James Patterson – Double Cross

There’s a pair of serial killers committing murders all over Washington, and another one who has escaped from a supermaximum-security prison, and is on his way to wreak his terrible and long-plotted revenge on Alex Cross, the man who put him behind bars four years ago. Cross is an earnest psychologist, a former police and FBI profiler whose girlfriend Bree Stone is also the lead detective on the serial killer case.

But that’s enough serious consideration for a book this bad. Supermaximum-security prisons mean convicted killers have unrestricted, completely private access to visitors, and neither party is searched before of after? O RLY? And what’s the opposite of a thriller? A duller? How can a book this fast-paced be so boring?

Patterson’s habit of using a chapter for each scene, with rarely more than four pages of large, loosely spaced type per chapter, makes the pages fly by, but at the cost of excluding any character development beyond the strictly superficial. The action (what little of it there is) is bitty and fragmented, with all opportunity for tension drained by the urgent need to move on to the next exclamation mark! The villains are so cartoonish, they all but cackle and rub their hands in glee at how clever they are.

In fact, one of the last pages sees super-villain Kyle Craig pull the classic trick of pretending to be dead…then jumping up and showing his bullet-proof vest! Excuse the spoiler, but I just have to share this little gem:

Kyle started to back away from us. Then he smiled and said, “Oh, what the hell! Sorry, Alex!”

He fired in Bree’s direction — twice — and purposely missed again. Then he laughed and ran down the alley, disappearing around the first corner, still laughing.

The Mastermind.

Oooh, what a bad man! Do you think he’ll be back some day with a plan dastardly enough to pad out another 450 pages of this drivel? Let me think… Hmm, probably. And I fully expect it to be just as mind-suckingly dreadful as this one. Try to avoid it, too!

Vernor Vinge – Rainbows End

I took two attempts to get through Rainbows End, and it took me a while after finishing it to figure out why I didn’t like it: it doesn’t deliver on its promises. In the prologue, European intelligence services have detected someone experimenting with a highly advanced and incredibly subtle form of mass mind-control. The opening chapter follows this up with a meeting between other intelligence agencies as they decide what action to take, and reveals some of the secrets behind the threat.

It’s a great teaser opening…to a different book.

The rest of Rainbows End is a moderately interesting treatise on the future of education, learning, and knowledge management, fronted by an unlikeable protagonist, and ending with a fist-shaking “I would have got away with it if it hadn’t been for you pesky kids” moment. The unlikeable protagonist mellows, and everyone learns a valuable lesson about love and understanding.

Not Vinge’s finest hour.

Michael Marshall – The Intruders

Although it is not immediately obvious, The Intruders is set in the same world as Marshall’s Straw Men series—there’s a tiny reference to the events at the end of Blood Of Angels, but it’s easy to miss. The Straw Men don’t play any part in this book; instead, there’s an entirely different shadowy ancient organization pulling strings and manipulating events. Michael Marshall has always had a knack for evoking the unseen and the unsettling. If you like your thrillers with a dose of the supernatural thrown in, this will be up your street.

One of the things I liked most about The Intruders was the way Marshall ends the book: rather than leave you breathless with an explosive climax and an abrupt finale, he takes the time to explore the aftermath, and tie up some loose ends while unravelling certain others. There is something very finely judged about it, and it left me with a lasting sense of depth to the world just at the point when I was ready to leave it behind.


David Rice is a high-school nobody, until he accidentally discovers that he can jump – teleport himself to places he has been before. He runs away from his broken home, robs a few banks, and sets himself up with a cushy lifestyle. But then he discovers that he is not alone in his abilities, and that a shadowy organisation of Paladins has been hunting jumpers for hundreds of years. And they have David right in their sights.

Because I haven’t read the Steven Gould book the film is based on, I’m just going to take it on its own merits. First of all, the film is a traditional wish-fulfilment fantasy: ordinary boy discovers he has a secret ability, and discovers that because of this secret, dark powers are ranged against him. Adventures ensue, during which he gains mastery of his ability, and uses it to defeat his enemies.

Executed well, this is a great, classic plot, and Jumper does a very good job with it. Hayden Christensen (who plays David) often comes across as bland and monotone, in a handsome way, but in this serves the film well: it emphasizes David’s essential ordinariness, apart from his ability to jump. He doesn’t know kung-fu. He doesn’t dress up in a costume and fight evil. He uses his powers to make his life lush and easy, not to better mankind. So when he first encounters the bad guys (Samuel L. Jackson & co.), he is totally outmatched.

This is where the other jumper, Griffin, comes in. Griffin (played brilliantly by Jamie Bell) is a fast-talking, bitter, and somewhat unhinged young man who has been running from the Paladins, and fighting back, all his life. He is the archetypal mentor in the story, with the twist that he sees David as more of a threat than a student. He doesn’t want David upsetting all his plans and jeopardising his carefully hidden base. He is by far the more interesting of the two, but the needs of the plot dictates that he is relegated to the role of edgy, antagonistic ally. (At least they decided not to make him “wise-cracking”, too.) Still, because he doesn’t die (ah, damn it, spoiler), the door is open for him to play a more important part in the sequel.

Which brings me to OMG HOW BLATENTLY OPEN-ENDED CAN A FILM GET?? Fully the last fifteen minutes are spent carefully not resolving plot lines and setting up the pieces for Jumper 2. Which, given its box office so far, is a near certainty. Really, you could even see it as a pilot for a TV series than a stand-alone film.

But still…I liked it. It reminded me a lot of The Bourne Identity, also directed by Doug Liman. Just like Jason Bourne, David Rice has to rely on his own abilities instead of the gadgets and resources of some powerful agency. Both characters are hunted outcasts, gradually fighting their way inwards to the core of a conspiracy. (Even the soundtrack for Jumper has overtones of Bourne – the main theme sounds an awful lot like Moby’s Extreme Ways.) This is what it comes down to for me: it’s a good hero story. I’m just a sucker for those.

John Sandford – Dark Of The Moon

Virgil Flowers, an interesting but minor character from Sandford’s Prey, investigates a series of murders in rural Minnesota. I’m inclined to like Sandford’s books, but this isn’t one of his best. Flowers comes across as implausibly heroic, and the small town inhabitants seems too eager to trust and accept him. The plot is entertaining enough, but it all felt a bit glib.

Ken Macleod – The Execution Channel

WARNING: I generally try to avoid spoilers, but it’s hard to discuss this book without talking about the ending. I try to be vague about details, though.

In hindsight, this is a very odd book. However, it’s not at all odd while you’re reading it. In fact, for most of its length, it races along like a present-day spy thriller. It starts with a nuclear explosion at RAF Leuchars, and then rolls on with a series of explosions at major UK industrial installations.

Were they terror attacks? Opening shots in a global conflict? Peace campaigner Roisin Travis is covertly taking photos of the RAF base when she sees a strange device being unloaded. Just then, she gets a text from her brother Alec, who is serving in the military in Kurdistan, warning her to leave immediately. She manages to escape the blast, and goes on the run, fearful that the security services will think she had something to do with it. Her father, James Travis, appears to be a standard software contractor, but is actually a covert agent for the French government. He, too, receives an alert message, and goes on the run.

At this point, the chase is on, against a backdrop of global fear and escalating international tension. The UK security services stage a hunt for Roisin and James. An American agency goes to work spreading disinformation about the incidents, while conspiracy web site owner Mark Dark tries to filter out the “real” truth about the device that Roisin saw.

The book covers a lot of the same themes as Charles Stross does in Halting State: the surveillance society, intelligence operations in a highly networked world, and a fundamental uncertainty about who your actual enemy is. Along the way, there are only small hints that give away that the story is science fiction. Although you could easily read it as being set in present-day Britain, it takes place in a slightly altered timeline–one where Al Gore won the 2000 presidential election, but where the 9/11 attacks still happened, and the world still went up in the flames of war. Also, there are nuggets of cosmological speculation that you probably wouldn’t see in a mainstream thriller, as well as the suggestion that some of the conspiracy theories about flying saucers and death rays might actually be real.

But you don’t get the full science-fictional pay-off until right at the very end. Like, in the last eight pages. And this is what makes the book so odd. It ends with an enormous revelation…and a political joke. It’s almost like one of Asimov’s short stories that ends with a terrible pun. All of the hard-boiled personal tension and international brinkmanship, is rendered nearly obsolete when MacLeod zooms out and shows you the bigger picture.

That’s not to say that the ending is bad; it’s just unexpected. When I finally closed the cover (after staying up to 2am to finish it), part of me went “aargh” and wanted to throw the book down in disgust at the sharp left turn, while another part went “wow” and marvelled at the sense of wonder the ending provokes. And now, a week or so later, I still have mixed feelings. But I think that the power of surprise will ensure that The Execution Channel will stick with me for longer than if it had had a conventional linear climax.

Charlie Brooker – Dawn Of The Dumb

The two-and-a-half star rating deserves some explanation: I think Charlie Brooker is great, and many of the pieces in Dawn Of The Dumb (a collection of his TV criticism and columns for The Guardian from 2004-2007) and hysterically funny, but at book length, his vitriolic style becomes grating. If you enjoy cutting put-downs and cynical rants, you’re in the right place–just take it in small doses.

Christopher Fowler – Ten Second Staircase

This is the fourth book in Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May series, but the first one I have read. I picked it up in the book shop because it looked interesting, non-standard, and a little bit quirky. Arthur Bryant and John May are detectives in London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU), a division that was set up during the second World War to deal with sensitive cases that had the potential to capture the public’s imagination and damage morale, thus harming the war effort. Bryant and May have been part of the Unit since its beginning, and are still there in the present day, well past their retirement age, but too dedicated (or set in their ways) to step back from the job.

I had expected the book to be on the funny side of quirky, but it isn’t. Although it has many amusing moments, it’s a serious police mystery where the characters–and the crime–just happen to be somewhat off the wall. A figure dressed as an eighteenth-century highwayman is killing minor celebrities in impossible circumstances, and then vanishing into thin air. The case seems somehow connected to a series of killings the Unit had failed to solve many years ago, and which May is reluctant to revisit, because his own daughter eventually became a victim. Bryant, meanwhile, is keen to use every unorthodox investigative technique at his disposal to get to the bottom of both cases.

Overall it’s a carefully paced, thoughtful thriller, full of London details and well-drawn, engaging characters, with a satisfying kick at the end. I will definitely be picking up the rest of this series.