Welcome to Nightvale: A Novel

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A copy of this turned up in our new books delivery at the library, and I turned into one of those seagulls from Finding Nemo in about two seconds flat.

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I’ve been a fan of Welcome to Night Vale since its early days.  For the uninitiated, Night Vale first appeared as an online podcast, each episode following Cecil Palmer, local radio host, and his descriptions of the events in the spooky desert town of Night Vale – where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and every night strange lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep.

After following five years’ worth of episodes about Night Vale, when the creators announced a book, I was actually pretty sceptical.  Welcome to Night Vale has a very specific tone, its language carefully crafted to give just enough detail to keep you intrigued, and yet remain vague enough to be deeply unsettling.  A lot of this is carried across by Cecil Palmer’s low, melodious voice – zipping quickly from a dread-inspiring near-monotone for the spooky moments to upbeat chipperness for Night Vale’s weird sense of humour.  (Kudos to the actor, Cecil Baldwin, for that.  Yes, they are both called Cecil.  That’s only the start of the oddness of Night Vale.)

WELCOME TO NIGHT VALE by Vasheren

(Artwork by Vasheren on DeviantArt.)

No way, I thought, can they pull that off in a book.

Man, I was wrong.  The Welcome to Night Vale book pulls off the exact tone of the Night Vale podcasts, expanding massively on the world of Night Vale and giving us a chance to see from the perspective of people that, until now, really only existed as secondary characters in Cecil’s stories (and man, Cecil can be a really unreliable narrator).  Plenty of favourites show up in the series, from Old Woman Josie to The Man In the Tan Jacket to Carlos the Scientist, without feeling like they’re awkwardly crammed in place for fanservice.

I was stunned at how fast the plot seemed to go in Welcome to Night Vale: a Novel, ripping me through one chapter after another and keeping me questioning the whole time.  This is especially impressive since the plot of Welcome to Night Vale: the Podcast is often … well, glacial.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s fascinating, but in comparison the novel felt like a mile-a-minute thriller.

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If I could find one flaw in the Welcome to Night Vale novel, it’s this: it’s not meant for new fans.  It’s packaged and advertised and presented as a way to get into the series for the first time, but I really, strongly recommend you don’t start with this book.

When Carlos appeared, a massive grin hit my face.  But to someone unfamiliar with the series, Carlos is a nonentity.  There are references to the forbidden dog park; the old woman who secretly lives in your home; the vast dark planet of thick black forests and jagged mountains and deep, turbulent oceans – which seem utterly random and pointless without the context of the podcast.

My advice?  Listen to the podcast first.  It can take a few episodes to get the hang of its bizarre tone and content, but it’s worth it.  The whole series is on Youtube for free, so you don’t need to spend a penny giving it a try, and it’s great background noise for doing the washing up / ironing / cleaning out the hamsters.  When you’re caught up – or at least coming to the end of the 2015 season, which is when the book was released – then read the book.  You’ll get so much more out of it.

But if you are a fan of Welcome to Night Vale and you haven’t touched this book yet … for the love of the Glow Cloud, get yourself a copy.  You won’t regret it.

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Where to start with Discworld

Let me tell you something: I freaking love Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.  I love the wacky universe that somehow manages to make sense (a disc balanced on four elephants riding a turtle through space – really?), I love the characters that start out like clichés but grow into so much more, I love Pratchett’s philosophy about human kindness and belief and the wonders of imagination, and I love the fact that all of this is packed into dozens of books that make me giggle from one cover to the other.

But when I recommend Discworld to people, they tend to view them the same way people view comics.  By which I mean, they look at the sheer number of them and panic.  How the hell am I meant to read all those?  Where do I even START?

The nice thing about the Discworld books is that, technically, you can start them anywhere.  The books run chronologically, and certain groups of characters pop up repeatedly (there are the Guards Books and the Death Books and the Witches Books …), but it doesn’t matter which book you actually start on, because they all explain themselves fully.  I started on Hogfather, the 22nd book in the Discworld series and the fourth in the Death Books series.

This, however, tends to terrify people even more, because now they really, really don’t know where to start.  So here’s my informal, quick guide on some of the best books to start with, and why.

1) If you like reading chronologically, or you like wizards, magic and Conan the Barbarian: The Colour of Magic

The Colour of Magic

The first book in the Discworld series overall, this story is about Rincewind the cowardly wizard exploring the entire world of the disc.  This is also the beginning of the Rincewind books, so if you’re particularly fond if him, you can skim on through his stories:

2) If you like murder mysteries, cop shows and urban drama: Guards!  Guards!

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These books follow the police force in the Discworld city of Ankh-Morpork (a dirtier, smellier and more magical Victorian London).  I’m always amazed at how magical crimes featuring dragons and golems can be solved using real common sense and detective work.  A lot of my favourite characters come from this series, from werewolves to dwarves to human men who are just damn fed up with all this magical nonsense.

More books in this series include:

3) If you like Shakespeare, fairy tales and witchcraft: Wyrd Sisters

Wyrd Sisters

This series is about a coven of witches in the Lancre countryside, solving everything from their neighbour’s backache to an army of supernatural monsters on midsummer’s day.  Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg’s stories revolve around parodies of various magical stories, from Midsummer Night’s Dream to Dracula to Phantom of the Opera, but usually end up using practicality and common sense over hand-waving everything away with magic.

Technically, Granny Weatherwax first appears in Equal Rites, but I’d actually advise starting with her next book (when Nanny Ogg also appears) and then going back:

 

4) If you like sympathetic monsters, philosophy and spookiness: Mort

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Mort is the first in the series of books about Death – Terry Pratchett’s Grim Reaper is actually a pretty friendly fellow, and thus has several books about him and his family.  These usually involve either Death going on holiday, and someone else having to take up his (not particularly pleasant) job, or Death’s family having to battle the Auditors – nasty creatures that want to wipe out humanity for the crime of being just too darn complicated.

These are the books I started on, and Death will forever be one of my favourite characters.

 


 

So that’s it!  To me, those are the best places you could start with Terry Pratchett, if you’re not sure where to go.  (If anybody’s crying ‘but Tiffany Aching!’ I’m so sorry, I haven’t read them yet!  I know, I know, shame on me.)

Is anyone else a Terry Pratchett fan?  Where did you start, and where do you recommend people begin?

Howl’s Moving Castle

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Read if you like: fairy tale retellings, fantasy, humour, Discworld

Today, I’m ticking off ‘A book that became a film’ in my reading challenge.

Howl’s Moving Castle is probably better known (at least among nerd circles) by the anime film adaptation made by Studio Ghibli in 2004.  I’ve watched it a couple of times (it’s ever so pretty), and I dithered about reading the book because I wasn’t sure if I’d like it.

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(The film by Studio Ghibli)

I really, seriously wish I hadn’t waited so long, because the book was even better than the film.  Plot points that make no sense in the movie are explained perfectly in the context of the novel.  (SPOILERS: the whole scarecrow twist at the end is actually foreshadowed in the book, rather than popping up out of nowhere.)

For the unfamiliar, the plot goeth thusly: when young Sophie Hatter is transformed into an old woman by the wicked Witch of the Waste, she leaves home to seek her fortune.  Instead, she winds up working as a cleaning lady for the wizard Howl, a spoilt, attention-seeking brat of a man who somehow slithers out of everything.  And oh my god, I loved every page of it.

This book is perfect for fairy tale fans, chock-full of witches, wizards, and cursed demons.  On top of that, it’s genuinely hilarious – when Howl caught a cold, I was bent over the book cackling.  The characters come within inches of breaking the fourth wall, constantly referring to fairy tale tropes (and promptly smashing them to pieces).

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(The moving castle from the film)

Howl’s Moving Castle the book is very different to the film.  Howl is less heroic (I actually preferred him as a total coward, because he was so darn funny), Calcifer is scarier, and the story is more focused on fighting the Witch of the Waste.  Because of this, I’d actually recommend it more to fans of the film.  It doesn’t feel like rehashing the same story, but like revisiting the world from a different angle.  After hitting several weeks of reading slump, Howl’s Moving Castle was a gift – I could hardly bear to stop reading, and I’ll definitely look out for the sequels.

‘A Court of Mist and Fury’ Blew Me Away

I suppose you could call this a review or a recommend, but really it’s going to be a mad, over-excitable rant, because I just finished A Court of Mist and Fury and now I’m a gibbering wreck.

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Quick warning: there will be  SPOILERS here, and some discussion of adult topics. Beware!

I liked Sarah J. Maas’s first book in this series, A Court of Thorns and Roses,but I wasn’t 100% sold. Feyre wasn’t the best protagnist, and honestly I found the love interest, Tamlin, pretty boring. The romance came across as lacklustre, especially since the pair of them kept unnecessarily hiding secrets from one another. Cue dramatic misunderstandings and eyerolls all around.

But in the sequel? Feyre straight up ditches him.

Yep. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in a teen/YA book before. Their relationship becomes unhealthy, and she leaves (of course it’s all much more magical and dramatic than that, but still). Dear Sarah J. Maas: thank you for being the first writer I’ve known to admit first loves aren’t necessarily the best ones. You smashed apart the first love cliche, and I adore you for it.

On a darker note, it’s revealed in this book that Rhysand, the new hero replacing Tamlin, was raped by the previous book’s villain. I’ve read so few books that admit a man even can be raped, much less raped by a woman. And all in a fantasy book. It’s handled brilliantly, too, neither tip-toeing around the subject nor slamming it your face for shock value. I was stunned at how well this was done.

On top of the romance arc being ditched and replaced with a much slower and ultimately much more believable one, Feyre as a character grows massively over the course of this book. We see her suffer and slowly claw her way out of depression, becoming much stronger and more fleshed out. By the end of A Court of Mist and Fury, I loved (the previously lukewarm) Feyre. And more than that, I loved the host of new supporting characters. Those are tough to get right, so hats off to you, Sarah.

And finally, the plot. Holy wow, I am not exaggerating when I say the plot of A Court of Mist and Fury blows A Court of Thorns and Roses out of the water. It never feels contrived, or like it’s trying too hard to one-up its predecessor, but it rocks along at just the right pace, balancing action with character development perfectly. More than once, I looked up from this book to realise an hour had passed without my notice.

All in all, even if you just sort of liked A Court of Thorns and Roses, please read the sequel.  It’s so much better and definitely worth giving Sarah J. Maas that second chance.  It’s killing me that I have to wait seven months for the third book in the series, and we readers have to suffer together.

Books I Expected to Be Rubbish, But Were Actually Incredible

Okay, let’s have some positivity to counter that grumpy post I made before.  Time to talk about some books I expected to be awful, but which surprised me when they turned out to be flipping amazing.

Onward, to glory!


1: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Expectations: Great, a book about racism.

Reality: I was dragging my heels when it came to To Kill a Mockingbird.  The little I’d heard about it sounded preachy and miserable, and the only reason I picked it up at all was because Go Set a Watchman was expected to come out soon.  With a grumpy sigh, I rolled my eyes and started page one.  And didn’t stop.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a beautiful, multifaceted story about a young girl growing up in Southern America, and learning how to face inequalities of all kinds.  Yes, racism is a part of it, but the story doesn’t thump you over the head with its message.  It’s a sweet story about lovable characters, written so perfectly you can hear Scout’s accent in every line of the text.


2: Dracula by Bram Stoker

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Expectations: Oh my god this book is so slow.

Reality: When I first tried to read Dracula, I was bored.  I knew next to nothing about the actual story, and gave up before I even finished reading Jonathan’s journal.  Yep, the very first section of the book.  Facepalm.

But when I picked it up a few years later, I was horrified at my younger self’s lack of taste.  All right, it’s not an action-packed Buffy the Vampire Slayer kind of story (at least, not in the first half), but it’s a tense, eerie gothic story that kept me engaged all the way through.  Definitely worth finishing!


3: World War Z by Max Brooks

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Expectations: Oh goodie, another dumb zombie flick.

Reality: I know I bang on about this one a lot but seriously guys.  Guys, seriously.  Please read World War Z.  Every zombie story I encountered before this books (including the flipping movie for this books) followed a formula I found boring the first time.  But this?  This is something else.

A zombie story written like a history book, Max Brooks completely broke my brain reading this.  For the first time, zombies were scary.  The fall of humanity was portrayed in such a way as to be completely believable, with everything from military involvement to political scuffles taken into consideration.  It’s creepy, gory, and intelligent as hell.  10/10 Max Brooks, massive props to you for making me like zombies.


4: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

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Expectations: Ugh, this is going to be hard going.

Reality: I never used to read science fiction.  I found it strangely hard to visualise, considering I come from a background of reading 99% fantasy.  And when Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? showed up on my reading list for uni, I may have panicked a little.  Expecting to struggle all the way through, I decided to read it first, and get it out of the way.

And I loved it.  Philip K. Dick messes with your mind in the best possible way, using a story about near-apocalyptic Earth, extinct animals and psychopathic androids to make you question what it even means to be human.  Could you pass a voigt-kamf test?  Man, I after I finished this book, I didn’t even know anymore.


5: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

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Expectations: Wuthering Heights, here we go again.

Reality: After reading Emily Brontë’s master work, I went into Jane Eyre highly sceptical.  Sure, this wasn’t the same sister, but come on.  They were bound to be as miserable and awful as each other, right?

Wrong.  Unlike Wuthering HeightsJane Eyre is a genuinely beautiful gothic love story.  Jane is a wonderful character (perhaps even a little too perfect), and you desperately want her to succeed and have a happy ending.  On top of that, the writing itself is beautiful–but very comfortable to read.


6: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

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Expectations: I never like anything popular, so it’s bound to be rubbish.

Reality: Oh my god, childhood me. You were wrong. So very, painfully wrong. In fairness, popular authors of the time included Jacquline Wilson and Michael Morpurgo, both of whom failed to enegage me. Even if Harry  Potter was fantasy, its sheer popularity made me suspicious. I never liked popular stuff.

But of course, Harry Potter was actually incredible. I love those books, and they’ve stuck with me into adulthood. They’re a comfort and an inspiration, and I utterly adore them. I suppose I’m with the popular crowd after all.

 


 

So there we go, some positivity from me!  Have you ever picked up a book you expected to be awful that surprised you with their brilliance?  Are you shocked and appalled by my terrible taste?  Let me know!

Spooktacular Books for Halloween

It’s officially October, and you know what that means?  Take it away, Mr Skeltal!


Doot doot!

I love Halloween, which is shame, because the celebrations in England are pretty lacklustre.  When trick-or-treating is seen more as a nuisance than a tradition, you have to find more peaceful ways to enjoy the spookiest day of the year.  And what could possibly be better than curling up with a creeptacular book?

So here are my favourite spooky books to read.  And instead of stars to tell you how good the book is, I’m going to use skulls to say how scary the book is.  Because, as a coward myself, I appreciate that some people actually want to sleep at night.

 

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Scare Level: classic gothic

This classic Victorian tale is perfect for a dark, stormy night.  Told in epistolary form (that means using diaries, newspaper clippings and other “this totes happened for real, you guys!” methods), this gothic vampire story has oodles of tension and atmosphere, and is perfect for people who prefer that creeping, eerie sensation that something is amiss, to out-and-out gore.

Since Count Dracula is so well-known in popular culture, it’s hard to find this book really scary.  But the atmosphere is wonderfully spooky and unnerving, and there’s a good amount of blood and death for a scary story.  Dracula is one of my favourites and I return to read at least one or two chapters every Halloween.

 

Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett

Scare Level: perfect for wusses

From classic vampires to parody vampires.  Like most of the Discworld books, there’s no need to read any of the previous installments to enjoy this book.  And, like most Discworld books, Carpe Jugulum is utterly hilarious, and I love it.  New vampires are moving into the quiet country of Lancre.  Modern vampires.  With style.  The trouble is, if they want Lancre … they’ll have to fight the witches for it.

Featuring both witches and vampires, this one’s a double whammy for Halloween spooks galore.  However, since Terry Pratchett (GNU) is a master of comedy, nothing in Carpe Jugulum is too grim or horrifying.  This book is 110% recommended for anyone who wants to read something spooky, but still wants to sleep at night.

 

World War Z by Max Brooks

Scare Level: gory, will mess with your mind

The outbreak started in China–we think.  This book collects a series of interviews with a variety of people, from military personnel to average Joes on the street, to tell the story of how the zombie outbreak spread across the world, grew out of control, and how it was finally defeated.

Seeing as I just recently recommended World War Z, no one should be surprised it makes this list.  The way this book is set out makes for fascinating reading, as it outlines the politics, military strategies, and human reactions to a hypothetical zombie outbreak.  Max Brooks gets full points for a) making me enjoy a zombie story, and b) making walking zombies scary again.

On a side note: if you saw the film and thought “Meh …”, as I did, please follow the old adage.  Never judge a book by its movie!

 

Tales of Terror Series by Chris Priestley

Scare Level: I noped out more than once (but had to come back for more)

“But Amelia, these are children’s books!  They can’t be two-skulls scary, come on!”

Oh, you sweet summer child.

I picked up Tales of Terror from the Tunnel’s Mouth last Halloween, because I had nothing to read and I thought short children’s stories would be good to read in short spurts between doing other stuff.  And then, I couldn’t put the damn thing down.  Mostly by my fingers were frozen, clutched around the pages in horror.

The short stories in Priestley’s books all link around one central theme.  In From the Tunnel’s Mouth, a boy meets an eerie woman on a train, who tells him a series of creepy stories as she tries to make him go to sleep.  The scare-factor varies from one story to another–some being as tame as you’d expect from children’s fiction, some being worse than anything I’ve read in adult’s–but it’s well worth reading the whole book, just to see how they link together.  I can’t wait to get my hands on another book in this series!

 

The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

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Scare Level: even ghosts are scared of it

The power of Christ compels you!

This horror story about a little girl possessed by a demonic force was immortalised in the 1973 movie, and … okay, I’ll admit it.  I haven’t actually read this one.  I haven’t even seen the movie, because of that aforementioned thing about me being a total flipping wimp.

However, it is on my to-read list, and has been for years–since my boyfriend read it, and told me it kept him up at night.  Nothing keeps him up at night.  He is sleeping champion of the world.  The creepy snippets he gave me just aren’t enough; my curiosity is killing me, and I’ve got to read it.  So it’s going on my list, because I want some of you to suffer along with me.

 

The True Facts in the Case of M. Valdemaar by Edgar Allen Poe

Scare Level: quoth the raven: “AAHHHHH!”

Don’t have time to read an entire book this month?  No worries!  (And with 125,000 words of editing to do, I feel your pain.)  This short story by horror master Edgar Allen Poe is easily read in one sitting, and will get your spine tingling.

Rumours of the death of M. Valdemaar have spread, wild and mostly incorrect, and now it is time to reveal the truth, and put these lies to rest.  Our protagonist, fascinated with the art of mesmerism, asks his poorly friend if he may attempt to hypnotise him before he dies.  His friend agrees…

Since this is a short story, I don’t want to give too much away.  But holy wow, I was fine all the way through the story, until I hit the last two pages.  I finished it, put the book down, and scuttled backwards out the room hissing, “Nope, nope, nope nope!”  Hopefully it’ll spook you too!

 

Five Nights at Freddy’s: The Silver Eyes by Scott Cawthorn and Kira Breed-Wrisley

Scare Level: Chuck-E-Cheese is ruined forever

“Amelia.  What.

I know, I know, a video game tie-in novel?  Well, yep.  For anyone not familiar with Five Nights at Freddy’s, don’t worry.  You absolutely do not have to play the games to enjoy this book (although if you have played the games, the book is excellent).

Ten years ago, Charlie practically lived in Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria, entranced by the singing, dancing animatronic animals created by her father.  Then five-year-old Michael was murdered.  His body never found, Freddy Fazbear’s closed down in disgrace, and Charlie spent years living away, trying to forget.

But on the anniversary of Michael’s disappearance, she returns to hometown, drawn back to the crumbling pizzeria that was once her entire world.  But the building is haunted by its history, and the animatronics that Charlie once loved have changed …

As a game tie-in novel, I didn’t go in expecting high art.  But, as I whimpered through scenes of creepy, dead-eyed robot animals, this book certainly earned the description spooktacular.

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So that’s it for my list of spooky books.  What about you guys?  Have you read any of these?  What spooky books are on your list to get you in the mood for Halloween?  Please talk books with me, I’m very lonely in this big … creaky … empty house … eek!

I Belong to the Earth

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Read if you like: Wuthering Heights, The Living and the Dead, gothic YA

The first book in J.A. Ironside’s Unveiled series is a fantastically spooky take on Emily Brontë’s classic, Wuthering Heights. Emlynn was always able to sense the dead, but after the car crash that killed her mother, her ‘gift’ is stronger–and worse–than ever.  When her family moves to a small vicarage in Yorkshire, they are swept into haunting that’s killed occupents for generations.  Emlynn must find away to stop these ghosts, before she loses the rest of her family.

This book is an absolute must-read if you like Wuthering Heights.  Or just ghost stories in general (when you’ve read it, you’ll know why I shudder every time I think about The Window Scene).  The story of the haunting mirrors a tense family drama, creating a story that had me groaning in frustration after each chapter because damn it, now I have to read the next one.  I’m looking forward to seeing what J.A. Ironside writes in the future!

I Belong the the Earth is being re-released on 20th September, and will be available for pre-order on Kindle this week.

Red flags:
(This book may not be for you if you avoid the following)

  • Never sleep again: I read this book in the mornings.  Never before bed.  Although the majority of it isn’t too spooky, that aforementioned Window Scene is spectacularly scary, and would definitely had stopped me going to sleep if I’d read it at night!
  • It’s Me, It’s Cathy: if you completely loathe Wuthering Heights, this book may be a bit of a struggle.  No worries if you haven’t read it–in face, I’d argue I Belong to the Earth is better if you haven’t, as the story will be more mysterious!