Friday, December 16, 2011

2,523: The Informationist by Taylor Stevens

I was sent a copy of The Informationist by its publisher, Crown Publishing, for which I am very grateful despite feeling a little handicapped in my ability to review it.  You see, the book’s heroine, Vanessa ‘Michael’ Munroe, is being pushed as an alternative Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson’s monster-selling trilogy but, as I haven’t read this, I can’t possibly assess whether the comparison is fair or accurate.

Munroe is an “informationist”, someone who is highly skilled at obtaining information and analysing it.  A traumatic childhood in Africa has left her physically and mentally scarred but has made her a killing machine with an ability to blend into any culture.  She is also a naturally gifted linguist, being apparently able to speak 22 different languages.  

On the advice of Miles Bradford, a mercenary and business associate of Richard Burbank, CEO of Titan Exploration, an American oil company with interests in West Africa, Munroe is hired to investigate the disappearance of Burbank’s daughter, Emily, in southern Africa.

Having accepted the assignment, Munroe follows her own instincts and knowledge to look in a completely different African country for traces of Emily and, in doing so, is forced to face up to her own demons and past.  As the body count mounts, Munroe will stop at nothing to find the truth, which turns out to be completely unexpected and opens up both old and new wounds.

As one would expect from a debut novel, The Informationist is a mix of the good and the bad of thriller writing.  On the positive side, Stevens has come up with a good, solid plot and is strong on action scenes and pacing.  This, together with the frequent twists and turns in the story, makes for a real page-turner and I was continually wanting to know what happened next or, more often, why what things had just happened.

Stevens also conveys a real sense of the African countries in which the majority of the book is set, both in terms of the physical environments and the political and cultural life of those places.  She clearly has a good knowledge of West Africa and, interestingly, makes that part of the world come alive much more than the American and European locations she uses.

Unfortunately, the strengths of Stevens’ plotting and scene-setting aren’t matched by her dialogue.  Although she mostly avoids the trap of having her characters deliver lengthy pieces of exposition, much of the dialogue is pretty wooden and her characters speak indistinguishably from each other so that a Cameroonian document forger does not sound markedly different from an American executive.

If The Informationist was intended to be a stand-alone novel, all this would be fine and I’d be happy to recommend it as an above-average thriller with an unusual setting and premise.  Munroe is, though, intended to be the heroine of a series and this causes me a little concern.  She is depicted as sexy, talented, an invincible fighter, capable of killing without remorse either in cold blood or with a kind of berserker-style rage but, in the next minute, becoming a passionate lover, albeit one who is always in control.  My nearest comparator to her would be Jack Reacher, from Lee Childs’ series which I used to look out for but in which, in recent years, have lost all interest.

The main reason for this is that Reacher is, to all intents and purposes, unbeatable and a little too perfect to make an interesting lead character and I think that there is a risk that Munroe will also fall into this category.  Taylor Stevens, the author of The Informationist, like her heroine, had a traumatic and much-travelled childhood and, without wanting to pretend to be some kind of pop psychologist, I can’t help wondering whether Munroe may be her fantasy alter ego, someone who, from an equally unhappy background, has emerged as a kick-ass, don’t-mess-with-me individual.  Having already faced her demons in this first instalment, I’m not sure that Munroe will stay as interesting as the series progresses.  Steven’s plotting skills will need to be in tip-top condition to make this happen.

Overall, I’d still happily recommend this.  Africa is an under-explored region in thriller-writing, there’s plenty of action for aficionados and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  The sequel, The Innocents, is out later this month in the UK and I will be buying (although probably not until it comes out in paperback).  Only time will tell, though, whether Vanessa ‘Michael Munroe has the metaphorical legs to enter into the pantheon of thriller heroes and heroines.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: What can I get Santa to deliver to you?

A brief trip into the dark heart of London’s West End at the weekend both indicated to me that the Christmas period is well and truly upon us and provided further evidence of the madness of crowds as the frenzied shopping seemed more reminiscent of the carefree days from before 2008 than today’s age of austerity.  Either people have restricted their spending all year in anticipation of a festive splurge or there are going to be some more households in trouble come the middle of January when the credit card bills drop through the letterbox.  I fear the latter.

The Falaise household is sticking to its pre-planned level of expenditure this year, however, and the vast bulk of the gift shopping has been completed, with only Mrs F and my brother-in-law not yet having been dealt with.  I can, therefore, say with confidence that none of the books that form part of this list of ten books we would most like to give this Christmas, as requested by the Broke and the Bookish, will actually be given by me this Yuletide.  

But, not so fast!  will be giving one of these books away - as a post-Christmas treat to one of you.  Just leave a comment below, stating which book you would like and, on December 31, my trusty Random Number Generator and I will make a pick and, delivery charges and availability permitting, one of you will have a nice literary start to 2012.

I should here point out that I am wilfully disobeying the rules of this Top Ten Tuesday by not specifying to whom I would give these books so as to avoid embarrassment either for me or them.  Instead, it is a list of books I love and would like to se someone else enjoy.  And , as it’s Christmas and people just want to relax, I’ve not included anything too heavy.

1.         The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper.  I’m not a big reader of children’s/YA books but this series of five novels, themed around Celtic and Arthurian myth is simply brilliant.  I’d happily give it to anyone but especially to imaginative kids.  If you want to suggest this as your giveaway prize, I should point out that the limits of my generosity are such that you will get the first two in the sequence.  You’re on your own after that, I’m afraid.

2.         A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.  It’s the right time of the year for it, it’s a good read and, as next year is the bicentenary of his birth, it would whet the appetite for the celebrations and events that are planned.  Also, most people are only familiar with the story from TV or film versions so it suits my literary snob side to get someone else to read it.

3.         Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman.  A present for a keen reader, this is a collection of essays about books, language, reading, book collecting and all matters bookish.  It’s a joy to read.

4.         Achtung Schweinehund! by Harry Pearson.  Is there a British middle-aged male in your life?  If so, then this is effectively a user’s guide to said man.  Pearson’s memoir of a childhood of model making, war comics and Action Man has so many echoes of that of me and my friends at the time that I’m not sure whether to be relieved at the ubiquity of the experience or worried at the general immaturity of British manhood!

5.         The Kitchen Diaries by Nigel Slater.  Nigel Slater’s journal of a year in his kitchen is crammed full of tempting recipes that are eminently manageable by even cooks as hopeless as me.  Even if you are not a cook, he writes in a style that makes your mouthwater and it can definitely be read as a book rather than just as a cookbook.

6.         Animal Farm by George Orwell.  The subject matter isn’t at all festive but, as I explained in this post, this book is indelibly associated with Christmas for me.  It’s a perfect little allegorical gem.  Everyone should read it and it would be an ideal gift for a young person just getting into history or politics.

7.         Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie.  Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a bit of Agatha on the TV or to read by the fire.  This is one of the classics and one of my all-time favourites.  I’d give it to an aged relative, except they’ve probably already got it.

8.         Casino Royale by Ian Fleming.  When I were a lad (say this in a broad Yorkshire accent for maximum effect), there was always a Bond movie on TV on Christmas Day afternoon, just after the Queen’s Speech and it was one of the centrepieces of the programming schedules.  What with DVDs and satellite TV, that’s not the case any more but I’d happily give a Fleming novel to someone to read during the afternoon instead.  I’ve picked Casino Royale because I think it is probably the best from a literary point of view but I’d also think about Moonraker for its brilliant gambling scene in M’s London club.  And it’s nothing like the frankly trashy movie version.

9.         The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse.  I can’t think of many more enjoyable ways to spend part of Christmas Day than Wodehouse, a glass of claret and some good cheese to nibble on to fill up any corners untouched by turkey and trimmings.   The Code of the Woosters is one of the best Jeeves novels and I defy anyone not to chuckle while reading it.

10.       The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux.  Probably my favourite piece of travel literature and a book I’d love to give to everyone.  Every time I read it, I just want to jump on a train and start off round the world.

And as a bonus stocking filler, I’d want to make sure everyone on my gift list had a copy of one of the Rumpole books as this great Old Bailey hack barrister is a fictional national treasure, a gently amusing triumph and a comfort in our turbulent world.

Which of these would you like to receive?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Some old school tales from back in the day

It’s all gone a bit retro over at the Broke and the Bookish for today’s Top Ten Tuesday.  In a reprise of the first ever Top Ten Tuesday, we’re all going to dust off a few of our childhood favourites.

I don’t suppose it will come as any great surprise that, similarly to all of you, I was a voracious reader as a child, draining my parents’ bank balance and annoying the hell out of our local library.  I can’t possibly rank them so here is a selection of some of the books I enjoyed before I moved on to more adult fare.

1.         The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.  I have recently bought a gorgeous Folio Society edition of this in hardback for when mini-Falaise is ready for it in about 5 years time (you may call it obsessional, I call it good planning).  An all-time classic and a springboard to The Lord of the Rings.  And if she doesn’t like it, I’ll have the book back!

2.         `Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.  If I were a betting man, I’d stake a considerable amount of money that this will feature on a large number of lists today and, if it doesn’t, it should.  Neither of the films has done it justice.  Also, the sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, shouldn’t be overlooked.

3.         The Adventure Series by Enid Blyton.  I know she was an old-fashioned racist, sexist, classist so-and-so but I loved her books as a child and can’t help feeling slightly uncomfortable at the various bans and bowdlerisations that have taken place.  I could easily have put down the Famous Five or the Secret Seven instead and do rather like the idea of the Secret Seven’s clubhouse and their lashings of cake and ginger beer.  Mini-Falaise’s great-grandparents have bought her the first four Famous Five books for when she’s older and I will have no problem with her reading them – after all, it’s my job (along with Mrs F) to make sure she grows up with a decent set of attitudes and not Enid’s.

4.         Tales of the Greek Heroes by Roger Lancelyn Green.  I was addicted to mythology as a child and Lancelyn Green, a former Inkling, produced a number of children’s versions of both Greek and Norse myths and versions of the Arthur story and the story of Robin Hood, all of which I devoured.  I don’t know if they are still in print but this one in particular inspired a love of Greek myth that led me on to The Iliad and The Odyssey and eventually on to studying Classical Greek at school and reading the literature in the original.

5.         The Jennings Series by Anthony Buckerdige.  Even before I went to prep school, I loved the Jennings and Darbishire boarding school novels.  I guess the social and maybe even moral attitudes they describe are outdated today but they were fun and there was an innocent subversiveness about them.  They led me on to the more satirical world of Molesworth, who still delights me now.

6.         The Adventure Series by Willard Price.  Another from my apparently extensive back catalogue of childhood favourites with distinctly dodgy cultural undertones.  Price’s heroes were a pair of teenage zoologist brothers, Hal and Roger, who travelled the world getting embroiled in a series of wildlife-related adventures.  I particularly loved the underwater themed ones.  They’ve been recently re-released here in the UK (although, oddly out of sequence) and I have bought a couple for my eldest nephew, aged seven.  Also, and here’s an odd piece of trivia, Price was, allegedly, a CIA agent.

7.         Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome.  Oh, how I loved this tale of children sailing dinghies and camping out on an island in their summer holidays.  It was a world away from my suburban upbringing and seemed so exciting and fun.  Even in the 1970s when I read it, it had a wonderful period feel, something of a time gone by, a more innocent time.  I can’t help feeling that we need books like this even more today, when childhood seems to be a more stressful, pressured and commercialised time than back in my day.

8.         The Professor Branestawm series by Norman Hunter.  I used to wonder at the Renaissance –man qualities of Norman “Bite yer legs” Hunter who apparently combined his role as the hard man of Don Revie’s legendary Leeds United defence with a successful career as a children’s author, until I realised it was a completely different Norman Hunter.  Anyway, despite the shattering of my childhood illusions, Hunter’s stories of the absent-minded professor and the chaos caused by his incredible inventions were favourites of my youth.  I think some may still be in print but they are definitely worth a look.

9.         The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.  I blame Lewis for encouraging me to climb into every wardrobe I could find at home or in any home I visited for a while, just checking that there was no door to Narnia in there.  I never really got into the sequels, funnily enough, but this one also gave me a life-long love of Turkish Delight.  Yum.

10.       The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper.  My list wouldn’t be complete without the inclusion of this series, given that I have banged on about it often in these lists.  Even more excitingly, the Folio Society has begun to publish beautiful editions of these books too, which will be added to mini-Falaise’s growing shelf of classics for when she gets a little older.

I could have gone on forever with this one.  I can’t believe I haven’t found room for books like James and the Giant Peach, Stig of the Dump, the Silver Sword, Paddington, Fantastic Mr Fox, Agaton Sax, Watership Down, Tarka the Otter, the Moomins, Where the Wild Things Are, Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh or The Phantom Talbooth.  Makes me want to be a child again so I would have an excuse to read them and many others again.  Mini-Falaise, watch out, your bedtimes are planned for the next few years!