Monday, 18 July 2016

Book Review | Sherlock Holmes and the Servants of Hell by Paul Kane


Late 1895. Sherlock Holmes and his faithful companion Dr John Watson are called upon to investigate a missing persons case. On the face of it, this seems like a mystery that Holmes might relish, as the person in question vanished from a locked room. But this is just the start of an investigation that will draw the pair into contact with a shadowy organisation talked about in whispers, known only as the Order of the Gash.

As more people go missing in a similar fashion, the clues point to a sinister asylum in France and to the underworld of London. However, it is an altogether different underworld that Holmes will soon discover—as he comes face to face not only with those followers who do the Order’s bidding on Earth, but those who serve it in Hell: the Cenobites.

***

The great detective applies his inimitable intellect to a murder mystery like none other in Sherlock Holmes and the Servants of Hell, a surprisingly credible commingling of Arthur Conan Doyle's classic characters and the soul-shredding subjects of The Scarlet Gospels. That's right, readers: Clive Barker's Cenobites are back—and they may actually have met their match.

Holmes himself has seen better days, I dare say. In the wake of the great hiatus, during which period he disappeared to mess with his nemesis, he's alive and relatively well, but without the dastardly Moriarty to match wits with, he's grown a bit bored. And as Dr Watson warns:
When Holmes grew bored, it was usually only a matter of time before he took up his old habit of drug use [...] however his penchant for his seven-percent solution of cocaine, administered via a needle he kept locked away in a polished Morocco box, was the least of my concerns after he returned, it transpired.
The black dog of Holmes' habit is troubling, to be sure, but still more worrisome to Watson is the fact that his closest acquaintance's "malaise was gaining momentum." Said detective is dismissing fascinating cases with no explanation and plying his elementary trade in plague-ridden areas. "If these were in fact efforts to feel something, to feel alive," Watson worries, "then they might well kill the man instead."

It's a relief, then, that "this dangerous road he was heading down: this terrible testing of himself" seems to cease when a couple come knocking on the door of 221B Baker Street. Laurence Cotton's brother Francis has gone missing, is the thing, and the police aren't taking his disappearance seriously—despite the screams the housekeeper heard emerge from the loft he was last seen locking.

At the scene of the could-be crime, our chums uncover a void in the decades-old dust that suggests the involvement of a small box, and soon scent "an odd smell of vanilla" masking an undercurrent of what must be blood. From just this, Holmes is convinced that Francis has fallen victim to some dark deed indeed, but the mechanics of his murder are mysterious—as is the motive of the killer or killers—and that comes to fascinate a fellow famed for his ability to explain anything.

Monday, 11 July 2016

Book Review | The Hatching by Ezekiel Boone


Deep in the jungle of Peru, a black, skittering mass devours an American tourist party whole. FBI agent Mike Rich investigates a fatal plane crash in Minneapolis and makes a gruesome discovery. Unusual seismic patterns register in a Indian earthquake lab, confounding the scientists there. The Chinese government "accidentally" drops a nuclear bomb in an isolated region of its own country. The first female president of the United States is summoned to an emergency briefing. And all of these events are connected.

As panic begins to sweep the globe, a mysterious package from South America arrives at Melanie Guyer's Washington laboratory. The unusual egg inside begins to crack. A virulent ancient species, long dormant, is now very much awake. But this is only the beginning of our end...

***

In recent years, apocalyptic fiction has gotten pretty political. Where once it was the preserve of the firmly fantastical or the nominally natural, like the rampaging rats of James Herbert's unforgettable first novel, or Michael Crichton's reconditioned dinosaurs, such stories have since taken a turn for the topical. Now we have nuclear winters to worry about, a cache of climate catastrophes, and the release of diseases genetically engineered to "solve" the planet's overpopulation problems. For those of us who read to escape the devastation of the day-to-day, it's all gotten uncomfortably current.

Happily, The Hatching hearkens back to the detached disasters of yesteryear. The end of the world as we know it isn't even our own fault in Ezekiel Boone's book—it comes about because of some damned spiders:
There are thirty-five thousand species of spiders and they've been on earth for at least three hundred million years. From the very origin of humanity, spiders have been out there, scuttling along the edges of firelight, spinning webs in the woods, and scaring the hell out of us, even though, with a few rare exceptions, they are no real threat. But these were something different.
These spiders are more like ants, in fact, in that they're essentially social: what they do, they do for the good of the group as opposed to their own individual ends, which means they can set their collective sights on bigger and better prey than bluebottles. Creepy as one arachnid is, in other words, it's got nothing on a sea of the beasties with an appetite for people.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves—a lesson Boone would do well to learn, because before the inevitable rise of the spiders, he gets bogged down in setting up a situation for them to chew through, and sadly, it isn't up to snuff, largely because it relies on a cast of conspicuously cartoonish characters.

Of these, there are those whose only role in the whole is to be summarily dispatched so as to show that the aforementioned arachnids are the real deal. That's clear—and effective, yes—the first time a spider eats its way out of one of their forgettable faces; by the fifth time someone is dispatched in that fashion, it's gotten a bit boring, and alas, The Hatching has hardly started.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Book Review | End of Watch by Stephen King


Retired Detective Bill Hodges now runs a two-person firm called Finders Keepers with his partner Holly Gibney. They met in the wake of the Mercedes Massacre, when a queue of people was run down by the diabolical killer Brady Hartsfield.

Brady is now confined to Room 217 of the Lakes Region Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic, in an unresponsive state. But all is not what it seems: the evidence suggests that Brady is somehow awake, and in possession of deadly new powers that allow him to wreak unimaginable havoc without ever leaving his hospital room.

When Bill and Holly are called to a suicide scene with ties to the Mercedes Massacre, they find themselves pulled into their most dangerous case yet, one that will put their lives at risk, as well as those of Bill's heroic young friend Jerome Robinson and his teenage sister, Barbara. Brady Hartsfield is back, and planning revenge not just on Hodges and his friends, but on an entire city.

The clock is ticking in unexpected ways...

***

The Bill Hodges trilogy that began with the Edgar Award-winning Mr Mercedes and continued in last year's fearsome Finders Keepers comes to an uncharacteristically concise close in End of Watch, a finale which finds Stephen King's determined old det-ret racing against the clock to get to the bottom of a string of suicides he thinks could be linked to the malignant mind behind the Mercedes Massacre:
On a foggy morning in 2009, a maniac named Brady Hartsfield drove a stolen Mercedes Benz into a crowd of job-seekers at City Center, downtown. He killed eight and seriously injured fifteen. [...] Martine Stover had been the toughest [survivor] to talk to, and not only because her disfigured mouth made her all but impossible to understand for anyone except her mother. Stover was paralysed from the chest down. (p.16)
The adjustment has been damned difficult, but in the seven years since the incident, Martine has come to terms with her limited mobility. She and her mother, who stepped up to the plate in the wake of that darkest of dates, have grown closer than ever before. They've been, by all accounts, happy—hard as that might for some outsiders to imagine—and happy people don't force overdoses on their dearly beloved daughters then takes cannisters of gas into the bath, do they?

Because of Hodges' history with Hartsfield, he and his recalcitrant partner Holly Gibney are, as a courtesy, invited to see the scene of what the police are keen to call a murder-suicide, and although the evidence in support of that theory is clear, when our PIs find a Zappit—a budget-brand tablet Hodges has seen the object of his obsession play with in the past—they can't help but suspect a connection.

But how could Mr Mercedes be involved in the deaths of Martine Stover and Janice Ellerton when he's basically brain-dead himself?

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Book Review | The Fireman by Joe Hill


No one knows exactly when it began or where it originated. A terrifying new plague is spreading like wildfire across the country, striking cities one by one: Boston, Detroit, Seattle. The doctors call it Draco Incendia Trychophyton. To everyone else it’s Dragonscale, a highly contagious, deadly spore that marks its hosts with beautiful black and gold marks across their bodies—before causing them to burst into flames. Millions are infected; blazes erupt everywhere. There is no antidote. No one is safe.

Harper Grayson, a compassionate, dedicated nurse as pragmatic as Mary Poppins, treated hundreds of infected patients before her hospital burned to the ground. Now she’s discovered the telltale gold-flecked marks on her skin. When the outbreak first began, she and her husband, Jakob, had made a pact: they would take matters into their own hands if they became infected. To Jakob’s dismay, Harper wants to live—at least until the unborn child she is carrying comes to term.


***

Unlike some, I have a soft spot for Heart-Shaped Box, and a lot of love for Horns, but even I'd agree that NOS4A2 is Joe Hill's strongest novel—not least, I believe, because it's also his longest. The larger than life-sized story it told and the complex characters explored over its engrossing course simply couldn't have come to be without the room to breathe its length allowed, so when I found out The Fireman was similarly thick, I was pleased.

And it's an awesome novel, naturally: an apocalyptic parable written from the perspective of an infectiously happy heroine every millimetre as meaty and memorable as Ms. Vic McQueen, and whose hellish ex gives Charles Talent Manx a run for his money. But for all that The Fireman kicks off brilliantly and ends tremendously well, the middle section of the text—an epic in and of itself—tends towards the plodding and the predictable.

It begins with the world burning.

It's been burning for months, as a matter of fact, but only "in filthy places no one wants to go," you know. So sayeth Harper Grayson's asshole of a husband. And it's true that the first recorded cases of Draco Incendia Trychophyto—a spore that marks its hosts with gorgeous golden growths before causing them to suddenly combust—it's true, at least according to the news, that the so-called 'Scale originated elsewhere.

Some say the Russians engineered it. Others insist on the involvement of ISIS, or, failing that, fundamentalists fixated on the book of Revelations. Truth be told, its source isn't so important, because the thing about fire is, it spreads—and with it, this incipient sickness. Before long, "fifteen million people are infected. Maine is like Mordor now," Harper has it: "a belt of ash and poison a hundred miles wide. Southern California is even worse. Last I heard, SoCal was on fire from Escondido to Santa Maria."

With "her silliness and her sense of play and her belief that the kindnesses you showed other added up to something," said school nurse is just about the sweetest human being there's ever been, so whilst her increasingly hysterical other half hides, Harper helps, however she can. Alas, lending a hand at the local hospital leads to her developing symptoms of the 'Scale herself—just hours after she learns she's pregnant.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Book Review | The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North


My name is Hope Arden, and you won't know who I am. But we've met before—a thousand times.

It started when I was sixteen years old.

A father forgetting to drive me to school. A mother setting the table for three, not four. A friend who looks at me and sees a stranger.

No matter what I do, the words I say, the crimes I commit, you will never remember who I am.

That makes my life difficult. It also makes me dangerous.

***

Life is complicated—not least because it's so frickin' unpredictable. But there are a few things you can be sure of. One day, you and I will die; come what may, there'll be plenty of taxes to pay along the way; and, as Isaac Newton concluded, for every action, an equal and opposite reaction will happen.

In real terms, that means that what we do dictates what is done to us. Hurt someone and you can expect to be hurt in turn. Make someone happy and perhaps they'll pay that happiness back. This behavioural balance relies on our ability to remember, however. Without that... well, what would you do if you knew the world would forget you?

You'd let loose, wouldn't you?

Hope Arden, for her part, does exactly that in Catherine Webb's third novel as Claire North, which, like Touch and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August before it, is an engrossing, globe-trotting interrogation of identity that sits comfortably between Bourne and Buffy.
For a while after I'd been forgotten, I toyed with becoming a hitman. I pictured myself in leather jump suits, taking down my targets with a sniper rifle, my dark hair billowing in the wind. No cop could catch me; no one would know my name. I was sixteen years old, and had peculiar ideas about 'cool.'
Peculiar, to be sure, but so is Hope's very particular predicament.

You'd be forgiven for forgetting someone you see on the street; even someone you speak to, briefly. But neglect to remember your best mate and that relationship's in dire straits. Fail to recognise your son or your daughter and you've got a problem with a capital P. North's poor protagonist has had to deal with that every day since she came of age, in her every interaction with everyone she's ever met. Never mind the network of people she'd need to know her if she had a hope in hell of holding down a normal job: she's a complete stranger to her parents, and her closest friends look at her like an interloper.

It's a credit to her character, then, that Hope—"having no one else to know me, having no one to catch me or lift me up, tell me if I'm right or wrong, having no one to define the limits of me"—still holds the sanctity of human life in high regard. So scratch that career as an assassin.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Book Review | The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin


In life I was a scientist called Fanning...

...then, in a jungle in Bolivia, I died...

I died, and then I was brought back to life.

Prompted by a voice that lives in her blood, the fearsome warrior known as Alicia of Blades is drawn towards to one of the great cities of The Time Before. The ruined city of New York. Ruined but not empty. For this is the final refuge of Zero, the first and last of The Twelve. The one who must be destroyed if mankind is to have a future.

What she finds is not what she's expecting: a journey into the past, to find out how it all began, and an opponent at once deadlier and more human than she could ever have imagined.

***

The epic journey that began in The Passage finally comes full circle in The City of Mirrors, a proper doorstopper of a novel that satisfies somewhat in spite of its sheer size and a hell of a hammy bad guy.

I have such fond memories of the beginning of this trilogy, which paired an awesome and expansive apocalypse—one up there, in my estimation, with the end of the world in Swan Song and The Stand—with a truly heartbreaking tale of loss on the small scale. By the denouement of that book, I had no idea where the story as a whole was going to go, but I knew that I wanted to know. And then... well.

The Twelve wasn't terrible. It had a couple of a kick-ass action scenes, and some stirring slower moments that allowed Justin Cronin to explore the emotions of his vast cast of characters. But almost every other inch of that many-inched monolith of a novel felt like filler; texture at best and time-wasting at worst. In that respect, The City of Mirrors splits the difference. It doesn't meander as much as its messy predecessor did, but nor, on the back of such bloat, and with more of its own to add to the tally, can it recapture the magic of The Passage.

"Three years had passed since the liberation of the Homeland" (p.18) that ended The Twelve, and almost a hundred thousand souls now call the walled city of Kerrville, Texas home. Considering how catastrophic the survivors' situation seemed until recently, that's reason enough to be optimistic, never mind the fact that there hasn't been a single viral sighting since:
The age of the viral was over; humankind was finally on the upswing. A continent stood for the taking, and Kerrville was the place where this new age would begin. So why did it seem so meager to [Peter], so frail? Why, standing on the dam of an otherwise encouraging summer morning, did he feel this inward shiver of misgiving? (p.15)
Perhaps because Peter—the leader of the resistance that took down the Twelve viral progenitors, and in turn the millions of vampires they had sired—has lost his sense of purpose. Or perhaps because "people had begun to openly talk about moving outside the wall," (p.15) and he can't believe that the threat is actually at an end.