Review: “Behead The Undead (v1.2)” (WAD for “Doom II”/”Final Doom”/ Zandronum)

Well, since I’m still reading the next book I plan to review and because, at the time of writing, I’d been obsessively playing the early access preview for “Ion Maiden Fury” (rather than any new full games. EDIT: Yes, I write these reviews very far in advance), I thought that I’d take a quick look at a really interesting “Doom II”/”Final Doom” WAD from 2019 called “Behead The Undead (v1.2)“.

Although this WAD (technically a “.pk3”) will apparently work on other source ports if you have the right spawner files, it works “out of the box” with the Zandronum source port. So, out of laziness, I used this instead of GZDoom.

So, let’s take a look at “Behead The Undead (v 1.2)”:

“Behead The Undead (v1.2)” is a nine-level co-op/single player WAD that includes new monsters, levels, weapons, player sprites, sounds etc.. and (despite apparently being inspired by “Timesplitters 2” and one of the “Call Of Duty” zombie modes) also seems to takes heavy inspiration from the “Left 4 Dead” games.

And, yes, it’s always great to see “Left 4 Dead” stuff in Doom II WADs 🙂 The only other example I can think of is “Aeons Of Death (v 6.06.1)

Since I have very nostalgic memories of playing the “Left 4 Dead” games during the early 2010s (back when I didn’t mind Steam’s always-online DRM and before they stuck their middle finger up at Windows XP users – of which I was one until several months before preparing this review) and since I enjoyed the “Timesplitters” games when I was a teenager, I was intrigued.

Although there are some “Timesplitters” references, this mod doesn’t have the precision aiming needed to copy the “Behead The Undead” mode from “Timesplitters 2” (which is probably a good thing, given how frustrating that game mode could be). So, it is more like Left 4 Dead 2’s “survival” mode, where you choose a level and then have to fight wave after wave of monsters for as long as possible. You get a ten-second break between rounds and ammo/health/weapons will also respawn too.

In terms of the gameplay, this is a challenging WAD (on single-player, at least. Unlike L4D2, there are no AI companions here) that can be enjoyed in either short bursts or for longer gaming sessions. Even on the middle difficulty setting, you won’t last more than a few seconds if you get surrounded by zombies. So, just like in games such as “Alien Shooter“, the best strategy is to never let yourself get surrounded – either by constantly running/shooting or by finding an area that the zombies can’t get to easily.

Of course, if you’re playing co-op, then you probably stand slightly more of a chance against the zombie hordes.

In other words, this is a frantic, fast-paced WAD that is a lot of fun to play. The new weapons help out here a lot, with a balance between power, rate of fire, rarity and ammo supply that keeps you constantly feeling vulnerable. About half of the weapons are powerful enough to actually give you a fighting chance (eg: the dual pistols, double-barelled shotgun, sniper rifle, minigun and nuke launcher), but have some kind of disadvantage to balance them. For example, the double-barelled shotgun’s manual reload takes a second or two, the ammo-guzzling minigun has a “spinning up” delay, the nuke launcher appears very rarely and only has three shots (plus, a blast radius you can easily get caught in) etc….

This weapon is ridiculously powerful, but you can only use it three times…. on the rare occasions that it appears in the first place.

Likewise, this minigun is literally the only truly useful rapid-fire weapon in the game. But, it guzzles about ten units of ammo every second.

This feeling of vulnerability works surprisingly well because this is actually a vaguely scary horror game too. In addition to some ominously gloomy locations (which allow for lots of jump scares when screeching zombies rush out of the darkness towards you), some creepy ambient music and the eerie item pickup sound effects from “Silent Hill”, several of this WAD’s levels also have a very grey and desaturated look to them which really helps to add a bleak, hopeless atmosphere to the gameplay 🙂 Seriously, it’s a “Doom II” WAD about shooting zombies that is actually mildly scary 🙂

Yes, there’s actual horror in this WAD 🙂

As for the monsters, there’s a good – if limited – variety. In addition to hordes of fast, weak “Left 4 Dead 2” zombies, there is also the “Spitter” monster from that game (who is weak, but can fire projectiles) and then the game uses an enlarged version of the mummy monster from “Heretic” as the equivalent of L4D2’s “Tank” monster. These large, slow-moving projectile-firing monsters are absolute bullet sponges, which is both a good and a bad thing. On the plus side, they provide a formidable challenge that also adds variety to the gameplay. On the downside, the game will sometimes throw 5-10 of them at you during a wave, which can almost border on unfair.

Although only three of them can be seen in this screenshot, this level will often throw 5-10 of these giant monsters at you during the later waves.

In terms of the level design, it’s fairly good. The nine levels you can choose from are a good mixture between wide open arenas, claustrophobic smaller levels and sprawling corridor mazes. Each level type has it’s own set of advantages and disadvantages that really help to add some variety to the gameplay.

For example, it’s easier to find ammo, health and new weapons in the smaller levels, but you’re more likely to get surrounded by zombies. It’s easier to run away and circlestrafe in arena levels, but more zombies/monsters tend to appear. Zombies tend to be more spread out in corridor mazes, but there are more “jump” moments and finding the last zombie of a wave can also be a challenge (even with the in-game radar). So, the level design is fairly good.

Interestingly, some levels also have “safe areas” which can’t be reached by the monsters. This doesn’t feel like too much of a cheat thanks to some clever design and balancing. Here are a couple of examples:

Example 1: The monsters can’t get into this building in the “City” level, but don’t expect to find much ammo in here….

Example 2: In the “Docks” level, hiding behind this crate will keep you safe during the earlier waves. But, when projectile-firing monsters start appearing, you’ll be trapped with little to no cover.

Yes, there are the dreaded invisible walls in some levels – but these double up as spawn points for the monsters, so this isn’t too bad. And, yes, some levels feature atmospheric custom textures whilst some others just use the ordinary standard textures (with maybe a new skybox), but the actual design of the levels is fairly good.

Likewise, I cannot praise the variety of sprites/textures in this game highly enough – in addition from being able to choose between about twelve player sprites (mostly from the “Timesplitters” games), the game also features graphics from several other games (eg: Left 4 Dead 2, Shadow Warrior [1997], Silent Hill 2, Blood, Heretic etc..) which helps to make everything feel a bit more unique. Yes, the styles of some of these textures clash with each other a bit, but I absolutely love it when modders convert stuff from 3D games into the 2.5D “Doom” engine 🙂

All in all, this WAD is a lot of fun and a is a bit like a trimmed-down version of “Left 4 Dead 2” for the “Doom” engine. Yes, it’s limited and the difficulty level can almost border on unfair in single-player mode – but, if you want a challenging, fairly well-balanced, fast-paced WAD with some genuinely creepy horror elements that can be enjoyed for both shorter and longer gaming sessions, then this one is well worth checking out 🙂

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

Review: “Change Agent” By Daniel Suarez (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a break from horror fiction and read a sci-fi novel that I’ve been meaning to read for at least a month or two. I am, of course, talking about the second-hand copy of Daniel Suarez’s 2017 novel “Change Agent” that I found online when I was looking for cyberpunk-style novels.

Although this novel is actually a mixture of biopunk, cyberpunk and thriller fiction, the idea behind it seemed interesting enough for me to get a copy – even if I didn’t get round to reading it for quite a few weeks.

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

This is the 2017 Dutton (US) paperback edition of “Change Agent” that I read.

Set in 2045, the novel begins in an illegal gene editing clinic run by a company called Trefoil. Two lawyers, Mr and Mrs Cherian, are visiting the clinic in order to look at some possible improvements for the baby they are planning to have. Although the couple are a little uncertain about everything, the clinic’s augmented reality presentation and the fact that all of their friends are having enhanced babies wins them over. However, before they can sign up for anything, there is an armed police raid on the facility. In the chaos, Mrs. Cherian is shot by a police officer.

Meanwhile, in Singapore, a programmer for Interpol called Kenneth Durand spends some time with his family before talking to one of the detectives, Michael Ji Yu-Chang, he works with. Kenneth has heard about the raid on the clinic and feels responsible for Mrs. Cherian’s death because he wrote the algorithm that allowed the authorities to locate the clinic. After some discussion about this, they report to the HQ of Interpol’s Genetic Crimes Division, where a visiting FBI agent called Marcotte gives a presentation about a mysterious human trafficking gang called the Huli Jing that have also been hoovering up as much genetic data as they can get their hands on.

On the way back from work, Kenneth’s self-driving taxi has a mysterious error, forcing him to get out and walk to the nearest MRT rail station. On the way there, someone in the crowd injects him with something. He has a violent allergic reaction and falls into a coma. When he wakes up in hospital several weeks later, his Interpol colleagues are there… to question him. Whatever was in that syringe has turned him into an exact duplicate of the leader of the Huli Jing, a very wanted criminal…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that you shouldn’t judge it by the first seventy pages or so. Although the novel is fairly slow to start and begins with a lot of background stuff, ethical debates etc… it does turn into a more compelling and faster-paced thriller novel after this 🙂 The best way to describe this novel is that it’s a bit like what you’d get if you mixed certain William Gibson, Clive Cussler and Alex Garland novels together with the movie “Face/Off” and the TV series “Burn Notice” 🙂 Yes, it’s a bit cheesy, preachy and/or contrived at times, but it is still a reasonably compelling sci-fi thriller.

Still, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s sci-fi elements. Although the novel contains quite a lot of backstory about how the growth in synthetic biology has reshaped industry, geopolitics etc… it is very much a 2010s sci-fi novel. In other words, this novel includes, explores and/or name-checks almost every piece of “futuristic” modern technology it can (eg: CRISPR, drones, cryptocurrencies, lab-grown meat, self-driving cars, augmented reality, big data etc…). Whilst this lends the novel a certain degree of realism and the author has clearly done a lot of research, I can’t help but get the feeling that this is the kind of novel that probably won’t feel very futuristic in 20-30 years’ time – which is probably both a good and a bad thing.

This novel is very much an “issues”-based sci-fi novel too, with the story’s biopunk elements (eg: gene editing etc…) being used to discuss topics like nature, medical ethics and – most prominently – the nature of identity. Although some elements of this are fairly intriguing, the novel does sometimes come across as a bit heavy-handed and preachy at times.

Whether it is the scenes of psychological horror and body horror related to genetic editing or how the fact that people are able to change their bodies is described as a way for people to regain privacy in a surveillance-filled world and then the only examples of this shown to the reader are criminals using it to get away with stuff, this novel does have a slight conservative cautiousness to it. Something further hammered home by the rather moralistic main character.

In addition to these futuristic issues, the novel also discusses all sorts of realistic issues too. These are handled slightly better and they include things like climate change, human trafficking, refugees, economic inequality, modern slavery etc… The novel is able to make points about these things reasonably well and they also add a certain degree of grim realism that helps to counterbalance all of the novel’s more glamourous and/or “over the top” elements.

In terms of the novel’s thriller elements – they are reasonably good, even if they aren’t always used to their full potential. Although the novel takes a while to really get started, it is a compelling one that lends itself well to binge-reading 🙂 The premise of someone being framed for a series of crimes and having to go on the run is an inherently suspenseful one and, in the earlier parts of the novel, this is used to it’s full potential – with Kenneth having to hide, run, think etc.. in order to survive in a hostile world. This is also paired with some well-written action-thriller moments, some scenes focusing on the Interpol detectives trying to catch Kenneth and some tense scenes set in the criminal underworld.

However, the grippingly nail-biting tension of Kenneth being just one small mistake away from death is at it’s very best for only a small part of the novel. After a while, Kenneth just teams up with various sympathetic criminals who almost always seem to have some contrived way to solve whatever problem he’s facing (shark-shaped submarine, anyone?) or somewhere for him to hide. Yes, this allows for various spectacular set pieces, Clive Cussler-style action sequences and visits to lots of interesting locations, but you don’t always get the grippingly suspenseful feeling that Kenneth is surviving by his wits alone. Still, it is a reasonably fun rollercoaster ride of a story nonetheless.

In terms of the characters, they are a bit of a mixed bag. This is one of those novels where some of the supporting characters and/or villains are more interesting than the main character. Some of the side-characters (eg: Frey, Otto, Marcotte etc..) are interesting, complex people who have a real feeling of personality and help to add extra life to the novel. On the other hand, Kenneth is a bit of a generic “moralistic”, “family man”, ex-military and/or detective “hero” character who, whilst he has emotions and backstory, isn’t really as interesting as several of the side-characters.

As for the writing, it is really good. This novel’s third-person narration is “matter of fact” enough to both make the story very readable and keep things moving at a decent pace, whilst also being formal and descriptive enough to add atmosphere and to make the story’s locations (eg: Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Myanmar) feel vivid and realistic.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is a mixed bag. At 398 pages in length, this novel is a little on the longer side of things – but I ended up binge-reading about two-thirds of it in a single day. Likewise, whilst the pacing of the earlier parts of the novel is a bit on the slow side (with lots of backstory, debates, scientific explanations etc…), when the novel remembers that it is a thriller novel, then things improve significantly. The rest of the novel is this wonderfully compelling mixture of suspense, drama and fast-paced action, with these elements being juggled in a way that ensures that they never wear out their welcome.

All in all, whilst this novel isn’t a perfect one, it was still reasonably fun to read. Yes, it takes a while to really become gripping, the main character isn’t as interesting as the side characters and the story can also be a bit preachy too. But, if you can overlook these flaws, then you’ll get to enjoy a compelling thriller novel that also includes a lot of interesting “realistic” sci-fi, atmospheric locations and other good stuff.

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

Review: “Resident Evil: Code Veronica” By S. D. Perry (Novel)

Well, I was still in the mood for fast-paced horror fiction. So, I thought that I’d take the chance to re-read S.D.Perry’s 2001 novelisation of “Resident Evil: Code Veronica” since it was the next novel in the series that I hadn’t re-read yet (you can see my reviews of the previous books here, here, here, here and here ).

Although I first read this book and played the “Resident Evil: Code Veronica X” Playstation 2 port of the game it is based on when I was a teenager, I remember more about the game than I do about this adaptation. Still, since the game was probably the most modern “Resident Evil” game that I’ve completed and I have a lot of nostalgia about playing it, I was eager to see if the book would live up to this.

Even though it is possible to enjoy this novel as a stand-alone book, it is worth reading several of Perry’s previous “Resident Evil” novels and/or playing some of the older games in the series in order to get the most out of it. Even so, the novel contains a brief author’s note about continuity differences with previous books in the series.

So, let’s take a look at “Resident Evil: Code Veronica”. I should probably warn you that this review may contain some SPOILERS and some GRUESOME/ DISTURBING cover art (yes, fans of the series and/or the zombie genre won’t exactly be shocked by it – but I thought that I’d include a warning on the off-chance that anyone who isn’t a fan stumbles across this review).

This is the 2001 Pocket Books (US) paperback edition of “Resident Evil: Code Veronica” that I read.

The novel begins on a remote island called Rockfort, owned by the nefarious Umbrella Corporation. A guard on the island, Rodrigo Juan Raval, has just survived a ferocious air assault by unknown forces that has not only left parts of the island in ruins but also released several experimental bioweapons from the island’s labs. With many of his fellow guards turned into shambling zombies and a serious injury to his stomach, Rodrigo decides to limp back to the island’s jail and release a recent prisoner who has also survived the attack.

Claire Redfield – survivor of the zombie incident in Racoon City- dreams about her failed attempt at taking down one of Umbrella’s facilities in Paris before waking up in a cold, dark cell. To her surprise, a wounded guard shows up and lets her out before telling her to run for her life. Although she is initially wary about this, she takes the guard’s advice and leaves. Only to find herself in a graveyard filled with zombies….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a fairly fast-paced horror thriller novel that is also reasonably true to what I remember of the game (which is both a good and a bad thing). Whilst it probably isn’t my favourite one of Perry’s “Resident Evil” novels (the first and third ones are better), it is still a fairly entertaining novel.

Still, I should probably start by talking about the novel’s horror elements, which include a mixture of character-based horror, monster horror, body horror/scientific horror, cruel horror and gory horror. Although these elements are reasonably well-written, this novel’s horror often feels a little less intense than some previous novels in the series. Whilst the novel’s many scenes of gory horror are as splatterific as you’d expect from a S. D. Perry novel, they aren’t always as well-supported by the other types of horror as they could have been.

If anything, this novel is more of a gruesome, monster-filled action thriller story than a horror novel. And, in this regard, it works well. Not only is the novel written in the kind of fast-paced way that will allow you to blaze through it in a couple of hours, but the story also includes things like multiple plot threads (although not to the extent I’d expected), suspense and – of course- lots of dramatic set pieces and action sequences 🙂 These are all written in a way that is fast-paced and easy to read, giving this novel the kind of fun, cheesy “late-night B movie” atmosphere that you’d expect from the series 🙂

As for how well this novel adapts the source material, it seemed reasonably close to what I remembered of the game – albeit with some changes. In addition to adding a few references to previous books in the series (including the ones not based on the games), there’s also a brief cameo by a few familiar characters (eg: Barry and Leon), the puzzles have been streamlined a bit (if only it was possible to just shoot the metal detector in the actual game) and there’s a bit of extra backstory, dialogue and characterisation for some of the characters too. For the most part, this is an enhanced and streamlined adaptation of the original game. Plus if, like me, you’ve only played the later “Code Veronica X” version of the game, it’s also an interesting glimpse at an earlier version of the game too.

However, since it was published within a year or so of the original game, this adaptation also includes some brief and/or subtle moments from the original game that haven’t really aged well. The main antagonist, Alfred Ashford, is something of a “feminine villain” stereotype and one of the main characters also makes a rather derogatory comment about this aspect of him too (although, if my memory is correct, it is said by a different character at a different time in the game). Still, this is more of a criticism of the source material than this contemporaneous adaptation of it.

But, although Alfred isn’t really a well-written character (again, more the fault of the original game), the other characters are reasonably well-written. Whilst you shouldn’t expect ultra-deep characterisation, the story adds a bit more personality, backstory and emotion to many of the game’s characters. This works best with Claire and Steve with, for example, the story focusing slightly more on Steve’s immature bravado, insecurities, inner conflicts etc… than the game does. Plus, of course, Claire is also a more confident character thanks to her experiences during the previous novels/games too.

As for the writing, it’s fairly good. As you’d expect from one of Perry’s “Resident Evil” novels, this story is written in a fairly informal, fast-paced and “matter of fact” way that goes really well with the thrilling events of the story. Plus, all of this fast-paced narration is also paired with some well-placed descriptive moments that add extra atmosphere and/or intensity to the story without breaking the flow of the narration too much.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is excellent. At a gloriously efficient 241 pages in length, not a single page is wasted. Likewise, this novel also maintains a fairly consistent fast pace, with only a few brief moderately-paced moments to give the reader a slightly rest. In other words, this is one of those awesome thriller novels that – like a movie- can be enjoyed in just a couple of hours.

All in all, although this isn’t really my favourite “Resident Evil” novel, it is still a reasonably enjoyable fast-paced zombie/monster thriller novel. Yes, the horror elements could have been creepier and some moments will seem dated when read today – but, this aside, the novel was still reasonably fun to read and is a fairly good adaptation of the source material too.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would probably just about get a four.

Review: “Lair” By James Herbert (Novel)

Well, I was in the mood for an old horror novel. And, although I’d started searching through my older books for a copy of James Herbert’s “Sepulchre” that I vaguely remembered seeing during a previous search, I instead chanced across my copy of Herbert’s 1979 novel “Lair” and decided to re-read it.

This is mostly because although I really enjoyed re-reading Herbert’s “The Rats” a couple of months ago and I am still too scared to re-read the final novel in the trilogy, “Domain” (I read that novel about seventeen years ago and I… still… remember it vividly), I didn’t remember that much about the second novel “Lair” other than my younger self didn’t really find it as impressive as “The Rats”. So, I was curious about what I’d think of it these days.

Although “Lair” is the second novel in a trilogy, it still works as a self-contained story. Not only are there recaps for some of the events of “The Rats”, but I imagine that some plot events will actually be scarier if you don’t already know what sort of thing to expect.

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

This is the 1990 New English Library (UK) paperback edition of “Lair” that I read.

The novel begins with a brief description of several giant mutant rats surviving the events of the previous book thanks to someone not following the government’s advice. Four years later, a farmer in Epping Forest notices that his pet cats have been attacked by something.

Meanwhile, a family is taking a short holiday nearby and one of their children spots what looks like a stray dog in the bushes – but it flees before she can take a close look. In another part of the forest, one of the wardens suddenly finds that his horse bolts in terror at some unseen creature. When the exhausted steed comes to a halt, the warden sees a white deer. A bad omen.

Meanwhile, at the offices of Ratkill, Lucas Pender arrives for work. Following the outbreak in London four years earlier, the company is flush with both private and government funding and has been researching a number of new poisons, ultrasonic technologies and protective suits. And, following new legislation brought in after the outbreak, all possible rat sightings must be reported. So, when Pender arrives at work, it isn’t long before he is sent to Epping Forest to investigate….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a much better book than I remembered 🙂 Although it is overshadowed by both the fame of the first “Rats” book and the deeply unsettling and unforgettable bleakness of the third book, it is still one hell of a good horror novel. Not only is the novel’s pacing even better than “The Rats” but it is also a much more extreme, dramatic and suspenseful horror novel too 🙂 In short, if “The Rats” established the early beginnings of the splatterpunk genre, this novel finishes the blueprint that would later be followed by many 1980s authors, whilst also adding some excellent thriller elements too.

So, naturally, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s horror elements – which are a mixture of suspenseful horror, monster horror, ominous horror, disaster horror, sexual horror, fast-paced horror, character-based horror, claustrophobic horror and, of course, gory horror. Unlike “The Rats”, this novel is very much a splatterpunk novel – with a level of uncompromising, grisly, gross-out gore that almost approaches that of the 1980s horror authors who were inspired by Herbert’s novels.

This novel also makes expert use of pacing to increase both the horror and impact of the story’s events. Although I usually wait until later in my reviews to talk about pacing, I need to mention it here because it is an integral part of what makes “Lair” such a compelling horror novel.

In short, the first third or so of the novel is spent building suspense. You know that something horrible is going to happen, and each near-miss or possible rat sighting just ramps up the tension even more. Then, when the novel explodes in a horrific frenzy of fast-paced danger, violence and hungry rats, it almost feels like a relief from the nail-biting suspense and, well, I won’t spoil the later parts. But, I cannot praise this efficiently short (244 pages) novel’s pacing highly enough 🙂

Like with “The Rats”, this novel also contains quite a few thriller elements too. Although it maintains some of the realistic “disaster movie” elements from it’s predecessor (eg: crisis planning meetings, political drama etc..), this novel’s thriller elements feel a lot more fast-paced, spectacular and action-packed than those in “The Rats”. In addition to all of the suspense that I mentioned earlier, the novel also contains a really good mixture between frantic, claustrophobic close-quarters fights for survival and larger-scale pitched battles with the giant rats too. Seriously, this novel is a brilliant example of how to mix the horror and thriller genres well 🙂

In terms of the novel’s characters, they are fairly good. In the classic splatterpunk fashion, several of the background characters actually get slightly better and more detailed characterisation than the main characters do. This is mainly done to both add a sense of scale to the novel and to create a grim atmosphere (since not all of these detailed characters survive).

Still, the novel’s two main characters – Lucas Pender and a teacher/tour guide called Jenny Hanmer – get enough characterisation to make you care about what happens to them. Even so, they’re the typical “understated hero” and “sidekick/love interest” stock characters that you’d expect in a horror/thriller novel of this vintage. Likewise, although the novel’s police and military characters don’t get a giant amount of characterisation, they have the kind of quiet, understated bravery that makes you care about what happens to them.

In terms of the writing, this novel is excellent 🙂 As you’d expect from a horror novel of this vintage, the third-person narration is fairly descriptive and slightly formal but still “matter of fact” enough to be easily readable. Not only does this add a lot of extra atmosphere to the novel, but it also means that the novel can also move at a fairly decent pace too – with the novel’s “slightly formal, but matter of fact” writing style both adding gravitas to the fast-paced moments whilst also flowing well enough to keep the slower moments compellingly suspenseful too. Seriously, it’s a really good all-purpose writing style.

In terms of how this forty-one year old novel has aged, it has mostly aged well 🙂 Not only is it still atmospheric, compelling and readable – but both the rural setting and the quality of the writing also lend it a slightly timeless quality too. This is one of those novels that mostly feels enjoyably “retro” rather than dated. Not to mention that the total lack of smartphones etc… also allows some scenes to contain a lot more suspense than they would do in a modern novel. Even so, the scenes involving one rather creepy background character would probably be written in a different way (eg: with less focus on his perspective, thoughts etc..) in a more modern novel, and the same is probably true for a brief reference to domestic violence during one scene involving the local farmer too.

All in all, this is a really compelling horror thriller novel 🙂 Like all good sequels, it takes what made the original great and turns it up to eleven. Yes, it’s less famous than “The Rats” and less scary than “Domain”, but it would be a mistake to overlook this novel. If you aren’t easily shocked and you like your retro horror novels to include a few fast-paced thriller elements too, then this one is well worth reading 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a solid five.

Review: “British Bulldog” By Sara Sheridan (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a look at a novel that I’ve been meaning to read for years. I am, of course, talking about Sara Sheridan’s 2015 novel “British Bulldog”. I originally ended up buying a second-hand copy of this book shortly after getting a box set of the first three novels in Sheridan’s “Mirabelle Bevan” series for Christmas in 2016. At the time, I’d planned to read all three of them and wanted to have a copy of the fourth ready for when I finished.

But, although I read the first two books (but only reviewed the first one), I wasn’t reading much at the time and it was only after I later read the third and fifth books in the series that I remembered the fourth one. And, yes, this is one of those series where each novel is fairly self-contained (although it’s worth reading the previous three books first in order to get to know the characters a bit better).

So, let’s take a look at “British Bulldog”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS, but I’ll avoid revealing too much.

This is the 2016 Constable (UK) paperback edition of “British Bulldog” that I read.

The novel begins in Brighton in February 1954. Ex-SOE agent turned debt collector Mirabelle Bevan is walking back to the office one evening when she notices a man following her. When he approaches her, he points out that he’s a solicitor who has been trying to find her because she has been mentioned in a will.

An acquaintance from the war, Major Matthew “Bulldog” Bradley, has died and bequeathed Mirabelle one thousand guineas on the condition that she finds information about a man called Philip Caine who Bradley escaped from a POW camp with but became separated from during the escape. Although Mirabelle is initially wary about the case, especially when Bradley’s widow doesn’t want her to investigate it, she soon finds herself tangled in a web of secrecy, intrigue and drama that will take her all the way to Paris….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is really compelling. Not only is the Paris setting a really refreshing change but, in addition to the detective elements that you’d expect, this novel also includes some faster-paced elements from the spy thriller, adventure thriller and suspense thriller genres that really help to add focus and momentum to the story too. Seriously, if you want a good historical thriller novel, then this one is worth reading.

In terms of the novel’s detective elements, they’re reasonably good – with the novel’s central mystery being intriguing enough to keep the story compelling. Given the pre-internet setting and the “cold case” that Mirabelle finds herself investigating, this also means that the novel can include a few scenes involving trawling through libraries and archives for information. Although this might sound boring, it not only allows for the novel to seamlessly add atmospheric background details/information, but the “needle in a haystack” nature of these scenes also helps to add a bit more more suspense to the story too.

But, surprisingly, this is actually slightly more of a thriller novel than a detective novel 🙂 Although the thriller elements only really become prominent during the middle to later parts of the novel, there’s a really great mixture of chases/evasions, spy stuff, suspenseful sneaking around and even a few fast-paced set pieces. In a lot of ways, this novel is a bit like an old-school spy/adventure thriller and, as such, it is probably the most gripping novel I’ve read so far in this series 🙂 Plus, unlike many other novels in the series, there isn’t really a second case for Mirabelle to solve (and the sub-plot is a character-based one instead) – so the story also feels a bit more focused and streamlined too.

All of these thriller elements are also helped by an absolutely wonderful atmosphere too. Not only is this story set during a cold, gloomy time of year but the fact that a good portion of it is set in Paris is a very welcome change too 🙂 Not only does 1950s Paris add a lot of extra atmosphere to the story, but it also allows for a lot of extra characterisation, character-based drama and WW2-related backstory stuff too. This includes stuff about the French Resistance, how everyone wants to forget the war, the fate of wartime collaborators etc… Not only does this stuff add a realistic historical background to the story, but it also helps to add a lot of extra weight and complexity to the novel’s drama elements too.

This novel is also something of a character-based drama too. Not only are Mirabelle’s conflicted feelings about her wartime affair with a since-deceased SOE agent (and friend of Major Bradley) called Jack Duggan a major part of the story, but one of the novel’s other characters is also heavily affected by the events of the war too. Needless to say, this novel’s characterisation is really good too – although it mostly focuses on Mirabelle, all of the novel’s other main characters have fairly realistic motivations, flaws, emotions etc… too.

In terms of the writing, it’s really good. The novel’s third-person narration is written in a fairly “matter of fact”, but slightly formal and descriptive/atmospheric, way that really fits in well with the novel’s 1950s settings whilst also being more readable than an actual 1950s novel would be. If you’ve read other books in the series, then the writing is up to the same standard that you’d expect but – to my delight – this novel also contains more fast-paced moments that, surprisingly, work really well with this writing style 🙂

As for length and pacing, this novel absolutely excels 🙂 At an efficient 274 pages in length, there are very few wasted pages here. Plus, the novel’s pacing is really superb too. Not only does this novel slowly increase the scale, pace and intensity of the drama (gradually going from being a detective novel to a thriller novel), but even the slightly more moderately-paced earlier parts of the story are still mysterious and suspenseful enough to keep you gripped. Although this certainly isn’t the first “Mirabelle Bevan” novel to include elements from the thriller genre, they are used in the best possible way here and this whole novel was even more compelling than I’d expected 🙂

All in all, this is probably my favourite “Mirabelle Bevan” novel so far 🙂 It’s a really brilliant and atmospheric historical detective novel that, thanks to some well-handled additions from the thriller genre, is also a really gripping and streamlined story too 🙂

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

Review: “Rosewater” By Tade Thompson (Novel)

Well, I was still in the mood for some hardboiled fiction, so I thought that I’d take a look at a second-hand copy of Tade Thompson’s 2016 cyberpunk-influenced sci-fi thriller novel “Rosewater” that I’ve been meaning to read for a couple of weeks.

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

This is the 2018 Orbit (UK) paperback edition of “Rosewater” that I read.

The novel is set in the Nigerian city of Rosewater in 2066. This city is only about ten years old, having been built around a mysterious alien bio-dome that fell to Earth. These alien visitations to Earth have not only had a major effect on geopolitics (with Russia, China and Africa becoming more powerful) but have also had a biological effect on the planet too. In addition to occasionally healing the sick, reanimating the dead, introducing new lifeforms and providing free electricity, the alien bio-dome has also caused some humans to become “sensitives”, or psychics.

Kaaro is a cynical, world-weary sensitive who works as part of a human firewall for a bank in Rosewater. Every day, he reads vintage novels to create interference to prevent rogue psychics from hacking into the bank. His co-worker Bola insists on setting him up on a date with her friend Aminat during a visit to one of the dome’s healing sessions. But, during the date, he receives a text from Section 45 – a mysterious branch of the country’s security services that Kaaro secretly works for. So, reluctantly, he goes over to their offices and extracts information from the mind of a tortured prisoner.

But, soon, strange things start happening. Kaaro gets psychic visits from a mysterious woman called Molara, his boss warns him about Aminat, some criminals are after him and, even worse, several of the other psychics start dying from a mysterious disease….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was a lot of fun to read 🙂 Imagine a combination of a spy/action/detective thriller novel, Jeff Noon’s “Vurt”, a William Gibson novel, Greg Bear’s “Blood Music“, Eric Brown’s “Bengal Station” trilogy, the irreverent time-jumping weirdness of something like Robert Brockway’s “The Unnoticeables” and maybe the “Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex” TV series and this might give you some vague clue of what to expect 🙂

So, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s sci-fi elements – which are really awesome 🙂 Not only is there a lot of good worldbuilding, showing all of the effects that alien contact has had on Earth, but it is also one of those interesting cyberpunk-style novels which doesn’t actually involve the internet.

Like with the hallucinogenic feathers in Jeff Noon’s “Vurt”, this is a novel that features cyberspace-like scenes that take place within a psychic space called the “Xenosphere” (a traditional VR internet called “Nimbus” exists too, but it is just a background detail).

Not only does this lend the novel a slightly fantastical quality, but it is kept firmly in the sci-fi genre thanks to the inclusion of an actual scientific explanation for it and – by extension – a series of rules surrounding it. And, since this novel relies on the mind (rather than machines) for it’s virtual worlds, it can be a lot more surreal, interesting and just generally creative with these scenes.

Not only is this novel’s worldbuilding absolutely excellent but, like the best sci-fi, it is also completely original too. The aliens are quite literally alien, with the characters knowing enough about them to live near them but not knowing enough for them to be intriguingly mysterious at the same time. Likewise, I cannot praise the atmosphere and descriptions of the city of Rosewater itself highly enough. It’s a really interesting place 🙂

In keeping with the cyberpunk genre, the setting also contains some dystopian elements – however, in an interesting twist, they don’t come from the usual mega-corporations but from more realistic things like government, outdated legislation, mob justice, crime etc… instead. In other words, this novel feels really original 🙂

The novel’s thriller elements are also brilliant too. Not only is this novel written in a fast-paced way, but it also makes excellent use of things like suspense, intrigue, secrets, mini-cliffhangers, mystery and a few action sequences to keep everything compelling.

Another awesome thing about this novel is how it mixes the immediacy of first-person narration with the traditional thriller technique of multiple plot threads. Most first-person thrillers that attempt this use the awkward device of multiple first-person narrators – but this novel instead uses a series of flashback chapters set a decade or two earlier to provide a second plot thread without breaking the immersion by switching the narrator. These time jumps are also very clearly signposted (not only do they tell you the date and location, but they are also marked as “Then” or “Now”) which prevents them from being confusing or breaking the flow of the story 🙂

Plus, this novel also contains horror elements too 🙂 Seriously, these were a really brilliant surprise. In addition to some chilling moments of dystopian horror, there’s also a good amount of psychological horror, a few moments of gory horror, some surreal body horror, a brilliantly intense scene of monster horror and – even better – zombie horror too 🙂 Even though the zombies don’t show up that often, the fact that this novel blends the cyberpunk and zombie genres is really awesome 🙂

In terms of the characters, this novel is reasonably good. The narrator, Kaaro, gets the most characterisation and he’s a classic cyberpunk protagonist of the morally-ambiguous, world-weary and cynical type (who, like Deckard from “Blade Runner”, also works for an evil police force). But, thanks to his narration and intriguing backstory (and a few well-placed moments of humour), he comes across as a really interesting, realistic and surprisingly sympathetic character. Although the novel’s other characters get slightly less characterisation, they seem reasonably realistic and there’s enough characterisation for you to care about what happens to them.

As for the writing, it is excellent 🙂 This novel’s first-person narration is written in the kind of fast-paced, personality-filled way that you’d expect from a good sci-fi or horror thriller novel 🙂 Not only that, the narration also reads like a more understated and streamlined version of the kind of classic hardboiled cyberpunk narration that you’d expect from a writer like William Gibson 🙂 Plus, the narration still manages to remain descriptive enough to add atmosphere and bring the story’s settings to life too 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. At 390 pages, it’s a little on the longer side of things – but is written in the kind of fast-paced way that won’t make this too much of an issue. The novel is paced like a thriller – with multiple plot threads, compelling suspense, lots of dramatic moments etc..- which also helps to avoid some of the slowness that is typically associated with science fiction. Plus, although this novel is very clearly the first novel in a series (there’s even a note about the sequel at the end), the main plot has enough resolution for the sequel hook/background cliffhanger at the end not to feel frustrating or unsatisfying.

All in all, this novel was a lot of fun to read 🙂 If you want a more innovative and imaginative version of the the cyberpunk genre that moves at twice the usual pace, includes lots of atmosphere, some well-placed horror elements and an interesting premise, then this novel is well worth reading 🙂

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

Review: “Sunburn” By Laura Lippman (Novel)

Well, after the previous book I reviewed, I was in the mood for something a bit more fast-paced. So, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to read a noir thriller novel from 2018 called “Sunburn” by Laura Lippman that I found in a charity shop in Petersfield last February (and, yes, I prepare these reviews quite far in advance of posting them). If I remember rightly, I ended up choosing this novel because of the cool cover art and the fact that there were author quotes from both Lee Child and Stephen King on the back cover. Naturally, I was curious.

So, let’s take a look at “Sunburn”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS. I’ll avoid major ones, since this book is best read with as few spoilers as possible.

This is the 2018 Faber & Faber (UK) paperback edition of “Sunburn” that I read.

The novel begins in America in 1995. In a bar in the small Delaware town of Belleville, a mysterious man spots a red-haired woman with sunburnt shoulders sitting alone. He goes over to talk to her and tells her that his car broke down near the town. She isn’t that interested in him. Still, the man decides to stay in town and book a room in the same motel as she is staying in.

The red-haired woman, Polly, has stopped off in the town after leaving her husband and daughter several hours earlier. The man, Adam, is a private detective who has been following her for several weeks. As the two both end up working at the bar and gradually get to know each other, it soon becomes obvious that they both have many more secrets….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s a really cool modern-style noir suspense thriller that reminded me a little bit of a mixture between Marc Behm’s “The Eye Of The Beholder“, the film “Blood Simple“, Alice Hoffman’s “Turtle Moon” and maybe even the second or third season of “Twin Peaks”. In other words, it’s a dark, claustrophobic and grippingly suspenseful novel 🙂

In terms of the novel’s noir elements, they are brilliant. Although this novel doesn’t feature any trilby hats or anything like that, it has a wonderfully noir atmosphere thanks to a whole host of things. Whether it is the understated fast-paced “matter of fact” hardboiled third-person narration, the fact that almost every character is morally ambiguous and/or has a shady, secret and/or tragic past, the complex web of criminal intrigue, the brilliant focus on mystery and suspense or even the claustrophobic small town setting, this novel is modern-style noir at it’s very best 🙂

Plus, this novel also updates the gloomy realism of the noir genre too. Although traditional noir fiction is often currently thought of as a wonderfully stylised fantasy of trilby hats, rainy streets and old-timey America, these novels were actually gritty pieces of social realism at the time they were written. And, “Sunburn” updates this to the 1990s – with quite a few bleak and/or grim scenes about realistic tragedy, crime, cruelty etc.. all delivered with the kind of detached tone you’d expect from the noir genre. So, although this novel is a very gripping one, don’t expect it to be a very cheerful one.

This novel also does some really interesting things with the staples of the noir genre too. For starters, although Polly would probably have been written as a “femme fatale” character in a traditional noir story, she’s much more of a complex, and even sympathetic, character here. Likewise, although Adam is that most classic of noir characters – a private detective – he’s a million miles away from the grizzled gumshoes of old. He cooks, he falls in love etc.. and, in a lot of ways, is much more like the traditional naive “love interest” character you’d expect in an old film noir. So, this novel is an intriguingly unpredictable twist on the noir genre.

And, like in many great noir stories, the characters (or, rather, their flaws) are the main driving force for the plot too. This is a novel about complex, imperfect people with ulterior motives that collide in a way that you can’t really look away from. There’s a palpable sense of impending doom, or damnation, hanging over this story – which really helps to add a lot of suspense. Yes, the drama and suspense in this story is fairly small-scale, but this actually works really well since it not only adds realism to the story, but it also helps to add to the tense, suspenseful feeling of claustrophobia too.

Likewise, this novel handles the balance between mystery and suspense really well. The first half or so of the novel focuses slightly more on mystery, with intriguingly dark details and plot twists about various characters being slowly revealed to the reader as the story progresses. Then, when many of the twists, mysteries and secrets have been revealed (with a few held back for the ending, of course), they help to create extra suspense during the later parts of the story.

In addition to the suspense and noir-style plot, another cool thing about this novel is the setting and atmosphere. Given that I absolutely love stories, films etc… set in 1990s America, I knew that I was in for a treat when I saw “1995” on the first page. Interestingly, this novel is a lot more like an actual 1990s novel than a modern historical novel, in that there are very few “nostalgic” 1990s references here (the only ones I spotted were TLC’s “Waterfalls”, a video rental shop, Beanie Babies and a mention of Bill Clinton) and the story is just about ordinary life in a small town.

This actually makes the story feel more 1990s, especially since several of the story’s twists and turns rely on it being set somewhere without internet access. Not only that, the story’s 1990s setting is also relevant to the plot for a reason that I won’t spoil.

I’ve already talked about the complex, realistically flawed characters and the fast-paced “hardboiled” narration, so this just leaves the novel’s length and pacing to talk about. And, in this regard, it absolutely excels too 🙂

Like an actual novel from the 1990s, this one is efficiently short at about 292 pages in length. This helps to keep the story focused. Likewise, although the novel takes the time to set the scene and focus on several characters’ backstories, this never really feels slow-paced thanks to both the fast-moving writing style and the fact that all of these details help to add extra mystery, atmosphere or suspense to the story in some way or another.

Even so, the novel’s pacing is more like a traditional moderate-fast paced thriller rather than an ultra-fast paced action thriller. Still, compared to -say- a Raymond Chandler novel, this novel is a fairly fast-paced one. And it is very compelling.

All in all, this novel is really great 🙂 It’s a modern-style noir suspense thriller that is set in the 1990s and is filled with intriguing characters who drive the plot in a really dramatic way. Yes, it certainly isn’t a “feel-good” novel but if you like the 1990s, the noir genre or suspense, then this novel is well worth reading 🙂

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