Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
Paperback Edition, 867 pages
Published 23rd February 2001 by Pan
I gave The City & The City TV series a go but could not get into it and after reading Perdido Street Station I can conclude that China Miéville is best left in book form as i doubt the film/TV industry can properly do justice to the intricate brilliance of his work.
On the world of Bas-Lag there is the city of New Crobuzon, which is built in and around the giant ribs of some long ago fallen creatures (i imagine them as Godzilla and Mothra). Our main character is Isaac Dan der Grimbebulin, one of the rare human characters we meet, who’s a scientist and also romantically involved with a hybrid insect women. He agrees to help a bird man species called a Garuda reclaim his ability to fly after his wings were cut from him due to a crime he won’t talk about. Sounds weird but this is the simplest and briefest story synopsis I can give. I won’t even go into the Cactus Men, various disgusting winged creatures and all the other freak species involved.
The author does a decent job of keeping the central story line interesting but the book is powered by the descriptions of the environment the characters inhabit. I immediately thought of Ankh Morpork from the Discword series but way more dystopian. New Crobuzon is a vile, disgusting shithole of a city and at several points I felt nauseous reading the authors fetid descriptions, which proves how vivid a write China Miéville is.
My only gripe was that the story did drag in certain places, especially toward the end in the grand finale but China Miéville easily does enough to make me want to read The Scar. If you’re after something unbelievably different to the usual Sci-Fi/Fantasy books then introduce yourself to the city of New Crobuzon.
8.The Death of Innocents by Richard Firstman & Jamie Talan
Published 2nd September 1997 by Bantam
Crime: Death of Waneta Hoyts five children, ages range 2-28 months.
Accused: Waneta Hoyt
Although Waneta Hoyt is the headlining murderer in The Death of Innocents this fantastic book isn’t just about her. Partly a study of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and partly an insight into a behavioural disorder called Munchausen by Proxy, this is one of the more hard hitting true crime books I’ve read.
In 1972 Dr Alfred Steinschneider published a paper that theorised a connection between sleep apnea and SIDS. He even designed a machine which supposedly alerted worried parents if their child was suffering a bout of sleep apnea thus preventing the cot or crib death. Before and even after the article was discredited Steinschneider accrued a great deal of fame and wealth. What wasn’t realised until many years later was that these ‘SIDS’ cases could actually have been murder.
This introduces the books other subject of Munchausen by Proxy (MSBP), which primarily is where the mother will fabricate or cause medical symptoms in their infant child in an attempt to seek sympathy. Simply put: hurting their child to seek attention. But as the authorities and indeed the nurses and doctors discover it’s difficult to prove.
The book was an astonishing lesson in subjects I wouldn’t have thought of reading into and just proves the world is a messed up and complex place. Mothers murdering their children isn’t anything unique in history but when you add a complicated mental disorder like MSBP not only is it horrifying but at the same time it’s pretty sad. I was left with a feeling of equal parts anger and melancholia.
For anyone who enjoys a long drawn out investigation with an infinite amount of scientific intrigue, involved detective work and emotional depth then I recommend this book.
“Years later, it seemed a perverse irony that the unearthing had begun with the conception of a baby”
9: Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi & Curt Gentry
Published 1974 by W.W Norton & Company
Crime: Tate and LaBianca murders, committed in 1969
Accused: The Manson Family
Helter Skelter is one of the best selling True Crime books ever and details surely the most famous murders in the last hundred years. Written by the prosecuting lawyer, Vincent Bugliosi, it is a very dense and detailed chronicle of the Tate and LaBianca slayings.
I’m aware there’s many books in circulation about the Manson Family Saga but I’m willing to say, in ignorance of the others, this is the most definitive. As horrific as the killings were, the primary appeal of Helter Skelter is Charles Manson. If anyone other than Manson had organised the murder of Sharon Tate et al. then I’d have to doubt the infamy of this case.
The book opens with the murder of a heavily pregnant Sharon Tate as well as celebrity hair stylist Jay Sebring, friends Abigail Folger and Wojciech Frykowski and the unlucky Steven Parent, who’d only gone to 10050 Cielo Drive to sell the caretaker a radio. The scene is obviously very chaotic but the author does a superb job of describing every individual occurrence inside and outside the house, allowing you to visualise a coherent chain of events. Thankfully this is a theme throughout the book because as you’d expect there are a huge amount of intricacies with this case but Bugliosi is very clear and precise when presenting the details. Having the lawyer, an inside man, is a definite bonus when telling this story, which is why i’d be reluctant to read any other accounts.
As well as having all the components of a true crime story; the murder, investigation and trial, we have an absolutely crazy cast of characters. There’s the main star, Manson, spouting his own personal philosophies, trying to be an anti-hero but ending up way too shocking for average people to side with and there’s the girls, acting as the great prophets loving followers, taking every verbal snippet of Manson’s to heart.
A brilliantly written tour de force and if you haven’t read any books on the Manson Family story then look no further than Helter Skelter.
Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Paperback Edition, 600 pages
Published 21st April 2016 by Pan Macmillan
The 2016 winner of the Arthur C Clarke award, Children of Time is an arachnophobes nightmare. I had it on my shelf for nigh on a year always dodging it for something else. The idea of super smart insects was, to me, a bit ridiculous even for science fiction plus the added visuals of spiders planning war against humans made me itch. My preemptive judgement was way wrong.
Earths lifespan is fast reaching an apocalyptic climax but spaceships have been deployed to terraform distant planets to resemble ours. This part of the synopsis is pretty familiar among Sci-Fi books but flooding the new planet with monkeys and fast tracking their evolution with a nano virus to preserve humankind sounds pretty unique. Needless to say the plan isn’t as straightforward as it sounds and the end result involves spiders more intelligent than I can ever hope to be.
The main human protagonist is Holsten Mason. He’s a part of a post apocalyptic band of humans going in search of terraformed planets the ‘old empire’ left behind. Due to the familiar fiction technology of travel freezing or in this case ‘suspension’ we keep rejoining Holsten after intervals of decades, sometimes centuries of time elapsing. This approach keeps the story fresh and interesting as we never dwell in the same time period for long. The scenario is also the same for the spiders as we re-join them at several points over a couple of millennia to check in on their evolutionary progress.
I can only describe the spider writing as extraordinarily clever. The author doesn’t trap you in page after page of the painstaking specifics of anatomy or the day in the life of a spider. He gives us quick snippets, short but precise scenes of the movements and thoughts of the arachnids.
The book is packed with philosophy, war, maniacal AI machines and all the themes you’d expect from a heaving hitting Sci-Fi master piece. It reminds me a little of Dan Simmons Hyperion due to the themes of time debt and religion. Well written and just enough complexity to keep you interested. I recommend it.
“Then the night is made day, and the spiders look up at a sky from which the stars have been briefly banished. Something is coming”
10: Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss
Published 1st August 1984 by Signet
Crime: Triple Homicide of Colette Stevenson and her two daughters Kimberly and Kristen in 1970.
Accused: Husband and father to the victims, Jeffrey McDonald
For those in the inner circle of true crime fandom this is a pretty famous case. In the early hours of 17th February 1970 Jeffrey McDonald makes a phone call to the military police to report a stabbing. As is the case with this type of murder the phone call is shrouded in a cloak of whispering mystery “Five forty-four Castle Drive…..help…….Five forty-four Castle Drive…..stabbing…..”. McDonald, sleeping on his couch, claims to have been awoken by Colette and Kimberley’s screams and during his slumber he had missed the slaying of his pregnant wife and daughters and was then knocked unconscious by the four assailants he reported seeing. Their only words, “Acid is groovy, kill the pigs” were very Manson Family-esque. So, were the McDonald family killed by acid taking hippies or was the whole story a fabrication of the true murderer, Jeffrey McDonald? This is the basis of the case and brilliant book by Joe McGinniss.
What’s interesting is that Jeffrey McDonald hired Joe McGinniss to write a book that would hopefully paint him in an innocent light but if you’re like me then your mind will be made up pretty swiftly and immediately you understand the difficult task the author had in his attempts to clear McDonalds name. From the first interview where he uncomfortably stumbles through simple questioning to the third and final trial you never quite believe him. “You are the only one that was left alive there”, comments one investigator and that’s an apt summation. The gang are conscious and coherent enough to butcher three sleeping victims but they leave a fourth, with moderate wounds, alive to tell the tale. However ridiculous it all sounds it makes for a fascinating story.
As I’ve come to expect with Joe McGinniss the research and attention to detail is painstakingly meticulous. For a long time i considered Fatal Vision the best true crime book i’d had the pleasure of reading and whilst the story and complex circumstances surrounding the murders are still amongst my favourite (i know, a poor choice of words) I have since read better books. Nonetheless, a classic must read for anyone wanting to get into true crime.
Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz
Hardback Edition, 310 pages
Published 23rd October 2014 by Orion
Moriarty is the follow up, but not a direct sequel, to the 2011 book The House of Silk. It takes place immediately after the infamous events at the Reichenbach Falls, in which both Holmes and Moriarty are thought to have plummeted to their deaths in a violent watery grave.
I believe this was a bold move by Anthony Horowitz as he presents us with a Sherlock Holmes novel minus Sherlock Holmes himself. The synopsis does sound very intriguing. Moriarty is thought to be dead but there is little rest for the streets of London because there is another big cheese criminal mastermind running the show; Mr Clarence Devereux from America has snuck in.
Our narrator is Frederick Chase who does an average job of filling in for Dr Watson. His opening line pulls you in: “Does anyone really believe what happened at the Reichenbach Falls?”. He immediately creates mystery surrounding the deaths and for the first hundred pages it works. I was hooked. We are given brief glimpses at the brutal new criminal, Clarence Devereux, who is made to sound infinitely more worse than Moriarty. The books good guy is Athelney Jones, a Sherlock Holmes wanna be, who is doing his best to fill the great detectives shoes.
The major issue with this book is the absence of Holmes. What makes Moriarty such a brilliant bad guy is his duelling relationship with Sherlock. You can’t have a cool sounding antagonist without the plan foiling protagonist. It just doesn’t work. Sherlock Holmes on his own is good enough for any book, throw in Moriarty and you have an even better book. But Moriarty by himself turns the book into a borefest.
Clarence Devereux is never really believable as a devious crime lord, especially one said to be more evil than Moriarty. During his appearances he comes across as a whining, pathetic cheap imitation. We’re never really told any specific details of his crimes just that he’s a bad man. By the two hundred page mark the book was running out of the small amount of steam it had and I really didn’t care how it was going to finish. Even the ending, which was a pleasant surprise, didn’t reignite my interest.
Moriarty is a case of ‘second album syndrome’. It was a nice idea but the execution was poor. What Horowitz should have written is another Sherlock Holmes Novel and stuck to the formula that worked so well in the House of Silk. Very disappointing.
The Wizard of Lies by Diana B Henriques
Paperback Edition, 464 pages
Published 7th February 2017 by St Martin’s Griffin
“He is ready to stop now, ready to just let his vast fraud tumble down around him”
So begins the tale of Bernie Madoff and his epic Ponzi scheme. I have previously read two financial crime books – The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron and Den of Thieves. Both of those, especially the latter made for tough reading in places due to the complexity of the crimes and the financial jargon. Mostly I could use www.investopedia.com to better understand the terminologies but I was still bamboozled in places. After these i’d decided to leave the financial crime books because a) i became frustrated with myself for not being able to fully grasp what was going on, b) i’d much prefer to read about murder and c) i realised finance crime wasn’t really that interesting. But there was something different about Madoff in that his crime was a simple one. As is repeated throughout the book he robbed Peter to pay Paul. Although this is a very simple analysis of his crime it is the bare truth and because of the ineptitude of the various American government agencies he was allowed to get away with it for far too long.
I first heard about him in the Harry Markopolos documentary ‘Chasing Madoff’, which is well worth a watch. He’s also written a book but due to the poor reviews i avoided it. Then came the recent film ‘Wizard of Lies’ with Robert De Niro playing the fraudster to a tee. This reignited my interest in the Madoff case, which led me to buying this superb book. Unlike the film the book is the complete story of the Ponzi scheme going back to it’s roots up until the collapse in 2008. There’s a great deal of financial jargon but the author writes in laymen terms so the uninitiated can understand and keep track of what went down. It’s a sad story and Diana B. Henriques perfectly conveys this in every single page especially the aftermath when so many peoples worlds came tumbling down. But I couldn’t help thinking ‘why the hell did some of these people give all of their money to him!’. To me it defies logic to trust one man with everything.
This was a 3/5 star book up until the final few chapters where she describes the fallout of the Ponzi scheme. She puts aside the finance and talks about the damaging effect Bernie Madoff had on all his victims including his family who were oblivious up until his confession. The epilogue is also one of the best I’ve ever read.