Madrid, Pamplona, Côté d’Azur, Paris. Assassination of a Prime Minister during the Franco era, hostages at a British embassy, a plane crash killing hundreds of people, Basque terrorist group ETA. A shady American analyst who teams up with a glamorous MI6 agent.
Sounds good? The Hollow Man, by Paul Hollis, has all the ingredients of a cracking spy/thriller/suspense novel, based on a true crime. It was also one of the winners in the 2014 World’s Best Story competition.
So why am I ambivalent? Well, I thought the beginning dragged, and I was confused. It’s not difficult to confuse me but if I can manage the complexities of Le Carré, I’m not totally stupid. And I can usually cope with Deighton, Greene certainly, Fleming, and the less well-known John Lawton. I’d also add the very good Ratcatcher novel, self-published by Tim Stevens, which is a much more recent spy/thriller book but a fine read.
The book starts with the ‘analyst’, known only as Doc, observing people. One of these is the Spanish Prime Minister Luis Carrero Blanco. The historical record is that responsibility for his assassination in 1973 was claimed by ETA. His car was blown sky high on his return from mass.
But Doc is also observing or trying to find some mysterious figure called Chaban. Doc’s pursuit of Chaban is what the story is really about, but it took me a while to work that one out, via various detours and red herring characters and situations. Chaban was responsible for the embassy hostage murders, and Doc sees visions/a ghost of a young girl who was killed there.
It’s one of these ‘we need to prevent something but we don’t know what that is’ sort of novels.
Not only do we have the true assassination of Carrero Blanco woven into the story, we also have the aircrash of Turkish Airlines flight 981 north-east of Paris, in which all 346 people on board were killed in March 1974.
Hollis does bring fact and fiction together in a clever and convincing mix. But why, in a thriller/suspense novel, do we have Fodor-style travel guide excerpts telling us really interesting snippets about the local environment? It’s a thriller, a suspense novel! Get on with it, for goodness sake, instead of detouring with the travelogue.
Pause for Madrid travelogue photos …
If I want to know about bridges in Paris, I have a fine book about them. I don’t want to get excited about what’s coming next, to then pause and have to read about the Pont-Neuf.
Having said all that, I did keep reading, and it got better as it all moved on, seemed to make more sense and gelled together.
Worth a read? Yes, especially if you like travel info interspersed in your thriller ;) Good story overall? Yes, just could have been tighter, and with less passive prose. I’d say it’s fairly lightweight in the scheme of these novels despite some vicious kickings and beatings.
And, one of my real gripes. Using foreign languages, eg French, Basque and Spanish in this book. Should the author translate literally or try and convey the sense in another way? Or, should authors not use foreign languages apart from Si, Oui, Jah, Sim, etc? For another post, perhaps.
Hollis has lived in twelve states of America and worked in all fifty, but he fell in love early with seeing the world on someone else’s money. He has lived abroad for nine years and worked in forty-eight countries, spanning five continents.
Book provided through ireadbooktours.
Which brings me onto:
What on earth is a good book review? Is there such a thing?
A few authors and bloggers have written to me about book reviews. Some
weeks months ago, I started writing a post, but dead dogs took away the urge for blogging. So I never did finish it.
But it was about how to write book reviews. Because it seems, the world is an expert on it. Every week or so, someone tells us how to write book reviews. Some authors love to tell reviewers how to write really nice helpful reviews. No nasty negative words. Oh. No.
Let’s be clear. There is no one correct way to write a book review. Easy. Or maybe there is:
A reader writes what they want to say.
However, if you are being paid, or you take part in blog tours, you may have to follow guidelines and criteria.
Here are, the three basic book review formats:
1 I love this book it’s great. (Written by friends and family on Amazon). I hate this book it’s horrible (hopefully not written by friends and family or, who needs enemies?)
These comments may or may not be genuine, but they don’t actually tell the reader anything about the book.
2 The other extreme. The ‘reviewer’ goes to great length to retell the story. Why? FFS why? We don’t need to read your précis skills, we need to read what is good or bad about the book. And for goodness sake don’t include every spoiler under the sun.
A précis is not a review. A review does not need a précis. It just needs, ‘this book is historical fiction involving time travel from the C21 century wherein our heroine slays dragons and meets the love of her life, who may or may not be a dragon’. Or something similar. But don’t tell us the plot and the flipping ending.
3 Criteria. In this, the reviewer assesses the quality of writing against set criteria. It’s more analytical and a good reviewer can appreciate good writing even if they don’t like the story.
But any review can involve any combination of this mix. And, to be fair, who sets the criteria?
I review differently, depending on where I am reviewing.
On my blog, I like to make it personal, add photos, and hopefully a different perspective that is more than just a book review.
When I reviewed Bridges of Paris and The Artisan’s Star, I gave my views of Paris and Florence, with an insight into my travel experiences in France and Italy.
I don’t do that when I am doing paid-for reviews on an international website. I assess the writing against criteria, make editorial notes, and receive a nominal payment for some, not all books.
Criteria are: quality of prose, formatting, plot, character development, pacing, ending, cover, but not, I liked/didn’t like this book. That’s irrelevant.
If/when I review on GR or Amazon I try and keep it short. Good or bad because …
Who really wants to wade through loads of self-important prose? Apart from the author, if it’s flattering.
And onto individual paid-for reviews. A bit like paid-for beta readers. Another source of controversy.
There are two types of paid-for reviews. The I-will-pay-you-to-say-my-book-is-wonderful type, and the I-will-pay-for-an-honest-review-from-a-reputable-source. Kirkus for example. Or, as Amazon is cracking down, why not include it in the ‘editorial reviews’ section of the author’s information?
It’s wrong to say all paid-for reviews are advertising/promotional blurb. They aren’t.
There is nothing wrong with paid-for impartial, objective reviews. In olden days, authors submitted their print books to newspapers and magazines. Sure, authors didn’t pay for the review apart from the cost of the book, but actually, the reviewer did get paid.
Kirkus currently charges between $400 and $600 for a book review. Kirkus editors get paid. Same principle, just these days, an author has to front up the money. No free lunches any more.
Meanwhile, if you review books, I say, write what you want. Just make sure you are honest.
Top photo is of Atocha station in Madrid. It features in the novel. It also featured in a terrorist attack in 2004. Yes, I was using Atocha at the time …