote (“This is entirely untrue. Dundee’s Evening Telegraph newspaper carries a precise reflection of the day’s exchange rates.”).
Bob’s work is otherwise allowed to stand on its’ own, in a series of exchanges between Bob and eleven spammers.
For those unfamiliar with the world of spam-baiting, it’s the practice of wasting the time, effort and occasionally money of spammers. Though the phrase isn’t used in Delete This At Your Peril, that is unquestionably what the series of emails do.
If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if you clicked ‘reply’ to requests for the transitory use of your bank account to launder hidden riches, check out ‘Lions, Gold and Confusion,’ ‘Uncle Bob’s African Adventure,’ ‘Bobby and Benjamin are New Friends’ and my favourite, ‘The Hunt for Jerren Jimjams,’ in which Bob has the spammer tracking down and apprehending a fictitious rip-off merchant.
What about offers of friendship by beautiful women from far off lands? See ‘Alexandra, Bob and Champion,’ ‘Olga, Sasha and the Jamaican Lakers’ and ‘Natalia and her grandmother’ – my favourite part of this last exchange is when ‘Natalia’ begins working her grandmother into her emails and Bob responds:
I’m sorry to hear about your grandmother. I hope she doesn’t get ill in such a way that would mean you’d have to ask me for a few quid. Though I’m sure that won’t happen...
which is immediately followed by a tale of woe, imminent surgery and medical expense, and poor Natalia is alone in the world apart from Bob and her grandmother.
This is terrible, terrible news. Who could have seen this coming? It’s a bolt from the blue Natalia, no doubt about it. Your Grandmother is a fantastic little chap. Tell her to be strong and, for all out sakes, hang on. Because...........I’M COMING TO SAVE YOU That’s right Natalia, I’m coming to Russia!
Natalia protests that Russia is entirely too dangerous, and that sending the $450US would be far less expensive. Bob is undaunted by danger, until h bangs into Cruncher McKenzie (“yes, that Cruncher McKenzie”) who is also concerned about the risks of peril in Russia. Sadly Bob is compelled to rescind his offer of aid but, in consolation, includes the lyrics of Billy Oceans’ hit “When the going gets tough.” Natalia now believes Bob is not serious, and the exchange ends:
From: Bob Servant

Subject: re: Can we save Natalia’s grandmother? No we can’t
I share your suspicions
The fun of the book is watching the increasing lengths to which the spammers will go, the outrageousness of Bob’s emails, and the increasing frustration of the spammers before they decide to call it a day. In ‘The hunt for Jerren Jimjams’ the initial enquiry from Dr Mammadou Kouassi offers Bob 30% of $US25 million, but Bob doesn’t trust anyone from Senegal. Though he initially claims this is because it sounds so similar to ‘seagull’ he agrees, when the insightful Dr Mammadou suggests it, that this is because a Senegalese man previously did him wrong. Keep to redress this harm, Dr Mammadou offers to track down the offender, armed only with his name (Jerren Jimjams) and the vital information that he lives by the sea and has long hair. Mammadou also gives Bob the contact information of Youssou Ba, a gendarmerie, who is keen to apprehend the assailant. Not only do they manage to find him, they also identify another victim, Randy Whytyng, an American from Westbrook who lost $72,000 and has offered Youssou $12,500 for the apprehension of Jimjams. Bob is so impressed by the herculean efforts of the gendarmerie that he decides to fly out to Dakar with money, but his attached itinerary shows his end destination as Dhaka (Bangladesh instead of Senegal), which causes to end of hysterical, capitalised emails, to which Bob responds:
I have just landed in Dhaka and, quite frankly, I’m absolutely furious with you. Why the hell did you tell me you lived in Dhaka if you wanted me to come to Senegal? I’ve wound up in Bangladesh.
There’s a happy ending after all, though – Bob doesn’t respond to Mammadou’s requests for “just £500” but does find love, with a bouncer named Kazi in Dhaka. They send a wedding announcement to Mammadou, Youssou and Randy, hoping
that you can get time off from the hospital and the police station and Randy can extend his trip. It won’t be the same without the three of you, because you are such distinctive, completely separate characters.
I did enjoy Delete This at Your Peril, a book I’ve had on my to read list for a while (and that I bought at the airport instead of reading any of the three books I brought with me from my very high to be read pile). However, though the character of Bob is engaging, there isn’t anything here that you couldn’t read for free online, at any of the dozens (or more) of 419 spam baiting websites. My very favourite of these is here. – Alex

Tuesday, June 21

Adams + Clamp:Touch of Evil

When a local Vampire Queen knows she is dying she decides to take the ultimate revenge on a mortal enemy by turning her into the next Vampire Queen. Needless to say, our heroine isn't up for it and soon finds herself fighting off a whole hoard of vampires all attempting to bring her in at the orders of their dying, and totally insane, Queen.
These vampires will stop at nothing, and their most effective weapon is to threaten the family and friends of their victim. This they do until they force a showdown between the dying Queen and her chosen successor that results in the woman being infected with the vampire parasite.
Fortunately, with the help of her family and friends, she fights off the parasite and avoids a fate worse than death.
But the death of the Vampire Queen leaves a vacancy that is filled by another woman with a personal vendetta against our heroine. One can only assume that things are going from bad to worse from here on in.
This is the first book in a trilogy and despite the semi-cliff hanger ending could be read as a stand alone novel.
The story sets itself up with a summary of previous events. This is a peculiar choice for the first book of a trilogy. I immediately felt on the back foot. So much so that I went and double checked that this is indeed the first book of the series (it is). Perhaps these characters had a short story somewhere, it certainly felt like I'd missed some crucial action somewhere along the way.
Other than that I really liked the world building. Here vampires are the result of a parasite that somehow nests in the hosts brain and makes use of the person until they eventually die (usually about four years later). This is a unique idea as far as I am aware and very well presented. The world building is worth the admission price.
Sadly the story is let down by extremely poor characterisation. The heroine is, of course, beloved by everyone. In fact, most of unrelated male characters have been her lovers at some point in the past, and still care for her deeply. Though I am pushed to see any particularly likable behaviour, let alone lovable. Putting aside the fact that she treats her brother very badly, I lost all sympathy for her very early in the piece. When she goes to hospital after a minor accident and puts herself before a head injured child with active bleeding (justifing the action with the thought that she was unhurt and so would only take a moment) there was nothing she could do for the rest of the story that redeemed her in my eyes.
A great world populated by unlikable, and unbelievable, characters, I will not be following up the rest of this trilogy-Lynn

Thursday, June 9

Gone Tomorrow – Lee Child

Drifting righter of wrongs Jack Reacher is in New York City for, as usual, no particular reason. At two AM there are half a dozen people in his subway carriage – and passenger number four, a black-clad white woman in her forties, is making Reacher’s intelligence-trained alarm bells ring. Though it seems bizarre, because of the timing if nothing else, she meets enough points on the Israeli eleven-point checklist (twelve for men) to mark her as a possible suicide bomber.
Reacher’s attempt to stop her desperate action has far-reaching consequences – though his read was a false positive, a woman dies and that starts Reacher off on another mission, to uncover why an ordinary suburban woman would attempt something drastic and markedly out of character.
Like the author who introduced me to the genre, the estimable Bagley, Childs combines a seemingly EveryMan (who is far from average) with a tense, topical plot, a little sex and good writing to create a coherent, absorbing, readable whole. And, like Bagley, he includes tidbits of fascinating information, some of which is relevant to the plot ahead and some of which appears to be there just for the joy of knowledge. In Gone Tomorrow these nuggets include subway surfing, rats, and a disturbing insight into the startling sadism of Afghan women against their enemies, with a quote from Kipling:
When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains,
And go to your God like a soldier.
As is so often the case in Childs’ work, there are occasional scenes and passage that shine, like this:
“And I read a book that figured the part about the virgins is a mistranslation. The word is ambiguous. It comes in a passage full of food imagery. Milk and honey. It probably means raisins. Plump, and possibly candied or sugared.”
“They kill themselves for raisins?”
”I’d love to see their faces.”
…”And why would a woman want virgins anyway? A lot of sacred texts are mistranslated. Especially where virgins are concerned. Even in the New Testament, probably. Some people say Mary was a first time mother, that’s all. From the Hebrew word. Not a virgin. The original writers would laugh, seeing what we made of it all."
In Gone Tomorrow those are the things I remember more than the plot - though I was left with a strong sense of New York City, sufficient that I could navigate parts of Manhattan quite well, the plot itself is considerably fainter. The arc of some of Childs' novels has stayed with me for quite some time after I closed the page; this is not one of those, but I thoroughly enjoyed the ride. - Alex

The Jack Reacher novels
Killing Floor; Die Trying; Tripwire; The Visitor; Echo Burning; Without Fail; Persuader;The Enemy; One Shot;The Hard Way; Bad Luck and Trouble; Nothing to Lose; Gone Tomorrow; 61 Hours; Worth Dying For

Tuesday, June 7

Nothing to Lose - Lee Child

Jack Reacher only bothers those who bother him, or others. Directed where the winds, chance and his inner compass take him, Reacher is Colorado, in the small town of Hope. Twelve miles away lies Despair – motivated by nothing more than curiosity, and unable to get a lift, Reacher sets out to walk the empty road that joins them. All he wants is a cup of coffee and a bed, and he’ll be on his aimless way come morning, an uneventful moment in a criss-crossing meander across the continent.
When Reacher is refused service, accosted by deputies, charged with vagrancy and escorted out of the township back to Hope, he’s pissed. Despair, it tuns out, is a company town – dirt poor but for an enormous metal recycling plant, everyone is directly or indirectly dependent on its owner, Jerry Thurman. Reacher senses that there’s more than that, though. He thinks Thurman’s hiding something, and it’s something big – which explains the military post nearby.
Less layered than some of Childs’ other works, Nothing to Lose includes the elements fundamentally part of the series – a protagonist with a strong moral compass, a sharp sense of curiosity and a dogged determination not to be told what to do, sniffs out a situation that seems slightly questionable on the surface but hides a significant issue. He investigates, connects disparate clues through a combination of arcane knowledge and intellect, and uncovers the wrongdoing. He incapacitates the peons, disables the architect, and empowers the disenfranchised, enjoying a little no-strings interlude on the side, before returning to his endless journey. The later novels tend to have wider-implication mysteries (dirty bombs, large scale conspiracies) in contrast with the first dozen or so, and occasionally Child drifts from the far-fetched to the implausible.
This sounds as though the series is formulaic, and that would be an injustice. Nothing to Lose is a little further fetched than some of its predecessors, and I missed some of the subtler elements of the very best of his works, but what sets his work a notch above is the utter immersiveness of the series, the austere attraction of the clear-sighted Reacher, and the crystalline beauty of his writing. Those aspects remain, and make this series one well worth continuing with. - Alex

The Jack Reacher novels
Killing Floor; Die Trying; Tripwire; The Visitor; Echo Burning; Without Fail; Persuader;The Enemy; One Shot;The Hard Way; Bad Luck and Trouble; Nothing to Lose; Gone Tomorrow; 61 Hours; Worth Dying For

Monday, June 6

Makita Brottman: The Solitary Vice-Against Reading

From the back of the book
Mikita Brottman wonders, Just why is reading so great? It's a solitary practice, one that takes away from time that could be spent developing important social networking skills. Reading is not required for health, happiness, or a loving family. And, if reading is so important, why are catch and juvenile slogans like "Reading Changes Lives" and "Champions Read" needed to hammer the point home?
Fearlessly tackling the notion that non-readers are doomed to lives of despair and mental decay, Brottman makes the case that the value of reading lies not in its ability to ward of Alzheimer's or that it's a pleasant hobby. Rather, she argues that like that other well-known solitary vice, masturbation, reading is ultimately not an act of pleasure but a tool for self-exploration, one that allows people to see the world through the eyes of others and lets them travel deep into the darkness of the human condition.
This book captured my attention right from the introduction with the combination of fascinating material and an easy going style. Sadly it was unable to hold my interest past chapter three.
The first third of the book contains a spookily familiar childhood reminiscence (and coincidentally reading list). Here the author also manages to articulate feelings about reading, specifically Literature, that I would never be able to express so succinctly. But sadly after this the book runs off at a tangent that I was unwilling to follow.
Chapter 4 sings the merits of celebrity tell-alls, and while I am uninterested in the subject (a situation the author believes impossible) I persevered in the hope of a return to the delight of the earlier pages. It wasn't to be. The beginning of chapter 5 offered little of interest. Skimming the rest of the book I simply found more of the same. Chapter after chapter devoted to various incarnations of 'gossip' pages. I would allow that the subject has a place in a book of this nature but I put it that it is unworthy of a book in its own right (which is what this book, to all intents and purposes, becomes). At the end of each chapter an attempt is made to relate the contents back to the original theme of the book. I believe these attempts to be singularly unsuccessful.
This is not a book I would recommend but if the opportunity arose to read the first three chapters I would say go ahead and have a look but be willing to do as the author suggests and put it aside as soon as you find yourself no longer engaged. I think you can guess where that point was for me.- Lynn

Sunday, June 5

Bad Luck and Trouble – Lee Child

Though he hasn’t a home, Jack Reacher isn’t homeless, he’s a drifter – since leaving the army he moves as the spirit takes him, carrying nothing but the clothes in his back. And, since tightening regulations in the aftermath of 9/11, a passport and an ATM card. Always interested in playing with numbers, Reacher keeps track of his account balance, down to interest paid and fees charged. So when his balance unexpectedly swells by $1,030 he not only notices, he analyses its’ meaning, and his present intersects with his past.
All of Reacher’s time in the army had been as an MP; for a decade he headed an elite team, the Special Investigators – a handpicked four-man, two-woman squad he knew better than his family. Bad Luck and Trouble takes Reacher, and the reader, back to those days – someone’s picking off members of the Special Investigators, and though the squad has been long disassembled their motto endures: you do not mess with the Special Investigators.
The eleventh Reacher novel has all the series trademarks – a protagonist who is both everyman and superman, short sentences packed with action, military insight in a civilian world, a short-lived relationship where both parties leave happy, justice done, the bad punished and the good at least no worse off than they were, and our hero strolling toward the horizon.
It this makes it sound like I think the novel is formulaic then I’ve done Child a disservice – one of the things I enjoy about the Reacher series is the author’s ability to make each installment fresh while maintaining consistency, to balance a developed character with a minimum of back story for new readers.
I’ve been glutting a little on Child this week, as I procrastinate about more serious reading, and for the first time realised that the novels alternate between first and third person perspectives; this is the latter, which allows scenes like the arresting prologue, where Reacher doesn’t feature.
Child is usually very good at conveying specialised information without being obvious – I did find myself jerked out of the narrative just a little at the explanation about a cryptic note reading “650 at $100 per”:
The k abbreviation meant thousand and was fairly standard among U.S. Army personnel of Sanchez’s generation, coming either from math or engineering school or from having served overseas where distances were measured in kilometres instead of miles. A kilometre was nicknamed a klick and measured a thousand metres, about 60 per cent of a mile. Therefore $100K meant one hundred thousand dollars. The per was a standard Latin preposition meaning for each, as in miles per gallon or miles per hours.
Perhaps if I came from a background where the concept of a kilometre wasn’t second nature this section wouldn’t be so dry. That’s only a quibble, though. For the most part Bad Luck and Trouble is not only a great escapist novel but also gives the interested reader a new level of insight into Reacher’s character and past. I find myself no closer to understanding why being rootless is so important to him, but that’s not essential to enjoying the narrative. For the fastidious it is, however, essential not to think too deeply about the ramifications of a travelling man who carries neither spare socks or jocks, nor deodorant. Provided you can, and if you’re looking for a novel that will involve you without requiring great intellectual investment, this is for you. I thoroughly relished my vicarious visit with characters almost as different from me as it would be possible for a contemporary westerner to be. - Alex

The Jack Reacher novels
Killing Floor; Die Trying; Tripwire; The Visitor; Echo Burning; Without Fail; Persuader;The Enemy; One Shot;The Hard Way; Bad Luck and Trouble; Nothing to Lose; Gone Tomorrow; 61 Hours; Worth Dying For

Saturday, June 4

The Coroner's Lunch - Colin Cotterill

Tran, Tran, and Hok broke through the heavy end-of-wet-season clouds. The warm night air rushed against their reluctant smiles and yanked their hair vertical. They fell in neat formation, like sleet. There was no time for elegant floating or fancy acrobatics; they just followed the rusty bombshells that were tied to their feet with pink nylon string.
Tran the elder led the charge. He was he heaviest of the three. By the time he broke the surface of the Nam Ngum reservoir he was already ahead by two seconds. If this had been the Olympics, he would have scored a 9.98 or thereabouts. There was barely a splash. Tran the younger and Hok-the-twice-dead pierced the water without so much as a pulse-beat between them.
A quarter of a ton of unarmed ordnance dragged all three men quickly to the smooth muddy bottom of the lake and anchored them there. For two weeks, Tran, Tran, and Hok swayed gently back and forth in the current and entertained the fish and algae that fed on them like diners at a slow-moving noodle stall.
From its arresting opening The Coroner's Lunch is a fascinating and very different mystery. Set in Laos in 1976, just after the triumph of Communism, it introduces a unique detective - the drafted, septuginarian coroner of Lao, Dr Siri Paiboun.
At 72, and after almost a lifetime of service to the Party, Dr Siri Paiboun was looking forward to retirement. There is, however, no such thing as a pension in Communist Lao – from each according to his ability, to each according to his need, after all, and Siri can still work. In fact, he has been drafted in to the role of national coroner – and his lack of either educaton or equipment to adequately fulfil that role is irrelevant.
Though a member of the Party since his student days in Paris, Siri's embrace of Communist was initiated not by political fervour but lust - the object of his desires, his eventual wife, nursing student Boua made it clear that only through the red flag could her heart be won.
He is ably aided, at least, by two assistants – nurse Dtui is stolid and dedicated, primary carer for her unwell mother, and possessed of hidden depths; the meticulous Mr Geung is revivled by the rank and file, who fear and shun the diabled, but despite his Down syndrome Siri's morgue attendent is through, dedicated, and often provides unique uinsight into cases.
Another thing that adds to Siri's uniqueness is his intermittent visits from the spirits of the dead, soemthing this rational scinetist at first rejects, but which helps him to unravel the causes of death in patients where he'd otherwise be lost.
There's a lovely scene where Siri is speaking to the young daughters of a woman who has recently died.

"Manoly, do you know where your mother is now?"
"In the temple."
"That's not your mommy."
"Yes, it is."
"No. In the temple is just the package your mommy was kept in." The smallest sister giggled at this. Manoly seemed angry.
"It's Mommy."
Siri reached out for her hand and put it against his face.
"This skin, this hair, all this outside stuff. It isn't me. It's just my package. It's like the wrapper around the sweet; it isn't the sweet itself. What we really are is all inside the package. All our feelings. All our good moods and bad moods. All our ideas, our cleverness, our love, that's what a person really is.
"It's called a spirit. Your mommy's spirit has left her package already. I met your mommy's spirit when I was in your room that night."
"Is that like a ghost?"
"No. A ghost is just something in make-believe stories. A spirit is really her. Some people can see it, but most people can't."
A lot of Laotian culture and tradition is woven through the novel. I particularly liked the way of determining if a child is old enough for school - when your arm can reach over your head to touch the opposite ear. The combination of history, mystery, spirituality and location make the Coroner's Lunch a novel unlike any i've read before, and I've already started on the second in the series. - Alex

Thursday, June 2

The Enemy – Lee Child

In 1989 Jack Reacher was an MP – as the New Year, and the last decade of the century, dawns the political landscape is set for a power shift, for the Berlin Wall is coming down, and with it the end of the Cold War. Recently relocated to North Carolina, Reacher has every expectation of an uneventful segue to 1990, until gets a call from the local police – a soldier’s been found dead in a nearby hourly rate motel.
When the body turns out to be that of a two-star general – one who should have been in Europe, no less – Reacher’s antenna pings. This becomes an alarm bell when his death knock to the general’s widow instead turns up another body. Ad thus begins a covert investigation into the armed forces itself – an investigation that starts the career-oriented Reacher on his path to roaming righter of wrongs.
The Enemy is something of a departure from the seven preceding Reacher novels – the first to entirely flashback, it gives us a far more fully fleshed picture of the often enigmatic lone wolf regular readers have come to almost know. We meet Joe, his older brother (previously encountered in the first Reacher novel, Killing Floor, under very different circumstances):
I hadn’t seen him for more than three years. The last time we’d been together was for our father’s funeral. Since then we had gone our separate ways.
…He was two years older than me, and he always had been, and he always would be. As a kid I used to study him and think, that’s how I’ll look when I grow up. Now I found myself doing it again. From a distance we could have been mistaken for each another. Standing side by side it was obvious that he was an inch taller and a little slighter than me, But mostly it was obvious he was a little older than me. It looked like we had started out together, but he had seen the future first, and it had aged him, and worn him down. … I didn’t know what he did for a living. He had probably told me, it wasn’t a national secret of anything. It was something to do with the Treasury Department. He had probably told me all the details and I probably hadn’t listened. Now it seemed too late to ask.
“You were in Panama,” he said. “Operation Just Cause, right?”
“Operation Just Because,” I said. “That’s what we called it.”
“Just because what?”
"Just because we could. Just because we all had to have something to do. Just because we’ve got a new Commander in Chief who wants to look tough.”…
“You got Noriega yet?”
"Not yet.”
"So why did they post you back here?”
“We took twenty-seven thousand guys,” I said. “It wasn’t down to me personally.”
I know this doesn’t look like much, but there’s so much foreshadowing here, for The Enemy (even the title) and for Reacher, that I found it a really clear example of how intelligent Childs’ writing is – though the books look like fairly standard action novels there’s really subtle layering there.
Joe and Reacher are flying to France, in response to an uncharacteristic summons from her doctor. The scenes here, and the occasional passing reference to her in chronologically later books, are the only glimpses we have of Josephine Reacher née Moutier and her effect on our hero; they serve to contextualise Reacher’s unwavering commitment to doing the morally right thing as a family tradition, while embedding the presence in the present of the past.
Josephine is dying, of cancer she chose a year ago not to treat. The scenes where Joe and Reacher talk about intervention and, a page later, where she talks about ho and why she made her decision, are beautiful. They articulate no only generational and cultural differences in attitudes to life and death but also grief, loss, and mourning.
“Won’t you miss us, Mom,” [Joe] asked.
“Wrong question,” she said. “I’ll be dead. I won’t be missing anything. It’s you that will be missing me…You’re really asking another question… You’re asking, how can I abandon you? You’re asking, aren’t I concerned with your affairs any more? Don’t I want to see what happens with your lives? Have I lost interest in you?”
We said nothing.
“I understand,” she said. “Truly I do. It’s like walking out of a movie. Being made to walk out of a movie you’re really enjoying. That’s what worried me about it. I would never know how it turned out. I would ever know what happened to you boys in the end, with your lives. I hate that part. But then I realized, obviously I’ll walk out of the movie sooner or later. I mean, nobody lives for ever. I’ll never know how it turns out for you, I’ll never know what happens with your lives. Not in the end, Not even under the best of circumstances. I realized that. Then it didn’t seem to matter so much. It will always be an arbitrary date. It will always leaving me wanting more.”
Although for me these elements of family, character development and context, including the way and the why of Reacher’s departure from the institution he’d previously been part of from birth, are the centre pieces of The Enemy, they're surrounded by an engrossing, somewhat far-reaching and far-fetched but sadly believable conspiracy-based plot. - Alex

The Jack Reacher novels
Killing Floor; Die Trying; Tripwire; The Visitor; Echo Burning; Without Fail; Persuader;The Enemy; One Shot;The Hard Way; Bad Luck and Trouble; Nothing to Lose; Gone Tomorrow; 61 Hours; Worth Dying For