The Trivia Man

The Trivia Man, by Deborah O’Brien

Random House Australia (2015), Paperback, 256 pages

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A sweet little story, with two of the most endearing misfits you’ll ever find between the pages of a novel. Kevin and Maggie are two pieces of middle-aged driftwood afloat in the sea of modern life. Kevin is an anal-retentive  forensic accountant obsessed with facts and statistics, who lives in a very neat, very plain flat. He is spectacularly unsuccessful at maintaining human relationships, even though he has a type of Alvin Purple vibe where attractive women try to seduce him, but he wants none of it, or thinks he doesn’t.  Maggie is a teacher of Latin, who has spent the past twenty years holding a torch for a guy who treats her as a convenience stop between other romances. The two come together in a weekly trivia competition which forms the structure of the book. From the beginning the reader assumes they will eventually end up together, but the characters repeatedly dismiss the possibility while they pursue other avenues and the author teasingly leaves the reader with only the faintest glimmering that they might just make it.  The book never reaches any startlingly heights or offers great insights into the human condition, but what it does do is provide entertaining reading with interesting characters, a neat structure organized around the weekly trivia competition, and for trivia buffs like myself, tantalizing questions as part of the competition being a bonus. This book did hit a nerve with me, as I am a obsessive trivia fanatic like Kevin, although I like to think a bit more socially adaptive, but it is a slightly unnerving expereince to see a character with whom you can identify so strongly and wonder “Is this how people see me?” Loved the book though.

8.5/10

The Haunting of Springett Hall

The Haunting of Springett Hall, by E.B. Wheeler

Cedar Fort (2015), Kindle edition, 256 pages

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A  lovely, entertaining little ghost story. There is nothing startlingly original, but as an enjoyable waste of time, it works very well indeed. Lucy is a young woman who wakes up as an apparent ghost in the English manor house of Springett Hall with no memory of her life. After frustrating attempts to communicate with people who can neither see or hear her, to he relief she discovers that the heir to the hall can perceive her, although he regards her as his muse. More tellingly, the handsome young gamekeeper Phillip can also perceive her, and although he has no memory, its clear they were bound together in some way in their previous lives. They discover they are bound by a curse laid down by the evil former owner of the hall, who even in death, is able to command other spirits, animals and even the hall staff to obey his bidding. Lucy and Phillip embark on a race against time to recover their memories and to find a way to break the curse. Along the way, they gradually fall in love despite the impossibility and danger of their situation. As I said, nothing really original, but it all works in its modest way. Lucy and Phillip are likeable protagonists, feisty, resourceful and determined. Their love develops quite naturally with the usual Victorian moral stutterings and inhibitions, and the reader will empathize with their plight, the impossibility of romance between a spirit and a living person. There are some genuinely spooky moments, and the denouement is suitably hair-raising and tense, but there’s a happy ending of sorts as a payoff. I really enjoyed this book.  As a cheap Kindle download that gives you a couple of hours of light reading pleasure, its a bargain whatever way you look at it. Good stuff.

7.5/10

Trigger Mortis

Trigger Mortis: A James Bond Novel, by Anthony Horowitz.

Orion (2015), Paperback, 320 pages.

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Bond is back! It doesn’t matter that this book has an execrable title, a weak villain, weaker heroine, and a “meh” story. It works because it is Bond, the original Bond of the Ian Fleming books and the early Sean Connery movies. Bond is suave and polished, but also somewhat of a thug, ruthless, sometimes brutal, even cruel. He is also fallible, he makes numerous mistakes (fails to spot a tail, leaves his gun in the car, lets a SMERSH hitman get the drop on him). In short, this is a very human Bond, far from the invincible superspy that he has become in popular culture. Anthony Horowitz, with the blessing of the Fleming estate and fresh from his Sherlock continuations House of Silk and Moriarty, has turned his hand to another iconic British character. Set in 1957, directly after the Goldfinger episode, it opens with Bond in an uncomfortable relationship with the famous Pussy Galore. However, Pussy doesnt last, exiting the story before midpoint, leaving Bond free to encounter another sassy and independent heroine, the hilariously named Jeopardy Lane. Unfortunately, her name is the most interesting thing about about her, as she is quite weakest Bond girl I can remember. Essentially she is a curvaceous, woman-shaped hole on the page, who does all the requisite Bond girl things on cue, shows a bit of flair on a motorbike, sleeps with Bond, then exits the story without ever having really captured the reader’s interest. She is matched with an equally lacklustre villain, the Korean billionaire Jason Sin. Sin has an interesting backstory, but he is bland and predictable, and his master plan to end the US space program by dropping a misfiring missile onto New York is fairly ho-hum, been there, done that. On the Bond villain scale, he isn’t even a Scaramanga, much less a Goldfinger or Blofeld. None of this matters, though, as this story works, simply because the original Bond is back. Horowitz has brilliantly captured the essence of the Fleming Bond. That alone is enough to make this a must-read. It is to be hoped that Horowitz follows this up with another, meatier escapade for Bond, but if he does nothing but keep the same Bond he has memorably re-created here, it will still be enough.

7.5/10

The Girl in the Spider’s Web

The Girl in the Spider’s Web, by David Lagercrantz

MacLehose Press (2015), Paperback, 448 pages

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I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I was so glad to see my favourite anti-heroine Lisbeth Salander back I probably would have read the book even if told it consisted of the text of collected laundry labels. On the other, Lisbeth aside (and she is simply not given enough print-time, one of my biggest gripes), it was not a pleasant reading experience. The first 50 and the last 100 pages were quite good, fast-moving and exciting, but in between was a turgid mass of exposition with a lot of unlikeable and uninteresting characters milling around as if lost.The story centres on a IT whiz who may have come up with a breakthrough in Artificial Intelligence, who is gunned down by an assassin connected with a syndicate of malevolent hackers, and the story comes to focus on the fight to protect his autistic son, who may hold the key to the mystery, and the involvement of Lisbeth’s evil twin sister.  I will temper my criticism somewhat on the grounds that this is a translation, and I don’t know how much of the stodgy centre was due to the author or to the translator. The book just cried out for a character to grab the story and run with it somewhere, anywhere, and this is where the lack of Lisbeth-time was really felt, We know from past experience how she can grab a story by the throat, but she was never really given the chance until the last part of the book.That said, any Lisbeth is good Lisbeth, and the author has at least captured her character impeccably. If anything, she is even more kick-ass in this book than in the Larsson books, adding James Bond skills to her already formidable array of talents. She is the book’s saving grace, and for that reason alone, I will come back to read any further additions to this saga.

6.5/10

The Master Executioner

The Master Executioner, by Loren D. Estleman

Crossroad Press (2015), Kindle edition, 272 pages

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A quirky, somewhat melancholy Western that will, along the way, answer just about everything you ever wanted to know (or didn’t want to know, as the case may be) about the science of putting a rope around a man’s neck and dropping him through the trap into eternity. I enjoyed it, but then I have always been an execution junkie. The science and technique of hanging has always fascinated me as an exercise in the efficient despatch of humans that society has deemed no longer worthy of life. This is a novel, but it is way up there with many non-fiction books I have read upon the subject in its grasp of the intricacies of death by the noose. The story basically concerns the life of Oscar Stone, a Civil War veteran who sets out to the West with his new young wife, but along the way almost accidentally ends up as the assistant to grizzled hangman Rudd. Stone loses his wife, who is revolted by by his new calling, but spends the next 30 years travelling the West as a visiting executioner, cold and precise, always endeavouring to be the most perfect hangman he can be. But the calling comes with a very high personal cost, which Stone must confront at the end of his career. The ending will not surprise given the subject matter, but this surprisingly wistful little Western will reward the reader who stays the course. Yes, it’s basically a manual on how to hang a man efficiently and humanely, but there’s enough of a story, and enough interesting characters to make it a worthwhile read.

8/10

Pirate Hunters

Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship, by Robert Kurson

Random House (2015), Hardcover, 304 pages

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Who doesn’t love pirates? Or lost treasure? Or the mystery of a long-lost ship? Terrific read about all those things, and more. Joseph Bannister was a respectable merchant seaman in the 17th century who suddenly and seemingly inexplicably turned rogue and went pirate. After a short but bloody career, he was chased down by two British navy ships near a small island in the Caribbean. After a fierce battle lasting 2 days the British ships were forced to withdraw, but Bannister’s ship the Golden Fleece had been burnt to the waterline. 300 years later, two intrepid treasure hunters set out to find this rarest of wrecks, a genuine pirate ship from the Golden Age of Piracy. This makes for a fast-paced, action thriller, as the intrepid pair battle the elements, recalcitrant governments, claim-jumpers, sceptical backers and just plain bad luck. It wont be giving too much away to inform you that they do eventually find their Golden Fleece, in a place no-one suspected, but the interest is all in the finding. A great story, only marred by some macho posturing, sometimes involving guns, which I found off-putting, but given that treasure-hunting attracts largely the alpha male type, I suppose it’s not surprising. This is a minor point, though, it is an extremely interesting read. Worth your time.

8.5/10