Flashforward – book review

Many people stopped Lloyd on his way back; it seemed there was a new theory being put forth every few minutes and old ones being shot down just as frequently.

I’ve lost myself in non-fiction books recently. So much so that finally I decided that enough was enough and that I should make sure I read at least one more novel before 2017 flashed away before my eyes.

In my first year of University (2009) the TV series of Flashforward came out and received a lot of initial praise, although I have a feeling that was short-lived. I watched the first episode but never took it any further.

So, let me see if I understand you, Dr. Simcoe. You’re contending that the visions aren’t of just one possible future. Rather, they are of the future – the only one that exists.

Flash forward some 8 years and, when I searched my mind for a novel I wanted to read, ‘Flashforward’ came stirring out of an archive of memories to the top – I’m not quite sure why.

It has an intriguing plot. In a nutshell, the world completely stops for a period of 2 minutes and everyone passes out. During this time everyone has a vision of their life some 20+ years into the future. Some startling, some happy.

There seems to be a lot of supporting evidence from other people’s visions that you really are dead in 2030, Theo.

Lloyd Simcoe and Theo Procopides are two scientists who were carrying out a huge experiment at the time – many believe (including the men themselves) that their experiment had somehow inadvertently caused this slip in the window of time.

While some of the narrative follows Theo and Lloyd – there’s also a lot of time dedicated to how the world would react to an unexpected glimpse of the future. Businesses go bankrupt, insurance companies fold and some of the population even commit suicide as they realise that they’ll never reach their dreams.

But the fact that he was dead altered everything.

Before the vision Lloyd was fully intent on marrying fellow scientist, Michiko – but, in the vision, he sees himself happily married to another woman. Which leaves him in a moral dilemma. Even though he loves her, is it worth marrying someone who you know you won’t end up with?

But…the bigger question that underpins Lloyd’s worries…can the vision of the future that they’ve seen be stopped, or is it unavoidable?

His eyes looked into the mirror as he passed, and he saw himself…for a half-second he thought it was his father. But it was him. What hair was left on his head was entirely gray; that on his chest was white. His skin was loose and lined, his gait stooped…

My favourite character was Theo and his story is by far the most fascinating. He doesn’t actually have a vision. Which, he concludes, means that he’ll be dead – even though he’ll only be 48 at the proposed time in the future!

But, things take a further turn for Theo, when he is contacted by some randoms who tell him that, in their visions, they were reading newspaper clippings about his murder!

Theo had once read a Lord Dunsany story about a man who fervently wished to see tomorrow’s newspaper today, and when he finally got his wish, was stunned to discover it contained his own obituary. The shock of seeing that was enough to kill him, news which would of course be reported in the next day’s edition.

What follows is a cracking subplot where the, ever-so-slightly selfish, Theo tries to find out any clues he can to prevent his murder from happening. But, as with Lloyd’s problem, is the future fixed or can it be changed?

This may sound obvious, as it is a science fiction piece, but there’s a lot of science here. Lots of models and theories. They’re easy enough to follow and I understand why they’re there…but they do bog down the narrative in places.

I didn’t tell you everything, Frau Drescher. I…twenty-one years from now, I’m dead. And your son, Helmut Drescher, is a detective with the Geneva police. He’s investigating my murder

What gets me about this novel, and what was most compelling, was the idea of Theo racing around the world interviewing random people whose visions may help him found out who his murderer is set to be.

As a stand alone story, without the rest of it, this would have been a great idea.

Book review – ‘Absolute Power’ by David Baldacci

“…the business of politics, which essentially meant screwing others before they got around to screwing you.” 

For a recent holiday I wanted a good thriller book to read. After reading lots of non-fiction business books and lots of philosophical novels recently, I wanted something that wasn’t quite as intellectually challenging. Something that was more plot than unanswered questions.

I settled on Absolute Power because the reviews were really positive, and I’ve heard the Clint Eastwood film is fairly good.

In terms of plot Absolute Power is very outrageous to say the least. An elderly burglar, looking for one last job, breaks into the house of a prominent businessman while he’s out of the country. Everything is going well until the businessman’s wife turns up…with her lover and his entourage.

The thief manages to hide and, within minutes, is forced to watch the woman’s final moments as she’s murdered. Shocking, to say the least. But the only thing more shocking is the man involved in her murder…the president of the United States.

“Arrogant people habitually overestimated their own abilities and underestimated everyone else’s.”

This tense and violent opening chapter sets the scene for a tale full of conspiracies, tragedies and surprises.

It also contains sub-plots. A lot of them. From my description of the plot, you might think that the thief is the main character. But he’s not, in fact he has very little actual dialogue throughout the novel – which is something of a shame as, despite his flaws, he’s one of the more likeable characters.

That’s perhaps one of the main issues with Absolute Power. There’s a very large cast of characters. Too many. All with their own sub-plots and backstories. Baladacci does a great job of developing them, but he gives them all so much time that, after a while, I was left wondering who the actual protagonist was. My favourite being the smalltown detective who ended up investigating the murder and getting well and truly out of his depth.

“He should have known that nature bowed to no one, regardless of their monetary worth.”

Eventually Jack, a young hotshot lawyer, becomes the main ‘good guy’ – but, even then, he spends most of the book trying to cheat on his fiancee while still trying to keep her sweet as her dad is a big shot client of his. Not exactly a great guy…but flawed protagonists are more realistic, right?

I described ‘Absolute Power’ as a thriller in the start of this review. But, to be honest, it’s a real mix of genres – thriller is just the easiest way to categorise it. It also has elements of courtroom drama, police procedural, political commentary, action, spy thriller and conspiracy theory.

Absolute Power starts off really well and keeps its pace for the first quarter – however, the amount of sub plots and characters do slow it down halfway. But it’s worth persevering through as the last quarter is really engaging and gripping stuff.

“You know what kind of person it takes to run for President? Not normal. They could start out okay, but by the time they reach that level they’ve sold their soul to the devil so many times and stomped the guts out of enough people that they are definitely not like you and me, not even close.”

While the plot is very imaginative, there’s also a sense of realism to it. I genuienly found myself thinking that…if such a cover-up ever did happen…this is probably what would happen.

I’ll give this a 4/5 for sheer entertainment value. It’s not going to change your life but sometimes that’s not what you want from a book. I don’t think I’ll ever read it again and, five years from now, it won’t be in my thoughts but for the time that I shared with it I enjoyed it.

 

Book review – ‘How to stop time’ by Matt Haig.

“You just close your eyes and let every futile fear slip away. And then, in this new state, free from fear, you ask yourself: who am I? If I could live without doubt what would I do?” 

I got this as a birthday present from my girlfriend – she knew I liked books about time travel, and I have to say this novel completely took me by surprise. I’d never heard of Matt Haig before, either – which is a real shame.

It’s not strictly about time travel in the conventional sense, but it’s close to it in subject matter. The novels I tend to read are usually fast-paced, adventure-driven pieces – but this…well…this is something completely different.

A brooding, thoughtful book that muses on some of life’s big questions. It unfolds at its own, dream-like pace and constantly flits between the past and the present. The chapters are very short, which gives it a promiscuous readability – you know the feeling, ‘ohh just one more chapter then I’ll go to bed…they’re only short’.

“Whenever I see someone reading a book, especially if it is someone I don’t expect, I feel civilisation has become a little safer.” 

The story centres around Tom Hazard. He looks 40, but he’s actually over 400 years old. He doesn’t look younger because he uses the kind of moisturisers that David Beckham advertises, he looks younger because he has a rare condition that causes his body to age a lot slower.

We join Tom as he starts work as a history teacher in an East London school. As you can imagine, such a long lifespan has left him with more than a few issues – such as constant headaches, a missing daughter and weird interactions with a secret society who are determined to keep the condition a secret.

““It made me lonely. And when I say lonely, I mean the kind of loneliness that howls through you like a desert wind.” 

‘How to stop time’ plays out as a historical drama mostly, almost like a series of memoirs put together by the ever thoughtful Tom. There is a subplot that plays out as a bit of a thriller, but it’s almost like it was added in as an afterthought – just to add a bit of action into things.

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(Sure, social media gets a lot of bad press – but it’s a genuinely nice feeling to be able to tweet an author and give them some live feedback on their work)

Having said that, it worked and it fitted in nicely with the story – mixing genres is always a tough balancing act, but I feel that Matt Haig has pulled it off here.

““It was like being stuck in the same song, with a chorus you had once liked but now made you want to your ears off.” 

The last novel I read before this was Stephen King’s 11/22/63 – there are parallels between the two. Both talk about the rhythm of time and how, after a while, you can almost predict the future based on what happens in the past.

The difference is King is a much older man than Haig, so I could see why he’d be able to talk with such insight about the passing of time, yet Haig manages to be just as philosophical and measured.

I recommend this – 5/5 for me.

The Ice Princess – book review

For the last decade or so Scandinavian crime novels seem to have accelerated in popularity to the point where they’re almost leading the way in the genre. With Larsson’s Millennium series, the Killing, the Henning Maskell books and Camilla Lackberg’s Patrick Hedstrom series being the most popular.

I wonder what it is about Scandinavia that makes it such a good host for a murder mystery? Perhaps it’s the long dark nights and the sometimes treacherous weather – because, it’s much harder to catch a killer after dark, right?

I’m a big fan of the Millennium trilogy (although, admittedly I need to finish the 3rd) and after enjoying a holiday to Copenhagen earlier in the year I knew I wanted to return to literary Scandinavia. After seeing lots of good reviews I tracked down a copy of ‘The Ice Princess’, and thus I was taken into the world of Erica Falck and Patrick Hedstrom.

While the subject matter is very dark, it’s also very funny throughout – which kind of threw me a bit. Certainly a contrast to Steig Larsson’s work. Now, while I do like humour, I’d picked this up so I could read a darker story. Lackberg’s comical description is a little too on the nose at times, some of the characters – such as the bumbling police Superintendent – would perhaps be more at home in a sitcom than a serious murder story.

I had also expected the main detective in the story, Patrik, to be something of a hard-bitten sleuth. He couldn’t have been further from that. Instead he’s a recently divorced 35 year old who spends half of the time chasing his high school crush – it’s only in the very last quarter of the book that he actually shows any pedigree as a detective.

The story involves the murder of Alexandra Wijkner – she’s found floating in a bath tub of ice, and it looks as if she’s committed suicide at first. The murder causes a lot of talk in the small community where she came from. At the same time her childhood friend, the biography writer Erica Falck, is back in town to look after the estate of her recently deceased parents.

One thing leads to another and Erica finds herself mixed up in the investigation. Shortly she bumps into Patrik Hedstrom, a guy who fancied her at school – now a detective. The two of them seem to revert back to their teenage years and start to have a giggly ‘does she like me/does he like me’ relationship.

All the while set against the backdrop of a murder – twist after twist shows us that there’s a lot more to Alexandra Wijkner’s death than meets the eye.

I liked the character of Erica, but she did jump from being very complex to remarkably uncomplicated within seconds. One minute a woman grieving for her dead parents, the next a young girl swooning over an old flame.

Admittedly though, I feel that my review is biased by the fact that ‘Millenium’ had set my expectations. If I had just read this as a random book, I might have enjoyed it more – going into it with an open mind.

I also wasn’t overly sold on the ending – there were a few subplots that I didn’t feel were full resolved. One of them being to do with Erica’s sister’s partner, although perhaps that’s explored in the next book in the series.

Camilla Lackberg has a sharp eye for writing about emotions and is genuinely really funny in some of her prose. Some of the dialogue is a little…odd…at times, but I wonder if that might be due to the translation to English. I know I noticed that a few times with Steig Larsson’s writing.

There was also some great commentary here about the kind of ‘what would the neighbours think’ society that often populates small towns. Growing up in one myself I can completely relate to what Lackberg means by this – it’s a theme that goes throughout the whole book, and even becomes central to the crimes.

For me this is a 3/5 – certainly not a bad book, it kept me entertained and engaged. But, it came across as too much of a ‘cosy’ mystery at times (despite the dark subject matter) – maybe I’ll read a few more in the series but I won’t be rushing out to buy them.

Stephen King’s IT

IT is the story of a bunch of long-lost friends who go back to their home town to face something that has scared them since they were children.

“He thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts.”

Revisiting the past can throw up a lot of memories, and while ‘IT’ is a horror story, it covers a whole lot more. I could relate because, as an adult, ‘IT’ also took me back to when I was younger. When I was about thirteen I happened to pick up a battered copy of King’s ‘The Dark Half’ at a secondhand sale. Up until that point, as a reader, I’d always read ‘adult’ books but mostly westerns, spy stories and adventures.

But discovering Stephen King’s work opened up my eyes to a whole different genre. From that point on, and even now, I couldn’t help but be interested in the macabre. So, as a teenager, I devoured a vast majority of King’s backlog. The Stand, Salems Lot, Firestarter and even the lesser-known Insomnia – flashed before my eyes and disappeared into my mind.

As I got older, however, things changed and I moved away from King’s work. I got to that age where socialising becomes more important and, save for the odd novel, my reading fell to the side. I’m pleased to say that as I hit my early twenties my passion for books fully came back, but I never returned to King.

IT was one of his works that I hadn’t read and after seeing a teaser for the upcoming movie I mentioned it, and so my girlfriend kindly got me a beautiful copy. Thus I committed to 1000+ pages of King once more. Travelling back in time to revisit an author, and an imagination, that had gripped me so tightly in its thrall as a teenager.

IT

The book unfolds like a weird and very lucid nightmare. An endless stream of interupted thoughts and unusual occurances whirl around the characters’ heads. All the while followed by a niggling sense of inevitability as they’re brought towards their fate.

“Swear to me swear to me that if it isn’t dead you’ll all come back.”

A series of child murders have been happening in a small American city and a bunch of 11 year old outcasts who call themselves ‘the losers’ have their suspicions that the killer isn’t mortal. Of course none of the adults will believe them…or even raise a hand to help them. The theme of isolation becomes more and more relevant as things go on – which is great writing, because isolation is often the root of fear – imagine how you’d feel if you were seeing things that no one else could see? As if life wasn’t tough enough they’re also constantly threatened by the local bully, who ends up becoming one of the most fucked-up ‘human’ characters that King has ever created.

As children ‘the losers’ are able to defeat the weird entity that is ‘IT’ and, soon afterwards, all but one of them moves well away from the area. The local bully’s friends are killed and he ends up being sent to the local asylum. By the way, if you’re interested as to why there are so many pictures of clowns whenever you see anything about IT, this is because the entity is able to manifest as your biggest fear…which, for children, can often be a clown.

“Oh Christ, he groaned to himself, if this is the stuff adults have to think about I never want to grow up”

Fast forward some twenty-five years and ‘the losers’, all now successful in their own ways, are called back to the town. Murders are taking place again and they feel that they have unfinished business.

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I warn you now, this isn’t one for the faint-hearted. Sure, that sounds obvious as it’s a horror novel, but there are more themes here than just a nasty looking clown. Everything from abusive parenting to domestic abuse is covered in some depth – and there are a couple of scenes where the minors have sex, which I didn’t expect and didn’t feel were at all necessary to the narrative.

For me, overall, this was a triumphant return to the world of King. It thrilled me, it had me rooting for the characters and it took me back to what it was like to be a child. What it was like to believe that there are weird things in the woods, and what it was like to run from bullies and to think that some kid giving you shit in school was the most important thing ever.

People Stephen King Troops

IT, itself, is a fascinating villain and not one that I ever hope to run into in my day-to-day humdrum. What I liked as well is that, as scary as It was, It still felt beatable – which gave a sense of hope that is often never found in these books. An unbeatable bad guy is a cliche we could do with taking a break from.

“Kill you all!” The clown was laughing and screaming. “Try to stop me and I’ll kill you all! Drive you crazy and then kill you all! You can’t stop me!”

When this was first released, most reviewers were on King’s case about the length. I get that, and as an independent reviewer, it troubled me too – the book comes to around 1,300 pages. I’m not so sure that it needed them all. There were pages and pages of exposition, and reflections on all sorts of topics – everything from checking out a book at the library to how larger people are often light on their feet. A few times I had to fight my inner-editor to make sure that I didn’t allow myself to skim-read certain paragraphs and pages.

I understand that characterisation is important, particularly for the seven or eight main characters. But so many pages were spent delving into the backgrounds of some really unimportant people. For example I read all about one of the character’s school life – his IQ, his parents, how he killed his younger brother (not relevant to the story) only to see him get killed by IT some two or three pages later. All well-written, sure – but as we know it doesn’t feel like there are enough hours in the day as it is – so when we pick up a book we want it to be at least a little concise and nuanced at times. Occasionally brevity can often be the key to great writing (he says after writing a huge review).

“once you get into cosmological shit like this, you got to throw away the instruction manual”

All in all, you should read ‘It’ if you like the genre or if you want something different from your Gillian Flynns and Steig Larssons. It’s out there. It’s a raving, lucid nightmare of childhood fears, adult anxieties and some hairy fucking moments.

4/5 – if it weren’t for the extra 300/400 pages and some of the strange sexual scenes it would have hit the 5. It has definitely made me want to go back and search out some of the King stories that I never got round to reading back in my heyday…