Review: “Transition” By Iain Banks (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a slight break from detective fiction and read an interesting-looking literary sci-fi novel from 2009 (that I found in a charity shop in Petersfield last year) called “Transition” by Iain Banks.

Although I’d heard of Iain Banks before, I’d never actually got round to reading anything by him before, so I was kind of curious. Plus, this was a novel that was about one of my favourite sci-fi subjects – parallel universes 🙂 Not to mention that one of the early segments talked longingly about 1989-2001 (eg: the 1990s), so naturally I was curious.

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

This is the 2010 Abacus (UK) paperback edition of “Transition” that I read.

The novel begins with a narrator mentioning that he is an unreliable narrator, before musing about the time between 1989 and 2001 – when the world was a bit more innocent and optimistic. The narrator then explicitly tells us the story’s ending, where he is suffocated by a mysterious assailant. He then shows the reader something that hasn’t happened yet, an armed man entering a train carriage.

Then, after this, we get to see glimpses of the lives of several different characters such as an ambitious social climber and drug dealer called Adrian Cubbish, a man called Mike Esteros pitching a film to a Hollywood studio, a mysterious patient in a psychiatric ward called Patient 8262, a mysterious traveller called The Transitionary, a rather bitter and bigoted character called Madame D’Ortolan, a creepy torturer known as The Philosopher etc…

Needless to say, all of their lives will collide in all sorts of intriguingly strange ways…..

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, if you can understand it, then it is an absolutely gripping and brilliantly well-written sci-fi thriller. Although the novel’s plot becomes more streamlined (it’s a classic “evil despot vs. plucky band of rebels” story) as the story progresses, this is one of those novels that will require you to think and pay attention whilst reading it. In other words, like with Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” and Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall“, this novel isn’t meant to be relaxing easy reading.

Yet, despite containing numerous things that would usually annoy me (eg: the story isn’t told in chronological order, there are multiple narrators etc..), this novel remained fairly gripping throughout. In part, this is due to the quality of Banks’ writing and, in part, is due to the fact that some of the more “confusing” parts of the novel are fairly well-handled.

Not only does the story tell you who is narrating whenever the narrator changes but, even though the novel’s numerous flashback scenes aren’t explicitly signposted, you can usually tell what chronological order things are supposed to happen in if you pay attention to the rest of the story. Although, again, this is one of those stories that will either leave you feeling really confused or really delighted.

Still, this is a novel that you’ll get the most out of if you’ve read more experimental or avant-garde fiction beforehand. In other words, some parts of the story are deliberately meant to be confusing and disorientating – and you’ve just got to let the words wash across you until you can work out what is going on. But, given that this novel is a story about jumping between universes, timelines and bodies – this confusion is an integral part of the story and, once you get used to it, it works really really well 🙂

The novel’s sci-fi elements are pretty interesting too. Although some elements of the story are left deliberately mysterious, the mechanics of jumping between parallel worlds are explained reasonably well and will usually follow a fairly consistent set of rules. Likewise, the parallel worlds themselves also allow for a few interesting alternate histories too (although this isn’t explored as much as I’d hoped). The novel also contains a few other sci-fi elements too, although I won’t spoil the most interesting one of these.

Thematically, this novel is absolutely fascinating. In addition to exploring the topic of parallel universes, multiple timelines etc… it also covers a lot of other topics too. For example, it is a fairly grim novel about how violence begets violence, it is also a novel about the greed that led to the 2008 financial crash, a scathing criticism of the post-9/11 use of torture by some governments, a novel about the nature of evil, a story about the value of good in an indifferent multiverse and a novel about the dangers of things like authoritarianism and solipsism too.

This is also a novel which, whilst not “laugh out loud” funny, certainly has a gleefully dark sense of humour about both itself and the world. Everything from the narrator telling the reader the ending very early in the story, to the ironic deaths of several characters, to countless other satirical and/or ironic moments have a wonderfully twisted sense of humour to them that really helps to keep the story interesting.

One interesting thing about this novel is that it’s also something of an “edgy” novel (and isn’t for the prudish or the easily-shocked). For the most part, the “edgy” elements of the story work reasonably well (such as the disturbing scenes that explore what makes people become evil etc..). However, the novel will occasionally do fairly silly things like including exposition-filled dialogue segments that take place whilst two characters are making love.

In terms of the characters, this novel is fairly good. Although all of the characters are fairly stylised, they have distinctive personalities, backstories and motivations. Plus, since this is a novel where people can inhabit the bodies of people living in parallel universes, there’s a lot of interesting stuff about how much of a character is their real self and how much belongs to the body they’ve jumped into.

In terms of the writing, it is brilliant. Although the novel does use multiple first and third-person narrators, this is never too confusing thanks to the fact that the changes between narrators are clearly signposted (by both a mention of who is narrating and, sometimes, a distinctive change in the narrative style) . Likewise, the novel is written in a way which is both intellectually, descriptively formal and refreshingly informal. Seriously, this is one of those novels where the writing itself is one major reason to keep reading it.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is something of a mixed bag. At 469 pages in length, it’s a little bit on the longer side of things and would have probably benefitted from some trimming.

However, although the novel can be a little slow-paced at times, the pacing is reasonably good – with the story moving along at a fairly moderate pace most of the time, with some more fast-paced and suspenseful moments at various points too. Even so, working out when many of the novel’s flashback scenes (which aren’t always in chronological order) take place can slow the story down a little at times.

All in all, this is a really good novel. Yes, some parts of it are deliberately meant to be confusing and it is the kind of novel where you will need to pay attention. But, this is one of those deep, interesting stories that is worth sticking with. It’s a complex, intelligent, moderately-paced literary sci-fi thriller that slowly gets more gripping as it goes along.

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

Review: “Patient Zero” By Jonathan Maberry (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d look at a book that I’ve been meaning to read for a while. Originally, I’d planned to read Jonathan Maberry’s 2009 novel “Patient Zero” soon after finishing another zombie novel called “Zombie Apocalypse! Acapulcalypse Now” by Alison Littlewood.

However, for some reason, my second-hand copy of “Patient Zero” ended up languishing near the bottom of my “to read” pile for at least a month or two.

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

This is the 2010 Gollancz (UK) paperback edition of “Patient Zero” that I read.

The novel begins in America, where a policeman called Joe Ledger is relaxing on the beach – before suddenly being approached by two FBI agents. Although Joe worries that this might have something to do with the violent counter-terrorism raid he took part in a few days earlier, he isn’t sure why the FBI are interested in him. The agents escort him to an interrogation room.

Some time later, Joe is joined by a mysterious fellow called Mr.Church, who wants to recruit him for a top-secret task force called the Department Of Military Sciences (DMS) due to both Joe’s military background and the fact that he showed no hesitation in combat during the counter-terrorism raid. However, there is one final test. Joe has to walk into another room and handcuff a criminal.

When Joe enters the room, he notices that the criminal in question is one of the terrorists he shot during the raid. Not only that, the man is still very much alive. In fact, he seems to be some kind of ferocious, flesh-eating zombie

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s a really interesting mixture of genres. Although it’s a fast-paced modern militaristic thriller novel in the tradition of writers like Lee Child, Clive Cussler etc.. (a genre I went off of slightly after binge-reading eight of these novels in a row a few months ago) it is kept dramatic and interesting thanks to the inclusion of zombies 🙂

In a lot of ways, this novel reminded me a bit of the first “Resident Evil” movie, thanks to it’s claustrophobic action scenes, sci-fi elements, military/industrial theme and zombie virus storyline.

Likewise, although “Patient Zero” is more of a thriller novel than a horror novel, it thankfully doesn’t skimp on the horror too much. In addition to lots of fast-paced suspenseful horror and several well-placed scenes of gory horror, the novel has a surprising focus on moral/psychological horror too.

In other words, the psychological effects of having to shoot zombified civilians take their toll on the main characters throughout the story. Although this element is focused on a little too much, it helps to prevent the story from turning into too much of a generic action-thriller novel.

Plus, the zombie-related elements of the story are pretty interesting too. At one point, the novel contains a scientific lecture about how the zombie virus works and this allows the story to introduce some interesting elements (eg: zombies become dormant in cold temperatures, they are driven to spread the virus rather than eat people, the zombie virus is stored in the brainstem/spine, the zombies aren’t technically dead etc..).

However, for the most part, the zombies are pretty standard “aim for the head!” horror movie zombies, albeit of the modern fast-moving variety. But, as the novel progresses, a more intelligent type of also zombie appears too.

The novel’s action-thriller elements are really good. Since the main focus is on containing the zombie virus before it spreads, most of the zombie-related fight scenes tend to happen in claustrophobic, confined settings – which really helps to add a lot of immediacy, suspense and grittiness to these scenes.

These thrilling action scenes are also complemented by some rather suspenseful sub-plots. In addition to chapters that show what the villains are getting up to, there’s also a rather suspenseful, paranoia-filled sub-plot about a saboteur gaining access to the DMS’s secret base. All of this helps to ensure that the novel’s slower and quieter moments still remain reasonably gripping.

But, whilst the novel’s thriller elements are certainly thrilling, this novel reads a lot like something from early-mid 2000s America in terms of it’s “war on terror” theme and attitudes. Even so, the novel does try to add some nuance via a few dialogue scenes (and some British characters and references, which were kind of cool to see) but, for the most part, this novel reminded me a bit of US TV shows like “24” and “NCIS”. Yes, like those TV shows, it’s still very gripping – but this element of the story is probably a little bit overbearing.

As for the characters in this novel, they’re fairly interesting. Whilst you shouldn’t expect ultra-deep characterisation, the main characters have enough depth to keep them interesting. Whether it’s Joe’s conversations with his psychologist (Rudy), a sarcastic DMS scientist called Dr. Hu, the tough SAS major who is second-in-command, the mysterious Mr. Church or even a couple of the villains (eg: a greedy industrialist and his sarcastic henchman), many of the characters in this novel are distinctive and interesting enough to stop the story from feeling too generic.

As for the writing in this novel, it’s interesting. One strange technique that Maberry uses is to alternate between first and third person perspective in different chapters. Surprisingly, this doesn’t turn the novel into a disorientating mess. Although it surprised me at first, it was pretty easy to get used to thanks to both clear signposting at the beginning of each chapter and the fact that Maberry’s narrative voice remains pretty similar in both first and third-person scenes (which keeps the story flowing, despite the frequent perspective changes).

In terms of the actual narration itself, it’s reasonably standard fast-paced modern thriller novel stuff and it does the job reasonably well. Likewise, the novel also has a sense of humour too, which helps to keep things interesting. Plus, this novel also includes more than it’s fair share of pop culture and technology references – and, although most of these still hold up reasonably well when read today, they’ll probably end up dating the novel quite a bit in another decade or two.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is reasonably good. Although it’s almost 500 pages long, the novel is written in a fairly fast-paced way which means that the story never really feels too long. Likewise, the novel expertly balances and contrasts slower and more suspenseful scenes with thrillingly fast-paced scenes of pulse-pounding action too. So, the length and pacing are reasonably good.

All in all, this is a rather fun twist on a rather familiar and generic type of story. Yes, if you want a gripping, gruesome, action-packed zombie thriller novel, you’re probably better off reading S.D.Perry’s “Resident Evil” novelisations or possibly “Erebus” by Shaun Hutson. But, even so, this novel is like a gripping modern military thriller novel, but with zombies 🙂

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

Review: “Some Girls Bite” By Chloe Neill (Novel)

Note: Due to various scheduling reasons, the next book review probably won’t appear here until the 2nd April.

Well, after reading Lilith Saintcrow’s “Working For The Devil“, I was still in the mood for urban fantasy fiction.

But, since I have a rule about reading multiple books by the same author directly after one another (after reading eight Clive Cussler novels in a row a few months ago taught me that variety is the spice of life), I decided to read a second-hand copy of Chloe Neill’s 2009 vampire novel “Some Girls Bite” that I’d ordered a few weeks earlier when I was going through a bit of a horror phase.

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

This is the 2010 Gollancz (UK) paperback edition of “Some Girls Bite” that I read.

The novel is set in a version of Chicago where the existence of vampires is public knowledge. The story begins when a university student called Merit is violently attacked by a vampire on campus. The vampire mortally wounds her and leaves her for dead, but she is rescued by another vampire who turns her in order to save her life.

So, Merit finds herself in the middle of the confusing world of vampires and vampire factions. Not only is she eager to find out who attacked her, but she also has her fair share of misgivings about being a vampire too. Plus, in accordance with tradition, she only has a week before she must swear fealty to her vampiric liege….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s like watching the pilot episode of a TV show. Yes, it’s well-written, the characters are good and the story is a little bit like a slightly more light-hearted version of “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines” (albeit without the theme of secrecy etc..). But, at the same time, it is more of a scene-setting introduction to a larger series than anything else. In other words, the story’s detective and horror elements are kind of a background detail.

So, if you’re expecting a horror novel or a detective thriller, you’re probably going to be slightly disappointed. If you’re expecting an action-thriller novel, you’ll also be disappointed. Even though the chart on the back cover describes this novel as “Action Packed“, there is very little in the way of action here – there are a couple of “friendly” martial arts sparring matches, a tense confrontation or two and a rather brief action sequence near the end, and that’s about it.

Yes, this is a good novel, but it’s more of a character-based drama (with some romance and comedy elements) than anything else. Like with the classic computer game “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines”, this is more of a story about a new vampire adapting to life as a vampire and vampire politics. Although there are a few suspenseful moments, this isn’t so much a horror/thriller novel as it is a novel about friendships, loyalties, relationships, confusion etc…

Still, it works reasonably well as a drama novel. This is mostly because the premise is intriguing and the characters are all reasonably good too. The central focus of the story is the friendship between Merit and her best friend Mallory, who – unlike in a lot of thriller/horror stories – are actually friends. Sure, they trade sarcastic dialogue and snarky pop culture references occasionally, but they are actually best friends. Likewise, the story also adds a bit of spice with Merit’s somewhat fiery/antagonistic relationship with her vampiric liege Ethan, and a vague love triangle plot with another vampire called Morgan.

One major theme of this story is that of belonging, loyalty and family, with Merit being somewhat estranged from her snobbish, rich parents and getting along a lot better with Mallory, some of the vampires and her ex-cop grandfather. She’s also somewhat cynical about the vampiric traditions that she is expected to follow, and tries to walk a fine line between rebellion and obedience too.

Likewise, the “world” of the novel is pretty interesting too. It is set in a version of Chicago where vampires are public knowledge, and maintain a respectable and orderly system of traditions and “houses”. They also usually drink pre-packaged blood instead of biting people. They also face discrimination too. The story’s detective plot, which really doesn’t get enough focus, links into this since the presence of a vampire serial killer threatens to turn humanity against the vampires. Plus, of course, being an urban fantasy novel, there are also nymphs, shapeshifters, witches etc… too.

As for the writing in this novel, it’s pretty good and it is one of the main things that keeps the novel compelling. The story is narrated by Merit, which allows for lots of characterisation (since she’s a fairly ordinary twentysomething student, who is way out of her depth) in addition to lots of sarcastic humour and numerous pop culture references (which, for a ten-year old novel, still feel reasonably modern and fresh). The novel’s narrative style is reasonably informal and fast-paced, which helps to keep the story readable and interesting. Likewise, the chapter titles are wonderfully comedic too 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is ok. At 339 pages, it’s relatively concise by modern standards. Likewise, although there are long “everyday life” drama segments in between the few meagre moments of suspense, horror, detection and action, these segments are kept reasonably readable and compelling thanks to the strength of the narration and the characters.

All in all, although this novel was different to what I had expected, it was still reasonably enjoyable. The story’s narration, characters, premise and humour are reasonably good and they help to keep the story compelling.

However, not only is this an introduction to a longer series, but it also skimps on the horror, action-thriller and detective elements too. Even so, it’s a fun piece of light entertainment. But, if you want a more thrilling and horror-filled vampire story, then I’d probably recommend reading Jocelynn Drake’s “Nightwalker” or playing “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines” instead.

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

Review: “Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel (Novel)

Well, since I was still in the mood for historical fiction set in Tudor times (after reading C. J. Sansom’s excellent “Heartstone), I thought that I’d check out a rather famous novel from 2009 called “Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel.

This was a book that I found in a charity shop in Petersfield during a book-shopping trip last April (and, yes, I write these articles/reviews quite far in advance) and, since I’d heard of this novel before and was in a Tudor mood, I decided to check it out.

So, let’s take a look at “Wolf Hall”. I suppose I should point out that this review will contain some SPOILERS. But, if you know a little bit about the history, then you’ll know what happens in this book anyway.

This is the 2010 Fourth Estate (UK) paperback edition of “Wolf Hall” that I read.

The novel begins in Putney in 1500, when a teenage boy called Tom is being brutally beaten by his drunken father. After barely surviving the ordeal, he decides to flee to mainland Europe and make his living as a soldier.

Years later, in the 1520s, Thomas Cromwell is back in England and is now both a lawyer and the right-hand man of the influential Cardinal Wolsey. The main business at the Royal Court is King Henry VIII’s desire to divorce his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn. In order to achieve this, Henry has to get an annulment from Pope Clement. Needless to say, this is a rather complicated business.

And, whilst all of this is going on, Cardinal Wolsey begins to fall from favour with the king. Yet, thanks to Cromwell’s skills, resilience and intellect, Cromwell finds that he still retains some importance at the Royal Court. Not only that, he slowly begins to gain more influence and power than Wolsey ever had…

One of the first things that I will say about this book is that, when I bought it, the shopkeeper praised it before pointing out that it was “complicated”. At the time, I foolishly thought “I’ve read Neal Stephenson’s ‘The Diamond Age‘, I’ll be fine” or something like that. Of course, I underestimated this book.

Don’t get me wrong, it is a good novel – but don’t let the modern-style, linear and relatively fast-paced opening chapter lull you into a false sense of security. This is not an easily readable, fast or relaxing book. In other words, you’ll need to pay attention whilst reading it.

One of the things that this novel does is to present time in a non-linear way. In other words, there are lots of flashbacks and flashbacks-within-flashbacks. Likewise, the chapters aren’t always in chronological order either.

This novel can jump back and forth from year to year within the space of a couple of pages and, unless you’re paying attention, it can get very confusing very quickly. However, I can see why Mantel chose to do this. Not only does it mimic the way that memory itself works (after all, we rarely remember things in a linear, logical order), but it also allows for a lot of extra background detail too.

And, yes, this is very much a literary novel in this respect. Whilst “Wolf Hall” thankfully does have a plot, it is more of a novel about people, themes, ideas and the general atmosphere of part of history than it is a traditional story. And, in this respect, it works reasonably well.

It slowly builds up a large, rich, intricate tapestry of life that is really interesting to experience. Likewise, given that the number of political schemes in this novel could give “Game Of Thrones” a run for it’s money, this level of descriptive and human complexity really helps to add drama to the story too.

Likewise, the novel’s characters are absolutely brilliant too. Although Thomas Cromwell is the central focus of the story, all of the many other characters are presented as realistic, complicated people with different motivations. Seriously, if there is one thing that this novel does really well, it is characterisation. This is the kind of novel where you can literally feel how Cromwell misses Wolsey, how his rough early life has influenced his older self etc…

The novel’s more famous historical characters are also portrayed in some rather interesting ways too. Cromwell is presented as competent, resilient, intelligent and (relatively) benevolent. Catherine Of Aragon is presented as pious, stubborn and tragic. Cardinal Wolsey is presented as kindly, rich and paternalistic. Mary Tudor is presented as frail and meek. Elizabeth Tudor is an infant. Anne Boleyn is presented as mysterious, calculating and spiteful. Thomas More is portrayed as cruel and stubborn. Wriothsley is presented as an amiable, annoying, ambitious and mildly untrustworthy. And Henry VIII is, of course, Henry VIII.

Thematically, this novel is really interesting too. Although it is mostly a novel about the nature of power, it is also a novel about the religious turmoil of the 16th century, a novel about death and a lot of other things. Seriously, in thematic terms, this is a literary novel in the best sense of the word.

One fascinating theme (if you read “Wolf Hall” these days), is that the novel makes it very clear that 16th century England was a European country.

Not only does Thomas Cromwell speak at least six different languages (English, Welsh, French, German, Italian and Latin), but London is realistically shown to be a rather cosmopolitan place where people from across Europe live and do business. Likewise, Cromwell’s memory of his time in Italy, France etc.. during his youth helps him out a lot.

Although the novel doesn’t shy away from Henry VIII’s complicated relationship with Europe, it is surprisingly refreshing to see an “everyday” version of England that is so at ease with Europe. Where people speak multiple languages without a second thought (and, yes, this may make a few small parts of the novel confusing. I could understand most of the French dialogue but, due to my even more basic/limited knowledge of German, at least one line of dialogue was a complete mystery to me), where there is no silly scaremongering about immigration and where people care about what happens on the continent etc…

In terms of the writing, Mantel’s writing style will probably take you a while to get used to. Yes, this novel’s third-person narration is filled with numerous brilliant descriptions, quite a few clever chapter titles and lots of wonderfully deep sentences. However, there are a number of annoying stylistic quirks that can get in the way of the story slightly.

For example, Mantel will sometimes just refer to Cromwell as “he” without introducing him first. So, some scenes can get confusing if you don’t realise that Cromwell is supposed to be present. Plus, sometimes, Mantel doesn’t use speech marks for dialogue (although this usually isn’t too confusing). Likewise, Mantel will sometimes do things like introduce a piece of dialogue by just stating the character’s name (without speech tags, like in a play/film script). Still, once you get used to Mantel’s style, this novel becomes more readable and will seem more well-written.

In terms of length and pacing, this is a very long (650 pages!) and very slow-paced novel. How I read this in less than five days, I’ll never know! Although the story never quite gets boring, don’t expect it to be a gripping thriller either. Reading this book is like running a marathon. Still, that said, it is quite a satisfying read, even though the story sometimes moves at an almost glacial pace (especially with the frequent flashback scenes etc.. I mentioned earlier in this review).

All in all, whilst this is a good novel, don’t go into it expecting an easy, quick and relaxing read. This novel is quite satisfying to read and it is also one of those novels that is worth reading for the prestige of having read it. Even so, the structure and style of this story can border on confusing at times. So, be sure to pay attention whilst reading. Anyway, I think that the next book I’ll review will be a nice relaxing thriller novel about vampires or something like that.

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

Review: “Last Rites” By Shaun Hutson (Novel)

Well, I was still in the mood for reading horror novels and, a day or two before I wrote this review, I suddenly remembered that I had a copy of “Last Rites” by Shaun Hutson.

Back in 2009, I’d been out shopping when I had noticed that there was a new Shaun Hutson novel in the bookshop. Needless to say, I bought a new hardback copy of it there and then (something I’ve only done with maybe four or five books before). And then, for some completely unknown reason, I never got round to reading it. For almost a decade. So, yes, this review is long overdue.

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

This is the 2009 Orbit (UK) hardback edition of “Last Rites” that I read.

The novel begins with a mysterious description of a man walking through a tunnel. Then, the story moves to North London where a teacher called Peter Mason is being brutally beaten in the street by a group of five young hooligans. They flee, leaving him for dead, but he is taken to hospital and, after being comatose for several days, he finds that he luckily has no serious lasting physical injuries from his ordeal.

Whilst all of this is going on, creepy things are happening in the Buckinghamshire town of Walston. The local church has been desecrated, several animals have been killed in bizarre ways and there is a spate of mysterious suicides amongst the town’s youth.

Suffering from panic attacks after he has been discharged from hospital, Peter Mason realises that he can’t stay in London any longer. So, he applies for several teaching jobs outside the city. To his delight, he is offered an interview at a prestigious private boarding school in the quiet, bucolic rural town of Walston…

One of the first things that I will say is that this is a Shaun Hutson novel. It has all of the grittiness, compelling storytelling and intense horror that you would expect, although it is a considerably bleaker and more depressing novel than I’d expected.

Yes, it could be because it’s been a while since I read a more contemporary Hutson novel (the only other Hutson novel I’ve read within the past few years was from the 1980s) and I’d forgotten just how bleak and cynical they can be, but it really caught me by surprise. It probably didn’t help that I binge-read most of the book in a single evening.

I should probably start by talking about the horror elements in this novel. After all, it is a horror novel and it is a very effective one at that! But, surprisingly, there is relatively little of the over-the-top splatterpunk horror that you would traditionally expect from a Shaun Hutson novel. Yes, the novel certainly has a few grisly moments but, by Shaun Hutson standards, they’re very tame. Seriously, I’ve seen horror movies that are gorier than this novel!

Yet, whilst this novel contains relatively little gory horror, it contains pretty much every other type of horror under the sun. Amongst other things, there is suspenseful horror, bleak horror, medical horror, sexual horror, crime horror, psychological horror, implied horror, realistic horror, atmospheric horror, bullying horror, claustrophobic horror, social horror, bereavement horror, tragic horror, occult horror etc… And all of these different types of horror are considerably creepier and more disturbing than the gallons of gore you’d traditionally expect to see in a Shaun Hutson novel.

So, yes, this is a grim, disturbing horror novel that does it’s job perhaps too well. Literally the only relief from the horror (and perhaps my only criticism of the novel’s horror elements) is the slightly ludicrous twist ending. Yes, some parts of it are brilliantly foreshadowed and the final chapter has a chilling sting in it’s tail. But, as a payoff for the nail-bitingly gripping and chillingly disturbing suspense throughout the novel, the ending comes up a little short. The mystery is far scarier than the answer to it.

However, the ending seems more like a formality than anything else. The rest of the novel is this incredibly gripping thing that just begs you to binge-read it. This novel is written and structured much more like a thriller novel than anything else (probably a side-effect of all of the brilliantly intense action thriller novels that Hutson wrote during the 1990s and early-mid 2000s) and this works really well.

Whilst the third-person narration includes some traditional Hutson flourishes (eg: the words “cleft” and “liquescent” appear, albeit separately), the story’s thriller-style elements include short chapters (that keep you wanting to read “just one more”), a very compelling mystery and a grittier and more matter-of-fact style narration that really helps to make the story more intense and fast-paced. Even though this novel is about 338 pages long, it’ll probably take you as long to read as a 200-250 page book would.

All in all, “Last Rites” is an incredibly chilling – and gripping – horror novel. Yes, it’s depressing as hell and it probably isn’t for the prudish. Yes, the ending is a little anticlimactic too. But, it is the kind of book that will pretty much make you binge-read the whole thing out of grim fascination. It is intense, it is disturbing, it is gripping. It is a Shaun Hutson novel.

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

Review: “Dawnbreaker” By Jocelynn Drake (Novel)

First of all, happy New Year everyone 🙂 Although I hadn’t planned to start the year with a book review, it’s been a couple of days since the last one. So, with that said, I thought that I’d take a look at the third novel in Jocelynn Drake’s brilliant “Dark Days” series (you can see my reviews of the first two books here and here).

Needless to say, this series is best read in the correct order. And, although it is theoretically possible to read “Dawnbreaker” as a stand-alone novel (since it contains a few recaps), it is a sequel to the first two novels and you’ll get a lot more out of it if you read those first.

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

This is the 2009 EOS (US) paperback edition of “Dawnbreaker” that I read.

“Dawnbreaker” begins during a spectacular car chase in Mira’s home city of Savannah. Mira, Tristan, Knox and Amanda are trying to escape a hit-squad of naturi who are out for their blood. More specifically, Mira wants to get out of the city in order to reduce any potential witnesses or human casualties from the inevitable battle that will follow.

Of course, when they stop outside town, the naturi attack in force and the battle seems to be turning in the naturi’s favour until Danaus shows up to save the day. After this, they all return to Mira’s mansion outside town where she reluctantly offers to begin a vampiric “family” in order to protect Knox and Amanda. After spelling out the risks, Mira gives them both a day or two to decide.

But, before long, Amanda has been kidnapped by the naturi, several werewolves are dead and Barrett is furious. Believing Mira’s presence to be the cause of all of the recent troubles, he warns her to leave the city or face his wrath…..

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is absolutely spectacular. It is a really good mixture of the fast-paced action-thriller elements of the first novel and the more suspenseful elements of the second novel. But, in addition to this, it also contains the kind of grand sweeping drama that you’d expect from the third novel in any series.

The structure of this novel is pretty interesting too – with the first half of the story taking place in Savannah. This is a tense, suspenseful and claustrophobic segment of the novel that is filled with eruptions of violence, daring missions, uneasy truces and frayed friendships. This is also helped by the introduction of a couple of new characters (Cynnia and Shelly) who Mira isn’t sure whether she can fully trust or not.

This then elegantly segues back in the main over-arching story of the series, with the rest of the novel taking place in South America – where Mira and her allies must try to stop the final sacrifice that will re-open the door between Earth and the realm of the naturi. Needless to say, this is the more “epic” part of the novel where Mira must try to stop the naturi returning in force or die trying.

In terms of the horror elements in this novel, there aren’t as many as there were in the previous novels. Yes, there’s a lot of vampiric stuff etc… (including a scene involving a besieged hotel that reminded me of something from a 1990s-style horror movie) but the main emphasis of this story is on drama, suspense and action rather than horror.

Even so, this works really well and the novel remains just as compelling as the previous two. This is also helped by the fact that the story expands on some of the background stuff introduced in the previous novel, whilst also adding some compelling new details too (eg: hints about Mira’s abilities, more details about the naturi, the implications of what Danaus is etc..).

In terms of the narration in this novel, it’s a little bit more on the “matter of fact” side of things, but it still works really well (since it’s a thriller novel as well as a horror/fantasy novel). But, after getting this far into the series, Mira’s constant descriptions of pain, injuries etc.. do get a little bit repetitive. Even so, the story’s first-person narration still retains a lot of the personality and uniqueness that you would expect.

Although this story introduces a few new characters and quite a few familiar ones make an appearance too, the story mostly remains focused on the core group of Mira, Danaus, Shelly and Cynnia. Although it was a little disappointing not to see more about Tristan and Amanda’s budding relationship, not to learn more about Michael’s replacement etc.. this novel’s focus on a small group of characters helps to keep the story dramatic, deep and focused. And it works really well 🙂

Interestingly, this novel both does and doesn’t end on a cliffhanger. Although there’s a tiny cliffhanger at the end of the final page, this story somehow both provides a really satisfying sense of resolution to some of the plot threads that have been building over the past few books, whilst still leaving a lot of stuff unresolved at the same time. It’s a brilliant payoff for reading the first two novels, but also a reminder that there are still three novels left to go.

All in all, this novel is a really spectacular mid-point to a brilliant series. It’s a good combination of the suspense elements from “Dayhunter” and the action thriller elements of “Nightwalker”. It’s a compelling novel that resolves a lot and also leaves a lot tantalisingly unresolved.

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

Review: “Dayhunter” By Jocelynn Drake (Novel)

Well, after reading Jocelynn Drake’s excellent “Nightwalker“, I wanted to read more novels from the “Dark Days” series. And, although I’d only planned to order the next two books, I later ended up ordering second-hand copies of the whole series.

But, although I currently plan to review other novels in between reviewing these vampire novels, I was eager to review the second novel in the series – a novel from 2009 called “Dayhunter”.

Although it is probably theoretically possible to read “Dayhunter” as a stand-alone novel (since it contains recaps of the events of “Nightwalker”), you’ll get a lot more out of the story and characters if you read “Nightwalker” first. This novel is very much a sequel to “Nightwalker” (and part of a larger continuous story), rather than a separate story.

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

This is the 2009 Eos (US) paperback edition of “Dayhunter” that I read.

“Dayhunter” begins a few minutes after the ending of “Nightwalker”. Mira, Tristan and Danaus are travelling through the streets of London – battered and bruised from their encounter with the nefarious Naturi. However, once they find shelter in an alleyway, they are mysteriously attacked by a witch, a werewolf and a human. Even in their weakened state, the intrepid trio put up a good fight and soon prevail.

But, before they can work out why they were attacked, they remember that they have been summoned to Venice in order to meet the vampire coven. Of course, as soon as they set foot in that ancient city, they soon realise that they’ve stepped out of the frying pan and into the fire….

One of the first things that I will say about “Dayhunter” is that it is slightly different to “Nightwalker”. If “Nightwalker” was an frenetic feast of fast-paced action, then “Dayhunter” is a little bit more like a cross between a gothic horror novel, a political thriller and a character-based drama.

It’s still really compelling, but it tells a slightly different type of story. It’s more like watching a few episodes of a well-written TV show than watching a spectacular Hollywood movie, if this makes sense.

Still, whilst this novel places slightly less emphasis on action than “Nightwalker” did, it more than makes up for this with suspense, atmosphere and intrigue. The cut-throat politics of the vampire coven are fairly intriguing and they really help to add a lot of tension and horror to the story.

In addition to this, these parts of the novel also allow for a lot of character development too as we see the main characters torn between compromising and upholding their principles when faced with plots, machinations and unforeseen events.

The horror elements in “Dayhunter” work reasonably well too. Whilst the novel contains slightly less in the way of grisly, violent, blood-soaked horror (although it certainly has it’s moments), this is replaced with a more suspenseful, tragic and gothic style of horror. Not only are the main characters in a city filled with those who want them dead or want to use them as tools, but Mira also has to grapple with the tragic pain of her past too. The horror in this novel is a bit more subtle, but it lingers constantly in the background.

Another cool thing about “Dayhunter” is that it fills out a lot of stuff that is only briefly mentioned in “Nightwalker”. We get to meet characters who are only mentioned in “Nightwalker” (eg: Macaire etc..) and we also not only learn more about the world and mythology of the series, but also a bit more about some of the characters (eg: exactly why Danaus has magical powers etc..) too. It’s a very slightly deeper, slower and more contemplative novel that contrasts really well with the high-octane action of “Nightwalker”.

Like with “Nightwalker”, this novel also tells a fairly satisfying story that is also part of a much larger story. Once again, there is some sense of resolution when the story ends but it is also left very clear that there are many more things for the characters to do and much more of the story still to be told.

The writing and narration in “Dayhunter” is pretty good too. Whilst the novel’s first-person narration is fairly similar to the narration in “Nightwalker”, it feels almost subliminally more focused, sharp and efficient (although this could just be because I’ve got used to Drake’s writing style, or because I’d just read “The Diamond Age” by Neal Stephenson and, after grappling with the narration in that novel, even more gothic narration seemed very direct, efficient and fast-paced by contrast).

Still, the narration here works really well and it helps to keep the story moving at a fairly decent pace, whilst also adding to the dangerous, suspenseful atmosphere of the story too.

All in all, “Dayhunter” is a really good horror/fantasy/gothic thriller novel. Whilst it dials back the frenetic action slightly, it more than makes up with this through lots of characterisation, suspense and atmosphere. As I mentioned earlier, reading this novel is like watching a few episodes of a well-written TV show. It’s reasonably gripping, it’s suitably gothic and it also helps to flesh out the mythology of the series too.

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

Today’s Art (13th June 2018)

Here’s the next digitally-edited painting in my “Gothic Aberystwyth” art series. Surprisingly, this actually ended up being an autobiographical one.

Basically, for Halloween 2009, I got a festival pass to the Abertoir film festival at the Arts Centre cinema. Anyway, after watching one of the horror movies, I happened to notice a camera crew as I was leaving the cinema. The person I glanced briefly in front of the camera seemed like they were someone famous but I couldn’t quite work out who they were at the time.

Of course, quite some time later, I happened to get notstalgic and look on Youtube where I found a documentary filmed at the festival [mildly NSFW] and to my surprise, I realised that the person in question was none other than Emily Booth (star of “Bits“, “Shock Movie Massacre”, “Cradle Of Fear“, “Evil Aliens” etc..)! And I’m still kind of amazed that I walked past none other than Emily Booth and didn’t quite realise it at the time!

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Aberystwyth – Abertoir ’09” By C. A. Brown

Review: “Jonathan Creek – The Grinning Man” (Film/ TV Show Special Episode)

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Well, ever since I reviewed the most recent special episode of “Jonathan Creek” earlier this year, I went through a bit of a Jonathan Creek phase and ended up buying several second-hand DVDs of the show. Although I hadn’t planned to review any of them, I just had to write a review after watching a feature-length episode called “The Grinning Man” that was originally broadcast on New Year’s Day in 2009.

Needless to say, this review may contain some mild SPOILERS, but I’ll avoid giving away anything too major.

“The Grinning Man” begins with an old-style film clip about a famous illusionist of the 1930s called Gessler who lives in an old mansion called Metropolis. This mansion is notorious for housing the “Nightmare Room”, a supposedly haunted room that causes all who spend the night there to disappear. Of course, a famous sceptic of the day insists on being locked in the room for the night to put it to the test…. and he disappears!

In the present day, paranormal investigator Joey Ross and her friend Mina are travelling through the countryside at night when their car breaks down. Thankfully, a car happens to be passing and the driver offers to give them a lift to the stately house that he works at. The house is, of course, Metropolis!

After an evening with several of Gessler’s descendants, Joey goes to bed whilst Mina persuades the caretaker to show her the infamous Nightmare Room. When she playfully suggests that they spend the night together there, the caretaker sternly refuses. But, he eventually agrees to let her stay and even agrees to lock the door for her, even though he won’t stay. Of course, when he returns the next morning, Mina has vanished!

Joey begins to investigate the case but, at the insistence of Gessler’s daughter, Jonathan Creek is also called in to assist with the investigation….

One of the first things that I will say about this episode is that it is possibly one of the best episodes of “Jonathan Creek” that I’ve seen. Although I’d heard bad things about several of the more modern episodes, this one is easily as good as anything from series 1-4.

Since the episode is about two hours long, there’s a lot more room for the story to build suspense and a lot more room for characterisation. One of the most outstanding characters in the episode has to be Joey Ross, who is as brilliantly cynical and sarcastic as you would expect one of Jonathan’s co-investigators to be. But, unlike Maddy or Carla, Joey has a lot of skills in common with Jonathan Creek.

Plus, since the episode begins with Joey being thrown into the middle of a mystery, she pretty much almost ends up being the main character of the episode too.

The main plot for this episode is, quite simply, stunning. Whilst a lot of the episode is spent building up suspense, this pays off brilliantly. The explanation for the mystery of the Nightmare Room is genuinely shocking and extremely chilling. Seriously, I cannot overstate how creepy this part of the episode is! Plus, like in all great episodes of Jonathan Creek, the solution is something that will startle you when you first see it, but will seem blindingly obvious in retrospect.

Seriously, this episode is an absolutely brilliant horror movie! In addition to the shocking main storyline, there are also a few other brilliantly creepy elements such as the titular “Grinning Man”, a creepy-looking Heironmyous Bosch painting that has a chilling backstory of it’s own. Parts of this episode also have a wonderfully gothic atmosphere, which is helped by some absolutely brilliant set design.

However, the episode’s many sub-plots are a bit hit and miss. There’s a hilarious, if somewhat silly, sub-plot about Adam Klaus that helps to add some comedy to an otherwise gloomy and chilling episode. There’s also a more conventional detective-themed sub-plot, where Jonathan and Joey have to investigate a kidnapping – which is a mildly compelling storyline but nothing extraordinary.

Finally, there’s something of a sub-plot about Jonathan falling in love with a fan called Nicola. This is probably the weakest part of the episode, given that they seem to go from meeting each other to being in a relationship within a ridiculously short space of time. In fact, this part of the story only really serves to add to the set up for both a comedic scene involving Adam Klaus and a joke at the very end of the episode.

All in all, this is an absolutely stellar episode of “Jonathan Creek”. The characters are brilliant, there’s some hilarious comedy and there are some genuinely chilling scenes that will probably linger in your mind for hours after you’ve finished watching. The only flaw with this episode is that it’s slightly too long. It’s still an amazingly good episode, but it would have been even better if the editor had removed the lukewarm romantic sub-plot and the more “conventional” detective sub-plot about the kidnapping. But, this aside, it’s a brilliant episode.

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

Review: “Alien Shooter 2: Reloaded” (Computer Game)

2017-artwork-alien-shooter-2-review-sketch

Well, after playing quite a bit of the first “Alien Shooter” game (and completing “Zombie Shooter”), I was curious about what the second “Alien Shooter” game would be like.

Thankfully, there was still a sale running on GOG a few days before I originally prepared this review (in late 2016), so I was able to pick up a copy of “Alien Shooter 2” for 79p. I think that it costs about a fiver at full price though.

And, since I completed “Alien Shooter 2” a few minutes before I started writing this review, this will actually be a full review, rather than a partial review or a first impressions article.

Plus, like with the other games in this series, I should probably warn you that this review contains unrealistic/cartoonish GRUESOME IMAGES and BLOODY IMAGES.

So, let’s take a look at “Alien Shooter 2”:

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“Alien Shooter 2” is an isometric third-person perspective action game from 2009. One of the very first things that I will say about this game is that, unlike the first “Alien Shooter” game, this one actually has something of a story to it. In other words, there’s actual voice-acting, NPCs and even the occasional set piece.

Of course, some of the voice acting is kind of funny, such as the voice acting for this character. I literally laughed out loud when he said “deep in the bowels of this place” in a serious voice.

And, yes, there are set pieces like this one too.

And, yes, there are set pieces like this one too.

In other words, this is more like a “mainstream” game in some subtle ways. A few of the levels are somewhat more linear than usual and all of the levels are vaguely story-based. Whilst this detracts from the timelessly thrilling gameplay slightly, it’s something that you can get used to after a while. Even so, most parts of this game are just as thrillingly fast-paced as the first “Alien Shooter” was. And, thankfully, this game isn’t as easy as your typical mainstream game is 🙂

However, before I go any further, I should probably point out that the controls/perspective can take a bit of getting used to. Whilst I’d had a lot of practice with the previous games, one annoying feature in this game is the inclusion of vehicle-based segments (including at least one vehicle-only level).

The vehicles use a totally different control scheme to that used for normal character movements (eg: directions are from the perspective of the vehicle itself, rather than from the perspective of the overhead viewpoint) which can confuse the hell out of you and cause you to swerve around wildly until you finally get used to another set of controls…. only to then have to get used to the “normal” controls again once you leave the vehicle.

Seriously, why couldn’t the vehicles have used the same movement controls as the rest of the game?

The difficulty curve in this game is kind of strange too. Ironically, some of the earlier levels and one level in the middle of the game are more difficult than the later levels. This is mostly because, by the end of the game, you have such powerful weapons and such impressive stats that you may as well be playing with “god mode” enabled.

Yes, as soon as you get one of the better rocket launchers, the difficulty drops from "hard" to "easy" LOL!

Yes, as soon as you get one of the better rocket launchers, the difficulty drops from “hard” to “easy” LOL!

 Yes, even though the last two levels contain five bosses [well, sort of...], it only took me two attempts to beat both levels. Whereas, one level in the middle of the game took me at least six tries to get through!

Yes, even though the last two levels contain five bosses [well, sort of…], it only took me two attempts to beat both levels. Whereas, one level in the middle of the game took me at least six tries to get through!

Another reason why some levels are almost unreasonably difficult is because of the game’s saving system. Whilst this game now allows you to replay previous levels, it still uses the dreaded checkpoint saving system (only saving when you’ve completed a level). Given that one difficult level in the middle of the game is literally half an hour long, having to replay the whole thing every time you fail will probably cause you to ragequit more than a few times.

Yes, getting to this part of the level isn't too difficult after a couple of attempts. But, unless you picked up the hidden rocket launcher (or found enough in-game bonuses to buy it) earlier, then you won't stand a chance in the last part of the level.

Yes, getting to this part of the level isn’t too difficult after a couple of attempts. But, unless you picked up the hidden rocket launcher (or found enough in-game bonuses to buy it) earlier, then you won’t stand a chance in the last part of the level.

On the plus side, this game has received some fairly cool upgrades. Not only are there more characters, weapons and stats available, but you also get to choose an upgradeable ‘perk’ at the beginning of the game. The best one to go for is probably the “vampirism” one (which gives you health every time you destroy a monster) since it complements the aggressive playing style that you’ll need to use. Not to mention that it makes the final boss battle a lot easier too.

Plus, the perk selection screen actually has a sense of humour. Seriously? Humour? In an action game from 2009? Maybe there's hope for games after all....

Plus, the perk selection screen actually has a sense of humour. Seriously? Humour? In an action game from 2009? Maybe there’s hope for games after all….

But, unlike other games in this series, you can’t use bonus items you find whilst playing to buy extra lives. You only get extra lives on the rare occasions that a monster drops a “+1” power-up. I don’t know why they left this feature out, since it makes a couple of the levels more difficult than they should have been. But, for the most part, it doesn’t affect the game too much.

Graphically, the game has been given a huge upgrade compared to the previous game. The lighting in this game looks beautiful, and most of the locations, animations and monsters are more detailed too. Whilst this gives the game a lot more atmosphere and allows some parts of it to be even more ludicrously gruesome than the first “Alien Shooter” game, it does come at a cost. If you’re using an older computer, then expect some fairly long loading times both between missions and when you load up the game itself. Still, if you set the graphics to minimum, then the actual gameplay itself will still run at a decent speed.

Fun fact: This game came out at least a year BEFORE “Brutal Doom” did, and yet this one monster death animation somehow manages to be more splatterific than all of “Brutal Doom” combined.

And just check out this awesome lighting! Yes, there are some parts of the game that are set during boring daylight, but the gloomy corridors are the best parts of the game.

And just check out this awesome lighting! Yes, there are some parts of the game that are set during boring daylight, but the gloomy corridors are the best parts of the game.

The game also contains the usual survival modes etc… too. I didn’t really have much of a chance to check these out but from, what I saw, they seemed to be pretty much what you would expect.

All in all, this is still an absolutely brilliant action game. Whilst it lacks some of the pure thrilling simplicity of the first “Alien Shooter” game, it’s still a fairly solid action game.

Yes, some of the changes in the sequel don’t work that well (vehicles especially!) and the difficulty curve is a bit strange, but it’s still the kind of thrilling action game that could probably put most modern mega-budget games to shame. It may look a little bit more like a “mainstream” game, but it’s still pretty much the same thrilling action-fest that the first “Alien Shooter” was.

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