Book Review: Slow Horses

Slow Horses
Slow Horses

I watched Slow Horses when it was first released on Apple TV+. It quickly became one of my favorite streaming series. Great cast, interesting characters, and English spy craft. The series is based on Nick Herron’s series Slough House (rhymes with cow).

I heard his books described as a modern Le Carre so I avoided them… I find Le Carre slow. I could never become invested in the story or the characters. Oddly, though, I liked many of the movies or series based on Le Carre novels, such as Tinker, Tailor, Spy, and A Most Wanted Man. I tried Slough House and read along while re-watching.

Each 6-episode season is based on one book; the first season is Slow Horses. I’d read to a point, then catch up with the series. I’d never done this before; usually I’ll watch the movie or series after finishing the book.

The first 4 episodes are almost beat-by-beat from the novel. It was fun hearing the exact lines taken from the book, especially from Lamb (SH is an ensemble, but Gary Oldman as Lamb is the star). The minor changes jump out, like Ho (the techie) not wearing glasses or living in a different house. And makes me wonder why they made these slight changes.

The series drifts from the book over the last two episodes; the plot around the kidnappers is very different. They add time with the kidnappers and the victim.

This is my main criticism of the book (lesser, as Herron only spends a few pages with the kidnappers) and series; the “bad guys” aren’t interesting. The genuine conflict in SH is between the members of Slough House themselves (who treat each other delightfully horribly), Jackson Lamb vs his own team, and Slough House vs the main MI5. Any time spent away from the central characters appears an un-necessary distraction. And the main kidnapper/bad guy in the series is cartoonishly evil and unrealistic.

The show runners for the series could have handled the kidnapping in the abstract by using news reports, intel, and keeping the camera with the main characters. It felt like they didn’t trust the viewer enough.

Other aspects of reading while watching were interesting. Namely, as a reader, I didn’t have to conjure pictures of locations (the notable Slough House or the starkly contrasted MI5), how the characters looker or spoke, or even the general vibe. I would have come up with a slightly different take on River Cartwright… I would have had him more serious, while Jack Lowden plays him with a lighter touch.

Slow Horses is a good read, far better than any Le Carre I’ve ever attempted. I want to read and rewatch with the other two novels, and contrast the experience to reading one that hasn’t been turned into a season. Herron’s writing is a perfect combination of smart, literature-esque, strong characters but with a strong plot that moves. Highly recommended.

Book Review: Everybody Behaves Badly


Readers of the blog know I am a Hemingway fan. I read The Sun Also Rises during my junior year in high school along with The Great Gatsby and Huck Finn. The Sun Also Rises was the rare book I loved upon first reading and have re-read it four or five times since high school.

Everybody Behaves Badly by Lesley M. M. Blume is the story behind The Sun Also Rises. This book was featured on One True Sentence podcast in 2020 and went into my Amazon wishlist. And there it sat until Ryan Holiday included it on his November 2023 book list. Seemed like the universe was trying to tell me something, so I picked it up… although I was still wary.

I read a similar book, The Undoing Project, which provides the backstory to the writing and authors behind Thinking Fast and Slow. Everybody Behaves Badly is a much better, more interesting read and highly recommended.

Blume tells the story of Hemingway in Paris in the 1920s, from his background as an unknown writer who schmoozed his way into the (already) famous literary scene in Paris. Here we meet so many of the people Hemingway would use as characters in The Sun Also Rises, from Robert Cohn to Lady Brett Ashley. We get enough of Hemingway’s background to understand who he was, but not an exhaustive biography.

More importantly, we get an account of Hemingway’s’ trips to Pamplona and the bullfights, especially the trip in 1924 with Harold Loeb (portrayed as Robert Cohn), Lady Duff Twysden (Lady Brett Ashley), Pat Guthrie (Mike Campbell) and Donald Stewart (Bill Gorton). The Sun Also Rises is a retelling of this trip, with the characters and events only slightly altered. One of the great revelations of Everybody Behaves Badly was how close to a straight travel story The Sun Also Rises, a beat by beat retelling of events.

This covers about 2/3 of the book. The final third describes life for Hemingway during and immediately after the publishing of The Sun Also Rises, which made him an internationally famous author (his goal). The epilogue details the lives of the characters/real friends (that word is doing a lot of work here) after the publishing. Amazing to see how much their inclusion in The Sun Also Rises affected their lives for the worse.

I tried to co-read The Sun Also Rises with Behaves… I’d read along while learning about the circumstances around the writing. A shocking thing happened, though… while I truly enjoyed Everybody Behaves Badly, The Sun Also Rises read very slow, especially to start. I’m not taking The Sun Also Rises out of my pantheon of favorite/best books… I wonder if I was just in a rush to get to the bullfights, and also to start other fiction novels stacking up on my to-read pile (an unread David Mitchell and two William Goldman books). But I couldn’t finish it… felt like Jake Barnes spent seventy pages aimlessly drinking in Paris (at the bars and restaurants Hemingway frequented, of course).

Behaves is a fun and easy read. Blume shows us where and how The Sun Also Rises events, places and characters originated. The Sun Also Rises is still one of the best novels of all time, although my journey over the last few years (reading a ton of short stories, including most of Hemingway’s) tilts me toward his short stories instead of his novels… a complete 180 as per my thoughts a few years ago.

Book Review: Holly

Holly Cover
Holly Cover

When I was younger, Stephen King was the biggest author in the world. Bookstores in my local mall (B.Dalton and Waldenbooks) prominently displayed his new hardcovers. They turned his books into movies. Guy was the “king” of horror.

I never liked horror, though, so I didn’t read or watch any of King’s stories. It wasn’t until I was an adult my wife made me watch The Shining, which I really enjoyed (as well as the book). When I read On Writing (the best book on writing?) I truly became a fan. So when my writing coach suggested I read Holly, I was game.

I enjoyed Holly. Holly is a mystery, sort of… we know who the bad guys are very early. The story is watching Holly, our protagonist, figure everything out. It’s a good page turner. It’s easy to root for Holly and her team of good guys and even easier to hate the bad guys… they are seriously evil and deranged.

Reading Holly, a few things stood out to me. One, King made this an immediately post-COVID lockdown story. Masks, shots, people sick and dying. Covid is a character in the story. It’s an odd choice because it already made it feel dated. An example is people, upon meeting for the first time, discuss whether they are vaccinated. Most of the “bad” people in the story aren’t, while our heroes are. Same with mask wearing, Covid deniers, etc. It’s an interesting choice; on the one hand, it marks a specific period in history. But reading it now, only a year or two later, it feels very dated. And while I agree with the “good guys” on vaccines and masks, making all the bad guys on the denier side comes off heavy-handed.

The other issue is the editing. I remember reading another super-popular author when I was a kid, Tom Clancy. His first bestseller, The Hunt for Red October, was a tight thriller with just enough military tech to make it interesting. His second, Red Storm Rising, was an unnecessarily long and almost unreadable. I distinctly remember my father, who read the book before I did, telling me it was a shame when authors got too big and could ignore their editors. I feel the same way about King’s writing. Characters have the same thoughts or experiences multiple times… I constantly said yes, I know this already. It’s unfortunate because the writing is excellent, and we’re invested in the characters and plot. The “Writers Edition” of The Stand was perhaps the worst example. In fairness, SK, in the intro to the extended version of the book, says the same… but it was laborious to read.

As fun as it is to criticize one of the most successful authors of all time, Holly a good read. Great, memorable characters, tension, and we really feel like we have a good sense of the location where most of the story takes place.

Book Review: The First Five Minutes of the Apocalypse

Apocalypse Book
Apocalypse Book

I have a personal connection to this book. I came across the following call for submission back in January 2023:

“We want that (apocalypse) story. It doesn’t matter how this thing started, what caused it, or where it came from. That’s not what we’re after. We want the experiences, the points of view, the wild, weird, disgusting, disturbing, beautiful, heartbreaking things that happened at the very beginning of the end of the world.

Short horror, weird, dark fiction between 1500 and 4000 words (firm limit) that deal with a fictional apocalypse.

The story must take place within a short period of time (less than a day) at the beginning of a fictional apocalypse. The story shouldn’t be the inception point or the origin of the apocalyptic event. It shouldn’t even be about the event itself. Rather, it should be about when it all started for the POV character(s). Make it personal. Make it weird. Make it disturbing. Make it beautiful. We’re gonna get a lot of zombies, so points for originality.”

Bingo! Right up my alley. I set most of my stories in a post-apocalyptic world. I wrote a story called “Through the Fog”; about 2500 words about a pair of men left alive in their rural town after a purple fog rolls through.

I worked on 2 other contest stories at the time… but was careful to prioritize the stories based on due date. I completed Through the Fog on time but, but, but… never submitted. I don’t know how I neglected to send the entry. Sadly, I didn’t realize this for months. I was actively waiting for a response from the editor, which, of course, never arrived.

After my self-directed anger subsided, I ordered the book. The First Five Minutes of the Apocalypse is from Hungry Shadow Press and edited by Brandon Applegate. I didn’t know what to expect in terms of quality; the press was new to me and the turnaround time from the end of the contest to publication was just a few months. The collection of stories is quite good, and the quality of the storytelling and editing is high.

Each story envisions the apocalypse differently. Disease, aliens, nuclear war, etc. One of the most interesting was Estrangements by D. Matthew Urban; the apocalypse is something that tricks human minds into seeing monsters instead of other humans. The Scream from Andrew Cull is a well-done “classic” PA tale of a family trying to escape a paralyzing agent that captures victims in a hideous muscle-lock, while navigating lawlessness. The Door in the Basement is even weirder.

The collection has recurring themes. Two stories from the POV of animals. Two stories featuring wives very upset with their partners. The recurring theme that hits the hardest is regret. Lost Time by Eoin Murphy is the best example and my favorite story in the collection; facing the end of everything, do you regret how you spent your time? Chasing career advancement in the office on a Saturday?

I enjoyed the collection. It’s an interesting angle to take in the PA space. The stories are the right length and of good quality. I only skipped gave up on two stories, a high hit rate for a collection. Would my story made the collection? Maybe. We’ll never know.

Book Review: Slade House

Giant Sequoias
Giant Sequoias

Readers of know David Mitchell is one of my favorite authors. I took a break from reading his books after Cloud Atlas. Since then, I’ve re-read Ghostwritten and The Bone Clocks (my favorite). During the re-reading Bone Clocks, I discovered Slade House was a follow-up to Bone Clocks.

I read, somewhere, Slade House was about an extraordinary house in a city… naturally, I thought it was the backstory of 119A (a Horologist safe house). No, Slade House is different. I liked the book; reading it immediately after re-reading The Bone Clocks was immensely helpful… I was already in the Mitchell universe. It follows the usual Mitchell approach; seemingly unrelated narrators who tie together in the end.

There are a few notable differences. The book is short compared to most DM novels and feels much simpler. As I read it on a vacation, it worked for me, but readers who expect the usual deep backstory may be let down. And this book is a quasi-horror, part haunted-house tale. Everything about Slade House is disconcerting; I felt dread for characters caught in its web.

One of my goals for reading Slade House was to pay close attention to how DM told his stories. First person, always. Backstory delivered naturally, not through info dumps. References to other people, even passing, were connected to his larger universe. But done in a lighter, interesting way… even though we jumped between four narrators, they were compelling with different viewpoints of the same situation.

It was hard, though, to concentrate on how DM “did his work”. I was too interested in the narrators and the story. Mostly, I cared about what happens next. I even experienced this with Bone Clocks, a book I’d read, but forgot the nuances. This immersion in the story and its characters is what makes DM a brilliant author and someone to emulate.

Slade House is strongly recommended. An intriguing read with a clever conclusion. The biggest con is to fully appreciate the side references and parts of the conclusion, the reader should have read at least the Bone Clocks.

Book Review: Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita Book Cover
The Master and Margarita Book Cover

I’ve written before about how I consider recommendations. Pre-pandemic, I came across this list from baseball author Keith Law. He passionately recommended two books; Beloved by Tony Morrison and The Master and Margarita by Bulgogov.

I knew before cracking the cover Beloved was a heavy, emotional book, but was surprised at the supernatural/surrealist elements. Picked up M&M next, thinking it was a comedy (the recommendation highlighted the humor). Instead, it was a weird book set in Moscow in the 1930s, full of difficult Russian names and strange characters. I put it down after one hundred pages. A surrealist Russian historical novel wasn’t what I was wanted.

Since then, I’ve become a fan of Russian literature, thanks wholly to A Swim in the Pond in the Rain and the accompanying Story Club. I read Anna Karenina and a handful of the short stories in Nabokov on my own, and wanted more. Before buying new Russian books, though, I wanted to revisit M&M.

Attitude matters while approaching a book. I cracked into The Master and Margarita, knowing Bulgogov set it in old Moscow and surrealist. The humor would come from absurdity, not snappy dialogue or ironic thoughts of the narrator. And Anna Karenina cured me of any phobia I had about Russian names.

My favorite part of reading M&M is the prose. Something about the Russians and how they work with the language and tell a story. Bulgakov used more exposition than a modern story allows, but it’s done artfully. I’m never taken out of the story. My attention calmly flows from sentence to sentence. Reading is inviting and steady. But this made me wonder; who am I admiring? The author or the translator?

I’d never given much thought to the translator. We covered the topic in the GS class, and now I research the best translations. Anna Karenina had a team of highly respected translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Surely, the plot, characters and overall direction are the original authors. But I consider myself as much a fan of Pevear and Volokhonsky as Tolstoy and Bulgakov.

Whenever I finish literature, I read essays and articles examining the story. Most of the critique and praise of M&M refers to its absurdity. Satan’s Ball was the most absurd part of the book and my least favorite. I kept waiting for these sections to end. I enjoyed the reactions of normal people to the absurdity, though. And of course very much liked Behemoth, often referred to as the large black cat.

If this were a Hollywood movie, it’d be an ensemble cast. Woland, otherwise known as Satan, is a constant throughout the book, but as a sometimes-absent protagonist. His dialogue and action are fairly limited. For the first third of the book, the reader assumes it’s about a play and its effect on a newspaper and theater. By the end of the book, we’ve spent significant time with a character we barely meet in the first half, namely the Master. And Bulgogov only referred Margarita to in the first half of the book. Much like an ensemble movie, we learn how all of our characters faired in the last few pages.

I loved The Master and Margarita. The prose, the characters, even Moscow, called to me. And, a day after finishing, I ordered another Tolstoy, a collection of Chekhov stories and Nabokov’s Lolita. With Pevear and Volokhonsky as translators, of course.

Re-Thinking Re-Reads

January 2023 To-Read
January 2023 To-Read

My last few posts were book reviews. I’ve been on a good run with interesting books and magazines. My to-read pile whittled down to just one book… luckily, I remedied this with some focused time on Amazon and a re-kindled wish to re-read books.

It started with Anna Karenina; to get through a book of its size and assumed (it wasn’t hard to read) difficulty, I set a regular cadence. Fifty pages each weekend day and seventy-five for the week. I hadn’t read like this before and the “forced” longer sessions allowed me to inhabit the headspace of the book.

I’ll be strategic with the re-reads. Without the desire to see what happens next, or how the story will end, I can notice how the author is unfurling the story. All the little hints, clues, oddities of characters, etc. missed on my first read… I enjoy the plot and story elements most of all, so I read to see how ends. I have re-reads in mind; authors I’ve mentioned repeatedly. I need to study their work.

Another driver for re-reads is the Re-watchables podcast. From The Ringer, the hosts take a movie they consider re-watchable (you see in on cable while flipping the channels and have to watch a few minutes) and discuss. Super entertaining. The part I’ve appreciated most are two of the regular co-hosts, Sean Fennessey and Chris Ryan, discuss the writing and directing. They are movie wonks and point out elements I hadn’t noticed, like the scoring or pacing. The elements essential to creating a great movie.

My current to-read pile is new books from George Saunders and David Mitchell (Mitchell’s book is older but new to me) and three books I started, recognized as good books but wasn’t “the right time” and abandoned. I read at least a third of these books and hopefully can notice more on this time around.

Book Review: The Edge of Collapse

Edge of Collapse Cover
Edge of Collapse Cover

Book Review: The Edge of Collapse

I wanted to read top books in the post-apocalyptic space, as determined by Amazon. A few of the books I had read, like all the Emily St. Mandel and Hugh Howey books. I especially wanted to read self-published authors. I picked two.

One came overnight… it was dreadful. I forced myself to read at least fifty pages, but the author fully described every new scene or character upon entry into the story. Each character was a stereotype and the plot was tough to swallow. Why is this book a best-seller?

Luckily, the second book, The Edge of Collapse by Kyla Stone, is much better. It’s a classic page-turner; I picked it up, intending to read a chapter or two, but hummed through sixty pages in the blink of an eye.

The book bounces between three characters in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We first meet Hannah, a woman imprisoned in the basement of a madman for over five years. An EMP wipes out everything electronic across the US and Hannah escapes. Her captor chases her through a forest.

It’s a page turner. Stone creates palpable worry and danger. And things just get worse and worse for our main characters. Unlike the first book I tried, we aren’t hit over the head with verbose descriptions and back-stories. We only discover key aspects of our characters well into the story and select items aren’t resolved. The characters are relatable, and we root for the heroes and despise the villain.

My criticism is related to the self-publishing part. I listened to sections (part of the same initiative to read more self-published books) of Write, Publish, Repeat and I can see elements of their advice at play. This is the first book in a series, a main tenant of their advice…. so, when the reader is done, they can immediately buy the next book in the series.

One of their points is how differently readers interact with self-published books. Readers are on the lookout for typos and mistakes. I mentally edited more than usual… which probably isn’t fair. The book I started immediately after, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, isn’t receiving the same level of scrutiny. I assumed there was less editing on The Edge while any book from McCarthy would have the top editors. Regardless, the characters are stereotypical (the ex-Military guy with a heart of gold and amazing skills, the psychopath with no redeemable qualities, etc.) and some of the internal dialogue could be reduced.

But I really enjoyed the book and will order the second in the series.

Book Review: The Untouchable

Cover of The Untouchable
Cover of The Untouchable

A few weeks ago, I wrote about reading recommendations, including two from David Coggins. I hadn’t read the books he listed in his newsletter… on a whim, I bought two, “The Untouchable” by John Banville and “A Month in the Country” by J. L Carr. The Untouchables was fantastic. Banville (who I need to read more) creates a world filled with memorable characters in England before, during and after WW2. It doesn’t check my usual boxes, but the writing overcomes any limitations.

Victor Maskell tells the story of his life as a spy. Not a James Bond type, but as an academic adjacent to upper-crust English society. The story begins with Victor revealing he was outed as a Russian agent but still lives freely in London. A young reporter interviews him about his life for a book and the rest of the story is Victor retelling his past.

I admit, I almost dropped this book twice… after twenty pages, and again after ninety. I couldn’t find the plot or the hook. Those first pages were a mishmash of characters and grievances. The Untouchable violated one of my main tenets… it didn’t have a strong and discernible plot. Rather than putting it down, I committed to fifty pages one weekend. Then I recognized the brilliance of the novel.

Banville, through the device of an elderly man recounting his life as a spy, places the reader in a world swirling with characters. Unlikable people… I can’t think of one character I rooted for or admired. But they were interesting, scheming, opinionated and memorable. A plot evolved through these characters… just hidden a few levels beneath the surface.

Also, hiding below the old stories and characters, was Victor Maskell’s double nature. He’s English and works on the war effort and is a trusted consultant of the King, and a Russian asset. He’s married with children and gay, a member of English society yet an Irish Catholic, etc. This dual nature is present in other characters as well, and, by the end of the book, the title “The Untouchable” also has double meaning.

This is a slow burn of a read, plot-wise. But Banville’s writing is compelling and his characters memorable. Sometimes when I read a book, I can’t wait to finish. I didn’t want “The Untouchable” to end.

A Second Look: Dubliners

Bridge over Liffey

I’ve read Dubliners by James Joyce three times. An upcoming trip to Ireland inspired my most recent read. I’ve viewed Dubliners as an easier way to read a classic; short, immersive stories. Also, a nice way to come out of the Hemingway jag.

I used to start my morning writing sessions by either copying lines of classic texts (The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby, Wool) to learn about sentence structure or read Dubliners to hear the lyricism. If I read quickly, I often miss the poetry of the words, reading to find out what happens next. The wordplay is more noticeable on slower, closer reads, as is the tone and speech of the characters. I wonder how much of what they say and infer is lost to time, though… every story has references to specifics that are very Irish or locked in the early 1900s.

Joyce wrote this short story collection while away from Ireland and Dublin. He spent most of his adult life abroad. Which is striking, since Dublin itself is one of the main characters in the book. Each story contains specific references to streets and bridges, specific pubs, etc. Not to mention the overall tone and mood of the city. It’s crazy to think an author wrote so intently about a place yet choosing to live somewhere else. In my many author-ly fantasies, I picture myself living somewhere exotic for a few months under the guise of research.

A few things struck me on this third read. There are a few thematic constants in the stories. One is the overall tone… it’s a depressing read. Almost every character is poor and struggling for money while living in the city’s underclass. Poverty hangs over each story… the characters fight and scrape for punts and shillings. Characters like Lenehan in Two Gallants scam young women, old men expose themselves to young boys in An Encounter, and Mr Duffy in A Painful Case condemns a beau to a life of despair. Gray is used to describe the characters and the city itself.

Another constant is alcohol consumption. Not in a merry, where’s-the-craic sort of way, but how much trouble it causes. Each story has at least one character whose life is significantly worse because of drinking.

Finally, it seems none of Joyce’s characters can escape Dublin. Joyce set all of the stories in actual places in the city. One character, Evelin in, well, Eveline, is set to leave what seems like an awful home life, but finds she can’t board the ship to leave. The young, middle-aged and near-dead can’t get out of the city.

Dubliners was an easier read this time. The older conventions, styles and attitudes didn’t jump off the page at me. Maybe this is because of reading so much of others from that same time period? Or just an expectation grounded in experience.