Review: “The Dead Dog Day” By Jackie Kabler (Novel)

Well, it’s been a little while since I read a detective novel. So, I thought that that I’d take a look at Jackie Kabler’s 2015 novel “The Dead Dog Day” today. This was a novel that I found in a charity shop in Petersfield last year – mostly on account of the awesome purple/black/gold cover art, the intriguing blurb and the first couple of pages.

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

This is the 2015 Accent Press (UK) paperback edition of “The Dead Dog Day” that I read.

The story begins in a TV studio in London. The boss of the Morning Live news program, Jeanette Kendricks, is furious. The dog who that was supposed to be featured in the ‘Britain’s Bravest Pets’ segment of the show has just died two hours before the broadcast and no-one thinks that Jeanette’s idea of just pretending that the dog is asleep will actually work.

Whilst all of this is going on, one of the show’s newsreaders, Cora Baxter, meets up with the rest of the news team to prepare for the show, chat and have a laugh. However, this isn’t an ordinary day at the office. As that morning’s episode of Morning Live comes to an end, someone murders Jeanette…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, despite the brilliantly funny and compelling beginning, the story takes quite a while to really get started. Although it eventually turns into a fairly compelling, if unconventional, detective thriller novel – don’t expect the kind of sharp, focused storytelling that you’d expect in a traditional detective novel. Even so, this story is a reasonably ok mixture of comedy, drama, romance and mystery.

The detective elements of this story are, as I mentioned, slightly strange. Despite the “A Cora Baxter Mystery” subtitle on the cover, Cora isn’t really that much of a detective. In fact, most of the actual detective work is actually done by a couple of background characters. Cora is more of a character who gets caught up in events surrounding the story’s central mystery – which is why, for example, she doesn’t like discussing the murder in the earlier parts of the story and why there’s so little focus on the mystery during the early and middle parts of the book. Likewise, she’s also more of a “realistic” TV show presenter than a typical “intrepid reporter” protagonist too.

Still, the story’s suspense is just about maintained through a series of smaller mysteries that are sometimes connected to the main mystery in one way or another, such as a mysterious man who seems to be following Cora, a mysterious Twitter conversation, the bizarre behaviour of one of the other newsreaders, a few mysterious descriptions of the murderer planning their next crime, the police’s suspicions about one member of Cora’s camera crew etc…

In addition to this, even though this novel uses some rather corny tricks and tropes, they still work surprisingly well. I mean, at one point, I was certain that I’d guessed who the murderer was after re-reading an early part of the story after seeing a clue, only to find that it was a red herring. Likewise, there’s a gloriously random plot twist or two near the end which should be really corny and contrived, but which still come across as rather dramatic whilst you’re actually reading them.

Even so, the detective elements of the story sometimes feel more like a sub-plot than anything else. Large parts of the story place more emphasis on Cora’s everyday life. And, although this contains a romantic sub-plot, some drama and some comedy – it is sometimes just about Cora’s mundane, ordinary life.

Needless to say, some of these “mundane” segments of the novel (eg: Cora going Christmas shopping etc..) aren’t exactly the most compelling thing in the world (and I even thought about abandoning the book out of boredom at one point). Even so, the story does get a bit more focused and compelling as it progresses – with the comedy, romance and drama elements often helping to keep many of the non-detective parts of the story fairly interesting. Even so, the middle parts of this story could have probably done with a bit of trimming.

The novel’s comedy elements are reasonably interesting. Although the novel only had a few moments that really made me laugh out loud, it contains a reasonably good mixture of slapstick comedy/ farce, satire (about the media industry and broadcast journalism), character-based comedy, silly outfits, immature humour, running jokes (eg: one of Cora’s crew constantly getting popular sayings wrong) etc… These comedy elements also contrast really well with the darker and more suspenseful elements of the story too.

In terms of the characters, there’s a lot of characterisation in this novel. Which is both a good and a bad thing. On the plus side, all of the characterisation helps to add some depth to the story (to the point where even some of the unsympathetic characters become vaguely sympathetic). Likewise, the novel’s cast of characters are all presented as fairly realistic (if somewhat stylised) people with flaws, emotions, motivations etc.. On the downside, all of this characterisation can sometimes distract from the story’s plot a bit.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is written in a reasonably informal and descriptive way. Although this can sometimes come across as a little bit cheesy or corny, it works reasonably well most of the time and the story is fairly readable.

In terms of the length and pacing, this novel is a bit of a mixed bag. At 331 pages in length, it isn’t too long, although trimming about fifty pages or so from the middle of it would probably have made it a lot more focused and streamlined. As for the pacing, it is at it’s best during the gripping beginning and ending of the story. However, the middle parts of this story are far too slow-paced for a story of this type.

All in all, whilst I eventually enjoyed this novel, it wasn’t really the traditional-style detective story I’d expected. Yes, this novel has some funny moments, some romance, some dramatic moments and a few gripping moments. Yes, the story certainly gets better as it continues. However, it isn’t without flaws either. In short, this book would be vastly improved by trimming a few scenes, having better pacing in the middle parts of the story and having a more consistent focus on the central mystery.

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

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Review: “The Scarlet Gospels” By Clive Barker (Novel)

Back in 2015, I was delighted when I heard that a new horror novel by Clive Barker had been released 🙂 Not only that, it was also a sequel to Barker’s “The Hellbound Heart” – the novella he used as a basis for the film “Hellraiser“.

Unfortunately, I heard this awesome news during the 3-4 year period when I didn’t read much. But, I added “The Scarlet Gospels” to my list of books that I meant to read sometime.

Yet, when I got back into reading regularly again, it took me more than fifty novels before I eventually got round to reading another Clive Barker novel (one from the 1980s called “Weaveworld). It was then that I remembered “The Scarlet Gospels” and, to my delight, I was able to find a cheap second-hand hardback copy of it online 🙂 So, this review has been a long time coming 🙂

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

This is the 2015 Macmillan (UK) hardback edition of “The Scarlet Gospels” that I read.

The novel begins in a gloomy, candlelit crypt. Five magicians have gathered around the grave of their fallen friend, Joseph Ragowski, in order to raise him from the dead. When – much to his annoyance – Ragowski returns to the realm of the living, the news isn’t good. The five magicians who raised him are the only magicians who are still alive. Something has been systematically killing the world’s magicians and stealing their knowledge. Something that has just found the crypt…….

Meanwhile, hard-boiled paranormal detective Harry D’Amour is drinking in a bar in New Orleans and reminiscing about his past. He has been sent to the city by his old friend Norma, a blind medium who has been contacted by the ghost of a recently-deceased lawyer who wants someone to get rid of his secret occult love nest before his family find out about it.

When Harry finds the house, everything seems relatively normal. But, after a bit of searching, Harry finds a secret chamber filled with magical grimoires. And, whilst searching this hidden room, he finds a mysterious puzzle box that starts to solve itself…….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is Wow! Oh my god, this novel is amazing 🙂 Yes, it might lack some of the sophistication of Barker’s earlier works, but it more than makes up for this by being this utterly badass combination of an old-school splatterpunk horror novel, a hardboiled noir detective story, a heavy metal action thriller that could give the original “Doom” a run for it’s money, an epic dark fantasy story, a cheesy late-night horror movie and so much more 🙂 This novel is one of the coolest novels I’ve read in a long time.

I guess that I should probably start by talking about the novel’s horror elements. First of all, imagine the movie “Hellraiser”. Compared to this novel, “Hellraiser” is a Disney movie. In addition to some intriguing paranormal horror and some delightfully grotesque body horror, this novel is the kind of gloriously over-the-top ultra-gruesome splatterpunk novel that could easily have come from the 1980s 🙂 Seriously, imagine all of the grisly horrors of the original “Hellraiser” movie, but turned up to eleven, and you might begin to come close to the macabre majesty of this novel! Seriously, this is a Clive Barker novel 🙂

But, although this novel isn’t exactly scary, it is a joy for any fan of the horror genre to behold 🙂 The novel is saturated in gothic darkness, “film noir” gloom, cackling malevolence and diabolical delights. It is the kind of novel where, like in any good 1980s/90s horror movie, you can practically feel the ominously gloomy lighting. It is the kind of gloriously uncensored, over-the-top, darkly imaginative medley of the macabre that will probably cause you to grin with immature, rebellious delight for at least an hour or two after reading the first half of the story.

Another interesting thing about this novel is that it’s a thriller novel. Yes, it slows down a little bit in some of the later parts, but it is about a million miles away from the slightly slower and more contemplative fiction that Barker is famous for.

The first half of the book is a little bit like one of those awesome noir-influenced gothic horror thriller movies from the 1980s/1990s like “Jacob’s Ladder” or “Angel Heart” or something like that. The second half of the book is kind of like a cheesy heavy metal-influenced 1980s dark fantasy epic 🙂 Seriously, this story is a lot more fast-paced and gripping than I had expected 🙂

The novel’s fantasy elements are kind of interesting too. Although the novel starts out like a really cool urban fantasy novel, it eventually turns into more of a dark fantasy/high fantasy story.

Even though the scenes set in hell initially seem to be pulled straight from a heavy metal music video or a level of the original “Doom” (which certainly isn’t a bad thing), the novel’s mythos gradually becomes a bit more interesting and a fair number of the hellish locations and creatures display some of Barker’s uniquely twisted imagination 🙂 Likewise, the novel also includes a rather interesting take on the topic of Lucifer too, and some truly epic scenes later in the story too 🙂

Yes, compared to the sophisticated imagination of some other Clive Barker novels like “Weaveworld”, “Abarat” etc.. this novel isn’t as unique or imaginative. But, surprisingly, this doesn’t matter. It’s a badass, fast-paced horror thriller novel that is almost like heavy metal music in book form. Yes, some aspects of the location design might be a little bit cheesy or cliched (eg: a building covered in lots of spikes, which are also covered in spikes etc..) but this is half of the fun of a story like this 🙂

Another cool thing about this novel is that, like any good Clive Barker novel, it isn’t for the prudish or narrow-minded either 🙂 In addition to taking a glorious delight in frequent descriptions of the male anatomy, this novel is the kind of story that is both gleefully anti-conservative and “politically incorrect” as hell. Seriously, this novel is a rebellious delight 🙂

As for the characters, they’re something of a mixed bag. Whilst many of the supporting characters (eg: a muscular tattooist, a cute guy from New Orleans, a medium etc..) don’t really get that much characterisation, this kind of lends the story a wonderful “cheesy B-movie”-like quality. Plus, it leaves more room for the stars of the story to really shine. Whilst Harry D’Amour is a typical hard-boiled detective, the real star of this story is the Hell Priest. Or, as he hates to be called, Pinhead.

And, yes, if you’ve seen Doug Bradley’s performance as this character in “Hellraiser”, then this novel will be such a delight to read 🙂 In addition to having lots of wonderfully malevolent lines of dialogue, the Hell Priest also has a really interesting story arc which really helps to explore and define this mysterious monster. In a story that mirrors Lucifer’s fall from heaven, he is a chillingly tragic figure whose ruthless ambition proves to be his undoing.

As for the writing in this novel, it works surprisingly well. Whilst some parts of the novel’s third-person narration have the kind of rich, descriptive style that you’d expect to see in a Clive Barker novel, other parts of the story are written in a more unsophisticated and “matter of fact” kind of way. This helps to keep the story reasonably fast-paced and, although some of the story’s dialogue is corny (even by B-movie standards), the less sophisticated parts of the narration really help to add some fun to the story. Seriously, as long as you don’t go into this novel expecting to read a work of literary fiction, then you’ll probably enjoy the narration.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good 🙂 From what I’ve read about the long history of this novel, it was originally going to be a giant tome at one point. Fortunately, the hardback edition I read had been edited down to a much more efficient 361 pages 🙂 Not only does this help to keep the story streamlined and gripping, but it also means that the pacing is really good too. Yes, it slows down a little in some of the later parts, but for the most part, this is very much a thriller novel 🙂

All in all, this novel is amazing 🙂 Yes, it isn’t as sophisticated as some of Barker’s older stuff. But, this is like comparing an elaborate classical symphony to a modern album by a 1980s heavy metal band. Yes, one might be more complex and sophisticated, but the other is a lot more fun to listen to. And, yes, this what I love about this novel. It is fun. It is a gloriously over-the-top heavy metal horror movie of a novel 🙂 And it is just so much fun to read 🙂

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

Review: “Zombie Apocalypse! Acapulcalypse Now” By Alison Littlewood (Novel)

Well, it’s been a while since I read a zombie novel (I think the last one I read was Weston Ochse’s excellent “Empire Of Salt). And, a week or so before I wrote this review, I was looking for books online and I happened to stumble across the “Zombie Apocalypse!” series.

Although the main series didn’t interest me that much, several of the spin-off novels caught my eye. So, I ended up ordering a second hand copy of Alison Littlewood’s 2015 novel “Zombie Apocalypse! Acapulcalypse Now”.

So, let’s take a look at “Zombie Apocalypse! Acapulcalypse Now”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2015 Robinson (UK) paperback edition of “Zombie Apocalypse! Acapulcalypse Now” that I read.

The novel begins in Acapulco, where a new luxury hotel called the Hotel Baktun is getting ready to open. The mysterious multi-millionaire who built the hotel has also paid to have an ancient Mayan pyramid moved to the hotel.

Whilst a waiter called Iktan (who, to his annoyance, is pushed into using a western name by the hotel’s British staff) starts his day, the first guests begin to arrive in preparation for the grand opening ceremony. In addition to ultra-rich celebrities, music promoters etc.. a poorer family has also won a trip to the hotel in a competition too.

Whilst all of this is going on, the hotel’s new head of security – Stacy Keenan – is arrives from London too. She doesn’t think that it will be a particularly eventful job. But, unknown to her, an armed gangster sneaks into the hotel in order to carry out a mission for his boss.

And, of course, it isn’t long before strange things start happening. A cruise ship is quarantined near the hotel, due to a mysterious illness. There are news reports about a plane being shot down, a historical plague pit being discovered back in Britain, America closing it’s borders etc.. It almost sounds like there could be a… zombie apocalypse.. about to happen.

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was wonderfully fun to read 🙂 It’s a good, traditional zombie story, with a rather interesting setting. Plus, like a lot of good zombie stories, it has the fast-paced intensity of a thriller novel and the unstintingly gruesome horror of a classic splatterpunk novel 🙂 In other words, this is a zombie novel 🙂

As for the novel’s horror elements, they work really well 🙂 In addition to the numerous grisly scenes of gory horror that you would expect, the novel also includes several other forms of horror too.

These include things like suspenseful horror, claustrophobic horror, character-based horror, body horror, mythological/supernatural horror, social horror, disease horror, bleak horror and psychological horror. Although the novel’s exquisitely grotesque gory horror is the most prominent type of horror here, the other types of horror really help to lend it some extra drama and impact too. This horror is also counterpointed with a few well-chosen moments of comedy too.

The novel’s thriller elements also work really well too. The novel spends the first seventy pages or so slowly building up suspense, which contrasts really well with the unrelenting action and drama of the rest of the book. And, yes, this novel is a fairly well-structured thriller. Not only are the few survivors outnumbered and under-armed, but there are several groups of them and the novel’s third-person narration switches between them in each chapter (in traditional thriller fashion).

This novel strikes a really good balance between these two genres, with both the thriller and horror genres complementing each other really well. Yes, a lot of the novel focuses on the survivors running, fighting and/or making plans but they are also constantly confronted by scenes of horror and are relatively under-armed and vulnerable too. Seriously, unlike some zombie stories, most of the characters don’t have guns – which really helps to add some actual suspense and creativity to the story 🙂

In terms of the characters, they’re reasonably good. Although you shouldn’t expect ultra-deep characterisation, there is more than enough characterisation and character development here to make you care about what happens to the main characters. Plus, even the novel’s more satirical ultra-rich characters will sometimes get a bit of characterisation too. Oh, and there’s a pirate zombie too. Seriously, the novel’s cover art is actually accurate about this 🙂

As for the novel’s settings and atmosphere, they’re really good too. The contrast between the luxury hotel and the poverty surrounding it helps to add to the story’s uneasy atmosphere. Likewise, the shiny new luxury hotel is also contrasted brilliantly with both the old pyramid and the grisly horrors that take place within such pristine settings.

However, one slight flaw is the fact that the novel includes several pages that are filled with greyscale photos. Although some of these are kind of cool (eg: you’ll turn the page and suddenly find a zombie glaring at you etc..), the photos of the resort are kind of annoying – since they will inevitably look at least slightly different to how you pictured the location.

As for the writing, Littlewood’s third-person narration is really well-written and it kind of reads like a more descriptive version of a modern action-thriller novel. It’s a bit like a modern equivalent of the old splatterpunk novels of the 1980s. The narration’s focus on characters and descriptions really helps to add to the horror of the story, whilst the slightly more “matter of fact” narrative tone helps to keep many parts of the story grippingly thrilling and fast-paced.

In terms of length, this novel is a reasonably efficient 309 pages long. This helps to ensure that the story never really feels too bloated or too abrupt. Plus, since it’s reasonably gripping and most of it is fairly fast-paced, the length feels absolutely right. In short, this story is pretty much as long as it needs to be 🙂

All in all, this is a very good zombie novel 🙂 If you want a thrillingly suspenseful, gleefully over-the-top and brilliantly horrific zombie story, then this one is worth checking out. Yes, it isn’t too different to other zombie thriller novels I’ve read (with the exception of the settings, characters etc..) but this is what makes the story so enjoyable to read 🙂 In other words, if you’re a fan of the zombie genre, you’ll have a lot of fun with this novel 🙂

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

Review: “The Invisible Library” By Genevieve Cogman (Novel)

Back when I originally bought my copy of Natasha Pulley’s “The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street“, I noticed another intriguing-looking steampunk novel mentioned on the website.

So, when I got back into reading once again, I bought a second-hand copy of Genevieve Cogman’s 2015 novel “The Invisible Library”…. and then didn’t get round to reading it until a month or three later.

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

This is the 2015 Tor (UK) paperback edition of “The Invisible Library” that I read. And, yes, the shiny gold text and illustrations don’t really show that well in this scan.

The novel begins with a character called Irene working undercover as a cleaner in a boys’ boarding school. She is on a mission to steal a book from the school. However, the room the book is being kept in has some kind of magic-based security system. Needless to say, Irene is soon chased across the school grounds by an assortment of gargoyles and hellhounds. When she reaches a nearby library, she opens a paranormal doorway and steps through it…. into a much larger library.

Irene is a librarian, an agent of a vast timeless library that exists between an infinite number of parallel universes. The job of a librarian is to track down rare books from different universes in order to preserve them for eternity. However, soon after Irene hands the book in, she is given a new mission by her superiors.

She is instructed to take an apprentice librarian called Kai to a Victorian-like world and obtain an alternate version of Grimm’s fairytales. Of course, this mission quickly turns out to be much more complicated and perilous than Irene expected….

One of the first things that I will say about this book is that it was different to what I had expected and, at first, I didn’t like it. Although it really grew on me after a while (after all, it reminded me of a cross between TV shows like “Warehouse 13”, “Sliders”, “Doctor Who” and “Supernatural”, with strong hints of Sherlock Holmes too 🙂), “The Invisible Library” is much more of a fantasy novel than I had initially expected.

Yes, there are some really cool steampunk, thriller, sci-fi, detective and horror elements. But this is a fantasy novel first and foremost. It is also a novel where the mid-late parts of the story are much better than the earlier parts.

Although the novel’s fantasy elements can be quite innovative (such as librarians being able to command the world using words) and they do follow a fairly clear set of logical rules, the novel spends quite a while setting up all of these rules.

Likewise, the early to middle parts of the story can also sometimes seem like a random hodge-podge of every fantasy, steampunk and/or horror trope under the sun (eg: fae, dragons, vampires, werewolves, mechanical monsters, airships, magic etc..).

Still, it is well worth putting up with these problems. A lot of the more dramatic moments later in the story rely on you having a good knowledge of how the “rules” of the story’s world work. And the ending is just as, if not more, dramatic than anything in a large-budget Hollywood movie. So, it is worth trudging through all of the explanations and random stuff earlier in the novel.

Likewise, all of the other genres within this story work fairly well too. The thriller elements help to keep the story moving at a reasonable pace, the sci-fi elements are kind of cool, the steampunk stuff is suitably quirky, the story’s detective elements are an important part of the plot and the horror elements will catch you by surprise at a few points in the story too 🙂

Thematically, this story is really interesting. Not only is the contrast between chaos and order explored in this story, but it is also likened to the contrast between fact and fiction too. Likewise, the role of the library is also questioned too (eg: are they preserving books or just stealing and/or hoarding them? Is study for the sake of study worthwhile?). The novel also asks moral questions about whether the ends justify the means too (eg: the contrast between Irene and fellow librarian Bradamant’s approach to their jobs).

In addition to all of this, “The Invisible Library” is also a really interesting piece of meta-fiction about the value and role of books too (and, call me a luddite, but you really have to read this book in paperback. Seriously, it is a book about books. So, read the non-electronic version of it!).

As for the characters, I initially didn’t like them – but they grew on me after a while. In short, there is actual character development in this novel which results in the main characters becoming more interesting and sympathetic as the novel progresses.

So, even though Kai might seem like an annoyingly boorish brat and Irene might seem like a smug, prim, grammar-obsessed librarian at first – stick with the novel. The main characters, and the dynamic between them, slowly becomes more interesting as the story progresses. Likewise, it’s also really cool that one of the characters – Vale – is a homage to Sherlock Holmes, without being a direct copy of him. Plus, the novel’s other librarian characters are all suitably mysterious and/or scary too.

In terms of the writing, it is really good. Cogman uses a style of third-person narration that subtly evokes 19th century-style narration whilst still being readable and “matter of fact” enough to keep the story moving at a good pace. This novel is descriptive enough to be distinctive and atmospheric, whilst still remaining focused and compelling.

In terms of length and pacing, this story is excellent. There is a good mixture of faster and slower-paced scenes, and – given the amount of rules, backstory etc.. included in the story, not to mention the fact that it is both a fantasy novel and a modern novel – the book’s 329 page length is refreshingly concise and efficient too.

Plus, although it is clear that this novel is the first in a series, the main story is wrapped up reasonably well and there aren’t any seriously annoying cliffhangers (although the ending is obviously the set up for a larger series).

All in all, this is a good novel. Yes, it was different to what I had expected and it took me a while to get used to it. But, this novel is a quirky, complex thriller that builds up to a spectacular climax. There is good character development, reasonably good world-building, good pacing and an interesting mixture of genres here. If you like the steampunk genre and/or you like TV shows like “Warehouse 13”, “Doctor Who” and “Sliders”, then you’ll enjoy this book. However, it is more of a fantasy novel than you might initially expect and the story does take a little while to really get good.

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

Review: “The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street” By Natasha Pulley (Novel)

Well, since I’m taking an extended break from reading Clive Cussler novels, I thought that I’d check out a steampunk/magic realist novel from 2015 called “The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street” By Natasha Pulley.

I bought a second-hand copy of this book sometime last year for some reason that I can’t quite remember. Then it ended up languishing on the pile of books and DVDs next to my computer until about three weeks after I finally got back into reading books again.

So, let’s take a look at “The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street”. This review will contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS, but I’ll try to avoid major ones.

This is the 2016 Bloomsbury (UK) paperback reprint of “The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street” that I read.

“The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street” begins in Victorian London, when a Home Office telegraphist called Thaniel Steepleton returns to his lodgings after a long day at the office, only to discover that a mysterious intruder has left a gold pocket-watch in his room.

The mystery only seems to deepen when, several weeks later, an alarm goes off inside the watch that narrowly saves him from a terrorist attack. Shocked and bewildered, Thaniel decides to track down the man who made the strange watch…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is clever. It is also whimsical, dramatic, occasionally thrilling/suspenseful, bewildering, bittersweet and heartwarming. But, most of all, it is clever. This is probably due to being slightly out of practice with reading novels but, reading this novel felt like trying to play a computer game on a machine that is only just within the system requirements. I even had to take detailed notes at various points because I was worried about forgetting some small, but crucial, plot detail. But, this novel is worth persevering with because it is one of those books that will make you go… “wow!“.

Seriously, the atmosphere of about the first sixth or so of the book is utterly beautiful. It’s the kind of vivid, cosy, fascinating and whimsical thing that – in emotional terms- reminded me a bit of watching Studio Ghibli’s “Spirited Away“. As the story progresses, the story’s tone and atmosphere changes slightly – including elements of tragedy, suspense, mystery, comedy, fantasy, science fiction, unease and emotional drama. Not to mention that parts of this novel also read a little bit like a slowly to moderately paced thriller novel too.

And, did I mention that this book is clever too? In addition to lots of utterly brilliant descriptions, some clever name choices (eg: Filigree Street looks like filigree on the map, Grace Carrow is anything but graceful etc..) and some well-placed historical/scientific references (eg: Gilbert & Sullivan, a painting made by “a depressed Dutchman”, a character accidentally discovering part of Einstein’s theory of relativity etc..) – the story is also filled with what TV Tropes refers to as “fridge brilliance“.

This is where part of a story only makes sense after you’ve thought about it for a while. And there are so many examples of this here. For example, the antagonistic relationship between two characters won’t fully make sense until you reach a later part of the story (and then think about it). Or an event earlier in the story won’t make sense until you know something else about a particular character. This novel is like an intricate clockwork mechanism where everything happens for a reason. And, yes, this even includes the more fantastical elements of the story, which often follow some kind of logic.

The narration in this story is absolutely beautiful too. Pulley uses a style that is evocative of 19th century writing, but which is also still very readable to modern audiences. The narration is descriptive and rich, without ever really doing this just for the sake of showing off (unlike some “literary” novels). The narration also has a quirky playfulness to it that both adds to the stylised Victorian atmosphere of the story, whilst also serving as a vehicle for all sorts of brilliant observations/descriptions.

The novel’s characters are really interesting too, with all of the main characters (Thaniel, Mr. Mori, Grace, Matsumoto, Six and Katsu) being misfits in some way or another.

Not only is there a lot of characterisation in this novel but the relationships betwen the characters are also absolutely fascinating too. Although the characters’ relationships with each other can be prickly, bitter or depressing at times, the nature of friendship is a major theme in this novel and it leads to some absolutely beautiful and heartwarming moments.

There are also more themes in this story than you can shake a stick at, and all of them are handled in really interesting ways. Since it would take ages to talk about all of them, I’ll talk about three of the most important ones in this review.

Fate and free will are major themes in this story, and they are explored in all sorts of interesting ways. It’s difficult to talk about this without spoiling one of the most interesting parts of the story. But, to use a less spoilerific example, the story includes an adorable clockwork octopus called Katsu that has been designed to act in a randomised way. Yet, this random machine often acts like a sentient creature with a personality. And, as I write this review, I’ve just realised the paradox inherent in designing something to be random.

The story also focuses on the relationship between Victorian Britain and Meiji-era Japan too, with both being shown to be very similar in all sorts of subtle ways. For example, in the chapters set in Japan, the novel mostly eschews the typical stylised portrayal of samurai etc.. and often just talks about “castles”, “knights”,”lords”, “barons” etc.. in a way that is reminiscent of British history. Both countries’ languages are also shown to contain quirky historical oddities. Likewise, both Victorian Britain and Meiji-era Japan are shown to be grappling with modernisation. Plus, both countries are shown to have their fair share of stiflingly formal and oppressive traditions too.

Time is also a major theme in this story and it is explored in all sorts of interesting ways. To give a less spoilerific example – although the novel is set in the 19th century, there’s a lot of subtle modern stuff in there. Not only is the telegraph depicted as being similar to a modern instant messenger program at times, but the novel also contains a modern-style theme of terrorism and there are also a few other sneaky modern references too (such as the 19th century Lord Leveson appearing, presumably as a subtle topical reference to the 2011-12 Leveson Inquiry).

In terms of length, this story is absolutely perfect. Unlike many tome-like modern novels, this novel is a more sensible 318 pages in length, and each of these pages matters. Seriously, this novel crams as more storytelling, depth, richness, atmosphere and complexity into 318 pages than some writers would manage to include in 500.

All in all, this novel is absolutely beautiful. Yes, it probably isn’t for everyone and it can be a little bit of a challenge to read at times. But, it is adorably eccentric, subtly compelling, intelligently complex, intricately crafted, heartwarming, nervously suspenseful, and completely unique. It’s the kind of novel where you find yourself thinking “there really should be a film adaptation of this” before realising that even the most well-directed film would struggle to capture exactly what makes this novel so unique, immersive and fascinating.

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

Review: “The Pharaoh’s Secret” By Clive Cussler & Graham Brown (Novel)

Well, after reading “Zero Hour” (2013), I was eager to read another thriller novel by Clive Cussler & Graham Brown. And, in my small collection of second-hand Clive Cussler books, the only other one I had was one called “The Pharaoh’s Secret”.

Interestingly, despite the slightly more understated cover art, this book is actually newer than “Zero Hour” – being published two years later in 2015. Still, given how much better I had found “Zero Hour” to be than the older Clive Cussler novel I’d read beforehand, I had high expectations for “The Pharaoh’s Secret”.

So, let’s take a look at “The Pharaoh’s Secret”. Needless to say, this review will contain some moderate SPOILERS.

This is the 2016 Penguin (UK) paperback edition of “The Pharaoh’s Secret” (2015) that I read.

The novel begins in Ancient Egypt during the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten. In the dead of night, a group of travellers sneak towards Abydos, the forbidden city of the dead. A mysterious plague has been spreading through the land and the travellers believe that the temple of Osiris may hold salvation. When they arrive, one of the travellers is greeted by a terrifying vision of Osiris who tells him that the plague victims will be saved if he agrees to poison Akhenaten as punishment for turning his back on the old gods.

Then we flash forward to 18th century Egypt. Napoleon’s ships are getting a sound thrashing from Nelson’s fleet. During the chaos, a French scholar called Emile D’Campion is trying to smuggle several mysterious crates out of Egypt. After narrowly escaping from one embattled ship with the crates, D’Campion finds himself on Admiral Villeneuve’s ship. Sensing that the battle will not go in their favour, the admiral retreats back to France…

After this, we flash forward to 2015. A smuggling ship called the M.V. Torino is travelling through the seas near Malta. However, the ship’s captain soon notices another vessel following them. The crew quickly arm themselves as several speedboats of gunmen begin to board the Torino. After the battle that follows, the ship runs aground beside the Italian island of Lampedusa, before exploding spectacularly. An ominous chemical mist begins to spread from the gutted vessel, quickly engulfing the island….

Some time later, Kurt Austin (a high-ranking member of a US maritime agency called “NUMA”) is conducting an archaeological dive on a Roman-era ship with his buddy Joe Zavala when they get a mysterious distress call from Lampedusa…..

One of the first things that I’ll say about this novel is that it is as gripping as you would expect 🙂 Like with “Zero Hour”, it is a novel that begs to be binge-read.

However, it sets itself apart from “Zero Hour” in several interesting ways. If “Zero Hour” was like an over-the-top 1990s action movie, then “The Pharaoh’s Secret” is more like a “James Bond” or “Mission: Impossible” film…. with maybe a hint of TV shows like “The A-Team”, “24” and “Burn Notice” too.

In other words, the drama is a little bit more topical, there’s slightly more of an emphasis on suspense and the action scenes are kept at least vaguely “realistic”. Still, this works in the story’s favour.

The main characters often find themselves in suspenseful situations where they have to think on their feet. This emphasis on thinking and ingenuity really helps to keep the story gripping (since the characters can’t just mindlessly shoot their way out of literally every situation).

But, this isn’t to say that “The Pharaoh’s Secret” is bereft of spectacular car chases, gunfights etc…. Yes, there aren’t as many of these as there were in “Zero Hour”, but this just serves to make them more spectacular by contrast. Whether it’s the ferocious battle for the M.V. Torino, a dramatic chase in Malta, a daring secret mission in Cairo etc… there’s still a fair amount of thrilling action here.

Plus, although the story includes some serious topical drama (revolving around the after-effects of the Arab Spring), there’s a reasonable amount of humour too. Not only are there a few brilliantly witty dialogue exchanges, but there are also a few moments of unintentional comedy too. Basically, some of the main villain’s henchmen have hilariously melodramatic code-names like “Talon”, “Shadow” and “Scorpion”. Plus, the main villain has a crocodile pit too. A crocodile pit! Seriously, this is gloriously cheesy!

The novel’s characters are reasonably good too, if somewhat stylised. Kurt’s team is a good mixture of daring heroes and clever scientists. Plus, the novel’s main villain is a pretty classic “villain” character, who is cartoonishly evil in the best possible way. Interestingly though, several of his henchmen get some character development too – with “Scorpion” actually having a bit of an interesting backstory.

Plus, the novel’s new supporting character – Dr. Renata Ambrosini – is kind of interesting. Initially, she’s a typical scientist/doctor character who is a bit of a pacifist. However, by the end of the novel, she’s a badass scuba-diving, pistol-shooting, car chasing etc.. action heroine character. But, since this novel is basically a Hollywood action/thriller movie in book form, then the lack of ultra-deep or realistic character development doesn’t really ruin the story too much.

Whilst this novel’s pacing isn’t as rollercoaster-fast as the pacing “Zero Hour” was, it’s still really good. This novel takes a little bit more time to build up suspense, with the novel’s more slow-paced scenes also helping to make the action scenes more thrilling by contrast too. Still, this isn’t exactly a “slow” novel. It’s the sort of thing that can easily be binge-read in about two or three days.

Even so, one scene (where two characters discover a dry lake that the audience already sort of knows about) seemed a little bit superfluous. Likewise, there’s at least one contrived “deus ex machina” moment later in the story where the protagonists just happen to stumble across something incredibly useful at the right time.

Since this novel has slightly more of an emphasis on suspense and investigation than on rollercoaster-like thrills, these scenes are a little bit more difficult to overlook. Even so, the superfluous scene is over quickly and the “deus ex machina” scene allows for some spectacular moments a little while later. So, these small flaws are easily forgivable.

Likewise, this novel contains some interesting thematic variety too – incorporating elements from other genres such as the medical thriller and political thriller genres. In addition to this, it also includes a small number of vaguely Dan Brown-esque historical detective scenes, which also provide an interesting change of pace too.

One interesting little Easter Egg in this novel is that it references two other co-written Cussler novels (which I’ve still got to read) that were published around the same time. In one scene, Sandecker mentions that Dirk Pitt is in South America (presumably a reference to “Havana Storm”) and, in another scene, the main characters briefly find themselves in the middle of what I assume to be a scene from “The Emperor’s Revenge”.

All in all, “The Pharaoh’s Secret” is a gripping thriller novel. It’s more sophisticated, slightly more “realistic” and more suspenseful than “Zero Hour”, but it isn’t quite as rollercoaster-like as a result. But, on it’s own merits, “The Pharaoh’s Secret” is still one of the better thriller novels I’ve read. If you want a binge-readable novel that is like a high-quality Hollywood action thriller movie in book form, then you could do a lot worse than this novel 🙂

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

Review: “Time Stands Still” By Unleash The Archers (Album)

A few months ago, I was watching random heavy metal music videos on Youtube when I happened to stumble across one for a song called “Test Your Metal” by a band that I’d never even heard of before called Unleash The Archers. I was astonished. This song was proper old-school 1980s-style metal from a modern band 🙂

Fast forward a few months and, eventually, I got round to ordering a copy of the band’s third album “Time Stands Still” (2015) after noticing that it was only about a fiver or so on Amazon. Because if the rest of it was even half as good as the music videos I’d seen, then it was worth getting.

So, let’s take a look at “Time Stands Still” by Unleash The Archers:

And, yes, this album cover is EPIC! It could almost be an Iron Maiden album cover 🙂

The best way to describe the overall sound of this album is that it is a really interesting blend of old-school NWOBHM-style heavy metal and classic European-style power metal, with some more modern Scandinavian-style elements too.

Seriously, some parts of the album sound like they could have come from an old Iron Maiden, Helloween, Judas Priest or Saxon album and some parts of it sound like they could have come from a Wintersun, Ensiferum or Hammerfall album.

One of the early lines in the album’s fifth track, “Test Your Metal”, is ‘You’ve been around town/ with an original sound‘ and this sums up the band’s style perfectly.

Although it’s easy to see who they have been inspired by, they don’t sound exactly like any one specific band. Like all great metal bands, they’ve come up with their own uniquely distinctive sound that is both instantly recognisable as heavy metal, yet also intriguingly different from everything else.

Even though the album isn’t a concept album, most of it has an “epic fantasy/sci-fi” type of atmosphere that wouldn’t be totally out of place on an Iron Maiden, Hammerfall or Helloween album.

But, the album also includes a fair amount of variety too, from the vaguely Iron Maiden/DORO/Saxon-like “Test Your Metal” to the subliminally more gothic/horror-like “Crypt” (which contains some hints of death metal/black metal in some parts) to the opening instrumental “Northern Passage” – which wouldn’t be totally out of place on a Nightwish, Lacuna Coil or Wintersun album.

The best song to sum up the overall atmosphere and style of this album is probably the third track, “Hail Of The Tide”.

The early parts of this song sound vaguely like a mixture of a song like Ensiferum’s “Into Battle” and an epic sci-fi themed Iron Maiden song like “Caught Somewhere In Time” or “If Eternity Should Fail” (but is thematically closer to Iron Maiden’s “The Talisman” or “Ghost Of The Navigator”). Soon, the song goes in a very slightly more Helloween-like direction with a more sustained vocal segment, before returning to classic-style fast paced metal vocals. After this, there’s an utterly epic growled backing vocal segment that wouldn’t be out of place in a Wintersun or Amon Amarth song. And this is only the first half of the song……

The vocals on this album are absolutely outstanding. Lead singer Brittany Slayes’ vocal style is very much in the tradition of singers like Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden), Rob Halford (Judas Priest) and Michael Kiske (Helloween), but she also adds many original flourishes to this traditional style.

Mostly notably, she seems to be an absolute expert at sustaining a single note for long periods of time, which adds an extra sense of epicness to the songs. But, she’s also an incredibly versatile singer, who can sing more ordinary classic rock/ metal vocals (eg: in “Test Your Metal”) and vaguely Nightwish-like vocals (eg: in the early parts of “Dreamcrusher”).

In addition to this, backing singer Andrew Kingsley adds more modern-style growled vocals in some songs (with his vocals in “Hail Of The Tide” reminding me a lot of Wintersun’s first album). Not only that, the song “Time Stands Still” features some absolutely epic Viking-style clean backing vocals/chants, which reminded me of a band like Ensiferum or TYR.

Instrumentally, this album is wonderfully sumptuous. It is a beautifully complex feast of different sounds and styles, that all blend together perfectly.

Not only are there lots of awesome 1980s-style guitar segments, but the album’s atmospheric opening instrumental “Northern Passage” also contains a wonderful mixture of gothic piano/violin music and electronic elements. Likewise, the guitar segments in other parts of the album also have a crunchier and more modern sound too.

Plus, the longer version of the song “Tonight We Ride” even features a brief bass solo at one point (4:17-4:27, if anyone is curious) too. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a metal band do this before, but it works!

Another interesting thing about the longer version of “Tonight We Ride” is that it ends with a brief audio segment which imitates flicking through several radio stations (a bit like the beginning of “Starlight” by Helloween), which culminates with a single tone rising in volume. This segues absolutely perfectly with the beginning of the next track “Test Your Metal”.

And, yes, there are actually two versions of “Tonight We Ride” on the album (eg: a longer album version and the shorter version used in the song’s “Mad Max”-style music video).

All in all, this is a heavy metal album! If some of my favourite metal bands got together and made an album, it would sound a bit like this one! It is an absolutely brilliant blend of both old and new style metal, whilst also being totally unique at the same time.

If you love bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Helloween, Saxon, Wintersun, Hammerfall etc… then you’ll find something to love about this album. If you’re unsure, then go onto Youtube and look up both “Test Your Metal” and “Hail Of The Tide”. You won’t be disappointed.

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