A review of Darren Shan’s “Zom-B: Goddess.”

The final instalment of Shan’s compulsive 12 book ‘Zom-B’ serial is a heady brew.
It piles betrayal on betrayal until the undead, feisty teenage protagonist is driven to take the mother of all drastic steps.  What follows is a game-changing development that you will not have seen coming.  It’s not a ‘twist’, per-se, more of a huge step in an unexpected direction, that nevertheless has imaginative and narrative integrity with what has gone before.
The gory set pieces and sudden and brutal offing of familiar characters, hallmarks of the series, continues to the end.  And as usual Shan’s monster’s gallery of mutants is deliriously entertaining, from the flying, piranha tooted ‘babies’ to the horror clown of Mr Dowling.  Not to mention the clawed, long toothed brain munching zombies themselves.
The writer also develops political themes on apathy and activism he began to explore in the first book with B and her racist father and her initial reluctance to challenge him, and where that leads.  Here this is applied to the apathy and indifference to society as a whole to the injustices and evils in its midst, and where that leads.
Warren Pleece’s narrations have also been a welcome addition in the series.  They remind me of the black ink illustrations to the original Doctor Who ‘Target’ novelisations.  Simple yet effective snapshots of the action to compare with your own imaginings.
The whole series is great for young adults and older adults alike, and it’s great to see it brought to such a non cop-out conclusion.
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A review of Bruno Vincent’s “Five Go On a Strategy Away Day

I thought I would flag this because here is a rare thing:  a book that will be found on the crowded table at your local bookseller reserved for humorous stocking fillers that is actually very funny.

It follows the “Ladybird Book of…” series that revisits childhood favourites in a format similar to the original publishing templates, including fonts and images taken from the originals.

Here The Famous Five get a makeover, given contemporary first world problems and put in a lot of situations of current relevance, such as Brexit, modern parenting dilemmas, and here a work strategy away day.

The humour is well observed and works perfectly.  Anyone who has been on such an away day will cringe with recognition.  It undercuts all the pretension perfectly, as it does the stereotypes of the original, e.g the bossy leader of the gang, the Tomboy, and so on.  There’s a rivalry with Secret Seven going on which I presume runs through the other books.  The use of line drawings from the originals but relabelled with a line from the new story is also very funny.

Recommended.

A review of the graphic novel “Arkham Asylum: Living Hell”

This is one glorious fever dream of a graphic novel from DC, one of their hits from 2003.

It tells the story of Warren White, a super- rich fraudster and embezzler who makes the mistake of pleading insanity in Gotham at his trial in the hope of a cushy sentence.   It doesn’t, it gets him committed to Arkham.   Here he finds himself in an infernal carnival of the criminally insane. Nothing is what it seems.  And Hell itself will shortly come calling…

Writer Dan Slott gives us a multi layered narrative who different threads interweave in a truly narrative fashion.  It has moments of genuine, creep you out horror, pathos, and very dark humour.  It’s an example of how the DC Universe can be more fantastical and lurid than its Marvel counterpart.  DC really pushed the limits of the comic book frame in what we can imaginatively accept without the whole thing becoming too absurd for even the most ardent comic fan.  It’s one reason why DC struggles more to make their stuff work on the big screen.

It’s great to see old favourites here, the Joker, Riddler, Poison Ivy, and more, as well as the beginnings of a new creature, “The Shark,” and those we know less about e.g. Humpty, Jane Doe.

Batman and Batgirl are on the margins here, with most of the heroics being dished out by weary Prison Guard Mr Cash.  He’s an intriguing character; cynical, maimed and almost defeated, it’s when things are at their most dangerous and bleakest that he truly finds his strength.  And this is a blueprint for the heroics in all of us.

Ryan Sook and Lee Loughbridge are penciller and colourist respectively, with the inkers being Wade Von Grawbadger and Jim Royal. Together they create a dark and murky world of dark tones and lurid hues where black, green and of course red predominate.  Frames tell the story at a rapid rate and you are left feeling that there is always a horror you have missed, something nasty glimpsed by the corner of your eye.

Mike Heisler’s lettering has some interesting variations including gothic script for he more infernal creations, and a storybook type for Humpty’s tale.

If you like DC tales that focus on the Super Villains, then you’ll love this.

 

A review of Adam Bakers’ “Killchain.”

Horror writer David Moody runs “Infected Books,” a publishing company devoted to horror fiction.  Infected Books are roughly half way through a year long monthly series of novellas of zombie fiction by different horror writers.  “Killchain” is Adam Baker’s contribution.

Adam Baker has written a four book series of novels that tell the story of an infection that literally falls in to Earth from the stars, and spawns a change in people transmitted through scratch or bite.  They become a host to a  mutagen that shoots tendrils, spikes and tumorous growths, all metallic in nature and appearance, through the human body, whilst the personality is destroyed and the creature becomes part of a hive mind and a ravaging, snarling inhuman killer.  Book one, “Outpost,” is set on an oil rig in the Arctic as the infection hits civilisation, it is followed by “Juggernaut,” a prequel of sorts set in Iraq as a group of CIA hired mercenaries are tasked unwittingly to investigate one of the ground zero’s of the infection, Book three, “Terminus,” is set in an irradiated New York as a military hired rescue team go deep into the subway system to find  a Doctor who just mind have found a cure to the infection, and “Impact” sees the crew of a  downed military flight try to survive both the desert and the infected. For more on the books see the author’s website “Dark Outpost.”

There is little sign of hope that humanity will beat the infection in Baker’s stories.  They are incredibly bleak in tone, in that you feel it is a given that the cockroaches are humanity’s successor.  His lead character’s are usually female and they offer a tough goodness that offers some redemption as a testament to humanity, but it is a testament that is doomed not to be heard or remembered.

His prose style follows James Ellroy’s clipped staccato style.  The invention, gore and nature of the monsters are all a cut above and reference the Thing, the ‘fast’ undead of World War Z/ 28 Days Later, and David Cronenberg style body horror.

In his contribution to “Year of the Zombie,” Adam Baker sets his story in another of his infection’s Ground Zeros, where the infection has fallen to earth from downed satellites and space stations, this time in Mogadishu.  We begin in the home of a local resident, Daniel,   who learns that quarantined infected has broken out of a stadium where they were being held, and the city is close being overrun.  But before he can flee he is faced with the sudden intrusion of the CIA into his home in the form of agent Eliza, part of a kill-team tasked with eliminating a Russian Official, and  her “Mechanic,” a mercenary named Ben.  They are later joined by Sanjeev, an “asset” brainwashed into martyrdom through carrying out a human bomb mission against said Russian official.

The story of the infection in the city is the background to the story of Sanjeev’s mission, told in a tense POV from his hidden earpiece camera, watched carefully and guided by radio by Eliza.  Then there are the bluffs and betrayals the trio in the room play on each other.  As the situation in the city deteriorates, so does the situation between them in the room.

It’s a strong, black espresso of a horror story, gripping and bleak.  A recommended read, but I would say for genre fans only.

 

 

A review of Adrian Barnes’ “Nod”

‘Nod’ is one of those rare books that, on closing, you think, and may even say “Wow.” You may even feel a little tearful and moved, and want to immediately spread the word about what the novel has made you feel, or what you’ve learnt.  This is what this novel did for me.

Nod is an apocalyptic thriller featuring a disease that ravages the human mind and turns the sufferer into a zombified maniac.  At this point you would be right in pointing to a book mountain of similar works.  But what sets Nod apart is what makes it so brilliant.

First, it’s the originality of the premise.  It’s lack of sleep, and a consequent slow disintegration of the mind, that’s the plague in question here.  Set in Vancouver, it’s protagonist, a writer named Paul, is working on his latest treatise on the vagaries of words and the history of words that is also named ‘Nod.’  He’s living with his partner, Tanya, the breadwinner in the householder, and enjoying a comfortable existence, when he has a dream of a golden light.  It’s a dream he shares with everyone else.  At least those who slept.  And most people, it would seem, didn’t sleep, in a new plague of insomnia that is not slow to change the world into a crazed reflection of its former state, the benchmarks being, 6 days of mental and physical deterioration leading to psychosis, and 4 weeks, death.  All of this shot through with mother-lodes of rage and panic.

In this strange new world, those who can sleep, of which Paul is one, are termed “Sleepers,” those who can’t, the “Awakened.”  And those who society formerly pushed to its margins, the homeless wanderers, the already mentally ill, the dispossessed, now rise to an awful ascendancy.  Typical of this class is Charles, a “quick he’s coming, don’t catch his eye” type who would, if he cornered you, bury you in an avalanche of conspiracy theories.  The new world of ‘Nod’ allows him to rise in leadership status.  You see, Charles has found a draft manuscript of Paul’s ‘Nod’ and he is using this, Scripture style, to form a new Church of the Awakened where words take on savage new meanings, freighted with unholy power.  And he’s chosen Paul to be his first Prophet.

Paul meanwhile must watch the world and Tanya disintegrate before his eyes.  Ever had no sleep or very little, and felt your mood take on a heightened new pitch of depression, anger and anxiety?  Or a weird euphoria?  Well this is what happens to most of the world’s population now, with exponential acceleration, as they act increasingly like the rage filled undead your more typical zombie fare.  Strangely the Sleepers are disproportionately represented by children, who become silent and watchful and band together in new communities in urban parks.  They become demonised and hunted by the Awakened, or subjects of lab-rat experiments in an equally chilling group called ‘Cat-sleepers,’ those who pretend to sleep (through make up to cover dark circles, and a pretence of normality) to trap unwary sleepers to try and medically dissect from them what makes them sleep.

Throw into the mix a rogue nuclear warship piloted by a horrifically burnt morphine addicted Captain, and Hell has indeed come to town.

Paul is a compelling narrator of events, and his love of words and appreciation of their power to shape meaning and worlds, and their most eccentric forms, historical and present, is the prism through which he views events.  His book within he book ‘Nod’ is not dissimilar to “Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable” and each chapter begins with something like an entry from that work.

It’s this strange marriage of the cruciverbalist (lover of crosswords) and the apocalypse survivor that makes this such a smart and original read.  I’m a fan of cryptic crosswords and other word games myself, and often reading Nod I was reminded of the hours I’ve spent in this world.

The book finishes with an essay by the writer on his brain tumour, of which he was diagnosed slowly after sending Nod out for publication.  It’s a powerful essay on the ending of worlds and the attendant re-calibration of values and meaning.  It is powerful and I urge you to look it up here, and read ‘Nod.’  Don’t worry if you are not a genre fan of apocalyptic thriller, this novel truly transcends genre.

 

 

 

 

A review of Clive Barker’s “The Scarlet Gospels.”

I remember just before I started university going to the local cinema to see a film I knew next to nothing about called “Hellraiser,” intrigued that it looked both horrible and unpredictable by its poster of a grimacing demon looking like it had been overdoing the acupuncture, holding something like a Rubik’s cube, and underneath the tag-line “It will tear your soul apart.”  I emerged from the cinema a few hours later reeling from the film’s impact and power, it’s swirling orchestral score full of doom and foreboding, it’s vision of  a very real Hell breaking into our world in the form of highly stylised sadistic demons, all mixed up with a kind of violent eroticism.  I had never quite seen anything like it.

Later I read some of Clive Barker’s other works on the strength of this film, including the short story series “Books of Blood” from which this tale was culled (Hellraiser was based on the story “The Hellbound Heart”).  One of my favourite of Barker’s other works was “Cabal” later made into the disappointing film “Nightbreed.”  Cabal’s strengths included a fierce imagination, sympathetic monsters, human monsters worse than the visibly monstrous, and a touching portrayal of the devotion of human love.  But It also shared the weaknesses of other Barker works I ventured, not all of which I finished.  These included “The Great and Secret Show” and “Imajica.”  All of the above books have powerful and imaginative openings that pull you in and promise much.  But the books themselves can become baggy, too episodic, and leading to a false conclusion where the intention was to develop a trilogy or longer.  But this, in all of the above cases, never happened.

The above strengths and weaknesses (apart from it not being the false start of a trilogy) are on show in Barker’s latest, “The Scarlet Gospel,” which takes the demonic protagonist of Hellraiser, “Pinhead,” and the protagonist of other Barker stories, the detective of the supernatural Harry D’Armour, and pits them against each other in a tale set both in Hell and Earth.  Characteristically, we have a strong start, with a cabal of contemporary magicians in emergency congress as they are being slaughtered one by one for their arcane knowledge of magic by Pinhead himself.  Pinhead crashes their party and engages in some imaginative slaughter and sadism before taking one of their number (the unfortunate Felixson) as his slave.

We then move to Harry and his world. Tormented by the memory of the grisly death of his detective partner at demonic hands, he finds that one of his dearest friends Norma Paine (she sees dead people) has a job for him in New Orleans.  The job is a trap, a set up to get Harry to lay his hands on the puzzle box that summons demonic forces called “The Lament Configuration.” This brings Pinhead and Felixson (now sporting some imaginative hellish re-constructive surgery) and Harry has a narrow escape.  He discovers that Pinhead is at war with Hell and wants total dominion over the infernal regions (and of course he won’t stop there).  He wants a witness for his “Scarlet Gospel” that will tell his story and has chosen Harry because there is a delicious irony in Harry being a scourge of Hell in previous struggles, giving hope to the damned.  A sequence of events has Norma dragged to Hell as bait by Pinhead and Harry, with his friends Kaz, Dale and Lana in tow (dubbed “The Harrowers”), gives chase.

This is a very physical and corporeal Hell.  No extended metaphorical interpretations here.  It’s a physical world and has at its heart a real solid city called Pyratha.  This is a fusion of epic Byzantium and Roman epic structures with physical improbabilities that could be from the mind of Escher, and drab squalor, shanty towns settlements, Stalinist terror and poverty and politicking.  There are forests and seas, although any life form is of course twisted and monstrous.  The strength of this Hell as a narrative and imaginative creation is that it gives a tangible and visceral reality to the setting and story, and it’s entertaining to discover new regions and torments.  As a weakness you can’t but help expecting something more from Hell.

The pace of the narrative always quickens when the Hell Priest Pinhead is at large and this is very much his story, as he takes on not only his own Cenobite order but Hell itself.  Some of the most entertaining passages in the story are the various coups that Pinhead stages.  In one grotesque sequence he unleashes a plague fog that mutilates anything it touches, causing new monstrous growths to form on bodies that it touches.  In an imaginative flourish Pinhead also releases curse bearing paper birds fashioned by Origami!  Then there are the concluding scenes in Hell as Pinhead battles a very Miltonic Lucifer, after dispatching various of Hell’s armies and generals.  These passages relegate Harry and friends to the sidelines as horrified bystanders as various blows and mutilations are traded.  The amount of false endings to the battles where one of the protagonists comes back from their demise in the style of 80’s cheesy horror sails close to farcical, but in my judgement gets away from it.

Less successful are the human protagonists.  Their banter often does not convince and the playful profanities seem forced.  The psychic detective that Armour represents feels a little overused now, witness various US series such as Angel, comic book heroes such as Hell-blazer.  Lucifer himself seems too close to that as depicted in the “Sandman” graphic novels.  And another main weakness in the book is the imaginative integrity of Barker’s world.  On what is it based?  It mocks Christianity but embraces some of its archetypes from its history, such as most obviously Hell, Heaven, Angels and Demons.  And what kind of God would be mocked by its bored Angels?  And how do the worlds of the dead and its ghosts work? Who gets to be damned?  The role of magic is also not convincing, with its recipes and conjugations.  In all, this is world-building where the parts do not constitute a convincing whole.

But it’s a wild and enjoyable ride of pulpy horror.  Those expecting meta-physical greatness (as some were judging by the bitter disappointment of some Amazon reviews) will be disappointed.  And it does not have the impact of that first Hellraiser film I previously describe.  But as fast paced gory tale with demons it entertains.  I listened to the audio-book and an honourable mention must go to John Lee for his splendid narration.  I loved Pinhead’s sardonic tones.

A review of Rowan William’s “Being Christian.”

‘Being Christian’ is an ideal short book on the main themes of Christian life, Baptism, Bible, Eucharist and Prayer.  It is written in a lucid style that draws deeply from considerable learning, and a life spent teaching and practising the Christian faith, and provided leadership in the worldwide Anglican communion.

As such it is a great read for everyone from the jaded Christian long on the road of Faith, to the sceptic exploring Christian thought, to those newer to the faith who are looking for an accessible and compelling introduction to the most vital areas of its practice, which would include those taking ‘communion classes’ for admission to the full Eucharist.

With Baptism Rowan Williams explores what it means to be immersed in God and Jesus and what he has done, to be fully swamped and immersed with it, and to come up again into the world with what it means to live a baptised life.

In his section on the Bible the writer guards against a simplistic literalism or anxiety of the historical veracity of the detail, to stress that what God wants to do with the scriptures is ask us ‘where are you in these stories?  What would you do in these situations?’ And he also encourages us to read the Old Testament in the light of the New, and how the Old has reached its fulfilment with the new.

On the Eucharist Professor Williams explains what it means to take Holy Communion, and where in scripture it has its roots, and what it meant to Jesus and his first followers, and how Jesus used meals and hospitality to help usher in the Kingdom, and how Communion continues that process.  He stresses how the Eucharist is an invitation by God to be at his table, He wants to be with us, to abide with us, and what that means for how we see our fellow Christians or fellow people.

On Prayer he stresses the centrality of the Lords Prayer, and some work on early Christian teachers on the Lords Prayer and what it means to prayer.

As someone who struggles with their faith, and a frequently jaded member of the Anglican Church, I found the book enlivening and refreshing, and there was a lot that was new and useful to me.

Whether you are sceptic or believer, new or old to the faith, I cannot commend this bright, sharp and focussed work highly enough