Review: “The Skin Palace” By Jack O’ Connell (Novel)

Well, it has been far too long since I read a Jack O’Connell novel. After really enjoying O’Connell’s “Word Made Flesh” and “Box Nine” about six months earlier, I ended up buying all five of his “Quinsigamond” novels. Then… I got distracted by other books.

Still, after the previous novel I read really amazed me, I needed to read another high-quality book. And, after searching through my book piles, I found the second-hand copy of O’Connell’s 1996 novel “The Skin Palace” that I’d planned to read several months ago.

Interestingly, whilst this novel takes place in the same fictional city as O’Connell’s other “Quinsigamond” novels and even contains a few references to events and locations from “Word Made Flesh” (eg: Maisel, The July Sweep etc..), it is a self-contained novel that can be read on it’s own or, as I did, out of the correct “order” of the series.

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

This is the 2016 No Exit Press (UK) paperback edition of “The Skin Palace” that I read.

The novel begins with a mysterious description of a teenage boy watching a silent film in a cinema. During the film, a bereaved woman enters the theatre and sits in front of the boy. She breaks into tears during the film. The boy mistakenly believes that she is profoundly affected by what she is seeing on the screen.

Three years later, a couple called Sylvia and Perry are having a romantic evening at a drive-in theatre when Perry, a lawyer, mentions that he’s got a raise and wants to buy Sylvia something. Sylvia has seen an advert for a used high-end camera and, being an amateur photographer, she suggests it. Although Perry isn’t keen on the idea, he agrees. The next day, Sylvia visits a dilapidated camera shop in one of the more run-down parts of town and sets into motion a bizarre chain of events.

Meanwhile, local mob boss Hermann Kinsky wants his eighteen-year old son Jakob to join the family business. Although Jakob’s sociopathic cousin Felix has fit into mob life really well and seems to be the logical choice of successor, Hermann wants his nerdy film-obsessed son to be his protege…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, even though it is a little slow to start and it probably isn’t for everyone, it is amazing. It is this wonderfully surreal, vivid, compelling, atmospheric and unique “film noir”-themed drama novel that somehow manages to be both extremely high-brow and yet rebelliously “edgy” at the same time. This is the kind of novel that makes you think “THIS has artistic merit!“.

Seriously, this book does so much clever stuff. Whether it is the brilliant irony of a story about cinema and photography being told purely through text, or the novel’s many points about the power of images, or the beautiful narration, or the elaborately bizarre locations that you’ll really want to visit, or the fact that you’ll feel like you’ve gained 20 IQ points (and doubled your thinking speed) after a reading session, or the ultra-deep characterisation or even some of the novel’s brilliantly cynical political satire, this surreal hardboiled drama novel is a lot more “high-brow” than you might think πŸ™‚

One of the major themes of this book is the power of images, and this is explored in all sorts of ways. Whether it is a character who was pretty much raised in a cinema, scenes that show how the audience determines the meaning of an image, scenes involving mysterious photographs, a blue movie director with high artistic ambitions, film script-like narrative segments, a bizarre version of “The Wizard Of Oz”, an almost religious focus on traditional film-based cameras etc… This is the kind of book that really makes you think about the hundreds of images we all see every day.

This book is also just as atmospheric as you’d expect a Jack O’Connell novel to be too πŸ™‚ Like in the other O’Connell novels I’ve read, this story takes place in a vaguely New York/New England-style city called Quinsigamond. It’s this slightly run-down, modern film noir city filled with garish neon and quirky old buildings. It really feels like a real place πŸ™‚ Seriously, I’d almost forgotten how wonderful it is to visit Quinsigamond πŸ™‚

Plus, as befitting settings like this, the novel is also something of a crime/mystery thriller too. Although you shouldn’t expect an ultra-fast paced story, this story has enough suspense, mystery, elaborate criminal schemes, plot twists, cleverly connected storylines etc.. to compare fairly well to traditional hardboiled crime fiction. Even so, the crime-based parts of the story are more of a sub-plot (with the bulk of the novel being about Sylvia’s bizarre detective-like quest to find the original owner of the second-hand camera she found, rather than Jakob’s experience of life in the mob).

The novel also contains some wonderfully cynical political satire too. One sub-plot revolves around two fanatical (and thoroughly hypocritical) political campaign groups trying to shut down an adult theatre. Both groups are, of course, on completely opposite ends of the political spectrum to each other. The fights between these two fanatical political groups and, ultimately, their chilling similarities, is a brilliantly daring and cynical piece of political satire that feels oddly timeless and yet very much of the 1990s at the same time.

In terms of the characters, this novel absolutely excels πŸ™‚ Not only do many of the characters get an astonishing amount of characterisation, but they’re all both realistic enough to be relatable, yet stylised enough to appear dream-like or larger than life. Seriously, the characters are one of the major reasons why this is such a compelling story. One of the best examples of this is how Sylvia and Jakob’s character arcs parallel each other, yet feel different and distinctive enough to really add variety to the story.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is exquisite. Although the novel’s use of the present tense might take a little bit of getting used to, it really helps the story’s many descriptions flow in a way that feels hyper-vivid. Seriously, some descriptive parts of this novel are almost poetic. Best of all, these elaborate descriptions are paired with a more “matter of fact” hardboiled style that helps to keep the story feeling solid. In essence, this novel reads a little bit like a mixture of Dashiell Hammett and William Burroughs or something like that.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is a bit on the longer side of things. At 414 pages in length and with a lot of focus on descriptions and characterisation, don’t expect a quick read. Yet, even though this book is a bit slow-paced, it won’t really matter because the story is so vivid and compelling.

As for how this twenty-three year old novel has aged, it has mostly aged well. Whilst the focus on non-digital cameras and cinemas dates the novel a bit, it also lends it a surprisingly timeless “film noir”-like quality. Likewise, whilst this novel does have a small number of rather dated “politically incorrect” moments (the worst probably being a scene that seems to conflate drag queens and transgender people. And don’t get me started on the violence and pronouns in this scene…), most other parts of the novel have aged fairly well and still remain very compelling to this day.

All in all, this is an absolutely excellent novel. Yes, a few parts haven’t aged well and it isn’t for everyone but, if you want an intelligent hardboiled novel with a brilliant atmosphere, a touch of surrealism, fascinating characters, beautiful narration and a story that will actually make you think, then you need to read this novel πŸ™‚

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

Advertisements

Review: “Star Trek Voyager: The Murdered Sun” By Christie Golden (Novel)

Well, since the weather was still extremely hot, I still only really felt like reading shorter and/or “easier” novels. So, after remembering that I still had quite a few unread “Star Trek” novels left over from when I used to read these books more often (in 2011-13), I decided to take a look at Christie Golden’s 1996 novel “Star Trek Voyager: The Murdered Sun”.

Whilst this novel tells an original and self-contained spin-off story that takes place sometime during the events of the first or second season of “Star Trek: Voyager“, it is probably worth watching at least a few episodes of the TV show beforehand if you want to get the most out of this novel.

So, let’s take a look at “Star Trek Voyager: The Murdered Sun”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1996 Pocket Books (US) paperback edition of “Star Trek Voyager: The Murdered Sun” that I read.

The novel is set in the distant future – aboard the United Federation of Planets starship U.S.S Voyager, which has been stranded in a distant region of space called the Delta Quadrant for the past few months and is trying to find a way back to Earth.

Anyway, it is two in the morning and Captain Janeway can’t get to sleep. So, when she gets an urgent message from the ship’s bridge, it is a welcome distraction. Voyager’s sensors have just picked up both a mysterious wormhole and a warning beacon from a spacefaring empire called the Akerian Empire threatening anyone who strays into their space.

Initially, the wormhole seems to be a potential way back home. So, after some thought and discussion, Janeway crosses the boundary. However, it soon becomes obvious that there’s something off about the wormhole. It is leeching hydrogen from a nearby sun. This threatens to wipe out the inhabitants of a nearby planet called Veruna Four. But, before Voyager’s crew can study the phenomenon too much, they soon find themselves in the middle of a conflict between the Akerian Empire and Veruna Four…..

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is excellent πŸ™‚ During some parts of the novel, it almost felt like I’d returned to the Sunday evenings of my childhood when I used to watch “Voyager” on TV every week. This is to say that this novel is basically like an extended episode of “Voyager”, but with a bit of extra depth/character/atmosphere and a larger special effects budget πŸ™‚

It is also a perfectly balanced novel, expertly mixing science fiction, character-based drama, political drama, suspense and thrillingly spectacular action scenes. Although the novel’s story takes a little while to really get started and there are a few slow-paced “treknobabble“- filled scenes earlier in the story, it soon becomes a very gripping story πŸ™‚

In addition to several well-placed epic space battles, this novel also remains compelling in lots of more subtle ways too. For starters, one of the story’s sub-plots involves the Voyager’s crew trying to uncover information about the history of both the Akerians and the inhabitants of Veruna Four. Likewise, there’s a lot of tension about how much assistance Voyager can offer Veruna Four whilst remaining within the limits of Federation law etc… Seriously, this is a brilliantly compelling tale.

Yes, some elements of the story are a little bit stylised and will seem familiar to fans of the show (eg: a corrupt militaristic empire vs.a peaceful spiritual civilisation etc..). Likewise, one of the novel’s dramatic plot twists is teased at least twice but, when all is eventually revealed, it will come as no surprise to people familiar with “Star Trek” storylines. Even so, this novel still remains surprisingly gripping, compelling and immersive.

The novel’s science fiction elements are as good as you would expect too and, in addition to the usual futuristic technology (eg: gravity weapons, starships etc..) and a few long-winded scientific explanations, there’s also other interesting stuff too such as a scene which shows how an alien society with a tradition of oral storytelling experiences less linguistic change over time when compared to languages that rely more on writing.

As you would expect from a “Star Trek” story, this novel also covers a variety of real-world topics – such as colonialism, the US’s treatment of Native Americans, militarism, the environment and prejudice. Although these themes could have been handled in a more subtle (and less lecturing/preachy) way, this never really distracts from the story too much and is in keeping with the TV show it is based on.

In terms of the characters, they are absolutely stellar. In addition to a reasonably well-written cast of background characters (from both Veruna Four and Akeras), the novel focuses heavily on Captain Janeway, Commander Chakotay and Tom Paris too – with Chakotay and Paris each getting their own sub-plots too. Likewise, although the main characters are reasonably similar to the TV show, this novel adds a bit of extra emotional depth and personality to them too πŸ™‚

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is really good. In addition to being very readable, Golden’s narration strikes a really good balance between descriptions, dialogue, characterisation and action, which really helps the story to flow really well. If you’ve read other “Star Trek” novels from the 1990s before, then the narration is fairly comparable to these.

In terms of the length and pacing, this novel is excellent πŸ™‚ At a reasonably efficient 277 pages in length, the novel manages to tell a full story (with a couple of sub-plots) without ever feeling bloated. Likewise, although the story gets off to a little bit of a slow start, the pacing is absolutely superb and most of the story is really gripping. The highlight has to be during one of the mid-late parts of the story, where Golden expertly juggles several story threads (with mini-cliffhangers at the end of each chapter) before suddenly speeding things up by focusing on just one dramatic story thread.

As for how this twenty-three year old novel has aged, it has aged really well. Although there are possibly a couple of mildly dated descriptions, the story is just as gripping, atmospheric, nostalgic and dramatic as an episode of the TV show it is based on πŸ™‚ Plus, since it is a book, the “special effects” and location design during many scenes look just as impressive today as they did back when “Voyager” was still a modern TV show.

All in all, if you’re a fan of “Star Trek: Voyager”, then you’ll enjoy this novel πŸ™‚ It’s like a totally new episode of the show, but with deeper characterisation, a more complex plot, more atmosphere and better special effects πŸ™‚ Yes, some elements of the story are a little bit clichΓ©d/predictable and the story also takes a little while to become really gripping, but this was a really enjoyable novel to read πŸ™‚

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

Review: “Aliens: Rogue” By Sandy Schofield (Novel)

Note: Due to scheduling reasons, the “making of” line art post for my recent webcomic mini series won’t appear here until tomorrow. Sorry about this.

Well, although I’d originally planned to read something a bit more “high brow”, I was kind of in a stressed out mood and just wanted to read something fun. Something like the kind of novels I used to read all of the time when I was a teenager.

Then I remembered that I still hadn’t read the second half of a two-novel “Aliens” omnibus (that contains Robert Sheckley’s 1995 novel “Aliens: Alien Harvest” and Sandy Schofield’s 1996 novel “Aliens: Rogue”) that I’d bought second-hand a few months ago. So, this seemed like the perfect opportunity πŸ™‚

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

This is the 1996 Orion (UK) paperback omnibus that contained the version of “Aliens: Rogue” I read.

The novel begins with the crew of a civilian spacecraft, captained by Joyce Palmer, emerging from suspended animation after a long voyage to a remote asteroid facility called Charon Base. The spacecraft is carrying a passenger called Mr.Cray to the facility, since he seems to have some kind of classified business there.

Meanwhile, in the former penal colony mining tunnels near the facility, a detachment of space marines are trying to catch an alien specimen for Professor Kleist, the ZCT Corporation scientist who runs the facility. Unfortunately, the experimental technology the marines are using to stun the deadly aliens doesn’t work perfectly and one of the marines is killed – prompting another marine to blast the alien to smithereens with his rifle. Watching on CCTV, Kleist is absolutely horrified…. about the death of one of his alien specimens.

After a brief meeting with Kleist, Joyce and her crew stay at the facility for a few days. Although Joyce is happy to meet her occasional lover, Hank, she soon starts hearing news of mysterious deaths and disappearances amongst the facility’s crew and decides to investigate…..

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it isn’t anything particularly new, it’s a hell of a lot of fun to read πŸ™‚ Although the basic premise (an alien-filled research facility run by a mad scientist) is pretty much identical to S.D.Perry’s “Aliens: The Labyrinth“, the novel does a few interesting things with this premise.

This novel is as much of an action-thriller novel as a sci-fi horror novel, with the general tone and atmosphere of the novel reminding me a lot of the original “Red Faction” computer game.

In addition to lots of desolate mining tunnels, a lot of the novel focuses on several groups of characters (both civilian and military) who start a resistance movement against Kleist and his henchmen. So, in a lot of ways, this is also a dystopian novel too πŸ™‚ Yes, the “plucky band of rebels” thing is a well-worn sci-fi/fantasy trope, but it’s handled in a really thrilling way in this novel, which will really have you cheering for the rebels.

Seriously, although it contains nothing especially new, this novel is the perfect blend of dystopian sci-fi, thrilling action and macabre horror fiction πŸ™‚ Reading this novel is like watching a really fun late-night 1980s/90s B-movie, like “Fortress” or something like that.

As for the horror elements of this novel, they’re pretty good. Although this novel isn’t that scary, it certainly has a rather ominous claustrophobic atmosphere, in addition to lots of grisly moments of gory horror, creepy alien-based moments (including a giant genetically-engineered alien king) and plenty of scenes featuring Kleist’s evil experiments too. These horror elements complement the novel’s action-thriller elements really well and not only add more atmosphere and tension to the story, but also give it a bit more depth by allowing for more moments of human drama too.

As for characterisation, this novel is reasonably decent, with several of the civilian and military characters receiving enough backstory and emotional moments to make you care about what happens to them. Likewise, the space marines are also shown to be an efficient, courageous and resourceful team too. However, the evil Professor Kleist and his security guard henchmen don’t really get much in the way of backstory and mostly just come across as cheesy, melodramatic “villain” characters (which is kind of fun in a “corny B-movie” kind of way, though).

In terms of the writing in this novel, it’s reasonably good. This novel’s third-person narration is descriptive enough to be atmospheric whilst also being “matter of fact” enough to not only keep the story moving at a decent pace, but also to make it reasonably relaxing to read too. Even so, in the edition I read, the editor missed a few basic mistakes (eg: misspelling Cray’s name as “Clay” once, spelling “gel” as “jell” once etc..) to the point where these errors actually became noticeable.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is reasonably good. In addition to being a fairly efficient 288 pages long, the pacing in this novel is fairly good. It starts off in a suitably ominous way before gradually building into a more traditional thriller (where chapters jump between two or three groups of characters, with lots of mini cliffhangers etc..) which remains fairly gripping throughout.

As for how this twenty-three year old novel has aged, it’s aged really well. Although the story has a fairly “1990s late-night TV” kind of atmosphere during a few moments, this just adds to the story’s enjoyably fun “cheesy B-movie” quality. But, like with S.D.Perry’s “Aliens: The Labyrinth”, this novel is pretty timeless thanks to it’s distant-future setting (which still comes across as reasonably futuristic).

All in all, whilst this novel doesn’t really do anything new, it is still a lot of fun to read. So, if you want to relax with the literary equivalent of a great late-night movie from the 1990s, then this novel is well worth checking out. Likewise, if you want a dystopian sci-fi horror thriller novel, then this is definitely one of the more enjoyable ones.

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

Review: “Osiris” (WAD for “Doom II”/ “Final Doom”)

Well, since I’m still reading the next book I’ll be reviewing (“Nefertiti” By Michelle Moran), I thought that I’d review another “Doom II” WAD. After all, it’s been a few weeks since the last one. And, since I was in an “ancient Egypt” kind of mood, I decided to check out a rather cool WAD from 1996 called “Osiris“.

As usual, I used the “ZDoom” source port whilst playing this WAD. However, interestingly, the WAD also comes with an installer program – so it will probably work with the original DOS/Win 95 versions of “Doom II”. I’m not sure if it’ll work with the original Win 95 version of “Final Doom”, but – if you use a source port – it is compatible with the “Final Doom” IWADs.

So, let’s take a look at “Osiris”:

“Osiris” is an eight-level WAD that includes new sounds, textures, skyboxes, sprites, music and a new weapon. One of the first things that I will say about this WAD is… wow! For a WAD made twenty-three years ago, it is as impressive as a more modern WAD. Not only that, it was also inspired by the movie “Stargate” too – which just makes it even cooler πŸ™‚

Woo hoo! Seriously, I love Stargate-themed WADs πŸ™‚

And there are even “Stargate” computers too πŸ™‚

Where do I even begin with this WAD? The level design is ’90s level design at it’s very best. All of the levels are wonderfully non-linear and there’s a really cool mixture between tense claustrophobic levels, epic levels set in multiple locations, the occasional switch-puzzle based level, an arena battle or two – and at least one level which has a vaguely “loop”-like structure (eg: you end up near the beginning at the end of the level). Plus, one other cool thing about the level design is that the beginning of each level looks like the end of the previous level.

There are also lots of cool little flourishes and tricks. For example, there’s one area where you stand on an unstable floor and it collapses. Ok, it’s just a one-way lift. But, the speed of it and the accompanying sound effects really make it seem like the floor has suddenly collapsed. Plus, all of the new textures mean that many of the levels look absolutely spectacular too πŸ™‚

Yay! Ancient Egypt πŸ™‚

And THIS is like something from Iron Maiden’s “Powerslave” album too πŸ™‚

Which brings me on to the sound design. Normally, I don’t talk about the sounds and music until later in a review, but the sound design in this WAD really blew me away. Not only do all of the weapons sound ten times as thunderous, but there are also more intense monster sounds, lots of cool sound effects, even some voice acting in the background (eg: an ominous voice) and some truly excellent music – which is a brilliantly fitting mixture of “Ancient Egypt”-style music and 1980s/90s-style rock music πŸ™‚

In terms of the monsters, there are some really awesome sprite replacements. The best ones are probably the fact that the imps have been replaced by Anubis-like creatures and, even better, the pinky demons have been replaced by hooded scythe-wielding zombies with glowing eyes:

Seriously, this guy needs to appear on a heavy metal album cover πŸ™‚

It’s bark is worse than it’s bite, I think.

My only criticism of the monsters, and this might have been because of the source port I was using, is that there’s a really hilarious glitch. Basically, if you gib either the zombieman or the shotgun zombie, then ammo drops will keep spawning from their bodies in a vaguely fountain-like fashion.

Well, at least I’m not going to be running out of ammo any time soon…

One interesting thing about this WAD is how it achieves it’s difficulty. Although experienced players will find this WAD to be mildly-moderately challenging at most, one innovative trick is that many of the levels are filled with hit-scanning monsters. Whilst this does lead to some rather cheap moments (eg: monsters sniping you from a distance), it really helps to ramp up the drama and suspense of many of the game’s battles.

Plus, there are a lot of chaingun zombies too – which also adds to the difficulty as well πŸ™‚

In terms of the weapons, they’re fairly interesting. Although the fist, chaingun and plasma rifle get some rather interesting-looking sprite replacements, the rocket launcher is replaced by a flamethrower. This is a weapon that can actually be used at close range, although the trajectory of the shots means that it doesn’t always work as well at longer ranges (which helps to balance it slightly).

In the words of Rammstein, feuer frei!

All in all, this is a really impressive WAD πŸ™‚ Not only is it thrillingly fun, but it also gets the “ancient Egypt” atmosphere absolutely right. In other words, it feels as gloriously dramatic and stylised as not only the original “Stargate” film, but also other ancient Egypt themed FPS games like “Killing Time“, “Serious Sam: The First Encounter” and “Exhumed” too πŸ™‚ The level design is splendid and both the sound and sprite replacements are really cool too. As I said before, this is as impressive as a good modern WAD and it was made in 1996. Seriously, this is awesome πŸ™‚

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

Review: “Aliens: The Labyrinth” By S. D. Perry (Novel)

Well, it’s been a little while since I last read a horror novel. So, after searching through some of my piles of books, I found an old copy of S.D.Perry’s 1996 novel “Aliens: The Labyrinth”. Although I really enjoyed Perry’s novelisations of the “Resident Evil” videogames when I was a teenager, I also had vague memories of enjoying a couple of “Aliens” novels back then too.

Since I initially wasn’t sure whether I’d already read this novel before (although about two-thirds of the way through, I realised that I had), I thought that I’d check it out.

So, let’s take (another) look at “Aliens: The Labyrinth”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1999 Millennium (UK) paperback reprint of “Aliens: The Labyrinth” (1996) that I read.

“Aliens: The Labyrinth” tells a self-contained sci-fi horror/thriller story that is set in the universe of the “Alien” films. The story begins with a military scientist called Colonel Doctor Crespi awakening from suspended animation after a long space voyage.

Officially, he is being dropped off at a remote research station in order to help out with Dr.Church’s scientific research. However, he has been given secret orders to seize command of the station due to unspecified worries about what is happening there.

Of course, it doesn’t take Crespi long to realise that Dr.Church is not only performing cruel experiments involving xenomorphs (the bloodthirsty alien monsters from the “Alien” films) but that he actually seems to enjoy his work too….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, like a hungry xenomorph, it really creeps up on you. Basically, this novel gets much better as it goes along. When I started reading it, I initially found myself rolling my eyes and thinking “I’d probably enjoy this book a lot more if I was fourteen” but, near the end of the novel, I found myself recoiling with horror – yet spurred on by adrenaline to read more. Seriously, this is one of those novels where first impressions aren’t everything.

As for the sci-fi elements of this story, they work reasonably well. Not only is this novel set in a sparsely-described, but convincingly futuristic, location – but it also uses the classic sci-fi technique of occasionally dropping futuristic terms into the narration in order to immerse the reader.

Plus, of course, it’s a story about science gone horribly awry. You don’t get more sci-fi than that. In addition to this, the scientific ethics-based elements of the story are also explored in an utterly chilling flashback scene where the xenomorphs are shown performing vaguely similar experiments on humans, for an arguably more sympathetic reason.

The novel’s thriller elements work fairly well too. Although the earlier parts of the novel are a fairly standard mystery thriller, with a few fairly “ordinary” action-thriller moments thrown in every now and then to keep things interesting, the story eventually builds to a grippingly intense, visceral, adrenaline-fuelled climax that is an example of the thriller genre at it’s very best. So, yes, it only has one really gripping action-thriller segment, but what a segment it is!

As for the horror elements in this story, they work astonishingly well. At first, the novel isn’t particularly scary. The earlier scenes involving the xenomorphs seem to be gloriously cheesy in the way that you’d expect a silly monster movie involving a megalomaniacal scientist to be. But, as the novel progresses, other types of horror start to appear and you suddenly realise that the earlier scenes were there to lull you into a false sense of security!

Seriously, I was genuinely creeped out and grossed out by parts of this book. This is because it doesn’t just rely on silly monster-based scares and splatterpunk-esque gory horror, it also includes things like body horror, emotional horror, scientific horror, character-based horror, taboo-based horror, bleak nihilism and other such things. Seriously, it’s been years since a horror novel has made me literally recoil with horror.

All of this horror is also balanced out by some absolutely brilliant moments of dark comedy, mostly revolving around Dr. Church’s eccentricities. Seriously, this novel is worth reading just to read the scene where Church decides to take one of his pet xenomorphs for a stroll through the station’s corridors whilst humming a jaunty tune.

The narration in this novel is kind of interesting. Initially, I thought that the rather informal third-person narration was somewhat “shallow” and eye-rollingly immature (seriously, the narration uses a lot of four-letter words). But, as the story progressed, the narrative style began to make a lot more sense. Once the novel reaches it’s adrenaline-pumping climax, the informal narration really helps to ramp up the intensity a lot. Seriously, if the later parts of this book were narrated in a more traditional formal way, they wouldn’t have half the impact that they do. So, yes, the slightly informal narrative style works – although it takes a little bit of getting used to.

Best of all, at just 210 pages, this novel is efficient. There is barely a wasted moment in this novel and this really helps to keep the story flowing at a decent pace. Combined with the informal narration, this means that this novel is as enjoyable to read as watching a good sci-fi horror movie is. This book is reassuringly short easy reading that will make you feel decidedly uneasy.

The novel’s main characters are surprisingly well-written. Although they all initially seem to be two-dimensional stock characters who all have tragic backstories, they become more complex and compelling characters as the story goes on. Like with a lot of things about this book, the characters get better and more sophisticated as the story progresses. Seriously, this is the kind of novel that can make a background character into the main character in one part of the story and make that part of the story infinitely more dramatic and gripping as a result.

In terms of how this 23 year old novel has aged, it has aged ridiculously well. Seriously, if this novel was published for the first time today, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell that it was actually from 1996. It’s timeless.

All in all, this is a novel that will really catch you by surprise. Yes, it initially seems like a story that is about as scary as a kitten, written for immature audiences and populated by cardboard characters. But, this is all there to lull you – experienced horror novel reader- into a false sense of security. If you stick with this book, then you’ll find that it’s a lot scarier, a lot more gripping and a bit more sophisticated than you initially thought!

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

Review: “Mission: Impossible” (Film)

Well, for the final review in my “1990s Films” series, I thought that I’d take a look at a spy thriller movie from 1996 called “Mission: Impossible”.

Although “Mission Impossible 2” was one of the first films I bought on VHS when I was a teenager, I still hadn’t seen the first one… and it seemed like a good thing to end this series with.

So, let’s take a look at “Mission: Impossible”. Needless to say, this review may contain SPOILERS and the film itself contains some FLICKERING IMAGES/LIGHTS (although I don’t know if they’re fast or intense enough to be an issue).

After an elaborate scene showing a team of Impossible Missions Force agents managing to trick someone into revealing the name of a person of interest, “Mission: Impossible” begins with a senior agent called Jim Phelps (played by Jon Voigt) getting a secret mission briefing whilst on a flight to eastern Europe.

Someone plans to steal a list of US secret agents from the American embassy in Prague and it is up to the IMF to monitor the theft and track the stolen information to the mysterious buyer. So, Jim gathers an elite team of agents – led by Ethan Hunt (played by Tom Cruise) – in a safe house and starts to concoct a plan.

A daring spy mission in Eastern Europe? What could possibly go wrong?

At first, the mission goes well and – despite a few unexpected setbacks – the theft is recorded. Ethan and another agent wait outside the embassy, ready to follow the thief. However, something is wrong! A lift malfunctions, crushing the team’s tech guy. Ethan gets an order from Jim to abort the mission, but Ethan continues the mission anyway.

A while later, Jim sends Ethan a panicked message saying that he is being followed – before a mysterious assailant shoots him and hurls him off of a bridge. Meanwhile, another member of Ethan’s team is killed by a car bomb, before the final remaining member is stabbed by persons unknown.

Panicked, Ethan places a call to headquarters – where he is told to meet up with another senior agent in a nearby restaurant. When he arrives, the other agent tells him that the mission was a decoy mission that the IMF had concocted because they believed that there was a mole in the agency. Since Ethan is the only survivor, suspicion falls onto him.

Realising that he is being framed, Ethan escapes the restaurant in a dramatic way and tries to track down the real mole before it is too late…..

Either that, or he really doesn’t want to be left with the bill.

One of the first things that I will say about “Mission: Impossible” is that it is a mildly more ‘realistic’ spy film than the “James Bond”-esque action movie that I had expected it to be. It’s compelling and thrilling but, surprisingly, it isn’t really an action movie.

“Mission: Impossible” is a movie with no elaborate gunfights and relatively few chase scenes. Instead, it is a movie where Ethan Hunt must use his knowledge, spy skills, cunning, daring and intellect in order to prevail.

For example, this scene (involving disguises and stealth) is pretty much the polar opposite of the average James Bond movie…

As such, the film’s most spectacular “action” scene is kind of out of character when compared to the rest of the film. Although the film mostly takes a surprisingly “realistic” approach to violence (eg: it rarely happens and it often has serious consequences), all of this realism goes completely out of the window during a thrilling, but utterly ludicrous, chase/fight scene involving a train and a helicopter near the end of the film. Still, the scene in question is certainly thrilling enough – if hilariously silly.

Not to mention that the mid-1990s CGI effects in this scene aren’t too noticeable most of the time.

Yet, at the same time, “Mission: Impossible” isn’t a slow-paced ultra-realistic spy film either. If anything, it’s more like a heist movie mixed with a detective movie and it is brilliant. Although I would have liked to see more “heist”-style scenes in the film, the one that we do get to see is brilliantly clever, expertly-planned and thrillingly suspenseful.

Quite literally in this scene, which is a suspenseful scene involving suspension.

Plus, the spy gadgets in this film are wonderfully brilliant. Although the film is over twenty years old, a lot of the gadgets are timelessly fun to see – such as Ethan’s elaborate disguises, the secret tracker chips, the hidden cameras, the laser deflectors, the exploding chewing gum, the self-destructing video cassettes, the video phone watches etc….

Not only is this pen tipped with a mild poison, but it can also be used to write Teeline shorthand too (although, annoyingly, the whole message isn’t visible).

Still, this film’s age shows somewhat whenever technology is involved – but this just equates to lots of reassuringly bulky gadgets and 1990s nostalgia πŸ™‚

Even though all of the computers use a fictional operating system, the websites still look brilliantly ’90s πŸ™‚

And, yes, Ethan actually has to use a payphone too (although retro mobile phones are shown in another scene though).

Likewise, a fair chunk of the film is devoted to Ethan investigating, gathering a new team and thinking about what is happening too. Although the film isn’t that much of a character-based drama, there’s a decent amount of characterisation for Ethan, some of his team members and the mysterious villains. Likewise, Ethan’s uncertainty about who he can trust is also a key part of the film too.

Ethan’s confusion and shock at the early events of the film are also reflected in a fairly subtle, but dramatic, way that really helps to add some extra drama to the film (basically, he’s shown to be affected by the events of the film but stoically continues his mission).

For example, Ethan is briefly shown to have a guilt-induced nightmare about not getting to Jim in time to save him.

..And when he is awoken by another character entering the room, he overreacts slightly due to his jittery mood.

In terms of pacing and storytelling, this film does really well. At 105 minutes in length, this film is just about short enough to remain focused and dramatic throughout.

Likewise, even though some parts of the plot can get a little bit confusing (including a random location jump from America to London that isn’t even revealed or explained until the scene after it has happened) the film still remains compelling throughout. Likewise, the more thrilling heist/spy-related scenes are also contrasted with slower dialogue-based scenes too.

Such as this discussion involving two members of Ethan’s new team (played by Ving Rhames and Jean Reno).

In terms of the set design and lighting, it’s fairly good – with lots of lush, vivid locations in Prague, some slightly more understated scenes set in London, some vaguely futuristic office locations and a wonderfully dramatic scene that is set on board a French TGV train (although, since it travels through the Channel Tunnel, it should be labelled as a “Eurostar” train rather than a “TGV” ). These spectacular settings are also contrasted with slightly more understated “safe house” locations too.

The scenes set inside the Prague Embassy look wonderfully sumptuous πŸ™‚

By contrast, the safehouses look… marginally less sumptuous. But, still, a room like that in London is still on the posh side of things…

The film’s lighting is reasonable good too, with the lighting during the Prague scenes being wonderfully gloomy and atmospheric . Plus, there’s an excellent use of film noir-style lighting in a later scene set in a train’s cargo compartment too.

There’s some really cool “film noir”-style lighting in one part of the film.

And check out this wonderfully gothic lighting in some of the Prague-based scenes πŸ™‚

Musically, the film is as spectacular as you would expect – with the standout musical moment being a rather dramatic rendition of the famous “Mission Impossible” music during the opening credits and a later scene in the film.

All in all, this is a fun, complex spy thriller movie that contains an intriguing plot, lots of cool gadgets and a decent amount of suspense. Yes, I’d have liked to have seen more “heist” style scenes (since the one scene of this type is really good) and – yes- the ending is a bit silly.

But, if you want a slightly more understated classic Hollywood thriller movie where the main character uses his mind much more often than he uses a gun, then this film might be worth checking out. Although it’s really thrilling, just don’t expect it to be a James Bond-style action movie though.

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

Review: “Primal Species” (Film)

Well, for this review in my “1990s Films” series, I thought that I’d take a look at a gloriously cheesy low-budget monster movie from 1996 called “Primal Species” (or “Carnosaur 3: Primal Species” in America).

Whilst I’m hoping to review more 1990s films in the future, the schedule may get a little bit more irregular in the immediate future (due to things like scheduled posts that have to appear on specific days etc..)

Anyway, “Primal Species” was a second-hand DVD that I bought purely on the basis of the hilariously awesome cover art. Seriously, I’m not joking here!

So, let’s take a look at “Primal Species”. This review may contain some SPOILERS, and the film itself contains some FLICKERING LIGHTS (although I’m not sure if they’re prominent [if I remember rightly, they’re a small background detail in one scene] or intense enough to cause issues or not).

This cover art is just brilliant on so many levels!

“Primal Species” begins with a convoy of US Army trucks that is ambushed by masked terrorists, who are after a shipment of uranium that one of the trucks is meant to be carrying.

And, yes, the terrorists look like a small army of ninjas led by a 1980s-style goth musician.

Whilst the terrorists drive the truck to a warehouse in California, an elite army special forces team led by a guy called Rance is training in the desert. However, shortly after their exercise is over- Rance is called to headquarters and told to recover the stolen truck and it’s classified contents.

After discovering the remains of the terrorists and several local policemen in a warehouse – half of Rance’s team is killed by a mysterious creature. A while later, the surviving soldiers are briefed by a scientist called Dr. Hodges who explains that the creatures are experimental genetic reconstructions of two velociraptors and a T-Rex that were intended for medical research. Much to Rance’s dismay, Dr.Hodges also insists that the dinosaurs be captured alive…..

Yay! Paleontology!

During another attempt at capturing the dinosaurs, Rance’s surviving troops are joined by several members of the US Marines. And, after a bit of inter-service rivalry, they begin to hatch another plan to capture the dinosaurs….

One of the first things that I will say about this film is that it is one of those films that I really wish that I’d watched when I was a teenager. It contains the perfect blend of suspense, 1990s cheesiness, humour and gloriously silly monster-based action. It also reminded me a little bit of classic 1990s survival horror videogames like “Resident Evil” and “Dino Crisis” too, which is never a bad thing πŸ™‚

I think that it’s the combination of military characters and ferocious creatures or something like that.

The film’s pacing is reasonably good too, with suspense and action being balanced fairly well. Likewise, the film’s reasonably short running time (about 80 minutes according to VLC media player, and about 96 minutes according to the DVD case) means that the narrative remains fairly focused and compelling throughout, despite a somewhat random change in location at one point in the film (eg: the dinosaurs somehow board a ship with relatively little explanation).

Although the horror elements of this film aren’t that frightening, they’re still very well-executed. These include lots of suspenseful scenes when the soldiers are trying to find (or hide from) the dinosaurs, a predictable-but-dramatic dinosaur autopsy scene and some relatively simple (but well-executed) gore effects during a few moments of the film.

Although this film has a relatively low budget, it works within these limitations really well. Most of the film takes place in both a claustrophobic warehouse and inside a large ship, which helps to add a lot of extra suspense to these scenes. Likewise, although the dinosaurs are clearly actors in well-made rubber suits and/or large theatrical props, they still look and act in a fairly convincing way. However, a lot of this is due to the fact that they are often only seen briefly and/or are shrouded in shadows for most of the film.

This has the unfortunate side effect of getting clear screenshots of the dinosaurs for this review somewhat more of a challenge than I expected.

More often, the dinosaur-based scenes look more like this.

Still, the special effects during the film’s action scenes are reasonably good, with a series of dramatic explosions near the beginning of the film being a stand-out moment. Even though this film doesn’t have a gigantic effects budget, the film’s action scenes and horror scenes are still suitably dramatic.

In our age of CGI-filled mega-budget films, it’s refreshing to see an old film that doesn’t need to use ridiculously expensive effects to remain interestingly thrilling. Even so, the quality of the explosion effects varies noticeably throughout the film.

Near the beginning of the film, the explosions look like Hollywood-quality special effects.

Whereas, in this scene, the explosion effects look more like someone has attached a lit firework to a model boat.

Interestingly, “Primal Species” is also an action movie that manages to be very militaristic without being obnoxious about it. Despite the fact that the 1990s wasn’t an entirely peaceful decade (eg: the Gulf War, the Balkans etc..) it was something of a period of relative peace. And, this influences how the US military is depicted in a lot of American films from the time.

In other words, US troops are shown to be competent and brave, but they often aren’t portrayed with the kind of extreme reverence that more modern post-9/11 films and TV shows from America usually do. Likewise, the relative lack of real-world threats at the time means that the American military get to be gung-ho badasses in 1990s movies without it coming across as “political” or nationalistic or anything like that – because they’re usually fighting things like cartoonish fictional villains or, in this case, dinosaurs.

When they aren’t arguing about whether the army or marines are better, of course…

The military characters in this film are really interesting, with the two standout characters being a US Army soldier called Polchek and a US Marine called Proudfoot. Polchek provides most of the film’s comic relief – being something of an obnoxious, bumbling idiot. Proudfoot, on the other hand is a really cool Jill Valentine– esque elite soldier who is probably one of the best characters in the film.

These two characters are the most memorable ones in the film.

One interesting theme in this film, which is perhaps a reflection of the time that it was made, is the topic of female soldiers in the US military. Although this topic is handled in a somewhat cartoonish way (eg: in dialogue between Polchek and Proudfoot), the film generally takes a fairly sensible attitude towards the subject and shows both male and female troops being equally good at combat etc…

And equally likely to be eaten by hungry dinosaurs too.

However, a few lines in the film do seem somewhat dated by modern standards (eg: one of the marines using a homophobic insult, Polchek passing immature notes during Dr. Hodges’ lecture, a police chief talking about Iranians etc..).

In terms of set design and lighting, this film does reasonably well. Whilst most of the set design just consists of industrial-looking areas, these often look fairly cool.

Plus, like a lot of great films from the 1990s, “Primal Species” makes fairly good use of gloomy and high-contrast lighting. However, although this looks really cool, it isn’t used quite as expertly or dramatically as some other films from this decade. Even so, there’s some brilliantly ominous red/blue lighting in some scenes.

The lighting in this scene is probably one of the best uses of lighting in this film. This scene is also vaguely reminiscent of the “Alien” films too πŸ™‚

Likewise, check out the clever use of red and blue lighting on this close-up of the T-Rex!

Musically speaking, most of the more noticeable parts of the film’s soundtrack are filled with stylised militaristic marching music etc… I also noticed a random rock song during the credits too.

All in all, this is a cheesy, fun and thrilling monster movie. It’s the kind of movie that I wish I’d watched when I was a teenager. It also reminded me a bit of classic videogames like “Resident Evil” and “Dino Crisis”. Although this film was made on a fairly low budget, it still manages to be extremely enjoyable throughout. Yes, it hasn’t aged well, but (outdated dialogue aside) this is part of the charm of the film. It’s a glorious example of 1990s silliness at it’s finest πŸ™‚

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least three and a half, if not more.