“Superpowers” by David J. Schwartz (2008)

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“It all started at a party, which is damn convenient if you ask me, and if this weren’t a true story I wouldn’t expect you to believe it.”

We’ve probably all, at one time or another, wondered what superpower we’d want. Some of us want to fly, others wouldn’t mind being able to teleport, or shapeshift, be able to manipulate the weather, or be able to predict the future. I’d want all the ones around time travel and time manipulation, or else being able to jump into fiction and interact with the characters inside. Broadly speaking though, you probably won’t complain with whatever you end up with – it’ll still be cool.

Superpowers takes us back to 2001, and is the account of five students in Madison, Wisconsin who all develop superpowers unexpectedly after a night drinking home-brewed beer in a colossal thunderstorm. Mary Beth is now the strongest person on Earth; Jack is faster than a speeding bullet; Caroline can fly and spends her evenings enjoying her new power; Charlie can read everyone’s thoughts and is becoming overwhelmed; and Harriet can turn invisible. Once they start getting a handle on their new abilities, they decide to form a superhero team, dubbed by the media as the All Stars, thanks to the patterns on the chests of their Lycra uniforms.

The five struggle to keep their identities secret from the wider world, but they’re drawing attention to themselves and not always in a good way. Some of the people they’ve tried to save don’t appreciate the help, and the police, including Harriet’s own father, are on the case of the All Stars, since vigilante activity is illegal. They soon realise that they are still fragile, and even they can’t solve all the world’s problems. This will become vastly more apparent to them soon, as it’s 2001. September is coming, and with it, an event that will rearrange the world order and prove to them that being a hero isn’t all it’s cracked up to be…

The situation, while fantastical, is handled in a startlingly realistic way. Naturally, the characters take a while to come round to the sudden changes, but quickly decide that they must use their powers for good. When other people begin to find out about them, no one declares that it’s impossible or rounds them up for medical tests, and it’s all taken in its stride with the more pressing issues of keeping their names and faces out of the media, and how to fight crime at keep up with their classes at the same time.

It’s also quite funny in places, but does deal well with the struggles that would occur with these powers. Charlie, for example, is overwhelmed by his ability to read everyone’s thoughts, and considers it an invasion of privacy he’s not happy to have. Jack’s super speed has meant that he’s now aging far faster than the normal human rate. And Harriet soon discovers that she can use her invisibility to spy on people and pretend to be living someone else’s life. Also, it can’t maintain the comedy for the whole thing because of what happens at the end – I won’t spell it out for you, but it’s clear if you’re reading properly. The situation is dealt with in a respectful and fascinating manner, and reminds everyone of how tragic that single event was.

Ultimately, like pretty much all superhero fiction, it’s a book about power and responsibility, but even more so I would say it’s about accepting our limitations, whether we’ve got superpowers or not. It’s important to know that none of us can single-handedly save the world or do all that needs doing, but we can help out in our own small ways.

“Dead Man’s Footsteps” by Peter James (2008)

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DMF“If Ronnie Wilson had known, as he woke up, that in just a couple of hours he would be dead, he would have planned his day somewhat differently.”

I have returned with a newfound speed to Peter James’ series of novels about Brighton policeman Roy Grace. This may exclude a few of you readers who haven’t yet read the first three books in this series – in order, Dead Simple, Looking Good Dead and Not Dead Enough – so read on at your own peril, although I don’t think there is much I can particularly spoil. Yes, there is an ongoing arc through the series, but in this book it takes a backseat. Perhaps try my review for the similiarly named Dead Man’s Folly instead. In either case, I am about to start gushing as soon as I’ve given you a basic outline of the plot.

Ronnie Wilson is one of Brighton’s criminal underclass, but he’s not a particularly successful one. He has arrived in New York with the plan of meeting with one of his contacts and getting him to work with him again, and this time he’s certain that they’ll all be rolling in it. Unfortunately, the meeting never occurs because Ronnie has picked the worst moment to be in New York: it’s 2001, and it’s the morning of September 11th. Surviving the terrible events that follow, he decides that this may actually be a good thing for him – he can fake his own death, clear his debts and start again, even if that means abandoning his devoted wife back home.

Six years later, back in Brighton, a young woman called Abby Dawson is hidden away in her triple-locked flat, scared and alone. It’s clear she’s had to change her appearance and shouldn’t be there, but it’s hard to say why or who she really is. Fears that the man she’s running from have found her become magnified when she gets stuck in the broken lift of her block of flats. She’s got something he wants, and she knows that he’ll stop at nothing to get it back.

Elsewhere in Brighton, DS Roy Grace is called to a storm drain on a building site where a skeleton has been found, dead for many years and with a broken neck. Someone murdered her, and it’s now time for him and his team to seek out some clues of this tragic event, despite the fact that the trail of clues seems to have run cold almost immediately. Throw into this the issues of his new colleague, the slimy Cassian Pewe, his new relationship with mortician Cleo, and his best friend Glenn apparently on the verge of divorce, Grace is suddenly thrown into a busy investigation that will take his team halfway around the world in an effort to solve the case.

Let gushing commence!

I think I said last time that it took me four years to read the first three Roy Grace novels and that was a mistake, which has led to the progressively shorter times between each installment. They’re all dense, thick books, each one easily topping 500 pages, but the writing flows so magnificently that the pages just melt away from under you as you’re caught up in the intricate storylines. The three plots I’ve given above seem, at first, to have nothing to do with one another, but as the book continues, James ties them all up neatly, as he always does, and often in ways that you simply don’t expect.

Grace remains an infinitely likeable man who knows his duty and will do it whatever the cost. The cast of secondary characters, however, is what really brings the whole thing to life. Each character is introduced with their appearance and vague notes of personality, but it never feels like it’s been shoehorned in. Exposition happens naturally, and lets us see what these people are like. There’s a large cast but in each book different ones seem to take centre stage. In this one, for example, Grace’s relationship with girlfriend Cleo is never a big issue, whereas for the last few books it has been shown in some detail. This book also has the wonderful (in literary terms) introduction of Cassian Pewe, a police officer from the Met who has joined Grace in Sussex. Pewe should have arrived two books previously but was in a car crash relating to a case Grace was on, so has only just been able to join in the fun. In the manner of Professor Umbridge from the Harry Potter books, he is perfectly described in full technicolour slimy, oily, vile brilliance, a suck-up who doesn’t like being told what to do and seems determined to undermine Grace at every turn. Grace, however, can give as good as he gets, and also has more respect than Pewe from most of the staff, with the possible exception of Alison Vosper, his and Pewe’s boss who favours Pewe in every area.

The tragedy at the World Trade Center is also handled marvellously and takes you deep into the action and the drama that unfolded in the first minutes, hours and days after that first plane hit. While Ronnie is far from a sympathetic character, he displays well the shock, anger and abject horror of the events in a completely understandable way. The book also honours the NYPD and FDNY, showing how tirelessly they worked to help restore order and bring calm to the city and the world after that fateful day.

It’s a fast, engaging read, and there are few authors I enjoy spending as much time with as Peter James. His style is conversational, chatty, but his research is second to none and every character and location is fully realised and three dimensional. Given the impossibly gripping cliffhanger ending, expect the fifth installment of the series on the blog by the end of the year.

If you want to read more of my writing, please download my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, available for all ebook platforms from Amazon, iTunes and other ebook retailers.

“Dead Air” by Iain Banks (2002)

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Dead boring...

Dead boring…

“You’re breaking up.”

This blog seems to keep coming full circle as I return to authors that I first read towards the beginning of my time here. The Wasp Factory was one of those first books and, despite myself and despite the content, I really enjoyed it. Thinking I’d try Banks again for a similar experience, I got hold of Dead Air, but the results were not to be repeated. Here comes one of those rare but sometimes necessary things: a bad review.

Dead Air is the story of Ken Nott, an opiniated leftie radio DJ whose job exists continually on a knife edge as he keeps on saying things on air that land him in trouble. Off the air, his life is just as complicated. His girlfriend Jo is becoming more and more distant, he’s just started an affair with the wife of a London crime lord, and at least one attempt has just been made on his life. This all takes place against the backdrop of September 11th, which has just happened, changed the world, and shaken up everything we knew to be safe and true.

The plot (such as it is) is uninteresting and takes so long to kick in that you really can’t get a good enough grip on it to care very much. All the actual story doesn’t happen until the last ninety pages or so. Before that, Banks has gone for the rather novel approach of forgetting to tell a compelling story to having the main character simply rant about anything and everything he chooses to, from music to immigration. It’s hard to tell exactly how much overlap there is between Ken’s views and Banks’s views, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s 100%.

Ken is not a likeable protagonist and while that sometimes works, here it simply doesn’t. He’s self-absorbed, a liar and a cheat, who seems to suffer little mental anguish for the hurt he causes other people (although perhaps, in fairness to him, he doesn’t often let them know what he’s been doing, to save them from that hurt). The other characters are flat and there simply for Ken to rant at, while they butt in with further comments to fuel his ranting. I’m not denying that the rants contain some very well-written language, because some of them do, but there are just too many of them. This isn’t a novel – it’s Banks attempting to share all of his thoughts with the world through an unpleasant mouthpiece.

Granted, there are some excellent red herrings thrown into the book and you can be certain about why something is happening, only to have the rug pulled from under you a few chapters later. However, the book overall was a disappointment. I don’t really know what I was expecting, but the blurb on the novel’s back places emphasis on the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, but in actuality this is merely wallpaper to a story that’s trying very hard to be modern but already, just twelve years later, seems out of date. It claims to be a thriller, but it is not in the least thrilling.

I’m sure Banks is an excellent author – I know he can be – but this is most certainly not one of his best, and it has made me wary.