The Demonologist- Andrew Pyper (Orion 2013)- A Running Man Review

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Okay, I’ve let this one go a couple of years now I can get it out of my system.  When this book was released I was lucky to be sent a post a review copy.  Whoever was responsible for sending the books out was a genius because it really was the most sumptuous parcel I have ever received.  The book arrived in a tied brown paper parcel, purporting to come from Venice, with an authentic looking seal and a letter from the Demonologist, the main character.  The whole thing looked delicious, was exciting and just a little bit creepy, which was exactly what I hoped the publishers were trying to achieve.    Top marks for the creative department who thought this up.  I couldn’t wait to read it.  Yes, you’ve guessed it, the book was a let-down……….

My copy was sent on the understanding that if I enjoyed it I would review it favourably on Amazon (I didn’t have the blog site then).  I never posted that review.  I have recently been thinking about books that didn’t live up to the hype so I thought it was about time I put into print what it was that didn’t work for me.  It was a book I should have loved – a blend of horror and action/adventure, a Venetian setting and a very attractive front cover.

Because I am such a sensitive soul I didn’t post on Amazon because I didn’t want the author and publishers to find out I couldn’t rave over the book after all the trouble they had gone to.  The last nine months of reviewing has toughened me up.  I have had a sneaky look at Amazon to see if I’m wide off the mark, opinion-wise and there is the usual mixed views, but with a fascinating spread.  34 reviews are currently listed – ten 5 stars (did they receive the free copy I wonder?) seven 4 stars,  ten 3 stars and seven 2 stars.  Such perfect symmetry needs commenting on……

The whole thing reminded me of another book I should have liked but didn’t, “The Historian” by  Elizabeth Kostova which aimed to take the Dracula story to a new level (only for me it didn’t – nor for the 201/427 Amazon reviewers who rated it 3* or below.  What am I doing looking at these Amazon statistics?  I hardly ever do this!).  The “Demonologist” attempts to give a new sheen to the work of John Milton and his “Paradise Lost”.

Demons make contact with David Ullman, an American Milton specialist and steal his daughter.  This is his quest to get her back in what is truly a race against the Devil.  The main reason it doesn’t work is because it is written in present tense, which is not in itself a bad thing, but leads to a sense of disappointment if you are trying to build suspense.  It means that some of the scary things that happen when the main character is not around have to be reported rather than allowing us as readers to experience them.  I feel instantly cheated and I’m surprised that this wasn’t pointed out before publication as it seems to me to be a considerable flaw.

This, however, might mean that the plot would work better as a film and I noted that Pyper’s previous novels are in development as films.  Visually, with its Venice setting, it could be stunning and the chills could be more effective.

The Professor’s battles with the Devil are largely cerebral and involve Milton’s words from which the Professor can inexplicably gather clue as to his daughter’s whereabouts (some of my mature UK readers might remember the TV show “3-2-1” and this certainly comes to mind here!).

Characterwise, it was one of the supporting characters who attracted my attention rather than the Professor.  Elaine O’Brien, his colleague who is suffering from terminal cancer seems a more rounded character and I wanted to read more about her.  Also, and perhaps, importantly, given the nature of the book, I couldn’t believe in the father/daughter relationship which is so central to the plot.  It didn’t scare me and I didn’t think it was particularly thrilling but it did pass the time well so wasn’t a complete disaster.  I haven’t written Canadian author Pyper off.  His novel “The Damned” was published in the UK in March 2015 and the Daily Mail reviewer certainly liked it – but this for me is one clear case where the promise didn’t deliver.

twostars

The Demonologist was published by Orion (who certainly did a good job in the marketing) in 2013.

(I feel better for that- I’ve been suffering from reviewer’s guilt because I never posted that original review!)

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The Venice Conspiracy – Jon Trace (Sphere 2010) – A Running Man Review

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At the end of every year I select my 10 best books I’ve read during that year irrespective of publication date and these are the books that are allowed to stay on my shelves whilst the rest end up being donated to the library, to charity shops or given away to friends. I read quite a lot of adventure genre books but very few end up ever making it into my Top 10 list. In fact, since the arrival of Dan Brown who reactivated this genre for me there has just been his “Da Vinci Code” and “Lost Symbol” and Steve Berry’s “Romanov Prophecy” which have made the cut.

It could be all change this year as Jon Trace has written a book good enough to make the list. He’s achieved this with a convincing blend of out and out adventure and a police procedural with a touch of horror and plenty of thrills. This makes the book feel original in a genre which can become a tad predictable. There’s no cartoon baddies, the Nazis are not involved and neither the Templars nor the Masons have an effect on the outcomes. In style it reminded me of Adam Blake’s “Dead Sea Deception”  from 2011 as he also seemed to be trying something very different with a blend of genres, but this is better.

One of the joys of “The Venice Conspiracy” is that we are not overladen with parallel narratives. The main plot features ex Priest Tom Shaman who gives up the Church when his intervention to help a rape victim on the streets of Compton, LA, leads to two men being killed. He goes to Venice on the strength of a Canaletto painting and for reasons that are unclear to me becomes a consultant in a murder case after he discovers a body in the canal.

Alongside this we have a tale of the Etruscans from 666BC where events gently mirror the present day narrative. When that thread reaches its natural end we are introduced to a monk, Tommasso, in Eighteenth Century Venice who has experiences similar to Shaman. This is all building up to an execution in San Quentin Prison and all three narratives are linked by an ancient artefact produced by an Etruscan woman which is said to depict the Gates Of Hell. Chapters are short and Trace is very good with pace (I’m not sure if that rhyme is intentional!). We also get to experience Tom adapting to life outside the Church as situations occur which threaten his trust in humans and risks undermining the Italian Police investigation. I was with this all the way (with the slight reservation of how the ex-Priest got himself into the Consultant role). It builds up well and there’s enough twists and turns to appeal to the crime writing fan.

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The Venice Conspiracy was published by Sphere in 2010.

Two By Scott Mariani – A Running Man Review

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The Alchemist’s Secret – Scott Mariani (2007)

The Mozart Conspiracy- Scott Mariani (2008)

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These two novels are the first in Mariani’s series featuring Ben Hope – a specialist in finding the lost and the kidnapped. There are now 11 Ben Hope novels together with 2 novellas so I have a fair bit of catching up to do. Scott has also begun a very different series featuring the Vampire Federation, these he writes as Scott G. Mariani. I have a couple of these on my shelves but have not got round to them yet.

Scott Mariani is a British author (born in Scotland, now living in Wales) and a quick look at his website sees comparisons being made to James Bond, the Bourne books and even “Dan Brown on Steroids”. He is one of the leading lights of the adventure genre novel.

In our introduction to Ben Hope, “The Alchemist’s Secret” it is the elixir of life that is being searched for. This is to help a rich man’s dying grand-daughter. The secret of this, it is believed, is contained in the lost documents of the alchemist Fulcanelli, a real-life genius shrouded in much mystery who disappeared in the 1920’s and whose whole life seems tailor-made for this kind of novel. Ben Hope gets entangled with the myths surrounding alchemy and the Cathars (a European Christian movement active particularly between the 12th and 14th Centuries.) He encounters corrupt archbishops and Christian Fundamentalism in an enjoyable (and yes, far-fetched) novel. Mariani is effective in keeping his plot-lines simple, helping readability and keeping it all entertaining without feeling the need to bombard us with multiple plot strands which can make a significant number of books in this genre a frustrating read.

The standard is maintained in “The Mozart Conspiracy” (2008). Here a musician friend of Hope’s is murdered whilst researching the circumstances around the death of Mozart. Hope joins forces with the man’s sister (and an old flame of his) to find out what happened. Here we have to face ritual killings, child kidnapping and The Masons. It moves well and once again reads easily. Hope’s character feels more rounded in this second novel and he is ably assisted by some new involving characters, especially Leigh Llewellyn -opera star and sister of the murdered Oliver; Kinksi, the police officer who wants the case reopened and his daughter, Clara. The “baddies” are somewhat stereotypical, but it all romps along well. I might put it slightly ahead of “The Alchemist’s Secret”, mainly because of the characterisation. This bodes well for the series.

Both of these novels I would rate – threestars

Scott Mariani’s Ben Hope books are published in the UK by Harper Collins (Avon)

The Third Secret- Steve Berry (2005) – A Running Man Review

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This is the fourth Steve Berry book I have read, one of which, “The Amber Room (2003) I have reviewed here. I haven’t yet really got into his series books, but his stand-alones are very good examples of this genre.  After the Russians of “The Romanov Prophecy”, the Nazis in “The Amber Room” the focus here is on Italy, more specifically the Vatican.  What Berry does so well is set up a fascinating premise, this he has done with all three of his stand-alone novels, this one being no exception.  The Vatican is aiming to control visions of Mary and especially, her words when she appeared to a group of children in 1917 in Fatima, Portugal.  There’s a pretty seamless combination of fact and fiction, as the 1917 visions are well documented.  But along the way Berry cranks up the thrills.  There’s papal elections, murder and excommunication.

The main character, Michener, is an American Papal Secretary and close friend of the Pope.  He is questioning his role in the Church, especially with regards to celibacy, so there’s a good bit of inner conflict alongside the public turmoil.  All the characters have secrets but it is the revelation of the Third Secret that will change the world for good.  Those in the know want the secret kept at any costs.  Pace is a little hit and miss and unfortunately I did not warm to either of the main characters, Michener and ex-girlfriend Katerina Law.

Out of the four Steve Berry books this comes in at number 3 behind “The Romanov Prophecy” and “Amber Room”, but this writer I think has the skills to come up with a real out and out winner.  It might be already out there but I just haven’t read it yet.

threestars

The Third Secret was published in 2005 by Hodder in the UK

Two Books By Chris Kuzneski– A Running Man Review

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The Lost Throne  (2008)   &  The Prophecy (2009)

Here is an author who proves that self-publishing can work.  His debut novel”The Plantation” faced rejection until Chris Kuzneski self-published.  The result?  A book which attracted much attention and praise from his fellow adventure genre authors, a literary agent came on board and there was a publishing deal.  Nine books on and this American author is one of the consistent sellers in this genre.  So far there have been two series – his first eight feature Payne and Jones, the next two and his forthcoming “Prisoner’s Gold” (published this October) form his “Hunter Series” for which film rights have been sold.  I have read two of the Payne and Jones (books numbers 4 and 5).  I’m not a huge fan of reading books mid-series, nine times out of ten I have to start from the beginning but I have made an exception for Mr Kuzneski and I don’t think my reading experience has been too compromised by this!

What these two books do tell me that this author is not too far off the best in the adventure genre.  In “The Lost Throne” there is the odd reference to previous cases, but this did not get in the way too much.  We get two main narrative strands which converge in the last third of the book on the Greek monastic isle, Mount Athos.  Nick Dial, an Interpol officer is investigating the grisly beheadings of a set of Greek monks in one narrative strand  and in the other two ex-members of an elite Special Forces Unit (Payne & Jones) get a series of distressed phone-calls from a man who ends up the victim of a hitman in Russia.  There’s lost treasure, a startling group of Spartans viciously defending their culture and the pace cranks up nicely with some good moments of tension and some nicely rounded characters. Once the two narrative strands meet at Mount Athos I felt a slight let-down as the novel lost some of its energy but this remains a good example of this genre.

This was pretty much how I felt about the next in the Payne and Jones series, “The Prophecy” where the standard is maintained.  There is a switch around in the emphasis- I felt that Payne and Jones had the slightly weaker narrative strand last time round but here they get star billing with Dial moving to the ranks of minor character.  People are being killed over a piece of parchment, which turns out to be the work of Nostradamus and greater riches are implied in his words.  It reads well, is easy to follow and maintains its enjoyment level throughout.  I would be very hard pushed to say which of the two books I preferred, which suggests a level of consistency which bodes well for the rest of the series.

threestars

 

The Lost Throne (2008)  and The Prophecy (2009) are both published by Penguin.

The Amber Room – Steve Berry (2003)- A Running Man Review

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This is the third Steve Berry novel I have read, and, unusually for me I have read them not in the chronological sequence that I usually read in.  First up I was very impressed with his “The Romanov Prophecy” (2007) which I polished off not long after it came out.  In those days I was not so meticulous about reviewing what I had read and it did slip through the net, but I remember enjoying this blend of fact and fiction.  I wasn’t such a big fan of “The Venetian Betrayal”(2008). This was the third in the series of his Cotton Malone books  and it felt like it was a mid-series book.  It fell head-first into the hokum category that “The Romanovs” avoided.  There were characters I cared little about and it took me quite a while to return to Berry.  “The Amber Room” an earlier novel, is not quite up to his best but is a distinct improvement on the disappointment that was “The Venetian Betrayal”.

This is a stand-alone rather than a series novel.  I didn’t actually know anything about “The Amber Room” (the room rather than the book).  It was a Russian treasure of amber panelling from St Catherine’s Palace, taken by the Nazis and lost at some point.  Seems an ideal starting point for an adventure genre novel!  The stolen Nazi treasure plot-line features an American judge, Rachel Cutler, and her lawyer ex-husband who get dragged into the search for the amber room because of family connections.  There are a couple of cartoonish baddies (one male, one female) employed by art collecting families and these are in competition with one another to discover the location of the panelling and will kill those who get in their way.

It reads well and like “The Romanov Prophecy”  (which I think might be due for a re-read) there is a good blend of fact and fiction but without that little extra sparkle which made that book superior to this.

threestars

 

The Amber Room was published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2003

 

Two books by Sam Bourne – A Running Man Review

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The Righteous Men (2006)   & The Final Reckoning (2008)

I had been looking forward to reading something by Sam Bourne, the nom-de-plume of UK journalist Jonathan Freedland as he is recognised as one of the leading lights of this genre. He is also a former Newspaper Columnist Of The Year for his weekly output in “The Guardian”. So I began with his first book and rapidly followed it up with book number 3. (I didn’t have a copy of his 2007 “The Last Testament” to hand). The blurb on the front of “The Righteous Men” claims that it is better than the “Da Vinci Code” but it is not. Plot-wise, it’s sheer nonsense, but that does not stop it from being very readable . It concerns a Jewish myth concerning the demise of 36 Righteous Men as a means of determining the beginnings of the end of the world. I hadn’t heard this one before. It is perfect for incorporating into a plot.  It looks as if this prophecy is coming true and that we are heading for Judgement Day and an English reporter on the New York Times, Will Monroe, becomes embroiled. Hassidic Jews are at the centre of this one but I have now read enough of this kind of book never to rule out the extremist Christian fundamentalists!

The book benefits from good pacing but there is some bewilderingly erratic behaviour from the main character. This leaves the reader with the impression that there are holes in the plot. I had anticipated more from this and although I enjoyed it, there’s quite a gap between this book and the best of Dan Brown.

Still, it wasn’t enough to put me off having a go with “The Final Reckoning”. An elderly man is shot entering the United Nations building as it is mistakenly believed he is a terrorist and lawyer Tom Byrne is dispatched to England to make peace with the man’s daughter. The dead man is Jewish and as his own history is revealed it calls into question the innocence of his presence at the UN. It is the turn of the Holocaust and vengeance to take central stage. This book has a very convincing “back story” set during the war and I actually preferred this narrative strand to the modern-day one involving Byrne and the daughter, Rebecca. On balance though, because this seemed to hold together better I would put it just ahead of “The Righteous Men”.

threestars

Both books were published by Harper Collins in the UK. Since their publication there have been two more books by Bourne “The Chosen One” (2010) and “Pantheon” (2012)

 

 

The Sign – Raymond Khoury (2009)- A Running Man Review

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I have tried Raymond Khoury before. With blurb comparing him to Dan Brown I read “The Sanctuary” (2007) and it didn’t exactly blow me away. Modern day Beirut and Iraq was blended with eighteenth century Portugal in a complex plot about a search for the elixir of life. I felt that Khoury had really thrown too much into his plot in the first half of the book and the pace could not be sustained throughout, making the last third a bit of a drag and the whole thing a little wearying. Two years on from this Khoury produced a much more successful novel. Once again the plot is somewhat preposterous but the whole thing feels more authentic and by keeping things a little simpler it is more effective. The pace is sustained and we do not get that last third slump.

“The Sign” is a mysterious light which is spotted over Antarctica and which becomes commandeered by a group of Christian evangelicals. When it begins to follow a reclusive monk in Egypt, it is interpreted as proof for Christianity. Laying behind this is a desire to change the world, which, it is believed harnessing the religious fervour will do. There is a ploy to link this evangelicalism with environmentalism. People go missing, are murdered and are brainwashed along the way. It’s actually done very well and there is a more chilling plausibility to the potential power of religious fanaticism than to searching for the elixir of life. I’m pleased Khoury has upped his game with this novel and look forward to reading others by him. threestars

The Sign was published in 2009 by Orion.

 

The Camel Club – David Baldacci (2005)– A Running Man Review

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baldacciI have never read any David Baldacci before and to be honest I’d let my expectations get in the way. I’m not a huge fan of American conspiracy thrillers but Baldacci proved to be more than that. I believed that a book of this girth would have a lot of characters and I would have difficulty sorting out one character from the other as so many of them would seem the same. I even approached this novel with a piece of paper and began noting down characters as they appeared to try and separate them in my mind. I actually think I could have managed without this “character list” as Baldacci’s characterisation was much stronger than I was expecting and the major players in the novel soon began to make themselves clear. So, apologies Mr Baldacci. I also expected the plot to be a tad contrived but and apologies here once again, Mr Baldacci, I found the build-up of events leading to an incident with the American President really quite gripping.

There was for me, however, a slight waning of the interest in the last quarter of the novel where it became more standard rescue mission fare but the whole thing came as quite a surprise that I enjoyed it far more than I was expecting to. I don’t know where these expectations come from. I still say that this type of political conspiracy tale is not exactly my first choice of reading but I would happily seek out others in this series.   threestars

Wolf Of The Plain – Conn Iggulden (2007) – A Running Man Review

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My only previous experience of Conn Iggulden was back in 2008 when I read the first in the sequence of his “Emperor” Series “The Gates Of Rome”. I quite enjoyed this first part of the life of a Roman hero but didn’t get round to reading any more. Over six years later I’ve now read the opening book of his “Conqueror”series. I toyed with the idea of setting up a new historical category on the blog for this book but basically it’s an adventure genre novel set in the past, so although my little running man symbol should probably be wearing armour instead of a suit and tie, I’ll let it go!

This book was similar in format to the last of Iggulden’s books I read and it does work as well. It is the tale of the harsh life of the young Temuijin who becomes, (although I only realised this during the course of reading the book I don’t think I’m giving too much away here) Genghis Khan. Life in thirteenth Century Mongolia was not exactly much fun. Temuijin is the second son of a Khan and he and his family are abandoned and left to starve when his father dies. The family unit structure provides a good basis for Iggulden to centre his story (although I did find a couple of the brothers interchangeable and the similarity of names provides a little bit of a challenge for the reader here). Temuijin here is established as a vital character (which he needs to be as he is the mainstay of this series) as is his mother. This book is hinged on shows of strength and courage, of waiting for revenge and a chance for this outcasted family to re-establish themselves. There’s quite a lengthy battle sequence with the Tartars towards the end of the book and with these I do have the unfortunate tendency to switch off and predictably I found my interest waning a little here, but generally speaking this book provides a good balance of character and warfare. It is a well-researched slab of history set in a time and a place I knew nothing about. There are another four books in this sequence with “Lords Of The Bow” being the next one, so there is plenty left to tell. I will get round to searching out the others in due course but too often in these historical sequences it is the first book that I end up enjoying the most. I think I prefer the formative years of the characters and seeing how the power is established rather than the maintenance of that power. Nevertheless, fans of the historical adventure genre are in for a treat. threestars

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