Tuesday 18 August 2009

Book Reviews

Bad Moon Rising
Sherrilyn Kenyon
Piatkus Books

Review by Brad Harmer

What happens when you mix Underworld, Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Twilight into one big bucket? Well, typically you get that mound of toilet paper that fills up a shelving unit of your local bookshelf under the heading “Paranormal Romance”. What we have here, however, is a cut above the usual Point Horror/Romance dross.

Fang Kattalakis isn't just a werewolf. He is also the brother of two of the most powerful members of the Omegrion: the ruling council that enforces the laws of their societies. When war erupts among the lycanthropes, sides must be chosen. Enemies are forced into shaky alliances. When Aimee, a Werebear and the woman Fang loves, is accused of betraying her people, her only hope is that Fang believes in her. Yet in order to save her, Fang must break the law of his people and the faith of his brothers. That breech could very well spell the end of both their races and change their world forever.

Yep, essentially it’s Romeo and Juliet with werewolves. The thing is, that actually sounds pretty cool on paper, doesn’t it?

The Dark Hunter universe created by Sherrilyn Kenyon has been going since 2002, and there are a fair few books out already, filling out and detailing this universe. The good thing is that they’re all written to be stand-alone novels too, so despite this being my first foray into the series, at no point did I feel out of my depth. What’s more, the setting is dark and interesting – rather than the pseudo-angsty-fifteen-year-old-Goth vibes these type of books normally have.

The pacing of the book is well done. It has episodic mini-adventures in it, all of which contribute to the main-arc of the greater story. In this way, it read kind-of like a TV show or comic series would, but this is actually a good thing. It makes sense within the piece itself, even if it does sound dumb outside of it.

There are only a couple of downsides to the book. Firstly, I found that several of the characters had similar names and/or behaviour patterns, and thus were quite hard to tell apart – a little more introduction would have helped – but obviously this won’t bother established fans of the series. Also, as is usual with these things, the sex scenes are a little cringy, and still feeling rather Mills & Boon & True Blood.

The plot does also lose itself a little at times, resulting in a few instances of people standing around not doing much for a few pages. That’s not good.

With that said, this is definitely a good fun, action-packed pulp-horror book. Recommended.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
A lot of werewolf on werewolf brawling, some swordplay. None of the injuries are particularly graphic.
Sex/Nudity: A couple of explicit scenes. Whether or not it’s bestiality is up to your own standards, I guess.
Swearing: Several instances of humorous and creative swearing. Always nice to see.
Summary: A good fun, horror pulp adventure with enough romance to keep the ladies happy and enough punching and porn to keep the guys happy. A must for fans of the series, and worth checking out for fans of the genre. - 8/10

The FBI Series
Allison Brennan

Reviews by Brad Harmer

Sudden Death

When the stuck-up and by-the-book FBI agent Megan Elliott realises that a murder victim carries military ID, what seemed to be a simple homicide enquiry turns a lot more serious. An unusual mutilation on the body causes Meg to suspect the murder is target specific, especially when she discovers other recently murdered soldiers with the same disfigurement. Then military police take possession of the body and Meg is forced to partner up with “bitchslap-and-burn-the-book” mercenary Jack Kincaid. All too soon does she realise that the killer's primary target is closer to home, and that Jack really is more trouble than either of them had bargained for.

This is a surprisingly dark crime/thriller. The main villains of the piece have a twisted S&M relationship that hold the reader fascinated – in the worst way. In fact, some of the best sequences of this book come from them – the devolution of Ethan’s sanity and the twisted darkness of Karin’s manipulations are great and lift this book above its contemporaries.

The weakest parts, unfortunately, come from the good guys. Jack Kincaid is nothing more than Dirty Harry fan fiction, and the romance is not a strong point. First the love interest is foreshadowed with all the subtlety of a sledge-hammer, and then the sex scene falls into that nasty gap between coy and pornographic that I refer to as “Mills & Boon”. 7/10

Fatal Secrets

When a top lieutenant in a ring of human traffickers agrees to turn state's evidence, Immigration and Customs Enforcement senior agent Sonia Knight believes she'll finally take down the operation's mastermind, Xavier Jones. FBI agent Dean Hooper has been chasing Jones for years and doesn't need or want a hot-headed ICE agent second-guessing his every move. When the Bureau is ordered to join forces with ICE, Sonia is just as livid: her job is to save lives, not money. But Jones is just one piece of a depraved puzzle, answering to an even more dangerous predator. Denied his expected prey, this pitiless fiend intends to make Sonia and Dean pay - with their own blood...

This book takes a different stance from most, at least with the opening. Whilst most crime novels start with a crime or a crime scene, and then follow on with the investigation, this book begins with an on-going investigation already underway, investigating the sex trafficking industry; and the evidence comes from the slowly revealed backstory of the main investigator herself. Unfortunately this is the books only real interesting twist, as besides from that it’s a generic crime novel that doesn’t do anything particularly unexpected. The writing itself is also good, although not outstanding.

On the downside, the series of action set-pieces scattered throughout the book that are presumably an attempt to either up the excitement level or even just pad out its length are failures. They don’t really seem engaging or exciting – at no point was I concerned that anyone was in any actual danger, which diluted the dramatic tension somewhat. And when a central character did die, it was with so much melodrama that it was hard to take seriously, followed by an overly happy ending for all the other characters. 5/10

Cutting Edge

When a top engineering executive is murdered and his office torched, the firm's security expert is determined to get the bottom of the assault himself. He pulls every string he has to be assigned as a civilian consultant to the FBI's joint task force, headed up by Nora English, who at first believes the attack to be a simple case of domestic terrorism. But the autopsy is strange: the man died from multiple knife wounds - not stab wounds - and slowly bled to death with no bones or organs punctured. And when another body is found with the same MO, this one a high-ranking government official, Nora begins to believe something far more evil is at work. Especially as her number one suspect has already been taken out of the equation ...

This novel is notable in that Brennan’s writing style has come on in leaps and bounds, and the prose here is much better than in the previous two instalments. It plays on “current” fears and concerns, specifically fears of an Avian Flu epidemic, and this works well within the context of the novel. The result of a bungled “rescue” by a Animal Rights team, it was interesting to see an organisation that fiction typically paints as “the good guys” shown as the cause of half the police’s troubles!

On the down side, this does mean that we’re treated to the FBI’s finest chasing some ducks around. Yeah, this is kind of hard to take seriously. The plot is predictable, and bar the intriguing set-up, there’s really not much to recommend here. Brennan is an good writer, and I think she’ll produce some excellent stuff, but she’s not quite there yet. Her next book or series, however, should be well worth checking out. 4/10

By Blood We Live
Edited by John Joseph Adams - featuring stories from Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill, Stephen King, Sergei Lukyanenko, Brian Lumley, Garth Nix, Anne Rice and others
Night Shade Books

Review by Brad Harmer

Vampires. They are the most elegant of monsters – which in my opinion means wet. I like my vampires as evil monsters. Lurk in the shadows, at your window, in your dreams...From Dracula to Twilight, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to True Blood, and from The Fearless Vampire Killers to That Bit In An Episode Of Futurama With The Exploding Vampire That Always Makes Me Laugh, many have fallen under their spell. John Joseph Adams has compiled this thirty-three story “Best of Vampires” and, all things considered, it’s really bloody good.

Short story compilations are difficult things to review. In a collection of anything there are going to be some good bits and some not so good bits. With that said, I don’t think that there was a single story in this compilation I could say was “bad”. Sure they’re not all of the same quality, but they are all of a good quality, flitting between “not very original, but still enjoyable” to “Oh my Lord Jesus Christ, that was incredible”. And unlike most collections, there are some seriously big names here.

Often the case with compilations such as these is that you’ll get one big name opening up the book, and then degenerate into a bunch of pulp magazine writers who you’ve never heard of. In By Blood We Live, however, this just isn’t the case! Sure, not every name here is one you’ve heard before, but when the book opens up with Neil Gaiman and Anne Rice and closes with Stephen King, you know you’re in a good hands! If you’re into horror short stories, vampires, or both, then I’d have to recommend this to you!

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
A fair old amount, what with stakings and stabbings and blood drainings and whatnot.
Sex/Nudity: Yeah, post-Anne-Rice, most vampires have to be sexually charged. Don’t ask me why. Teenage Goth girls like it, I guess.
Swearing: A realistic amount. Nothing particularly stood out, anyway.
Summary: An excellent compilation, featuring some of the heavyweights of horror, and well worth checking out. Not great all the way through, but then these things never are. – 8/10

The Mammoth book of Mind-blowing SF (Science Fiction)
Edited by Mike Ashley - featuring stories from Arthur C Clarke, Timothy Zahn, Stephen Baxter, Adam Roberts and others
Review by Rob Wade

Good science-fiction, more so in my opinion than in any other genre, can get by on one characteristic: the ability to create a vibrant and vivid image in the mind of the reader of what is written in the book. In many cases, the appeal of good science fiction, much like any fiction, is that the reader is given creative license to envisage everything how they like; if they choose to make it a cinematic experience in their mind, they can do. The important thing is that they have this freedom, which is generally one of the reasons people are so reluctant to see books adapted into movies.

With this in mind, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this compilation. With 25 stories packed into this volume, you certainly get value for money as far as quantity is concerned. With such great writers as Arthur C Clarke in there, it's obvious that this is designed to be a showcase of the serious talent in the genre, and this book doesn't disappoint in that regard.

From the first story, Clarke's "Out of the Sun", you get an idea of the grandiose scale involved in the book. The story describes a group of researchers who see what appears to be a lifeform emerge from the very surface of our Sun. The story is evocative and brilliant in that it allows the reader to get very easily involved in the imagination of this setting without too much difficulty. Definitely a strong opening story to kick the volume off, as sometimes compilations are spoiled by a weak opener which fails to grab your attention.

From here, the volume goes from strength to strength, my particular favourite stories being "The Pevatron Rats" by Stephen Baxter, dealing with a family's gradual realisation that some common rats found in a particle accelerator are substantially more than they seem, and "Cascade Point" by Timothy Zahn, a twenty-thousand word novella detailing the adventures of a spaceship and its passengers who become lost in an alternate reality.

One of the things I like about this volume is the variety of settings. Stories are not merely confined to futuristic timelines or scientific contexts. Sometimes, as is the case with "Palindromic" by Peter Crowther, the setting is something relatable, such as middle America or something akin to modern day life, and as such makes it a lot easier to envisage.

That isn't to say that this volume is completely without flaws, however. I felt at times, though I must confess that my science-fiction reading experience may be considered limited compared to some, that in a few situations there was an over-abundance of technical jargon or elaborate language. While I'm not saying that things definitely could be simplified all the time, stuff like that could arguably drive away new readers from otherwise fantastic stories.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating :
Violence : Not a huge amount. Violence doesn't seem to be the focus of this volume, instead focusing on exploration and discovery.
Sex/Nudity : None to speak of.
Swearing : The odd word, but nothing particularly eye-catching.
Summary: An enjoyable compilation of stories that will please both newcomers to the genre as well as enthusiasts. There really is something for everyone here in this volume. 7/10

1 comment:

  1. Nice reviews, and a lot of 'em. Good stuff. A couple of comments:

    Re: 'Bad Moon Rising' - I really, really, really dislike this currently popular idea of werewolves having big organised societies. It works all right for vampires, I suppose, but my personal image of the werewolf is far too primal and savage to be able to organise to this extent... if at all.

    Re: 'By Blood We Live' - 1 - How can you mention almost every modern-era vampire story when reviewing this book apart from 'The Lost Boys'... when the cover of the book is a spoof of 'The Lost Boys' movie poster? You do my little 'ead in, you really do.

    Re: 'By Blood We Live' - 2 - I would argue that it's a little unfair to blame Anne Rice for the sexually charged vampire. It dates back a heck of a lot further than that. I refer you to Stephen King's essay 'The Zipless Fuck' in his book 'Danse Macabre' for more information.

    Re: 'The Mammoth Book Of Mindblowing SF' - Us hardcore SF fanatics actually LIKE our over-abundance of technical jargon and elaborate language. We feel it's part of what seperates the true SF from the lightweight space opera.