Thursday 15 October 2009

Book Reviews

Bryan Talbot
Random House

Review by Brad Harmer

Wow...where do I begin with describing this book? I guess I could have a crack at it by saying it’s a steampunk crime action adventure satire, where the lead character is a two gun wielding brick shithouse Sherlock Holmes, who also happens to be a badger.

At first the use of anthropomorphic animals seems rather like a gimmick, but it really seems to work. Sure, on first appearances it’s a little silly, but as you read, you realise that it would be hard to make this story work in any other way – and there’s also the fact humans are in it too...making this more science-fiction than The Wind In The Willows. The satire at work here is never too heavy handed, but allows its presence to be felt.

Of course, like all good works of fiction, it is entirely possible to enjoy it purely on an entertainment level, too. Seeing Inspector LeBrock and his rat side-kick scale a wall like Adam West and Burt Ward, or watching the numerous gun-fights (not to mention a graphic torture scene) is great, and never feels silly.

That’s not to say that the book isn’t without its sense of humour. One of the characters is named Raymond Leigh-Otter (give it a second) – and I laughed out loud when an opium dealer rushed LeBrock screaming “Badgers?! We don’t need no steenkin’ badgers!”

I'm sure (or at least I would hope) it goes without saying that the artwork is all absolutely first class, with Talbot being a much underrated comic artist. The artwork blends traditional drawings with Photoshop special effects seamlessly. At no point is Photoshop used willy-nilly, but rather just to add some motion blur or spark or glow to a piece. The effect is fantastic, really helping the drawings themselves to come to life.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Gunfire, explosions, vehicular homicide, punching, grappling, bludgeoning, torture, someone is set on fire, murder.
Swearing: Some mild instances.
Sex/Nudity: Some male nudity from the waist up. Of course, he is a badger, so unless you’re a furry, this probably isn’t sexy.
Summary: An amazing piece of no-holds barred comic-book action, geeky in-jokes and psychopathic levels of violence. Top notch story, with artwork to match! 10/10

Terry Pratchett
Random House

Review by Brad Harmer

On the day the world ends Mau is on his way home from the Boy’s Island, soon to become a man. Then, a tidal wave comes, dragging black night behind it and bringing a schooner, the Sweet Judy, which sails over and through the rainforest. As the ship comes to a halt, only two people are left behind – the young (but down to earth) Ermintrude, and a foul-mouthed parrot. With the village and most of the island destroyed, Mau and Ermintrude must battle against adversity to discover what they must do – but neither speaks the other’s language.

Taking a pint of Lord of the Flies, and a good measure of Robinson Crusoe, Pratchett has added some of his trademark humour into the mix, which results in a truly fantastic exploration – in more than just the literal sense. For, as Ermintrude and Mau explore the island, they are also embarking on a journey of discovery – where Ermintrude is forced to question all of the things her aristocratic upbringing has taught her, and Mau has to question his faith in the Gods of his people.

Although there are run-ins with mutinous pirates, dark Gods and so on, the real focus of the story is always on Mau and Ermintrude, and the relationship between the two is so strong that I think I could quite happily have read an entire book of just the conversations between them.

The action sequences are exciting, and the jokes funny – but the real strength of the book lies with Mau’s struggle to rationalise his people’s religious beliefs with both the science exposed to him by Ermintrude, and the fact that he has to deal with the wake of a natural disaster that has destroyed almost all of his people. The scenes which deal with his loss of faith are some of the most powerful I have ever read.

A subtle blend of Treasure Island and His Dark Materials, this is a book that would entertain children as an action adventure story, but also provide food for thought for adult readers.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Several shootings, scuffles, and poisonings.
Sex/Nudity: None.
Swearing: Some of what the Victorians would have classed as swearing, but nothing to a modern audience.
Summary: A great book that I must recommend to everyone. One of Pratchett’s best. 10/10

Dead Until Dark
Charlaine Harris
Orion Publishing Co

Review by Brad Harmer

Sookie Stackhouse is a small-time cocktail waitress in small-town Louisiana. She's quiet, keeps to herself, and doesn't get out much - not because she's not pretty - she's a very cute bubbly blonde - or not interested in a social life. She really is ...but Sookie's got a bit of a disability. She can read minds. And that doesn't make her too dateable. And then along comes Bill: he's tall, he's dark and he's handsome - and Sookie can't 'hear' a word he's thinking. He's exactly the type of guy she's been waiting all her life for. But Bill has a disability of his own: he's fussy about his food, he doesn't like suntans and he's never around during the day ...Yep, Bill's a vampire. Worse than that, he hangs with a seriously creepy crowd, with a reputation for trouble - of the murderous kind. And then one of Sookie's colleagues at the bar is killed, and it's beginning to look like Sookie might be the next victim ...

To say that I’m not the biggest fan of the HBO TV series True Blood, would be something of an understatement. A much better way of phrasing it would be that I can’t stand True Blood in any way shape or form, but am so mind-bogglingly addicted to its shonkiness that I continue to watch it anyway.

Anyway, if like me, you find that there are so many things that annoy you about the TV show, allow me to actually recommend this book. I found that everything that annoyed me about the TV show – the obnoxious characters of Tara and Lafayette, how dumb Jason Stackhouse is, and the need to stop for a ratings grabbing sex-scene every four minutes – was noticeably absent from this book. What’s left is a rather good detective/paranormal romance sotry.

The conversational narrative style is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. The descriptive and scene setting passages are often a little foggy, but the action and conversation scenes are absolutely top notch.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Several murders.
Sex/Nudity: Explicit fornication.
Swearing: A realistic amount
Summary: A satisfying murder-mystery novel with a nice supernatural setting. The narrative style is hit and miss, but all in all this is recommended. 8/10

The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror Volume 20
Edited by Stephen Jones
Constable Robinson

Review by Brad Harmer

Published on an annual basis, this series attempts to showcase the year's best and darkest, tales of terror, featuring the most outstanding new short stories and novellas by contemporary “masters of the macabre”, including the likes of Ramsey Campbell, Neil Gaiman, Brian Keene, Tanith Lee, Kim Newman, and, of course, Stephen King. The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror also includes a comprehensive annual overview of horror around the world in all its incarnations; an impressively researched “Necrology”; and a list of indispensable contact addresses for the dedicated horror fan and aspiring writer alike.

Back when I was a kid, these books were essential reading – they were awesome compilations of short stories, which HAD to be picked up each year – and featured guys like Clive Barker, Poppy Z. Brite, Manly Wade Wellman and Brian Lumley doing their thing – very well, it has to be said. Perhaps it is because of my treasured memories of these horror annuals that I was so grievously disappointed with this installation.

Every story in this collection (with a couple of exceptions) manages to fall into one of two categories – a) not actually horror, and rather just a modern fantasy or *shudder* “paranormal romance”; or b) a terrible re-tread of some of the most hackneyed storylines in our precious genre’s history! In the case of Steve Duffy’s The Oram County Whoosit, the ripping off of At The Mountains of Madness streaks past plagiarism and into sacrilege!

There are naturally some bright sparks, including great tales from Neil Gaiman and Stephen King, but these are too few and far between.

Also, the book falls down on the production on two levels. Firstly, each brief biography and interview with the author that precedes their story successfully manages to give away the ending, or at least provide some sort of interpretation that allows you to guess the ending before you’re even halfway through. Fail.

Secondly, over half the book is STILL being given over to the “Necrology” (a list of everyone related to the field of horror – never mind how tangentially – who has died over the past twelve months), and a re-cap of the year in horror. Since no-one else seems to feel the need to tell Stephen Jones this...

Stephen. Stop it. No-one cares and no-one reads these. Stop it. You’re just making the book two quid more expensive than it needs to be.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Some murderising involving evisceration, etc.
Sex/Nudity: Some, but nothing graphic.
Swearing: An average amount
Summary: A very disappointing entry in an otherwise great series. Save your money and wait until next year. 2/10

Urban Gothic
Brian Keene
Dorchester Publishing

Review by Brad Harmer

A bunch of teenagers drive from the suburbs to attend a Hip Hop show in Philadelphia. When the douchebag jock wants some weed, he drives to the ghetto to buy some. They get lost in “the Hood” and their car breaks down. When some young Wu-Tang Types walk over to their vehicle; the white middle-class youngsters are run and take shelter in a nearby mini-mansion. Once inside, the door locks, and they are unable to open it or escape through a window because they are bricked up. A misshapen giant kills The Douchebag Jock and intends on raping his corpse. The others are attacked by misshapen midgets and creatures that do not seem to be human.

Does this sound like someone was sort of half-assedly watching Wrong Turn whilst playing the Fighting Fantasy gamebook House of Hell? It does? Good, just wanted to check that I wasn’t alone in being able to tell that, straight from the off, this book is a clichéd and sensationalist piece of crap.

The novel is a horrendous mish mash of horror styles, car-crashing the Gothic sensibilities of the haunted house story into the over the top violent deaths of the Friday the 13th movies, whilst the villains spout scatological dialogue like a terrible Garth Ennis character.

This book made me realise how glad I am that splatterpunk died out in the mid-nineties. The sense of appealing to the lowest common denominator with its dick jokes and gore was the only aspect that succeded in making me feel ill.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Frequent, over the top and gory.
Sex/Nudity: Several references to sexual activity, one attempted rape.
Swearing: A horrendously over the top amount.
Summary: A clichéd beginning gives way to a non-sensical middle, and a cop-out ending. All in all, a book twenty-five years behind the times. Tired and crass. 1/10


  1. At this stage, I would say that anthropomorphic animals in fiction are no longer a gimmick so much as a well-respected tradition.

    As for the 'Mammoth Book Of Best New Horror', I bought the first three volumes and then decided not to bother any more as they averaged out to just below 'meh', despite the inclusion of some real gems. Since then, I've stuck to single-author short story collections and been much happier with my purchases.

  2. Also, the books in this series contain disappointingly few stories featuring mammoths. Critical fail.