What I’ve been reading lately, part 46

Blackout (Sam Archer book 3) — Tom Barber


A workaday action novel about a counter-terrorism agent and his colleagues surviving a revenge attempt from a group of Albanian terrorists, number 3 in a series. There’s the seed of something here, but a lack of craftsmanship that renders most scenes plodding and most characters bland. Much is made of the lead character’s deep bonds of friendship with certain other characters, but nothing comes of it. Similarly someone else’s profound and detailed knowledge of guns doesn’t go anywhere. I won’t be going back for books 1 and 2, or 4 to 13.

The Phoenix and the Carpet — Edith Nesbit

The sequel to Five Children and It, which I enjoyed. I enjoyed this one, too, for all the same reasons. Brisk, efficient writing that takes itself seriously despite the outlandish subject matter, and keeps introducing new ideas and incidents. I wrote of its predecessor that it is “pleasingly brisk and unsentimental, not to mention a lot of fun”, and that applies here, too. It is justly considered a classic.

I believe C. S. Lewis once wrote about the importance of not writing down to children — of addressing them a equals, whose concerns are just as important as those of the writer. I would not be surprised if he discovered this principle in this book and others by Nesbit, who is an influence that he cited on writing.

You Had Me at Hello — Mhairi McFarlane

I went back and re-read the novel that had been my first experience of McFarlane, and which had led me to go on to read almost everything she’s written. Loved it again: well-drawn characters, fresh images, interesting mysteries, and a romance that we end up caring about.

What is good writing? It’s writing that, as simply as possible, leaves an impression — one that you can believe. In their very different ways, Nesbit and McFarlane both do this. They each use relatively sparse prose that tells us only what we need to know, eschewing detailed descriptions. They both generally go easy on descriptions of internal states, leaving us instead to infer how the characters feel from how they act. When from time to time McFarlane does takes a dive into the emotional life of one of her characters, she really makes it count, with razor-sharp images and illuminating metaphors that leave us not just knowing what the character feel but feeling it with her.

After Hello — Mhairi McFarlane

Another re-read, and again very enjoyable in its small way. (This is a short-story sequel to You Had Me At Hello.)

The Titan’s Curse — Rick Riordan

Third in the series that opened with The Lightning Thief and continued with the rather disappointing Sea of Monsters. This series of young-adult books make for very easy reading, moving quickly through their episodic plots. For me, this one was a return to form, pushing out into some new directions where Monsters had felt too much like a retread of the original. There are two more books to go in this series, and I surely will re-read them both. Whether I go on to the sequel series is less certain.

Strip Tease — Carl Hiaasen

Hiaasen’s fifth main-sequence novel, I enjoyed this one rather less than the four that preceded it, perhaps because of its relentless griminess. So very many of the characters are despicable: the exploitative sugar baron, the corrupt politician, the amoral fixer, the wheelchair-thief ex-husband, the corner-cutting strip-club owner, the psychotic bouncer, the fraudulent lawyer. But there’s more to it. The main character is forced by circumstances to earn her living as a stripper, and with that comes a (quite understandable) loathing and contempt of men as a class. I absolutely get it, but it becomes wearying after a while. So Strip Tease lacks the knockabout fun quality that pervades most of Hiaasen’s work even when we’re reading about horrible characters.

Strange, then, that of all Hiaasen’s novels, this is the only one to have been adapted into a movie — the famously terrible Demi Moore vehicle Striptease (1996). I can only assume that its poor reception mitigated against adaptations of his other, better, books. Shame.

Artemis Fowl — Eoin Colfer

My youngest son absolutely loves this series of kids’ books — there are eight of them, plus two more in a new sequence. I started re-reading this on holiday when I realised, lying on the beach, that I’d left my Kindle at the house and had nothing to read. Luckily, Jonno had this in his backpack. I found it enjoyable enough but nothing to write home about. Oddly, I remembered almost nothing at all from my first read-through — so little that I wasn’t actually sure I’d read it before at all. On re-reading my original comments, though, I stand by them. I rate this only OK.

Lucky You — Carl Hiaasen

Another re-read in a summer of re-reads. The first time I read this I didn’t like it as much as most of Hiaasen’s books, and that impression remains the second time through. For these books to really fly, you have to not only hate the villains but laugh at them, too. And these guys are too nasty to laugh at. Definitely not the place to start with Hiaasen.

The Battle of the Labyrinth — Rick Riordan

The fourth of the Percy Jackson books, and enjoyable in all the same ways as the third. It remains some way short of great literature, but I’m not too bothered about that. I read for fun. And in the end, the test of whether a book was fun to read is whether you go straight on to read its sequel …

The Last Olympian — Rick Riordan

… Which is exactly what I did. This brings the Olympians sequence to a satsifying conclusion in which multiple massive threats are faced and defeated, all loose ends are tied up, and pretty much every character gets a moment of closure that feels appropriate. This is a good sequence of books, and I’d recommend them to any kids in the 10–15 age-range. And indeed to adults who don’t feel themselves above such things.

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