What’s Better: One Superb Stand Alone Novel or a Series-based Character Arc?

Books & Comics, Films

Increasingly I find myself reading books that are part of a sequence – from Philip Kerr‘s Bernie Gunther, to Peter James‘ Roy Grace, Vince Flynn‘s Mitch Rapp and even Lee Child‘s Jack Reacher. These range from guilty pleasures (Reacher – although this seems to be in sharp decline) to classy historical thrillers (see: Bernie Gunther, a series that borrows heavily from Raymond Chandler and manages to retain my interest in it’s historical context, a genre that otherwise does nothing for me as a reader).

In addition to those mentioned above, I’d cite Michael Connelly‘s Harry Bosch, Stuart MacBride‘s Logan McRae, Jo Nesbo‘s Harry Hole, Gideon Defoe‘s Pirate Captain, Alan Bradley‘s Flavia De Luce and Mark Billingham‘s Tom Thorne as excellent characters that are worth investing in, each with their own merits.

Some authors seem to encourage the reader to get on board at any point (Connelly) and others aim to enhance the experience for readers that are on top of the wider narrative arc (Billingham, Nesbo). Clearly the commercial success of an author will have some bearing on this, as will the length of a series. For example, Ian Rankin‘s much loved Inspector Rebus is one that I’ve yet to touch, because 19 books is a little daunting – although I have the first one, Knots and Crosses, ready to go when I get around to it.

This throws up some interesting points for me that I’ve never given thought to previously.

As an avid reader, would I prefer one superb stand alone novel to getting under the skin of a character’s development through an extended sequence?

The above list certainly points to the latter and in writing this I’d struggle to think of any stand alone books that I’d say were better than a great series in recent years. Jo Nesbo‘s recent stand-alone The Son (see my review here) was a good book – a little longer than necessary perhaps and, as film rights were picked up prior to English publication, I strongly suspect that this was written, at least in part, as source material for a film.

Solomon Northup‘s 12 Years A Slave is one of those books that deserves to be read by as many people as possible – it’s less than 50p in the Amazon store at the time of writing – but it’s of course a different experience altogether, which is entirely the point.

I also enjoyed Robert Galbraith (i.e. JK Rowling)’s  A Cuckoo’s Calling – although the second from the character, Cormoran Strike (!), has been announced in hardback for this June. Gone Girl was OK but I felt badly let down by the unlikely climax.

Indeed I have to go back some time to Julian Barnes‘ superb novella The Sense of An Ending to find a stand alone book that I could wholeheartedly recommend – and S.J. Watson‘s Before I Go To Sleep, before that. Will Self‘s Great Apes stands out in my memory, along with Ian McEwan‘s novels Amsterdam and Enduring Love, all from recent years.

So, whilst I certainly would never make a case for the series over the stand-alone thriller objectively, why am I increasingly pulled towards the lure of a) the series and b) often a Police-based character?

Does the world really need another police character?

Perhaps the point is that the flawed police-based character that is so central to many modern novels is that it is the contemporary incarnation of the mystery or detective story, made accessible in terms of the context of the mystery (i.e. typically a crime) and the solution (i.e. those landed with the responsibility of handling crime on behalf of the rest of society). Obvious really.

To criticise a good detective story or sequence is to criticise the history of the whodunnit and each reader’s relationship with a story of any type as it unfolds – which is surely the essence of both good storytelling and indeed the reading experience for many lovers of fiction (and, I would argue, is the same for great fiction in film, TV and gaming).

Why aren’t there more female characters?

In writing this, it had never before occurred how few of the books that I come across – which I believe to be a fair cross section of modern, mass market literature, albeit skewed towards my perspective, obviously – feature a female lead protagonist.

Flavia DeLuce, the 12 year old centrepiece of Alan Bradley‘s superb series that’s set in the 1950s is the clear exception to this.

In an attempt to redeem myself a little from some of the choices above, Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite authors – yet despite the female oriented Year of The Flood (and of course female leads in many of her other books, such as The Blind Assassin and The Handmaid’s Tale), Oryx and Crake, a book with a male lead, remains her most remarkable novel in my eyes.

One final thought – I’m finding that many of the series that I’m investing in are written out of chronological sequence from the timeline of the main character’s life. The Bernie Gunther books were written out of chronological order, as was the Mitch Rapp sequence. Having just read the first three Mitch Rapp books in what the author’s own site states to be the correct sequence, and thoroughly enjoyed the first two, I found the third to be over-long and at a much slower pace. A little investigation revealed that Transfer of Power (‘book 3’ according to the author’s site) was actually written first – hence what I was actually seeing in the first two books was the writer having both perfected writing about the character and going back to what might at the time be considered a prelude to the existing books. So, one final question:

Is it better to read a series of books in the order that they were written – even if they’re out of chronological sequence in terms of the character’s life – or is it actually better to read them in the chronology of the character?

One way to look at this is perhaps around whether there are any more books to follow. Sadly, in the case of Vince Flynn’s character, that’s not to be, unless they are ghostwritten (or indeed the character may be killed off – I’m not there yet!) as the author passed away recently. So, in that case, the reader can chose which route to go. Under other circumstances, I think I’d be included to read them in the order they were written, not least to see the writer develop, as well as the character, and avoid the jarring experience I mentioned above.

Partly in researching this post and partly for my own use I’ve researched a number of useful resources around some of the characters mentioned. I hope they’re useful…

Michael Connelly‘s Harry Bosch (and other characters)
Vince Flynn‘s Mitch Rapp (author’s preferred sequence or order in which the books were written)
Mark Billingham‘s Tom Thorne
Philip Kerr‘s Bernie Gunther (a fan-site list of both the character chronology and order that the books were written in)
Peter JamesRoy Grace
Stuart MacBride‘s Logan MacRae
Robert Ludlum/Eric Van Lustbader‘s Jason Bourne (fan-site)
Jo Nesbo‘s Harry Hole (also defines the early Harry Hole books from The Oslo Sequence)
Lee Child‘s Jack Reacher (a fan-site, listing both by character chronology and by publishing date)
Gideon Defoe‘s Pirate Captain
Alan Bradley‘s Flavia De Luce
Ian Rankin‘s Rebus (read from the bottom up)



12 Months Of Reading: The Highlights

Books & Comics

So, in setting up my belated Instagram feed and having decided to use it as a forum for short books reviews, I’ve attempted to backdate it in order to cover all the books that I got through in 2013. Obviously I can’t be 100% – but I think I’ve captured the majority.

Of the 60 titles covered, it’s made me think back about the best and worst of 2013 (although many were published previously, of course).

So, in no particular order, my recommendations from the last 12 months of reading:

The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) – I’ve heard mixed reviews, but I loved it. 4.5/5

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes – if you haven’t read this, then I’d put it at the top of your list. 5/5

100 Bullets (Books 1-5, compiling 13 graphic novels) – Superlative crime-noir in comic form. Arguably a little over-long and the cast gets a bit much by the end, but beautifully crafted. 5/5

Oryx & Crake, by Margaret Atwood. Much better than the follow up – The Year of The Flood – in my opinion. I’ve yet to read the third part of the trilogy but this is intelligent science fiction for people that aren’t fans of the genre. 5/5

The Shining, by Stephen King – Brilliant. One of those rare occasions where the book and the film complement each other to the benefit of both parts. 5/5 (nb – Doctor Sleep, was pretty decent too, 4.5/5)

Sandman Slim, by Richard Kadrey. First of the five books published to date, all of which hugely silly and enjoyable. It’s probably wrong to like these but William Gibson says it’s ok. 5/5

A Delicate Truth, by John Le Carre. His most recent, having also read his first Smiley novel, Call for the Dead, earlier in the year. A Delicate Truth manages to be contemporary yet still focus on the old-school nature of espionage. 4.5/5

The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie, by Alan Bradley. The first in a quirky series, set in the English countryside in the 1950s about Flavia de Luce, a precocious 11 year old who gets embroiled in various murky events. The character is captivating. 4.5/5

The Pirates, in an Adventure with Scientists, by Gideon Defoe. Not to be confused with Gideon Coe, the BBC Radio 6 DJ. Again, silly but unashamedly so. Definitely not for children. 4.5/5 (nb – the others are all good too.)

Berlin Noir, by Philip Kerr. The first three Bernie Gunther books, in which a hipster Philip Marlowe operates as a private detective in Nazi Germany. 4.5/5

I know the scores are all pretty high for these – but they are my highlights. There have been some shockers too (categorise this and this under: “What was I thinking”, whilst this and this were surprising disappointments).

Please drop me a line if you agree, disagree or have any suggestions…

Screen Shot 2013-11-24 at 08.26.12

Instagram, Finally

Books & Comics, Social Media, Tech

I’ve held off starting my own Instagram channel for a while.

Firstly, as a person, I’m far more interested in words than pictures, meaning I just don’t take that many (and I can’t bring myself to either photograph food or take selfies seriously).

Secondly, I just wasn’t sure what to do with it. I use Pinterest as though it’s a visually-oriented version of Delicious, capturing images rather than just links from around the web. But I only upload the occasional picture that I’ve taken to the web.

So, I finally settled on using Instagram as a microblog around a single theme – mini book reviews. This will be interesting as I haven’t used any of the social channels around a single theme as yet, so I’ll be watchng to see if it’s regarded any differently to those channels where the theme is more general.

I’m reading around a book a week at present, so I’ve just posted a few to start for now. Take a look here.

Charlie Brooker

What Happens When You Cross Charlie Brooker With Bret Easton-Ellis?

Books & Comics

I’ve just finished Straight White Male, the latest by John Niven, author of several of my favourite books of recent years, including the incredible Kill Your Friends, which was first gifted to me as a birthday present and I’ve since bought at least three times for friends.

The best way I can describe Niven is something of a cross between Bret Easton-Ellis at his most raging and Charlie Brooker (or indeed Peter Capaldi/Malcolm Tucker) at his most creatively sweary. I started reading Kill Your Friends whilst travelling for work and, sitting quietly in some hotel restaurant in Budapest, found myself giggling ever more loudly, throughout the first chapter – from which point I think I shot through it in a matter of hours.

Straight White Male isn’t, in my opinion, quite up to that standard (neither are the other two I’ve read: The Second Coming nor The Amateurs – although both are good books), but it nevertheless comprises many lines that remind me of why I love to read. All quotable, none printable – well, not here, at least.

I’m not going to review it (see here for Time Out’s opinion), but I will say that it shocked me with a sudden pace as it moved into the third act, away from his trademark black comedy laced with high-calibre profanity and into a genuinely touching character sequence that ends in despair. I wouldn’t even say I enjoyed the last quarter – the stream of literary quotes, from the protagonist, himself a writer, got a bit out of hand – but it’s undoubtedly an unforeseen change of pace and brilliantly done.

So, if you haven’t, pick up Kill Your Friends at your earliest. And, if you like him, Straight White Mail is well worth a go.

Call For The Dead

An Alternative To Dan Brown

Books & Comics, Travel

Hands up anyone that’s purchased the latest Dan Brown novel, Inferno.

This kind of thing is a source of some debate amongst my friends and in our office, dividing the literary purists from those that are happy to grab a page turner to throw in the suitcase.

I’ve always been amongst the former but as I get older I’m happier to read books that I would have previously been far more snobbish about, as I think there’s a great value in the escapism offered and, much like cinema, a good book can come from any genre. Whilst it may lack credibility, popularity isn’t necessarily a mark of catering for the masses at the expense of quality.

Nevertheless, as someone looking ahead to a holiday in the coming weeks, I thought I’d suggest a number of books that I’ve recently enjoyed – and a couple that I am hugely looking forward to.

Firstly, I’ve just purchased Peter May‘s third part of his Lewis Trilogy: The Chess Men. The first two parts – The Black House and Lewis Man are both superb, so I have high hopes.

I’ve wanted to get stuck into George Smiley for a while, so I’ve gone back the the beginning and purchased Call for the Dead, the book that introduces the character.

I’ve been blasting through some David Baldacci in the last few weeks, to finish a few that I had lying about. It’s the equivalent of literary popcorn – and some are undoubtedly more engaging than others – but I’ve just finished Simple Genius and First Family. They’re OK if you want something light.

One of the books that I’ve enjoyed the most recently has been Leviathan – a Steampunk book aimed at young adults, based loosely on the facts leading up to the Great War. It’s the start of a trilogy and I have no doubt I’ll be picking up others.

Finally, I can’t recommend highly enough Gideon Defoe’s Pirates series. They seem to have attracted a few celebrity followers (Ardal O’Hanlon) and it’s easy to see why. They’re a little one dimensional by the time you reach book four (of five) but as a lighthearted summer read, they certainly hit the mark.

Oh and yes, I have bought Inferno, despite myself, having watched Angels & Demons again recently. Let’s be honest, at least it’s not 50 Shades of Grey…

New To Hitchhiking

Books & Comics, Films, Nonsense, Tech

I’m new to Douglas Adams. Well sort of – I’ve read a couple of his books previously, out of sequence.

So, I have just set about reading the Hitchhiker’s Guide series from beginning to end. Consequently, it’s now hard not to see his fingerprints over many aspects of modern life, ranging from his prescience regarding technological evolution to anticipating social, cultural and commercial trends.

As Python Terry Jones points out in one of the early Forewords, I’ve come the the conclusion that the point of reading any of Adams’ books is not for the story but for his joy with language and the way he shines a spotlight on a cliché, thought or truism in a way that is at first humorous and flippant but then, on reflection, is loaded with meaning.

Indeed, I’ve never read an author that is so completely disarming.

Strangely, I wouldn’t say that I particularly enjoyed the experience of reading The Hitchiker’s books – the narratives are disjointed and I’ve often found myself wondering if I’ve missed huge sections. But nearing the end of the fifth book in the series, I can see that a linear structure is really not the point. More that the narrative is a loosely constructed and held together vehicle for his various insights.

I guess I often judge a book in terms of whether it’s something I’d recommend if asked. Put it this way, it’s one of those books that I’m glad I have read and suspect that should be read by most people – but it isn’t something that’s necessarily for everyone.

If you can get past the hurdles though, the combination of silliness and frippery with substance and foresight seems in itself to be an allegorical statement about his basic subject matter, i.e. the meaning of life.

Now, can someone please explain why, despite having more than a hundred unread books on my e-reader, I still feel the urge to buy and read Chuck Palahniuk‘s Fight Club?

CD Shelf

Changing Times & Buying Habits

Books & Comics, Films, Music, Tech

So there I was, congratulating myself for not having spent any money for three or four days – until it occurred to me that although I hadn’t spent any cash money, I had downloaded a TV series to my tablet, rented an HD film to my laptop (which I then played via the TV), downloaded a multimedia children’s book, again for a tablet and, finally, about four or five books and short stories to various devices.

So, in other words, I had actually spent about £40-£50 on digital media in about a 72 hour period, seemingly without noticing.

Similarly, I’ve been battering Spotify for many months now. Having first joined way back when the service first came to the UK in 2009, I started buying the Premium service about a year ago and, for the first time in my life, have consequently entirely stopped buying music as physical media. Effectively the combination of ready availability and increasingly decent wifi coverage makes this an ideal phone app – and easily the one I turn to far more than any other, even Facebook.

Also, despite having hundreds of DVDs and blu-rays, my purchasing habits there seems to have slowed right down too. The aforementioned TV series purchased was a special offer of The Thick of It, which I already owned on DVD aside from series 3. The fact I was a) willing to pay again and b) motivated by having a decent quality digital copy rather than a port from DVD – which is shaky at best, legalities aside – demonstrates a fairly tangible shift.

Thinking about it, this constant change in what is the preferred media is a long term issue, which lends itself to countless re-purchasing of the same content. Although this move to physical media-free content is the latest shift, the trend is hardly something new – I recall owning about three copies of the original Star Wars films, firstly on video, then special edition and finally DVD, before the recent blu-ray versions even came out.

Still, I must confess that although I’m happy to lose the box for music and movies, the same can’t be said for books. I admit I’m starting to read more via the Kindle and Google Play apps on various devices – but whereas I’d be fairly happy to see my CD and DVD shelves empty, provided I had access to the content, I just can’t imagine a world with no books (although it could arguably be somewhat improved by a major reduction in CDs, DVDs and the associated packaging).

If nothing else, I reckon it has to be a good idea to give the eyes a rest, away from a screen for a couple of hours each day.


Before Watchmen

Books & Comics

I’ve bought and read the first three of the seven mini-series offering prequel arcs to Watchmen. Anyone that’s ever read comics will probably have heard of, if not read Watchmen. Along with a handful of others, this comic is rightfully considered to be one which resulted in the genre being taken more seriously as an art form, despite it’s childish roots.

There’s little point in me extolling the virtues of the original. If you like comics and haven’t read it, then clearly it’s got to be on your required reading list. If, like most people, comics are something that kids (and overgrown kids) read, then I would urge you to take a look. If you still don’t like it, then fair enough – but several sceptics that I know have been converted having read this amazing work.

Alan Moore, author of Watchmen and cited by many (including friend and protégé Neil Gaiman) as being a bona-fide genius has a unique capacity with characterisation. Of the six main characters from the original 12-part series, at least two beg to have more stories written about them and are undoubtedly cult figures. Another two are interesting and would be lead characters in most other contexts. The final two are, for me, not quite so interesting. The new mini-series are attempts to tell the back story of each character, with an additional series based on telling an even earlier story that provides the context for it all.

Comic fans are notoriously geeky and vocal. So, it’s unsurprising that this activity has resulted in nothing short of an outcry from many, who say that the original is of such weight, scope and relative importance that it just should not be touched. However the financial pull and storytelling potential from the characters has proved too much for DC Comics and hence these new series are being published.

Alan Moore, who has famously pulled his name off several projects that he deemed to diminish the source material – including both the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Watchmen films – is of course on the record as saying that the whole thing is a debacle and only being undertaken for financial reasons. Plus it’s worth noting that Watchmen (along with V for Vendetta, The Dark Knight Returns etc) was originally published at a time when rights were all publisher owned – and there was a big shift in the 90s towards creator ownership, either in whole or in part.

He does have a point too in terms of creative integrity. Anyone reading the short story The Courtyard will attest to the fact that Moore can deliver a huge story in a very short space (indeed, a point which Garth Ennis makes in the book’s Foreword, saying “where just about anyone else would strip-mine a concept like this to death, what does he devote to it? Forty-eight pages, no more.”).

In my opinion Watchmen is simply a larger version of this – with the characters, settings and narrative developed to such a point that the backstory, future implications and side events are all left unsaid, to the benefit of the main narrative.

Nevertheless, knowing that I’m probably not going to like what I find, I have purchased the first three issues of the first three mini-series, which have been published consecutively over the last few weeks. Here are my thoughts:

Minutemen – This was always going the be a scene setter. The art is intended to invoke feelings of the golden age of comics. What Moore did brilliantly was to refer to this loosely and in a throwaway context. I’m not sure this one hangs together as a mini-series. So, I was underwhelmed.

Silk Spectre – The first of the non-characters. I would say this is written well but just not a story that needs to be told. There is so much around the character’s relationships in the original, it’s just not necessary to see her earlier. Unsurprisingly, the story focusses on a relationship – a teen crush – and her chaotic relationship with a pushy mother. In any other context, I would not have enjoyed this context. As it is, I’m still pretty sure I didn’t enjoy it, I’m just going to keep an open mind for a little longer.

Comedian – The first of the really engaging characters. The story is interesting – and written by one of the best authors working in comics today, Brian Azzarello of 100 Bullets and Joker – but again, I’m really not too sure it’s adding much so far. It was easily the best of the three though.

So, next up, another third tier character and then the final three, all of which are interesting. Rorschach, the psycho, is easily the fan favourite and it’s got a great writer/artist pairing so that will be interesting.

One thing is certain, whilst it’s no Dave Gibbons, DC has done a fine job of evoking the original with the cover art. Despite strongly suspecting that I won’t like what I see, I’m finding it hard to say no to those covers…

Roland, The Rose & The Dark Tower

Four Thousand Pages and Six Months Later…

Books & Comics

…I’ve finally finished book seven of Stephen King’s amazing sequence of books, the Dark Tower.

Recommended, very strongly, by a friend who couldn’t believe that I hadn’t read them, this is easily the longest story I’ve ever read. Honestly, it’s a little too self aware and pompous in parts (with King introducing himself as a pivotal character for example) and some of the vocabulary that the author has devised for this story grating at times – but there are long passages that are truly engaging and brilliant. And, although I’ve yet to read the just-published interlude, that sits between books four and five, as with the best books, the pleasure at having finished is inevitably followed by a sense of loss.

Roland, The Rose & The Dark Tower

To be honest, given the size of the thing, that has really surprised me – I found book six and the early passage of book seven heavy going, possibly just because I had fatigue with the series. But as the Gunslinger character draws towards the end of his journey to the center of all things, the last book markedly improves. The text remains dense but, possibly spurred on by the end being in sight, the final 700 page book (that could have taken six months to read alone in other circumstances) whipped past pretty quickly in the end.

I wont spoil the plot for anyone that has either yet to read it or yet to finish but suffice to say that the build up of suspense did suggest itself as the point of the series, rather than it being the conclusion.

I think the most impressive element of the achievement is not that these books manage to unify characters, places and actions from many of Stephen King’s many other works – but that he wrote the seven books over a 34 year span, beginning when he was a teenager. Hence, in preludes, afterwords and other articles, he really refers to the characters and storyline as entities that he’s lived with for a huge proportion of his life – and as though they genuinely exist outside of the author’s imagination and writing.

With apparently 40m copies sold across 30 countries, quite a bit has been written about these books – from Stephen King considering rewriting them all, possibly removing himself (suggesting his unease at this device), to the ongoing saga of filming the unfilmable and the interconnectivity of many references in these and other King books. There’s also a Discordia game based on the official Dark Tower site.

The best news for me is that I can now turn to the comics – written by Peter David and drawn by Jae Lee – which I have held off doing to avoid plot elements of the novels until now.

More Comic Recommendations Required

Books & Comics, Games

So, the first hint of snow has started to fall and sure enough, planes, trains and automobiles in the UK have decided to stop functioning. Consequently it looks like this weekend might comprise a fair amount of reading.

I’ve just finished book 7 of The Walking Dead and, at a friend’s recommendation – see below– I’ve bought the first books of Y, The Last Man & Chew to take a look at next.

I’m also going to have a crack at 100 Bullets, The Unwritten, Locke & Key and bash on with the Sandman when I get a few minutes (it’s taking me forever to finish the Stephen King’s Dark Tower novels – although just starting book six, the penultimate one, now).

So, I’m wide open to decent recommendations.

Failing that, I may have to finally unwrap Skate 3, Battlefield and Deus Ex on the Xbox this weekend.

Right, back to thinning out my inbox…