Review: “Box Nine” By Jack O’ Connell (Novel)

Well, after reading Jack O’Connell’s excellent “Word Made Flesh” about three weeks ago, I was eager to read more of his novels. And, I thought that I’d start with a second-hand copy of O’Connell’s 1992 novel “Box Nine”. And what a novel it is πŸ™‚

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

This is the 2015 No Exit Press (UK) paperback edition of “Box Nine” that I read.

The story takes place in the fictional New England city of Quinsigamond. A new drug, lingo, has hit the streets. It lights up the language centres of the brain like a Christmas tree before eventually sending the user into a violent homicidal rage.

Lenore is a badass, heavy metal-obsessed speed freak whose main spiritual belief is in the power of her .357 magnum. She’s also a narcotics cop who, much to her disdain, has been paired with a mild-mannered scientist for the investigation into lingo…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is wow! It is a masterpiece. This is an information-dense, intelligent, imaginative noir detective novel that is so well-written that you’ll be reading it as quickly as an action-thriller novel. It is a book that has the human depth of Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality“, as much atmosphere as a cyberpunk novel, the uncensored weirdness of old beat literature (or maybe something a little bit like Warren Ellis’ “Crooked Little Vein”) and more cool-ness than you can shake a stick at. Seriously, this novel is awesome πŸ™‚

This is a book that really has to be experienced first-hand to truly be appreciated. A mere review really doesn’t do it justice. And, like with “Word Made Flesh”, it probably isn’t for everyone either. But, I’ll try to describe it to the best of my abilities.

I should probably start by talking about the detective/thriller elements of this story. Like any good noir novel (and, yes, “The Maltese Falcon” is referenced in this book), this novel focuses on things like moral ambiguity, atmosphere, complex plotting and an intricate web of criminal intrigue. Although the investigation sometimes seems more like a background detail (when compared to all of the compelling characterisation, drama etc..) it is certainly well-written and well-plotted. Like a thriller novel, there are also quite a few story threads that are expertly brought together by the end of the story.

One interesting element of the detective parts of the story is how the story approaches the topic of policing and drugs. Not only is the novel’s main detective (Lenore) a morally-ambiguous gun nut who takes a lot of amphetamines, but the story also includes a brilliant satire of the war on drugs too. Whilst the story doesn’t shy away from the damage drugs can cause, the novel’s police and drug dealers are shown to exist in a symbiotic relationship of sorts.

But, although this is a detective story, the main thing that keeps this novel page-turningly compelling is the writing and the characterisation. Like a good cyberpunk or noir novel, this story is written in both a grippingly fast-paced way and an information-dense way. This links in absolutely perfectly with the novel’s themes of language, paranoia and stimulants. This story dazzles you with atmospheric descriptions, deep insights and complex drama at a hundred miles an hour and it is a joy to behold πŸ™‚

The novel’s third-person narration is written in an intelligently informal way and this is one of those stories that has a wonderfully distinctive narrative voice that you’ll want to read more of. The narration flickers between “matter of fact”/thriller-style descriptions and more literary narration so quickly that you’ll read it as fast as the former and get the intellectual satisfaction of the latter. Seriously, this is the kind of novel that tells a high-brow story with the gripping intensity of a more low-brow story πŸ™‚

The novel also includes some interesting experimental touches too. These take the form of conversation transcripts, talk radio excerpts and dictaphone messages from one of the other characters (which are related in breathless, paragraph-less “stream of consciousness” rambles). These segments really help to add some intensity and background depth to the story, although the dictaphone segments can – ironically- slow the story down a little.

The other thing that keeps this novel so brilliantly compelling are the characters πŸ™‚ This novel devotes a lot of time to characterisation and, yet, all of this characterisation was so fascinating that it never really seemed like a distraction from the gripping, atmospheric story.

Lenore is an absolutely fascinating protagonist (plus, she listens to Iron Maiden too πŸ™‚ ) who could have easily become a two-dimensional “Tank Girl“- like cartoon character in the hands of a lesser writer. But, here, she’s presented as a complex, flawed and intriguing character who is more interesting and original than the characters in many other novels.

The other characters are also really fascinating too. Whether it is Lenore’s shy, methodical and introverted twin brother Ike, some of the other detectives, some of the local gangsters, the owners of Lenore’s favourite restaurant, the boss of the local post office or the scientist that Lenore has to team up with, I cannot praise the characters enough πŸ™‚ Not only are they interesting and well-written, but a lot of the novel’s characterisation also comes from character interactions and the contrast between different characters too.

Thematically, this novel is really interesting too. In addition to the story’s main theme of language and communication, the novel also tackles topics like loneliness, memory, drugs, books, politics, violence etc.. too. Seriously, this is one of those books that probably needs to be read multiple times in order to be fully appreciated.

In terms of length, this novel is really good too. Although this novel is 352 pages long, it manages to cram 450+ pages of storytelling into this space. In other words, this novel never really feels like it is too long and the story doesn’t suffer from the bloatedness that more modern novels can sometimes suffer from.

As for how this twenty-seven year old novel has aged, it has aged really well. Yes, it is clearly the product of a slightly more “edgy” decade (and a few descriptions/words in it would probably be frowned upon if written today) and there are a couple of brilliantly ’90s moments – like a hilarious scene where some gnarly 1990s surfer dudes perform Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” but, for the most part, this novel is pretty much timeless. In addition to still being very gripping and atmospheric, a lot of the novel’s satire has also aged astonishingly well too.

For example, the novel’s satirical depiction of paranoid, ranting talk radio hosts could easily be a satire of the more unsavoury parts of the modern internet. Likewise, the novel’s hilarious satire of the trendy, hipsterish part of Quinsigamond wouldn’t seem too out of place in the 2010s. The novel’s satire of things like police violence, corruption etc.. are also still reasonably relevant in the present day too.

All in all, this novel is a masterpiece πŸ™‚ Yes, it probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I absolutely loved it. It’s an intelligent, atmospheric, creative and complex novel that is as grippingly fast-paced as an action-thriller novel. But, as I mentioned earlier, this is one of those novels that has to be experienced in order to be fully appreciated. A mere review really doesn’t do it justice.

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

Review: “Turtle Moon” By Alice Hoffman (Novel)

Ever since I learnt that the film “Practical Magic” was based on a book by Alice Hoffman, I’d meant to read one of her books. And, although I looked at a few of them online after I discovered this fact, I never got round to buying one.

But, a week or so before writing this review, I was shopping for books online and I suddenly remembered “Practical Magic” but, for cost reasons, ended up getting a second-hand copy of Hoffman’s 1992 novel “Turtle Moon” instead.

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

This is the 2002 Vintage (UK) paperback edition of “Turtle Moon” that I read.

“Turtle Moon” takes place in the Florida town of Verity. A town where there is a heatwave every May and strange things happen. This town is also a place where divorced women from across America sometimes find themselves living after they’ve left. One of those women is a former New Yorker called Lucy Rosen, whose twelve-year old son Keith seems to be both the local school bully and a criminal-in-training.

Another of those women is Karen, who used to be called Bethany until she realised that her husband was going to get custody of her daughter. So, she fled New York with the baby, a suitcase full of cash and a fake ID that she got made along the way. She is Lucy’s neighbour, although they only talk to each other occasionally.

Then, one night, Karen is murdered. Both Keith and Karen’s baby daughter are missing. It quickly becomes apparent that Keith has run away with the baby.

The local police, especially their dog handler Julian (a solitary man, tormented by guilt over a car crash that claimed his cousin’s life when he was younger), look into the case. But, in addition to looking for Keith, Lucy also decides to investigate Karen’s past in order to work out who killed her and prevent Keith from falling under suspicion.

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a masterpiece. Even though it contains many depressing moments – the writing, characters, atmosphere, plot complexity and level of depth in this novel are utterly spectacular. This is a novel that I couldn’t put down during some parts because of the sheer quality of the writing and this is a novel that made me cry (with both joy and poignant sorrow) several times towards the end.

The writing in this story is absolutely beautiful. It is a joy to read πŸ™‚ I haven’t seen writing this good since I read Poppy Z. Brite’s “Lost Souls” about eleven years ago. And, this is about the highest compliment I can pay a writer.

Hoffman writes in a wonderfully flowing, atmospheric, warm and vivid style that is both formal and informal at the same time. The novel’s third-person narration is filled with fascinating details and beautifully artistic metaphors. It is a style of narration that could only have come from 1990s America and it is such a joy to see a writer using this type of narration again so long after I read Brite’s “Lost Souls” all those years ago πŸ™‚

One interesting thing about this novel is that it is actually a noir detective story in disguise. Everything from the focus on the grimly mundane, to the Florida/New York settings, to Lucy and Julian’s investigations, to the premise of the story to some of the later scenes could have easily come from the pages of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammmett. Yes, this story is a bit different to the average noir story, but even so, the influence from the noir genre is surprisingly clear in some scenes.

Another interesting thing about this novel is how it relates to both “The Simpsons” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”. Neither of these things are directly referenced but, like both of these things, it features a delinquent boy (Keith Rosen) as one of the main characters. Keith seems to have the spiky hair of Bart Simpson and the troubled background of John Connor.

In the early part of the story, he is the kind of criminal (the narration often refers to him as “the meanest boy in Verity” – initially seriously, then ironically) that could have come from any 1990s tabloid page. Yet, as the story progresses, we get to see that he is actually a nicer and more human person than even he thinks that he is. He also seems to go on some kind of mythical odyssey where, for example, he loses his voice for quite a while. There are also lots of surprisingly heartwarming scenes where he looks after both the baby and a ferocious rescue dog who seems to take a liking to him.

This brings me on to the novel’s characters, and they are all extremely well-written. They all have backstories, flaws, motivations and personalities that really help to bring the novel to life. Seriously, this is one of those novels that has a real sense of humanity to it when it comes to how the characters are described.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. Whilst the story is neither fast-paced nor slow-paced, the plot and the style of the writing means that it keeps moving constantly. Likewise, the novel is about 275 pages long (in the edition I read) and it is always great to see shorter novels πŸ™‚ The novel feels like no space is wasted and it still feels like a fairly substatial story. Seriously, I miss the days when 200-300 pages was standard for novels.

This novel also contains some rather interesting magic realist elements that work surprisingly well. The most notable of these is probably the ghost of Julian’s cousin, who haunts a tree near a doughnut shop. These elements of the story are kept subtle enough not to break the reader’s suspension of disbelief, and they are also a really good fit with Hoffman’s vivid, descriptive writing style too. In other words, they add to the quirky, dream-like atmosphere of the story without ever really standing out as fantastical.

This novel’s emotional tone is incredibly interesting. Although the first third or so of the novel is filled with nothing but miserable and depressing events/backstory, the beauty and style of the writing helps to keep these parts gripping nonetheless (in addition to preventing them becoming too depressing to read).

Then, as the story progresses, the emotional tone occasionally lightens very slightly – with the novel’s later moments of joy and love being tear-jerkingly poignant in contrast to all of the gloom and bleak misery that has preceded them. Seriously, the last hundred pages or so of this novel made me cry (mostly with joy, but occasionally with poignant sorrow) more times than I could have expected.

In terms of how this twenty seven year old novel has aged, it has aged astonishingly well. Yes, some parts of this story come across as very distinctively ’90s such as the focus on divorces and juvenile delinquency or the infrequent ’90s references (eg: Keith looks a little bit like Bart Simpson, there’s a mention of Guns N’ Roses etc..). But, there’s nothing shockingly dated here and I really loved the “early 1990s America” atmosphere of the book too πŸ™‚

Plus, this story is just as readable and emotionally powerful today as it probably was in 1992. This story is a 1990s story in the best possible way – it’s the kind of lush, vivid, beautiful thing that could only have existed in early 1990s America (kind of like “Lost Souls”). It has a humanity to it that could have only come from the 1990s. When you read this book, you get the sense that it is both old and yet timelessly new at the same time.

All in all, even though this book contains many depressing moments, it is still a masterpiece. Even if it’s the kind of story you normally wouldn’t read, it is well worth reading just to experience the quality and style of the writing. Not to mention that, if you’re a fan of 1990s America, then you’ll love this book too.

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

Review: “Snow Crash” By Neal Stephenson (Novel)

After I read Neal Stephenson’s astonishingly good “The Diamond Age“, one of the first things that I did was to enthusiastically order a second-hand copy of Stephenson’s most famous cyberpunk novel – “Snow Crash” (which was written before, and seems to be set before, “The Diamond Age”). I then… somehow didn’t get round to reading it until a little over a month later. Hence this review.

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

This is the 2011 Penguin (UK) paperback reprint of “Snow Crash” (1992) that I read.

Snow Crash begins in a futuristic version of America that has no real central government. The country consists of lots of small “burbclaves” and “franchulates”, which are territories and outposts of various groups and organisations. And, part-time hacker, katana enthusiast and Mafia pizza delivery guy Hiro Protagonist is barrelling through them at a ridiculous speed in his car because if he doesn’t deliver a pizza within the next few minutes, the Mafia will not be pleased.

However, he is being chased. Not by the police (they don’t exist), but by a “kourier”. A teenaged skateboard-riding courier called Y.T., who works for the RadiKS corporation and gets around by car-surfing using a magnetic harpoon. And she’s just harpooned Hiro’s car. Hiro tries to shake her but then they both run into trouble and Hiro ends up crashing his car. With only a couple of minutes left on the pizza box’s electronic timer, Y.T. agrees to take the pizza. She somehow manages to deliver it on time, which impresses the Mafia.

A few days later, with no car left and his Mafia job just a memory, Hiro focuses on one of his other sidelines, gathering random information for a central database. To do this, he enters the Metaverse – a virtual reality world – but ends up returning to the headquarters of his old hacker buddies. When he enters the virtual building, a random stranger offers him a program called “Snow Crash”. He refuses, thinking that it’s probably just a virus.

After seeing his ex-girlfriend Juanita talk to his old friend Da5id, she warns him about Snow Crash. But, when Hiro talks to Da5id, the conversation turns to Snow Crash since Da5id has a copy of it. Since Da5id’s got more anti-virus software than a pharmacy, he decides to open the mystery program out of professional curiosity. Needless to say, things don’t go well…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is… wow! This is a cyberpunk novel! Seriously, it’s up there with William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” in the pantheon of great cyberpunk novels. Imagine something like the anime version of “Ghost In The Shell” mixed with “The Matrix”, mixed with Warren Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan” graphic novels… then remember that “Snow Crash” was not only written before these three things (and probably inspired them), but that it’s about three times deeper and more complex too.

This novel is, like Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age”, a novel that respects the reader’s intelligence. However, it is a bit more of an “accessible” novel than “The Diamond Age” is. Even so, you should probably take a few notes and set aside a fair amount of time to read it. But, trust me, it is well worth your while. To call this novel gripping would be an understatement – it is a fast-paced, slick thriller that somehow also manages to be extremely deep and complex at the same time.

There’s just so much to talk about in this novel. In essence, this is a novel about viruses – or, rather, how information can spread like a virus. It is also a novel about culture too – contrasting the fragmented cultures of the story’s micro-nations with Borg-like monocultures and/or religions. It is a novel about the “gig economy” (written before this phrase was even coined). It is a novel about the value of community and friendship. It is a novel about identity and identity politics. It is a piece of social satire. It is so, so many things. Seriously, if you want an intelligent novel, read this one (or “The Diamond Age”).

But this isn’t to say that this novel is boring. It really isn’t. Seriously, this is one of the few things that I’ve ever seen that can tell a thrillingly action-packed story that would put even the most spectacular modern CGI Hollywood movies to shame (and, remember, it was published in 1992!) whilst also being intelligent enough to have a deeper resonance and impact on your thoughts and emotions than you would expect.

The characters in “Snow Crash” are, in a word, brilliant. Although they are slightly stylised and larger-than-life (the main character is literally called “Hiro Protagonist”!), they come across as unique, interesting people. They’re also not really your typical thriller characters too – or at least they weren’t when this novel was published in 1992, so this novel is a really refreshing read.

Seriously, this novel’s characterisation is economical enough not to get in the way of the story whilst also being deep enough that – for example- you’ll find yourself welling up with tears whilst reading about a cybernetic dog called Fido who only appears in about two or three short scenes.

The writing and narration in this novel is brilliant. Cyberpunk narration typically relies on “information overload” in order to make the reader feel like they’ve been plonked into a high-tech future. This novel is no exception, but it does it in a bit more of a moderate and controlled fashion – and is paired with some brilliantly informal and fast-paced “matter of fact” narration. This informal tone really helps to put the “punk” into “cyberpunk”, whilst also being much more readable than the Victorian-style narration in Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” too. Seriously, this novel is that wonderful thing – a novel that is easy to read, yet incredibly sophisticated.

Literally, the only criticism I have of the writing in this novel is that it contains a few info-dumps about religions, ancient history etc… which are then concisely summarised in a seven-page segment later in the novel. The info-dump segments can break up the pace of the novel a little bit and it would have been even better if these parts had been left intriguingly mysterious, with the summary providing the reader with the information instead (which would also allow it to serve as a plot twist or a reveal too). Still, this is only a small criticism.

Although the edition of “Snow Crash” that I read is about 440 pages long, don’t let this fool you. This is one of those rare 400+ page novels that more than justifies it’s length. Seriously, it crams more into those 440 pages than many novels would struggle to do in 800. But, although this is a fast-paced, information-overload, adrenaline rush of a novel, don’t expect to blaze through it in a couple of evenings. Even though this novel travels at a hundred miles an hour, the road it travels along is thousands of miles long. But, this is a book that you’ll want to spend lots of time with.

In terms of how this 27 year old novel has aged, it has mostly aged incredibly well. The narration mostly still sounds incredibly fresh, the sci-fi stuff still seems incredibly futuristic and the story is still incredibly gripping. When this novel was first published, it was probably wildly ahead of it’s time. Even now, it still seems fairly modern and/or futuristic for the most part. Literally, the only clues that this novel is 27 years old is are the fact that there are a small number of brief “politically incorrect” moments that probably wouldn’t appear in a more modern novel.

All in all, this novel is a masterpiece. If you love the cyberpunk genre, you need to read this book (if you haven’t already). If you want something with three times the intensity of the average spectacular modern Hollywood movie that also recognises that you have a brain and want to actually use it, then read this book. If you want a novel that makes you feel rebellious, read this one. If you want a gripping thriller, read this book. If you want to lose yourself in an interesting fictional world, read this book. In short, read this book.

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

Review: “Sahara” By Clive Cussler (Novel)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review : “Nemesis” (Film)

Well, for the penultimate review in my “1990s Films” series, I thought that I’d take a look at a cyberpunk action movie from 1992 called “Nemesis”. This was a film that I bought on DVD several months earlier whilst going through a cyberpunk phase (well, more of a cyberpunk phase than usual), but never actually got round to watching at the time.

So, let’s take a look at “Nemesis”. Needless to say, this review will contain SPOILERS. And the film itself contains some FLICKERING/FLASHING LIGHTS (although I don’t know if they’re fast/intense enough to be an issue).

“Nemesis” is set in the year 2027 and follows a LAPD detective called Alex who is hunting down a group of terrorists called the Red Army Hammerheads. After being seduced by, and fighting, one of their cyborg data carriers – he finds himself pursued by a group of heavily-armed terrorists. Needless to say, there is a spectacularly epic gunfight between Alex and the terrorists.

Well, what else are they going to use the nearby building site for? Building?

Alex survives, but is seriously injured. So, in classic “Robocop” fashion, he is rebuilt with many cybernetic body parts. He is then sent to Mexico to recuperate, where he also ends up tracking down and killing one of the terrorists who escaped after the gunfight earlier in the film. But, when two cyborgs from the police department arrive to congratulate him, the meeting doesn’t go well and one of them ends up shooting Alex’s pet dog.

Disillusioned, Alex soon quits the police and ends up working as a smuggler in New Rio De Janeiro for a while until he is betrayed by one of his contacts and handed back to the LAPD. Alex’s boss, Farnsworth, tells him that there is a bomb implanted next to his heart and, if he wants to survive, then he’ll do one last job for the LAPD.

The itinerary for a meeting between the US and Japanese presidents has been stolen by a rogue police cyborg (called Jared) and Farnsworth needs Alex to travel to a “low-tech” town in Java called Shang Loo to recover the plans and assassinate Jared. However, when he arrives, it soon becomes clear that things aren’t quite what they seem…

One of the first things that I will say about this film is that it is something of a “so bad that it’s good” film. In other words, if you’re expecting deep characterisation, complex nuanced storytelling and/or intelligent science fiction, then you’re probably going to be disappointed. It’s a cheesy, low-mid budget late-night B-movie of the type that they really don’t make anymore.

And, yes, there are explosions too. In fact, a character in this scene has a shotgun that quite literally fires explosions!

Yet, this is also part of the film’s charm. Everything from the “Neuromancer fan fiction” -style voice-overs in some parts of the film, to the stilted exposition-heavy dialogue, to the riduculous quantities of firearms, to the gratuitous nudity (which, refreshingly, also includes male nudity too), to the fact that almost everyone is wearing “cool” sunglasses, to the fact that one character is literally named “Max Impact”, to the fact that this film will often substitute spectacular gunfights for storytelling means that this film is gloriously cheesy fun.

Well, it’s a fun film most of the time. Although the film’s beginning and ending are thrillingly fun low-budget cyberpunk cinema, the film sags somewhat in the middle.

Yes, there’s still a lot of action but – aside from a few brilliantly thrilling scenes set in a hotel and the surrounding town – some of the scenes set in Shang Loo just consist of chase scenes that take place within various forests. These can get a bit tedious and monotonous after a while, especially when compared to the other parts of the film. Seriously, even though this film is a lean 92 minutes in length, it can occasionally feel a bit longer than that (and not in a good way!).

The film’s action scenes are reasonably good, with the stand-out moments being the extended gunfight near the beginning of the film and a vaguely “Underworld“-like scene where Alex escapes from a hotel room by quite literally shooting a hole in the floor. Likewise, some of the characters carry “Aliens”-like smart guns, complete with augmented reality glasses too.

After all, why use the door when you can make one yourself?

Still, the film will sometimes substitute action for storytelling. Which is probably a good thing in this case, given how silly and/or clichΓ©d some parts of the story can be (eg: the police turn out to be the real villains, Alex needs to reach the top of a volcano etc..). But, this is all part of the cheesy charm of the film.

Seriously, even the hotel receptionists are heavily armed in this film!

Likewise, the special effects in this film are reasonably good practical effects – with the stand-out moments being some fairly interesting “Terminator”-style cyborg scenes – involving things like extendable eyeballs, robots hiding cannons in their brains etc…

Which gives new meaning to the term “headcanon”.

However, the effects during a scene where Alex has to fight a “Terminator”-style robot skeleton near the end of the film are a little bit on the clunky side of things. Still, one cool thing about the film containing cyborg characters is that it’s an excuse for the SFX team to add lots of dramatic sparks during gunfights.

So sparkly!

Although the film’s dialogue is often fairly stilted, clichΓ©d and exposition-heavy, the film thankfully manages to include a lot of “action movie”-style humour. Whilst most of this consists of deadpan “1980s action movie”-style dialogue- there are some other amusing scenes too, such as when one of the villain’s henchmen foolishly tries to bully an old lady:

Needless to say, it doesn’t end well for him.

The film’s characters aren’t that great. However, the best characters are a somewhat morally-ambiguous and thoroughly badass cyborg called Julian, Jared’s AI persona, the hotel receptionist in Shang Loo and possibly Max Impact too.

And, yes, Julian would probably make a much cooler main character than Alex. Unfortunately, she only appears during a relatively small number of scenes in the film.

On the other hand, Alex is something of a two-dimensional character who is a mixture of a grizzled film noir cop and an action hero. A fair amount of his characterisation seems to consist of him moodily wondering whether he’s still human (which gets tiring after a while). Plus, the film’s villains are just clichΓ©d villain characters too.

Oh, we’re the bad guys? Who would have thought it?

In terms of the set design and lighting, it’s ok. Although it is surprising to see something in the cyberpunk genre that doesn’t go for the traditional “neon-drenched mega city” approach to set design, this film’s set design is a bit hit-and-miss.

The more understated, industrial and “realistic” style settings work fairly well. However, the decision to set a significant chunk of the film in a lush tropical forest just kind of goes against everything the cyberpunk genre stands for.

Trees? TREES?!? This is SUPPOSED to be a cyberpunk film!

Still, the film occasionally contains some really interesting lighting. In addition to some wonderfully gloomy 1990s-style lighting in several scenes, this film also occasionally makes clever used of sunsets and blue and/or orange filters in order to add some visual interest to the film.

Seriously, the lighting in the opening scene is really brilliant. It’s just a shame that more of the film’s lighting isn’t like this.

This blue filter is really cool. However, the new version of Rio De Janeiro looks a lot like the “old” one….

Musically, this film is surprisingly good. The film’s instrumental soundtrack goes really well with the atmosphere and style of the film and it contains a good mixture of more understated music and more dramatic music.

All in all, this film is pretty much “so bad that it’s good”. Yes, a few scenes are a bit tedious but, this aside, all of the other flaws just add to the film’s charm. You can really tell that the people who made this film have tried to make a thrilling, futuristic cyberpunk film. Yes, it’s a fairly unoriginal low-mid budget sci-fi action movie with a few cyberpunk clichΓ©s, two-dimensional characters and some hilariously stilted dialogue. But, this is all part of the fun.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it might get about a three.

Review: “Alone In The Dark” (Retro Computer Game)

2016 Artwork Alone In The Dark Review Sketch

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been playing the original “Alone In The Dark” recently and, well, I’m quite honestly astonished that it’s taken me until now to play (and complete) this game. Especially considering that I was a huge “Resident Evil” and “Silent Hill” fan when I was a teenager.

Yes, I tried to find the demo of “Alone In The Dark” aeons ago (and may have even played a small part of it). In fact, about eight or nine years ago, I bought a copy of “Alone In The Dark: The New Nightmare” but I got completely stuck on one part of it and abandoned it in frustration.

However, I didn’t really discover the original “Alone In The Dark” until a couple of days before I originally wrote this review (several months ago).

At the time, a collection of the first three “Alone In The Dark” games was on special offer on GoG. And, since I was in a slightly glum mood at the time, I decided that a horror game from the 1990s might be just the thing to cheer me up. It worked πŸ™‚

So, let’s take a look at “Alone In The Dark”:

Alone in the dark 1 leaving

“Alone In The Dark” is a survival horror game from 1992. No, it isn’t a survival horror game, it is the survival horror game!

It was the very first game of it’s kind and, if you’ve played the original “Resident Evil“, then it’ll suddenly become clear exactly where that ‘groundbreaking’ game got it’s inspiration from. That is to say, there are lots of things in “Alone In The Dark” that “Resident Evil” *ahem* borrowed four years later.

If this looks familiar, then just remember that THIS game came out four years BEFORE "Resident Evil" did....

If this looks familiar, then just remember that THIS game came out four years BEFORE “Resident Evil” did….

 Again, this game came out four years BEFORE "Resident Evil"....

Again, this game came out four years BEFORE “Resident Evil”….

In “Alone In The Dark” you can play as either Edward Carnby or Emily Hartwood. Although there don’t seem to be any gameplay differences between the characters, their backstories are slightly different. Not only does this game give you the option of choosing a character, but each character actually has a proper backstory too.

I played as Emily Hartwood, who is summoned to the mysterious Derceto Mansion after her uncle mysteriously hanged himself in the attic.

This attic. The one you're standing in right now! Don't worry though, it isn't haunted...

This attic. The one you’re standing in right now! Don’t worry though, it isn’t haunted…

The beginning of this game is, quite simply, sublime. If you just wander around the attic aimlessly and look at everything, then a monster will jump through the window and attack you. After dying a couple of times, you start to wonder whether it’s a good idea to push a nearby cabinet in front of the window. Needless to say, this does the job. So, you stand there with a smug grin on your face as the monster outside howls mournfully and claws uselessly at the cabinet.

Then, a few seconds, later, you hear a quiet creaking sound. In the distance, a trapdoor gently swings open and a zombie slowly climbs out. If this sort of thing makes you spontaneously smile or suddenly burst into laughter, then you’re going to love this game πŸ™‚

Seriously, this scene is hilarious :)

Seriously, this scene is hilarious πŸ™‚

Although this game is ostensibly a horror game, the passage of time has turned it into something far better than just a horror game. It’s a dark comedy game. A totally unintentional one, but a bloody good one! Seriously, this game made me smile so many times πŸ™‚

I don't know whether I want to hug it or fight it. I love this game :)

I don’t know whether I want to hug it or fight it. I love this game πŸ™‚

I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I felt like this game had been made specifically for me. The (unintentional) humour was exactly my type of humour, the monster designs were amusingly inventive, the graphics were gleefully cartoonish, the atmosphere of the mansion was wonderfully gothic, and the horror elements of the game trod a fine line between being creepy and funny.

All of this astonishingly great (unintentional) dark humour is complimented by a brilliantly melodramatic H.P.Lovecraft-inspired backstory that is revealed through numerous documents that you can find scattered around the mansion.

If you buy the GoG version of this game, then all of these documents are also read aloud by a hilariously melodramatic cast of voice actors, who sound like they came from a vintage horror movie. Seriously, I really love this game πŸ™‚

 *rolls eyes* It's spelled "Ia!", do you WANT Cthulhu to devour your soul or not?

*rolls eyes* It’s spelled “Ia!”, do you WANT Cthulhu to devour your soul or not?

In terms of the gameplay, I would say that it’s fairly standard 1990s survival horror gameplay but, well, this game invented that type of gameplay. As you would expect, you explore the mansion, solve puzzles, read documents and fight monsters.

In terms of the controls, they’re what you would expect. You use the arrow keys for movement and the spacebar can be used to either perform actions or ready your weapons. The camera angles, naturally, can change several times within the same room. Personally, I love this aspect of old survival horror games, but modern gamers might find it confusing.

One slight problem with the movement system is that, whilst your character can run, you have to tap the up arrow quickly and then hold it down in order to move at anything faster than a snail’s pace. Needless to say that this gameplay mechanic can be tempermental to say the least….

In order to select items, or to choose what types of action you want to perform (eg: searching, pushing, fighting or jumping), you can press “i” to bring up the inventory screen:

Yay! Inventory :)

Yay! Inventory πŸ™‚

Like in all classic survival horror games, your inventory is limited. However, this is calculated using a weight-based system. So, you can’t really tell whether you have any inventory slots left until you try to pick something up. But, unlike “Resident Evil”, if your inventory is full, you can just drop any unwanted items and come back for them later.

Yes, it's actually MORE realistic than "Resident Evil". You can actually just leave unwanted items on the floor!

Yes, it’s actually MORE realistic than “Resident Evil”. You can actually just leave unwanted items on the floor!

Yes, you don’t have to search for item boxes to leave your stuff in! You can save your game literally wherever you want! You also don’t have to sit through an annoying animation every time you walk through a door (you just walk up to the door, your character opens it and it stays open).

Did I forget to mention that this game came out four years before “Resident Evil” did? And the gameplay is still more advanced!

There's even a hilarious in-game animation when you use one of the (scarce) health items. Again, this game came out four years BEFORE "Resident Evil". And it does everything much better than that game does!

There’s even a hilarious in-game animation when you use one of the (scarce) health items. Again, this game came out four years BEFORE “Resident Evil”. And it does everything much better than that game does!

One cool thing about this game is that you don’t always have to fight the monsters. Although combat is unavoidable in some areas, you can sometimes find another way of dealing with any creatures you encounter: Likewise, some weapons won’t always work in every situation.

Yes, if you're going to fight the pirate, you'd better use a sword. Oh, did I mention that there are pirates in this game? Pirates!!! :)

Yes, if you’re going to fight the pirate, you’d better use a sword. Oh, did I mention that there are pirates in this game? Pirates!!! πŸ™‚

Growing up on "Resident Evil", I just instinctively drew my pistol and started blasting away fairly soon after I entered this room. When I read a walkthrough later, I learnt that there's another - sneakier- way of dealing with these zombies...

Growing up on “Resident Evil”, I just instinctively drew my pistol and started blasting away fairly soon after I entered this room. When I read a walkthrough later, I learnt that there’s another – sneakier- way of dealing with these zombies…

However, the combat system is a little bit clunky, to put it mildly. You hold the spacebar to draw your weapon and then you use the arrow keys to either aim or use it.

With bladed weapons, you can use the left and right arrows to slash and the up arrow to swing your weapon downwards. With projectile weapons, you use the left and right arrows to aim and the up arrow to fire.

Another cool bonus is that, unlike in "Resident Evil", the knife is actually a reasonably decent weapon here. You only have to hit a zombie with it four times, rather than thirty....

Another cool bonus is that, unlike in “Resident Evil”, the knife is actually a reasonably decent weapon here. You only have to hit a zombie with it four times, rather than thirty….

The main “problems” with the combat system are either aiming the guns in the right direction, or timing your attacks so that they’ll actually hit the monster you’re fighting. If you play for a while, then you’ll probably get used to this and see it as part of the game’s charm.

Not to mention that, since this is a proper survival horror game, it isn’t an action game! The clunky combat makes every battle appropriately challenging, and it reinforces the idea that you’re just an ordinary person who is trapped in a house filled with much more powerful monsters.

Plus, when your character inevitably dies horribly, you’re treated to a wonderfully theatrical (which you can skip by pressing “Esc” if you get bored of it) cutscene featuring their body being dragged through a stone corridor by a zombie and placed on a sacrificial altar. Then you are rewarded by this really cool picture:

- *Sigh* Remember when really cool artwork was actually an integral part of the horror genre? Yes, I miss it too!

– *Sigh* Remember when really cool artwork was actually an integral part of the horror genre? Yes, I miss it too!

As for the puzzles, they start out reasonably well. In fact, this was one of the things that made me really happy when I started playing this game – I could solve the puzzles on my own. However, after playing about half of the game, I started to get stuck. Eventually, I checked a walkthrough. Then, a while later, I checked it again. Soon, I found myself relying on it quite heavily.

Then again, I’m terrible at both adventure game puzzles and survival horror game puzzles, so it was really wonderful to at least get through half of the game without having to use a walkthrough. Still, I didn’t really play this game for the puzzles. I played it for the atmosphere, the exploration, the unintentional comedy and just for the sake of playing it.

As for the graphics, they work surprisingly well. For a game that came out twenty four years ago, the 3D graphics aren’t bad. In fact, they’re astonishing when you consider that most games at the time (and for about a year or so afterwards) didn’t use 3D graphics extensively.

One cool thing about the old 3D graphics is that they make the main characters look like characters from a 1990s Saturday morning cartoon. If you grew up in the 1990s, then you’ll probably find this wonderfully nostalgic πŸ™‚

Seriously, she looks like a character from "Rugrats".

Seriously, she looks like a character from “Rugrats”.

Curses! Foiled again! And I would have gotten away with it too if it wasn't for those meddling kids!

Curses! Foiled again! And I would have gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for those meddling kids!

Not to mention that I absolutely love the vintage fashions in this game too. Seriously, I love the fact that -even with a relatively small number of polygons- both characters actually look like they genuinely come from the 1920s/1930s.

As for the rest of the artwork in the game, the pre-rendered backgrounds have aged fairly well, since they now look wonderfully cartoonish, rather than “realistic” . Plus, being a game from the early-mid 1990s, “Alone In The Dark” features quite a bit of really cool pixel art too πŸ™‚

*Sigh* I miss the days when games featured awesome pixel art AND clever compositional tricks too.

*Sigh* I miss the days when games featured awesome pixel art AND clever compositional tricks too.

As for the music, it’s fairly decent. Like in many later survival horror games, one cool feature is that dramatic music will start playing whenever you encounter a monster. Plus, if you get this game on GoG, then you’ll also get a free MP3 copy of the soundtrack too.

All in all, I loved this game πŸ™‚ If someone had made a computer game just for me, it would look like this game.

When I was a teenager, I thought that the early “Resident Evil” games were the games that defined the survival horror genre (even if I later thought that the second and third “Silent Hill” games were better). This game blows all of the classic “Resident Evil” games out of the water! Not only are the gameplay mechanics a lot better, but it’s also crammed with (unintentional) dark comedy, Lovecraftian mysteries and all sorts of other cool stuff.

If you’re a survival horror fan, you need to play this game. In fact, I’m astonished that it took me until 2016 to play it. That would be almost as unthinkable as being a fan of FPS games and never playing the old “Doom” games (which, in terms of gameplay, are still better than most of the FPS games that came after them… including “Doom 3”).

If I had to give this game a rating out of five, it would get at least five. Maybe even six.