Book Review: Dawn of the Dead by George A. Romero and Susanna Sparrow

The second of George A. Romero’s zombie movies, Dawn of the Dead, is where my obsession with the undead began. Not a direct sequel to the earlier Night of the Living Dead it works as a companion piece, another story from the same world. Just as dawn follows night, the film takes place a little further along down the zombie apocalypse. I saw it first and as much as I love Night, I probably prefer Dawn.  This makes it even more annoying that I haven’t seen the movie in years. It’s never on telly, I can’t find it on Netflix and tracking down a DVD is proving tricky too.

My old copy, taped off BBC2, is long gone now. And yet a lot of the movie is still fresh in my head, whole scenes are clear to me and I remember the tone well, a mix of dark comedy, grim tension and subtle satire of our commercialised world. Driven by instinct the living dead are drawn to places that were important to them, in this case a mall.

The novelisation of the movie caught my eye on the shelf in a book shop, and I had to grab it.

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And I am so glad I did.  As Simon Pegg states in his introduction a book provides a different perspective to a film, and here we get to see more of the inner lives of our four survivors as they hole up at the Monroeville Mall. Fran, who works for a Philadelphia television studio is watching the world go to hell and decides to flee in the station’s traffic chopper with her boyfriend Stephen. Joining them is Stephen’s friend a SWAT tropper named Roger and his comrade in arms, Peter, who he meets during a disastrous raid.

The mall, despite having plenty of zombies around, makes an attractive proposition and despite originally having planned to load up before moving on to Canada, the group linger there, enjoying all the cool stuff they find there. But is it as safe as they think it is?

I really dug this book because like the movie it captures a sense of constantly simmering tension, even when the guys are living it up, there’s an artificial joviality to things, and the dead are never far away. The characters are more fleshed out here, particularly Peter, who is developed slightly more than the tough badass he is in the movie and the tensions between him and Stephen are better explained. Similarly, Fran and Stephen’s relationship makes a bit more sense.

The action is written in a fast paced, engaging way and Romero, with co-writer Sparrow succeeds in making it incredibly tense in places. The story is simple but involving, and it moves along at a good speed, while still letting the story breathe in places. I really loved this book, but it’s just made me want to rewatch the original movie again.

Verdict: A gripping and entertaining story, much like the movie it is based off. The characters are slightly more detailed here, and it captures the vibe of the survivors fraying under the pressure of the civilised world ending. A must for zombie fans. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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Book Review: Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie

Never travel with Hercule Poirot. Boats, trains and planes, none are safe when the Belgian detective is aboard. Here he’s flying from Paris to Croydon when one of the other passengers is bumped off. The first class passengers are all suspects but none seem to have much motive. And as the victim was seemingly killed with a poisoned dart shot from a blowpipe somebody would have seen something, surely?

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An inquest leans towards Poirot being the guilty man as the blowpipe was found under his seat, but this is dismissed due to his history of working with the police. Which is kinda dodgy that the judge overrules the jury, but I guess it’s not what you know but who you know.

Partly due to his being suspected, but also due to the elaborate murder weapon and the mystery, Poirot sets out to solve the case. Also looking into it are two of the other passengers, who have developed a strong attraction to one another. They team up with the detective, and slowly begin to look into who might gain from the murder.

The victim turns out to be a French money lender who would loan cash out and then get it back because she would collect blackmail material on the people who owed her. So, someone with a long list of potential enemies.

I was a little disappointed with this book, as why there is some humour and clever red herring plots, the finale feels weak and Christie does that thing of revealing a bunch of stuff right at the end which stops the reader from having had a chance of guessing what happened. I did pick up on one clue which is dropped in, but then a bunch of stuff is just trotted out.

It’s nowhere near as gripping as Murder on the Orient Express which had a much clearer plot and claustrophobic setting, even if the same trick of a few last minute secrets is similar.

It’s a decent read but not being able to solve it is frustrating. Still, an enjoyable read nonetheless.

Verdict: Amusing in places and generally involving, Christie holds too much hidden and the twists seem to come from nowhere. A decent read despite that. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

You gotta love a good deal on books. On a recent trip to town I visited HMV where they had a two for a fiver offer, I picked up Carrie Fisher’s Shockaholic which had been on my radar for a while, and decided to take a punt on this book as the blurb told me this had inspired the movie Cabaret and the setting of Germany as the Nazis begin to get a foothold sounded interesting.

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I’m glad I took a gamble as it made for quite an entertaining read, with Isherwood a keen observer of people and he creates vivid, believable characters, all clearly based on people he knew. The writing is clever and witty, with insight and provides little snapshots of life in the city. The political factions are largely in the background as the semi-autobiographical vignettes unfold. It begins with a few SA members on the street, debates in cafes and then builds to the final stages with mass rallies, assaults and the Nazis seizing power.

Isherwood, as a gay man, is perilously placed and a great number of those he encounters are similarly in danger as the Nazis grow in influence. There are the family friends the Landauers, a Jewish family who find themselves subject to boycotts and threats, actress Sally Bowles who thrives in the decadent society that the Nazis will seek to suppress and then there are the Communists he talks to in cafes. Their talk of revolution and civil war has a feel of adolescent posturing to it, yet the real thing is coming and many find themselves in trouble for the things they’ve said.

The early stages of the book are slow and meandering, but not without charm due to Isherwood’s wry observations and knack of sketching characters well. There is a lack of incident which hurts the book slightly as it stops it from being the book you rush back to, eager to know what happens next. But in the closing stages there is a pervading tension and a few episodes which show just how much the city has changed. The decadent, free spirited Berlin has become claustrophobic, tense and dangerous. Isherwood ends the book preparing to leave the city, and the reader knows that worse is to come.

I’d recommend this book as the writing is wonderful, and the sense of place, character and mood is brilliantly realised. A great read.

Verdict: A well written piece that may lack for drama and incident in places, but impresses due to the characters and tone that Isherwood captures. An interesting snapshot of pre-Nazi Germany. The building tension and sense of dread bubbling beneath the surface is captivating. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Unlike the myths of Greece, I don’t know much about the gods of the vikings. What I do know I mainly got from Marvel’s Thor comics. In his introduction to this book, Neil Gaiman explains that these served as his own introduction too.

Gaiman would go on to delve deeper into the mythology and in this book he tells some of the tales of Asgard and its residents. A couple of the myths were vaguely familiar to me, while others are completely new to me.

What they all share is that they are retold here with plenty of wit, with Gaiman capturing the characters brilliantly and adding humour to proceedings. It’s this that makes the legends come alive, Gaiman’s knack for making the gods flawed and believable. There’s the heroic, if dim and rather arrogant, Thor and Loki, a sly trickster who is often very pleased with himself.

Like many myths there are stories that explain natural phenomena as well as some which just recount the misadventures of the Asgardians. The stories are short but reveal a whole world of gods and monsters, a landscape dominated by giants and magic. They’re magnificently entertaining and you can see their influence on writings which would follow (hello, Tolkien).

Gaiman is a writer I’ve long admired and here his skills breathe fresh life into old, half forgotten tales. I’d love to see him tackle more myths and recommend this as an introduction to the gods of the vikings.

Verdict: A witty and charming read, Gaiman’s clever writing makes the legends fresh and fun. A gem of a book. 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: The Fall of the Governor Part One by Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga

This is a spin off from the comic book series The Walking Dead, and the fourth in a series written which sheds a little light on some supporting characters. Mainly the villainous Governor of Woodbury, who is one of the series’ main antagonists.

In the comics we meet him from the perspective of the heroes, outsiders who arrive at Woodbury and quickly discover the leader to be a sadistic, psychotic individual. The rest of Woodbury’s residents are either thuggish goons or survivors caught up in the ensuing war, their feelings on the Governor never fully explored until he goes too far.

In this book one of the main characters is Lilly, a Woodbury resident who has her own issues with the Governor and how he runs his little kingdom. There are mentions of earlier clashes but she does begin to wonder if maybe they are safer with the Governor, perhaps they need a tough, vicious leader in a tough, vicious world.

As with the comic books and the show, the zombies (known here as walkers or biters) are an ever present threat, lurking beyond defences or hiding in the trees and ruins. But the real threat to the human survivors are each other and their fight for resources.

As I’ve read the comics many of the events here don’t come as a surprise, with all the major beats repeates. But what makes it interesting to see these from a different view. To see the actions of Rick and his allies not as heroic but as the actions of an outside, possibly malevolent, group.

Lilly’s story is interesting as she struggles to deal with the horrors she’s witnessed and starts a tentative romance with another survivor. She’s an everywoman character in many ways, who has learnt to survive and for safety has to join a group she doesn’t fully trust. Yet despite her misgivings she has no real choice, as leaving the relative safety of Woodbury would see her left outside alone, scraping around for food and constantly at risk of zombie attack.

Circumstances then make her situation harder as Woodbury teeters on going to war with Rick’s group.

This is quite a gripping, tense read with some solid character works but I had forgotten just how dark and unpleasant the Governor was as a character and there are some violent sequences which are tough going.

I’m also not sure why this was split in two parts as this is a fairly short book and might have worked better as one longer story.

Verdict: As a spin off that occurs alongside events from the comics there are very few surprises. However, seeing the same events play out from a different angle is quite interesting and I found the character of Lilly relatable and likeable. I’m keen to read more, hopefully as the darkest, most unpleasant parts of the story is done now. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

I’ve read a few of Christie’s Poirot stories before and while diverting enough, wasn’t overly impressed. I found the stories to be inferior versions of Sherlock Holmes and didn’t much like the narraror Hastings. Luckily in this book, Hastings is not the narrator and the book works better for it.

Hercule Poirot, the renowned Belgian detective is headed home to England after assisting in a matter in Syria. Boarding the express he finds himself among a diverse group of characters, from various countries.

He is approached by one passenger, Ratchett who believes someone is out to kill him. Not liking the man, who has an evil look, Poirot refuses the case. However, that night with the train stranded in the snow, Ratchett is murdered.

The killer is still aboard and Poirot is asked to solve the case. First he uncovers that Ratchett has lied about his identity and is in fact a notorious criminal. But who among the passengers would have cause to kill him?

I really dug this book and was through it in a few days. The story and set up is interesting and well done. Poirot chips away at each passenger’s testimony and pieces together the whole far fetched situation in an entertaining matter.

The case is quite ridiculous, but Christie keeps you hooked and injects subtle humour, often at the expense of the rather pompous detective.

The only flaws are it’s dependence on national stereotypes and the fact that most of the case is based on some pretty big guesses on Poirot’s part.

The final reveal and Poirot’s explanation for the crime is brilliant, as is the ending which doesn’t follow the traditional “criminal is arrested” ending.

Great fun.

Verdict: The story runs the risk of tipping into the absurd, but Christie keeps it moving along well and draws out the truth in a cunning and entertaining way. A good read and a great page turner. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Pompeii by Robert Harris

Spoiler alert, the volcano erupts at the end.

Harris has a knack for crafting quick paced clever and gripping thrillers and this is no exception. Marcus Antillus has been sent from Rome to be the chief engineer of the Aqua Augusta, the aquaduct which provides the towns around Bay of Naples and Mount Vesuvius. The area is in drought and the water levels are falling. Antillus also has to deal with angry, jealous underlings and the mystery surrounding the disappearance of his predecessor.

First sulphur poisons the waters and then the supply fails, meaning he must set out to fix the aquaduct. He heads to Pompeii to work down the system to find the blockage or leak. While there he discovers that a former slave Ampilatus who rose to success in the aftermath of an earthquake seventeen years earlier.

He begins to suspect that Ampilatus and his predecessor had some kind of deal, and wonders if this is why he vanished. He sets out to fix the water supply but has to deal with earthquakes and odd phenomenon like ash flows on the side of the mountain.

Are these signs building to something?

Well, obviously they are but Harris does a good job of making the story involving enough. Attilus’ investigation into the disappearance of his predecessor starts to reveal a conspiracy before it takes a surprising turn.

Similarly Ampilatus is a good villain, someone who has dragged himself up through bluff, ingenuity and ruthless ambition. He adores his new place of power, particularly the unease of former masters now dependant on him.

The story unfolds well and the final eruption provides a gripping finale. Harris captures the chaos and horror of the eruption as darkness and death rolls over the town. The panic and tension builds well and the conclusion is executed brilliantly.

Harris also does a good job of including real historical figures like Pliny and also of detailing the different stages of the destruction. There’s also a delicious example of dramatic irony provided by a prophecy, which reads differently to the audience than it does for the characters.

Verdict: Fast paced, involving and building to a tense conclusion, this is a really well crafted thriller that adds a human element to a large historical event. 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Frozen Heat by Richard Castle

Having recently finished and rewatched Castle I was eager to throw myself back into the tie-in novels and this, the fourth instalment, didn’t disappoint.

Nikki Heat investigates when a body is found crammed into a suitcase and stashed in a freezer truck. But the case becomes painfully personal when she recognises the case as having belonged to her mother, stolen the night of her murder.

Digging into the case she discovers more connections to her mother and her death, and soon begins to delve into a murky world of secrets and conspiracy. Learning new things about her mother, Heat must confront the secrets she kept and is left questioning her morality.

Aided by wisecracking journalist Jameson Rook, Heat hunts for justice but must also deal with the walls she has built up emotionally. Are these more hurtful than helpful?

Again, I think that this book provides more for viewers of the show as there are little injokes and references to it (they even work in a Firefly reference). Similarly, the characters are thinly veiled versions of the show’s, meaning long-term fans will have a clearer image of the characters.

However, I believe that even for newcomers to the world would enjoy what is a fun, if formulaic, thriller. This is the kind of airport novel which entertains and grips you enough but won’t change your life.

Verdict: An involving and entertaining thriller which ticks a lot of boxes and is a fun, gripping way to pass the time. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: In the Arms of Family by Chris Philbrook

Part six of Philbrook’s Adrian’s Undead Diary series picks up after the previous instalment’s revelation that one of Adrian’s allies had been under the sway of evil forces. Here we see our hero and his allies dealing with this and also fresh challenges.

There are new, shady types about in town and some of their allies are brought down by a man on the inside. Now those survivors are living with Adran but he knows one is not to be trusted. But which one.

By witholding the identity of this traitor Philbrook ratchets up the tension and leaves the reader unsure and uneasy at the prospect of their next move. Similarly, aside from vague allusions, the new group of enemy survivors are kept hidden. It leaves Adrian worried about what to do next and leaves the reader on the hook.

Elsewhere Philbrook does very well in slowly, steadily building the good vs evil story in the background and bringing the players together. It’s great writing and provides a deeper meaning for the zombies.

As ever Adrian’s diary is at times crude and vulgar, but it works for the character and makes it feel more real. And despite writing from this perspective for much of the book Philbrook is fleshing out some of the supporting cast nicely.

This book doesn’t have as many interludes as before which is a shame as each one so far has served to expand the world Philbrook is building and introduce fresh characters and events. They also provide more tension for the reader than the diary entry format does.

And as with every book so far it left me craving more.

Verdict: Another solid entry in the series which adds more threats and deepens the storyline. Well written and utterly gripping. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Like Love by Ed McBain

I returned to the 87th Precinct once more and was rewarded with an involving read loaded with red herrings and twists.

Steve Carella attempts to talk down a woman on a ledge. He fails and she jumps to her death. Across town a salesman rings a faulty doorbell which triggers a gas explosion. Inside the flat are two dead lovers, lying in bed seemingly after a suicide pact.

Carella and Cotton Hawes investigate, and despite no concrete evidence something seems hinky. With a nagging doubt they look into the case. There are a couple of suspects, a cuckolded husband and a mother who would collect a healthy insurance policy, but nothing sticks. It looks like a suicide, but there’s still something in the back of the cops’ heads, something off about the whole thing.

McBain’s skill here is to layer in a few subplots as well as sprinkling minor clues into the narrative. Things you almost miss but at the end hang together well. There’s also a false trail and a few events which muddy the waters, although one red herring does lead to the epiphany that closes the case.

The writing is tough and fast paced, as is usual for McBain and there’s also the same flashes of humour and small, nuanced character work that fleshes out even the supporting players.

All in all this is a smart, captivating read.

Verdict: A solid entry in the series and an interesting case. McBain’s writing flows wonderfully and he structures the investigation cleverly. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.