The Alchemist’s Secret by Scott Mariani

The curse of Dan Brown lives on in this adventure novel as one man (and a woman he picks up along the way) battles against a church-related organisation to retrieve the secret of eternal life. By curse, I don’t mean that it’s a bad novel, just that it’s buried in amongst a lot of similar times since The Da Vinci Code became the book of the decade despite being possibly the worst-written of all its peers.

The Alchemist’s Secret isn’t one of the best in this genre, but it’s a far cry from the worst. The pacing is good, the story unwraps well and the dialogue’s not at all clunky (Dan Brown – kindly refer to this text before writing anything else as your dialogue sucks). However, where it does fall down is that it’s very, very predictable.

By the end of chapter three, if you’ve read any of this type of book or seen any Hollywood film of the last 40 years, you’ll have guess how several of the plot points work out. What’s important is that Mariani makes you care enough about the plot to follow it through until the inevitable happens.

As with many good books, there’s a large dollop of truth and history mixed in with the fiction. It’s interesting when you get to the Author’s Note to find out exactly how much. With luck it will even encourage the reader to take a quick delve into the non-fiction section of the bookshop to discover more. Or at least a trip to Wikipedia.

Not bad. Not a classic, but not bad. I’ll be keeping an eye out for The Amadeus Letter.

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The Dealer by Paul Kilduff

Cover of "The Dealer"
The Dealer

Once in a while you find a new author that you’ve never heard off and end up very pleasantly surprised, wanting to hunt down anything else they’ve written. Paul Kilduff, for me, is one of these.

I’m not even sure where I picked up this copy of The Dealer – I think it might have been at a nature reserve near Dundee! Wherever it was, I’m very glad I did. It’s been some time since I sat and ploughed through a novel in the way I did with the last half of this one.

As an ex-financier himself, Kilduff’s in a good position to write about the City and all it’s money-related goings-on. His gift is to do so without getting overly complicated or boring. After reading the book, not only did I feel highly entertained but also that I’d learned a little bit about how all those rich people in expensive suits make a (ridiculously large) living.

The plot follows a dodgy dealer, a madam and an investigator trying to prove allegations of insider dealing. Every chapter end with the reader wanting to know what happens next to these main characters and a handful of others. Backgrounds are drip-fed so there’s always something new to find out and the ending doesn’t wrap up quite as neatly as may be expected – in a good way.

Despite all the fun I had reading the book, the ending really stuck out for me. Kilduff’s technique of using fake newspaper articles instead of closing chapters is a smart way of giving a “what happened next” approach. Somewhat reminiscent of a movie flashing up a short paragraph for each main character before the closing credit, but allowing the author to give more detail and also pace things out a bit and add just a final bit of tension.

The reviews inside the book liken him to a “Grisham beater”, but I’d say he’s a sideways step from the American giant in terms of subject matter. Certainly, his ability to tell a story about what is a fairly complex business in terms which the reader can easily understand and become engrossed in is up there with Grisham.

As far as I can tell from the back, The Dealer is only Kilduff’s second novel and was published in 2000. Hopefully this means he has a few more out by now. I know I’ll be keeping an eye out for them.

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Heavy Metal in Baghdad

Heavy Metal in Baghdad

The first thing to clear up is that Heavy Metal in Baghdad is not, primarily, about heavy metal. It’s about people, and the war in Iraq and the after-effects of it.

Plot-in-a-nutshell: a film crew from a US-based metal magazine travel to Baghdad (and later Syria) to interview the only Iraqi heavy metal band, Acrassicauda. We hear about their family, their music, the regimes they have lived under and finally their flight to another country.

This film isn’t fiction. It’s a very well made documentary by two North American metal fans who travel to Iraq to watch and help host a heavy metal contest in Baghdad. The band members are interviewed about everyday life there, both before and after the war when the crew visit for a second time.

Unlike many news reports, nothing is sensationalised. Plain truths are uttered, and the state of the country after the war is laid wide open to inspection. Did the conflict make any real difference to the people who matter? That is, the family on the street trying to earn a living?

Judging by the fact that, at the time of the film’s release, over 2.5 million Iraqis had fled their country the answer is “no”. They’d rather live in poverty as second-class citizens than risk staying in Baghdad or elsewhere and risk persecution or death. At least they’re free – and poverty seems to be a price they’re prepared to pay.

The pace of the film has been very well calculated. It begins on a high as the original crew take a jokey approach to heading there to see a concert. On their second visit, the tone is much more muted – as is the music. The band unable to play in their home country for fear of persecution. Fans can’t even headbang as it looks too much like Jews nodding at prayer!

Things seem happier when the band all meet up again in Damascus, but as I mentioned they’re now all destitute. They do, however, manage to play another gig and cut a three-track demo. What really hits home is when the film-makers show them the first two thirds of the movie as a “work in progress”. The emotions are overwhelming and the film ends on a very sour note.

Despite the best of intentions, things don’t always end well. But that’s the way it is and that’s why this is such as good piece of documentary.

Don’t avoid it just because it seems to be about music you have no appreciation for. See it because you need to know how other people in this world are being forced to live. And then realise how damn lucky you are.

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The Butterfly Effect 2

I think I’m about the only person in the world who liked The Butterfly Effect, at least according to every review I’ve ever seen. This sequel, imaginatively called The Butterfly Effect 2, was a straight-to-DVD effort and it deserved to be as such.

As with many of these lower-budget outings, none of the original cast are involved. The basic premise of the original has been taken, applied to new characters and allowed to run for ninety minutes. However, unlike such sequels as the Final Destination trilogy (soon to be a fourth, I believe) or the Saw films (hell, even the first of the non-cinema American Pie duo), this one’s just not that good.

While the original actually had some drama and the whole novel idea, this sideways sequel is just bland. Rather than being an extension to the original in some way, it’s basically the same idea with different characters, but nowhere near the drama the original film had.

The acting is capable enough, but there are no real twists and the ending is about as flat and predictable as it gets.

Don’t listen to the critics. Give the first one a try. But stop there and leave this one sat on the shelf.

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Pay the Devil by Jack Higgins

Cover of "Pay the Devil"
Jack Higgins - Pay The Devil

After the last Jack Higgins book, I wasn’t holding out much hope but Pay The Devil was much better. Originally written under a pseudonym, it was re-released some time ago and bundled in a 2-novel volume that I picked up in Ko Tao.

The archaic writing style which partially spoiled the last novel works well in this one. It’s set in the US and Ireland around the end of the American Civil War so the language used actually adds to the story rather than making it feel clunky. It’s a fairly simple sale, too, with a handful of characters a good pace and some decent technical and historical points being raised.

As ever at the moment, I don’t have time to delve deeper, but I do recommend this if you have a lazy afternoon or two to spare.

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