Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Book Reviews

Handling The Undead
John Ajvide Lindqvist

Review by Brad Harmer

Something peculiar is happening all across Stockholm, Sweden. Not only is there a heatwave, but for some bizarre reason electrical appliances cannot be switched off, and everyone has a blinding headache. Then the news breaks – in the city morgue, the dead are waking. Many people are touched by these events – one of whom is stand-up comedian David Zetterberg. He had always known that his wife was too good for him. But he never knew how lost he’d be without her until she dies in a car accident. When he goes to identify her body, however, she begins to move. It’s terrifying, but it gives David a strange kind of hope.

Across the city, grieving families find themselves able to see their loved-ones one last time. But are these creatures really them? How long can this last? And what does it all mean?

Following on from his very successful novel Let The Right One In, Lindqvist has moved his attention away from reworking vampires, to reworking the walking dead. The end result is mixed.

The novel starts out very strongly, making a sci-fi heavy, but still very unique take on the zombie creation. The characters are all strong, from the journalist obsessed with nursing his recently undead grandson back to health; the aforementioned David Zetterberg; to Flora, a teenage, Marilyn Manson obsessed psychic. Much like his previous novel, Let The Right One In, all of the characters actually have very little to do with each other, only crossing paths at very significant moments.

The zombies themselves are also pretty unique. They don’t stumble around moaning for “brains”. The majority just sit and stare – zombified, if you will – and some can even talk, or are capable of some degree of rational thought. We’re big supporters of zombies here at the E14 Camp, and it’s always nice to see a new take on an old favourite.

Whilst the introduction and the main events are excellent set pieces, moving at the right pace – action-packed when needed and slow when required – it’s in the last third of the novel that things begin to unravel a little. What should have been an interesting mass-set-piece involving all of the major characters just fizzles out into nothing. Even the undead problem itself just seems to solve itself, leaving all the characters staring around wondering what the hell the point of all that was.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating
Several scenes of realistic violence, some animal torture/murder. Heavy gore.
Sex/Nudity: None.
Swearing: A realistic amount.
Summary: A great zombie story let down by a rather lacklustre conclusion. Worth a look if you’re into the genre, but not going to bring anyone around. – 7/10

The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime
Edited by Michael Sims
Review by Rob Wade

Every now and then, I get given something to review that by all accounts I should like. In many cases, I do try REALLY hard to like something if I feel like I should. I’ve always been keen on Gaslight-era crime. I’m both a huge Sherlock Holmes fan and, thanks to a comedy show, a somewhat credible Ripperologist as well. When I heard, therefore, that this book contained stories from that era, but with the focus heavily on fictional criminals of that era instead, I was intrigued.

Sometimes trying really hard to really like something is just not enough to take away from the fact that it’s…well…frankly not very interesting.

The issue, however, is not with the stories themselves as such, more the presentation of the package as a whole. Because the editor has chosen to collect together several stories from various different authors depicting various criminals from around the world, there’s no flow to the narrative. Now, while this is somewhat understandable in a short story compilation, the fact of the matter is that it does make it difficult to get invested in the book.

Add to this that the characters, without any sort of context in other stories, seem flat and two-dimensional against a character like Sherlock Holmes. For example, even the most inexperienced of those who have heard the name Sherlock Holmes would be able to tell you certain things about him; deerstalker hat, violin and cocaine addiction. I can tell you honestly nothing about these criminals, simply because I didn’t care enough about them while reading to want to know.

Besides which, the plots of these short stories aren’t much better than the characters at drawing me in. From the first story, I found myself becoming slightly bored by the prospect of the criminals’ nefarious plots and how they would progress, and some stories don’t even seem to go into too much detail at that!

It was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself who, while quick to commend the works of E.W. Hornung (one of the authors printed in this book), stated that one “must not make the criminal a hero”. It seems that this effect does speak volumes for the series, as I found it difficult to care one way or the other about the success of the criminals in these stories.

Despite all these comments, I would say that it’s highly likely that if you already have an interest in crime fiction and are a fan of this genre or any of the authors printed herein individually, it may be an idea to pick this volume up, as you probably will find it may help you to discover other writers you may have missed.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Violence: None to speak of as such. Vague allusions but little more.
Sex/Nudity: None whatsoever.
Swearing: None whatsoever.
Summary: See, the sad thing is that this is probably a really good compilation if you have any interest at all in crime fiction from the Gaslight era already, as it collects several of what the editor believes to be the best examples of the genre. However, for someone with no real experience or interest in the genre, maybe worth getting out of a library but I wouldn’t imagine you’d enjoy spending money to own it. 5/10

Arthur: The Legend
David Chauvel and Jérôme Lereculey
Dalen Books

Review by Brad Harmer

Arthur: The Legend returns to the roots of the story of King Arthur, the warrior hero born to return the Island of Britain to glory. Before the Romances of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chrétien de Troyes, Malory and Tennyson (and, well, Disney and Sam Neill, I guess....and Excalibur, that’s an awesome movie) the historical sources of Celtic Britain, the Historia Brittonum, the Annales Cambriae and the Mabinogion, reveal a mighty leader protecting the Britons from inter-tribal warfare and invading hordes in the Dark Ages.

The main characters: Arthur, Merlin, Taliesin and Morgen are all handled well, and are excellently portrayed – but the minor characters (ie. everyone else in the book) are pretty unmemorable. Several characters are introduced in a quick flurry, and it’s impossible to remember all of them.

Oh, and it’s really hard to like Merlin, as he comes across as something of a smug git.

A great narrative device in this book is the utilisation of folk-tales the characters tell each other. They are good stories in their own right, and also break up the narrative well, yet often also reflect the main story. It reminded me very much of Watership Down, as I’m not educated enough to have read The Canterbury Tales.

The artwork is not great, but not bad either. The perspective sometimes looks a little flat, and often the panels are far too busy, distracting from the dialogue; but for the most part if does the job of effortlessly telling the story. The massed battle panels are pretty impressive, though, and some of the dream or folk-tale segments are indicated by a change of style which is a really nice touch – often moving into a Bayeaux Tapestry like illustration.

The last third of the book unfortunately often drifts into battles for the sake of battles – and none of them are particularly interesting. There are splash pages of armies charging at each other, but as there’s never really any fear that any of the four main characters are in any danger, it’s very hard to care about them. The end of the book suffers from a similar flaw, just fizzling out into nothingness. I know there are another three volumes in production, but it would have been nice to have ended this first instalment on rather more of a bang.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Lots. If you’re into drawings of sword-fights, murders, and what-not, then you’ll get an emotionally fourteen thrill from this.
Sex/Nudity: Some mild suggestion.
Swearing: None
Summary: A good fun pulp adventure, but the lack of depth, dramatic tension and characterisation prevents this from being much better than average. – 6/10

1 comment:

  1. Re: 'Handling The Dead'

    - A zombie novel where the main character is a stand-up comedian? Did you commission him to write this book for you, or what?