‘Gil’s All Fright Diner’ by A. Lee Martinez

Gils_all_fright_diner

WARNING: THIS MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS

I think that the cover for ‘Gil’s All Fright Diner’ might be one of my favourite covers of all time. In all honesty, it’s the main reason that I read, and kept reading (more on that later) the book. It’s by no means a bad book or story, in fact it’s actually a good one which I enjoyed, I just think that it’s important to note that the reason I finished this book was because I liked the cover so much.

I found ‘Gil’s All Fright Diner’ really hard to get into, having to start and restart reading it several times. In the end I had to make a noticeable effort to actually carry on reading. This isn’t indicative of the book being poorly written, boring, or anything like that, I just wasn’t really gripped by anything it offered for at least the first quarter, maybe even third, of the book. That being said, once it did draw me in, I was very much into it, enjoying it a lot. I have tried to go over it and work out a few times exactly what it was I was having a problem with and can’t quite put my finger on it. Yet I know that any other book with a less cool cover I would certainly have put down and never returned to.

However, after it’s uninspiring start (for me at least), I really started to enjoy the ideas behind the supernatural creatures and entities A. Lee Martinez has throughout the book. All of the ‘things’ mostly follow the tried and tested formulas: Vampires “sleep” during the day and survive through stealth and speed, whereas werewolves are straight up ‘tank’ killing machines who can rapidly heal and are much more beholden to their emotions and desires. Beyond these things however, all the supernatural elements seem more grounded than in most other fiction. The characters of Earl and Duke are characters who happen to be a vampire and a werewolf, respectively, rather than simply defined by it. Everything is treated with a measure of “you already know this stuff” so no time is wasted explaining it. We all know a stake through the heart of a vampire is a foil, so when it’s brought up in the story it’s quickly waved, unlike so many books which would then devote pages into explaining exactly why that is the case.

I really liked the characters of Earl and Duke, especially the latter, because both seem like genuine real people who happen to be in this weird version of our own world. Earl is a whiney, quick tempered vampire who is generally just dissatisfied with his life, or rather, after-life. Duke is a quiet, strong willed, bear of a man, slow to anger and a seemingly decent guy. The two are an odd couple but their friendship never seems false, every interaction they have feels genuine and true. For me, this was the best part of the whole book, I really, really liked the friendship that Earl and Duke shared because of just how real it felt.

I felt like A. Lee Martinez tried a little hard with the story to make it quirky and not follow the usual tropes in the usual ways. The hot teenage girl and her dumb, devoted, sex obsessed, boyfriend being the ones trying to bring about the end of the world was done well, but not amazingly. Their characters were great, they just didn’t serve the story as well as they could have. Likewise, a lot of the humour in the book, whilst bringing a smile, didn’t really elect any genuine laughs. It just felt at times like Martinez was trying too hard to break the mould and turn conventions on their head, which pulled away from the things he was doing really well, which were his characters. I don’t think that a single character in this book was a weak one, which is rare for me. I genuinely liked and could believe in all of them throughout.

Overall I enjoyed the book without loving it. A solid story with some very cool characters and an awesome cover. Well worth a read if you’re interested in supernatural fiction which isn’t the ‘Twilight Saga’.

‘Awaken Online: Catharsis’ by Travis Bagwell

Awaken Online Catharsis

WARNING: THIS MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS

Imagine ‘Ready Player One’, but the main protagonist is the villain of the game world rather than a hero. ‘Awaken Online’ is a brand new virtual reality MMO set in a medieval/fantasy world in which players are given full freedom to go and do whatever they want, all under the watchful eye, and subtle guidance, of the AI who runs the world, Alfred. The usual dynamics of the traditional good vs evil story and the characters involved are flipped around with the “evil” necromancer instead being the man in the right, whereas the “warrior of light” is firmly the antagonist. As I’ve said in previous blog posts, this kind of setting always appeals to me, I love the idea of twisting and reversing expectations to create engaging and fresh stories full of grey rather than simple black and white.

The first book in the ‘Awaken Online’ series is a strangely engrossing page turner. The writing, especially a lot of the dialogue, isn’t especially awe inspiring. Travis Bagwell (for this book at least, however I haven’t yet read any of his others) isn’t a literacy master who is going to be confused with Patrick Rothfuss or Phillip Pullman. However, his story and the ideas he includes within the book are fantastic. Yes, some people will call it a bit of a rip-off of ‘Ready Player One’, but that is very unfair. Aside from the starting idea of the story mainly being set in a virtual reality game, the two are almost completely different.

It is very clear that Travis has spent a lot of time and thought in creating the game that the book focuses on, ‘Awaken Online’. Obviously it’s a game unlike any we will see in the foreseeable future, but it feels like a complete game with its own clear rules and limitations. My biggest gripe with ‘Ready Player One’ (it’s the obvious comparison) was that throughout the book it never felt like there were these things, that players could literally just do anything. The rules and limitations weren’t clear which weakened the story. ‘Awaken Online’ on the other hand, is a game where I could genuinely imagine this game existing. The idea of Alfred, the AI who controlled the game was a cool one. I liked how it was subtly suggested as the book went on that ‘he’ might not be all good and that potentially something a little off was happening. This did a really good job of setting up the rest of the series without having to resort to the clichéd idea of an incomplete ending just to hook you into buying the next one. Also, something I really liked was the idea of players’ affinities with different magic being a reflection on how they play the game, almost like a morality system. However, much like in real life, too much of anything can easily become a bad thing, no matter how good it starts off. For example, it is said within the book that the “light magic” is a reflection of confidence, however too much can quickly turn into arrogance.

My biggest problem with ‘Awaken Online’ was the characters. Although I liked the main character, Jason, there was never any real question about him not being the hero of this story, despite being, for all intents and purposes, the villain. Yes he does some pretty dark things, such as causing a zombie uprising and wiping out an entire city, but the majority of those he kills are just computer NPCs. Jason’s heart is always in the right place and the times when he does do things that could be construed as “evil” are almost always mostly justified. Who hasn’t played Skyrim and occasionally killed everyone in a town for no other reason than boredom or just to see if you can (always have a back-up save kids). Doing that is a much more malevolent act than what Jason does. On the flip side of this, Alex, our antagonist, is far too legit evil. He is a clear sociopath with utterly zero redeeming qualities. I would have much preferred the characters to fit in a bit more of the grey areas rather than being so clear cut. If Jason had been more of a “villain-hero” a-la ‘Vicious’, someone more of an anti-hero than a good guy, it would have given his character more depth. Likewise, if Alex had just been a bit of a dick and rather than a full-blown sociopath then the story would have had more tension and the climax would have been far greater. Alex was so evil and bad that it was obvious from the moment we met him how it would end. By bringing him down a few notches and giving him a few redeeming characteristics, it would have made the outcome potentially more uncertain. An intelligent tactical genius vs an arrogant rich boy was only ever having one ending. Despite this however, the character development of Jason throughout the book is very well executed. His journey from being a downtrodden, harshly bullied and neglected ‘wimp’ to being confident and independent is well done and believable. It is not just a jump from one to the other, he questions himself throughout about what he is feeling and what he wants, slowly morphing into the character he becomes by the end.

On this train of thought I felt that Travis really missed a trick with the character of Riley. A good, nice girl who is being blackmailed by the sociopath, eventually building up the courage to stand up to him. Due to the fact that we were basically already getting this character development from Jason, it would have been cooler if hers had been different rather than more of the same. If Riley had started out as a bit of a bitch and less of the good girl she was, then her changing and developing into a better person would have been far better. If she’d started off in a similar place as the (not so sociopathic) Alex, then as a reaction to the events in the story she could start to see herself for what she was and strive to make amends. This would have worked in a wonderful contrast with Alex who could have become a worse person after the same events. In all, I felt that the main point of this book was that people are in control of their own lives and can be or accomplish anything they set their mind to. It would have just been a cool extra if it had shown that people can also be redeemed. All this being said however, whereas I was initially not that into it, I grew too really like the character of Onyx the cat.

Overall I really liked ‘Awaken Online: Catharsis’. The weaknesses of the characters were more than made up for by the ideas and story presented by Travis Bagwell. The pace and structure throughout the book were well done and I was engaged from start to finish.

‘All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries)’ by Martha Wells

All Systems Red

WARNING: THIS MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS

When I was recommended this book, the synopsis immediately drew me in. The main protagonist is an apathetic, lazy, pessimistic, socially awkward android that refers to itself as ‘Murderbot’, who after hacking their governing control systems could easily have gone on a murdering spree, but preferred to watch TV instead.

Despite all that, ‘Murderbot’ is a surprisingly relatable character who I felt genuinely connected to. It spends the majority of the story having a bit of an existential crisis about not knowing what it wants or what it wants to do, just wanting to be left alone and not have to deal with talking to people. This isn’t the futuristic all-knowing A.I. that I have come to expect from these types of stories, but is instead a character who just happens to be an android.

The story itself isn’t particularly mind-blowing, but it’s well written. There aren’t any particular weaknesses to the book, boring bits or parts which feel like they are dragging down the plot. It keeps a good pace throughout and is ultimately fairly satisfying. It’s a good book without being a great one. The only problem it does have is that the world feels a little unoriginal, futuristic corporations who essentially are the powers behind colonising new planets. It didn’t feel particularly clear to me why the main conflict was happening in the book however. I couldn’t really understand the motives of the group who were killing and hunting the other colonists groups on the planet other than some vague mentions of previous civilisations being found.

That being said however, I did enjoy the book. I found the story simple, yet page turning, and I really liked the idea and character of ‘Murderbot’. I will probably look into reading the next book in the series because I would like to see what happens with ‘Murderbot’ now he has gone off alone into the universe. ‘All Systems Red’ is well worth a read if you’re a fan of the science fiction genre, but fancy something a little different to the usual.

‘The Murders of Molly Southbourne’ by Tade Thompson

The Murders of Molly Southbourne

WARNING: THIS MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS

‘The Murders of Molly Southbourne’ is a weird, dark, but gripping story. It horror story with a firm set of rules that it sticks to throughout. The story is relatively simple, it is about a girl, Molly Southbourne, who grows up on a farm before going off to university. However, she and her parents live (and indeed die) with the ever present issue of that every time Molly bleeds, a few days later a copy of her turns up and tries to murder her. The premise of the story is very out of the box, but it works extremely well by avoiding doing what so many horror stories end up trying to, explaining everything. Throughout the book Molly begins to formulate theories, and late on there is even a very heavy implication of what could have caused this unique blood disorder, but by the end, that is a question that is still unanswered.

I really liked the book and was not left in any way disappointed by the lack of full explanation before the story ended. The character of Molly was deep and relatable, even with her being so highly intelligent and socially awkward due to her upbringing of being home-schooled. Her relationship with “the mollies” is ever changing and completely understandable, dancing between curious about them and inconvenienced.

The main idea which drives ‘The Murders of Molly Southbourne’ is very skilfully executed, and I was really drawn in by it. Yes, there are obvious plot holes and serious questions that arise when you think deeply about it, but the book does very well of just leaving these alone and focusing on the story rather than explaining itself. With stories such as these there needs to be a clear set of rules and it needs to stick to those rules in order to work. Tade Thompson does this masterfully throughout. At no point was I left scratching my head or having to re-read parts to understand what was going on. Even better than that was the lack of a “twist” which so many horror stories feel the need to include, where the established rules are broken in order to get a cheap shock.

I call this book a horror story because for me that is the closest I think it fits into any genre. However, I think it was just darker than out and out scary. At no point did I truly fear for the main protagonist, Molly (although that was mostly due to the framing of the story). Yet, whereas I did foresee how it would end for her parents, I was still moved by their demise. The relationships within the family were very well done, subtle and not overplayed, and it was due to the letters sent by her father after Molly moved to university which really allowed that emotional connection.

Overall I was greatly surprised by how much I enjoyed ‘The Murders of Molly Southbourne’. By no means was it the perfect book, or even a 5-star masterpiece, but for what it was it was very well done and has left me eagerly anticipating the rumoured sequel.

‘Vicious’ by V.E. Schwab

Vicious

WARNING: THIS MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS

I love games and stories which go in the opposite of what we have come to expect. Games like ‘Go For Broke’ which is basically reverse monopoly, or ‘Gloom’, where the aim is to make your in game family as miserable as possible before killing them off, have always peaked and held my interest and enjoyment. However, when I say “I love” them, what I mean is “I love them when they are done well”, and this book is done very, very well.

‘Vicious’ was sold to me as being about two villains going up against each other. It is a simple tale of jealousy, betrayal, and vengeance, however, what sets it apart from so many other books which deals with these themes, neither of the two men leading the story could be considered as “heroes” or “good guys”. Our main protagonist and antagonist are two staples in villainy. Cold, calculating, and seemingly emotionless, with the other being self-righteous and delusional, respectively. One recognises himself as being a monster, with the other firmly believing he is the hero on a divine mission.

The main protagonist is Victor, the highly intelligent offspring of two absent, best-selling, self-help book authors, who finds comfort and release in defacing/editing books via a marker pen. He sees himself as different from those around him, unable to fully fit in with his peers. Victor escapes from prison where he has spent the last 10 years waiting and plotting his revenge on his former best friend Eli, whom he met at college. In classic comic book villain fashion, Victor was quietly jealous of his charming, good looking friend who inevitably gets the girl that Victor had secretly wanted, as well as usurping Victor’s place at the top of the class. Things come to a head when the two start experimenting and making efforts to become ‘ExtraOrdinaries’ or ‘EOs’. These experiments leave both Victor and Eli with newfound powers, as well as lead to the accidental death of Eli’s girlfriend thanks to Victor.

One of the things I really loved about ‘Vicious’. It’s a “superhero” book with rules which are somewhat unique. The two main characters themselves point out how in every superhero story, the super is created in one of two ways, either they are made, or they are created. In the world of ‘Vicious’, they are created, specifically by going through a terrifying and painful near death ordeal… or to be more accurate, a terrifying and painful death in which they are brought back to life. These “survivors” return with new abilities which are tied to what they were thinking in their final moments of life. Victor ends up with powers that allow him to control the pain he, and others feel whereas Eli comes away with the ability to heal and regenerate himself. Although to begin with it is not understood how they obtained these powers, it becomes apparent after Victor reveals that he was desperately wishing he could “make it stop”, whilst being painfully electrocuted to death, gaining the ability to turn pain off and on like a switch, whereas Eli simply wanted “the strength to survive”, and so became immortal. I loved this idea because it’s so simple, yet opens up so many opportunities to play with. I also really like how it creates a straight forward set of rules to follow.

The book jumps back and forth between the present and the past as it tells the story of how Victor and his new band of “strays”, and Eli, came to be who they are and what they are, with each chapter being presented from a different character’s point of view. The story is fast paced and engaging and unlike many other books in which jumps between time periods, didn’t leave me in any way frustrated. So often when faced with a book which uses this technique, there’s always an annoyance at at least one section where I’m annoyed and just wanting to finish this section so I can get back to the part that is appealing to me. Each ‘jump’ and change of perspective is perfectly done, usually providing you with answers to the questions you were just starting to ask, as well as slowly building up the tension which helped the final payoff feel so satisfying.

I really liked the characters which all felt well rounded and understood by the author. None of them felt shallow or made decisions that didn’t make sense for the sake of plot. I could see and completely understand how Eli became the monster he did, his faith in God and the events which followed his and Victor’s experiments twisting his view of reality, convincing and deluding himself into believing that he was doing God’s work in killing other EOs before they caused anyone harm with their unnatural gifts. Rather than being in the traditional role of the hero who has to take down ‘the big bad’, Victor by contrast is simply the lesser of two evils. A cold and calculating “chess master” character with just enough redeeming qualities to humanise him. Victor understands he isn’t a good person and part of what drew him to Eli when they were younger is the recognition that deep down he knows he isn’t either. I really liked Victor’s character, the way he thought and planned was thoroughly relishing to read. I really couldn’t help routing for Victor throughout the book despite him clearly being a, very, bad guy, due to just how well written he was. Alongside Victor as he tortures and murders his way towards vengeance against his former friend are Mitch and Sydney. Both of these characters were equally as wonderfully written with neither being over played and I ended up growing just as attached to them as I was to Victor. Mitch, hulking, tattooed, but highly intelligent with a penchant for chocolate milk was fun and interesting. Clearly put into the role of henchman for Victor, he didn’t just follow blindly, he questioned and ultimately stepped in when Victor did something he didn’t agree with. Likewise, Sydney, a 12 year old EO with the ability to raise the dead was a refreshingly interesting character whose personal growth throughout the book was a real highlight.

Overall I greatly enjoyed this book, a simple, fast paced, engaging story with some fantastically written characters left me wanting more and more with each page I read, and ultimately satisfied when I finished the last. I’m somewhat gutted I need to wait almost nine months until the sequel is released.

‘Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood’ by Tevor Noah

born a crime

Being from the UK all I really knew about Trevor Noah was that he was a comedian from South Africa who did some stuff for one of those late night talk shows in the US and then took over it after the main host left (I’m playing a little dumb, I know it was ‘The Daily Show’). All I ever really saw of him was the occasional YouTube clip which I always enjoyed, finding him very funny in an intellectual and progressive way.

I’ll start with my relatively minor disappointment from the book, which in all honesty is probably more my fault that Trevor’s. I was hoping to hear how a (as I found out he was) a poor, ‘coloured’ boy from South Africa became one of the leading late night show hosts in the world. This book doesn’t talk about any of that, in fact it only passingly mentions that he was a comedian right towards the very end. No how he found his way into comedy, no how he found his way across the world from where he started. I started this book expecting a tale of ‘rags to riches’ and that’s where the disappointment ends, because what this book is, and what it more likely sets out to do, is an education about what life really was like in South Africa towards the end and in the aftermath of the apartheid. For clarity, my “disappointment” in this book is drastically overshaddowed by my enjoyment of it, I only give it credence because what I was hoping would be talked about, wasn’t. However, what Trevor delievered instead was a far deeper and compelling education, as I will explain below.

I learned so much in this book that I had never even considered before such as how black, and coloured, South African’s have a completely different perspective on major events such as World War 2, even going as far as ‘Hitler’ being a not so uncommon name in many parts of the country. The part of the book which gave me most pause for thought was a section where Trevor (although he never actually admits to having this belief himself) explains how ‘The Holocaust’ may not be in fact the worst, most inhumane, crime against humanity ever committed. He points out that there have been a myriad of things that have happened not only in South Africa, but throughout the continent before, and possibly even more importantly, since ‘The Holocaust’ which should be considered for that title. The only difference between those atrocities and ‘The Holocaust’ is that the latter is fully documented, that all the facts and figures are known as proof of the evil, whereas the others are only vague numbers at best, therefore far easier to dismiss.

It’s not all doom and gloom however, the book is filled with a variety of funny and clever stories. My particular favourites were the stories about how blind racial prejudice allowed him to get away with shoplifting, and the tales of his DJ and dance crew which included his friend ‘Hitler’. These stories are woven in, out, and through the darker tales, the escalating stories of his violent step-father, and his near miss with actual prison time. In fact it is because of these tales and memories, both good and bad, that this book is so effective in its delivery and education of what life was truly like. Unlike the disconnected ‘real educational’ books, Trevor’s retelling of how he grew up gives all the issues a face and therefore a much greater impact than just the vagueness of other accounts.

Overall I very much enjoyed this book and came out of it feeling like I had a far greater appreciation for what life must have been like for people like Trevor in South Africa at that time. Trevor’s natural charm and charisma which is clearly evident throughout and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the subject, whether they’ve ever heard of him or not.