Review: “Plague Town” By Dana Fredsti (Novel)

Well, I was in the mood for another zombie novel. So, I thought that I’d take a look at a novel that I’ve been meaning to read for a while. I am, of course talking about a second-hand copy of Dana Fredsti’s 2012 novel “Plague Town” that I found online a couple of weeks earlier.

Interestingly, this book seems to be the first part of a trilogy (and, yes, I’ll hopefully read the other two books at some point in the future), although it can also be enjoyed as a (mostly) stand-alone novel too.

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

This is the 2012 Titan Books (UK) paperback edition of “Plague Town” that I read.

The novel begins with a short scene showing a family transforming into zombies after falling ill from a disease called “Walker’s Flu”. Then the story follows Ashley Parker, a student at a small university in the northern California town of Redwood Gove. Ashley is having a bad day.

Not only is she running late for lectures, but the lecturer’s sanctimonious assistant Gabriel berates Ashley for being late, whilst also giving annoying unsolicited dietary advice too. Once the lecture is over, Ashley meets her boyfriend Matt and both of them run into Gabriel. A hilarious scuffle between Matt and Gabriel follows, which ends with the three of them … sort of… becoming friends.

Sometime later, Ashley and Matt are having a romantic candlelit picnic on the campus grounds – when they are suddenly attacked by zombies. Ashley is bitten, but wakes up in a makeshift military hospital in the university.

Ashley’s lecturer informs her that the town has been overrun with zombies, but that she is a “wild card” – part of 0.01% of the population who are immune to the virus (and gain slightly enhanced strength, healing, senses etc.. when exposed to the virus). And, it soon becomes obvious that the military want the few immune survivors to join a secret task force dedicated to fighting the zombies….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was a lot of fun to read 🙂 The best way to describe this story is “Buffy The Vampire Slayer mixed with a late-night zombie movie” and it is absolutely awesome. There’s a really good mixture of horror, dark comedy and thrilling action scenes and it is one of those novels that is, in the best way possible, like watching a gloriously cheesy B-movie 🙂

Whilst the novel’s horror elements aren’t that scary, they work really well. In addition to numerous ultra-gruesome scenes involving zombies, the novel also uses a few other types of horror too.

In addition to disease-based horror, character-based horror, suspenseful horror, tragic horror, scientific horror and post-apocalyptic horror, there’s also a brilliantly disturbing scene (involving a survivor in a cabin) that will catch you by surprise at a point where you’re just starting to think “this is turning into more of a thriller novel than a horror novel“.

Likewise, this novel is also something of an old-school zombie novel too. In other words, the zombies here are traditional slow-moving zombies (with the story even containing some sarcastic remarks about how fast zombies only exist in movies because people have short attention spans). And, whilst the story contains many familiar zombie tropes, it also does a few innovative things too… which I won’t spoil. Even so, one of the story’s zombie-related plot twists is foreshadowed so heavily that it’s fairly easy to guess.

The novel’s thriller elements are also really good too. Although the main characters have the advantages of strength and weaponry, the novel often manages to add a real sense of drama and suspense to some of the story’s many zombie battles through things like making sure that the characters are vastly outnumbered and/or have to help their wounded comrades.

Even so, at least a couple of the thrilling action scenes in this novel have all of the suspense of a superhero movie (which is to say, very little). Even so, this novel is a really enjoyable action-thriller novel.

In terms of the novel’s comedy elements, they’re absolutely brilliant. In addition to lots of amusingly sarcastic dialogue/narration and a bit of dark comedy, this is also one of those novels that is absolutely crammed with pop culture references – and most of them are really good (eg: The Evil Dead, Army Of Darkness, Tremors, Alien, Buffy, The A-Team, Romero, Fulci etc..). This novel is also a brilliantly cynical parody of a few horror/thriller tropes too – such as in a scene involving a sociopathic army general and in a segment about the value of pet cats.

The novel’s characters are surprisingly good too. Many of the characters have distinctive personalities, emotions, motivations and actual character development too (with at least a couple of unsympathetic characters becoming more sympathetic as the story progresses). Likewise, the dynamics of the zombie-fighting team and the relationships between the characters are also an important part of the story too.

Ashley is also a really cool protagonist too. Not only is she gleefully sarcastic and wonderfully badass, but she’s also the opposite of more prim and puritanical characters of this type (eg: Anita Blake, Buffy Summers etc..) too, which is really refreshing 🙂 Seriously, I love how this novel will often treat any kind of self-righteousness with the merciless sarcasm it deserves 🙂

The novel’s writing is also really good too. Most of the novel is narrated by Ashley, which not only gives the story a bit more personality but also allows for informal narration that is both hilarious and reasonably fast-paced too.

However, there are also a few random third-person segments which show how the zombie virus is affecting other parts of the town. Surprisingly, these perspective changes actually work really well – since they are both clearly signposted through the use of italic type and are short enough not to distract from the main story too much.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At 350 pages in length, this novel is pretty much on par with many modern novels and didn’t feel too long. The novel’s pacing is really good too, with the story remaining reasonably fast-paced and gripping.

The novel’s more spectacular, suspenseful and thrilling moments are also balanced out with moments of comedy and character-based drama too. In addition to this, the story’s main plot is thankfully resolved in a satisfying way – with only a small last-minute cliffhanger setting up the sequel.

All in all, this was a really enjoyable and gripping novel 🙂 It contains an almost perfect mixture of horror, humour and thrills, which are backed up by good characterisation and personality-filled narration too 🙂 As I mentioned earlier, reading this novel is a bit like watching a really awesome late-night B-movie. Seriously, it is a hell of a lot of fun 🙂

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

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Review: “Bring Up The Bodies” By Hilary Mantel (Novel)

Well, although I had slightly mixed feelings about Hilary Mantel’s 2009 novel “Wolf Hall“, I was still in the mood for historical fiction. So, I thought that I’d check out the novel’s 2012 sequel – “Bring Up The Bodies”.

Like with “Wolf Hall”, I found a second-hand copy of this novel in a charity shop in Petersfield (the same shop, no less) last year.

Although this novel is a sequel to “Wolf Hall”, it can theoretically be read as a stand-alone novel. However, it is worth reading “Wolf Hall” first – both in order to learn more about the characters and, more importantly, to get used to Mantel’s unusual writing style too.

So, let’s take a look at “Bring Up The Bodies”. Needless to say, this review contains SPOILERS. But, if you have a fairly basic knowledge of Tudor history, then you’ll already know how this novel will end.

This is the 2013 Fourth Estate (UK) paperback edition of “Bring Up The Bodies” that I read.

The novel begins in Wiltshire in 1535. King Henry VIII is on holiday, taking a tour of the many stately houses of England, accompanied by his faithful advisor Thomas Cromwell. During this holiday, Henry begins to take a liking to Jane Seymour, whilst his relationship with his wife Anne Boleyn grows ever more distant and acrimonious.

And, after a complex series of events, the King wishes to end his marriage to Anne so that he can wed Jane instead. And, of course, there is only one person that the king can entrust with this devious task… Thomas Cromwell.

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that whilst it is still a character study of Thomas Cromwell, there is more focus on intrigue and plotting than in “Wolf Hall”. As such, it’s kind of like a more realistic version of “Game Of Thrones”.

Plus, although this novel certainly isn’t a fast-paced thriller, it feels a lot more focused and dramatic than “Wolf Hall” does. In part, this is because I’ve got used to Mantel’s unusual writing style and, in part, it is because this novel tells a somewhat more linear story (with fewer flashbacks, time jumps etc..) than “Wolf Hall” does.

Like with “Wolf Hall”, one of this novel’s strengths lies in it’s atmosphere. The story is filled with all sorts of poetic descriptions of Tudor life, which really help to bring the story to life.

Whilst this story doesn’t go in the dystopian direction of something like S.J.Parris’ “Sacrilege“, it doesn’t present an entirely rose-tinted version of the Tudor age either. This is a novel set in a world where opulence and squalour sit side by side, where the king wields near-absolute power and everything revolves around the people who try to influence him.

This exploration of power is best seen in one scene where, after a jousting accident, Henry’s court fears that he is dead. Even if you know the basic history, this scene is still surprisingly suspenseful. In the brief moment where everyone fears Henry’s loss, you can really feel the instability and uncertainty that comes from having all authority reside within one man.

Then, in a moment of genius, this scene is brilliantly counterpointed by a moment where Henry publicly berates Cromwell for his ambitions – only to meekly speak to Cromwell later when he realises that, without Cromwell, his job as king would be much more difficult. It’s a scene which brilliantly shows that power, by it’s very nature, is not something that can be truly held by just one person.

This is also, as you may have guessed, a novel about death too. In addition to all of the events leading up to Anne’s execution, this novel focuses heavily on how the dead influence the living. Not only are many of the novel’s events set into motion after Catherine Of Aragon dies from natural causes, but Cromwell is also shown to be motivated by the memory of his time with Cardinal Wolsey etc…

Another one of this novel’s strengths lies in the characters – Cromwell in particular. Because both this novel and “Wolf Hall” focus so heavily on Cromwell, the scenes in the later parts of “Bring Up The Bodies” where he becomes much more of a morally-ambiguous character are so subtle and gradual that you might initially find yourself smirking along with him until you suddenly remember the gravity of what he is doing.

These scenes are combined with some brilliant moments of dark comedy (eg: Cromwell accidentally using Christmas decorations to scare a confession out of someone etc..) in such a way that Cromwell’s slow descent into evil is softened to the point of seeming even more chillingly realistic. He’s a loveable rogue… until the gavel falls on his enemies and they are taken to the scaffold.

Likewise, the novel’s portrayal of Henry VIII is fairly nuanced and complicated too – with the jovial and boisterous side of his character contrasted with his more emotional, sensitive and melancholic elements. Despite his bitter plot against his wife, he is also shown to be a surprisingly … noble… man, rather than the lecherous glutton of popular culture (although there are certainly hints of this side of him emerging…)

Anne Boleyn, on the other hand, is shown to be a much harsher and sharper character than she was in “Wolf Hall”. Although she still retains some dwindling power, her marriage to Henry has deteriorated since the events of “Wolf Hall” and, although she is shown to be uncertain about her grim fate until the very last drawn-out moment, this gaunt, harsh and embattled characterisation of her helps to ominously foreshadow the ending of the story.

The novel, of course, has lots of other interesting historical and fictional characters – but I would probably be here all day if I wrote about each one of them. But, in general, the characters in this novel are as good as ever.

As for the writing in this novel, it’s really good… once you get used to Mantel’s writing style. If you’ve already read “Wolf Hall”, then you’ll have no problem here. If you haven’t, then prepare to be confused. In addition to using the present tense, Mantel will also do things like referring to Cromwell as “he” without introducing him first. But, when you get used to all of Mantel’s stylistic quirks, this novel’s third-person narration has a poetry and beauty to it that really has to be seen to be believed.

In terms of the length and pacing, this novel is a relatively concise 482 pages in length – making it shorter and slightly more focused than “Wolf Hall” 🙂 Whilst “Bring Up The Bodies” tells a reasonably slow-paced story, it is probably at it’s most focused and gripping during the earlier and later parts of the story. Even so, the middle of the novel still contains the occasional moment of drama to keep the story flowing. Likewise, since this novel contains fewer flashbacks and time jumps than in “Wolf Hall”, the story’s pacing feels a lot more confident too. Still, expect a slow-paced story with some very long chapters.

All in all, this is a better novel than “Wolf Hall”. Yes, it’s still fairly slow-paced, but the plot feels a lot more focused, the characters gain some extra complexity and it is as wonderfully atmospheric as ever. Plus, once you’ve got used to Mantel’s writing style, then this is also one of those novels that is worth reading just for the writing alone. Yes, you’ll probably have to put a bit of effort into reading this novel, but it’s worth it.

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

Review: “Sacrilege” By S. J. Parris (Novel)

Well, it’s been a while since I last read a historical detective novel. So, since I had a bit more time than I’ve had for the past three book reviews, I thought that I’d check out S. J. Parris’ 2012 novel “Sacrilege”.

This was one of a number of historical novels I found in a charity shop in Petersfield last year (the same one where I found my copy of Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall) and, given how much I enjoyed other novels in this genre like C.J.Sansom’s “Shardlake” novels (eg: “Heartstone“, “Lamentation” etc…), Parris’ novel seemed like just the thing to get me back into reading books that aren’t based on films, TV shows, videogames etc…

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

This is the 2012 Harper (UK) paperback edition of “Sacrilege” that I read.

The novel begins in London in 1584. Giordano Bruno, an Italian exile who is working for both the French ambassador and Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, fears that he is being followed.

A short while later, Giordano catches his pursuer – only to find that she is his ex-lover Sophia in disguise. Sophia tells him that she has been falsely accused of murdering her cruel husband in Cantebury and has been a fugitive ever since. So, Giordano decides to travel to Cantebury in order to clear her name and catch the real killer….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is very gripping 🙂 On the day I started reading it, I’d planned to read about 180 pages -I got to 300 before reluctantly deciding to save the rest of the book for the following day. Imagine a C.J.Sansom novel, but with better pacing, more suspense, slightly more formal/modern-style narration and a slightly grittier tone. Seriously, this is one of the best Tudor detective novels I’ve read in a while.

Not only does this novel contain a series of intriguing mysteries, but this is kept extra thrilling thanks to the novel’s brilliant use of suspense. A lot of this comes from the precarious, dangerous world that Giordano finds himself in. Not only does Giordano have to worry about protecting Sophia from arrest, he also has to contend with some powerful enemies in Cantebury, a corrupt justice system and Tudor-era xenophobia too. Throughout the novel, he’s constantly in danger from someone or another, which really helps to keep things grippingly suspenseful.

Interestingly, Parris’ depiction of Tudor England is considerably grimmer, crueller and more hostile than in the fiction of C.J.Sansom or Hilary Mantel. In a lot of ways, it reminded me a bit of G.R.R Martin’s “Song Of Ice And Fire” novels in terms of the atmosphere/emotional tone. This helps to add drama and suspense to the novel and, although a few moments of the story can be fairly depressing, this dystopian depiction of Tudor England fits the story really well.

Another interesting thing is how Parris’ “Sacrilege” presents Tudor England’s relationship with Europe in a different way to Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” too. In “Wolf Hall”, Tudor England is shown to be a resolutely European country – with many people speaking multiple languages, and people from across Europe living relatively harmoniously in London. On the other hand, “Sacrilege” mostly depicts Tudor England as a cruelly conservative dystopia that is teeming with narrow-minded xenophobia and general backwardness. I would say that this was a satire about Brexit… but this novel was published four years before the referendum.

In addition to all of this, “Sacrilege” is also a pretty good spy thriller too. Although the spy elements are something of a sub-plot, they help to add a little bit of extra intrigue and suspense to the story – especially since they often tend to involve classic-style spy stuff like coded messages, invisible ink, hidden doors, sneaking around etc… too.

Likewise, this sub-plot also allows for some exploration of the religious politics of Tudor England too – but, although this is an important element of the story, it isn’t quite as prominent as it is in novels like Sansom’s “Lamentation” and Mantel’s “Wolf Hall”.

The novel also includes a few interesting horror elements too – mostly consisting of some rather gothic moments that take place inside gloomy crypts and tunnels, in addition to some more traditional horror elements involving monstrous crimes of various types.

In terms of the characters, this novel is fairly good – with most of the characters coming across as realistic flawed people with realistic motivations. Like in C.J.Sansom’s “Shardlake” novels, the sympathetic characters don’t really “fit in” with the world around them for one reason or another (with “Sacrilege” being a novel about exiles and fugitives). And, of course, the story’s villains are also suitably monstrous too. Likewise, just like C.J.Sansom, this novel also takes a fairly modern approach towards things like psychology, social ills etc.. too.

As for the writing, Parris’ first-person narration works really well. Like C.J.Sansom, Parris’ narration is modern enough to be easily readable, whilst also carrying a slight Tudor flavour too (albeit less than in a Sansom novel). However, since the narrator of “Sacrilege” (Giordano) is a well-travelled scientist/scholar and diplomat, the narration is slightly more on the formal and descriptive side of things – although it is still “matter of fact” enough to keep the story fast-paced and gripping.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. Although, at 481 pages, this novel is a bit on the longer side of things – it never really feels bloated. Likewise, the pacing in this novel is excellent too 🙂 In other words, the story starts dramatically and remains consistently gripping throughout. Seriously, I cannot praise the pacing of this novel highly enough 🙂

All in all, this novel is a brilliantly gripping historical detective thriller novel. If you enjoy C. J. Sansom’s “Shardlake” books, then you might enjoy this book even more. It’s a bit like a Sansom novel, but with better pacing and more suspense. Likewise, if you want a novel that combines spy fiction, detective fiction and dystopian fiction, then this one might be worth looking at.

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

Review: “Dominon” By C. J. Sansom (Novel)

Well, I’ve been meaning to read C. J. Sansom’s 2012 alternate history novel “Dominion” for a few weeks – ever since a relative found a copy of it in a charity shop and thought that I might be interested in it, given my enthusiasm for Sansom’s excellent “Shardlake” series.

However, I should probably point out that “Dominion” isn’t a Shardlake novel (it’s set in the 20th century, rather than the 16th century) – but I was curious to see how Sansom would handle other genres of fiction.

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

This is the 2012 Mantle (UK) hardback edition of “Dominion” that I read.

The novel takes place in an alternate timeline where, in 1940, Winston Churchill is made Minister Of Defence instead of Prime Minister. Without Churchill’s determined leadership, the second world war ends up just being a short and unsuccessful campaign in France and Norway – which ends with Britain surrendering and signing a peace treaty with Germany.

As part of the treaty, the German military occupies the Isle of Wight and a far-right puppet government (a historical rogues’ gallery consisting of Lord Beaverbrook, Oswald Mosley, Enoch Powell etc..) takes office in Britain. Britain is allowed to retain control of it’s empire and, for a while, to keep up the pretence of democracy. However, opposition to the puppet government is slowly crushed and the German embassy in London gains a lot of political influence.

Most of the events of the story take place in London twelve years later (in 1952) and they involve a civil servant called David, who helps the resistance by copying government documents for them. One of David’s old university friends (called Frank) ends up in an asylum after having a nervous breakdown following a fight with his brother – a scientist who has been working in America.

The resistance realise that Frank might have overheard secret information and begin a plan to smuggle him out of the country. Of course, it also doesn’t take the staff of the German embassy long to realise this too. But, who will get to Frank first…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, although it is a good novel, it takes quite a while to really get going. About the first half of the novel is spent introducing the characters, adding atmosphere and explaining all of the backstory, with the second half of the novel being a much more compelling and focused thriller story.

Even so, this isn’t to say that the first half of the novel is bad. Yes, it’s very slow-paced, but this is kind of the point. A lot of the chilling dystopian horror of this novel comes from how everyday life in the story’s alternate 1950s isn’t that different from the actual 1950s.

The parts of the novel where relatively little actually happens are so chillingly fascinating because of how easily and seamlessly the dystopian fascism of the story blends in with 1950s Britain. How the stuffy, formal world of 1950s Britain sits so easily alongside cruel, harsh authoritarianism. It’s really creepy.

Likewise, whilst this story certainly reminded me of a TV series I saw a couple of years ago called “SS-GB“, the frequent focus on ordinary, everyday life in the first half of the story lends everything a much more plausibly dystopian atmosphere than the more overt melodrama of a typical “What if Britain lost WW2?” alternate history story.

The atmosphere and level of background detail in these parts of the story is also pretty interesting too. In addition to having this wonderfully creepy 1950s-style atmosphere and some clever satirical moments, the level of thought that has been put into the story’s timeline is really astonishing. Yes, a lot of this detail is relayed to the reader through numerous random conversations about politics etc.. but you really get the sense that this chillingly dystopian timeline could have happened.

Even though the novel was published in 2012, the story’s criticisms of nationalism seem eerily prescient when read in this age of Brexit, Trump etc.. However, a lot of this is probably because the novel was written as a riposte to the then-upcoming Scottish independence referendum (with a few polemics against the SNP at various points within the novel).

And, as mentioned earlier, “Dominion” turns into more of a focused and fast-paced thriller novel later in the story. These parts of the story work reasonably well and remain brilliantly suspenseful throughout (with the 1950s-style London smog adding a claustrophobic element to some scenes too). Not only are they a very refreshing change of pace from the slower first half of the story, but thanks to all of the characterisation and background details earlier, they also have a lot more dramatic impact than a typical thriller novel too.

In terms of the characters, they’re really brilliant. Yes, there is a lot of time devoted to characterisation and flashback scenes (which can slow the story down quite a bit), but this results in some really interesting and realistic characters. And, as you would expect from a dystopian novel, most of the characters lead fairly bleak and miserable lives too. Although this can make the novel fairly depressing at times, it fits in really well with the setting and themes of the story – in addition to making the story’s more hopeful moments stand out really well too.

Plus, like in Sansom’s “Shardlake” novels, the most interesting characters are the ones who don’t quite “fit in” with the world around them – with Frank being the best example. In addition to several chilling backstory segments about how he was bullied at school, his somewhat cautious and nervous outlook on the world (in addition to the psychological strain of having to keep some fairly major military secrets) is a refreshing change from the more bold and extroverted characters typically found in thriller novels.

As for the writing, Sansom’s third-person narration uses a slightly formal and descriptive – but reasonably “matter of fact” – style that goes really well with the novel’s 1950s setting, whilst still being a very readable modern novel.

Given how well Sansom was able to add a 16th century flavour to the modern narration in his “Shardlake” novels, it’s really interesting to see how he does something similar with a 1950s setting. Yes, there are a few slightly clunky elements to the writing (eg: phonetic Scottish accents, random political conversations etc..) but, for the most part, it works reasonably well.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is a typical modern C. J. Sansom novel. I’ve already talked about how the first half of the novel is ridiculously slow-paced when compared to the more thrilling second half but, as you would expect from a C. J. Sansom novel, this one is ridiculously long too.

The hardback edition that I read is 569 pages long (not including the 20-30 additional pages of historical notes, essays etc.. at the end). And, looking online, the paperback edition is 700+ pages long (presumably due to the smaller page size). So, yes, this is a long novel that could have probably benefitted from a bit of trimming.

All in all, this is a pretty good – but not perfect- novel. It’s chillingly atmospheric and brilliantly detailed – however, the story doesn’t really get going until about halfway through the book. Likewise, it’s probably a little bit too long too. Even so, the level of atmosphere, suspense, characterisation and detail in this story is well worth sticking around for. But, if you want to see Sansom at his absolute best, read his “Shardlake” novels instead.

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

Review: “Bound To Me” By Jocelynn Drake (Novella)

Fairly soon after I had finished reading Jocelynn Drake’s amazing “Dark Days” series (you can find my reviews of it here, here, here, here, here and here ), I was in a rather melancholy mood. This amazing series was at an end and I missed it.

And then I remembered that there was a prequel novella called “Bound To Me” – and, after looking online, I realised that there was actually a paperback edition of it out there 🙂 So, no prizes for guessing what I’ll be reviewing today.

However, although “Bound To Me” is a prequel to the ‘Dark Days’ series and can be read as a (mostly) self-contained story, it’s worth reading the entire “Dark Days” series before you read this novella. This is because a lot of references, character cameos etc.. will make more sense if you’ve read the other novels first.

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

This is the 2012 Harper Voyager (US/Can ?) paperback edition of “Bound To Me” that I read.

The novella begins in London during some unspecified period of history (implied to be the 19th century). The red-haired vampire Mira and her beloved, Valerio, are having an entertaining evening causing scandal at an aristocratic dinner party. Afterwards, they return home to spend some quality time together. However, they are soon interrupted by a mysterious visitor who carries a message from the vampire coven.

According to the messenger, both Mira and Valerio have been summoned to Venice because the coven has an important mission for them……

One of the first things that I will say about this novella is… wow! It is quite literally a miniature “Dark Days” novel 🙂 There’s a good mixture of Machiavellian vampire politics, steamy romance, interesting locations and even a couple of brief action-thriller moments too. It is literally a small “Dark Days” novel and reading it felt just like returning to something warm and familiar again.

And, yes, there’s a lot of wonderfully familiar stuff here. Not only do we get to see more of Mira and Valerio’s backstory, but a few other familiar faces turn up too. We get to see Jabari, Elizabeth, Sadira and Macaire. We also get to visit the vampire coven in Venice again too 🙂 Plus, to my surprised delight, Tabor and (what is implied to be) a younger version of Ryan also show up too 🙂 Alas, no Danaus though – even though he would have, technically, been alive at the time the novel’s story takes place.

In terms of the story, it’s actually a proper story too. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. It includes character development, multiple locations, a plot twist and a (romantic) sub-plot too. Seriously, it’s great to see a full story that is so efficiently concise. It puts many other modern authors (and their bloated 400-600 page novels) to shame. Plus, the story is just as compelling as you would expect a full-length “Dark Days” novel to be too 🙂

My only minor criticisms of this novella are the relative lack of horror elements (there are a few, but not many), the spelling of “Doncaster” as “Duncaster” and the fact that the story contains relatively little suspense. After all, if you’ve read the “Dark Days” novels, you’ll already know who survives and who doesn’t. In a lot of ways, I’d have preferred to see a sequel that dealt with what happens to Mira and Danaus some time after the dramatic ending of “Burn The Night”. But, still, this is an extra “Dark Days” story and this is never a bad thing 🙂

In terms of the narration and writing, it is as good as you would expect. For the most part, Mira’s first-person narration still sounds pretty similar to the rest of the “Dark Days” series, although she’s a slightly more violent and emotional character in this novel (since she’s 100-200 years younger). The narration is very readable and even the bedroom-based scenes (which aren’t for the prudish) are well-written enough to ensure that there are no moments of unintentional comedy.

In terms of length, the novella itself is 94 pages long ( although the book is longer, because there’s a 21-page preview of another novel added to the end). This length is absolutely perfect, since it means that “Bound To Me” can be read in an hour or two in a similar fashion to watching a TV show episode. There’s no need to rush, you can just sit back and savour every page and not have to worry about how long it’ll take you to read the entire thing. Seriously, if publishers want to make reading popular again, then why are print novellas so rare these days? They’re literally the book equivalent of a TV show episode or something.

All in all, this novella is absolutely wonderful 🙂 If you’re a fan of the “Dark Days” series, then you’ll have a lot of fun with this book. Although the actual story is less than 100 pages long, it still reads a lot like a full novel too – which is amazing 🙂 Seriously, I wish more people would publish novellas. Plus, of course, this novella is something to take the edge off of that miserable “there’s no more “Dark Days” novels left!” feeling when you finish reading “Burn The Night”.

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

Review: “Hotline Miami [Original Version]” (Computer Game)

Well, it’s been a while since I last played a game that was made this decade. Still, during a sale on GOG last summer, I happened to spot a rather interesting-looking indie game called “Hotline Miami” which seemed like it might actually run on my classic mid-2000s computer.

During the sale on GOG, the DRM-free direct download of this game I bought was reduced to £1.19. Although, at the time of writing, the full price for it is £7.79 on GOG and £6.99 on Steam (albeit with Steam’s DRM). In terms of length, I’d say that this game took me about 7-10 hours (over about two days) to complete. Still, if you aren’t used to “challenging” old school-style games, then it might take you longer.

Surprisingly, the GOG version doesn’t come with that much in the way of extras. However, if you have VLC media player (or anything that will play “.ogg” audio files), then the game’s soundtrack can be listened to if you’re willing to go poking around in the game’s directory.

Likewise, if you’ve got an older machine, the GOG version of this game comes in two versions. There’s the default “GL Version” of the game and another version called the “original version” that can be found in the game’s directory. The “original version” was the only version that would actually run on my vintage computer, albeit with over a minute of loading time before the program began. Still, once it loaded, it ran fairly smoothly.

I should also warn you that this review will contain some (unrealistic) GRUESOME IMAGES. I’ll try to keep them to a minimum but, since this is a commercial game, I feel an obligation to show you at least a small part of what to expect if you buy it.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Hotline Miami”:

“Hotline Miami” is a surreal retro-style action/ dark comedy/ horror/ combat-based puzzle game from 2012, which is set in Florida during the late 1980s. For the bulk of the game’s 20 chapters, you play as a man called Jacket who gets mysterious answering machine messages that tell him to visit various buildings around the city.

Oooh, a message!

Whenever he arrives, the buildings are almost inevitably filled with heavily-armed members of the Russian Mafia. Instead of running away like a sensible person, Jacket merely puts on a mask and decides to kill all of the gangsters instead. At best, he’s some kind of creepy brainwashed vigilante and, at worst, he’s a serial killer of some kind. Seriously, you’ll have to come to your own conclusions about this.

And, yes, his grip on reality isn’t entirely solid either…

One of the first things that I will say about this game is that it looks like it was designed under the influence of some fairly serious mind-altering substances. Still, everything from the hilariously bizarre dialogue to the glowing psychedelic backgrounds really help to give the game a sense of personality. Likewise, the surreal humour of the game is also welcome comic relief from the more disturbing and/or ultra-violent elements of the game.

And, make no mistake, this is a violent game! Although it isn’t the most violent game I’ve ever played, it is probably somewhere between Zombie Shooter and Brutal Doom in terms of sheer brutality.

Although the gory violence in this game is somewhat cartoonish, it sometimes has a rather sadistic edge to it that will make your character seem little better than the gangsters he is fighting. Likewise, after completing each level, you have to walk back through the entire level and gaze with disgust upon the grisly bloodbath that your character has created.

This element of the game is probably designed to undermine the sense of victory that a player is usually expected to feel after each level. And, yes, the levels will often be CONSIDERABLY more grisly than the example in this screenshot!

The game’s story is kept intriguingly mysterious, with plenty of gaps for you to fill with your own imagination. Some story elements are barely explained and some are left deliberately unexplained. Likewise, between levels, your character will do mundane things like getting a pizza or renting a video, which contrasts heavily with the grisly events of the rest of the game. However, these scenes can get a little repetitive though.

Still, the game is set somewhere where you can still get movies on VHS! Awesome 🙂

As for the gameplay, the game contains a surprisingly innovative combat system. Yes, innovation. In a modern game. The main twist in this game is that, despite the cartoonish graphics, the combat system is surprisingly “realistic”. What this mostly means is that you have exactly the same amount of health points as each of your adversaries do.

In other words, if you get shot once or struck with a heavy object, you’re done for! So, instead of mindlessly shooting your way through waves of adversaries, you actually have to think and play strategically. You have to figure out the “rules” that the game’s AI follows, you have to know when to retreat and when to fight, you have to memorise enemy locations, you have to choose and use any available weapons carefully and, most importantly, you have to attack the gangsters before they attack you.

And, yes, there’s even a “combo” system too. You can unlock extra stuff at the end of each level if you get a high score. And, best of all, NO micro-transactions 🙂 If you want cool stuff, you actually have to win it yourself!

It’s kind of like how the most thrilling parts of old early-mid 1990s FPS games are the parts where you’ve only got one health point left and you have to figure out how to get past a horde of monsters. This game is basically that, for almost the entire game 🙂 In other words, although this game is filled with ultra-violent combat, it’s actually more of a puzzle game than an action game.

For example, you have to work out how to fight these six guards (and an adorable guard dog), with only one “health point” left.

This is helped by the fact that, like in 1990s FPS games, the iteration time is incredibly quick. Once you die (and this will happen a lot!) you just tap “R” and you’ll instantly re-start that segment of the level. Although this sounds repetitive, it allows you to quickly learn each level and to form new plans and strategies. Plus, to keep things interesting, the weapons and enemy behaviour are randomised slightly between restarts.

In keeping with the theme of your character being pretty much the same as the gangsters he fights, you can only carry one weapon at a time. However, since most adversaries drop weapons, this usually means that you’ll not only be switching between weapons fairly quickly but that you’ll also have to make strategic decisions about which one of the nearby weapons you want to use.

Likewise, you can also do a few extra things like throwing empty weapons at enemies and performing brutal “execution” moves on unconscious foes (albeit with the risk that another enemy might spot you doing this).

Aside from the top-down perspective, the only real concession in favour of the player is that – before each mission – you are given a choice of animal masks to wear. These masks are unlocked throughout the game and each one will give you some kind of special ability (eg: fast movement, silent weapons etc…). This element of the game can really come in handy, not to mention that it really adds to the surreal atmosphere of the game too:

Needless to say, all of the masks have silly names too.

In addition to the “everyday life” segments I mentioned earlier in this review, the standard combat gameplay is also broken up by several puzzle-based boss fights that will often require you to discover and use one particular strategy. But, if you played a lot of games from the 1990s, then you’re probably more than familiar with this type of boss battle.

The only other major gameplay variation is the fact that one level is an *ugh* stealth-based level. This level involves sneaking around a hospital, whilst trying to stay out of sight from the doctors and policemen who wander the halls. In addition to this, you’ll also get random headaches (that mean you can’t move or hide for a few seconds) if you walk too quickly or too far. Seriously, I absolutely loathe and despise this type of slow, dull, nerve-wracking gameplay and, if it wasn’t for walkthroughs on Youtube, I’d have probably stopped playing there and then!

Yes, 19 of the game’s 20 levels are awesome. THIS is the one that ISN’T!

In terms of level design, this game is surprisingly good. Many levels are split into 2-4 segments and each one of these is like a small combat-based puzzle.

The segments are often long enough to be challenging, but short enough that having to restart them numerous times won’t feel like too much of a chore. The level design is occasionally mixed up with the addition of new elements, such as windows that can be fired through or – at one point – a booby trapped door.

And the scene where you figure out how to deal with it is truly epic!

Likewise, there’s a point where you think that you’ve finished the game, only to be presented with another 3-4 levels featuring a different character. These levels include a few gameplay tweaks (such as only allowing you to use one specific weapon) but their appearance after a credits sequence can sometimes make it feel like the game has outstayed it’s welcome a little.

In terms of the art design, this game is outstanding! Seriously, I cannot praise it highly enough. The game uses a very distinctive art style that has been heavily influenced by the 1980s (and possibly various hallucinogens too). In contrast to the dull and gritty settings of many modern games, everywhere here is bright and vivid – and the game uses a more limited colour palette to beautiful effect in so many ways.

Seriously, it looks gloriously ’80s in the best possible way 🙂

The game’s music is also outstandingly brilliant too! Whether it’s the frantic new retro wave synth music from Perturbator or the eerily distorted 1960s hippie music that plays in the main character’s apartment, the music is an absolutely perfect fit with the themes and visual style of the game. One of my favourite background tracks has to be one that has obviously taken heavy influence from the end titles music from “Blade Runner”.

All in all, although “Hotline Miami” isn’t a perfect game, it’s still astonishingly fun and brilliantly unique. In addition to frantic, strategic combat-based gameplay, it also includes lots of interesting art and hilariously bizarre humour. It’s a modern retro game in all of the right ways. Yes, the game’s surreal nature and ultra-violent content might not be for everyone. But, if you aren’t easily shocked and you love things like old FPS games, Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, the 1980s etc.. then you’ll be right at home here.

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

Review: “Dark Shadows” (Film)

First of all, a bit of background. “Dark Shadows” was an American horror-themed soap opera that ran for a ridiculous number of episodes during the 1960s and 70s. I don’t think that it ever got a UK broadcast, and only a fraction of the total number of episodes seem to be available on DVD here. But, from the episodes I have seen, it’s brilliant. It’s low budget, cheesy and “so bad that it’s good”.

It’s a slice of classic black & white gothic vampire melodrama, complete with creaking sets and slightly wooden acting. Needless to say, it was only a matter of time before Tim Burton ended up making a film adaptation and this is what I’ll be reviewing today.

Needless to say, this review may contain some mild SPOILERS.

Although I was vaguely interested in this film when it came out in 2012 (to the point that I bought a DVD of the original 1960s “Dark Shadows” TV series), I only actually got round to watching it on DVD earlier this year. But, is it any good? Let’s take a look:

The box art looks awesome for starters 🙂

“Dark Shadows” begins in the 18th century with the wealthy Collins family moving from Liverpool to the north-western United States in order to set up a fishing buisiness. This business thrives and soon a small town called Collinsport grows. With their newfound wealth, the Collinses decide to build a giant gothic mansion called Collingswood. Because, why not?

But, when the Collinses’ son Barnabas spurns his former lover Angelique in order to betroth himself to his true love Josette, Angelique decides to exact revenge. Unbeknownst to Barnabas, she is a powerful sorceress – and she places a malevolent curse upon poor Barnabas. After his parents die in a freak seahorse-related accident, his beloved Josette finds herself mysteriously compelled to walk to the treacherous cliffs of Widow’s Peak.

Rushing to save her, Barnabas is too late and – in anguish- throws himself off of the cliff too. But, after dashing himself upon the cruel rocks below, he realises that he is unharmed. Not only that, he has become a vampyre – cursed to live forever and drink the blood of the living for sustenence.

Of course, it isn’t long before Angelique whips up an angry mob who, with torches and pitchforks in hand, decide to bury Barnabus alive in an iron coffin:

I guess that you could say that the vampire genre was something of an underground thing back then…

Two hundred years later, in the year 1972, a young woman called Veronica Winters is travelling to Collinsport in order to work as a governess for the remnants of the Collins family, who are still living in the crumbling Collingswood mansion. Whilst all of this is going on, a nearby construction crew happens to find a mysterious coffin buried underground and decides to open it….

And, yes, this is only the first few minutes of the film. Although the plot of “Dark Shadows” isn’t quite as convoluted as what I’ve seen of the TV show, I should probably point out that this film really isn’t about storytelling. Yes, this film has a perfectly acceptable story – but it isn’t really what this film is about.

No, this is a film that is all about witty dialogue, gothic atmosphere, dark humour and aesthetic flair. It’s more style than substance and, yet, it works so well. Seriously, my comment about style and substance wasn’t a criticism. This film has style!

My god! What sorcery is this!

Yes, this explosion is pink, and it looks AMAZING!

Yay! WHY don’t horror movies include buildings like this any more?

Seriously, in visual terms, this film is a work of art! I love almost everything about this film – from the intricately old-fashioned set design to the wonderfully gloomy lighting style that is used in many scenes.

Then there’s the brilliant costume design, which is kind of a blend of timeless gothic fashion and 70s fashion (which still seems to show some influence from the 1960s, which would be realistic in a rural community during the early 1970s).

And there’s also a hint of 1980s-style film noir too 🙂

But, the main charm of this film comes from the humour, the eccentric characters and the atmosphere. Most of the funniest lines from the film involve Barnabas being bewildered by the bizarre future of the 1970s and there are almost too many hilarious lines to list.

Throughout the film, Johnny Depp speaks in a hilariously old-fashioned way and this is an absolute joy to listen to. In addition to lots of brilliantly funny dialogue, there’s also a decent amount of both dark humour, character-based humour and slapstick humour too.

There has, unfortunately, been a steady decrease in the quality of American coffins though.

In addition to this, the film absolutely revels in the gothic elements of it’s story. There are crumbling mansions, secret passages, old crypts and all sorts of other wonderful stuff that the film itself seems to geek out about as much as the audience (probably) does. This film is awesome! And it knows it!

And, just for the hell of it, Alice Cooper even makes an appearance too. No, this isn’t a spoiler – his name is literally in the opening credits!

All in all, this film is fun! Yes, it isn’t particularly scary and the story isn’t really that spectacular. But, this isn’t a serious drama. It’s a piece of art! It’s a knowingly melodramatic dark comedy film crammed with hilarious dialogue. It’s a film about a group of eccentric characters who live in a creepy old mansion. It’s an affectionate parody of a cheesy old soap opera and an ode to old horror movies. And, surprisingly, it really works.

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