Cynical Review: All Our Wrong Todays

There are a lot of bad books in the world. I know that, because I get many of them for Christmas every year. In all fairness, I’m not really blaming my friends and relatives for this – I tend to be non-specific regarding my wish list and tell them to go with their respective guts when buying me books. That way, I get to read a lot of books I wouldn’t have read otherwise. And as it happens, quite a few of these books are dreadful.

AOWT Reasons I get bad books

However, in the case of All Our Wrong Todays, I can blame nobody but myself. Except for Elan Mastai, the guy who wrote it. I blame him too. But this was a book I’d actually mentioned pre-Christmas as something I specifically wanted to read, and I can’t remember many books I’ve looked more forward to reading in recent years (Nudge, nudge, George RR). Especially when it was in the middle of my post-Christmas reading pile, in between dramatic-sounding but ultimately nonsensical action thriller titles and an actual children’s book (My father got me Bad Dad by David Walliams. He’s big on underwhelming ironic humour). The point is: There are a lot of bad books in the world. It is not necessary to make a good idea into another bad book.

The premise of the book is that the future people envisioned during the middle of the twentieth century actually happened, in all its teleporting, hover car-driving, space-touristing glory. However, a time travel mishap causes our protagonist to end up in our timeline, in all its train-commuting, reality show-inhabiting misery (Reality shows aren’t ever actually mentioned. I’m making a reasonable assumption about what someone from a superior society would judge ours for).

AOWT Problems with Our Multiverse

Sounds intriguing, right? I’m a sucker for a good premise and this one was irresistible. A lot of room for nuanced reflection around our society and technology, about predictions and coincidences, while at the same time leaving plenty of room for an entertaining story. But in the biggest waste of potential since Roy Hodgson was allowed to manage Liverpool FC, Elan Mastai defiles the world he has created by using it as nothing more than a backdrop for a cringeworthy, generic, and patronising young adult love story. Rather than embarking on experimental thinking about the pros and cons of our technological situation, this is a book almost exclusively about a wanky guy called Tom and his obsession with a girl called Penny (Well, technically two girls, as she’s different people in the different timelines. This book gives you all the confusion and paradoxes of a time travel novel without any of the thoughtful insight).

I mentioned in my review of It Can’t Happen Here that the big glaring problem with the book was a matter of priorities. The plot in and of itself is brilliant, but the tale of how a civilised society can drag itself into fascism is constantly interrupted by the goings-on in the private life of a news editor with a peculiar name (Doremus). Upon reflection, I’ve started to feel like this is actually the problem with most books – normally, a book won’t make it into publishing if there’s nothing appealing about the story. Books become bad when writers start caring about the wrong things and nobody around them says “Elan, dude, there is not a single humanoid in existence who gives a fraction of a shit about Tom and his Pennies.”

AOWT Reasons books are bad

(Sorry, normally I like to limit myself to only one Dan Brown-bash per post unless I’m actually talking about a Dan Brown book. I will be better in the future.)

In summary, I would like to make a suggestion to Mr Mastai. I declare on behalf of everyone who has read this book that we will happily return our copies to you and pretend like it never existed, on the condition that you re-write it, but get it fucking right this time. This arrangement is both very much in the spirit of the book, as we would be creating an alternative timeline of sorts, and additionally it would let me put the new book on my wish list for next Christmas, where it would take up a space under the tree that would otherwise be occupied by an action thriller with a dumb title.


Cynical Review: Legends of The Firm

Legends of The Firm by Cass Pennant and Martin King was originally published in 2005, under the name Terrace Legends. This year, it has resurfaced with its unquestionably catchier title, but still with exactly the same content that earned it 34 ratings on This humble number effectively means that only the closest and dearest friends and family of the two writers bothered to leave ratings. Ratings that averaged at 3.35 stars.

Having read it after picking it up at an airport, it really begs the question why someone would drag this inexcusable shitfest out of some bin that hasn’t been emptied for twelve years and then re-publish it. Incidentally, this has also lead me to my final verdict on books I discover in airport bookshops.

On the cover, it says that The Independent has called it “The most terrifying book ever written about soccer violence”. Let’s take this notion seriously for a bit despite the writer’s usage of the S word. The only way that this is even remotely accurate would be if we’re talking about the permanent brain damages clearly sustained by the two ex-hooligan authors. This barely has any right to call itself a book at all – it is a questionnaire with 29 responses. Is there room in the world for in-depth interviews and conversations with former hooligans, casuals and other trouble-making football enthusiasts? Yes. But it is not this book, which asks the same series of questions of everyone, including what sort of clothes they like and what their favourite band is. Those are in there, I’m not joking.

One of the many fundamental flaws of this is of course that people who consider repeated blows to the head to constitute an enjoyable day out might not be the best at expressing their inner workings. It would take a top interviewer to ask the right follow-up questions and make the right inferences. But the interviewers are no strangers to head trauma themselves, and consistently just move on to the next question on their pre-written list when the opportunity for a good follow-up presents itself. The result is 28 interviews with only laconic responses, and one Derby cunt whose dumb monologues make for almost one tenth of the entire book. And I want to be clear that I’m not using the word “cunt” lightly here. This guy, in addition to being a violent idiot who apparently gives long, self-important answers in interviews, blames the Hillsborough tragedy of 1989 on the Liverpool supporters, a narrative that has been thoroughly debunked. Hence, I will maintain my right to describe him in the aforementioned 4-lettered manner, and encourage anyone else to do the same.

If a seven-year-old with slightly reduced cognitive abilities accidentally ended up at a university, this book is basically what the appendix of his dissertation would look like. A series of uninteresting questions not explored or discussed at all, simply a transcript of awkward conversations with seemingly random questions.

However, both interviewers and interviewees consist of big, scary men with a proven propensity for violence, and hence none of the editors dared touch any of the text before it went to printing. So the inherent cowardice of the type of nerds who end up in the publishing industry would account for why the book was allowed to violate the paper it was printed on in 2005. Why publish it again? As I pondered this mystery, studying the cover, I realised that the answer was quite literally staring me in the face. This is what meets you when you, naive and uninformed, pick up Legends of The Firm:

A few yeas ago, former policeman James Bannon wrote a great book following the true story of his life undercover in the Millwall hooligans environment, and the subsequent development of blurring the line, split loyalties and identity crisis. It looked like this:

The snakes at John Blake Publishing, whose spinelessness caused the waste of ink that is Legends of The Firm to taint the world of published literature in the first place, took a look at Bannon’s work, correctly assessed that it’s a phenomenal book about hooliganism and football culture, concluded that they could somehow piggyback off it, then called their legal team to discuss the specifics of plagiarism laws in Britain. The result being a book that presumably is bought only by myself and like-minded Pavlov’s dogs and slaves to associations who read Running with The Firm and really liked it. Not only is this lazy, it is dangerous. I am mortified at the idea that my friends and acquaintances might stumble into WHSmith at Gatwick and buy Legends of The Firm based on my frequent and adamant praise of Running with The Firm. Which brings me to the main reason for why I’ve written this post, two and a half months after my previous one – I want this review to be unequivocal proof that I have not recommended anyone to read 29 daft questionnaire responses from violent morons who still somehow manage to be unbearably boring cover to cover.


Cynical Review: Dream London

I have a confession to make. It is a thoroughly underwhelming confession about something self-evident, but it’s a confession nonetheless: Sometimes, in my reviews on this blog, I exaggerate the negative aspects of books and downplay the positives. If I didn’t, it would kind of undermine the whole point about looking at books cynically. However, if this comes as a shock to you, and you are appalled by my dishonesty, I guess I have taught you a valuable lesson about what a cynical world we live in, and I think there’s a certain poetic balance to that.

Why am I bringing this up? Well, I realise that I have been setting myself up to be the boy who cried wolf. For example Inverting The Pyramid is a perfectly decent read, despite its flaws (I hope I’ve been pretty clear about what those flaws were), and my review of it is not necessarily a completely fair and unbiased description.

So if I’m so critical of books that are quite average, how to react to a book that genuinely is a complete and utter unbridled shitshow from page one to page three-hundred-and-make-it-stop? Needless to say, this is the case for Dream London.

Sometimes, you can tell by the opening line whether a book will be good. For me, opening Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to the words “We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold” was a literary experience in itself. Some people feel the same way about opening lines in A Tale of Two Cities (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”) or Anna Karenina (“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”). The first line of Dream London is “CRUNCH CRUNCH CRUNCH. Mmmmm, mmmmm. Crunch crunch crunch”. It only goes downhill from there, somehow.

Here’s the premise: London has been taken over by unknown supernatural forces. The geography and structure of the city changes every day, as do the inhabitants, not to mention the very laws of physics. Our protagonist is James Wedderburn, a disenchanted former military officer who earns his living as a pimp, and who generally exploits whoever happens to be standing within exploiting distance. Can this uncompromising antihero become a hero when the city depends on it?

That sounds pretty intriguing, right? That’s what I thought when I read the back of the book, anyway, and it’s what I have to keep thinking in order to forgive myself for having decided to read it. Because whatever you’re imagining based on the above – it’s not like that. Imagine instead that you tell an ADHD-suffering 13-year-old boy that he has to write 347 pages that fit the above description before you give him his Ritalin back. That’s what the book is like.

Everything about this book is so over the top, from the sexuality of the female characters (Either non-existant or extremely aggressive), through the menagerie of absurd creatures that would have made Salvado Dali stab both of his eyes out due to an overdose of surrealism (Including an orange frog-man who becomes Mr Wedderburn’s sidekick, but whose origins are never truly accounted for), to some unnecessarily obscene events (First and foremost one scene in which Mr Wedderburn gets anally raped by Mandrill monkeys in front of a cheering crowd).

I normally have a high tolerance for the macabre, but I think there should always be a point to it beyond just shock value. Dream London is at its core a Rivers of London on steroids meets 1984 on acid. You’d think that was weird enough, you don’t need to season it with Chuck Palahniuk on laxatives. A 45-year old man (That is the demographic identity of Tony Ballantyne, author of Dream London) should not feel like he has to make graphic references to monkey sperm inside people’s bums so that the other kids will think he’s cool and edgy. Furthermore, on two separate occasions, the odour of human excrement in a crowded city is described as a “sweet” smell, without any elaboration. I don’t even want to know what that’s all about.

To end things on a less disgusting note – the book is also very poorly edited, so the depths of shame to which I condemn this work of awfulness belong not only to Mr Ballantyne, but to the entire terrible publishing team. Their deadly sins are somewhat more innocent though, such as overlooking clear factual mistakes, for example when two characters are studying details of London in a photograph supposedly taken from 22,000 miles away. Maybe it was meant to be a different number. Maybe it was meant to be a different unit. But it was not meant to be what it is, and someone should have fixed that. Similarly, when the author writes nonsensical things like “She managed to look completely naked beneath her clothes”, someone needs to tell the dude that he’s not making sense. But come to think of it, if sense-making was a criteria in the first place, this book would have been stopped dead in its tracks, I would never have picked it up, and right now you would instead be reading my snarky monologue about a perfectly OK book.


Cynical Review: Inverting The Pyramid

The prologue of Inverting The Pyramid mentions the genesis of the book occurring in a bar in Lisbon in 2004. England had beaten Switzerland 3-0 in the Euros the day before, and a group of journalists were discussing the England setup, and how it could be optimised. An English journalist then exclaims “Oh, what’s the difference? They’re the same players. The formation isn’t important. It’s not worth writing about.” These words changed Jonathan Wilson’s life, if we are to believe his account of things. He set out to write the ultimate tactics book about football, and presumably sent a copy to the gentleman who uttered the unfortunate words, I assume with a post-it note attached saying “So… I guess it IS worth writing about”.

I get that the prologue is most likely put in there for narrative purposes, and that the journalist is meant to represent the wider English mindset of anti-intellectualism in football. I also wholeheartedly agree with Wilson in that anyone whose brain-to-mouth filter does not stop comments like those of his fellow journalist “shouldn’t be allowed to watch football, let alone talk about it”. However, I’m not sure if Wilson knows how he’s coming across when he’s implying that he responds to drunken discussions by going away for four years to write a 450 page book about why he’s right. You should know that I myself have been described as “punchably argumentative”, yet this is the most strenuous effort I’m willing to go to in order to score a point after an alcohol-fuelled debate:

With that in mind, the desperately sad thing is that he kind of misses the mark. The book has the subtitle “The History of Football Tactics”, it aims at being a tactical book, but it is first and foremost a history book. Namedropping of absurdly obscure characters and descriptions of their backgrounds take up way more of the word count than discussion about the merits of formations. Actual tactics are generally limited to unhelpful visualisations of football fields, with tactical descriptions ranging from the mundane to the incomprehensible, sometimes even in the same diagram:

No wonder England found it harder to score, with all those arrows in the way.

Another clear sign of why this is a history book is the ridiculous amount of index fodder. There is a long index of names at the end of this book, containing pretty much every single internationally influential football manager in history. It also contains a lot of other names. This is largely due to Wilson pulling out sequences like this one:

(…) Zajec as the libero, with Hadzic to his right and either Srecko Bogdan or Borislav Cvetkovic to his left. Gradually [Blazevic] replaced the full-backs, Zvjezdan Cvetkovic and Milivoj Bracun, with more attacking players, Petar Brucic and Drago Bosnjak, creating the 3-5-2.

Did that excerpt intrigue you? If so, I can reveal that it is in fact a description of Dinamo Zagreb’s backline of the early 80s, including two separate Cvetkovices. Also, I can reveal that you are very likely somewhere on the autism spectrum.
Marathon namedropping sections like that are not unusual throughout the book, and it’s clear that Wilson somehow gets off on having a big, thick index, possibly the strangest form of penis size compensation I have ever encountered. But the epitome of indexing weirdness is reached in this section:

(…) the debate about the relative merits of beauty and success came to Sweden. Peterson compares it to listening to Charlie Parker after Glenn Miller or viewing Picasso after classical landscapes

So this is a quoted metaphor about American music from the 1940s. The absurd thing is that this digression gets an index entry for Glenn Miller, but not for Charlie Parker (Or Picasso, for that matter). I find this so strange that I’m actually struggling to get past it. What was the thinking there? Is it based on which obscure and outdated musician is more likely to be searched for in a book about football history?

Actual tactics are clearly secondary. There is a chapter on Catenaccio, but predictably, it is more concerned about which short and tempered Italian got an epiphany from which nautical metaphor, rather than how Catenaccio looks in today’s game. Specifically, how it looks when adopted by a dreadful Portuguese man currently in the Manchester area, who have spent most of his professional life trying to be the Darth Vader of club football.
Though truth be told, I mostly enjoyed Inverting The Pyramid. It’s informative, and it does provide a historical context for why the game looks like it does, and why centre backs are occasionally referred to as “centre halves”, which I’ve always found weird. It’s still weird, as it turns out this is a remnant of a “halfback” position that hasn’t been used a whole lot these past 90 years, but now I have a context for why it’s weird. The biggest problem of the book is that it doesn’t live up to my expectations, as it was sold in to me as the definitive book on football tactics. But occasionally, it does feel like the importance of tactics are undermined somewhat by the book, as it clearly doesn’t matter where on the pitch you put your players, they’re just going to run pointlessly around anyway.


Un-cynical Review: It Can’t Happen Here

This is the book that overnight became the most important novel in the world, more than 80 years after it was written. I’ve seen some claims regarding so-called predictions of the Donald Trump presidency in literature, including both Brave New World and 1984 (Which is strange, seeing as the two governments in those books are pretty much complete opposites ideologically). I was impressed with the parallels found in Black Mirror’s The Waldo Moment episode, but felt that the most striking prediction was George RR Martin’s obscure short story And Death His Legacy. That was until I read It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, a book that I must admit I hadn’t even heard of until everyone started talking about a 1935 American politics novel that had predicted the least predictable presidential candidate in modern times 80 years later.

The thing is, with all these claims being made about Lewis’ prescience, the oppositional and argumentative part of me (Which is most of me) wanted to call this book out on not being all that accurate before I’d even read it. However, it’s actually pretty bloody accurate. Naturally, there are some obvious shared traits that you would attribute to any totalitarian leader, such as demonisation of the free press, xenophobia and general demagoguery, but the really eyebrow-raising similarities are in the details:

I am of the opinion that a good book is enjoyable, a great book is profound. As it happens, most good books aren’t that great, and almost no great books are particularly good.

This is also true of It Can’t Happen Here. The premise is great, the themes speak to something fundamental in human nature, even the main character is a more or less likeable person. But the storyline is very much lacking, placing it firmly on the right hand side of the venn diagram of literary priorities.

The book is written from the perspective of Doremus Jessup (I have no idea how “Doremus” is supposed to be pronounced, but he dislikes it when his wife calls him “Doormouse”, so that’s not it). He works as an editor for a local newspaper in a town in Vermont whose name I’ve already forgotten because I don’t care. I think the choice of profession was a good move on Lewis’ part, as Jessup is well-informed about what is going on around the political scene and can provide a perspective on it for the reader. The problem is that whenever something does happen, it’s as if the book is interrupted by a loud voice-over going “MEANWHILE…” and we suddenly have to deal with another chapter about the goings-on amongst Doremus and his posh friends in Whogivesashit, Vermont. Perhaps there are readers who feel sympathy for Doremus as he is trapped in an unhappy, but functional marriage with a woman who calls him Doormouse. Maybe these same readers feel moved by how Doremus’ daughter endorses his affair with a mistress he is much more compatible with. Could be that these hypothetical readers are simply more endowed with empathy than I am. But it’s also possible that these people simply lack any sense of perspective, as while this is going on, President Windrip is throwing his political opponents into concentration camps and can we get back to that bit, please?

However, for nuance, I will say that the greatest moment of the book takes place in one of these mostly tedious breaks from what happens on a macro level. Doremus’ son Philip is a young lawyer who has been persuaded by his establishment-friendly colleagues that Windrip is enforcing positive change. The heated discussion between Doremus, naturally very anti-Windrip, and his son is one of the best literary conversations I’ve ever read, even beating the climactic honesty of Winston and O’Brien’s post-capture exchanges in 1984. The way it explores the line between healthy ambition and toxic opportunism makes the whole book worth reading alone. If you can’t be bothered to do that, it’s on chapter 24. You’ll be missing out on a lot of context, but I still really think you should read it.

All in all, It Can’t Happen Here is not a page-turner, you will not cancel any social plans in order to go home and read it, and truth be told, it felt like an effort at times to pick it up and keep reading. Come to think of it, this is not even the best novel on 1930s American politics I’ve read so far this year, as All The King’s Men was actually more enjoyable. So it is not a very good book. What it is, is a great book. A book written by a Nobel Literature Prize winner, exploring in a very realistic way how in certain conditions, human howler monkeys can win democratic elections. The fact that he was proven right as much as 80 years later somehow only makes it greater.


Cynical Awards: 6 Most Cringey Quotes from I Am Pilgrim

In my recent review of I Am Pilgrim, I briefly mentioned my annoyance about author Terry Hayes’ apparent overconfidence in his own phrasing abilities. The outcome of this is a lot of cringe-inducing quotes, of which I have taken 6, and put them in a ranked order (I believe the technical term is list). I’ve decided on 6 partly because I felt that it was mainly these 6 moments that were in serious need of public shaming, and partly because 6 feels like a suitable number for a list like this. A top 5 of something feels very natural. It’s halfway to a top 10. It fills the podium and then gives honourable mentions to an appropriate quantity of entries that didn’t quite make the top 3. 6 is a weird, awkward number of items to put on a list, and so it matches the content of the entries. Right now, you probably feel like this justification is quite forced, and you are absolutely right. But I felt like it would be irresponsible of me to unleash these levels of cringe without a little warm-up first. Now that that’s done, be aware that I accept no liability for whatever injuries your palm might inflict on your face as a result of the following contents.

Number 6: Weird Titanic reference

Being on board a speeding cigarette boat meant that my situation had improved – but it was also true that the starboard side of the Titanic initially held up a bit better than the port side.

This takes the spot as the least cringey quote within the selection, as I kind of get where the writer is going with it. It’s something like “Don’t get overconfident even if things are looking good to start with”, I guess. But how appropriate is it really? Did the passengers on the starboard side of the Titanic actually go “Ha! Look at those losers on the port side, they’re totally sinking. So glad that we here on the cool half of the ship are going to make it to New York!” Has Hayes put this strange line in there because the main character (Who is probably named Scott, but nowhere in the 888 pages does he find it relevant to confirm this) is on a boat and therefore in need of a nautical reference? Regardless, it’s pretty forced.

Number 5: Holiday tip for when you’re in a bit of a mood

I had been to Jeddah on my previous trip, so I knew it well enough. There was only one thing to recommend it: Say, you wanted to commit suicide and couldn’t quite find the courage, two days in Jeddah would do the trick.

I would have cringed at this one if I saw it in a TripAdvisor review, never mind in a bestselling novel. It gets me because I think the sentiment is worth putting in there, but it’s been phrased in such an incredibly awkward way. That sentence could have read something like “Jeddah – a place so depressing that recommending it to someone is a form of assisted suicide” and it would actually have been a half-decent sentence, a semi-elegant way of stating an opinion on the Saudi city of Jeddah. But of course they went with a phrasing that has a damn colon in it, for the simple reason that Terry Hayes was so bloody satisfied with himself when he thought of this punchline that he felt the joke deserved an introduction. I have an opinion about that assessment: It doesn’t.

Number 4: The least interesting opinion in the world

“Here in the provinces, without the wealth of a Caesar, it was mostly gladiators and re-creation of famous myths. Of course, those stories were wildly popular too – lots of violence and killing, but not much plot.”
“Sounds like a Hollywood movie,” I said

Is this meant as a commentary on the universal nature of humanity? A thought on how some fundamentals are always present in different cultures despite the countless generations and enormous cultural shifts that separate them? Probably, but it really doesn’t work. And again, it’s because of the inherent smugness there, as Scott-esque (I wanted to call him Scott-ish, but felt that would be confusing) is presenting this as if it is an original thought. Remember, this is one of the leading investigators in the world. I would expect slightly higher levels of observational prowess than the most basic and obvious cliche in western culture.

Number 3: Shameless audience-pandering

After prayers that night the men, so happy for him they took him to a cafe fo dinner, told the Saracen about the remarkable working conditions he would enjoy: the on-site health care, the subsidized cafeteria and the beautiful prayer room. What none of them mentioned, however, was that all the jobs had once been held by Americans.

One of the many things I took issue with in my review of this book was the blatant Americanism, including a portrayal of the entire Muslim world as western-hating, and the implication that if you don’t repeat three times daily that 9/11 was the worst thing in the history of humanity, you’re basically a terrorist. Terry Hayes is actually Australian (Look at me, doing research and everything), and I’m unclear about whether these overtones are there because he wants to appeal to a mainly American audience, or if he just is one of the non-American westerners that fetishise American culture. I’m leaning towards the former, but I’m not sure which one would make me lose the most respect for him. The above excerpt is from a part that has nothing to do with America or its job market, it is about the novel’s antagonist, who gets a job at a factory in Karlsruhe, Germany. But Hayes might have been worried that American readers were losing interest when they hadn’t read anything patriotic in a few paragraphs, so he inserted a few injections of Donald Trump and South Park.

Number 2: How to make a very short sentence seem like too much

Anyone who didn’t need a white cane could see that I had very little.

From a scientific perspective (The science in question being cringeology), you have to admire this sentence. It is only 13 words long, conveys almost nothing, and yet it manages to be overtly superfluous. Hayes decides to write the word “blind” in an absurdly long-winded way, and gets weirdly specific while doing so. Surely, not all of those canes are white? And if you’re going to get that bogged down in details, what about blind people that use guide dogs? I have to stress that this is the only mention of blind people or white canes in the entire book, so there is no context here that mitigates this sentence. If Hayes, the editors, and everyone else who approved this book before publish looked at this sentence and saw nothing wrong with it, they should be sent some white canes themselves. Then they should be savagely beaten with those canes.

Number 1: Terrible, terrible banter

In real life, it might not be a requirement for a secret intelligence operative to have good banter. But we have come to expect from fictional agents that their punchlines are as good as their punches, that they can navigate a good burn as well as a burning building (As you can tell, I’m not going to become a fictional superspy anytime soon). Our hero Schrödinger’s Scott must have been off the day when they covered The Art of Proper Banter at Fictional Agent Academy. When he is interrogating two attactive women (While going by the name Wilson), they start taking jabs at his supposed sexual fantasies:

“Mr Wilson here was just asking if you were bisexual.”
“Oh yeah?” Cameron replied. “And what did you tell him?” She pulled out a seat and sat down. She had no apparent anxiety either, and I had to admire their self-possession.
“I said you were – but only with black chicks. I figured as we were dealing with a male fantasy we might as well go the whole nine yards.”
Cameron Laughed.
“Murder isn’t a male fantasy,” I said.

Yeah, you tell’em, Scott!


Cynical Review: I Am Pilgrim

At the end of I Am Pilgrim, author Terry Hayes has put in a note entitled “Dear reader”, which essentially apologises for why the book is so long. Indeed, it is a very long book, 888 pages in the edition I just finished. However, length is not one of my main problems with it, and I feel someone who apologises for the page count of his work is someone who has written for an audience who don’t really enjoy reading. I mentioned this in my review of Dan Brown’s Inferno – I’m not going to judge anyone’s book preferences, but if you’d rather be watching a movie, you should go and do that. This is not an intellectual judgement, just some friendly advice on how to best enjoy your own existence.

I Am Pilgrim revolves around a retired intelligence agent/super-investigator who is probably named Scott, but who uses the codename Pilgrim because of security reasons, and because it sounds cool in a book title. His deduction skills include things like looking at a hotel room and concluding it’s been rented by a female, because milk has taken priority over beer for fridge space. Clearly, Pilgrim and I spend time with very different types of women. Also, we have different opinions on what constitutes conclusive evidence in a police investigation.

We live in a time so saturated with action heroes that it feels a bit unfair to accuse any new protagonist within the genre of being derivative. It’s a bit like blaming the odour of a festival toilet solely on the last guy who used it. On the other hand, my posts are kind of reliant on visual props, so here’s a pie chart:

Maybe-Scott is dragged back into the intelligence world when it is discovered by chance that a lone Islamist terrorist has developed a vaccine-resistant form of smallpox with the very likely intent to share it with the western world without telling us. Our hero’s pilgrimage goes to southern Turkey, to find a woman with whom the fundamentalist chemistry enthusiast has been having phone conversations. He manages to identify this woman, thanks to a coincidence that some might describe as “astronomically unlikely”, but which I personally would describe as “just plain dumb”. Like I have mentioned in previous posts, I don’t rate books, but if I did do a 1-10 scale thing, this lazy writer’s shortcut on a crucial plot point would have subtracted nine points from my rating alone. Seriously, it’s unacceptable.

The book is drenched in something slightly suspiciously ideological, with countless suggestions that the end justifies the means, as long as the end is AMERICA! Our antagonist, known throughout the book as “The Saracen” (Because Terry Hayes thinks that sounds cooler than it actually does), looks like a caricature made by Marine Le Pen when his internal monologue turns into gloating over the lack of border control throughout Europe. The Muslim world in general is portrayed quite one-dimensionally, but that’s fine, because Hayes has made all the people of this world one-dimensional too, so that they’ll fit in. That being said, all the anti-western sentiments, Muslim supremacy ideas, cartoonish oppression of women and general arseholery across around 6-7 different Muslim countries would have seemed a lot less problematic if there had been a Muslim good guy or two involved. But really, the only semi-likable adult from the Middle East we encounter is a hotel receptionist whose English has an amazing vocabulary, but absolutely no sentence structure. This leads to linguistic absurdities like “The company of great thievery called Digiturk, which gives us the channels of crap”. You would think that someone familiar with the word thievery in English would also have a basic idea of how adjectives work.
Finally, the book suffers from a few instances of the author thinking he’s more clever than he actually is, leading to a lot of cringey quotes that are worthy of a blog post in themselves. So I expect to be writing something of that nature within the relatively near future.