Devolution – Max Brooks [Books]

devolutionFirstly, thank you to Cornerstone for providing me a copy of this book via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

After Mount Rainier erupts,  the assumption is the secluded community Greenloop will, like similar places, be self-sufficient enough to survive. But when rescuers do reach it, they discover the site of a massacre, and Kate Holland’s journal provides the clues as to what actually happened.

The journal also provides a first hand account of what the residents of Greenloop fought against in their final days, and could be the key to unlocking the biggest find of the century. Max Brooks uses his talent to provide Kate’s account, alongside interviews with her brother, and a ranger, one of the first people on site, with extracts containing more relevant information about the characters and mysterious half-ape half-men creatures they encountered.

Max Brooks gives us this first hand account of life in a ‘smart’ community, where groceries are delivered by drone and smart-van, and everything is controlled by an app on your phone. Through Katie’s account, we see how quick technology can let us down where we really need it. This could have been a horror tale without the Bigfoot creatures terrorising Greenloop, an isolated community cut off from the rest of the world by natural disaster, but the addition of the creatures really adds that extra punch.

Throughout the story, it’s not just the external horrors explored. Kate and her husband, Dan, are looking to reconcile their rocky relationship. Around them are an interesting cast of characters, some likable (Mostar was a particular favourite), some not so much, and even though the impressions we get are purely through Kate’s eyes, there’s enough room for the reader to really make up their own minds on the characters.

Brooks also touches upon mental health, particularly through Kate and Dan who both seem to be dealing with their own forms of depression, and are unable to help one another. It’s sad, really, because they clearly care deeply for each other, but there’s a gulf between them at the start, which they both make that little bit bigger.

Through the other characters, Brooks also explores trauma, focused especially on Mostar, who Kate doesn’t know what to think of at first. But it’s obvious to the reader there is more to her than Kate sees, and she becomes one of the most interesting characters in the novel.

Devolution shows what can happen when people become too reliant on technology for everything, when people venture into nature without actually respecting nature, and that’s without the introduction of the creatures. And the creatures really do leave a lasting impression, as Kate catches glimpses of them here and there before they are fully revealed.

I read World War Z a long time ago, and one thing that struck me was how much it read like a history book, how real and vivid it felt, as if the events portrayed had actually happened. I didn’t enjoy Devolution  as much as World War Z (due to personal preference for zombies, to be honest) but it had a similar feel, the complete and utter immersion in this world and the sense that these events are very much real.

The way this book unfolded was fascinating, with the human characters becoming that little bit more ‘feral’ as time went on, with the idea of civilisation shown to be frail, and reflecting how the people who seem the most put together might melt in a crisis, while those who seem most ‘frail’ can really shine. It’s a really solid book, completely engaging with characters you just don’t want to leave behind. Without a doubt, I highly recommend checking this out.

 

American Gods – Neil Gaiman [Books]

american gods

I originally read American Gods years ago, but since seeing the first series of the TV show I wanted to reread it. Listening to the full cast audio version via Audible seemed a good way of getting reacquainted with the story.  As I’ve said before, I’m really enjoying the full cast audio productions, and American Gods is no different.

Shadow Moon is on the verge of being released from prison, and he cannot wait to return home to his wife, Laura. But things don’t go to plan. and Shadow is released early due to the death of Laura and his best friend. With no wife and no job to return to, Shadow very reluctantly accepts a job from the mysterious Mr Wednesday. As Shadow is drawn deeper into Wednesday’s world, he’s also drawn into a brewing war, one between the old gods and the new, one Wednesday seems determined to win.

Like the version of the book I originally read, this is the extended version – the ‘author’s cut’, in a sense. With scenes which were originally taken out of the book. It’s sort of strange coming back to a book like this after so long, especially with a TV series between readings.

Some elements were clear in my mind, and others I remembered as the story progressed, mainly those parts that were changed from book to TV show. But listening to the audio version was a great experience, and the voice actors involved really matched the characters well, especially Shadow and Wednesday.

Listening to this reminded me why I loved the book in the first place. Shadow is an absolute sweetheart, just trying always to do the right thing, though sometimes it’s hard to tell what the right thing is. And the people around him push and pull in every direction, meaning he’s not always completely clear on what’s happening, left with no choice but to simply go through with it. Even then, he does it, and he does it without complaint, because he’s made a promise and Shadow never breaks a promise.

Shadow is well written, and so undeniably human in the face of all these gods who surround him. He doesn’t back down from a challenge, something that can be dangerous when faced with gods. And around him is a really strong supporting ‘cast’, including his dead wife, Laura.

As well as great characters, there are some absolutely wonderful settings here, rich in their description and all which serve a solid purpose, from The House on the Rock (which I want to visit so, so bad) to the town where Shadow hides. Gaiman creates beautiful settings which really serve the story, and it works so well here, grounding us even as Wednesday and Shadow zip from one place to the next.

I really enjoyed re experiencing this world again, and getting to meet these characters in a different setting. The book and TV show are very different, and though I haven’t caught up with season 2, I did thoroughly enjoy season 1, but it’s definitely a situation where both should be viewed slightly separate from one another. That said, if you are a fan of the show but haven’t yet read the book, I do recommend checking it out. And if you are a fan of audio books, the full cast version of this was absolutely fantastic.

iZombie, Vol 1: Dead to the World [Books]

izombie

Once I’d finished reading this, I checked out the Netflix series. If you’ve only experienced either the series or the graphic novel, be aware – they are completely different. Even the names of the characters are changed – Gwen in the graphic novel, Olivia in the series. So far I’ve only seen two episodes of the show, and it is really good, but don’t go into it expecting an adaptation of the graphic novel, and don’t read the graphic novel expecting something similar to the show.

In the graphic novel, Gwen is a zombie. She needs to eat brains once per month to stop herself going full, mindless zombie. Luckily, she works as a gravedigger, giving her access to freshly buried bodies. But when she eats those brains, she gets flashes of the dead person’s life, often driving her to solve whatever unfinished business they had.

Assisting her, she has her best friend Ellie, a ghost, and the guy with a crush on her, a wereterrior called Scott/Spot. In this story, she discovers her latest dining experience died at a mysterious house, and she sets out to find out what happened.

I really liked this graphic novel. The art style matches wonderfully with the story, really capturing the ‘essence’, as such, of the characters, making Gwen look almost dead – but not so dead it’s obvious to others – and giving Ellie an almost ethereal feel, really giving the impression of a ghost.

The story, too, is intriguing, as we – and Gwen – try to piece together the dead man’s life and death, and how exactly the mysterious stranger is involved. It lays out the situation well, and does a fantastic job of presenting the relationships Gwen has with others.

And the friendships were something I really enjoyed. Gwen can’t really hang out with ‘living’ people, and she spends most of her time alone, but Ellie and Scott ensure she still has people she can turn to and trust, while both are still shown to have lives away from the main character.

By the end of volume one, we’re left with some elements tied up, and others remaining open, including a love interest for Gwen and the mystery surrounding the man who could be a possibly ally to her. It’s overall a really intriguing story, with great artwork, and I really hope I can read volume two sometime soon.

New York City in 1979 – Kathy Acker

new york in 1979

I wanted to read this book as part of my research for a future WIP. I thought this might help me get an idea of New York, specifically perhaps the alternative culture in New York during the end of the 70s.

Instead, New York in 1979 is a short, snapshot-type look at a few different ‘characters’.  I’ve never come across Kathy Acker’s work before, so I didn’t really know what to expect.

Goodreads’ description notes, “A tale of art, sex, blood, junkies and whores in New York’s underground, from cult literary icon Kathy Acker.” I wanted something to really dig my teeth into, to really get a sense of people and place, but instead it’s a collection of dialogue, thoughts, and images.

It’s not bad as such, it’s just…not great. I can see how this could have gained prominence and a cult following back in the 80s, and I can see how important something like this might be, but I don’t think it necessarily deserves to be called a ‘modern classic’.

Like I said, these are snapshots, presented in ways such as overheard conversations in a jail, or quick, short, almost stream-of-consciousness scenes about an escort arranging her schedule. They’re interesting, but I read through this pretty quickly and I don’t think it would have that much of a lasting impression in the long-term, for me personally.

I might give this another go at some point in the future. It’s short enough that it barely takes any time at all to read, so it’s no loss to try again. But in this instance it just didn’t click for me, but maybe it will with someone either more familiar with the writer, or who enjoys more experimental type writing.

Twisted Tales: So This Is Love – Elizabeth Lim [Books]

so this is love

Yep, it’s another Twisted Tales book, so far one of my favourite ever series. I really hope these books keep coming, because I will definitely keep reading. And the next cover has just been revealed – Unbirthday, an Alice in Wonderland tale. So far my favourite is Reflection, but I think this takes the second top spot. Which I’m pretty sure is what I said about Straight on ‘Till Morning too, but Elizabeth Lim is such a fantastic writer, it’s hard not to fall in love with her books.

The thing is, Lim is excellent at writing couples. It’s easy to feel like characters are in love in one of her books, even while other forces keep them apart.

In So This is Love, Cinderella is not able to try on the glass slipper, and the duke rides away from her home without even knowing she’s there. Unable to remain with her step-mother, Cinderella flees, and ends up working in – of all places – the castle.

But meeting the prince isn’t as easy as it seems, and Cinderella soon decides to try and make a life for herself with her new job and new friends. But she’s still determined to help her fairy godmother, and in doing so she unravels a conspiracy that threatens everything.

When this series works well, it’s clear the author knows these characters inside and out. After all, they’re taking the core elements of whatever character it is, and putting them in a new situation. And these are characters many people love, which means the expectations are high. Lim did brilliantly with Mulan in Reflection, and So This Is Love is another example of how well she knows and how much she loves Disney.

Cinderella feels very much like the character we know from the original story, but like in many of these tales she has that little bit more agency. As optimistic as she tries to remain, she knows deep down she is unhappy, though she never lets this leave a mark, continuing to do her job as best she can, even when it seems like everything is against her.

As for the scenes which do take place between Cinderella and the prince, Lim really keeps the reader on edge. For every warm, happy feeling a scene gives, the rug is soon yanked out as the reader realises it cannot all go as hoped. And the characters are fantastic – completely and utterly engaging, meaning it is easier to connect to the characters and feel what we’re supposed to.

I could really go on and on and on about what a good writer Elizabeth Lim is, but seriously, if you haven’t already, do check out Reflection and/or So This Is Love, and while you’re at, pick up Spin the Dawn too because they are all awesome.

So This Is Love is another fantastic addition to the Twisted Tales series, by a brilliant writer, once more keeping the core of the characters while putting them in a new and interesting situation. Definitely one for Disney fans to check out!

 

How To Write Your First Novel – Sophie King [Books]

how to write your first novelI am a big lover of writing craft books. I read a lot of them, and I read a variety. Many have interesting tips, great advice, and can be written really well. Unfortunately, How to Write Your First Novel is not one of them.

This book is for absolute, complete beginners. The problem, I think, is assuming people know absolutely nothing about writing when coming to this book. I honestly think by the time someone picks up a book about the craft, they know something. They know the elements of a story, perhaps, or have written some short stories. Which then makes a lot of the ideas raised in this book a little bit obsolete.

As well as that, this book was published in 2014. It is beyond the author’s control, but it means a lot of information contained within is now outdated. But it is still being promoted alongside the fantastic Writing Magazine in the UK, given as a gift to subscribers (that’s how I got my copy), so perhaps it is time to do a revised updated version.

One thing I’ve definitely found I dislike in writing advice books: writers who only use their own works as examples. And King does it here a lot. It’s not in a “here’s an idea of how you can do this” way either, or “this works for me maybe it’ll work for you”, it’s essentially putting herself as the expert, showcasing extracts of her work as perfect examples.

They’re not bad as such, but they’re not really as good as the author seems to think they are. And as another sign of an aging book, some of the extracts (and, apparently, the author’s novels themselves) are pretty ableist.

There are so many fantastic how to write novel books out there, or general how to write, or genre specific books, and this one really doesn’t add anything to the discussion. If you’re looking for ways to improve your writing, I would suggest picking up On Writing by Stephen King, Damn Fine Story by Chuck Wendig, or one of the first writing books I ever read, How NOT to Write a Novel, by Howard Mittelmark. The information in How to Write Your First Novel is too basic to really be of interest, the publishing advice is by now outdated, and the extracts are at times uncomfortable, making it feel like the author is patting themselves on the back.

I’ll always suggest reading books about the craft of writing, but I wouldn’t suggest reading this one.

Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds [Books]

war of the worldsYep, another Audible Drama. Going into this, I expected something…different. I really should have read more about this version before getting it. What I wanted was, essentially, an audio version of the musical, though I suppose that would technically just be the album then, wouldn’t it?

Anyway. That aside, and putting away my disappointment at not hearing Michael Sheen singing, this is actually a fantastic audio drama. The cast is brilliant, especially Sheen as the main character. He carries us through the story, and makes the narration sound natural rather than, well, narration.

The music really does add to the drama, underscoring the action and dialogue and at times, providing further clues as to what might be happening. Most of the music here will be familiar, even if you’ve never actually listened to Jeff Wayne’s soundtrack, some of the songs have still wedged themselves in. And it works really well here.

This is a really great production. I think overall full cast audio works brilliantly in general, and it’s really used to full effect here. Even though the story is just told through dialogue and sound effects, it becomes really easy to picture the scenes of destruction around the characters, to see the crowds in London as they flee their villages, and to see the huge crater housing the alien invaders at the beginning.

War of the Worlds is a timeless classic with endless adaptations. But what struck me most about this one was how relevant it feels, especially now. True, the apocalypse, it seems, doesn’t quite happen as Wells imagined it, though there are very good parallels. There are those who refuse to believe what is actually happening, until they maybe see it with their own eyes. Those in charge try to insist on life carrying on as normal until it’s almost too late. One character is convinced his ultimate vision of the world will be what saves humanity – a hypermasculine vision where the strong survive and the ‘weak’ are discarded, only to find himself unable to even take the first steps in pursuing his dream.

Listening to this, the threat feels real, the reactions feel real, and the tension is handled wonderfully. It’s a really brilliant audio production with a really strong cast. It might not have actual singing in it, but I can always listen to the album for that.

Shades of Magic, Volume 1: The Steel Prince – V.E. Schwab [Books]

shades of magic steel princeI’ve mentioned it before, but I really am such a huge Schwab fan. I’m slowly making my way through her books, and have so far not been disappointed by a single one. The Shades of Magic series is definitely one of the best fantasy series’ I’ve read in a long time, and the ending of the second book made me so grateful I had the third to hand, to read instantly after.

The trilogy itself is very visual. It’s one thing I always love about Schwab’s work – she creates amazing locations and worlds and settings without it ever feeling like the description is weighing things down. In Shades of Magic, there is a clear picture created of the various Londons, which is probably why it was a good thing this graphic novel is set away from that.

Yet the raw visual power present in the books is here, too, brought to life by absolutely stunning art. This is a world where people have various magical abilities, and the effect of that on the page is amazing.

The young prince Maxim Maresh is sent away from London, to a brutal, violent port town in order to learn how to be a military leader. But there, Maxim faces more than he expected, when a pirate queen arrives and forces the town to bend to her every whim.

This graphic novel does a great job of reintroducing a couple of characters from the original series, who served more as background characters in Shades of Magic but take over as key players here. Maxim becomes more of an interesting character, as his backstory is revealed, and I’m really glad the decision was made to focus on him for the graphic novel, as I think his journey to becoming king is really interesting.

Here he is headstrong and perhaps a touch arrogant, much like his son, Rhy, who we meet in Shades of Magic. This is just a first volume, and it sets up the rest of the series really well, allowing us to get an idea of Maxim, what he can do, and the people around him.

As with all Schwab books, the characters are vivid and interesting. The storyline is intriguing and contains the sort of action that was done excellently in Shades of Magic. There’s plenty going on here. And the artwork is, again, stunning. This is definitely one to pick up if you read and enjoyed Shades of Magic, and I can’t wait until I can eventually get my hands on volume 2.

The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas, Volume 1 [Books]

twilight zoneCan you tell I am absolutely loving Audible?

I try to mix up what I get, and so far I’ve tried non-fiction, full cast, fiction single person narration, and now The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas. Having grown up in the UK, The Twilight Zone wasn’t something I had access to. Not long after we first got together, I got the first ever series on DVD for me and my boyfriend, and we’ve been very slowly making our way through them.

As such, I have never actually heard the radio series before, and was excited to dive in. All except one of these stories were completely new to me, with Long Live Walter Jameson being the one I knew, as it is in the first series of the television show.

The stories contained in this volume are Night Call, Long Live Walter Jameson, The Lateness of the Hour, The 30-Fathom Grave, The Man in the Bottle, and Night of the Meek. Just like in the TV show, the characters range from the likeable and sympathetic, to the kind you’re not sure about and are off-put by. Others fall in the middle, keeping the listener on their toes regarding the characters until, perhaps, the final revelation.

Night Call is a creepy yet ultimately sweet story, focusing on an elderly woman who receives strange calls, though the people around her try to dismiss them as accidents, she knows they are something more.  Long Live Walter Jameson is about a history teacher who talks about the past as if he actually lived it. Even though I’d seen this play out in the TV series and therefore knew the twist, it was really interesting to revisit this in audio, when the clues have to be presented more carefully without the reliance on sight.

The Lateness of the Hour doesn’t have the most hard to spot twist – none of these really do – but the story is entertaining and engaging, and it’s hard not to feel for the characters presented here. It’s a story about a young woman growing up and growing curious, and the father who wishes to keep her at his side. Similarly, The 30-Fathom Grave has an ending in some ways easy to see, but it’s the little extra bits that make it worthwhile. It’s about a naval destroyer picking up signals from a ship that sunk twenty years before, and this one is honestly creepy.

The Man in the Bottle shows just how tricky genies can be, focusing on a kindly yet impoverished pawnbroker who is sometimes perhaps a bit too generous. When he gets four wishes, he tries to ensure they are carried out exactly as he wants, but even that isn’t enough. There was a lot going on in this one, and I found myself quickly wrapped up in the story, trying to work out what the next wish would be and how exactly it would go wrong.

Finally, Night of the Meek rounds off the volume with a story about Christmas, Santa and Christmas miracles. This was a sweet, heartwarming story about a department store Santa who just doesn’t have it in him to spread Christmas cheer, until he discovers a sack of presents which seems to contain exactly what people want most for Christmas. This was a good story to end the volume, really nicely showing how the smallest of gifts can go a long way, and how important hope is.

I really enjoyed listening to these radio dramas, and it was a great way to get a different type of storytelling from The Twilight Zone, with all the elements of an audio production done really well. Without a doubt I’ll be listening to Volume Two at some point in the future.

Beauty – Sarah Pinborough [Books]

beauty

Tales From The Kingdoms Reviews: Poison Charm

If you previously read my reviews for Poison and Charm, you might notice I actually read the three books in this series quite close together. Almost as soon as I finished Poison, I ordered the next two, mainly because I was instantly gripped with the urge to read more.

Beauty is the final installment in the series, and it’s ended up being my favourite of the three. I do however have a complaint now I’ve read all three: I really, really want more.

In these books, Pinborough has not only given us fantastic retellings of traditional fairy tales, but created a new fantasy world for these people to inhabit. The novels read like they could almost be companions to Once Upon A Time, and it works really bloody well.

Beauty focuses on the prince we originally met in Poison, and revisited in Charm. In both previous books, there is mention of an adventure he took, though it remains clouded in mystery. The reader might get some hint and clue about said adventure, and work out it possibly involved Sleeping Beauty herself, but it’s never clear. This book explores that adventure, when the prince and huntsman set out looking for a forgotten kingdom, and both gain more than they expected.

As with the first two books, we meet familiar fairy tale characters who come with a bit of a twist. Little Red Riding Hood lives with her grandma, in a cottage surrounded by wild wolves, and is drawn to the strange thorny wall near their home. From the other side comes a howl that speaks to something deep within her.

We discover more about the huntsman, and his life prior to travelling with the prince. The character of the prince is deepened, and to a point, he becomes that bit more sympathetic. Though his actions in Poison are inexcusable, Beauty offers good reasons why he acted like he did.

And as for the title character herself…

The whole plot revolves around her and her history, the union between her parents, the love everyone in the kingdom has for her. And like with other characters, Pinborough does something wonderfully clever with the beloved princess. Even Rumpelstiltskin appears, as an advisor to the former king, and the man who betrayed Beauty.

Pinborough beautifully weaves these different stories together, giving the reader plenty of twists to truly shock them. Even though we sort of know what happens to the prince and huntsman, the writing is engaging enough the how and why become so much more important.

This is a series easy to read and sink into, and proved a perfect escape for the current strange times. Beauty, for me, was really the strongest of the three, and a fantastic ending to the trilogy. As I said at the beginning, however, I just wish there were more of these to enjoy.