December 22, 2012

Vampocalypse Now (Review: The Strain trilogy; Guillermo del Toro/Chuck Hogan

The Strain/The Fall/The Night Eternal
Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan
Harper Collins 2009/2010/2011

The Strain (The Strain Trilogy, #1)The Fall (The Strain Trilogy, #2)The Night Eternal (The Strain Trilogy, #3)

It seems like everywhere I turn these days I'm finding myself knee-deep in post-apocalyptic scenarios. Every book I open assaults me with nuclear war, planetary collisions, universal collapses and of course the inevitable rise of the undead. No sooner do I finish Justin Cronin's excellent The Passage than the final instalment of Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan's The Strain trilogy lands in my lap. At first glance these two tales seem too close for comfort. Everything is normal. Vampires appear. Everything is broken. Plucky group of heroes fight back against the horde. Drama ensues. So, I decided to pit the two against each other and see how they fared.

However, in the course of writing the review I discovered that The Passage is itself merely the first part of a planned trilogy. So Del Toro and Hogan get to lead the day and I'll either return to The Passage individually in the near future or wait till 2014(!) to treat the trilogy collectively and give it a fair chance against The Strain. Either way, it's time for the director of Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth and, erm, Mimic to show what he can do with pen and paper.

The time is present day, the place New York City. A passenger flight has touched down at JFK airport but the ground crew has had no contact with the crew since landing. Enter Dr Ephraim 'Eph' Goodweather, one of the Centre for Disease Control's top field agents, and his assistant/lover Nora Martinez. On entering the plane they find their worst fears confirmed – the passengers and crew are dead, no signs of life. With the plane and bodies quarantined they begin their investigation only for things to take a turn for the worse immediately. A shadow is seen moving across the abandoned craft's wing. Strange deposits of soil are noticed. A heavy casket is mysteriously moved. People are dying. And where did the bodies of the dead passengers go?

Before we know it Eph and Nora are tangled up with Abraham Setrakian, a seemingly crazy old man who is convinced that the events unfolding can mean only one thing – the rise of the strigoi, ancient creatures we know as vampires. The unfortunate passengers were victims of the Master, a rogue vampire seeking nothing less than total dominion over the earth. As soon as the victims were turned they began to seek out the loved ones from their former lives, turning them into yet more slaves for the Master to control. As the infection multiplies the authorities find themselves overwhelmed.
Over the course of the trilogy – The Strain, The Fall and The Night Eternal – Del Toro and Hogan transform the world into something resembling Auschwitz on a massive scale. The Master and his strigoi soon have humanity, eliminating those with leadership qualities and sparing only the subservient. The future world is a chilling allegory for life under Nazi occupation during World War II. Only small pockets of survivors manage to muster any kind of resistance and among them is only Eph, Nora, Setrakian and their allies have any idea what is really happening. To further complicate matters Eph's ex-wife is taken by the Master and turned, now relentlessly seeking to claim Eph and his son Zack for herself at any cost.

Hiding amongst the vampires and the ruined society depicted in The Strain is a simple redemption story. Eph is no perfect hero, his shattered marriage, estranged son and battles with alcoholism all paying testament to this fact. The trilogy is his battle against not only the vampiric adversary but also his own nature. Does he have what it takes to fulfil his destiny and atone for his previous failings? This theme is played out with overtly religious overtones, although never to the point where it becomes irritating.

In fact, religion plays a major role in one of The Strain's most surprising assets – a truly original take on vampire origins and biology. Del Toro and Hogan use the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, by way of angelic bloodlust and heavenly punishment, to detail exactly what mankind is facing. The explanations for vampiric aversion to silver and moving water are somewhat strained but interesting nonetheless. The whole mythology he attaches to the vampire race adds depth to what may have otherwise been only a superficially interesting story.

If The Strain has one failing it is that Del Toro is no author. At times the book lapses into sub-airport fiction levels and the prose is reminiscent of high school writing classes. The characters' actions often left me scratching my head and large plot holes are glossed over. That Chuck Hogan couldn't compensate for this is a puzzle but it doesn’t detract too badly from the story itself.

In any case, this discrepancy is more than made up for by the fact that GDT is an amazing director. His gift for manipulating visual media shines through in the description of every scene. New York's fall and the devastation left behind are portrayed vividly, as are the strigoi themselves. At points it's like reading a movie and I can only hope that The Strain receives the big screen treatment it deserves. In the meantime, if you're a genre fan or simply love Del Toro's cinematic works then The Strain is definitely worth a week or two of your reading time.
To be continued...

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones. The Strain, The Fall and The Night Eternal are available now. Thank you to the lovely Cannonball for tackling all three at once!

December 21, 2012

Ho Ho Ho! Or, THANK YOU UKYABB Secret Santa

Earlier this year, I signed up for the UKYABB Secret Santa and yesterday my gift arrived.  After a week of unexpectedly defrosted and subsequently broken freezer HELL, it couldn't have come at a better time.  On opening a, quite frankly, ginormous cardboard box, I was met with this:

Which on further inspection revealed this gorgeous detail:

I KNOW!  But it got better, because when I opened it I found all of this:

Isn't that just the nicest bundle of things you ever did see?

It torments me that I do not know who my Secret Santa was, so I offer this as thanks to my own personal Christmas bringer of JOY.  If anyone got a more thoughtful, or more beautifully timed gift I will eat my Santa hat.

December 19, 2012

Review: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (Macmillan, 2012)

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
It's very rare that a book comes along which ticks all of your boxes at once. When it does, it's a magical experience. With Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, debut author Robin Sloan reduced me to a grinning school kid within the first ten pages. By the (all-too-short) time I reached the climax, delight had been piled upon delight until I couldn't take any more. If you share any of my love for books, technology, eclectic intellectual pursuits and good old-fashioned quest stories then dive in with me.

Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore takes place in a near-future San Francisco where the global economic meltdown has resulted in spiralling unemployment levels, forcing even the most highly-skilled workers into a search for whatever menial labour will help them scrape by. One such unfortunate is Clay Jannon, a former web guru who finds himself out of work and out of luck during the IT crunch. Walking SF's streets one night, eyes constantly scanning for 'Help Wanted' notices, he comes across a non-descript bookstore in an unusual part of town, knocking walls with a seedy strip joint.

Inquiring inside he meets the titular owner and all-round character, Mr Penumbra. After a bizarrely brief interview, Clay finds himself manning the store for the graveyard shift. It goes without saying that Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is no Waterstone's. Customers are rarer than Bigfoot sightings, and almost as likely as a Sasquatch to actually buy anything. Those who do arrive with a purpose do not hand over cash. They belong to a mysterious club, exchanging one title for another. The titles in question are stored in the dizzying heights of the shop's 30-ft high shelves, out of sight of casual browsers.

Clay's unusual job description requires him to log the mysterious guests' visits – times, behaviour, appearance, books requested – and not to peer inside any of their tomes. However it's not long before his curiosity gets the better of him and he finds himself caught up in the proceedings of a bizarre secret society. With the aid of his friends – an artist working for ILM, a Google techie and a specialist in creating perfect CGI breasts – he's soon racing the cult to their ultimate goal. Somewhere in the shelves lies the secret of immortality, deposited there by Aldus Manutius, one of the real-life originators of the modern publishing system.

What follows is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through not only the streets of San Francisco and New York but also through the publishing arts past and present. Through the ingenuity of Clay's cadre of specialists we dive into the history of the printed word, the intricacies of typesetting and the politics of publishing. The secret society are determined to unravel Manutius's mystery using only the ancient techniques he would have had access to. These arcane arts are loving described by Sloan, careful never to disparage them, although placing them in the hands of a misguided and somewhat Luddite leader.

Set in stark contrast to this, the action is aided by the vast computing resources of San Francisco's most famous export – Google. Clay's girlfriend is involved in their data visualisation department and her thirst for ever-greater problems to solve lights a more technologically advanced path. At times Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore seems in danger of becoming a fan boy paean to the search giant but thankfully maintains a respectful distance while doing a remarkable job of drawing back the curtain and giving the reader a glimpse behind the scenes at Mountain View.

It would be all too easy to compare Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore to several recent conspiracy-themed blockbusters, notably the execrable Dan Brown canon. However Robin Sloan's quest for 'truth' mercifully does not take itself the slightest bit seriously. It's more reminiscent of a literary game, playing with genre tropes and throwing the reader off on mental wild goose chases for the sheer fun of it. Sloan's extensive knowledge of the history, present and future of both traditional and electronic publishing is as informative as it is entertaining – do you know what a hadoop is? You soon will. This never turns into information overload though, the story remaining perfectly balanced between exposition and action so as to keep you glued to every page. In fact the only thing wrong with this book is that it is over all too soon, the action all wrapped up in a movie-style epilogue barely after I had opened it.

Mr Sloan? Much more of the same please...

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones. Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Book Store - A Novel is available now.

December 11, 2012

This is IT.

Mira Ink's blogINK contest finishes at midnight today.  Which is, in all honesty, just as well as I've developed a twitch and dangerous stats addiction over the last week.  I have had phenomenal support and help and love and fuzzies from all corners of the internets but NOW IS NOT THE TIME TO BACK DOWN.  So I'm stepping it up a notch.  Brace yourselves:


By way of thanks, nip over here to watch, like and comment.  Competition is steep and #TeamSplendibird needs you.

You can also see the vlog and find out more about me and why I'm doing this in these posts (and many more) around the web:

Jeri Smith Ready
Tales of a Kitchen Witch
Bitches, Books and Baking
Serendipity Reviews

Not to mention all over Tumblr ( and Twitter (@splendibird)

And you can read what I have to say about Dash and Lily's Book of Dares - just one of Mira INK's brilliant titles - here.  This also features Zooey Deschanel, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and my best friend.  Really.

So please - in these final hours - take a deep breath and keep doing what you've been doing.  YOU ROCK.

Christmas Time is Here, By Golly (Review: Dash and Lily's Book of Dares; R. Cohn, D. Levithan)

Dash and Lily's Book of Dares
Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
Mira INK 2012

Trust me, that song is the ONLY WAY to start this review.  Are you grinning like a loon?  Excellent, you may proceed.

It’s Christmas time in the city and Dash really doesn’t want to hear any silver bells (see what I did there, hmmmm?).  Stalking the shelves of The Strand after temporarily orphaning himself for the holidays, he’d be quite happy for the, as he sees it, contrived comfort and joy to jump out into the cold.  While moping about near the JD Salinger books, he comes across a red, moleskin notebook.  Intrigued, he opens it to find a challenge, and another one… a series, in fact, of strange clues, set by an unknown girl for him to follow, complete and return.  Does he dare, Lily asks?  Why, yes he does.  The notebook starts to pass between the two as they send each other on a scavenger hunt through Yuletide New York with Dash slowly embracing the idea that the girl at the other end of these messages might just be the perfect girl for him…if they ever manage to actually meet.

Dash is the ultimate festive misanthrope.  In fact, he’s probably pretty misanthropic for the rest of the year as well, but his whole demeanour is so knowingly contrived that he is incredibly likable.  As he snarls his way around NYC with his passion for words and inclination to think deeply, he emerges as a deep-thinking, not uncaring, intelligent figure.  While he clearly enjoys his own company, in fact makes a point of enjoying his own company, his willingness to follow the breadcrumbs that Lily has left behind speaks of that specific loneliness that can hit at Christmas.  He’s a great character, reminiscent of many John Green protagonists, but ultimately belonging entirely to David Levithan’s, whose fingerprints are all over this particular “wannabe hipster”.

Lily, conversely, LOVES Christmas.  It is for her, without irony, The Most Beautiful Time of the Year.  Except that this year she finds herself alone, abandoned by her beloved parents and Grandparents to the distracted care of her brother who, while delightful (and I mean DELIGHTFUL) is wrapped up with his new boyfriend.  Its’ these two lovebirds that set Lily off with her red notebook, convincing her that it will lead to someone truly special.  And why shouldn’t it, it is Christmas after all and magical things always happen at Christmas.  Lily is very, very sweet.  Youngest of a sprawling extended family, there’s a touch of the baby about her and she has a tendancy to over-react in dramatic and hilarious ways.  There’s a longing portrayed in Lily that will remind every reader of those childhood Christmas’s where magic really DID exist.  The polar opposite of Dash, Lily is all impulse and hope and enthusiasm and it’s hard not to get caught up in her exuberant planning.  Also, she has majorette boots.  With tassles.  That she accessorises with tinsel.  What’s not to love.

Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares has to be one of the best books I’ve read this year.  It’s incredibly romantic without being sickening, thoughtful without being existential, funny without trying too hard and ENTIRELY, ENTIRELY ADORABLE.  While one expects the story to end a certain way, the author’s frequently second guess the reader making the story compellingly meandering.  The writing is fantastic, especially for those amoung us who love language (er, that’s all of you, right?) and the dialogue clever.  Ahead of almost everything else though, Dash and Lily take readers to the kind of New York not seen since Home Alone 2 (and I mean that in a GOOD way).  Bell ringers, carollers, Macy’s and Nutcracker Houses practically scream Christmas but handled in the deft hands of Levithan and Cohn become a love song to a fascinating city. Gar, I can’t be clever about this.  Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares is quite, quite brilliant.  I love it.  IT’S LIKE CHRISTMAS IN YOUR HANDS.  So, yes, read it.  Apart from anything else, it inspired by BFF, whom I recently introduced to it state this:

And d’you know what, I’m OK with that.  Read it and we can be best friends too.

This review was brought to you by SplendibirdIf you liked it, then please go and take a look at her vlog, part of a campaign to become the in house blogger for Mira INK - something that will enable her to share books like this one with ALL THE UNIVERSE.  Or, at the very least, a good percentage of it.  Thank you!

December 09, 2012

The Art of Matchmaking

Ah, matchmaking - beloved by many from Mrs Bennett to Blair Waldorf it can be a rocky road for the Matcher, leading down the mountain of friendship into the ravine of resentment.  Or at least the swamp of sheepishness.  And that’s just when you’re matching PEOPLE.  Here, we are here to talk of a Match of greater gravitas, further reaching repercussions and deep, deep sadness.  Yes, we’re going to the art of the Book Match. A Match that, when it goes right leads to a life time of joy, but should it go wrong, could lead (whisper it) to a life lived bereft of books.

Making a perfect Book Match might seem like an easy task – and sometimes it is. Sometimes, it is so utterly clear what your Matchee needs in terms of a story that it seems entirely plausible that, if left long enough, the tome will trip of the shelf and launch itself into the arms of its future beloved (BTW, this perhaps WON’T happen so it’s always best to place said volume in said hands oneself).  However, just as with love you will find sometimes that the Matchee hasn’t found happiness with a book before or – EVEN WORSE – has attempted a relationship and been badly, badly burned.  May we all just take a minutes silence for those poor, lost souls.

So, how do we as avid Book Pushers… I mean, er, Match Makers, find the perfect books?  Well, it’s all about asking the right questions.  Find out what book burnt them, find out what they like to watch on TV or what film they liked last.  In fact, ask friend of mine, who rarely reads, saw and loved The Hunger Games.  I hopefully passed on the last two books of the trilogy which he amazed himself by racing through in record time even by my speedy-reader standards.  And because he liked The Hunger Games, I shall be passing on Divergent (Veronica Roth). From Divergent you could then move to, say, The Enemy by Charlie Higson – a little different, but also familiar enough to not scare of the wary reader and then perhaps from that to The Passage by Justin Cronin. Matching books can sometimes be like this – a sort of literary six degrees of separation where one title leads effortlessly to another but you have to just find out what someone is into and bombard them with ALL THE BOOKS you can think of on that subject.  Here are some suggestions:

Interest: Travel
No traveler could possibly deny the lure of the ROAD TRIP!  Road trip books are awesome.  And they are also plentiful so for your book-shy adventurer try any of these.

On the RoadSaving JunePaper TownsAmy and Roger's Epic Detour

Interest: Dungeons and Dragons (or, y'know, just Aragon because he's hot in LOTR)

Finnikin of the Rock (Lumatere Chronicles #1)Daughter of Smoke and Bone (Daughter of Smoke and Bone #1)ChimeSeraphina (Seraphina, #1)

Interest: Buffy (because everyone, deep down, loves Buffy)

The Immortal Rules (Blood of Eden, #1)City of Bones (The Mortal Instruments, #1)The Name of the Star (Shades of London, #1)Carnival of Souls

Interest: Colin Firth (in wet shirt, in Pride and Prejudice)

JaneAnna and the French KissThe Jane Austen Book ClubRebecca

Basically any book that you could cast CF in in your head - tell me a younger incarnation wouldn't make an excellent St. Clair, oui? This tactic works equally well for Richard Armitage, as I explain here.

Interest: Any reality tv/true story movie/gritty documentary

Dead FamousJenna & Jonah's FauxmanceThe Fault in Our StarsHow I Live Now

Interest: Horror films

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie WarI Hunt KillersHenry Franks: A NovelHouse of Leaves

House of Leaves should be gifted with a health warning - it broke the brain of poor Cannonball Jones

Interest: Manly manliness 
There’s been much talk of books for boys recently on the interwebs and how they do/don’t exist. Personally, I think that most books are for people regardless of what they have in their pants but if I were to choose specifically for a reluctant boy/bloke then I’d go for:

The Deathday LetterThere is No DogThe Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking, #1)Only Forward

Interest: Girly Girlyness  
Equally, if you have a particularly girly girl in your life then these may be the way forward:

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (Fairyland, #1)Bridget Jones's Diary (Bridget Jones, #1)Ballet ShoesLola and the Boy Next Door

I could go on with the interests and with the books but you get the jist. Once you start Book Matching it can become addictive because when you get it right, you get it RIGHT. So, people, off you go – get going! It’s Christmas and Christmas (as well as birthdays, public holidays, private holidays, most Saturdays and alternate and non-alternate days of the week) is an excellent time to try your hand at finding that special someone and their suspicion of books the perfect story. Do it for them, do it for you, do it for me, DO IT FOR LITERATURE! Below, you’ll see a vlog that will hopefully pave the way for me personally to Match on an even wider scale (from my BOOK FORT) but regardless, build your own bridges with the books that you love – changing the world one new reader at a time.

December 05, 2012

In Which I Give Away RAINBOWS.

This is for ERIN

She receives this beauteous gift (which is, in no way, a generic image that I found on the internet) because she shared THIS:

Would you like a rainbow, or sunshine, or lollipops, or unicorns, or fluffy kittens?  Or all of the above?

If so then ask yourself THIS:

December 03, 2012


As many of you may know Splendibird - that would be me (there is no way I can write this entire post talking about myself in the third person, but we are legion here at The Mountains of Instead so best differentiate) - (and by legion, I mean four) has reached the second round of Mira Ink's blogINK competition.

For those unaware, the prize of said contest is a year's contract as Mira Ink's in-house blogger.  Nice, right? Anyway, while round one consisted of writing 500 words, round two was a whole different kettle of fish, involving vlogging.  Despite my complete lack of vlog-smarts, I've given it my all.  In 60 seconds, I had to state my case regarding me as the voice of Mira.  I decided to focus on my unrepentant and often antisocial habit of book-pushing, although I've tarted it up to make it sound worthy.  And it is a BIT worthy, because sometimes my recommendations literally blow minds:

Exhibit 1
Or sometimes they just stop you lying sadly, staring at the ceiling:
Exhibit 2
Anyway... all is not over!  No, I now have to ensure that my vlog gets as many share, comments, re-blogs, re-tweets and likes as is humanly possible.  I need it to appear everywhere.  IN. THE. KNOWN. UNIVERSE.  Or somesuch.

SO HERE IT IS (seriously, it's only a minute long and at the end there is a BOOK FORT.  A book fort IN MY HOUSE)

Please, join Team Splendibird by liking, commenting, re-tweeting, re-blogging, Facebooking and anything-else-you-can-think-of-ing. I cannot promise riches or even chocolate, but I will think fond, fond thoughts.