Review: “The Haunting Of Hill House” By Shirley Jackson (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a look at a horror novel that I’d been meaning to read for a while.

After hearing about a modern TV (well, streaming rather than broadcast television) adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel “The Haunting Of Hill House”, I mistakenly thought that it was connected to the excellent 1990s remake of “House On Haunted Hill“.

Even though I soon learnt that it had nothing to do with this film (and that this other 1990s movie that I vaguely remembered was based on it), I was still intrigued enough to put this novel on my “to read” list.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “The Haunting Of Hill House”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2018 Penguin (UK) paperback edition of “The Haunting Of Hill House” that I read.

The novel begins with a brief description of an old mansion called Hill House. Paranormal investigator Dr John Montague has heard stories about this house and wants to conduct research into it. So, he rents the house for three months before writing to several people who have had psychic experiences. Out of the many letters he sends, only two people reply – a lonely woman with an unhappy family life called Eleanor Vance and a bohemian artist called Theodora. Not only that, the owner of the house, Mrs. Sanderson, insists that her ne’er do well nephew Luke also accompanies the party on their investigation.

After “borrowing” her sister’s car after an argument, Eleanor takes the long drive to Hill House. But, when she arrives, the only people there are a spiteful caretaker and his creepily robotic wife. Not only that, the house itself looks wrong, mean and evil. Luckily for Eleanor, the other guests arrive a little while later and – although the house is a bit odd – they settle in and have a good laugh about the place. What could possibly go wrong?

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it deserves it’s reputation as a horror classic πŸ™‚ It is a really brilliant blend of genuinely creepy horror and genuinely funny comedy. It is the kind of book where, when reading some parts of it, I thought “Yes! This is my kind of novel πŸ™‚ ” and, in other parts, was surprised that a horror novel of this vintage could be so scary. In other words, it’s a surprisingly timeless horror story.

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, they’re a genuinely chilling mixture of ominous horror, gothic horror, bleak horror, paranormal horror, tragic horror, jump scares, implied horror and, most of all, psychological horror. Although this novel has all of the trappings of a “cosy” Victorian-style ghost story, it is much more akin to the claustrophobic psychological drama of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper“, the suspense of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” and maybe the ominous dread and character-based tension of a more modern novel like Adam Nevill’s “The Ritual“.

This horror is also helped by several of the novel’s bleak themes, which include evil, loss, loneliness and the weight of the past. This is also a novel about the gaps between dreams and reality, about despair so deep that even a haunted house filled with untrustworthy strangers seems positively heavenly in comparison to the world outside. Where the ghostly horrors of Hill House pale in comparision to the horrors of bleak, everyday reality.

Seriously, this novel has one of the best – and creepiest – opening sentences I’ve read in a while: ‘No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.‘ and it really helps to set the tone for the rest of the story. This is a novel where you are never entirely sure what is imagined and what is real, or whether one is better than the other.

Yet, despite all of this grimness, the novel is also a lot funnier than I’d expected πŸ™‚ In addition to lots of amusingly irreverent dialogue, some excellent dark humour, some brilliantly quirky characters and even an obscure joke about how sleep-inducingly dull Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel “Pamela” is , this novel also has the kind of knowing humour of more modern horror movies (with references to things like Dracula etc..).

Not only does this unexpected comedy fit in really well with the rest of the story but it also expertly walks a line between giving the story the wonderfully fun atmosphere of a 1980s/90s horror comedy movie and also gradually deepening the story’s horror when you start to realise that the characters are cracking so many jokes in order to keep their sanity intact. Serously, if you want a great example of how to blend horror and comedy, then read this novel.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is excellent. Yes, it is a bit on the formal side of things, sometimes reading like a Victorian novel and sometimes reading more like a story from the 1920s-30s, but this allows for a lot of really atmospheric descriptions, brilliant sentences and excellent characterisation too. Interestingly, although the novel is set in America, the writing style almost made me feel like this novel was set in Britain at times.

This novel also walks a very fine line between reliable and unreliable narration, with the third-person narrator sometimes focusing on Eleanor’s thoughts and sometimes narrating in a more traditional way. Not only does this lend the novel a sense of personality, but it also deepens the story’s unsettling horror too.

As for the characters, this novel is also excellent πŸ™‚ Good horror relies on good characterisation and nowhere is this more evident than in this novel. The main characters are a wonderfully quirky group of misfits and eccentrics who really feel like they are real people.

Not only are Eleanor’s thoughts and anxieties a major part of the novel, but the complicated and gradually fraying friendship between the characters is also a major part of what makes this novel so creepy. Not only that, several of the background characters (eg: Mrs. Dudley, Arthur and Mrs. Montague) manage to be both hilarious and creepy at the same time too.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. At an efficient 246 pages in length, it never feels like a single page is wasted. Likewise, although this novel is a bit on the slow-paced side of things, this actually works in the story’s favour, allowing it to gradually build atmosphere and to lull the reader into a false sense of security before things start to get creepier and creepier…

As for how this sixty year old novel has aged, it is timeless. Yes, the writing style is fairly formal (almost to the point of being Victorian at times), but this really fits in with the style and atmosphere of the story. It is a story where the characters still feel realistic, where the comedy is still amusing and – most importantly- where the horror is still scary too. Not only that, the irreverent humour and the “band of misfits” main characters also lend this vintage novel a surprisingly modern atmosphere at times.

All in all, this is an absolutely brilliant horror novel πŸ™‚ It’s timeless, atmospheric, quirky, funny and, above all, genuinely creepy. This is a novel that will make you laugh, fill you with bleak despair and make you at least slightly nervous. Seriously, don’t read it at night.

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

Review: “Origin” By Dan Brown (Novel)

Well, since I was still in the mood for reading thriller novels, I thought that I’d take a look at Dan Brown’s 2017 novel “Origin”. If I remember rightly, I ended up getting a second-hand copy of this novel after reading Brown’s “Inferno” a few months earlier and being surprised that there was another Dan Brown novel that I hadn’t heard of before.

Although “Origin” is the fifth novel in Brown’s “Robert Langdon” series, it can be read as a stand-alone novel – albeit one with a few brief references to previous novels for fans of the series.

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

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

The novel begins with famous technologist, scientist and inventor Edmond Kirsch travelling to a remote church on a mountain in Spain. He has arranged a meeting with a powerful interfaith group in order to give them a preview of a scientific announcement he will make soon that will disprove every religion on the planet by conclusively answering the questions of where we come from and where we are going. He feels that it is only fair to give them time to prepare for it.

A few days later, Harvard professor Robert Langdon is visiting the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao for his friend and ex-student Kirsch’s announcement. However, before the multi-media announcement, the A.I. tour guide (another of Edmond’s inventions) leads Langdon to a private room where Kirsch is waiting for him. Kirsch believes that his life is in danger and wants Langdon’s advice on the matter. Eventually, Kirsch decides to press on with the announcement.

However, when Kirsch is shot by an assassin halfway through the presentation, Langdon falls under suspicion. Teaming up with both the A.I. tour guide and the future queen of Spain, Ambra Vidal, Langdon realises that the only way to deal with all of this is to find the password to Kirsch’s private server and release the rest of his announcement to the world before anyone can stop him…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it is a bit slow to really get started, it’s a really compelling thriller. In classic Dan Brown fashion, there is a lot of focus on art, symbols, puzzles, architecture etc… and all of this stuff helps to lend the story a surprisingly relaxing and, dare I say it, slightly high-brow atmosphere. Yet, all of this stuff is paired with some really gripping thriller elements that help to keep the story compelling – even when it gets a little bit contrived and/or silly.

As for the novel’s thriller elements, they mostly consist of mystery and suspense. Although there are a few short chase and fight scenes, most of the novel revolves around mysterious conspiracy theories, suspenseful moments, political drama, uncertainty about who can be trusted, intriguing puzzles and dramatic plot twists. In other words, this is a bit more of a sophisticated and old-school thriller novel and even though it takes a little while to really become compelling, it is one of those novels that is more gripping than it initially seems.

Yet, this is also one of those novels where the mystery is actually better than the solution to it. Although Brown has obviously done quite a bit of research, at least half of the “shocking” announcement at the end of the novel (and possibly one of the later plot twists) won’t be too much of a surprise to any fans of the science fiction genre.

And, talking of the sci-fi genre, this novel is something of a sci-fi novel in disguise. In addition to the novel’s scientific themes, there are also some vaguely cyberpunk elements too – which were kind of a cool surprise in a Dan Brown novel πŸ™‚ Then again, Brown did write “Digital Fortress” in the 1990s, so he isn’t a total stranger to the sci-fi genre.

Even so, this novel is more about the tension between science and religion. Although the novel takes a fairly nuanced attitude towards this topic, with both sides having extremists and more moderate people, it is often handled in a slightly cheesy and stylised way. If anything, this novel suggests that both things can coexist, with each being able to adapt to changes in the other. This is also mirrored in the novel’s portrayal of monarchy too, with tension between the more traditionalist elements of the Spanish court and the desire for modernisation.

Although I haven’t studied Spanish politics or history in a huge level of detail, the royal drama is clearly stylised and fictional, yet it still remains compellingly dramatic. Likewise, there are also a few references to vestiges of the oppressive traditionalism of Franco’s dictatorship still lingering in Spain. Dan Brown has also done quite a bit of research about Spanish architecture and history too – with lots of fascinating buildings, descriptions of art etc.. that really help to add some atmosphere to the story.

In terms of the characters, they’re fairly decent. Although you shouldn’t expect ultra-deep characterisation, there is enough here to make you care about the characters. The motivations of all of the story’s villains are well-explained and help to add drama to the story. In addition to this, although Kirsch dies about a fifth of the way through the story, he gets a surprisingly large amount of characterisation afterwards. Not to mention that the novel’s A.I. character, Winston, is surprisingly well-written too. In general, the characters in this novel – whilst slightly stylised – are one of the things that helps keep this story compelling.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is often surprisingly formal and/or descriptive for a thriller novel. Yet, this is also paired with slightly faster-paced dialogue and narration too. The contrast between these things keeps the story compellingly readable, whilst also being surprisingly relaxing and atmospheric at the same time. This is really difficult to describe, but it lends the story a really interesting atmosphere that sets it apart from grittier and more realistic thrillers by other authors.

As for length and pacing, this novel probably isn’t perfect, but is still reasonably good. At 538 pages in length, this novel is a little bit on the hefty side of things. Likewise, although the story takes between a fifth and a quarter of the novel to really get started, it then becomes a lot more thrilling and compelling. Although you shouldn’t expect an ultra-fast paced thriller, there are enough well-orchestrated mysteries, small cliffhangers, plot twists etc.. to make this novel the kind of thing that you’ll want to read more of.

All in all, even though this probably isn’t the best Dan Brown novel I’ve read, it’s still a really good one. It manages to be both relaxing and thrilling at the same time. Even though it takes a while to really get started and some elements of it are a bit stylised and/or silly, I still had a lot of fun reading it.

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

Review: “Man On The Moon” (WAD For “Doom II”/ “Final Doom”/ GZDoom)

Well, since I’m still reading the next novel I plan to review (“Origin” by Dan Brown) and because it’s been almost a month since I reviewed anything “Doom II”-related, I thought that I’d take a look at a runner-up in the 2018 Cacowards (chosen by none other than Major Arlene) called “Man On The Moon” by Yugiboy85.

I played this WAD using the GZDoom 3.4.1 source port. According to the accompanying text file, it was tested with PRBoom+ and is also probably compatible with ZDoom too.

So, let’s take a look at “Man On The Moon”:

“Man On The Moon” is a large single-level WAD for “Doom II”/”Final Doom” that contains new music, new textures, new sprites, new sounds and a new monster too.

One of the first things that I will say about this WAD is that it reminded me a little of WADs by Skillsaw (like the excellent “Lunatic” or the even more excellent “Ancient Aliens) and not just because of the textures and sci-fi setting. Like a good Skillsaw level, this WAD is an interesting mixture of more traditional level design and more challenging “slaughtermap”-style design too.

Seriously, don’t let the relatively easy early parts of the level lull you into a false sense of security…

It’s one of these levels πŸ™‚

In other words, this WAD contains a really good mixture between more traditional level design and combat design, and a very slightly milder version of the kind of fast-paced, monster horde battles that you’d expect from something like “XXXI CyberSky” or “Infernal Fortress“.

This mixture between the two things not only helps to keep the challenging gameplay unpredictable, but is also helped by the fact that the “slaughtermap” segments are a really good mixture between large arena fights and claustrophobic crowded corridor battles.

I know it’s a bit of a clichΓ©, but you’ll quite literally be knee-deep in the dead in some parts of this level.

Like all of the best modern WADs, this is one where you’ll not only need to know the “rules” of “Doom II” but also how to use them to your advantage. Like other maps of this type, this is a level where you probably won’t have the health or ammo to fight literally all of the monsters – so, things like tactics, knowing when to fight and when to run/hide/dodge etc… are essential. This turns the gameplay into something like a fast-paced combat-based puzzle where, for example, you have to work out how to get past a horde of monsters when you’ve only got three health points left.

Yes, it requires perseverance and this level really isn’t for beginners (seriously, play “Final Doom” before even thinking about playing this level), but it makes many of the level’s challenging combat encounters really satisfying when you use your experience, tactics and knowledge to beat them. Not only that, the new monster sprites help to add some extra novelty to the level, there are a decent amount of Arch-viles and even new boss monsters near the end of the level too πŸ™‚

These two new bosses are quite literally called “Terminators” and they are as tough as the name suggests…

Not to mention that this level also contains a decent number of Arch-viles too πŸ™‚

In terms of the actual level design, it’s a mixture of good and bad. The giant, sprawling moon base level is split into several segments (each involving a switch and a keycard) that can be completed in any order and a final arena battle. Although most of the level is really well-designed and is the kind of non-linear thing that could easily have come from the 1990s, it is perhaps very slightly too large for it’s own good.

Not only did I almost miss a crucial weapon pick-up (which was hidden in one of many small corridors) but, after pressing the four switches, I spent at least an hour wandering around the level’s many halls and courtyards wondering “what the hell do I do next?” and thinking “I’m sure I saw an unlockable door somewhere ages ago“. Eventually, out of pure frustration, I ended up using the no clipping cheat to get to the final arena. Whilst it’s really cool that this level has an old-school non-linear layout, these types of old levels worked because they were small enough for the player not to get lost or stuck for too long.

Strange as it sounds, this level would have been even better if it was a bit smaller.

Interestingly, this WAD also takes a rather traditionalist attitude towards jumping too – with the ability to jump being disabled by default. Although, thanks to lots of stairs and lifts, you won’t really even notice this most of the time.

The level’s visual design is really brilliant too, with some wonderful skyboxes and some excellent use of both Skillsaw’s sci-fi textures and a few things from “Duke Nukem 3D” too πŸ™‚ Seriously, I love the 90s sci-fi look of this WAD πŸ™‚ Likewise, the new music and sound effects also help to add a bit of a sci-fi ambience to the level too.

All in all, this is an enjoyably challenging “Doom II” level that is also a cool homage to Skillsaw too πŸ™‚ Yes, it’s a little bit too large for it’s own good (and expect to get stuck at least once or twice), but it’s still a really fun level that experienced players will enjoy πŸ™‚

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

Review: “The Sinner” By Tess Gerritsen (Novel)

Well, I was still in the mood for a thriller novel. So, I thought that I’d take a look at Tess Gerritsen’s 2003 novel “The Sinner”, which I ended up finding a second-hand copy of online shortly after enjoying Gerritsen’s “The Apprentice” about a month or so earlier.

Although this novel is the third novel in Gerritsen’s “Rizzoli and Isles” series, it can probably be read as a stand-alone story. However, at least one of the story’s sub-plots follows on from “The Apprentice”, although there are recaps during these parts.

So, let’s take a look at “The Sinner”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS (although I’ll avoid revealing whodunnit).

This is the 2010 Bantam (UK) paperback edition of “The Sinner” that I read.

The novel begins in India, with an American man called Howard Redfield taking a taxi to a remote rural area. The driver refuses to take him any further, so Howard makes the rest of his journey on foot. When he arrives at his destination, he sees nothing but burnt buildings and the remains of funeral pyres. Taking out a camera, he begins to document everything before he notices a woman walking towards him. As she gets closer, Howard sees that her face is missing.

Meanwhile, in Boston, medical examiner Dr. Maura Isles is finishing a routine autopsy on a heart attack victim when she gets a call from Detective Rizzoli. Isles drives to a local convent called Graystones Abbey. In the chapel, one nun has been murdered and another one has been taken to hospital in a critical condition. There are no witnesses, the press is starting to become interested in the case and, worst of all, Isles’ ex-husband has recently arrived in town and wants to meet up with her.

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s a fairly compelling and atmospheric detective thriller with some drama, horror and medical thriller elements too.

In terms of the novel’s detective elements, the story is the kind of police procedural that you would expect. Interestingly, Dr. Isles is more of a main character in this novel than she was in “The Apprentice”. So, whilst there are still quite a few scenes scenes of Rizzoli questioning witnesses and investigating crimes, this novel spends quite a bit of time in the autopsy room. These autopsy scenes, along with a couple of more ominous moments, also help to add some elements of horror to the story whilst also introducing various medical mysteries and/or tantalising clues for Rizzoli to follow up on.

Interestingly, this is one of those detective stories where the mystery is actually more interesting than the solution. It is a case with lots of plot twists, a side-mystery or two, clues that can easily be missed and grim moments and it is really compelling. However, although the later parts of the story are certainly dramatic, some parts of the conclusion felt a little bit random and there wasn’t really enough foreshadowing about the identity of the killer. Yes, the resolution of some other elements of the main mystery still provide a satisfying dramatic payoff, but I’d liked to have seen more clues about the killer.

In terms of the novel’s thriller elements, they’re fairly decent. In addition to lots of small plot twists, tantalising clues and a fairly fast-paced writing style, this novel also includes a few moments of suspense and horror to keep the reader on their toes too. Likewise, in true thriller fashion, there’s also a fairly good mixture of small-scale and large-scale drama too. This novel is a fairly compelling one that is well worth binge-reading over a couple of evenings.

Plus, as mentioned earlier, this novel also contains some fairly effective horror elements too. In addition to several grisly autopsy/ crime scene scenes, there are also a few scenes set in creepy locations, some moments of suspense, some character-based/psychological horror, some disturbing plot elements and some scenes of medical horror too. Although this isn’t really a “horror novel” as such, it certainly takes influence from them during a few moments and, like a classic 1980s splatterpunk horror novel, this isn’t a novel for the easily shocked.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is really good. It is written in the kind of informal, fast-paced and matter of fact way that you’d expect from a thriller. However, the novel also takes the time to focus on things like descriptions and characterisation too, which really help to add a lot of extra atmosphere to the story too (eg: the story’s wintery setting etc..). Likewise, although this story includes it’s fair share of medical terminology and jargon, this is often written in a way where the meaning is either obvious from the context and/or explained well enough.

As for the characters, this novel is really good. Not only is it good to see more of a focus on Dr. Isles, but Rizzoli is still very much Rizzoli too. In addition to solving the mystery, both main characters each get a more drama-like sub-plot (revolving around their ex-partners), which allows for a lot of extra characterisation too. Likewise, although the bulk of the characterisation focuses on Rizzoli and Isles, there is still enough characterisation to make you care about many of the background characters too. However, although the novel does explain the killer’s motive and identity, I’d have liked to have seen a bit more characterisation for this character.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At 416 pages, it’s a little on the longer side but it never really felt padded. Likewise, the novel is reasonably fast-paced, with frequent clues and moments of drama keeping the plot compelling and moving at a fairly decent pace. Although you shouldn’t expect an ultra-fast paced novel, this novel certainly moves at a good enough speed for a detective novel πŸ™‚

All in all, although I slightly preferred Gerritsen’s “The Apprentice” to this novel, it’s still a really good detective thriller story πŸ™‚ If you want a police procedural story with a bit of extra drama and horror, and a wonderfully wintery setting, then this one is certainly well worht reading.

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

Review: “A Wanted Man” By Lee Child (Novel)

Well, I was in the mood for a thriller novel. So, I thought that I’d take a look at a thriller novel that I’ve been meaning to read for a while. I am, of course, talking about Lee Child’s 2012 novel “A Wanted Man”.

If I remember rightly, this book was given to me by a relative who found it in a charity shop in about 2013-14 and thought that I might enjoy it. Although I’d planned to read it at the time, given that Lee Child novels were one of the few things that I still read during my 2014-18 “non reading” phase, it ended up sitting on top of one of my book piles for several years until I eventually noticed that it was one of the few Lee Child novels that I hadn’t read.

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

This is the 2013 Bantam (UK) paperback edition of “A Wanted Man” that I read.

The novel begins in rural Nebraska with a description of someone witnessing a couple of people entering a disused bunker and fleeing shortly afterwards after blood begins to pool around the door. The witness calls the local sheriff.

In another part of the state, ex-military police drifter Jack Reacher is trying to hitchhike. With his towering build and recently-broken nose, he doesn’t expect to have much luck. But, after an hour and a half, a car suddenly stops for him. The three passengers are wearing identical shirts and tell him that they are travelling to Chicago on business. There is a police roadblock up ahead.

Meanwhile, the local sheriff is surprised to see a FBI agent called Julia Sorensen turn up at the crime scene in the bunker. In addition to helping co-ordinate the search for the killers, it soon becomes obvious that the murdered man in the bunker was someone that the US security services have an interest in.

Back in the car, Reacher’s instincts from his days as a military policeman start to tell him that something doesn’t quite add up about the people he is hitching a ride with…..

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is probably the best modern Lee Child novel that I’ve read. It has all of the rural desolation and careful suspense of something modern like Child’s “The Midnight Line” or “Make Me“, but with some scenes and elements that are more like classic 1990s-2000s Lee Child. It is the kind of gripping novel where, whenever I sat down to read it, I ended up reading about twice as many pages as I’d planned πŸ™‚

I should probably start by talking about the novel’s thriller elements, which are excellent. This novel has a really brilliant progression from small-scale suspense, mystery, plot twists and action to much larger and dramatic examples of all four things. This is the kind of novel that initially seems a little bit understated for a thriller, but intrigues you enough to make you keep reading before rewarding you with a series of brilliant moments, set-pieces and twists.

All of these elements are handled really well, with the more dramatic car chases and gunfights later in the novel providing a brilliant payoff for the tense scenes of mystery and suspense earlier in the story.

Like a good detective story, this novel also carefully drip-feeds the reader with clues and solutions to parts of the story’s central mystery whilst still leaving enough mysterious to make them want to read more. Add to this a few surprising plot twists, a couple of fairly creative locations and more than a few hints of spy drama and this is a textbook example of how to write a truly gripping thriller.

Interestingly, despite the use of modern technology and both the desolate rural American setting and relative pacifism of some parts of the novel, there are some old-school elements here too.

In addition to a final segment that wouldn’t seem entirely out of place in either a mid-2000s episode of “24” or a 1980s/90s action movie, some parts of this novel feel like they could have come from a hardboiled US thriller from the 1940s-50s too. Whether it is the constant suspense of the earlier scenes set in the car or the dystopian creativity of the motel-based scenes, this novel feels like a really cool updated version of an older thriller at times.

In terms of the writing, this novel is really good. Although Lee Child’s third-person narration is the kind of expertly-honed “matter of fact” narration you’d expect from one of his thriller novels, this novel was also a lot more descriptive than I’d expected too. Since these descriptions, of locations, thoughts etc… are written in a fast-paced way and/or are carefully placed in locations where they will have the maximum effect, they really help to add a lot of atmosphere to the story without slowing down the pace too much.

As for the characters, they’re fairly well-written. Jack Reacher is the ex-military hero that we all know and love although, in this novel, he has a fascination with maths and number puzzles. Even so, he’s kind of an interesting middle ground between the action hero he was in Child’s older novels and the more considered pacifist he becomes in “The Midnight Line”.

Likewise, the rest of the characters are all well-written enough for the reader to know who they are and to care about what happens to them, whilst also often having enough backstory and hidden depths to be interesting too.

As for length and pacing, this novel is fairly good too, At 524 pages in length, it is a little on the longer side of things but the pacing compensates for this. As mentioned earlier, this novel has a really good progression from small-scale to large-scale drama and this is backed up by a fast-paced writing style, some really compelling mysteries and lots of carefully-placed clues and plot twists. This novel is, in a word, gripping. It is the kind of novel where you’ll end up reading at least twice as much as you plan to every time you decide to take a look at it.

All in all, this is an incredibly gripping novel that is a textbook example of thriller fiction at it’s best. It is a brilliant blend of older and more modern thriller fiction that contains a perfectly-engineered mixture of everything that makes thriller fiction such compelling fun to read πŸ™‚

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

Review: “Skylar And Plux: Adventure On Clover Island” (Computer Game)

Well, since I’m still reading the next novel I plan to review (“A Wanted Man” By Lee Child) and am also still playing the other modern games I planned to review, I thought that I’d take a look at an indie 3D Platform game from 2017 called “Skylar And Plux: Adventure On Clover Island” that I completed shortly before writing this review.

This was a game that I ended up buying on a whim after I noticed that it was on sale on GOG last Christmas (and, yes, I write these reviews very far in advance). Since I have a lot of nostalgic memories of playing old 3D platform games (eg: “Jak and Daxter”, “Ratchet And Clank” etc..) on the Playstation 2 when I was a teenager, getting this game seemed like a no-brainer.

Although my refurbished modern computer – with it’s Intel HD 2500 integrated graphics- seemed to be slightly below the system requirements, I decided to take a chance. And, with low graphics settings, the game mostly ran at a playable speed (apart from a few infrequent moments of slowdown and some pop-up scenery). Although I should point out that these low graphics settings will be reflected in the screenshots in this review.

So, let’s take a look at “Skylar And Plux: Adventure On Clover Island”:

Woo hoo! It’s one of these games πŸ™‚

The game begins on a space station. You play as Skylar, a cyborg cat who has had her memory wiped by an evil robot villain called CRT who wants to turn her into one of his minions. However, due to a series of mishaps in the station’s training course, Skylar ends up in an escape pod.

When she crash lands on the planet below, a talking owl called Plux rushes towards the pod, hoping that it is his father returning from outer space. Although he is disappointed, he decides to team up with Skylar. It also soon becomes obvious that CRT has started taking over the planet, with three parts of an ancient artefact missing, evil robots patrolling the planet and many of the planet’s adorable creatures, called L’oa, trapped in cages….

One of the first things that I will say about this game is that, even though it has some flaws, it is a really fun and nostalgic game in a genre that doesn’t appear on the PC that often. If you don’t go into it with “AAA” expectations, then you’ll find it a surprisingly compelling experience. Seriously, it’s so cool to see a modern PC game that is influenced by things like “Ratchet And Clank”, “Jak And Daxter” etc…

Seriously, why do hardly any of these games appear on the PC?

In terms of the gameplay, it consists of platforming, puzzles, exploration and combat. The emphasis here is on platforming and exploration, which are also the best elements of the game. The platforming segments are challenging enough to be fun, but reasonably forgiving too (thanks to things like double-jumps, a jetpack power-up, a time-slowing power-up etc..). Seriously, if you loved old-school PS2 3D platformers, then you’ll be in your element here πŸ™‚

The design/layout of the platforms is really good. However….

However, one problem with the platforming is that, because this game was primarily designed to be played with a controller (which I don’t have), there is not only no option to customise the keyboard controls (which can be a bit counter-intuitive, like pressing “F” to interact with things etc..) but, more critically, I couldn’t find a mouse sensitivity option either.

Given that the default mouse sensitivity is absolutely sky-high, you’ll sometimes find yourself fighting with the camera during some fast-paced platforming segments. That is when the camera doesn’t freeze upon respawning (and only becomes moveable again after pressing “Esc” twice). Still, once you get used to these small annoyances, the platforming is really enjoyable.

In terms of exploration, this game is really cool. Although the levels are mostly typical 3D platform levels that have one “correct” path, a few parts are slightly more non-linear and there’s also a really interesting hub level too.

Not only are there a few interesting side-areas to explore in the hub area, but you can also meet rescued creatures too πŸ™‚

The player is also given an incentive to explore because every level -except for the tutorial and final boss battle- contains several imprisoned L’oa that can be rescued. Not only do they make the most adorable crying and celebration sounds you’ll ever hear but, for every five that you rescue, you can return to the hub level and increase your maximum lives too.

The sound effects here are adorable. Only someone with a heart of stone wouldn’t rescue this creature.

The game’s lives system is fairly interesting. Although you’ll lose one whenever you take damage or fall off of a platform, they can be easily recovered by picking up enough of the plentiful in-game gems (which you’ll also need to rescue the L’oa). Likewise, although the game uses the dreaded checkpoint saving, this is reasonably forgiving and you’ll also have access to a fast-travel map at many checkpoints too (even if you have to move the cursor on it using the WSAD keys instead of the mouse).

Another cool thing about the game’s exploration elements is the art design. Even at low graphics settings, this game still looks really wonderful. It has the kind of whimsical, cartoonish and vaguely cel-shaded art style that made me really nostalgic for the days when games could be a bit more cheerful and stylised πŸ™‚ Seriously, this game looks like a modern version of some of the best PS2 platformers I’ve seen πŸ™‚

And, even on the lowest graphics settings, it still looks more spectacular than the PS2 too πŸ™‚

The game’s combat is less frequent than I’d expected, and this is a good thing because it’s one of the weakest elements of the game. In addition to Skylar having no ranged attacks (and just three melee attacks), you’ll be fighting groups of tiny robots and a few annoying projectile-firing robots too. Although these combat segments become significantly easier, and more satisfying, once you’ve got the power-ups that can slow time and/or magnetise Skylar, expect a bit of frustration earlier in the game.

Plus, the game also includes an old-school puzzle-based boss fight too. Like in many classic games, there is a very specific way to defeat the boss and it is up to you to work it out. Likewise, although the final boss battle is the most challenging part of the game, it is still forgiving enough that you’ll probably be able to beat it after six or seven goes once you’ve worked out what you’re supposed to do.

Plus, given the lack of boss battles in the rest of the game, this part really caught me by surprise when I thought I’d finished the game.

In terms of the puzzles, this game is mostly ok. Although I’m not really a fan of puzzles in games, and aren’t that good at them, it’s an integral part of this genre. Many of the puzzles here are relatively easy and can be solved with a little bit of thought.

However, there were two frustrating slider-based puzzles (in the vaguely Zelda-inspired temple level, which also includes a cool “turning back time” mechanic) that led to me consulting a walkthrough on Youtube. Even so, puzzles are more of an occasional part of this game and most of them are reasonably straightforward.

Except for this one and the one directly after it….

Although the gameplay has some flaws, this is still a really fun game once you get used to them. Not only that, like the 3D platformers of old, this game also has personality too. Although a lot of this is done through the art style and gameplay, a fair amount is also done through dialogue.

The voice-acting and script in this game is quite literally “so bad that it’s good”. This is impossible to describe fully in a text review, but the game’s voice cast ham it up and/or phone it in majestically. Likewise, the script also contains so much cheesiness, corniness, cliche and random comedy (with the best examples being an early 2000s-style Limp Bizkit reference, almost all of CRT’s dialogue and the fact that Plux’s squeaky voice briefly drops several octaves when you find an artefact piece), that it actually becomes fun after a while.

Add to this the hilarious PG-rated “edginess” (eg: “Let’s get the funk out of here!” etc…) and the hilariously predictable, earnest and/or melodramatic “serious” parts of the story and this game’s narrative elements are some of the funniest things I’ve seen in a while.

As for the game’s sound design, there is some wonderful acoustic background music (with the highlights being the Ancient Egypt-style music and the hub level music) and the sound effects are also fairly decent too, with the highlight being the rescued/trapped L’oa creatures that I mentioned earlier. Seriously, the sound design in this game will make you nostalgic for the glory days of the Playstation 2.

I should probably also mention the game’s length too. Although I’ve seen this game described as “short”, this is mostly in comparison to the gigantic “AAA” 3D platformers of old. This game took me about 7-9 hours to complete (if you’re an expert at 3D platformers and/or are using a controller, then YMMV) and felt like a fairly satisfying short-medium length experience that never really seemed padded or rushed. It’s sort of a quality over quantity thing. Basically, if you remember that it’s a lower-budget “AA” game, if you want a game you can actually complete in a couple of days and/or if you wait until it is on sale, then the game’s relatively short length won’t be an issue.

All in all, whilst this game isn’t perfect, I had a lot of fun with it. If you can get over the clunky mouse/keyboard controls, the less than perfect combat, the occasional frustrating puzzle and the “so bad that it’s good” voice-acting/script, then there’s a really enjoyable game to be found here. It’s a really awesome, if somewhat rough around the edges, low-budget love letter to the early 2000s heyday of the 3D platfomer genre and this is really cool to see πŸ™‚

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least three and three-quarters.

Review: “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Intellivore” By Diane Duane (Novel)

Well, it’s been a while since I last read a “Star Trek: The Next Generation” novel. So, I thought that I’d take a look at Diane Duane’s 1997 novel “Intellivore” since my second-hand copy of it has been lying on top of my “to read” pile for at least a month or two. If I remember rightly, I ended up buying a copy of this book after seeing a picture of it on a fan site for the old “Star Trek: TNG” novels.

Although “Intellivore” tells a self-contained story, it is probably worth watching at least few episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and/or seeing the “Star Trek: First Contact” movie before reading this book, since it kind of assumes that you already know the show’s main characters, the technology, the premise of the series etc…

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

This is the 1997 Pocket Books (US) paperback edition of “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Intellivore” that I read.

The novel begins with Captain Picard taking a relaxing horse ride through the Alps. Of course, this is just a holographic simulation and it isn’t long before he is interrupted by a message telling him that his spaceship, the USS Enterprise, has arrived at the deep-space rendezvous point.

Following a spate of attacks on vessels and researchers in this remote region, Starfleet has ordered the Enterprise to meet up with the science vessel Marignano and another ship called the Oraidhe in order to scare away the space pirates suspected to be operating in the area. Although the mission seems fairly ordinary at first, things get a bit stranger when the ships run across a damaged pirate vessel with only one survivor on board.

Although Doctor Crusher can find nothing physically wrong with the survivor, he appears to be severely brain-damaged to the point that he is, to all intents and purposes, brain-dead. Needless to say, it seems like space pirates will be the least of the crew’s worries…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, although it gets off to a bit of a slow start, it’s a surprisingly compelling and suspenseful story. Unlike some of these novels, which are like extended feature-length episodes of the TV show, this one’s story is more like a traditional TV show episode- albeit with a lot more depth and detail. Although this results in a slower story that will probably only appeal to fans of the show, it contains a really good blend of sci-fi, drama and horror πŸ™‚

In terms of the novel’s sci-fi elements, this novel is fairly heavy on them at times. If you like “treknobabble”, formal discussions, alien anthropology and scientific explanations, then you’ll be in your element here. This novel falls fairly heavily on the “scientific” side of things, although this is kept compelling by the mystery that the characters are trying to solve and the fact that all of this scientific stuff is used brilliantly in the novel’s epic final segment. This is a story that follows a consistent set of “rules” and a story where science is used to both unravel mysteries and solve problems in creative ways.

Not only that, the novel also contains the kind of cool sci-fi stuff that would have probably been prohibitively expensive for the TV show’s special effects team. Although I don’t want to spoil too much, the final segment of this novel is indeed epic and is well worth reading through all of the slower and more science-focused earlier segments of the story for.

Plus, to my surprise, this novel also contained a few horror elements too. These are subtle, ominous, psychological and/or tragic moments that really help to add a sense of suspense and unease to the story. And, although there are some lighter moments and beautiful descriptive moments, this novel’s tone is more on the grim and serious side of things. Still, this fits in with the story really well and helps to give it the kind of atmosphere that you’d expect from a more “dramatic” episode of the show.

Thematically, this novel is fairly interesting – with most of the story’s themes focusing on the topic of life, death, medical ethics and what it is to be human. Although the novel touches on the topic of euthanasia a few times, this is more of a background element and most of the story’s moral discussions are about whether it is right to kill the mysterious force that is threatening everything in this region of space. This also links into discussions about the food chain and the survival of the fittest (with scenes describing “benevolent” civilisations that have damaged or destroyed themselves and a ruthless, amoral civilisation that has prospered).

In terms of the characters, this novel is fairly interesting. In addition to introducing a couple of new captains for Picard to team up with, this story also occasionally focuses on both Data and Dr. Crusher too. The scenes involving Crusher are probably the most interesting, given that she is shown to act at least mildly out of character for a rather dramatic reason (eg: her horror at the idea of brain injuries and her hatred for anything that can cause them). Still, although this story is fairly Picard-focused, Data gets some of the story’s best moments – with the fact that this is a novel rather than a TV show episode meaning that we also get a much deeper look at how Data experiences things too πŸ™‚

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is reasonably good. Although it is a little bit on the formal and descriptive side of things, it is still “matter of fact” enough to keep the story moving. Likewise, all of the descriptions add extra atmosphere to the story and the formal dialogue, narrative moments etc… are also in keeping with the tone of the TV show too. Still, this is very much a novel for fans of the show who, for example, don’t mind the occasional scientific explanation and/or debate.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At 239 pages in length, it doesn’t feel too long. Likewise, although there are quite a few slower-paced parts of the story, they never get too slow and are usually there for a good reason (eg: atmosphere, characterisation etc…) and are supported by some well-handled mystery and suspense. Not to mention that, although the later segments of the story aren’t ultra-fast paced, they’re certainly a little bit faster and more gripping too πŸ™‚

As for how this twenty-two year old novel has aged, it has aged reasonably well. Most of the novel’s thematic stuff is fairly timeless, although the flashback scene showing Dr.Crusher’s reaction to visiting a school for brain-damaged children during her medical training would probably be handled in a different way if it was written today. Still, thanks to the futuristic setting, the story as a whole still feels fairly fresh when read today (and even the novel’s reference to a “terabaud” data stream still sounds vaguely futuristic too).

All in all, this is a fairly good “Star Trek: TNG” novel. Yes, it’s a little bit more slow-paced than I’d expected and you’ll probably only really enjoy this one if you’re a fan of the show, but it is atmospheric, suspenseful, dramatic and also has a brilliantly gripping conclusion too πŸ™‚

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