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 Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

December 22, 2013 at 18:44 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fiction, Mystery, Poorly Rated Books) (, , , )




It was a little surprising (and honestly, disconcerting) to find that not only did Holmes’ eternal companion Watson provide the voice for this mystery, but also most of the legwork. The conceit of a narrative through a letter can be done well, but it can also be done poorly. In The Hound of the Baskervilles it certainly feels like laziness.

A second and deeper problem with this mystery is the straightforwardness of it all. The method and the killer are made plain halfway through, with the rest of the book merely a sweeping-up exercise: the setting of a trap, and the successful conclusion of all ventured by the intrepid detective. Characters are brought in as literary devices and plot shortcuts rather than as meaningful components of a whole, and once their part in the play is concluded they are swept away, never to be heard from again.

“‘The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.'”

-The Hound of the Baskervilles

Doyle’s writing is excellent, but readers might well be forgiven for imagining that writing in the persona of a rather self-satisfied and coddled English gentleman making reports and penning florid missives would not come with too great a difficulty to this author. This is a fun story to read, but is neither intellectually nor creatively stimulating. There are better mysteries out there, and there are better mysteries to be investigated by Sherlock Holmes. It is telling that the best part of this book, the most interesting part and by far the cleverest–is confined to banter between Sherlock and Watson as they try to guess the identity of a caller at the very beginning of the story. For all the iconic weight that the spectre of this hound has cast upon the body of English literature, once its tracks have been thoroughly traced by the reader its form cannot but come as a disappointment.

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The Naked Constitution, by Adam Freedman

November 10, 2013 at 11:36 (Book Reviews, Philosophy, Politics, Poorly Rated Books) (, , )




“What the Founders said and why it still matters” is the proclamation emblazoned on the front of this ponderous new diatribe. Would that this boast were true! It can be difficult for non-Americans to understand (viscerally if not intellectually) why the United States stands so fiercely and so doggedly to its historical codifications, and a passionately-written explanation of why this might be the case is an interesting and compelling prospect.

Alas! For Adam Freedman does not address his book to the earnest seeker, but rather to the confirmed disciple. Like a new convert turning to a book of theology only to be driven thence by sludgy discussions on the Greek translation of parousia, readers of The Naked Constitution will be confronted almost immediately by a schoolyard bicker about whether conservatives or liberals are true “originalists”. There is not really an honest attempt to explain how the determination of “original intent” is uncovered, nor even to explain why original intent is even important.

“Despite all evidence to the contrary, anti gun zealouts insist that their narrow reading of the Second Amendment is the true ‘originalist’ reading.”

-The Naked Constitution

In examining the general mindset of men over two centuries dead, it might be expected that the politics of the olden days would take precedence, but instead this book is firmly entrenched in scouring through court decisions and bills passed in the last two decades–particularly under Clinton and under Obama. And that is the real meat and bones of this tract. It is a fiercely partisan denunciation of liberalism in the early twenty-first century, and little else. It makes some very good points and some poorer ones; it descends to pettiness as often as it makes honest and thought-provoking points. But it emphatically does not answer the thorny issue so proudly displayed on its cover. If anything, it proves only that the United States Constitution is irrelevant as a basis for government, as it can be (and is) dissected and patched back together by liberals and conservatives alike, to serve their own particular interests. In one or two shameless slip-ups, Freedman does exactly this, mentioning in passing that such-and-such constitutional idea cannot really apply in today’s world, and ought to rather mean so-and-so.

Besides this, there are the same old tired political talking points that obsess modern commentators so: the anachronistic gun-worship, the quibbling and complaining about nineteenth-century federalism, bickering about the division between church and state, and where the lines are drawn, and how thickly, and by whom. There is a great deal to value in this book, but it is either irritatingly dishonest, or else an abysmal failure in its central point and intention. Ultimately, that makes it just another run-of-the-mill polemic, and while interesting on its own merits, it has nothing to distinguish it from a hundred other books of the same shade.

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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 Plot Against America, by Philip Roth

January 14, 2013 at 07:58 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, War and Politics) (, , , , )


Perhaps no genre has been sullied by the feet of so many slipshod hacks as the genre of alternate history. Of all the vast morass of “genre fiction” (that is, popular fiction written around a literary trope specifically for a saturated market), it is possible to find excellent science fiction, or skilfully-written romances. Historical fiction and fantasy from masterful pens stands proud amongst the tidal waves of bad imitations. But explicitly state that a book is an alternate history, and it will almost certainly be no good at all.

Perhaps it is the tired habit of trotting out dozens of cameo appearances by characters who happened to share a time period. Maybe the temptation proves too great to bore the reader with a litany of improbable events that make “this” history distinct from what really happened: and there are few things more horrifying than an historical lecture by an amateur who thinks he knows everything. Perhaps it is an undiscovered physical constant, that an author declaring, “I think I shall write an alternate history” automatically churns out something dreadful.

“Lindbergh was the first famous living American whom I learned to hate–just as President Roosevelt was the first famous living American whom I was taught to love–and so his nomination by the Republicans to run against Roosevelt in 1940 assaulted, as nothing ever had before, that huge endowment of personal security that I had taken for granted as an American child of American parents in an American school in an American city in an America at peace with the world.”

-The Plot Against America

Philip Roth is by no means a novice writer, nor is he a talentless hack. But tragically, this constant seems to apply to him as well. It really is too bad. Most of The Plot Against America is a tragic and dysfunctional narrative about a struggling working class family. There really is no reason why President Lindbergh has to put in an appearance at all. In fact for that reason alone, Roth actually succeeds in telling a very very good story. There is some excellent tension between the characters, and Roth even blindsides the reader to a degree in shuffling the cousin and the father and the elder brother in and out of the “villain” and “hero” boxes. Unreliable narrators are always fun to read, and unreliable characters even more so: the pettiness of heroes and the nobility of antiheroes is subtly depicted, and makes for excellent reading.

Here is an excellent piece of advice. Upon reading this book, when you reach page 300 (or thereabouts), stop. The final hundred pages contain a confused and incredibly bland denouement, written in much the same style as one might expect in a dull newspaper. Roth has been accused by some reviewers of pulling out a deus ex machina, but this is unfair to writers who use deus ex machinae. He pulls out at least three of them, and piles them up in a precarious and pointless mess. The whole ending reeks of a publisher’s deadline, or of a writer’s indecision. Incidentally, the whole ending is also the part where Roth plummets irretrievably into the alternate-history pitfall of dully explaining a convoluted and meaningless (in the context of the rest of his story) timeline.

Not a recommended read, and definitely not for finishing.

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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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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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The Roots of Obama’s Rage, by Dinesh D’Souza

August 11, 2012 at 08:47 (Book Reviews, Politics, Poorly Rated Books) (, , , )


This schoolboy compendium of allegation and insinuation is the literary equivalent of a microwaved pizza. Bolt it down while it’s hot stuff, and almost forget about the metaphorical diarrhoea that inevitably follows. It is short enough and simple enough that even the simplest reader can quickly digest its pith, but is as nutritional as any tabloid rag. Dinesh D’Souza writes from the vapid standpoint that because he himself is not white, he can hurl the most despicable  and vile epithets and innuendos at his chosen target without repurcussion. In obsessively remaking Obama as a primitive African revolutionary stuck in the post-colonial cold war era, he transforms him into a wretched kind of golliwog, a nasty and unbelievable scarecrow of a man–reminding his readers several times that, as an Indian, he somehow has the right to dredge up whatever idiotic caricatures he pleases.

His central and resounding accusation against Obama, dressed up repeatedly in new language to fill out the hundred or so pages of his bitesize polemic, is that Barack Obama is against colonialism. The implication is often given that colonialism has no dirty laundry to air, no sins to purge, and no shame to recall. Of course any serious historian would readily admit that the colonisers of history left boons as well as smallpox, and legacies as well as corpses, but when D’Souza flippantly suggests without any trace of irony that the greatest sin of the Belgians in the Congo was their neglect of the education system, he assumes the mantle of a David Irving, and loses any credibility as an historian that he might have clung to.

“There is currently no alternative to American leadership in the world, and deep down even American liberals know this.”

-The Roots of Obama’s Rage

As a commentator, he is graceless and crass, with all of the baggage of the worst American neoconservative jingoism and none of the redeeming optimism. As a writer he is clumsy and often badly informed (hilariously noting at one point, for instance, that the Norwegian government dispenses Nobel prizes, or misunderstanding Hobbes’ eponymous Leviathan to refer to a massive government rather than an extension of the social contract). As a critical thinker he has a long way to go, and his arguments are based almost entirely upon his own baldly-stated “suppositions” or “beliefs”, and as much on his own circumstantial and highly suspect “explanations” and interpretations as on any actual facts. His seething hatred for the President is scarcely hidden behind a rather wilted fig leaf of protestations to the contrary, and his contempt for anybody who disagrees with him is plain in his casual and dismissive tone. He is absurdly preoccupied with meaningless minutiae, such as his fixation on Obama’s removal of Churchill’s bust from the White House, reading volumes into trifling happenstances. Sadly, this book has nothing whatsoever to recommend it, even for those looking for a book critical of Barack Obama. It is an ugly relic of the past, and a venomous agitation that stoops to the lowest of levels to make its erratic and misplaced attacks.

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Anthem, by Ayn Rand

June 23, 2012 at 21:09 (Book Reviews, Comedy, Dystopia, Fiction, Philosophy, Poorly Rated Books, War and Politics) (, , , )


It is important to not mince words. Ayn Rand was a hack, a shuddering and grating alarm blaring a single-noted siren with a stygian monotony. She never knew Dante, but if she had, she would surely have figured in his magnum opus as one of the particularly graceless staff of his infernal establishment. It would not be an exaggeration to say that she represents the absolute bottom rung of the tiresome ladder of the written word, pasting up antisocial complaints and hideously self-satisfied whining and expecting it to be hailed as literature.

But let the philosophers judge her defunct philosophies for what they are! It is for the students of literature to pick over the carcass they have left, and see if there remains an actual story beneath the epistle of this raving prophet. In Atlas Shrugged, the clear answer is no. In Anthem, the answer might be a little more complicated.

“I do not surrender my treasures, nor do I share them. The fortune of my spirit is not to be blown into coins of brass and flung to the winds as alms for the poor of the spirit. I guard my treasures, my thought, my will, my freedom; and the greatest of these is freedom.”


In her favour, there is a story to be found: a light dystopia such as Lois Lowry might have penned for children; a simple parable with an equally simple message behind it. Never mind that the message in Rand’s case is abhorent. At least it is a story, and told in a consistent if petulant voice. She aspires to Orwell and ends up with a juvenile pulp novelette, but although the product is trite, rushed and muddled, it is at least not nauseating.

A great deal of this changes in the penultimate chapter, which is the light version of John Galt’s speech in her more famous book. There are no apologies, no warnings, and if ever there were a distilled version of Rand’s own ten verbose commandments, they would be found starkly inscribed here. A tedious chapter and a predictable and shabby end for a book, but the fact that this one chapter is so noticeably worse than the others, is a pyrrhic point in favour for Anthem.

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Great Apes, by Will Self

June 6, 2012 at 06:51 (Book Reviews, Comedy, Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Poorly Rated Books, Romantic Fiction) (, , )


Will Self is a frighteningly intelligent man who takes a perverse delight in doing disgusting things to beautiful words. Great Apes is one of those books that begins with a clever or original idea (although honestly, not all that original) and works behind it as under a mask to make the initial premise the unwilling slave of a certain conceit of style, or flavour. This book is all atmosphere and very little substance, and all commentary and very little story. It is difficult to tell whether Will Self is unutterably pleased with himself for being so blamed clever all the time, or if he is adopting such a persona in order to laugh at it. It is not really very important which.

The central idea is that human beings are as noble and arrogant as any batch of greasy apes happen to be; and again and again this is piled on with a trowel in much the same way as Orson Scott Card in Lovelock. There is not much more than this, and what might have been an excellent display of Self’s ample wit and silver tongue is instead contorted into a tiresome sneer at humanity.

“Then their tongues slid over and under, pink shrews blindly questing.”

-Great Apes

As might be expected, Will Self writes with a deucedly elegant pen, and weighs and portions his words like an apothecary, or a lover, dosing the reader meticulously with impeccably crafted language, placing each jot and tittle with immaculate care: and using them to paint an ugly and cheap picture of cartoonish horror. There lies the greatest disappointment with this book. It might have been excellent. Instead, it is like the genius in the class who insists on clowning around in every lesson, turning in every assignment late, and with more of an eye towards upsetting the teacher than proving his worth.

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