In which I tell you whether Lee Child’s 20th Reacher book has anything new to offer

More than happy to fork over airport prices for this baby.

More than happy to fork over airport prices for this baby.

Lee Child apparently writes one Reacher book per year and has done for the past 20 – he starts each September.

I love a good routine myself, so I like to read one Reacher book each year, starting around each September, when the new ones are released.

So I know what to expect from a Reacher book.

 

 

For those who don’t (inexcusable) – the books, like most crime series featuring a strong central protagonist or two, Reacher books are formulaic. Jack Reacher was born into a US military family and spent his childhood in temporary homes on military bases. Then he spent his adult working life as a military cop posted to more temporary bases. He has never known permanency or possessions.

A hulking bloke, a fighting machine born and trained for detective work, after his honourable discharge he can’t hack the thought of settled civilian life. So he treats the United States like another set of temporary bases, moving from town to town, hitching rides and catching buses in between, a perpetual traveller. He travels with only what he has in his pockets, buying cheap new clothes and junking them when they get dirty, living in motels, working casually from time to time – but never for long in the same spot. In each book, he hits a town with a dark secret, something fishy going on, and his unshakable sense of right and wrong (not necessarily matching the same compass points as anyone else’s sense of right and wrong) he gets embroiled in a mystery.

The books stand out not only for the supremely original and consistently drawn character but for solid, inventive plotting and – above all – minutely detailed fight scenes, detective work, military training and weapons knowledge.

These books require a little more suspension of disbelief each time (Reacher walks into trouble, something strange is going on in this town, it all starts in the local diner, he chooses not to walk away and there’s an eminently fuckable woman mixed up in it all) but the formula is all part of the fun, making these books like an annual birthday present when you know exactly what you’re getting but you never get any less excited.

The formula has won Lee Child fans across the globe. He is the crime writer that other crime writers read, one of the most famous working today.

To illustrate, when I’m walking home from the bus reading this I pass a lady checking her mailbox. We exchange smiles, then she pauses. “Ooo, my sister-in-law is reading that,” she says. Two days later I’m reading it on the bus and I’m the last passenger, so I’m waiting by the driver’s door to hop off. He looks at the book and says “ooo, I’ve read some of those. Is that a new one? Can I read the back?” And I wait for him to read the blurb, then we have a little conversation about how great Lee Child is. Just yesterday I saw a bloke in my office building carrying a Lee Child on the elevator. Pretty much whole family, regardless of age, gender or usual book taste, reads this series.

Party of five: Me, Lee Child, the Ministry, the dog and the pizza (not pictured. Got et.)

Party of five: me, Lee Child, Ministry, the dog and the pizza (not pictured. Got et.)

The 2014 release, Personal, got me so excited I begged off the usual Sunday night hangover movie and glued myself to it. Then I abandoned cooking dinner and ordered pizza so I didn’t have to stop reading, something that basically only ever otherwise happens in the Ministry’s wildest dreams. I thought while reading it that Child was at the top of his game. The humour was more pronounced than the faint dry humour usually present and it spoke of absolute confidence and a certain playfulness.

In 2015 I thought, can he do it again?

There are some differences in Make Me. The subject matter of this book is also darker than usual. The humour has not vanished, but it’s dialled right back down. It also gets into unfamiliar territory plot-wise, even for this most wide-ranging of series. There is a focus on technology, an entirely new direction for Child’s old-school protagonist. I’m amazed to tell you that Reacher encounters a woman who is not a tiny, willowy blonde. And we get a glimpse of vulnerability in Reacher we have never seen before, which adds unutterably to the suspense level. It all seems to add up to a new maturity and intensity for this series.

Best of all, it ends tantalisingly, with a question mark.

Do not, I repeat, do not watch the one movie made from this series so far (One Shot, starring Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher). It will ruin this series for you before you’ve even begun.

But there is no doubt Lee Child still has plenty up his sleeve. Do yourself a favour and check out this series.

 

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Ready, Player Two? Ernest Cline’s Armada and how it measures up

Armada - Ernest ClineErnest Cline’s hit 2011 debut Ready Player One was the pure, unfettered brainscream of a child of the 80s,” as American writer and Juno chief executive Charles Ardai memorably put it.

 

For the uninitiated (where have you BEEN?) the novel wove a veritable treasure trove of 80s movie, gamer and pop-cultural references into an engaging post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel relying heavily on these references for its plot development – a novel at once more exciting, more significant in style and more original in conception than the description I just gave could possibly convey.

In short, it created waves of excitement in every 80s-raised-or-remembering person, one of whom I am proud to be (I was born the same year as The Goonies, yo). It excited the rest of the world too, enough for Steven Spielberg lay claim to directing the movie version, now due in 2017.

So obviously, no pressure on that second novel to succeed, Cline.

Enter Zack Lightman, an 18-year-old gamer who lives with his mom in Oregon. His father died in an explosion at 19, when Zack was just a baby, and the young doppelganger lives in a virtual shrine to the memory of his dad, who bequeathed his obsession with (yes…) 80s movies and games to his son by way of a collection of possessions in the attic of the home Zack and his mother now share with just the ageing beagle, Muffitt.

Zack, a dreamer already dealing with some anger issues and worried about his own grip on reality after spending too much time living in the world of his father’s games, notes and conspiracy theory-filled journals, thinks he must finally have lost the plot when one day he sees a ship from global hit game Armada circling the skies outside his classroom window.

But it soon becomes clear that these is a lot more at stake here than one teenager’s sanity, and this is maybe the first time in history that being a really, really good gamer can be called a life skill – a skill crucial to the future of the human race.

Despite my clearly being a member of the target audience, my kinship with the subject matter here ends abruptly at the word ‘gaming’. Thankfully, my long association with nerds has given me the vocabulary to cope, and even if you don’t care about the 80s or gaming, if you have any interest in the nature of modern sci-fi writing, I’d encourage you to give this a try.

Like its predecessor Ready Player One, Armada features the same endearingly enthusiastic tone, like your best friend chewing your ear off about their latest obsession. A nerd’s wet dream, it’s sharp and humorous, giving the reader an almost immodestly fun ride. It really sounds as though Cline had a ball writing this, particularly some of the wise-cracking dialogue, and that kind of enjoyment is contagious.

The writing is not amazing or life-changing. It’s not full of stirring descriptions or memorable quotes. Several times I am jarred slightly by a choice of adjective or simile. But it doesn’t need to be poetry. The language is entirely functional and the sheer momentum of this story needs no help. The pictures Cline paints are clear as daylight and lent soul by the central theme of Zack’s utter devotion to the idea of his father.

Funnily enough, I remember thinking as I read this that it read a bit like the novelisation of a movie, or indeed the script for one. Cline’s books are both very cinematic stuff, so it surprises me not one whit that Spielberg is all over this.

The author has written a confident and worthy successor to Ready Player One and confirmed his place as a truly original and exciting new voice in sci-fi.

They’ll both undoubtedly make kickarse movies, so keep your ear to the ground (or your eyes on the skies).

Want more sci-fi book reviews? 

Ursula le Guin, The Dispossessed
William Kotzwinkle, The Amphora Project
M. John Harrison, Light
John Wyndham, The Outward Urge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inside Out (2015)

What a good day it is when a new Pixar movie comes out. The Ministry and I have been salivating over this trailer since seeing it for the first time maybe six months ago so the anticipation level was high.

Here is a terrible picture of me going to see Inside Out. You can't tell because of the scary clown face effect, but in this picture I'm really excited about seeing Inside Out .

Here is a terrible picture of me going to see Inside Out. You can’t tell because of the scary clown face effect, but in this picture I’m really excited about seeing Inside Out .

In case you have been living under a rock, this is a movie about a Riley, an 11-year-old girl who has always been happy and well-adjusted but is teetering on the edge of puberty when her parents uproot the family from its idyllic suburban neighbourhood and move to a grubby inner-city apartment because the dad’s job requires it.

At first they try to make the best of it, but the moving van fails to show up and cracks begin to appear in this previously close family unit.

The viewer not only sees the real action of what’s happening to Riley and her family, like they would in any animated movie, but also has a unique insight into Riley’s mind. The control room is operated various base emotions – Joy, Fear, Anger, Sadness and Disgust – who govern her responses to situations and all work in harmony to keep her safe, well and rounded-out, personality-wise. Around the control room is the rest of her inner world, including a land of imagination, long term memory storage vaults and a dream land. An all-important storage facility for core memories powers various islands that make Riley who she is – Family Island, Hockey Island, Honesty Island, Friendship Island and of course a Train of Thought running through it all.

The shock to the system of the move causes the whole system to tremble. Sadness starts acting out, touching stuff she shouldn’t. Internal infrastructure begins to collapse and Riley becomes sullen, withdrawn and depressed. Her parents are at a loss.

What they can’t see is that Joy, played, well, joyfully, by Amy Poehler, has left the control room to try to sort things out and get Riley back to normal. She’s Riley’s best hope to recover, but that means Riley’s left in the care of some highly unsuitable emotions.

Complex, right? And pretty heavy. But you’ll be glad to know they don’t get bogged down in explaining all this. It just happens. In the words of writing experts everywhere, they don’t tell – they show. The whole system is such an imaginative wonderland, so bright and gorgeous and humorous, that it’s not a chore to work all this out.

The messages about depression and personality and dealing with crises are meaningful, not preachy or forced. The movie is about a kid and any kid you took to see it would love it, but at the same time many of the jokes would go straight over kids’ heads. This is real insight, incredibly relatable, and it rings very true to me. As the Ministry said, it sweeps you up.

The voice casting was great, with a special stroke of genius putting Richard Kind (in lots of stuff, but I’ll always remember him as Mark from Mad About You) as Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong.

This is an incredibly funny, clever, innovative and profound movie. It breaks new ground.

We walked out exhilarated, our words falling over each other, telling each other what bits we loved – an all-too-rare cinema experience. Do it. Do it now!

Here is a terrible picture of me going to see Inside Out. You can't tell because of the scary clown face effect, but in this picture I'm really excited about seeing Inside Out .

Here is a terrible picture of me going to see Inside Out. You can’t tell because of the scary clown face effect, but in this picture I’m really excited about seeing Inside Out .