A few more reviews:
The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling - 3/5 stars
Like many readers, I would not have gotten past the blurb if this book didn't have Rowling's name on it - it's not my usual sort of story.
While it features a bunch of high school students who are continually getting involved in the political, criminal (and social) affairs of adults, it's pretty much the anti-Potter.
Everything that made Harry's world special - the imagination and sense of wonder, the sense that life, death and even the fate-of-the-world is riding on the hero's choices - is gone, replaced by a world of petty, small-town local body politics and village gossip and jealousy.
Two of Potter's stylistic elements Rowling has unfortunately kept are a habit of giving people in conversations similar names and also a desire to phonetically spell out the dialogue of lower-class or foreign characters (like Hagrid and Fleur) . After reading the Potter stories aloud to my kids and getting tongue-tied with scenes featuring Harry, Hermione and Hagrid, I was glad not to have to read out the Shirley/Samantha/Simon/Stuart (and Sukhvinda!) bits, but kept having to think which one is this again? when starting a new scene. Her spelling out of dialogue just feels fake and somewhat snobbish, given that she only does it for the poor characters and doesn't bother showing when the rich or educated characters use elision or pauses in their speech.
While Rowling's rags-to-riches backstory may mean she's the only best-selling billionaire author to have credibility writing about the down-and-out, it doesn't make it a fun read.
The book is full of scheming and manipulating, back-stabbing and paranoia, sex and drugs, abuse and neglect, racism and class warfare, adultery and crime, and well-meaning social workers competing with snobby social climbers.
There were times when I was reading this that I wanted to tell the characters to just get a life and get out of everyone else's business, to stop being so judgmental and petty, and to wonder why I was reading this dull stuff.
But then she introduced a couple of twists, which in retrospect I can see were foreshadowed, that made the plot seem a hell of a lot more real, with real consequences.
It appears that maybe all of the dull, petty stuff wasn't the fault of poor writing, but actually Rowling's point, that real life isn't fun and glamorous, that life can be dull, dumb and seemingly good people are often hiding something nasty, you can't tell the bad guys just because they dress in black and wear snake tattoos, and sometimes bad things happen to innocent kids.
I finished it feeling like I did when I watched the movie of Schindler's List - I'm glad that I have read it, it made me think a little more about the plight of people who are less-well-off than I, but was a very depressing tale that I have no desire to repeat reading and wouldn't recommend to many others.
Temple by Matthew Reilly - 4/5 stars
A re-read for about the forth time because I was out of new fiction and wanted something fun and fast after finishing The Casual Vacancy.
It is a better book than The Casual Vacancy? No.
Is it more of a fun read? Hell, yes!
As I've noted before, Reilly's forte is airport-style action novels. If Stephen King is the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and Fries, Reilly is the literary equivalent of a Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer movie. He provides heroic characters fighting impossible odds, blowing tons of stuff up, defying the laws of gravity and producing a body toll greater than many national disasters.
Temple is Reilly in full Indiana Jones/Michael Crichton style (with more than a few homages to Star Wars too), in a race against time to find a religious artefact that has scientific properties that could literally bring about the end of the world. If you want Incans, Nazis, doomsday cults, Green Berets, DARPA, river chases, lots of guns and explosions, and don't care much about the laws of physics, Reilly is your guy.
It's over-the-top action, but Reilly did it better in Temple, Contest and Ice Station that his latter books, as he was trying to write a good, fast story, rather than continually trying to top his previous works in terms of straining credibility (his Jack West series takes so many liberties with reality that they make Temple seem like a documentary).
Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture: What the World's Wildest Trade Show Can Tell Us about the Future of Entertainment by Rob Salkowitz - 4/5 stars
Interesting mix of geek fandom at the event that's become nerdvana and a tale of the business side of the comic book/film/transmedia world. Covers both the new movie franchise-oriented side of the con and also the more traditional, hand-drawn comic writers/artists, who have been pushed to the back.
Salkowitz takes an interesting approach to the end of the book by suggesting 4 possible futures for Comic-Con, showing how it might further evolve.
The Fifth Assassin, by Brad Meltzer - 4/5 stars
The second book in Meltzer's Culper Ring series has a villain who is recreating US Presidential murders, targeting pastors who have dealt with this book' s POTUS - Orson Wallace - and leading up to an attack on the president himself. Beecher White, hero of the previous book, struggles with the idea that the assassin may be his childhood friend.
Meltzer's trademark conspiracy theories, obscure trivia (this time around playing cards) and detailed research about the US Secret Service and Presidents (the guy managed to get George Bush Snr to blurb his book!) continue to come to the fore. I particularly enjoyed Meltzer's non-linear story-telling, switching between the past and present to tell the present- and back-stories, with some clever mis-direction about the event that broke the friendship of the main characters when they were younger.
But, this does require the reader to pay attention to which timeline each chapter is in and, as other reviewers have noted, this is an uneven story, which best suits a reader who is familiar with the earlier book (although it seems to retcon a few story elements about Nico, the previous assassin).
In short, 4 stars for someone familiar with Meltzer's previous work, but I can see why a newbie would only get 2 stars worth of enjoyment.