Review: “Nova Swing” By M. John Harrison (Novel)

Well, I thought that it was time to take a look at a noir sci-fi/cyberpunk novel I’ve been meaning to read for the past couple of weeks. I am, of course, talking about M. John Harrison’s 2006 novel “Nova Swing”.

This is a novel that I found by accident whilst sorting out several of the older book piles in my room. At a guess, I first found “Nova Swing” in a discount bookshop (“66 Books” according to the sticker on the back) sometime during the late ’00s and probably bought it purely on the basis of the intriguing title and cover art. Although the blurb states that the novel is a sequel to another novel, it pretty much works as a stand-alone novel.

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

This is the 2007 Gollancz (UK) paperback edition of “Nova Swing” that I read.

The novel is set on another planet, in a city called Saudade. After some kind of cataclysmic event decades or centuries ago, something called “The Event” sits next to the city. It is the edge of another universe or dimension, which seems to follow different logic and laws of physics to our reality.

Vic Serotonin is a tour guide who works out of Liv Hula’s bar with his sidekick Antoyne. Although taking people on tours through “The Event” is technically illegal, the cops only really bother investigating if people start stealing or selling artefacts from the other side. Vic, of course, has a little bit of a sideline in this too. But, when the story starts, he is approached by a mysterious woman who wants a tour. The tour doesn’t go well and they both end up fleeing “The Event”. However, the woman soon starts looking for Vic again….

Meanwhile, an ageing tour guide called Emil Bonadventure lies on his deathbed, tended to by his daughter Edith. An Albert Einstein-like detective called Aschermann pulls himself away from the serial killing case he’s been working on for years after he notices mysterious people emerging from part of “The Event” in a bar called Cafe Surf. He suspects local gangster, Paulie DeRaad, of being involved in it somehow…..

In another part of the city, Paulie has recently bought a rather strange artefact that Vic picked up during one of his trips into “The Event”. However, it is having some rather bizarre side-effects on him…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is brilliant – but it is also something of an acquired taste. It is beautifully-written and positively dripping with atmosphere but, if you go into this story expecting a logical and straightforward plot, then you may be disappointed. Still, if you can handle a story that almost borders on incomprehensible at times, then you are in for a real treat 🙂

This novel is what would happen if William S. Burroughs, Neal Stephenson, Jack O’Connell, Raymond Chandler, David Lynch and Satoshi Kon sat down together and tried to come up with something vaguely similar to “Blade Runner” 🙂

In other words, this novel is joyously surreal and filled with all manner of complex sub-plots, futuristic jargon and slightly random character moments. It is a bizarre book where the best way to read it is just to let the beautiful prose wash over you and hope that you’ll make sense of it eventually. And you probably will, if you put in the effort (and take a few notes along the way).

I’m not going to sugar-coat this, it took me several attempts at reading this novel before I really got into it. But, I’m so glad that I put in the effort 🙂 Although this book may seem utterly confusing and frustratingly slow-paced at first, it will not only start to make more sense after you’ve spent a while reading it but, at the end, you’ll actually find that you miss reading it.

The best part of the novel is probably the atmosphere. This is a noir sci-fi novel that is filled with faded 1950s glamour, neon signs, pouring rain, sleazy nightclubs, derelict industrial buildings, worn out spaceships, realms beyond space and time etc… and all of this atmosphere is created through some wonderfully weird and descriptive third-person narration. Yes, all of this description can really slow the story down and some of the ultra-long sentences can border on being confusing, but it has a wonderful hardboiled poetry to it 🙂

Thematically, the novel is really complex too. In addition to the usual dystopian cyberpunk stuff (eg: underfunded police, delinquent youths, virtual reality, body modification etc..), one of the main themes in this novel is saudade. This is a Portuguese word that translates to “sorrowful nostalgia” or something like that, and this novel is absolutely saturated with it. All of this really helps to add to the “film noir”-like atmosphere of the novel, in addition to allowing for a lot of extra character depth and emotional depth too.

The novel also covers a lot of other topics too, such as introspection, dreams, the way the past lingers in the present, bereavement, mortality, mystery, fantasies etc.. but one interesting thematic part of the novel is probably Emil’s attempts at mapping the un-mappable world of “The Event”, a bizarre shifting dreamscape that can have strange effects on all those who interact with it.

In terms of the characters, they are all pretty interesting. In true hardboiled fashion, the characters are an odd assortment of misfits, has-beens, cops and crooks. Although all of the characters initially seem to have very little depth, you’ll find that you end up caring more about them as the story progresses. Likewise, the characters you’ll find yourself caring about the most will often be very different to what you might expect. This is one of those novels where a few background characters eventually end up being the main characters in later parts of the story, which lends the story a “life goes on” kind of quality.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is interesting. Although it looks like an efficiently short 246-page novel, “Nova Swing” is more like a 500 page novel in disguise. In other words, it is a rather slow-paced story which doesn’t so much have a plot, but is more of a “slice of life” that contains several sub-plots and characters. So, even though this is a short book, don’t expect it to be a quick read. But, when you get used to the writing style, the story does go a little bit faster. Although, by the time this happens, you’ll probably wish that the novel was longer.

All in all, this novel is absolutely brilliant – but it is an acquired taste! It is beautifully weird, brilliantly atmospheric and totally unique, but it probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Still, if you don’t mind putting some effort into making sense of the story and spending a lot longer than you would expect reading what looks like a short book, then you will be richly rewarded for your time 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a five. But, again, this novel is an acquired taste!

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Review: “Angel’s Ink” By Jocelynn Drake (Novel)

Well, although I’d heard about Jocelynn Drake’s “Asylum Tales” urban fantasy series soon after I finished reading Drake’s excellent “Dark Days” vampire thriller series quite a few months ago, I never got round to reading any of them at the time.

Then, a week or so before I wrote this review, I suddenly remembered this series and, to my delight, second-hand copies of the first novel in the series “Angel’s Ink” (2012) had come down in price since I last looked at them 🙂

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

This is the 2013 Harper Voyager (UK) paperback edition of “Angel’s Ink” that I read.

The novel is set in a city called Low Town, where magic is real and supernatural creatures exist. In the alleyway next to his tattoo parlour, ex-warlock Gage Powell is threatened by an angry customer because of a malfunctioning “good luck” potion he used in a tattoo. Although Gage wins the fight, he has to use a magic spell or two in the process.

This prompts a visit from a warlock called Gideon who reminds Gage that he is forbidden from using magic spells, except in self-defence. Luckily for Gage, his actions during the fight technically fell somewhere within that definition, but Gideon sternly warns Gage that he’ll be keeping a close eye on him.

Business at the tattoo parlour carries on as usual for a while, but then Gage is visited by a terminally ill woman called Tera who wants a pair of angel wings tattooed on her back. Moved by her situation, Gage decides to secretly help her out by mixing a strand from an angel’s wing into the ink.

However, sometime later, a grim reaper shows up at the parlour and tells him that he accidentally made Tera immortal. He has three days to rectify the problem or the reaper will take his life instead…..

One of the first things that I will say is that this is a really compelling and suspenseful noir-influenced urban fantasy thriller 🙂 Although it’s a little bit more slow-paced than Drake’s “Dark Days” series and it doesn’t have quite the same gothic atmosphere, it’s definitely one of the best urban fantasy novels I’ve read within the past couple of months. Still, it is more of a suspenseful small-scale and vaguely “film noir”-style thriller set within a relatively small number of locations than a more typical urban fantasy action-thriller novel.

Like in a lot of thrillers, this is a “bad day” novel where the main character finds himself faced with a lot of difficult situations within a relatively small space of time and this really helps to ramp up the suspense and pressure. Although this novel contains a few fight scenes (including some vaguely Harry Potter-style magic duels), it’s slightly more of a traditional suspense thriller than an action-thriller novel, since Gage often has to come up with plans or think on his feet in order to get out of the gigantic mess that he’s found himself in. All of this suspense really helps to keep the novel compelling.

Although “Angel’s Ink” isn’t a noir urban fantasy novel in the way that, say, P.N. Elrod’s “Bloodlist” is, there is certainly quite a bit of influence from the noir genre here 🙂 Whether it is the slightly complex plot, the “sleazy” tattoo parlour settings, the focus on a criminal underworld, the mysterious woman walking into the protagonist’s office at the start of the story and the good-hearted but morally-ambiguous protagonist, there are definitely a few hints of the noir genre here 🙂

The novel’s fantasy elements are handled quite well too. In addition to a lot of the usual urban fantasy stuff (eg: elves, trolls, werewolves, vampires, satyrs, succubi etc..), the novel’s magic elements feel solid enough (including some dramatic set pieces too 🙂 ) and the story even includes some intriguingly dystopian elements too. Basically, there is an uneasy truce between humanity and a strict order of powerful, cruel warlocks and witches, who treat the world in a rather colonialist fashion.

Since Gage is an ex-warlock who lives amongst humans, he finds himself under constant suspicion and threat from the order, in addition to having to keep his true nature secret from most of those around him. It’s a brilliantly inventive premise that helps to add some extra suspense and depth to the story.

In terms of the characters, they’re reasonably well-written. Gage comes across as a flawed, but likeable, protagonist with a troubled past who finds himself faced with a lot of difficult situations. Likewise, his two side-kicks – Trixie and Bronx – are both interesting characters with their own motivations, backstories and personalities. The novel also contains quite a few other interesting background characters and a bit of a romantic sub-plot too.

In terms of the writing, the novel’s first-person narration is fairly well-written too. It allows for a decent amount of characterisation and is “matter of fact” enough to keep the story moving at a reasonable pace, whilst also being descriptive enough to add atmosphere. But, although this novel is well written, I still slightly preferred the more gothic and fast-paced narration in Drake’s “Dark Days” series though.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is reasonably good. At 338 pages, it isn’t too long – although it was very slightly slower-paced than I’d initially expected. Yes, the story certainly has a lot of fast-paced moments and is compelling enough to make you want to keep reading it, but this is one of those books that took slightly longer to read than I’d initially expected. Plus, although there is enough resolution to make the ending feel satisfying, this novel is the first part of a series. So, don’t expect literally everything to be resolved by the end of the story.

All in all, this is a really good urban fantasy thriller novel which is filled with suspense and some hints of the noir genre too 🙂 On it’s own merits, it is a compelling novel that fans of authors like Mike Carey and Lilith Saintcrow will probably enjoy 🙂 And, although I slightly preferred Drake’s “Dark Days” novels to this one, it’s always great to read more books by this author 🙂

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

Review: “Resident Evil Genesis” By Keith R. A. DeCandido (Film Novelisation)

Well, although I’d planned to read a different novel, a combination of being busy and tired meant that I needed to read something a lot more readable and faster-paced.

Luckily, several months earlier, I’d found my old copy of Keith R. A. DeCandido’s 2004 novelisation of the first “Resident Evil” film that I’d bought sometime during the ’00s, but never got round to reading. So, this seemed like the perfect time to actually read it.

Although it is possible to enjoy this novel without having seen the film, I’d recommend watching the film first since the novelisation makes a few changes to various things. But, like with the original film, be sure to have a copy of the sequel (either the film sequel or DeCandido’s novelisation of it) nearby, since it follows on directly from the end of this story.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Resident Evil Genesis”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2004 Pocket Books (US) paperback edition of “Resident Evil Genesis” that I read.

The novel begins with a meeting between a man called Aaron Vricella and another man called Matt Addision. Both are part of a secret group who are devoted to taking down the nefarious Umbrella Corporation, a pharmaceutical company who may be working on illegal bio-weapons. In order to do this, they need someone on the inside and, after some discussion, Vricella reluctantly agrees to allow Matt’s sister Lisa to do the job.

Lisa is, of course, glad to help out because one of Umbrella’s malfunctioning medicines and the subsequent cover-up (and campaign of intimidation) killed her friend Mahmoud. So, she interviews for a computer maintenance position in Umbrella’s mysterious underground Hive facility near the town of Racoon city………

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is kind of like an expanded and slightly re-edited version of the film. This is both a good and a bad thing.

On the plus side, all of the extra “deleted scenes” help to turn this novelisation into something more like a conventional novel. They add a bit of extra depth to the story and help to fill in some small gaps (eg: how and why Alice’s contact, Lisa, spied on Umbrella) in the story. But, as I’ll explain later, not following the structure of the film’s story also has some negative effects on the novelisation too.

Another good thing is that this novel also includes a lot of extra characterisation which not only helps to add extra depth to the story, but also means that the scenes where background characters (who only appear for a few seconds or minutes in the film) die have a lot more dramatic and emotional impact than they do in the film. Good horror relies on good characterisation and all of the extra characterisation in this adaptation helps a bit with this.

On the downside, the re-edited story means that the novel is fairly slow to start. Basically, all of the stuff that is told via flashbacks later in the film makes up the first 50-100 pages of the novel. This change also means that the grippingly mysterious early scene of the film where Alice wakes up with no memory doesn’t have the same impact in the novel because it happens on page 116 – after we’ve already learnt a lot about Alice’s backstory.

Likewise, the novelisation also adds some extra thematic stuff, but it is somewhat muddled. Basically, one theme in this novel seems to be that the US Govt/Police are stuck in the 1950s with regard to gender politics, with two characters (Alice and Rain) joining the nefarious Umbrella Corporation’s security division because it actually offered to promote them on merit. Whilst this could possibly be political satire, it not only comes across as a little bit heavy-handed but it also slightly undermines the “ultra-rich corporations are evil” theme that also runs through the novel too.

Still, if there’s one thing that this novel gets right, it is the original film’s suspense and sci-fi elements. The slow beginning means that it is even longer until the first zombie lurches into view (it doesn’t happen until page 180). However, like with DeCandido’s adaptation of the film’s sequel, the novelisation doesn’t use the added freedom of the written word to add lots of extra gory horror to the film’s story (unlike, for example, S.D. Perry’s brilliantly macabre novelisation of the first “Resident Evil” videogame). So, this is more of a suspenseful thriller novel than a horror novel.

On the plus side, the fact that the story is told via words means that there’s more room to explore the sci-fi elements of the film. Although these aren’t explained in a huge level of depth, there’s enough extra stuff here to give the story a bit more atmosphere and depth than the film had in this regard.

In terms of the writing, the novel’s third-person narration is reasonably good. The novel is narrated in a reasonably matter of fact way, with the narration being more descriptive in some scenes and more informal during more fast-paced moments. It’s fairly readable and the writing doesn’t really get in the way of the story.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is ok. At 277 pages in length, it thankfully isn’t too long, although I got the feeling that the story could have probably been told in 150-200 pages. Likewise, whilst the later parts of the novel are more fast-paced than the early ones, the slow-paced expanded introduction robs the story of some of the film’s pacing (although it does add a bit of extra suspense to the novelisation though).

All in all, this is a reasonably good novelisation of the first “Resident Evil” film. Yes, all of the changes and additions are a bit of a mixed bag. Still, if you want a slightly slower-paced and more suspenseful version of the film with a lot of extra character depth, then this novelisation might be worth reading.

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

Review: “The Ice Queen” By Alice Hoffman (Novel)

Ever since I watched the film adaptation of “Practical Magic” and, later, read Alice Hoffman’s excellent “Turtle Moon” I’ve been meaning to read another Alice Hoffman novel. And, since this review will be the hundredth book review since I got back into reading regularly several months ago, I thought that it was the perfect time to do this.

But, since both new and second-hand copies of Hoffman’s “Practical Magic” were still a bit on the expensive side of things at the time of writing, I looked around online and ended up buying a second-hand copy of Hoffman’s 2005 novel “The Ice Queen” instead.

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

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[Note: I read the 2006 Vintage (UK) paperback edition of “The Ice Queen”, although I’ve decided against showing what the book looks like because the previous owner of the second-hand copy I read has scrawled what appears to be a phone number onto the cover and, on the grounds of privacy, I thought it best not to show this.]

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The novel begins with a flashback to the nameless narrator’s childhood, showing how she feels that a single angry thought caused the death of her mother. Since then, she has been racked by self-loathing and has lived a rather cold life. She works in a library, where she becomes an expert on death due to frequent information requests from a local police officer. Although the two of them have several trysts together, she breaks up with him when she realises that he is falling in love with her.

After the death of her grandmother, the narrator agrees to move to Florida with her brother, who is working on a research project into lightning strikes. On the car journey, the narrator thinks about being struck by lightning and, sure enough, it happens to her some time later. Amongst other injuries, the lightning strike removes her ability to see the colour red- turning the world into a cold, icy landscape.

During a support group meeting for lightning strike survivors at the university, she hears about a mysterious recluse called Lazarus Jones who died from a lightning strike and returned to life sometime later. According to the gossip, Lazarus’ body is warmer than usual, giving him the ability to burn things just by touching them. Fascinated, she decides to seek him out….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it, although it sounds like the most random and depressing novel ever written, it is actually one of the most profound and beautiful books that I’ve read recently 🙂 It is a story that is worth reading for the characters, the atmosphere and the way that it is written. And, yes, it is also a novel that will probably make you cry at least a few times.

At it’s heart, this is a novel about fairytales – about the differences between the sanitised moralistic fairytales of Hans Christian Anderson and the macabre fairytales of the Brothers Grimm, about the difference between reality and fairytales and, most importantly, about the bizarre logic of fairytales.

In particular, how random small things can have a huge influence on other things. This is kind of a running theme throughout the novel with, for example, the course of main character’s entire life being shaped by a single thought that she had when she was a child. It is a theme that is both fascinating and eerily terrifying at the same time.

This fairytale-like atmosphere is also emphasised by a few well-placed fantastical/ magic realist elements throughout the story. Whether it is the narrator’s belief that wishes can cause death, or the fact that one character burns everything he touches, or people returning from the dead or the way that the story depicts lightning, this is one of those stories that is both realistic and fantastical at the same time. These fantasy elements also help to lighten the more depressing elements of the story too, by giving the reader a little bit of emotional distance from the story.

Likewise, this novel contains some brilliant romance elements. Although they are a bit stylised, they have an intensity and a passion to them that really helps to add some vivid warmth to this bleak tale. There’s also a lot of stuff about the blurring of love and obsession, the contrast between fire and ice, how secrets define who we are and lots of other stuff like that. Likewise, the mystery of Lazarus’ backstory and the narrator’s intense curiosity about it also help to add some compelling suspense to the story too.

Emotionally, this novel is incredibly profound. Although it is filled with misery, woe, angst, death, sorrow, fear, self-loathing, guilt and bleakness, this is leavened by both the beauty of Hoffman’s writing style and the inclusion of things like dark humour and profound statements about humanity, life, death and everything else.

Like with Hoffman’s “Turtle Moon”, this is one of those novels that has a real sense of humanity to it. This is kind of difficult to describe but you get the sense that, for all of the story’s darkness, there’s an underlying warmth, compassion and wisdom lurking in the background.

In terms of the characters, they’re really good. The nameless narrator gets the most characterisation and she is a flawed, realistic character whose entire life and outlook on the world has been shaped by feelings of self-loathing and fear. She’s a misfit who is obsessed with death and prefers to be alone. She’s a really complex and fascinating character (who is kind of like a much less creepy/sociopathic version of the narrator in Kaaron Warren’s “Slights”). The other characters in the story also receive a fair amount of characterisation and they all come across as quirky, flawed, realistic people.

In terms of the writing, this novel is spectacular. Although most of the first-person narration is fairly informal and “matter of fact”, it is filled with numerous small moments of poetry, weirdness, magical descriptions and other beautiful things that really give the story a vivid and unique atmosphere. The combination of all of these things means that the story flows really well – having the pacing of a mild thriller whilst also having the deep atmosphere and intellectual/emotional depth of a literary novel.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is brilliant. At a wonderfully efficient 211 pages, this story never feels too long 🙂 Likewise, as mentioned earlier, the narration means that this novel is both fast-paced and slow-paced at the same time – this is really difficult to describe. This is one of those stories that just flows really well, which moves slowly yet feels like it is moving quickly. In other words, it is compelling.

All in all, this is a really great novel. It’s a weird dark fairytale that is also filled with magic and profundity. It is both an incredibly beautiful and an incredibly depressing novel. It probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it is one of the most profound and well-written novels that I’ve read recently.

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

Review: “Old Twentieth” By Joe Haldeman (Novel)

Well, after I’d finished reading Joe Haldeman’s excellent “The Accidental Time Machine” a week or two earlier, I looked online and ended up finding a second-hand copy of Haldeman’s 2005 novel “Old Twentieth”. Since the cover art and the premise looked fairly interesting, I decided to take a look at it.

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

This is the 2006 Ace (US) paperback edition of “Old Twentieth” that I read.

The novel begins in 1915, where a soldier in Gallipoli called Jacob is mortally wounded by a Turkish shell. As he dies, someone shows him a series of pictures….

We then flash forward to the distant future. Jacob is hundreds of years old, because an immortality pill was developed in the past. However, the fact that the pill was initially only available to the wealthy sparked an Earth-wide civil war, which ended with the immortal 3% of the population using bio-weapons to get rid of the 97%. In the centuries that followed, Earth rebuilt itself from a post-apocalyptic ruin and civilisation returned.

However, there were still worries about how long Earth would last. So, after a probe finds another habitable planet, eight hundred people decide to take the 1000 year voyage in a group of five spaceships. To stave off boredom during the voyage and to help the crew emotionally, one of the ships has a virtual reality machine that can realistically simulate many parts of Earth’s history. Jacob is part of the team that maintains the machine and sorts out errors in the program.

For the first few years of the voyage, everything goes well. Life on board the ship is pleasant and Jacob even falls in love with another member of the crew too. However, all of this starts to unravel when someone using the VR machine suddenly and mysteriously dies whilst still plugged in…..

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s a fairly atmospheric, intelligent and compelling sci-fi story that is reminiscent of films like “The Thirteenth Floor” and “2001: A Space Odyssey”, the TV show “Bablyon 5” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World“. Even so, it can be a little bit on the slow-paced side of things, not to mention that it is also a far cry from the light-hearted adventure of Haldeman’s “The Accidental Time Machine” too.

Although there are some moments of humour and some rather utopian moments (which are perhaps a satire of “Star Trek”) during the story, this is very much a bleak and dystopian story. On the plus side, it contains some brilliantly chilling and grotesque moments of sci-fi horror but, for the most part, it is a rather melancholy story. It’s a very intelligent, atmospheric and compelling novel, but it isn’t exactly a “feel good” novel.

One interesting thing about the novel’s VR segments is that they are deliberately grim and dystopian, with the grittiness of history being contrasted with the seemingly utopian world of the future (this even extends to some of the deliberately dated descriptions used in the “history” segments). This also allows the story to include some extra worldbuilding and emotional depth since, in a world where people are immortal, realistic simulations of things like disease and death evoke a different reaction than they would do if the characters experiencing them were mortal.

Thematically, this book is fairly complex. In addition to dealing with history, war, capitalism, anarchy, death, psychology and other such heavy topics, it is also a book about virtual reality, artificial intelligence and the meaning of life too. There’s lots of fairly interesting subtle stuff too, such as how a lot of the VR history segments in the early parts of the story deal with the Spanish Flu, which parallels the use of bio-weapons in the novel’s backstory. Or how the narrator’s surname is Brewer, which links into a comment that a character makes about him later in the story.

But, one slightly annoying thing about this book is that it could have been a really brilliant satire of moral panics and it possibly is to some limited extent. Even so, this novel mostly goes down a more serious and dystopian route, with the “dangerous” VR machine being a source of horror and a source of moral lectures from a few of the more curmudgeonly characters (where it is likened to alcoholism, drugs etc..). Still, this novel does pose the question of whether joy and escapism is an integral part of the meaning of life, with the alternative to using the machine being 1000 years of repetitive boredom on a spaceship.

In terms of the characters, they’re ok I guess. The narrator gets a reasonable amount of characterisation, but the side-characters often seem a little bit stylised or under-developed. Although there is a possible in-universe explanation for this, the very slight lack of characterisation can make some of the characters seem a little bit generic and/or annoying. Likewise, it’s kind of annoying that the only bi character (Kate) in the novel is possibly something of a stereotype too.

In terms of the writing, the novel is mostly narrated from a first-person perspective, with a few brief third-person backstory segments. The writing style is fairly descriptive, but readable, which helps to add a lot of atmosphere to the story – albeit at the cost of slightly slower-paced storytelling. Even so, the writing in this novel is kind of like a slightly updated version of more classic sci-fi narration.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is a bit of a mixed bag. At 285 pages in length, it never really feels too long and it manages to pack quite a bit of storytelling into a reasonable amount of pages. On the other hand, whilst this novel does become more and more compelling as it goes along, the pacing is a little bit on the slow side of things. Yes, this adds atmosphere and suspense. But, on the other hand, a faster pace would have made this story even better.

Still, the novel has a rather dramatic ending though. However, if you’ve seen a fair number of sci-fi movies/TV shows, then it might be at least slightly predictable. Even so, it’s a reasonably clever way to end the story nonetheless.

All in all, this is a compelling, intelligent, atmospheric and suspenseful sci-fi novel. Yes, it’s slow-paced, a bit depressing and it possibly needs a bit more characterisation, but it is still a reasonably good novel. Even so, I enjoyed Haldeman’s “The Accidental Time Machine” slightly more than this novel.

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

Review: “What Could Possibly Go Wrong?” By Jodi Taylor (Novel)

Woo hoo! Thanks to a wonderful birthday present from a family member a few days before I prepared this review, I am now the proud owner of several more novels in Jodi Taylor’s awesome “Chronicles Of St. Mary’s” series 🙂

Although I’ll probably carefully ration them out over the next few months, I thought that I’d take a look at the sixth novel in the series, “What Could Possibly Go Wrong?” (2015), today. You can find my reviews of the previous five novels here, here, here, here and here.

Although this novel is the sixth novel in a series, it can pretty much almost be read as a stand-alone book, since the premise basically serves as another introduction to the series (not to mention that there are a few recaps too). Even so, you’ll get more out of this book if you read the previous five books first.

So, let’s take a look at “What Could Possibly Go Wrong?”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2017 Accent Press (UK) paperback edition of “What Could Possibly Go Wrong?” that I read.

The novel begins in a secret time-travelling historical research institute called St.Mary’s. Accident-prone senior historian Madeleine Maxwell (or “Max” for short) is having a meeting with the institute’s head, Dr.Baristow, who tells her that she’s been assigned five new recruits that she will have to train into historians.

The recruits are a rather motley crew that consist of a mohawk-wearing punk, a member of the upper classes, a mini-Max, a random guy and *gasp* a coffee-drinker (practically heresy in St.Mary’s, where tea is king).

Remembering her own training, Max decides to do things a bit differently. Instead of teaching the recruits lots of theory first, she wants to take them on short, low-risk jumps into the past throughout the course. Of course, this being St.Mary’s, there’s really no such thing as “low-risk”….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a really good novel in a great series 🙂 There’s the usual unique mixture of comedy, thrills and drama – not to mention that the idea of turning Max into a training officer is a brilliant reversal of the first novel in the series (where Max is a trainee). Like a new episode of a favourite TV show, this is a novel that manages to be both reassuringly familiar and intriguingly new at the same time.

If you’ve never read this series before, imagine a mixture of “Doctor Who”, a late-night BBC3 sitcom, “St. Trinians” and Terry Pratchett, but with a little bit of a punk sensibility and a gloriously eccentric sense of humour. Although I may make a few small criticisms in this review, the series as a whole is one of the best that I’ve read and this novel isn’t too out of place in it. In other words, “What Could Possibly Go Wrong?” is a really good novel in a series of great novels.

In terms of the time travel scenes, they are as inventively weird as ever – including things like an adorable baby mammoth, a character nearly drowning in the desert and a hilariously bizarre encounter with the ancient historian Herodotus.

These hilariously chaotic scenes of farce and slapstick comedy are also contrasted with some more serious and grim historical moments, such as the brutal deaths of Joan Of Arc and Richard III. Although the first novel in the series struggled to get this contrast right, this novel has a fairly good mixture of comedy and serious drama, with neither overwhelming the story too much.

In addition to this, this novel actually implies when the main events of the series take place. Although many of the “St. Mary’s” novels have slightly weird background details that hint that the stories take place in the near future, one of the later parts of this story (involving the “100 year rule”) pretty much points out that the main “St. Mary’s” storyline takes place in the 2040s-60s. I’m kind of surprised that it has taken the series this long to point it out, since I vaguely remember being mildly confused by this element during first couple of books.

Like in some previous novels, this novel is pretty much a short story collection in disguise – with a series of sub-plots taking place in different times and places, in addition to a few brilliantly comedic stand-alone scenes (such as Max finally taking her outdoor survival training). On the whole, this works really well and allows for a really good mixture of comedy and drama, in addition to adding a lot of variety to the story too 🙂

However, if there is one criticism to be made of this novel, it’s that some of the story arc elements seemed a little bit light. Although there are hints at nefarious plots in the background, a brief mention of Clive Ronan, a dramatic plot twist or two and even a brief appearance by the Time Police, the dramatic background plots of earlier novels like “A Trail Through Time” don’t really turn up here. Yes, the novel is still fairly dramatic, but it really doesn’t have quite the same sense of being part of an epic story arc. Even so, it’s still really compelling.

A lot of this is due to the fact that Max is responsible for training a new group of historians, which allows the story to include a bit of extra characterisation, some new types of suspense, some extra drama and some additional comedy (such as when one of them decides to *gasp* drink coffee instead of tea). This also serves as another introduction to the the series for people who are new to it too. As I mentioned earlier, there’s enough familiar stuff to make this novel feel wonderfully relaxing but enough new stuff to keep the story interesting.

In terms of the characters, they’re as hilariously eccentric as ever – especially with the new additions. Likewise, Max’s first-person narration is as wonderfully informal, irreverent and personality-filled as ever. Both the characters and the narration are a major source of both comedy and drama in this series, and this novel certainly doesn’t disappoint in this regard 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly decent. At 388 pages, it’s a bit longer than I had expected, but this didn’t matter too much because I really enjoyed the story. Likewise, in contrast to the first couple of novels in the series, the pacing is a lot more consistent and confident here – with the story containing a really good mixture of moderately-paced and fast-paced scenes.

All in all, this is a really good novel in a great series. If you’re new to the series, then you’ll probably enjoy this novel and, if you’re already a fan, then this is a fairly solid “episode” of the series. Yes, it doesn’t have quite the same brevity and high-stakes drama as some of the earlier novels, but it is as funny, dramatic and compelling as you would expect 🙂

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

Review: “Make Me” By Lee Child (Novel)

Well, although I’d originally planned to read a noir cyberpunk novel, the weather had become so hot that I needed to read something a bit more fast-paced instead. So, after looking through my “to read” pile, I found a copy of Lee Child’s 2015 novel “Make Me” that a relative had found in a charity shop several years ago and thought that I might enjoy.

So, let’s take a look at “Make Me”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS. I’ll avoid spoiling the exact details of the ending, but expect spoilers about the style and genre of the ending.

This is the 2015 Bantam Press (UK) hardback edition of “Make Me” that I read.

The novel begins at night in a farming town in Oklahoma called Mother’s Rest. In a field outside of town, a group of people are burying a dead man called Keever. However, before they can finish their grim task, a train whooshes past the field.

A wandering ex-military policeman called Jack Reacher decides to get off of the train at Mother’s Rest because he is intrigued by the town’s unusual name. However, no sooner has he set foot on the platform, he is accosted by a mysterious woman who initially mistakes him for someone else. After they go their separate ways, Reacher decides to spend the night in the town’s only motel. Little does he know, someone is watching him….

The next morning, he stops off in the local diner for coffee and meets the woman from the train station again. She’s an ex-FBI private detective called Michelle Chang who has travelled to the town after her colleague, Keever, requested urgent backup. Apparently, Keever was going to explain his current case to her when they met, but he hasn’t shown up in town. So, Reacher decides to help her investigate…..

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a brilliantly suspenseful thriller novel that is also a surprisingly effective horror novel in disguise 🙂

Although the novel certainly contains some dramatic action-thriller elements, this is one of those ultra-suspenseful stories where you’ll keep reading because you want to find out what is really going on. And when you do find out the horrifying truth, you’ll wish that you hadn’t…

The novel’s suspense elements are absolutely brilliant! In addition to an intriguingly ominous mystery, the story also makes use of suspense in all sorts of other clever ways too.

Whether it is the segments showing the bad guys spying on the main characters, the way that a news report plays in the background of one scene, the fact that both sides plan their dramatic final showdown very carefully or even how the fight scenes will sometimes contain long descriptions of gun mechanisms in order to ramp up the tension before a shot is fired, this novel is saturated with suspense and it works really well 🙂

Even though this novel is much more of a suspense thriller than an action thriller, there are still some dramatic fight scenes. These are spread out carefully throughout the novel, so that they seem extra dramatic in contrast to the more understated scenes beforehand. If you’ve read a Lee Child novel before, you’ll know that he’s an expert at writing fight scenes and this story is no exception.

Plus, unlike in Child’s “The Midnight Line“, Reacher certainly isn’t a pacifist in this story. Likewise, he actually suffers a concussion at one point, which makes some of the later fight scenes even more suspenseful (since he’s also fighting the effects of the concussion too).

To my surprise, this novel also contains some really well-written horror elements too 🙂 This is a story that gets more horrific as it goes along, going from ominous to creepy to disturbing to full-on horror in a way that you won’t see coming until it is too late.

Although a lot of the most grisly elements of the story’s shocking final twist are left to the reader’s imagination (since this is a thriller novel, rather than a splatterpunk novel) this story delivers a devastatingly disturbing dose of horror that can really catch you off-guard.

Likewise, all of this horror is complemented by a deliberately unsettling tone throughout the story. Whether it is the fact that the main characters are being watched, the mysterious nature of the mystery they’re trying to solve or even some lengthy discussions of some fairly dark subject matter, this novel sets up it’s shocking final moments of horror absolutely perfectly. Or, more accurately, it fools you into thinking that you’re reading an ordinary suspense thriller story until it is too late…..

In terms of the characters, they’re reasonably good. Although there isn’t a gigantic amount of ultra-deep characterisation, there is enough characterisation here to make you care about the main characters and for the slightly understated romantic sub-plot between Reacher and Chang to work fairly well. Surprisingly, the most dramatic characters in this novel are probably a few of the villains, who are probably some of the most chillingly evil villains that I’ve ever seen in a novel.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is really well-written. The narration is “matter of fact” enough to keep the story grippingly fast-paced, but isn’t afraid to pause for more complex descriptions when the story requires it. In other words, if you’ve read Lee Child novels before, then you’ll probably be quite familiar with the writing style here.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. Although this novel is a slightly lengthy 421 pages long, this is counterbalanced by the fact that this is one of those compelling stories that you’ll probably want to binge-read fairly quickly.

Plus, although this fast-paced thriller isn’t always quite as fast-paced as you would expect, this allows the story to build suspense and to make the even faster-paced moments stand out even more in contrast.

All in all, this is a brilliantly compelling thriller novel that is also a horror novel in disguise 🙂 It makes expert use of suspense, plot twists and all of that kind of stuff and it is the kind of story that is difficult to put down once you’ve started reading it.

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