After the first nine plagues, is the tenth plague free?
A missing archeologist reappears out of the desert in a semi-mummified state. With him he brings a biblical disease that threatens to yadda yadda the world. A brilliant businessman has designs on using the disease for his own ends. Only Sigma can uncover the ancient McGuffin to you get the idea before ticking clock.
I’m going to preface this review by saying that I’m a long time fan of James Rollins’ blend of pseudo-science, mythicism, and tehcno-thriller. His Artefact McGuffin Adventures are usually very entertaining reads.
Here’s the but. I don’t know if I just had a lower tolerance for the narrative this time, or if Rollins has introduced a bash the reader over the head style to his writing now. Regardless, it is annoying and hackneyed, and something I’d expect from Dan Brown, not James Rollins. It makes you notice the other problems, like the factual errors in the story. The suspension of disbelief is always high with these sorts of novels, so to have Dan Brown-ified the writing lowers my enjoyment and rating.
An example of what I’m talking about was an exchange early on between the Sigma members about disease categories. We’ve just been told that this is a super deadly disease with X% death rate, and we’re then told the disease death categories, which again states this is super deadly. Okay, so us dumb readers need to be informed that this disease is really bad. But to imply that the Sigma team of science experts who deal with this sort of problem semi-regularly would have to be bashed over the head with the explanation the way they were is silly. I immediately had in mind four or five ways to write that section that weren’t out of character, repetitive, and mind-numbing to the reader.
That all said, this was still a reasonably well paced thriller, with decent tension, especially into the final act. If you like Artefact McGuffin Adventures, then this is an okay instalment.
I have written previously (here, here) about how people like to pretend they have read something they haven’t. To summarise my take on this phenomenon: Stop it!
People claim to have read books (1, 2, 3, 4) and watched movies they haven’t in order to appear more intelligent. From the new list that I will discuss below, you have to question who they are trying to impress by claiming to have read Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson.
Impressing people is what this is all about. We all have an inability to admit we like (or dislike) stuff because others may have a subjectively different taste and ridicule us. We even come up with the fake term “guilty pleasure” to describe something we like but are ashamed of for some reason. There shouldn’t be guilty pleasures, only pleasures… unless that pleasure is illegal or immoral or both – such as the movies of Uwe Bole.
This new list of lied about books comes from a poll of 2,000 UK adults. In it 41% of respondents admitted they fibbed about what, and how much, they read. This was part of The Reading Agency‘s look at reading habits. It found that 67% of respondents would like to read more, but 48% claimed they were too busy to read… but caught the game on the TV and did you see those new cat videos? Another interesting point was that 35% said they struggle to find a book they really like, and 26% want recommendations from someone they know. I.e. reviews are important.
As you will see from the list, most of these books have been turned into movies. That was probably why people lied. They wanted to impress people in a discussion but couldn’t just admit that they had only watched the movie. Hint: us readers can tell you haven’t read the book.
1. James Bond novels by Ian Fleming
I can’t claim to have read many of the James Bond novels – one, I’m pretty sure I’ve only read one. But I have watched most of the movies at least once. For my own part, the reason I haven’t read more of the books is partly lack of interest, and partly making time to catch up on older novels. There are a lot of influential authors and novels I’m yet to have a chance to read. Plus I’ve heard that the books have far fewer explosions.
2. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Admittedly I read the novel after the first movie came out – or possibly only finished it after the first movie came out. I’ve covered this book recently as part of my Book vs Movie discussions (1, 2, 3). I don’t think you can blame people for watching the movies instead of reading the book. The book is long, waffly, and at times difficult to parse. The movies are only long and awesome.
3. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
I’ve only read six of the seven Narnia novels. I read this series when I was young and pretty much lost interest before reading The Last Battle. The first two novels (chronological, not published) are well worth reading, but I can understand people not bothering to read the rest. I can also understand people having watched the movies and decided not to read the books. The movies are only okay, which is generally not enough to encourage most people to read books.
4. The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown
Apparently The DaVinci Code is one of the most read books of all time…. if you just go by book sales. I have a love-hate relationship with Dan Brown’s Artefact McGuffin Adventures. While I have read two of Brown’s novels, I actually prefer other authors who write superior Artefact McGuffin Adventures. Can’t really blame people for watching Tom Hanks run around historical places instead of reading about Robert Langdon.
5. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
I can honestly say I haven’t read this book, nor been interested in doing so, despite the paperback being on our shelves. The movies didn’t exactly inspire me either. The main reason I haven’t tackled it is that my wife only thought it was okay and similar to Divergent by Veronica Roth.
6. Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
I didn’t even realise the movie was based on a book until relatively recently. I’m sure most people will have seen the movie and assumed the book is pretty similar.
7. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
Another book I haven’t read and one I’m not really interested in reading – nor the rest of the series for that matter. I’m not sure why anyone would claim to have read this book when they haven’t, unless they want to say “Oh, the books are so much darker” when the movie is being discussed.
8. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
Another novel that is on our shelves thanks to my wife. The impression I have of the main character is that I would probably not enjoy this, especially since I try to be out of the room when people are watching the movies.
9. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Ugh. I read part of this book before shredding it and using the remains to create a nest for a family of rats. Even the Wikipedia synopsis of the novel bores me to tears. Any “thriller” that starts with ten pages of descriptions of flowers, followed by a few more pages discussing home renovations had better make them giant mutated flowers with Uzis that are renovating the home with explosives. If only people would stop talking about this book so that people would stop talking about it as though it was good.
10. The Godfather by Mario Puzo
I bought The Godfather from a bargain bin next to a pile of remaindered books. The only reason I decided to buy and read it was that the movie was/is a classic. It is probably fair to say that most people only ever considered reading this because of the movie, so it is no surprise that people inflate that from considering to have read.
11. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
I have neither read this book nor watched the film. My entire understanding of this book comes from Thug Notes. That’s enough for me.
12. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
This book certainly isn’t for everyone. When I reviewed it I called it literary crime fiction, which puts it between genre fiction that people like reading, and award-winning stuff people only pretend to like reading.* That means it could attract people from both audiences, or annoy both audiences – yes, I am assuming that those two audiences are disparate entities that share nothing in common. So I could see why some people would claim to have read this novel, what with the awards, and praise, and movie forcing them to either admit something about their reading habits or to make some facile excuse for not having read it yet.
13. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
This book has the dubious honour of being a novel I was only aware existed as a result of it appearing on these lists of books people claim to have read but haven’t. Maybe this book doesn’t actually exist but is inserted into these reading lists as an internal check for the survey of readers. Let’s see who notices that this book is fictional fiction.
As you can see, it is easy to admit which books you have and haven’t read. Some books you may not want to read. Some you may not have had a chance to read yet. Some you might only be aware of due to the movie adaptation. The main thing is to acknowledge the truth so that entertaining books are promoted (review books, but do it the right way), rather than dreck that people haven’t read but assume is entertaining. And if you want to continue to lie about books you’ve read, here is a summary of some classic novels:
*Yes, that is me being snobby. Yes, I am meant to be against that judgmental stuff. Yes, I am a hypocrite at times.
I adore reading. I read very often, my bare minimum being 4 books a week. But ever since I read ‘The Da Vinci Code’ by Dan Brown, I do not feel satisfied with any book I read. I am hungry for more yet no book seems to satisfy me. What books could satisfy me?
Can I recommend more authors like Dan Brown? Hopefully not. In the Pantheon of thrillers authors, Dan Brown sits proudly atop a pile of money that is only rivalled by James Paterson. They are both great at getting people to read their books, for a reason that is unclear to me.
I have a love hate relationship with Dan Brown. Dan writes very entertaining novels that are well paced with interesting plots. But he also manages to bash readers over the head with plot points and squeeze in a lot of useless exposition. At times you honestly think he is just bashing at the keyboard like a drunk monkey taking dictation. Personally I think that Steve Berry and James Rollins, who write a similar genre of thriller, are far better authors. If you haven’t read them already, I’d recommend anything they have written to sate your Brown problem.
There are other authors who dabble in that same genre of thriller who are worth mentioning. I’m a huge fan of Matthew Reilly, who writes insanely fast paced novels that are great fun. His Jack West Jr series have similar “find the artefact to save the world” McGuffin adventures and has a new instalment in the series coming out in September (2016). Andy McDermott also writes fast paced Artefact McGuffin Adventures* which are also humorous in parts.
A tool that might help is the Literature Map. While it doesn’t have every author, it does link them together and give you some good ideas. Or they might lead you astray.
This post originally appeared on Quora.
*I think that should be the official classification for this sub-genre of thriller.
There’s nothing quite like an author desperately trying to establish their literary cred by referencing classic works of fiction. Guess what is mentioned in Inferno.
Professor Robert Langdon is back for another inexplicable adventure to save the world. This time a madman with a love for Dante’s Divine Comedy and the Black Death is threatening to release a new disease that could wipe out humanity. Only Langdon and his latest arm candy can save the day.
If it isn’t obvious, I have a like-hate relationship with Dan Brown novels. Dan writes very entertaining novels that are well paced with interesting plots. But he also manages to bash readers over the head with plot points – or character traits, or other random things he deems important – and squeeze in a lot of useless exposition. The useless exposition often feels like an attempt to impress readers with the amount of research that has gone into the novel. But when he starts mentioning things like Dim Mak – the mythical pressure point and no touch martial arts technique – with credulity, I cringe.
There are other points I find amusing about Inferno in particular. The continuous referral to six-foot tall Langdon as “tall” says a lot about the author (or editor’s) height. The desperate need to reference great literary works in a mass-market thriller novel. The idolatry of Langdon by various characters – “she was admiring him more and more”, “his deep voice” – is heavy handed at best. But for these points I wonder if this is a result of Dan’s success and wide appeal. Could it be that because Dan sells billions of copies of his books that he and his editors have to make sure the book has wider appeal and comprehension? Or is it the reverse; is his appeal that every plot point is hammered home, and that the reader is repeatedly bludgeoned with how awesome the protagonist is?
For all the book’s faults, Inferno was an entertaining read. Upon picking this novel up I was refreshingly entertained. Worth a read for fans of Brown, Steve Berry, James Rollins, etc.
I wanted to rip the final scene out and rewrite it. Langdon is returning the stolen Dante death mask to the museum but the curator can’t meet him. So Langdon sneaks in and replaces it, reopening the exhibit himself.
How about Langdon being caught in the act of replacing the death mask. Security recognise him as the guy who stole the mask a few days earlier but haven’t gotten the memo about Langdon being off the hook. So they are arresting him at gunpoint, to wit Langdon responds, “Please, I can explain.” The handcuffs go on and the book finishes there.
Have you ever wanted a thriller to star not one, but two book store owners? Well, this is the novel for you!
That’s right, our favourite book seller is back in action. This time Cotton Malone is caught up in a CIA operation called King’s Deception. See what Steve Berry did there? Cotton and his son Gary get caught up with the CIA, SIS – better known as MI6 – and The Dedalus Society’s deadly spy games. King’s Deception is their game and Cotton has to blah blah the McGuffin surrounding Elizabeth the First before the blah blah.
I’m a big fan of Steve Berry’s novels. They are always entertaining and well thought out thrillers. Berry is the writer Dan Brown wishes he was, but then takes a swim in his pool of money to console himself. As is typical with this genre, Berry seamlessly mixes the modern day with the historical McGuffin in a plausible and interesting manner. But for me, I found this to be one of Berry’s weaker novels.
My main fault with the book was that it was a story being recounted between the narrator and reader analogues, with the first and last chapters book ending the actual story. I hate this sort of story telling. It always feels hackneyed, even in films. At least flashbacks only last a short time, this is like having 95% of the story be a flashback. In this case you could cut the first and last chapters out and it would be a perfectly reasonable novel, so the additions of these parts feels superfluous.
Despite that criticism, the book was entertaining and would rank 4 stars, but I’m giving it 3.5 stars. I’m taking half a star off for the book-ends on the actual story.
Sometimes when I’m reading a book I’m not sure if I’m meant to be excited, enrapt, or cringing. It’s taken me a few days to arrive at a decision and I’ve decided to cringe.
Sign of the Cross is a fast paced action adventure novel in the vein of Steve Berry, James Rollins, or that guy who wrote the book that annoyed the Pope; what was his name? In the second instalment of Payne and Jones’ adventures, the mercenaries are hired to hunt down two archaeologists who have uncovered a secret that could bring down the Catholic Church. Meanwhile a team of killers are reenacting the crucifixion, because, you know, that’s what Jesus would have wanted. With everyone hunting for Payne, Jones and their pet archaeologists, and a few murderers running around, who at the Vatican knows and who wants the secret, and do they want it for power or payback?
This is the first Chris Kuzneski book I’ve read, and it will be my last. Now that I’ve had time to reflect upon the story and writing, I’m actually surprised I finished the novel. Kuzneski came up in my recommendations because he writes fast paced adventure novels like two of my favourite authors, the previously mentioned Berry and Rollins. Unlike those two, however, Kuzneski takes all of the same ingredients for a novel, mixes them in an overly large bowl (the book is over 400 pages), and manages to make gruel.
The novel started well, but I noticed myself cringing at the end of the chapters with the ham-fisted foreshadowing. This continued until I would start preemptively cringing as I reached the end of each chapter. Seriously, it felt like the end of every scene or chapter Kuzneski would have a line like “Little did they know that only two of them would return.” But wait, there is more. There is an underlying casual sexism and racism to the novel that is unintentional, but jarring. An early scene has one of the characters, Nick Dial, surprised to see a woman Interpol agent. Not that Nick was sexist, women could be just as good as men……. No, Nick explained that he wasn’t sexist, but some of his bosses weren’t as open minded. Yeah. I’m not sexist, but….
These two points are just the major problems I had with the writing of this novel. And it is mainly the writing that lets this book down. In the example I just mentioned, there are many ways authors could discuss Nick’s surprise at seeing a woman on the job. But the way the scene was written it sounded like the author was desperately trying to sound progressive and PC. This poor writing happened throughout the book, which actually has a reasonable plot, a bit of humour, and great pacing. Some readers may not notice these issues, although I note many reviews complain about the foreshadowing, and it was entertaining enough for me to finish reading, so others may find this enjoyable. But I would recommend reading anything by Steve Berry or James Rollins instead.
I’m not a fan of The Daily Fail. They really do seem to swim in the shallow end of the wading pool of intelligence. That said, today they featured an article from a very good novelist, someone with whom I’ve had some interesting conversations: David Thomas / Tom Cain. So like any good blogger, I’ve stolen the article and reposted it here. Enjoy!
All over the world, on countless flights, heading to an infinite number of sun-loungers people are burying their heads in stories about secret agents, serial killers, ace detectives, evil villains and sexy heroines.
Thrillers are a huge business. They make up about a third of all books sold, and 60 per cent of them are bought by women.
For the very top writers, the rewards are astonishing. In 2009, James Patterson signed a four-year, 17-book deal worth almost £100 million. At the peak of Da Vinci Code mania, Dan Brown was making more than £50 million a year.
For every one of those megastars, of course, there are hundreds of professional thriller writers who just about make it pay – even a best-selling paperback in the UK, shifting 100,000 copies won’t earn much above £50,000 in royalties – and thousands of wannabes. I’m lucky enough to come in the ‘make it pay’ category. So I know what the job entails. And trust me, it isn’t easy.
One Monday morning in June 2006 my literary agent sent out a book proposal to publishers: the first 150 pages of a thriller called The Accident Man that I’d written under the pseudonym Tom Cain. The book had a very simple, high-concept premise. Its hero, Sam Carver, was the man who killed Princess Diana. Her name appeared nowhere in the book. But on the night of August 31, 1997, Carver makes a black Mercedes saloon crash in Paris.
He’s been told the Merc’s passenger is a terrorist. But of course it’s actually a woman – the most famous woman in the world.
By lunchtime on Wednesday, I’d received a six-figure offer for the UK rights to the book and a sequel and Hollywood bought an option on the film rights.
Before you even try to write a thriller, take a good look at how other people have done it. It looked like an overnight success, but I’d spent two years producing one useless draft after another. My agent made it perfectly clear to me that I’d made a bundle of rookie mistakes. My plot didn’t hold together. My writing was hopelessly cluttered with unnecessary descriptions of Parisian streets and buildings as I tried to stuff all my endless research down on to the page.
The characters weren’t believable and the one the agency boss liked best – Carver’s love-interest, a Russian girl called Alix – was killed in the second act. The only crumb of comfort the agency boss could offer me was: ‘I never quite hated it enough to stop reading.’
In the end, we managed to fix all the problems. But in 25 years as a journalist and author, during which I’d written countless articles, edited three magazines and published half-a-dozen non-fiction books, nothing had been as difficult as writing a half-decent thriller.
But what if you want to write a thriller of your own? Here are ten tips that I would give to anyone who dreams of seeing their book piled up in airport bookstores . . .
1) Study the masters…
Before you even try to write a thriller, take a good look at how other people have done it. Read every book you can get your hands on, but watch great TV series and movies, too. The Accident Man was hugely influenced by the way the writers of 24 kept multiple storylines running simultaneously, each with its own cliffhanger, so there was always someone, somewhere, in desperate trouble. 24 was relentless, it never for one moment let you relax. And you always wanted more.
2) …but don’t overdose on them
I devoured Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books. I tried to imitate his terse, punchy, bone-dry style. The result was garbage. Then I realised that Lee writes the way he does because that’s how he naturally expresses himself. So I went back to the way I write naturally, and it made a huge difference. Your book will work best if it’s told in your voice.
3) Structure, structure, structure…
Property is all about location, thrillers are all about structure. Everything has to fit together with the precision of a Swiss watch, powered by a coiled spring. Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of The Jackal is a masterpiece of construction. I once drew a chart on a couple of sheets of A2 paper that consisted of a scene-by-scene analysis of Jackal, showing which characters appeared when, and how Forsyth balanced character development, plot and action over the course of the book. It really helped me understand the structural skeleton beneath the flesh and blood of the words.
4) Show, don’t tell
Always make your point through action and dialogue, rather than exposition. At the beginning of The Accident Man I had a few paragraphs explaining that Sam Carver was an assassin who created fatal ‘accidents’. An American publisher said: ‘Nice idea, but it would be much better if we could see him do it.’ So I wrote a new opening scene in which he killed a people trafficker by sabotaging his helicopter using a miniature spanner, a hacksaw and two blobs of Blu-Tack. So we saw Carver at work. Better.
Some thrillers are whodunits: the hero arrests the bad guy. Some are action thrillers: the hero kills the bad guy. Either way, you’re going to be thinking of new ways to kill people and cool weapons to kill them with
5) It’s the people, stupid
Stieg Larsson thought his Millennium Trilogy was all about the sexism and corruption at the rotten heart of Swedish society. But the millions who devoured The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo couldn’t care less about that. They just fell in love with an emaciated, autistic computer genius called Lisbeth Salander. It’s the characters in a book – and that means the villains, lovers and supporting cast, too – that make it work. So if you ever think, ‘I’ve got a great idea for a thriller,’ make sure you’ve got great characters for it too.
6) Grab them by the throat and their minds will follow
If you don’t grab your readers’ attention in the opening chapter, they’ll find another book. Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity has one of the all-time great opening sequences: a man, fished from the Mediterranean, unaware of who or what he really is, unknowingly possessed of all the deadly skills of a CIA assassin. The men from Hollywood threw away 90 per cent of what Ludlum wrote in the Bourne trilogy. But they kept that opening and it gave them a billion-dollar franchise.
7) Think like a killer
Some thrillers are whodunits: the hero arrests the bad guy. Some are action thrillers: the hero kills the bad guy. Either way, you’re going to be thinking of new ways to kill people and cool weapons to kill them with. So clip grisly news stories. Read books about real killers. Go on the gun-nut channels on YouTube. And read books by Patricia Cornwell and Jonathan Hayes. They’re professional forensic pathologists. Dead bodies are, quite literally, their business.
8) Count the bullets in the gun
If you want your readers to believe your story, get the details right. Either write about what you know, or do your research properly. Don’t have your hero firing 15 bullets from a Walther PPK if it can only hold nine. And speaking of James Bond’s favourite gun, Ian Fleming pulled off a brilliant trick when he created 007. The idea of a cool, sophisticated, lady-killing assassin, touring the world On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, bumping off bad guys who wanted to rule the world was as much a fantasy as Harry Potter playing Quidditch. But because the details were so brilliantly observed – Bond’s cars, his Sea Island cotton shirts, the exotic locations – it all felt completely real.
9) Always think of Option C
The fun part of thriller writing is getting your characters into dangerous situations and then getting them out again. An editor once gave me a great tip: put your protagonist in a situation where they have to choose between two options, A and B. Then write option C. In one of my books, Carver is on holiday in the Greek islands with a girl. They’re having lunch. The restaurant is attacked by gunmen. The girl is shot. Carver just escapes, after a frantic chase. He stops for a second to think. Should he go after the gunmen, or should he get the hell off the island? That’s options A and B. Then the phone rings. He takes the call. It’s the girl – the one who’s just been shot dead. And that’s Option C.
10) If you’re a man, ditch the dumb blondes and tough girls
You have a male lead, and chances are he’s going to want a girl. And she’s going to be sexy, sultry and splendidly beddable. That’s fine – being ravished by the hunky hero works for girls too. Just don’t make her a cliché. Very few men now dare write a ditsy, screaming blonde. But many dream up superchicks who are as tough and deadly as any man. Most women don’t see themselves that way. Strong, yes. Gorgeous, certainly. But intelligent, complex and vulnerable, too, if you don’t mind. And if you’re a woman, bin the bad guys and the goody-goodies. Men are more complicated than that.
…but finally, and most importantly
Forget the rules . . . except one. The first four, clunkingly tabloid words of The Da Vinci Code, ‘Renowned curator Jacques Saunier’ tell you that Dan Brown can’t write for toffee. There’s not a character in the book that’s close to being interesting and the ‘facts’ on which the whole thing depends have been debunked. Yet somehow it’s is completely unputdownable. So in the end, the only rule that really counts is: keep the reader reading.
‘Revenger’, Tom Cain’s latest Sam Carver novel is published in paperback by Corgi, £6.99. ‘Ostland’, by David Thomas, is published by Quercus, £16.99