The Fourth K, by Mario Puzo

February 8, 2014 at 17:47 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, Thriller, War and Politics) (, , , )




Frightful. This hyperactive and blindly fumbling mess begins by dragging its feet before proving there are other, and more painful, things to drag. A hallowed master of the crime genre demonstrates with fitful incompetence everything that is wrong with the modern political thriller. If it were not painfully obvious how out of his depth Puzo is, and how desperately he is trying to cobble a story together out of a heap of misshapen jetsam, it might be plausible to regard this utter wreck as misplaced satire: a cracked and absurd lampoon of airport adventure novels. The simple fact is, The Fourth K is worse than any pulp novel one might snatch up at random from a supermarket shelf.

“On the balcony the body of the Pope seemed to rise up off the ground, the white skullcap flew into the air, swirled in the violent winds of compressed air and then drifted down into the crowd…”

-The Fourth K

The question that must be asked is not ‘what is so bad about this book’, but ‘which straw is that fatal addition that breaks the camel’s back?’ Sadly (for nobody should glory in the public failure of a gifted man) the answer is that an autopsy would find this camel to have multiple greivous fractures, all throughout its shattered body. The man who once offered us Vito Corleone seems to have forgotten how to write a character. The titular President Kennedy is a hollow and inconsistent wreck, and it becomes plain only a short way into the book that the author himself is trying with increasing urgency to find a way into his character, glancing quickly at him through an array of different perspectives and supporting characters as if to find some point of view that makes him interesting, original, or even believable.

Two other grotesques leer above the slipshod writing, the hackneyed metaphors and the tersely uninspired dialogue to smear their foul taste across this book’s hideous carapace. The first is Puzo’s maddening habit of introducing a character marked clearly for death, and simpering on for a few pages about this nonentity’s history, or hopes and dreams, or particular foibles–before killing him or her, as any but a dullard must know he would. This is insulting to the reader. It’s a waste of time, and it’s openly manipulative. It’s a padding technique used by the very worst novice writers to inject sterile empathy into the last dying embers of a failing book. For shame, Mario. You’re better than this.

The second is the entirely gratuitous pen which Puzo uses to dribble sordid and graphic accounts of entirely insignificant characters’ intimate exploits over soiled pages. The flimsy argument that these scenes might be important for the development of certain characters  does not even hold the usual trickle of water here, as these recurring scenes are never relevant to either the twisted, ugly plot; or to the pace of the book; or to the understanding of the characters themselves. They are paltry attempts at titillation, and they succeed only in darkening and souring the tone of the book, and in derailing further the mad, mad aberrance that might by some charitable stretch of the imagination be called a storyline. This is a dreadful, sad excuse for a book.

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The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

April 20, 2013 at 22:47 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Dystopia, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, Thriller) (, , , )




This is not a good book. The authors might have encyclopaedic knowledge of all there is to know about early Victorian England, but that evidently does not qualify them to write about it. In fact, the overwhelming impression a reader will be smothered with is that the pages are crammed with lists, compendia, tallies—endless nattering and gibbering—put down anything on the page, anything! So long as it looks period-authentic, and so long as it sounds old-timey, and so long as it’s got something to do with steam or antiques.

This book is packed to the gills with the sort of rubbish one might expect from people who think everything in the Middle Ages was “Olde”, and who imagine peasants to have spent their days doest-thou-ing and verilying. A lot of style over substance, but a mongrel, desperate sort of style. One only has to read Dickens or Melville or Stevenson or even Austen to realise that even in the olden days, people did not speak how Gibson and Sterling’s horrid pantomime mockneys and lords speak.

“Still, she did have some things she was ‘specially fond of, and these went, along with the undergarments, into her brocade portmanteau with the split seam she’d meant to mend. There was a lovely bottle of rose-scented Portland water, half-full, a green paste brooch from Mr. Kingsley, a set of hairbrushes with imitation ebony backs, a miniature flower-press with a souvenir view of Kensington Palace, and a patent German curling-iron she’d nicked from a hair-dresser’s. She added a bone-handled tooth-brush and a tin of camphorated dentrifice.”

-The Difference Engine

An unforgiveable sin in literature is an author’s laziness. In The Difference Engine another sin is laid bare: the sin of trying much too hard.

Quite besides the stylistic failings that make this book so painful and embarrassing to read, is the terrible state that the actual story itself tangles into. Absolutely nothing of any significance takes place within the first fifty or sixty pages. While a decent head of steam is built up shortly thereafter with a mystery to solve and protagonists and villains nicely lined up, the authors then make the inexplicable decision to bring everything to a screeching halt, and proceed with an entirely new tangentially-related plot. To crown the entire mess, the story finishes about a hundred pages before the book actually ends. The mystery is wound up, the villains despatched, the heroes safely accounted for…and the silly thing plods on, like a lumbering beast mortally wounded, yet too stupid to succumb.

Entire subplots are woven into this book for no satisfactory reason, other than to showcase things. Elsewhere in this review site, it has been mentioned that authors of alternate histories fall so much in love with their own cleverness and adroit reconfiguration of history, that the tail begins to wag the dog, and any pretense of telling a good story utterly vanishes. The Difference Engine does not make it quite so far, but not for lack of trying. There are artefacts and truncated plot lines and characters littered like dross through the book. Pages at a time could be cut out without consequence, because they introduce ideas or characters with no bearing whatsoever on the story.

Any author might be excused for mentioning unrelated details offhand. Tension must be built, scenes must be set, characters must be developed. Shakespeare had his gravediggers, Hugo his Waterloo. But Gibson and Sterling suffer from a rather catastrophic collaboration of crises: their asides are frequently more interesting that the fifty pages of dead space that precede them; their insignificant intrusions come typically just as tension has finally reached some paltry critical mass, and stifle any chance of a revival of the story; their tangents introduce questions that are unanswered, clues that go unsolved, promises that are not kept. Frankly, they are an annoyance that this weak book cannot afford, and ought to have been edited out at the first draft.

There are occasional sparks of light, though they often serve to illuminate only the shoddy work surrounding them. For those interested in the bric-a-brac of a time gone by, Gibson and Sterling provide a rich table. The adjective “rich” could here describe a banquet, a bank account, or an overpowering odour, and its richness will be of limited interest to most readers. There are the buried germs of an interesting (though not brilliant) sort of Victorian thriller; perhaps a facsimile of one of the Penny Dreadfuls that they make sure to reference a few times, so that their readers know they’re really getting authenticity. The only remaining virtue of this book is its honest conjecture on an age of mechanical computing, and some geopolitical, scientific, and sometimes jocular ruminations on the world that Babbage and his ilk might have made. It seems that it was this core around which an unprofessional and unlovely story was wrapped. Unwrapping it might not be wise.

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The Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco

January 26, 2013 at 16:13 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction, Thriller) (, , , )




Throughout this novel, Eco writes with an impressively dualistic pen (which is not a reference to the dual nature of his protagonist), managing a gentle and likeable humour in the midst of a biting and sarcastic narrative. It often seems that Eco loves his grotesque Simonini as much as he despises him; and the result is a sympathy that the reader cannot but help being drawn into.

“And when I was old enough to understand, he reminded me that the Jew, as well as being as vain as a Spaniard, ignorant as a Croat, greedy as a Levantine, ungrateful as a Maltese, insolent as a Gypsy, dirty as an Englishman, unctuous as a Kalmyk, imperious as a Prussian and as slanderous as anyone from Asti, is adulterous through uncontrollable lust…”

-The Prague Cemetery

The Jekyll-and-Hyde aspect of the story, introduced almost at the outset, at first seems like a bad idea–especially when the narrator adds his voice to the tumult, resulting in the sort of “believe me, gentle reader” voice that has been about done to death. Although the narrator’s intrusions remain a little unwieldy throughout the book, Eco’s protagonist (or protagonists) share their duties well, and the style is neither heavyhanded nor aggravating. A vanity, perhaps, but a useful one. Eco’s debt to Dumas is flaunted openly, but he is also skilled enough as a writer to address Dumas as a peer, and uses his predacessor as a gilded frame and not as a crutch. One of the gravest pitfalls of consciously emphasising another writer (in homage or in plagiarism) is to remind the reader how much they’d prefer to be reading that book rather than yours, and Eco avoids this trammel and remains convincing and lively throughout.

The subject matter is of the very coarsest: quite besides the outrageously racist and misogynistic protagonist, when the setting is the darkest slums and salons of nineteenth-century Paris and the cast includes corrupt priests and satanists, one might rightly expect some decidedly objectionable material. It is surprising then how discretely Eco treats his foulest and dirtiest plot elements, in a way that other authors ought to take careful note of. The pages of murders, whores, and assassinations are not visceral things dripping with clinically-described gore, and the casual sidestepping of the most indelicate acts is written neither lecherously nor prudishly. With exception to a few needlessly graphic pages near the end, this book might be a study in writing maturely and sensitively about the very nastiest of actions. Again, this might be a conscious emulation of Eco’s influencers.

It would be far too generous to say that this book is faultless, but it is a compelling thriller written by an author who is both competent and comfortable with his subject, and whose depiction of his antihero is subtle and clever.

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The Hunt for Red October, by Tom Clancy

November 25, 2012 at 19:41 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Thriller, War and Politics) (, , , )


“The technical aspects are covered in a way which is rare in the modern novel,” reads one enthusiastic review on the dust jacket of Red October. There is a good reason for that. Clancy has made a career for himself out of knowing stuff about tanks, but it is here in his earlier work that the reputation was made–indeed, where the tail wagged the dog just a little too much. It is unsurprising that Clancy had trouble finding a publisher for this book; equally unsurprising that his eventual publisher was an arm of the US Navy. There is simply far too much jargon, far too many detailed descriptions of trivial machines and dated technology, too many parenthetical and bracketed explanations of rambling groups of acronyms–to make this a good story.

“‘We cannot shoot. Your men cannot shoot. We cannot run from him–he is faster. We cannot hide–his sonar is better. He will move east, use his speed to contain us and his sonar to locate us. By moving west, we have the best chance to escape. This he will not expect.'”

-The Hunt for Red October

Later, Clancy would realise that good books need things like characters and plots, and while he has never abandoned his roots in technical manuals and tactical theses, his writing today is worlds away from Red October. One of the book’s key problems is the misnomer contained in the title. A more apt name might be The Finding of Red October, for the secretive boat has one fatal flaw: it is a Soviet creation, and therefore is located by the plucky American heroes within a chapter of disembarking. This sets the scene for what is really alternate parts propaganda for the West in general and the USA in particular, and a crude and mostly dull litany of bungling and tomfoolery by the inept Reds.

It is difficult to feel much in the way of suspense when presented with Clancy’s ubermenschen in shining armour. Certainly it is impossible to consider for a moment that the utterly incompetent and pantomime Soviets will salvage even a pyrrhic victory. In one jarring chapter, the virtues and blessings of the magnificent world of capitalism are extolled for pages on end, with one character noting offhand that nobody who wants a job and financial security in the West can fail to find both.

This is a fantasy, but with too much technical realism to be a good fantasy. It is a technical manual, but written sarcastically and bitterly. Tom Clancy has never been lionised as a particularly brilliant author, but this is one of his harder books to engage with.

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The Bourne Identity, by Robert Ludlum

October 21, 2012 at 15:44 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, Thriller)


It is a simple and solid fact that any author who places an exclamation mark and a question mark immediately side by side should have his pen confiscated from him until he ceases to be disagreeable, and that anything written in his delirium ought to be treated with supreme suspicion and prejudice. Probably because of the extreme success of the motion pictures based on this book, it demands to be treated with a little more respect than any common-or-garden spy thriller. It insists upon being given a chance to thrill with smooth and professional plot twists, fluid writing and an effortless understanding of what it’s like to be a spy on the run. These expectations, however, are not borne out in the slightest.

Put quite simply, Robert Ludlum is at best an amateur writer with a totally unwarranted streak of luck. It might well be considered that the sort of people who generally read spy novels are unsophisticated boors; the same rationale behind seeing purveyors of science fiction as exclusively acne-ridden boffins. But if that is the case–and if indeed The Bourne Identity can honestly uphold the claim by Publishers Weekly that it is the second best spy novel of all time–then this is a genre badly in need of a shakeup.

“He dove to his right, spinning on the rug, shoving a heavy floor lamp toward the cripple, spinning again until he was at the far side of the wheelchair. He crouched and lunged, crashing his right shoulder into Chernak’s back, sending the legless man out of the chair as he reached into his pocket for the gun.”

-The Bourne Identity

It is not just the elementary grammar mistakes that litter the book; it is the embarrassing fact that these grammar mistakes are the sort of mistakes made by people whose literary ambition stretches little further than a shopping list. It is not just the tedium of the unnecessarily twisted plot; it is the nagging suspicion that the plot was dreamt up by a man who sought complexity for complexity’s sake. The depressingly regular fighting scenes are full of words like “pivoted” and “propelled”, and are as jumbled a bag of past, present, and future tenses as anyone might care to avoid. Reading the interior monologues is like watching a hammy actor on a stage, fully aware that the one thought running through his head is, “Act! Act as hard as you can!”

It might be suggested that in a spy novel, one should not look too hard for verisimilitude or deep and believable characters. The sort of person to say such a thing does the entire genre a gross disservice, and promotes the very attitude that enshrines slovenly rubbish like The Bourne Identity in the first place. Every reader should have a right to expect great literature, whether picking up a romance, a thriller, a fantasy, an historical piece or a book about a depressed butler. For a maladroit like Ludlum to achieve the status he has on the back of such a generally incompetent piece of drivel is unacceptable. The Bourne Identity might have inspired a multi-million dollar franchise, but it makes Tom Clancy read like Voltaire.

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A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick

September 9, 2012 at 11:53 (Book Reviews, Dystopia, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Science Fiction, Thriller) (, , , )


It might be difficult to assign this book to a genre, had not Philip K. Dick done the world the service of establishing himself so thoroughly as one of the world’s most skilful writers of science fiction. And so there it is, and after briefly pausing to note that this book is indeed set in a dystopian future with technology foreign to true life, it can be determined. Another pulp sci-fi paperback, by another pulp sci-fi author. Easy, quick, and almost entirely wrong.

“Once a guy stood all day shaking bugs out of his hair.”

-A Scanner Darkly

Philip K. Dick strayed occasionally from “his” genre, it is true. But what he excelled at was writing engrossing and detailed stories with occasional science fiction dressings draped over them. The Man in the High Castle is more of a spiritual and religious quest than it is either historical or science-fictional; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep might have been written in 1950s America or in the distant future; and A Scanner Darkly, as its title suggests, is a hard and gritty crime-noir with plaintive and deep questions about the human experience, long before it could ever be called a science-fiction story.

This, then, is a science fiction novel for those who are not immediately attracted by science fiction. It is intelligent and exciting, if a little anticlimactic. The story is clever, but this is mostly a semi-autobiographical reimagining of Philip K. Dick’s own experiences with drugs, and lacks closure and occasionally some coherence. Among the best that Philip K. Dick has to offer, and maybe the most representative of his style and revealing of his view on life.

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The Odessa File, by Frederick Forsyth

August 25, 2012 at 09:08 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, Thriller) (, , , )


In the vast morass of Nazi fiction and Second World War fiction, Forsythe’s name stands out as one likely to produce a reasonably well written book; or at least one fitting the reputation of a renowned author. He was not the first writer to decide that Nazis made the best and most original villains in a thriller, and unfortunately he will not be the last. The story found in The Odessa File is not particularly innovative, nor does it offer many surprises in the telling. Forsyth goes to great pains to maintain the illusion that his book is at least as much fact as it is fiction, and it falls upon the enterprising reader either to swallow this claim whole, or untangle it later. Needless to say, authors who are — if not dishonest then a little cagey with the truth — can swiftly grow tiresome.

“‘You’re not Jewish, Miller. You’re Aryan. You’re one of us. What did we ever do to you, for God’s sake, what did we ever do to you?'”

-The Odessa File

There are enormous sections of this book where Frederick Forsyth seems to forget that he is no longer a journalist, and where he slips into a frighteningly dull passive voice, and narrates what might otherwise have been some rather exciting scenes with all the vividness and thrill of a speaking clock. Far too often the pendulum is prone to going the other way, with authors so excited about writing that they feel the need to floridly elaborate on every zephyr, every tilt of her head or bob of his Adam’s apple — but The Odessa File commits the peculiar and frankly rather rare sin of over-expositing and over-explaining to a bizarre degree.

It is surely due to this overwrought need to clarify and explain that the most thrilling part of the book, the denouement, reads with an uninspired sense of familiarity and inevitability. There is altogether too much driving and travelling, too straightforward a path walked by the faceless and forgettable protagonist, and a depressing dearth of any sort of tension whatsoever.

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Shades of Grey, by Michael Cargill

May 30, 2012 at 12:00 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Horror, Poorly Rated Books, Thriller, War and Politics) (, , )


Shades of Grey is a brief and distractingly violent collection of short stories, including one rather good but frustratingly truncated espionage story, a bland wartime correspondence and a rather ghastly horror story. It will be clear to any reader that Cargill is not an experienced writer, and as such although some of his premises and starting points hold a certain attraction, he simply is unable to keep them afloat, and they quickly begin to drag.

“There was no official state of war declared, and strictly speaking he wasn’t part of any official military or intelligence organisation. He worked for the Guv’nor.”

-Shades of Grey

The best of a beginner’s lot is the story the anthology is named for, the spy story. In it, Cargill experiments with a little stream-of-consciousness, some character development, and gratuitous violence. Speaking plainly, if something can be considered gratuitous (either in its violence, its sexuality, its language or any other content) then it is shocking for the sake of being shocking, and of no further use on that front. On the other hand, Cargill’s attempts to build his characters do not fall completely flat, and the chief criticism to be levelled here is that he is a little clumsy and heavy-handed in doing so.

A bold attempt prematurely published, and an interesting insight into the development of a young author, but it would be difficult to describe this book as entertaining, and harder still to describe it as especially meaningful. In its favour, it’s almost certainly better than the similarly-named series by E.L. James.

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The Sicilian, by Mario Puzo

March 14, 2012 at 14:35 (Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Mediocre Books, Thriller) (, , )


It was bold of Mario Puzo to co-opt the mythology of Sicily for the sake of his own Corleone saga. He could be accused of rank opportunism, if he didn’t manage his recast legend so well. The story is something of an origins story for Michael Corleone, but Puzo has the good graces and good sense to know that Michael Corleone could never have been the focus of this book; and he is thus a suitably peripheral character, dancing around the edges of the fictionalised (and suitably romanticised) history. This was obviously a good decision from a storytelling point of view, and it also makes the choice to tell this story at all seem much less cynical.

It would have been more enjoyable as an historical fiction if Puzo’s obsession with his idealised honourable criminal (either as mafiosi or as Guiliani’s bandits) had not so coloured the narrative: and as greedy men and bitter men and foolish men and petty men murder each other with grave faces and noble-sounding words, it is difficult to take much of it very seriously. Puzo might have been writing a substrata of criticism into his work, but it seems infinitely more likely that he truly bought into his own mythology; and in the end, bought into it just a bit too much to write a completely engrossing book.

“Finally the two men and their donkey vanished over a rise in the street, but she kept watching…as if she would never see them again, until they disappeared in the late morning mist around the mountaintop. They were vanishing into the beginning of their myth.”

-The Sicilian

The romance between Guiliani and his matronly lover is sensitively portrayed and seldom grotsequely graphic, although this book would not be by Mario Puzo if it was entirely fresh and clean. The weakest moments (besides the constant and nagging feeling that Puzo is taking the absurd codes of his creatures utterly seriously) tend to be the montage scenes that show the young gangster growing up: but Puzo cannot be blamed for this weakness, as it is a rare writer indeed who can write a blameless training montage. This is not quite a jewel in the rough. It cannot be accurately called a jewel, and nor is it completely buried in the rough. It is a good book, though not the best. And it has flaws, but has not been completely ruined by these flaws.

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The Spy who Loved Me, by Ian Fleming

March 7, 2012 at 16:47 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, Romantic Fiction, Thriller) (, , , , )


Without personality, without excitement, without style. Tasteless, graceless, morbid and ugly. It does not take a great stretch of the imagination to conclude why the film version of this book has absolutely no overlaps with the novel (although it is more difficult to accept that Fleming managed to publish more books after this utter disaster). In a book ostensibly about James Bond, the famous spy does not appear until the second half of the book, and even then is roughly and rudely sketched. He is certainly not the main character in this book, and barely aspires to a supporting role.

A great deal of this book also ends up reading like a torrid and pulpy piece of romantic fiction, with explicit sex and abuse scenes littered lecherously through the pages, and an increasingly uncomfortable feeling that heroes and villains alike are merely different fantasies flitting through the author’s mind.

“All women love semi-rape.”

-The Spy who Loved Me

In short, this is not a spy novel. It is barely a thriller. Its shabby pages are a blend of unmemorable, unlikeable, unsympathetic nonentities; and in this case, that includes the vague and barely-present James Bond himself. Ian Fleming can write well (for all that he is a misogynistic old deviant), but it is not only the banal plot and appalling characters that condemn this book, and it suffers badly from a depressing array of pacing problems, mawkish and scattered dialogue, unimaginative and clichéd description and a host of other problems. This is a truly dreadful book, without anything to recommend itself at all.

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