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.


Reviewing bad horror films…

I recently took a spontaneous leap and signed up for Shudder – if you’re into horror or thriller films, it may well be worth checking out. It’s basically a genre-tailored version of Netflix.

Horror films are notorious when it comes to fiction – be it on film or in the pages of a book. I guess it’s because some of them are so bad – low budget filmmakers just can’t seem to keep themselves away from trying to tell scary stories.

As excruciatingly cringe-worthy as some might be, sometimes it’s a bit of fun to switch off and watch them. So, today that’s what I’ve done and I’ve taken it upon myself to review a few of them as I went.

Ritual (2013)

(Take That – 2060 reunion gig)

Plot in a nutshell: A man takes a late night call from his estranged wife, and soon wishes he hadn’t.

This film could be a poster child for the term ‘low-budget’ – 90% of it takes place in one location and many of the scenes look as if they’ve been shot on a handheld camcorder, giving it that ‘straight outta film school’ vibe.

At the start there’s a really cool, old school ‘warning’ screen that comes on and says that anyone with a faint heart shouldn’t stay at watch the film. I liked that, and I also liked the use of sound and voiceovers. They’re great at building tension, and the one easy tool that a low budget filmmaker usually has in their arsenal in sound.

I don’t mind a slowburner, but this was exceptionally slow at times. In fact, for long periods of time, this almost seemed more like a relationship drama than a horror film.

The ending will no doubt shock a lot of viewers – it was quite bold! There were a few jump scenes, and there was a creepy overall feeling but I didn’t find myself walking away from it and thinking…’that was some tense shit’ so from me this gets a 2/5.

The Burning (1981)

(Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue, circa 1980s)

Plot in a nutshell: A pissed-off caretaker unleashes his anger on the residents of a summer camp.

Where would any post on horror movies be complete without a slasher reference? Although I have to say, for long periods of time (particularly at the end) this one plays out more like a thriller – something which works in its favour.

I fully expected to not enjoy ‘The Burning’ at all. I thought I’d sit here in my Ivory Tower, laughing at how cheesy and poorly made it was….but I was wrong. Sure, it is cheesy and, in some points, highly predictable – but there are some good ‘jump’ scenes and the final twenty minutes of the film really got me going.

Having said that, some of the dialogue was terrible. Here are a few highlights:

“Burned so bad he’s cooked. fuckin’ big mac. overdone” (this line is spoken by a Doctor)

‘Alfred’s been prowling around the girl’s shower’
‘What do you have to say about that, Alfred?’
‘I only meant to scare her!’ (said as if it’s the most normal thing in the world)

‘Michelle! the canoes have gone”
‘What do you mean they’re gone?’
‘They’re not here!’

‘Where did you learn to build a raft?’
‘Raft building! in the boy scouts!
‘Thank God for the boy scouts!’

I believe this film was actually banned for a while in the UK due to a scene on a raft…but, compared to what we see nowadays, it’s relatively tame.

Special shoutout to Jason Alexander who is great in this – he’d eventually go on to star in Seinfeld. 


The attitudes of some of the camp seniors to their girlfriends are really terrible here, they come across as absolute animals and you’re left with very little sympathy for them when they run into the killer.

These sorts of films are predictable, though and until the last portion of the film none of the characters have any fight in them, so they’re really just fodder for the killer (Cropsey is his nickname!) – they all make such stupid decisions too, it’s easy to be frustrated by it.

I did like the ending though – it was the usual kind of ‘shock’ ending that these films usually have – something that’s meant to be surprising but now does the opposite.

For me it’s a 4/5 – it’s laughable in places, but also keeps the pulse-racing and it really does hold your attention. Something which so many films miss nowadays.

Tenebrae (1982)

(I already said, I don’t have any treats!)

Plot in a nutshell: An author goes to promote his book in Rome, and a murderer suddenly strikes.

Like a good wine selection, I don’t think any horror film list is complete without something Italian. Apparently, this was inspired by some experiences that the director (Dario Argento) actually had with a crazed fan.

While the story is mostly linear and easy to follow, it does occasionally burst into strange and fleeting dream-like sequences. Fragmented and disjointed images, accompanied by creepy music. It reminded me of the way nightmares played out.

Some of the themes are good and, again, there’s a nice use of music to elevate tension. But, as with so many horror films, the filmmaker is so hellbent on upping his bodycount that the characters continually put themselves in danger, and make silly decisions.

Some of the drama involved is very convoluted,  and the acting isn’t going to be any awards any time soon – but it is entertaining, and it didn’t find my attention wavering.

The ending was silly though and, again, characters do stupid things just to put themselves in the way of danger so the body count can go up.

3/5 for me, I’d say.



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.

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.

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.


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.


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…