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.
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.)
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.
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.
My good friend (and, technically, employer) M.E. Vaughan is holding a book launch for the sequel to Sons of Thestian, which I recommended here. That recommendation was based on the old edition of Sons of Thestian – it’s since had a beautiful revamp with a new cover, better quality materials and editing by yours truly! And the sequel, Blood of the Delphi, is equally pretty and also edited by me.
I’m planning to attend, because these are awesome books deserving of loving and attention (yes, I know I’m biased but I’m also right), and also because I haven’t got to hold a physical copy of the new editions yet and I need to touch them.
So if you live in the Hampshire area or nearby and you fancy coming to a fun book launch and watching me stroke the covers of sparkly new books like a crazy person, please come along!
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
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
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
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
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 Heights, Jane 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
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!