Review: “Mirage” By Clive Cussler & Jack Du Brul (Novel)

Well, I’m still going through a bit of a Clive Cussler phase. So, I thought that I’d check out one of the co-written books from the “Oregon Files” series – mostly because the scenes involving the Oregon in Clive Cussler’s “Flood Tide” were one of the coolest parts of that book.

So, I ended up choosing a second-hand charity shop copy of a novel from 2013 called “Mirage” by Clive Cussler & Jack Du Brul. In addition to some rather cinematic orange/blue cover art, another thing that drew me to this book was it’s slightly more sensible length. At about 425 pages, it’s reassuringly slender compared to more tome-like Clive Cussler novels such as “Sahara” and “Black Wind“.

So, let’s take a look at “Mirage”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2014 Penguin (UK) paperback reprint of “Mirage” that I read.

“Mirage” begins in 1902. In the waters near the US state of Delaware, the ship Mohican is travelling north when they suddenly encounter a mysterious phenomenon. A mysterious blue glow starts to envelop the ship, as every metallic object onboard begins to be pulled downwards by a strong magnetic force. Although most of the ship’s crew survive the phenomenon, none of them can explain it…

Then we flash forward to 2013. In Northern Siberia, a truck is carrying a prisoner to a secret prison owned by the nefarious Admiral Kenin. When the tattooed prisoner arrives, one of the inmates decides to intimidate him… and soon regrets it. After the fight, the tattooed prisoner ends up in solitary. Which is exactly where Juan Cabrillo, chairman of the high-tech US-sponsored mercenary ship Oregon wants to be.

After breaking out of the cell using supplies hidden in his prosthetic foot, Cabrillo quickly finds the cell belonging to Yuri Borodin, an old friend who he’s been hired to break out of jail. Within a short time, they are fleeing the prison on a snowmobile in order to rendezvous with the Oregon. However, an attack helicopter begins to give chase. Although the Oregon‘s weapons make short work of the helicopter when it gets within range, the helicopter has time to let off several missiles. One of which fatally wounds Borodin.

With his dying breaths, Borodin urgently utters a few cryptic phrases. Needless to say, Cabrillo decides to investigate these clues and to avenge Borodin’s death…..

One of the first things that I will say about “Mirage” is that 2013 was a great year for co-written Clive Cussler novels 🙂 Along with 2013’s “Zero Hour“, “Mirage” is one of the best Cussler novels that I’ve read. The story is incredibly gripping, the action scenes are thrilling and the writing is absolutely brilliant too.

Interestingly, like in “Zero Hour”, the story also includes some sci-fi elements that revolve around Nikola Tesla’s secret inventions. This novel’s Tesla-based plot differs significantly from the one in “Zero Hour”, with the sci-fi elements mostly taking something of a back seat for large parts of the story. Interestingly, the most intriguing sci-fi mini mystery in the story is actually left slightly ambiguous at the end of the novel, lending the story a slight hint of H.P.Lovecraft-style sci-fi horror strangeness.

In terms of the pacing and structure, this story is pretty much perfect (with my only complaint being that the ending felt a little rushed at times). Not only does the plot keep moving forward at a decent speed, but even the slower segments that give the reader a chance to relax are kept compelling through the careful use of mysterious story elements (like the ship in the desert) and/or interesting location choices. Likewise, this story crams a lot of thrillingly dramatic scenes and interesting locations into 425 pages.

In addition to this, about three-quarters of the way through the book, there’s a random side-story involving the Oregon that lasts for 37 pages. This isn’t connected to the main plot, but it’s kind of like a mini thriller novel in it’s own right. Although this sudden change in stories took me by surprise, it actually works really well since it gives us a glimpse into the kinds of things that the Oregon does when it isn’t saving the world. Plus, given how fast-paced this segment is, it also doesn’t distract from the main plot either.

In terms of the writing and narrative style, it is brilliant. Although I’m normally sceptical about co-writing, Jack Du Brul’s input (like with Graham Brown’s in “Zero Hour”) helps to keep Cussler’s story lean, efficient, modern and fast-paced. The narration here is also a bit faster and more dynamic than in a “solo” Clive Cussler novel too, and can easily be compared to the styles used in other gripping modern thriller novels.

Literally the only complaint I have about the writing in this story is the presence of a few minor typos (like spelling “cursor” as “cursur” etc..).

The settings in this story are brilliant. First of all, I absolutely loved spending time aboard the Oregon. It’s kind of like the modern seafaring equivalent of a spaceship from “Star Trek”, mixed with something from an old “James Bond” movie 🙂 It is the kind of fascinating, yet reassuring, location that is always interesting to see. The novel’s other settings are really interesting too – including desolate Siberian wastelands, the deserts of Uzbekistan, the favelas of Brazil, a mysterious sunken ship and the more modern parts of Beijing too.

The novel’s characters are reasonably good. Although you shouldn’t expect ultra-deep characterisation, Juan Cabrillo is an interesting protagonist (who is something of a slightly understated action hero, compared to Cussler’s other protagonists). Likewise, the crew of the Oregon are a rather interesting assortment of characters too. The main villain, Kenin, is also given a little bit of characterisation too – although he could have possibly done with more.

All in all, “Mirage” is an absolutely excellent modern thriller novel, with a few intriguing sci-fi elements. This is the kind of gripping novel that just begs you to binge-read it within a couple of days. It’s slick, efficient and compelling. Although “Zero Hour” is still my favourite co-written Clive Cussler novel, “Mirage” comes a very close second.

If I had to give “Mirage” a rating out of five, it would just about get a five.

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Review: “Black Wind” By Clive Cussler & Dirk Cussler (Novel)

Well, since I still seem to be going through a bit of a Clive Cussler phase, I thought that I’d check out the last book in the small pile that my uncle lent me. This is a novel from 2004 (co-written with Cussler’s son Dirk) called “Black Wind”.

Although the edition that I read was a mammoth 677 pages in length, the typeface was (like in many modern books) slightly on the larger side of things. Or, to put it another way, whilst it certainly isn’t a short novel, it didn’t feel as long as Cussler’s “Sahara” – even though both books took approximately the same amount of time for me to read.

So, let’s take a look at “Black Wind”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2005 Penguin (UK) paperback reprint of “Black Tide” that I read.

The novel begins in 1944. With Imperial Japan on the verge of defeat, a Japanese submarine loaded with several mysterious experimental weapons is deployed to strike America. As the sub makes it’s way towards America, the scientist on board refuses to explain the nature of the weapons to the crew.

But, after the sub sinks a fishing boat near the American coast, a radio message is sent to a US Navy ship – who quickly apprehend the Japanese sub before it can launch any of it’s onboard aircraft. However, not being able to hit it with their weapons, the US ship rams the submarine, causing it to sink into the briny deep with the experimental weapons still intact…..

Then we flash forward to 2007. In the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, a team of scientists are working at a research station when they are suddenly poisoned by a mysterious airborne chemical.

Luckily for most of the scientists, a National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA) vessel nearby happens to pick up their distress call and rescue the survivors. One of the crew is none other than Dirk Pitt, son of the famed NUMA agent Dirk Pitt. Needless to say, Dirk decides to investigate the mysterious poisoning…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s the sort of book that grows on you. At first, I didn’t really like this book. The story initially seemed to lack the dramatic and emotional weight that other Cussler novels I’ve read have had. Everything initially seemed a little too textbook and, well, generic. However, as the story progressed, I found myself enjoying it more.

In terms of the basic story and pacing, it’s reasonably good. There’s a reasonable mixture of political drama, suspenseful scenes, scientific drama and thrilling action. Although the story’s pacing stutters occasionally due to a few slower-paced segments, the story runs fairly smoothly most of the time.

The basic premise of the story is a reasonably clever one and it serves to set up many moments of thrilling drama and action (including some fairly unusual settings and vehicles in later parts of the story too). However, the story is let down somewhat by the characters.

Although the decision to replace Dirk Pitt with his son makes a lot of sense (after all, the original Dirk Pitt is probably in his fifties or sixties by the time this story takes place), it can be a little confusing if you’ve read some of Clive Cussler’s older novels. Pitt the younger isn’t that different from his father (they look identical and have the same name). So, when Pitt the elder shows up about 137 pages into the book, it is a little bit confusing at first.

Although the two Dirk Pitts are well-differentiated later in the story, they’re both just initially referred to as “Dirk Pitt” – with only a few descriptions and the presence of Al Giordino telling the reader that they’re looking at Pitt the elder when he first appears.

Another new character is Summer Pitt, Pitt the younger’s sister. However, for the most part, she’s just another Dirk Pitt-like character and she doesn’t really seem that distinctive or unique. Seriously, as characters go, this novel isn’t that spectacular. Even the novel’s main villain really doesn’t seem to have that much character, depth, personality or uniqueness when compared to the villains in Clive Cussler’s “Sahara” or “Flood Tide“.

There are so many supporting characters and main characters in “Black Wind” that it often feels like each one doesn’t really get quite enough characterisation. And, whilst the thrilling plot covers up a lot of these flaws and keeps the story running smoothly, the slightly shallower characterisation robs the story of some of it’s dramatic weight. Seriously, the story would have been better if it had focused on a smaller number of characters and given them a little bit more… well… character. It would give the story more “personality” and increase the audience’s emotional investment.

Still, as the story progresses, we find ourselves on more familiar ground again. Especially in the later parts of the novel, there is a lot of the type of high-stakes nautical drama and military action that will be familiar to any Clive Cussler fan. Likewise, even during the earlier parts of the story – there are some rather thrilling moments, such as a dramatic car chase involving a ferry.

The narration in this novel is reasonably good. However, although Dirk Cussler’s style is a little bit noticeable (from brief descriptions, subtle differences in the overall narrative tone etc…), the general narrative style is reasonably similar to an “ordinary” Clive Cussler novel. Which is both a good and a bad thing. Although this gives the novel a reassuring sense of familiarity, it also misses out on some of the advantages of having a more distinctive and different co-writer.

For example, the novel “Zero Hour” that Clive Cussler co-wrote with Graham Brown has a faster-paced, punchier and snappier narrative style that comes from the input of an experienced, and different, co-writer. But, in “Black Wind”, the similarity between Dirk & Clive Cussler’s writing styles means that this vital advantage is lost somewhat.

All in all, this novel is a little bit like “Clive Cussler lite”. There’s still lots of thrills, action, witty dialogue and drama – but, thanks to the introduction of several new characters, the similarity between the two writers’ styles and the slightly lower level of characterisiation, this novel doesn’t really pack quite the same punch as some of Cussler’s older novels and some of his other co-written books do. Still, it’s a reasonably decent thriller novel that is very readable and reasonably compelling.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get three and a half.

Review: “Flood Tide” By Clive Cussler (Novel)

Well, for the next review in my series of Clive Cussler reviews, I thought that I’d look at a novel from 1997 called “Flood Tide”, which was another Cussler novel from the small pile that my uncle lent me.

Although I had mixed views about reading an older edition with smaller print than a modern novel (that is 511 pages long), my recent experience with finishing “Sahara” made me decide to give “Flood Tide” a try. And, to my surprise, I ended up binge-reading it within about 2-3 days.

So, let’s take a look at “Flood Tide”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS

This is the 2002 Pocket Books (UK) paperback edition of “Flood Tide” that I read.

“Flood Tide” begins in 1948. In an unknown location, the ship Princess Dou Wan is transporting a mysterious cargo owned by a Nationalist general fleeing the civil war in China. Although the journey begins well, the ship quickly runs into foul weather. Given the age and condition of the vessel, she begins to break apart and sink, with very few survivors….

Then we flash forward to the year 2000, where a woman called Ling T’ai is a passenger on a trafficking vessel headed for the US. After cruel treatment by the criminals running the vessel, she survives and we learn that she is actually Julia Lee, an undercover American INS agent. However, as the vessel draws closer to the US, Julia realises that she is still in danger…

Meanwhile, Dirk Pitt is taking a holiday near Orion Lake in Washington in order to recuperate from a previous adventure. However, after a mysterious break-in at his cabin leads to him discovering several hidden cameras, he turns his attention to the mysterious sealed compound on the opposite side of the lake….

One of the first things that I will say about “Flood Tide” is that it’s the best non co-written Clive Cussler novel I’ve read so far. Not only is it filled with the grippingly suspenseful scenes and thrilling action you would expect, but the pacing is significantly better than in “Sahara” too. In other words, there are rarely any dull moments throughout the story.

The thrilling and suspenseful segments of the story are spaced out perfectly, with Cussler giving the audience just enough time to relax between these thrilling moments. Yes, the characters/narrator occasionally drone on about classic cars and old boats, but these segments are less of a slog to read than the scientific/environmental lectures in “Sahara” (mostly since said old cars/boats often swiftly end up being a central part of the story’s thrilling action scenes).

In addition to this, the story also contains a surprising amount of tonal variety too. For example, the earlier scenes set around Orion Lake initially start out a little bit like something from a lighter moment of an old episode of “Twin Peaks”, before going in a much darker horror-based direction. After this, there’s some gripping suspense that eventually builds to a spectacularly thrilling action-packed crescendo. And this is just the first 120 pages! The story gets even more thrilling after this.

There are so many brilliant set-pieces and segments of the story, including an utterly gripping segment based on a ship called “The Oregon” (which is also the setting for a series of co-written spin-off novels), a brilliantly spectacular car chase in Washington DC, some high-stakes drama on a river etc.. Seriously, the action thriller elements of this novel could put a Hollywood movie to shame.

Likewise, the novel’s sub-plots are reasonably good too. In addition to a reasonably well-written romantic sub-plot, the novel’s main sub-plot is actually connected to the main story. Like with “Sahara”, the sub-plot doesn’t take centre stage until the later parts of the story but, unlike “Sahara”, it is actually directly relevant to the main events of the story and serves to provide a satisfying, and slightly emotional, ending to the story.

Cussler’s writing seems to get better with time and “Flood Tide” is no exception. Not only is the dialogue slightly snappier and wittier than in “Sahara”, but Cussler’s narrative style also achieves a brilliant balance between being descriptive and being fast-paced.

Likewise, the characters in this novel are reasonably good too – whether it is the novel’s greedy and ruthless villain or the supporting cast, the characterisation isn’t ultra-deep but it is certainly good enough. Likewise, Clive Cussler also makes a brief author cameo too – although this is fairly understated.

The harsh cruelty and sadism that characterised Cussler’s “Sahara” and “Iceberg” is somewhat less prominent here, with most of the novel’s combat-based scenes being more focused on thrilling drama, suspense and/or spectacular fast-paced action. This lends the novel more of a rollercoaster-like quality and also gives the novel a bit more of a “blockbuster movie”-like quality too.

However, I should probably include the obligatory warning that I almost always have to include when reviewing older Clive Cussler novels. In other words, a few moments of the story might seem mildly dated and/or “politically incorrect” when read today. Even so, this is much less of an issue in “Flood Tide” than it is in the other older Cussler novels (eg: “Iceberg”, “Sahara” and “Raise The Titanic”) that I’ve read.

But, like with most older Clive Cussler novels, if you can overlook the dated elements of the story, then you’ll be richly rewarded with an utterly gripping and compelling tale. Seriously, despite these flaws, the story is still brilliantly gripping.

All in all, this is the best older Clive Cussler novel I’ve read so far. Not only is the pacing of this novel absolutely brilliant, but it is also crammed with thrilling and suspenseful scenes that will propel you through the book at a fast pace and make it difficult to put it down for too long. Yes, the novel is a little bit dated sometimes. But, despite this, it is still one of the most spectacular older Cussler novels that I’ve read. Like with Cussler’s excellent co-written “Zero Hour“, it is pretty much a spectacular 1990s action movie in book form. Which is never a bad thing!

If I had to give “Flood Tide” a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.

Review: “Sahara” By Clive Cussler (Novel)

Well, this seems to be turning into a bit of a series! So, for my next Clive Cussler novel review, I thought that I’d take a look at one from 1992 called “Sahara” from the small pile of Cussler novels that my uncle lent me.

Despite this novel’s gargantuan length (655 pages in the edition I read), I chose to read this book next because of both the cool-looking cover art and the fact that it was apparently turned into a Hollywood movie in 2005. Although I haven’t seen the film adaptation, it’s very existence made me curious about the book it was based on.

So, without any further ado, let’s take a look at Sahara”. Needless to say, this review will contain SPOILERS.

This is the 1994 Harper Collins (UK) paperback reprint of “Sahara” that I read.

“Sahara” begins during the later stages of the American Civil War when the armoured Confederate steamship Texas is making a last-ditch bid to escape the United States with the Confederacy’s archives and an important Union prisoner. As it travels along a river to the sea, it is battered by every piece of lead that the Union ships can throw at it, yet it remains in one piece as it breaks a naval blockade and disappears into the ocean…

The story then flashes forward to the 1930s, when famed Australian aviator Kitty Mannock is making an unprecedented and celebrated solo flight across the Sahara Desert. However, she flies into a sandstorm and crashes into the desert. Luckily, she survives the crash and decides to hike towards a desert road quite some distance away…

The story then flashes forward to 1996, where a tourist group in Mali finally reach the remote village of Asselar. However, something is wrong. The village seems to be deserted. Whilst searching the village, the ex-military tour guide is suddenly attacked by a frenzied teenager. Within minutes, the rest of the villagers emerge – also gripped by some kind of zombie virus. Needless to say, things don’t go well…

Meanwhile, in Egypt, a UN scientist called Eva Rojas is relaxing by the beach when she is suddenly attacked by mysterious assassins. Luckily for Eva, Dirk Pitt (a high-ranking member of a US maritime agency called NUMA) happens to be nearby and he makes short work of the assassins. Needless to say, Pitt and Eva get along well before going their separate ways when duty calls.

However, during Pitt’s archaeological expedition on the Nile, he receives an urgent message from Admiral Sandecker ordering him and his buddies Al Giordino and Rudi Gunn to return to a US vessel off the coast to be briefed about a top secret mission of global importance……

One of the first things that I will say about “Sahara” is that it is a book that gets better as it goes along. Although it starts with some rather dramatic opening chapters, the pace then slows somewhat for a while. But, if you can slog your way through some rather turgid and jargon-heavy scientific/environmental lectures and some slower-paced segments, then you’ll be rewarded with some spectacularly thrilling drama later in the novel.

When it wants to be, this book is more than cinematic at times. Whether it’s the vaguely “Apocalypse Now”*-like scenes set on a river in Africa, or a dramatic prison escape-style scene set in an underground mine, or Pitt and Giordino’s epic trek across the Sahara or the frenetic military drama of the later segments of the book, this novel is absolutely spectacular when it lets itself be. As action scenes go, this novel comes close to the excellent “Zero Hour” in terms of spectacular drama, possibly even surpassing it during the later scenes.

(* And, yes, I know that Conrad’s “Heart Of Darkness” might seem like a better comparison. But, the military/combat elements of these scenes reminded me a lot more of “Apocalypse Now”.)

But, although the slower-paced parts of this book do make the fast-paced scenes seem more thrilling by contrast, the novel really could have done with a bit more editing.

If this novel had been trimmed down to 400-500 pages, then it would really be something! Yes, the novel’s pacing is mostly good, but the first quarter to half of the book can be a real slog at times. Still, this is a novel that rewards dogged perseverance with one of the most dramatic closing segments that I’ve read in a while. Seriously, the last 150-200 pages or so are pulse-poundingly, nail bitingly spectacular.

In addition to this, “Sahara” also contains a lot of suspense too. Although this is often really gripping, some suspenseful scenes are drawn out for slightly too long – to the point where it makes the main characters seem slightly immortal (eg: Pitt and Giordino surviving a ridiculously long time in a scorching desert without water), which ironically lessens the suspense slightly. Still, this aside, “Sahara” often makes expert use of suspense – especially during the later parts of the story.

One clever thing about “Sahara” is that it is a nautical adventure that revolves around a desert. Although this is mostly achieved by including nautical elements in the scenes that don’t take place in the desert, some of the desert-based scenes contain nautical elements in rather surprising ways. Since I don’t want to spoil the best one, I’ll point out that one of the other ways that this is achieved is in how the scenes of characters being stranded in the desert are thematically similar to characters being lost at sea.

The story’s sub-plots are a bit of a mixed bag. In addition to a fairly predictable romantic sub-plot and a spy-based sub-plot that doesn’t really seem to add that much to the story, there’s also a really interesting archaeological sub-plot. Yet, despite this being a really brilliant sub-plot, it almost seems to be unconnected to the main plot and only really shows up properly in a few later parts of the novel.

In terms of the actual writing, it’s reasonably good. Compared to Cussler’s novels from the 1970s, the narration is a little bit more snappier and faster-paced, whilst still containing just enough descriptions to add some lush vividness to the story. Yes, the dialogue occasionally includes some rather stodgy lectures and “1990s Star Trek”-like data-dumps, but a fair amount of the dialogue is well-written and dramatic.

Likewise, whilst the characters are a little bit stylised (eg: the evil despot/dictator, the posh British UN officer, the sophisticated French villain, the wise-cracking heroes etc..), they thankfully never quite reach the level of two-dimensional cartoonishness that the characters in Cussler’s “Iceberg” (1975) sink to. In other words, the characters in this novel are reasonably ok. They aren’t spectacular, but they’re still just about characters rather than cartoons.

Like with Cussler’s “Iceberg”, this novel definitely has a bit of a grittier edge to it. Whether it is the almost splatterpunk-like scenes of horror in Asselar, the harsh unforgiving Sahara desert or both the chilling cruelty of the villains and the equally cruel poetic justice that gets meted out to them, this novel has a mean streak a mile wide. But, like with a good horror novel, you’ll probably want to keep reading it of grim curiosity.

Still, this cruel atmosphere is lightened by a few moments of comedy (such as Giordino flying the Jolly Roger on the team’s secret research boat) and a rather amusing little cameo by none other than Clive Cussler himself. Although author inserts are usually eye-rollingly pretentious, this one adds a bit of warmth and friendliness to a rather bleak and suspenseful segment of the novel, and is most welcome.

However, as you might expect from an older Clive Cussler novel, this novel is somewhat on the “politically incorrect” side of things – with some moments, descriptions, connotations, attitudes and scenes that will probably seem a bit awkward and/or dated when read today.

But, like with the other older Clive Cussler novels I’ve read, if you can overlook the dated, “politically incorrect” and/or awkward elements of the story, then you’ll be rewarded with a gripping tale. Even so, this story probably hasn’t aged that well.

All in all, this book is brilliant, but flawed. Yes, it would be better if an editor had trimmed about 100-200 pages and, again, it hasn’t aged well. But, if you can get past these flaws, then treasure awaits you!

When it wants to, this novel can reach spectacular heights of drama, thrills and suspense that can’t really be matched by any movie. Which is probably why I haven’t seen the film adaptation of “Sahara” yet. It would probably be a disappointment compared to the book.

If I had to give this novel a rating out of five, it would possibly get a four. During the best moments, it is a solid five. During the worst moments, it is a two. So, it averages out at about four or so.

Three Tips For Basing Lots Of Stories Around A Single Theme

As regular readers of this site know, I’m going through a bit of a Clive Cussler phase at the moment. If you’ve never heard of him before, he writes thriller novels that almost always seem to revolve around the sea, sailing and/or diving in some way or another. Or, to put it another way, the Clive Cussler novel I’m reading at the time of writing is literally called “Sahara” – and it still includes lots of nautical stuff. In a story about a desert!

So, this made me think about writing stories based around a theme. Although I don’t have nearly as much experience with themed storytelling as Cussler does, I’ve had some experience. For example, the short story collections I’ve written for this blog will have a theme – like last year’s “Retro Sci-Fi” Halloween stories – and I also somehow manage to make most of these blog articles about the subject of creating things, even when talking about seemingly unrelated subjects.

So, how can you come up with lots of different stories that still involve a single theme?

1) Know your theme: Simply put, you need to have a fairly good knowledge of the theme in question before using it in multiple stories. In other words, you need both research and (if possible) experience. So, choose a theme that you know a lot about. And, more importantly, one that interests you in some way or another.

And, this isn’t as difficult as you might think. After all, you almost certainly have interests and/or experiences you can draw upon. Even if your life has been fairly “ordinary”, there’s probably something interesting in there if you look hard enough. Whether it’s your encyclopedic knowledge of a particular type of music, or a hobby that you have, or some life experience that is “ordinary” to you but would be interesting to someone else etc…

And this doesn’t even have to be something ultra-dramatic in order to be interesting. If the author is really interested in the theme and can communicate that interest to the reader, then you can write interesting stories about any theme.

For example, when I was a teenager, I read about half of Jeffrey Archer’s “Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less” – which is a novel about the stock market. The stock market. And it was somehow still interesting enough to make my teenage self read half of it (and interesting enough that, for a very short while, I actually thought that stockbrokers were “cool”).

So, yes, knowing your theme really well and being genuinely interested in it is pretty much a requirement.

2) Challenge and compatibility: If you’re writing lots of stories about a single theme, then you need to keep it interesting. And you can do this by trying to make your “compatible” with seemingly unrelated things. Not only does this intrigue the reader, but it also provides an interesting “can I do this?” challenge to you too.

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned Clive Cussler’s “Sahara” – which I’m reading at the time of writing. This is a nautical thriller novel that revolves around the Sahara Desert. But, how does Clive Cussler do this seemingly “impossible” thing?

Well, part of the story is set on a large river that leads to the Sahara. Likewise, the main premise of the story revolves around stopping a dangerous source of water-borne contamination that has the potential to spread to the sea. Likewise, scenes where characters are stranded in the desert read a bit like descriptions of people adrift at sea etc…

So, yes, it’s possible to write a nautical novel about a desert. And I’d bet that Clive Cussler had a lot of fun when working out how to tell this seemingly “impossible” type of story.

So, trying to make your theme compatible with seemingly unrelated things can be both an interesting creative challenge and a way to make your story more interesting to your readers. At the very least, even if you mess it up, your story will still be a brilliant source of unintentional comedy.

3) The characters: Simply put, if your characters are interested in and/or experts about a particular subject, then you can include a theme in your stories reasonably easily – even in stories that seem to be totally unrelated to that theme.

The detective genre is the perfect example of this. If a character is a detective, then pretty much any story that they appear in will usually be a detective story of some kind of another. After all, they see the world from the perspective of a detective, so they’ll still be interested in solving mysteries or working out why things have happened – even if the story doesn’t involve them solving any crimes.

———-

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Review: “Raise The Titanic” By Clive Cussler (Novel)

Well, although I hadn’t planned to read another old Clive Cussler novel from the 1970s (after having a lukewarm reaction to “Iceberg” and vastly preferring Cussler’s more modern co-written stuff like “Zero Hour” and “The Pharaoh’s Secret), I ended up reading a novel from 1976 called “Raise The Titanic”.

This was one of several old Clive Cussler novels that my uncle lent me a couple of days earlier, after I mentioned I’d become a fan of Clive Cussler. I chose to read “Raise The Titanic” first because of the intriguing title and because it looked like the shortest book in the pile. Of course, it only looked shorter than an ordinary Clive Cussler novel because the print was smaller than usual in the edition I read. But, I decided to keep reading nonetheless.

So, let’s take a look at “Raise The Titanic”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2008 Sphere (UK) paperback reprint of “Raise The Titanic” that I read.

“Raise The Titanic” begins on board the RMS Titanic in 1912. A mysterious passenger has spent several days hiding in his cabin, only emerging soon after the ship’s engines mysteriously stop. Finding a steward, he draws a pistol and orders the steward to lead him below decks to the ship’s vault. Once he gets to the vault, he mutters a few cryptic comments before locking himself inside. As the steward flees the sinking ship, he is completely bewildered about what has just happened.

Then we flash forward to the near-future year of… 1987. America’s rough tough cigar-chomping president is having a meeting with the heads of a top secret research agency he’s set up called Meta Section. They’ve come up with a plan to use sonic waves as a defence against Soviet missiles, however the planned technology requires large quantities of an ultra-rare element called Byzanium in order to work.

Unbeknownst to the President, the only known natural source of Byzanium ore is in a remote part of Russia, and Meta Section have already started a clandestine research mission. However, Meta Section hasn’t heard from the researchers in a while and it’s clear that something has gone wrong….

One of the first things that I will say about “Raise The Titanic” is that it’s a very different novel to what I’d expected. Far from being an action-thriller novel, it’s much more of a mixture of a detective novel, a cold war spy thriller, a drama, a political thriller and a scientific thriller. Although there are obviously a few fast-paced moments, this novel is more of a slow burn, but it is still fairly gripping nonetheless.

Interestingly, the relative lack of “action” in this novel is more than compensated for by the emphasis on environmental danger later in the story. Although the Soviets are the novel’s nominal villains, the main source of suspense and drama is often the danger involved in raising the Titanic etc…. This focus on suspenseful environmental danger in the second half of the story means that the story’s few moments of action-movie style drama stand out a lot more too.

Plus, Cussler’s writing has improved significantly since he wrote “Iceberg” (1975). “Raise The Titanic” includes vaguely three-dimensional characters, an intricate web of plot threads, a multi-act structure and a fair number of interesting plot twists and mysteries. In addition to Meta Section’s travails with the Byzanium, there’s also the story of the troubled marriage between two characters, a historical mystery, some spy drama in the Soviet Union and the adventures of Dirk Pitt, Sandecker and NUMA too.

And this is before the sunken Titanic even comes into sight almost exactly halfway through the book. So, what this story lacks when compared to the rollercoaster-like thrills of Cussler’s modern co-written novels, it more than makes up for with interesting complexity, drama and intrigue. There’s also the suspenseful and spectacular high drama of the scenes involving the wreck of the Titanic too. I read somewhere that there was a film adaptation of this book, and it really wouldn’t surprise me.

The narration in this novel is reasonably good and, as you would expect from a novel of this vintage, Cussler’s writing style is a bit more descriptive and slow-paced than you would find in a modern paperback thriller novel. Although this means that the novel can’t be binge-read quite as easily, it does mean that the story is more atmospheric, suspenseful and vivid.

Likewise, Cussler has improved slightly at writing dialogue since he wrote “Iceberg”. Although a lot of the dialogue is still fairly good (and is often the most fast-paced part of the story), there’s a bit more personality and humour in this novel. In addition to this, the dialogue also includes a few classic techniques – such as name-dropping the book’s title at one point, a character giving a dramatic speech to the villains etc…

Interestingly, the novel’s foreword points out that it was written before the wreck of the Titanic was found in real life. Although this is eerily surprising, the novel doesn’t always predict the “future” that well.

Even though the story is nominally set in the mid-late 1980s, it couldn’t be more ’70s if it tried. There’s even a short scene set in a disco at one point. A disco, in the 1980s! Still, luckily for Cussler, the Berlin Wall didn’t fall until 1989, so the cold war-based parts of the story still have some level of historical verisimilitude.

The novel’s fictional President also initially seems eerily like a Trump-style character, but he actually turns out to be a more intelligent, more articulate etc… character than you might expect as the story progresses. Still, from a 21st century perspective, seeing this type of character portrayed in a non-satirical way is somewhat surprising.

The novel also briefly makes an awkward (but probably progressive for the time it was written) attempt at tackling the subject of racism and, although this scene will probably be somewhat cringe-worthy to modern readers, it is at least critical of racism and is included for a vaguely plot-relevant reason (eg: a “good” character’s sudden and unexpected use of racist language shows that his psychological state is deteriorating. Then again, this is also shown by what happens before this moment too, so the dialogue segment in question is perhaps superfluous).

Still, like with “Iceberg”, if you can overlook the dated elements of the story, then you will be rewarded with a gripping story that is filled with some spectacularly dramatic moments, intriguing mysteries, a little bit of spy drama and some dramatic plot twists. Like with “Iceberg”, it’s the kind of gripping book that will make you want to keep reading despite the parts that haven’t stood the test of time.

All in all, this novel swims rather than sinks. It is a really good detective/scientific thriller/spy thriller novel. Yes, it’s a little slow-paced by modern standards. Yes, it shows it’s age a bit. But, despite this, it’s still the kind of book that will make you want to read more just to see what happens next.

Or, to put it another way – thanks to Clive Cussler, I’ve read about as many novels within the past fortnight as I did during the entire year before that. And, I’ll probably keep reading more.

If I had to give this novel a rating out of five, it would get a four.

Review: “The Pharaoh’s Secret” By Clive Cussler & Graham Brown (Novel)

Well, after reading “Zero Hour” (2013), I was eager to read another thriller novel by Clive Cussler & Graham Brown. And, in my small collection of second-hand Clive Cussler books, the only other one I had was one called “The Pharaoh’s Secret”.

Interestingly, despite the slightly more understated cover art, this book is actually newer than “Zero Hour” – being published two years later in 2015. Still, given how much better I had found “Zero Hour” to be than the older Clive Cussler novel I’d read beforehand, I had high expectations for “The Pharaoh’s Secret”.

So, let’s take a look at “The Pharaoh’s Secret”. Needless to say, this review will contain some moderate SPOILERS.

This is the 2016 Penguin (UK) paperback edition of “The Pharaoh’s Secret” (2015) that I read.

The novel begins in Ancient Egypt during the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten. In the dead of night, a group of travellers sneak towards Abydos, the forbidden city of the dead. A mysterious plague has been spreading through the land and the travellers believe that the temple of Osiris may hold salvation. When they arrive, one of the travellers is greeted by a terrifying vision of Osiris who tells him that the plague victims will be saved if he agrees to poison Akhenaten as punishment for turning his back on the old gods.

Then we flash forward to 18th century Egypt. Napoleon’s ships are getting a sound thrashing from Nelson’s fleet. During the chaos, a French scholar called Emile D’Campion is trying to smuggle several mysterious crates out of Egypt. After narrowly escaping from one embattled ship with the crates, D’Campion finds himself on Admiral Villeneuve’s ship. Sensing that the battle will not go in their favour, the admiral retreats back to France…

After this, we flash forward to 2015. A smuggling ship called the M.V. Torino is travelling through the seas near Malta. However, the ship’s captain soon notices another vessel following them. The crew quickly arm themselves as several speedboats of gunmen begin to board the Torino. After the battle that follows, the ship runs aground beside the Italian island of Lampedusa, before exploding spectacularly. An ominous chemical mist begins to spread from the gutted vessel, quickly engulfing the island….

Some time later, Kurt Austin (a high-ranking member of a US maritime agency called “NUMA”) is conducting an archaeological dive on a Roman-era ship with his buddy Joe Zavala when they get a mysterious distress call from Lampedusa…..

One of the first things that I’ll say about this novel is that it is as gripping as you would expect 🙂 Like with “Zero Hour”, it is a novel that begs to be binge-read.

However, it sets itself apart from “Zero Hour” in several interesting ways. If “Zero Hour” was like an over-the-top 1990s action movie, then “The Pharaoh’s Secret” is more like a “James Bond” or “Mission: Impossible” film…. with maybe a hint of TV shows like “The A-Team”, “24” and “Burn Notice” too.

In other words, the drama is a little bit more topical, there’s slightly more of an emphasis on suspense and the action scenes are kept at least vaguely “realistic”. Still, this works in the story’s favour.

The main characters often find themselves in suspenseful situations where they have to think on their feet. This emphasis on thinking and ingenuity really helps to keep the story gripping (since the characters can’t just mindlessly shoot their way out of literally every situation).

But, this isn’t to say that “The Pharaoh’s Secret” is bereft of spectacular car chases, gunfights etc…. Yes, there aren’t as many of these as there were in “Zero Hour”, but this just serves to make them more spectacular by contrast. Whether it’s the ferocious battle for the M.V. Torino, a dramatic chase in Malta, a daring secret mission in Cairo etc… there’s still a fair amount of thrilling action here.

Plus, although the story includes some serious topical drama (revolving around the after-effects of the Arab Spring), there’s a reasonable amount of humour too. Not only are there a few brilliantly witty dialogue exchanges, but there are also a few moments of unintentional comedy too. Basically, some of the main villain’s henchmen have hilariously melodramatic code-names like “Talon”, “Shadow” and “Scorpion”. Plus, the main villain has a crocodile pit too. A crocodile pit! Seriously, this is gloriously cheesy!

The novel’s characters are reasonably good too, if somewhat stylised. Kurt’s team is a good mixture of daring heroes and clever scientists. Plus, the novel’s main villain is a pretty classic “villain” character, who is cartoonishly evil in the best possible way. Interestingly though, several of his henchmen get some character development too – with “Scorpion” actually having a bit of an interesting backstory.

Plus, the novel’s new supporting character – Dr. Renata Ambrosini – is kind of interesting. Initially, she’s a typical scientist/doctor character who is a bit of a pacifist. However, by the end of the novel, she’s a badass scuba-diving, pistol-shooting, car chasing etc.. action heroine character. But, since this novel is basically a Hollywood action/thriller movie in book form, then the lack of ultra-deep or realistic character development doesn’t really ruin the story too much.

Whilst this novel’s pacing isn’t as rollercoaster-fast as the pacing “Zero Hour” was, it’s still really good. This novel takes a little bit more time to build up suspense, with the novel’s more slow-paced scenes also helping to make the action scenes more thrilling by contrast too. Still, this isn’t exactly a “slow” novel. It’s the sort of thing that can easily be binge-read in about two or three days.

Even so, one scene (where two characters discover a dry lake that the audience already sort of knows about) seemed a little bit superfluous. Likewise, there’s at least one contrived “deus ex machina” moment later in the story where the protagonists just happen to stumble across something incredibly useful at the right time.

Since this novel has slightly more of an emphasis on suspense and investigation than on rollercoaster-like thrills, these scenes are a little bit more difficult to overlook. Even so, the superfluous scene is over quickly and the “deus ex machina” scene allows for some spectacular moments a little while later. So, these small flaws are easily forgivable.

Likewise, this novel contains some interesting thematic variety too – incorporating elements from other genres such as the medical thriller and political thriller genres. In addition to this, it also includes a small number of vaguely Dan Brown-esque historical detective scenes, which also provide an interesting change of pace too.

One interesting little Easter Egg in this novel is that it references two other co-written Cussler novels (which I’ve still got to read) that were published around the same time. In one scene, Sandecker mentions that Dirk Pitt is in South America (presumably a reference to “Havana Storm”) and, in another scene, the main characters briefly find themselves in the middle of what I assume to be a scene from “The Emperor’s Revenge”.

All in all, “The Pharaoh’s Secret” is a gripping thriller novel. It’s more sophisticated, slightly more “realistic” and more suspenseful than “Zero Hour”, but it isn’t quite as rollercoaster-like as a result. But, on it’s own merits, “The Pharaoh’s Secret” is still one of the better thriller novels I’ve read. If you want a binge-readable novel that is like a high-quality Hollywood action thriller movie in book form, then you could do a lot worse than this novel 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.