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 – ‘Faceless Killers’ by Henning Mankell.

“Every time Wallander stepped into someone’s home, he felt as though he were looking at the front cover of a book that he had just bought” 

Over the last decade or so I’ve heard a lot about Scandinavian crime fiction, particularly with the success of ‘the Killing’ TV series and, of course, the multi-million success of Steig Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.

As ever, I arrived late on the scene and didn’t end up reading the Millennium books until earlier this year – some 12 or 13 years since they were released. I was blown away by them. I loved how they started out as such a simple crime story, only to turn into a high stakes series of thrillers. Once I’d completed them I set my sights on other Scandinavian genre luminaries. My first port of call was Camilla Läckberg’s ‘The Ice Princess’ – which was a little too ‘cosy’ for me.

And now, a couple of months later, I turn to another – Henning Mankell. ‘Faceless Killers’ is the first of his famous series of stories about Inspector Kurt Wallander. First off the bat, I have to warn you that it’s a very bleak tale. It’s set in a Swedish town where it’s always raining, and where social issues are hitting a boiling point.

“He took a sheet of paper out of a desk drawer. But what would he write? The day’s work had hardly involved more than collecting a large number of question marks.” 

The action kicks off with the seemingly random murder of an elderly couple in their isolated farmhouse. Inspector Walland is called out and soon finds out that the case is far from simple.

But, it’s not just about the investigation – a lot of the novel also talks about Wallander’s personal life. Which, to say the least, isn’t great. I have to say – particularly during the start of the story – I really didn’t like him as a character. He openly admits to slapping his estranged wife and also seems to have real issues against women in positions of power.

There are a good army of supporting characters included – such as Wallander’s veteran colleague, Rydberg and Martinsson, a younger office on the team. There’s also Wallander’s estranged wife, Mona and an attorney who he falls for, Annette.

““He took a sheet of paper out of a desk drawer. But what would he write? The day’s work had hardly involved more than collecting a large number of question marks.” 

(Sorry, I just had to repeat that quote. I jotted it down as I first read it and I think it sums up the story and the style so well.)

I really liked the character of Annette, but she was so underdeveloped that it felt like a waste. There’s a lot of build up to the fact that Wallander might have a chance with her, but then when something does happen it’s only acknowledged anecdotally – which was such an anti-climax.

The paragraph above goes to highlight a big problem I had with ‘Faceless Killers’ – half of it unfolds like a novel, and goes at a decent pace. But then, mishmashed in-between the fast-moving chapters, are other parts that seem to be almost like a diary.

There’s only so many times I can hear about how eating too fast gave Wallander diarrhoea before I’m thinking to myself – is this really benefiting the story? Okay, I get it – he’s a bit of a loser – there’s no need to keep reinforcing the point.

I’m sure many readers will no doubt empathise with some aspects of Wallander. Like all of us, he’s not perfect. He’s no Sherlock Holmes, definitely isn’t Shaft and can’t even hold a candle to Inspector Morse. Instead of having deductive super-powers, he gets to the end of his cases through dogged hard-work. Nothing more, nothing less.

wallander.jpg

(the Wallander series has been translated into many languages across the world. It’s also been the subject of several TV series – image source: Amazon)

The front cover of the book markets it as a thriller, but the pace drags to the point where I can only recall two genuine ‘thrilling’ scenes. One where Wallander is spying on some suspects, and another where he has a scrap with one of them. Both are well-written.

“Somewhere in the dark a vast meaninglessness was beckoning to him. A grinning face that laughed scornfully at all his vain attempts to manage his life.” 

Perhaps I’m a product of my generation, where stories tend to rattle on at a frantic pace – but, I prefer thrillers (like Steig Larsson’s) that suck you in and bring you right into the action. Even though some of the plot involves some quite ‘high stakes’ threats I only ever felt like I was a far removed observer and the constantly sidelining subplots such as Wallander’s failed marriage and his sick dad kept taking me away from the action.

It’s for this reason that I give ‘the Faceless Killers’ a 3/5. For the right reader I’m sure this would be good to read by the fire on a cold, dark night – but if I’m to read a mystery thriller I need it to be more compelling.

Mankell also addresses lot of issues in Swedish culture that I was only semi-familiar with – perhaps if I were a Swedish native I might have gotten more out of the points raised, although the book is about 26 years old now.

The opening chapters (even though they were meant to describe a nasty crime) somewhat bored me, the middle was entertaining enough for me to keep reading – but, if it wasn’t for the last 50 pages where things do pick up, I’d have probably given this a 2 star.

Having said all that, I read it in about twenty-four hours…take what you will from that.

Book Review: 11/22/63

“Life turns on a dime. Sometimes towards us, but more often it spins away, flirting and flashing as it goes: so long, honey, it was good while it lasted, wasn’t it?”

It’s been said before, and it’ll no doubt be said again – but just because Stephen King has dedicated so much of his career to writing books about the macabre he’s considered as a lesser writer by many critics. Which is a real shame because, as King once said when asked why he writes that genre, – “you assume I have a choice…”

But then, suddenly, from nowhere a book like this lands. A book that King has wanted to write since 1972 but was initially put off by the amount of research he’d have to put into it (he was still full-time as a teacher back then).

“I know life is hard, I think everyone knows that in their hearts, but why does it have to be cruel, as well? Why does it have to bite?”

I could tell you the plot in a nutshell – a lonely high school teacher discovers a doorway into the year 1958 and decides to stop JFK’s assassination in 1963. But that would be too easy and, for lack of a better term, way too simple. This is far more than a time travel novel. At it’s heart it’s an absorbing love story – a love story so strong that everything else (such as stopping that fateful shooting) almost filters into the background.

When this was released the critics initially gave it some stick for hopping genres – but, as long as you can make it work, why not slip between thriller, romance and historical period piece? King does make it work. I’m sure of that. I enjoyed this book immensely, and towards the end I woke up two hours earlier than usual to read just a few more chapters. It has that formula you just can’t bottle, the formula only bestsellers have…that mysterious elixir that sucks you into the story and makes one page turn after the other, as if by magic.

“For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see that the world is barely there at all. Don’t we all secretly know this? It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life. Behind it? Below it and around it? Chaos, storms. Men with hammers, men with knives, men with guns. Women who twist what they cannot dominate and belittle what they cannot understand. A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.”

The only negatives were the same problem that I have with a lot of King’s work…you probably know where I’m going with this…but, it was just that bit too over descriptive. But then again, maybe that’s actually a positive – perhaps it brings you further into the story? I also feel that this perhaps went on for a hundred pages longer than it should have, this might have put some readers off.

I also have to comment on the main character, Jake Epping, I couldn’t help but think that he was pretty much 30 year old Stephen King himself. With just a few things switched around. 6’4, not thin but not fat, English teacher, wants to write books – I mean, I know that sums up a lot of King’s characters in general, but there was something extra about Jake. Something so genuine, that I felt as if King was simply describing what he’d done if he were in that situation and how he’d look to stop the notorious Lee Harvey Oswald – who is one of the other main characters here, but always watched at a distance – almost like an evil zoo animal.

“On the subject of love at first sight, I’m with the Beatles: I believe that it happens all the time.”

The scene where Jake races against time to rescue his girlfriend from danger is so well-written that I felt hairs stand up on my arms and I’ll be damned if some of the climatic pages toward the end didn’t nearly draw a tear from my usually dry eyes.
The research here is simply incredible too. He does mention it in the afterword, but wow! The hours (days) King must have put in…I can only imagine. I actually feel like I’ve been to early 1960s Dallas…and I’ve never even set foot in Texas!

“I can love you if you’re a man, and I can love you if you’re a hero- I guess, although for some reason that seems a lot harder- but I don’t think I can love a vigilante.”

The way that time is explained here is also something else, it almost becomes a character – often the villain of the piece. You’d have to read this to fully understand, which I hope you do. But time doesn’t like being changed, and what’s more time is full of coincidences and repeats where the details have been slightly changed…and, unless you’re a time traveller, you’d never notice them.

I implore you to pick this up so you too can enjoy a tense, endearing genre mash-up that will sit on the shelves of your mind for long after you’ve taken in the final words.

“Dancing is life.”

 

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Outliers – book review

Outliers: the story of success

There’s something fascinating about success isn’t there?

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t chase it. Some secretly, some openly. Whether it be raising a happy family, gaining a promotion or making millions after finding a niche in the market.

“In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.” 

It’s also easy for those of us who are still waiting for success, to look at people like Bill Gates and co with jealousy. Assuming that they bought their way to the top, or that they got ‘lucky’.

But Gladwell’s book blows the top off that, and leaves the reader with some fascinating insights into how situations and circumstances affect the success of your journey through life. Sometimes it really is as simple as being born in the right place at the right time…although, it’s often a little more complicated than that.

“No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich.” 

After reading Matthew Syed’s ‘Black Box Thinking‘ and ‘Bounce‘ I was intrigued by Gladwell’s work – which is referenced by Syed many times. So I sought this one out, and was instantly drawn in by the flow of Gladwell’s prose. It’s easy to digest, but informative at the same time. A trait that many non-fiction writers lack in this day and age.

I devoured the first three quarters of the book in a frenzy of information and head-nodding ‘wow’ moments. The last part dragged a little for me and I’m not really sure why, as the tempo of the book was consistent. I had a few other books lined up to read and perhaps this made me hurry the reading process along.

My attention pricked back up by the last chapter, which recounts Gladwell’s own mother/grandmother’s story, and it was a welcome touch. I like it when non-fiction authors involve themselves in their works, it becomes easier to relate to.

“Success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities.” 

Overall a 4/5 for me – one of those books that’s fairly quick to read and full of interesting anecdotes and characters. All of them true. I’ll be reading Gladwell’s ‘Tipping Point’ in the near future. Consider me a fan.

P.S Check out Gladwell’s podcast ‘Revisionist History‘ if you’re into that kind of thing.

Learn stuff from someone who knows stuff.

Ever find a website that you just can’t stop reading through?

Yeah, me too.

I bought a book recently called Predatory Thinking, written by copywriter and creative director, Dave Trott.

I happened to stumble across his blog shortly afterwards, and I suggest you have a look.

Dave Trott’s blog

A great example of how to fit creativity and information into a succinct post. Below I’ve decided to quote Trott’s description of what a story should entail:

“EVEN A NON-STORY IS A STORY

What are the universal structural elements of all stories?

1) Hook.

2) Build.

3) Payoff.

This is the shape any story must take.

1) A beginning that grabs the listener.

2) A middle that escalates in tension, suspense, stakes, and excitement.

3) An ending that brings it all home with a bang.

That’s a novel, that’s a play, that’s a movie, that’s a joke, that’s a seduction, that’s a military campaign.

It’s also your TED talk, your sales pitch, your Master’s thesis, and the 890-page true saga of your great-great-grandmother’s life.”

(source: http://davetrott.co.uk/2016/07/storytelling-v-verbosity/)

If you’re interested in Dave’s books you can find them below:

Dave’s books.