Archive for the ‘Book reviews’ Category

The Long Goodbye

Posted: July 7, 2020 in Book reviews
Tags:

417bgOVMF3L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_By Raymond Chandler

After a chance meeting detective Philip Marlowe becomes friends with Terry Lennox, a drunk married to a wealthy socialite. Months later Terry comes to Marlow for help in getting out of the country, and it transpires that Terry’s wife has been murdered and the police suspect him. When Terry commits suicide in Mexico it seems an open and shut case, but despite his best efforts not to get involved, Marlowe finds himself drawn into a world of drunks and adulterers in LA’s exclusive Idle Valley. With everyone out for Marlowe’s blood, and everyone more than happy to let sleeping dogs lie, can Marlowe discover the truth behind the murder of Lennox’s wife?

I knew who Raymond Chandler was of course, writer of pulp detective novels, creator of Philip Marlowe, a character played by actors such as Bogart, Gould, Mitchum…yet I’d never read a Chandler novel before.

Suffice to say that almost immediately upon finishing The Long Goodbye, I ordered another of Chandler’s Marlowe novels online which probably tells you all you need to know.

Its odd because the novel isn’t a great mystery, the limited pool of characters means I’d worked a lot out, but it isn’t just about twists and turns, it’s about the characters Chandler creates, from Lennox, at once a lowlife drunk, yet a man with a curious sense of honour, to Candy, the Chilean servant of novelist Roger Wade. In other hands a Latino character in 1950s’ America could have been incredibly cliched, yet Chandler writes him with nuance. The aforementioned Wade is an obvious Chandler stand in, the writer of popular fiction who wants to be appreciated for his art, and another character with a drinking problem. Female characters like Roger’s wife, Eileen and Linda, the sister of Lennox’s murdered wife, are also treated as more than just femme fatales.

And then there’s Marlowe, on the face of it a tough, hard drinking PI, yet he’s incredibly thoughtful, and likes nothing more than replaying famous chess puzzles alone. And I love the fact that while Marlowe thinks there’s something fishy about Lennox’s suicide, he isn’t that invested in investigating until circumstances keep pushing him towards it.

Beyond all of this is Chandler’s prose however, which is just wonderful. Yes, it’s a trifle purple at times, but it’s wonderful, languid and heavy with atmosphere, and yes at times I did have Bogart’s voice in my head as I read. Chandler’s use of language is addictive, aso much so that even when nothing was really happening I just wanted to keep reading. It’s a long novel, yet in many ways not long enough. On the plus side, at least I have more Marlowe novels to read!

IMG_20200619_125120By James Herbert

The unthinkable has happened. World War Three has broken out and nuclear missiles have exploded over London. Millions are killed, and pilot Steve Culver might have been one of them, except he fortuitously crosses paths with man from the ministry Alex Dealey, who’s on his way to a government shelter and, along with fellow survivor Kate, they battle through the underground to some semblance of safety, but for the survivors there’s more to worry about than radioactive fallout. Humanity thought they’d vanquished the mutant black rats, but they were merely hiding. Now they sense humanity is vulnerable, and claw their way out of the dark to claim London as their domain!

Given I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War, and given my predilection as a teenager for both James Herbert novels and apocalyptic fiction, it’s perhaps no great surprise that this 1984 novel was a firm favourite from my very first read, and I’ve read it many times since (as you can no doubt tell from the photo) though not for years.

The final, and in my opinion best, Rats novel (though there is a 1993 graphic novel) this sees Herbert go all out by killing millions in the opening chapters, and his evocation of nuclear annihilation and a ruined London is superbly done, playing on his usual trick of providing potted biographies for characters, just enough for us to empathise with them before killing them off. There’ll be rat related deaths aplenty later, but early doors the main causes of death aren’t teeth, it’s heat and the shockwaves burning up bodies and demolishing buildings.

He shifts to a second act focusing on the emotional impact of survival. Those in the shelter may be safe, but they’re still traumatised. Suicide is prevalent, and so is the risk of mutiny. Some don’t see why Dealey should be in charge just because he held a position of minor authority before the world ended.

There’s a grim recon mission to the surface featuring a wince inducing encounter with a rabid dog, but soon the survivors are faced with a triple whammy of threats; insurrection, flooding and rats!

This is a high concept novel. Bringing back the rats after a dull second outing and partnering them up with nuclear war, a subject on everyone’s minds in the 1980s. Herbert is disparaging towards authority in this, and the fate that befalls the main government shelter suitably ironic, yet much like his hero, he can’t quite bring himself to choose a side. Culver’s a standard Herbert stand-in; a loner in jeans and a leather jacket, a reluctant hero. A nonconformist who has little time for Dealey, yet seems equally sniffy about the potential mutineers. Dealey is a two-dimensional civil servant, a man who’s fallen back on bureaucracy because that’s all he has left. Herbert suggests Kate’s a strong female character, but really she’s just a damsel in distress for Culver to rescue and fall in love with. It’s a shame Herbert dispenses with a far more interesting female character early on.

A product of its time, women don’t far well, and whilst nowhere near as bad as I’d expected, persons of colour aren’t portrayed too glowingly either, aside from Jackson, who Herbert feels the need to constantly remind us is black which seems to be his only defining character trait, but he isn’t alone here and many people in the vignettes are more fleshed out that some of the recurring characters!

From a great concept the book goes downhill in the final third There’s the fairly predictable apocalyptic trope of the outlaw gang, and by the time we get to the finale there are just too few characters left to make for a final bloodbath, and it has to be said, there’s only so many rat attacks you can read before they all blur into one, and several of the grim interludes Herbert peppers the book with are a trifle samey. That said some other (non-rat related) interludes are nicely done.

He also annoys me by having characters use automatic weapons that appear to carry a ludicrous number of bullets!

A product of it’s time, this is still a very enjoyable read and definitely one of Hebert’s better books. It’s a trifle long and some of the underground scenes, especially late on, drag, but still a damn fine example of 80s’ post-apocalyptic fiction, and still a heck of a concept.

hero_nuclear_blast

51qQMNkR-wL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_By Adrian Tchaikovsky

A little spoiler warning. Because this is a sequel, I will refer to events of Children of Time, so be warned! (And If you haven’t read Children of Time I heartily suggest you do!)

An earth terraforming project travelled many lightyears to a distant star, and a world they named Nod. They expected to find a blank slate upon which they could imprint a copy of Earth, but instead found a world teeming with alien life. While part of the terraforming team studied this world, others travelled to an ocean planet they named Damascus. Here they began to terraform, and began breeding octopuses using an experimental drug to uplift their intelligence. Soon Earth collapsed as the conflict there reached a terrible conclusion, and the terraformers were left all alone in the universe, or so they thought…

Thousands of years later the remains of humanity, along with their spider allies, travel to the worlds of Nod and Damascus, following fragmentary radio signals. They find an advanced race that can trace its roots back to old Earth, and, more terrifying, something truly alien that threatens them all.

* * *

Children of Time is probably the most enjoyable book I’ve read in the last ten years, so I was eagerly anticipating this sequel, and its fair to said Tchaikovsky didn’t disappoint. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t quite as good as Children of Time, but that novel was always going to be a hard act to follow, and the author deserves all the kudos imaginable for writing a follow up this enjoyable and it kept me gripped from the first page to the last.

The main issue is that the element of surprise is missing, but having said that, in doing for octopuses (octopi? Even Tchaikovsky doesn’t seem sure of the correct nomenclature) what he previously did for spiders, he once again showcases not only an incredible imagination, but also an in-depth knowledge of biology. More importantly he’s able to get that across in a way that the average reader can understand.

As with Children of Time, his world building is truly stupendous, but any indication that this is merely a carbon copy is quickly dispelled. What starts as sci-fi soon morphs into something far darker as he creates a species whose existence threatens the very nature of what it means to be an individual human (or spider, or octopus), and the repeated “We’re going on an adventure” line is incredibly unsettling (and would work equally well on screen if you ask me).

His prose is excellent, and as said his worldbuilding top drawer. If there’s a flaw I’d say that the some of the characters didn’t quite come alive for me, though I did really engage with the terraformers Senkovi and Baltiel, and also with Fabian, the male spider struggling in a female spider’s world.

As for Children of Time the ending wraps things up perhaps a little too neatly, but I am being really picky here because this is a superb book. Truly epic in scale, hopeful and with a wonderful evocation of deep time and evolutionary biology akin to the first book, with an added dose of body horror and a truly unusual alien species that only adds to the universe he’s created.

Highly recommended!

The Haunting, director Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel, is arguably my favourite film, one I’ve watched numerous times and one I always seem to get something new out of, but it was a long time until I read the source novel. A few years ago saw the release of Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House tv miniseries on Netflix. In the past nine months I’ve re-watched both the film and the tv series, and I’ve also reread Jackson’s novel, so it seemed a good time to examine all three.

This will be a fairly deep dive, so I will go into spoilerific detail. If you haven’t read/seen any of these and you’re worried about finding out how they end, maybe look away now, but if you’re a fan, or maybe if you don’t mind spoilers, why not take a trip with me to Hill House, which has stood for eighty years, and might stand for eighty more…

 

The Novel. The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson (1959)

9780141191447

Given its reputation as a true classic of literature, it is perhaps surprising that I’m not as enamoured of the source novel as many are. In part I think it’s the fact that I came to the party late, as it were, reading the book many years (and many repeat viewings) after seeing the film, which means there’s a lot that’s fixed in my mind, my image of the central characters for one. There’s also Jackson’s prose, which is at times superb and at others a little cold. The book isn’t that old yet feels a trifle old fashioned. That said you can’t argue with that opening paragraph:

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Just reading that last line makes me shudder.

The original story is slightly different than the film that followed. There’s no Dr Markway, distinguished and handsome potential love interest here, Dr Montague is a different figure altogether, only ever paternal, and Nell has no eyes for him, only for Luke but otherwise the dynamic fans of the film are familiar with is the same. Four intrepid investigators. The academic, the rich layabout, the bohemian extrovert and the guilt-ridden introvert.

The other big difference is that Jackson’s tale sprawls beyond the house, and many of the spookier elements take place outside. In particular Nell and Theo coming across a (clearly ghostly) family picnic is shudderingly written, most particularly because Jackson never tells us what is so wrong with it that prompts the pair to run, and for Theo to tell Nell not to look back. Later still Nell walks into the undergrowth believing Theo and Luke are following, only they aren’t… Brrr!!!

It seems likely there is a ghostly presence at Hill House in the novel. It isn’t impossible that it’s all Eleanor’s doing, her grief and guilt magnifying her psychic powers but I think even Jackson made it clear there’s something spooky afoot. The sense of dread regarding Nell as the book progresses has a horrible inevitability about it as well.

The one misstep I think, is the arrival of Mrs Montague and her curious companion. She’s too broad and overbearing and their inclusion does feel a bit jarring.

One can’t quibble with the story, and some truly wonderful prose however, and if it wasn’t for the novel, we wouldn’t have got…

The Film. The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise (1963)

the_haunting_-_h_-_1963

It’s sometimes incredible to consider just how eclectic Wise’s career was. He directed everything, from musicals (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) to science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain, Star Trek the Motion Picture) as well as Westerns, war movies, thrillers and of course horror (The Curse of the Cat People, The Haunting.) He directed his first film in 1944 and his last in 2000. Some have called him a journeyman, but I think that’s unfair, and The Haunting just shows how good he was. A technically perfect film featuring four wonderful performances and inventive camerawork to instil fear without ever really showing us anything.

Ostensibly it follows the beats of the novel, with a group of four intrepid researchers travelling to Hill House, although there are some changes. Dr Montague is replaced by Dr Markway, and it’s Markway rather than Luke who provides us with Nell’s unobtainable love interest, and while Mrs Markway does show up, she isn’t remotely as annoying, and doesn’t come complete with her own sidekick in this version.

Perhaps the biggest change is that Wise dispenses with the garden scenes, and whilst a few scenes take place outside—most notably the finale—for the most part he eschews the grounds in favour of bottling his characters up inside of Hill House. This is a great stylistic choice, emphasising the claustrophobia of the story, implying our heroes have been swallowed whole by the vile house that Hugh Crain built, and suggesting there’s no escape.

The-Haunting-1

The choice to film in black and white is another masterstroke. The sets are superb, with an oppressive rococo style and claustrophobic feel. The statues and the library are wonderful. Wise utilised a revolutionary amorphic camera that was so new he had to sign an understanding that the lens was imperfect. Wise and his cinematographer keep the camera moving and utilise crazy angles, skewed shots and weird lenses—as well as utilising mirrors— to give the impression of an insane house that’s always watching, always waiting.

And of course, perhaps the best decision Wise made was to rely on unseen terrors, with the exception of curious shadows (the face in the grill) and of course the breathing door. There are sounds as well of course, the banging, and the ghostly voices of Hugh Crain and the distressed children, but for the most part he relied upon his actor’s reactions to the house, the most famous of course being Nell’s “But whose hand was I holding?”

Which brings us onto the actors. Setting aside Lois Maxwell (yes Moneypenny!) as Mrs Markway and Valentine Dyall and Rosalie Crutchley as the wonderfully creepy Mr and Mrs Dudley, and a few other minor players, this film revolves around the four leads who play off one another perfectly.

Captured

As Nell, Julie Harris is superb (why wasn’t she Oscar nominated?) fragile and frequently on the edge of hysteria, she’s a jittery mess of anxieties and guilt, a child in the body of a grown woman. With every tic and tremor Harris speaks volumes. By all accounts she was suffering with depression during filming, and isolated herself from the others further enhancing the character’s disconnection. She’s a pitiful, utterly empathetic character and you can’t help but feel for her.

As Theo, Claire Bloom is the polar opposite of Nell, experienced, confident and quite patently gay, even if it’s never explicitly stated, and her relationship with Nell is incredibly complex. At times friends, at times almost sisters, at times perhaps something more, is she interested in Nell? Theo clearly cares about Nell, yet can’t help sniping at her. It’s Theo after all who suggests Eleanor might be the one who wrote her name on the wall, and her throwaway “like sisters” line is heavy with meaning given we know how fractious Nell’s relationship with her own sister is. In weaker hands the relationship could have been flat and predictable, yet instead it’s vibrant, testament to Bloom and Harris’ acting. All the more amazing since they didn’t speak during the filming (though reconciled later).

As Markway Richard Johnson is cool, calm and collected, and quite debonair (in a slightly stuffy academic kinda way). Of the four his performance is the one that feels a little false at times, especially in the tenser segments, a little more theatrical should we say. I’m being harsh, because he’s still very good and as with the others it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

Finally we have former child star Russ Tamblyn as Luke. Young , hip and flippant it’s a performance that could have gone over the edge but Tamblyn carries it off perfectly , and in many ways he’s the reason the film works, going to sceptic to  believer over the course of the story. He’s the one after all who at the end says the house should be burned down and the ground sown with salt. He’s wonderful in this, playing off each of the others perfectly. And of course this won’t be the last time Tamblyn crosses paths with Hill House….

image

A superb film, a textbook example of creating tension without resorting to special effects. Claustrophobic and, pardon the pun, haunting, with wonderful characters at its heart, and that’s perhaps one of the main reasons it succeeds. Even if nothing supernatural happened at Hill House, you’d still enjoy watching these four characters interact. Or maybe that’s just me. I’ve watched this so many times they almost feel like old friends, and Nell’s death still hurts every time.

Anyway, let’s shift forward fifty odd—very odd—years to…

The TV series. The Haunting of Hill House, created and directed by Mike Flanagan (2018)

AAAABVvB0YpICDBYJM-5s3VrajeZb_J7R2cch-VMxthqBAuCt9HXyht8Mp5ANtxcWRPYPZAgxMDUmH2g0e4Y-SY9JfgYUv3q

The arrival onto the scene of streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime has seen a whole slew of new TV shows, and when  it was announced that a 10 part series based on Jackson’s novel was in the works I was concerned, mainly off the back of the truly atrocious 1999 remake of The Haunting, an exemplar for how not to remake a classic that misunderstood everything about the story and which wastes a decent cast by surrounding them with terrible CGI, overexaggerating the plot, and by having Catherine Zeta-Jones play Theo with all the subtlety of a punch to the face. I saw it once at the cinema and I never plan to see it again.

But enough about 1999’s exercise in how not to make a Hill House story, let’s talk about 2018’s exercise in how to do things properly, because Flanagan’s series is really top drawer storytelling, pretty much every episode scared me at some point and at least two of them are stone cold classics. Sure, it all kinda falls apart at the end but I can forgive it because the journey getting there is So. Damn. Good.

It’d be wrong to say there’s no nuance in the story, but from the perspective of the supernatural it’s clearly real. There isn’t even the hint that what’s going on is in characters’ heads. And we see most of the horror full on, albeit this is done far more effectively than the 1999 film managed. Flanagan also takes liberties, lifting pieces of the story and rearranging them, or in many cases rewriting them completely, and yet the essence of the story and the more familiar characters remain.

littleNell

The story is set in two timeframes. 1992 and 2018, with different actors playing child and adult versions of the Crain children, and in fact Hugh Crain himself. Back in 1992 the Crain family were renovating Hill House, until tragedy struck, a tragedy that left questions over what, exactly happened there, and a tragedy that’s informed each character’s life since. The eldest son Steven (Michael Huisman in the present day) used a fictional account of what happened to springboard his writing career, and now makes a living writing true ghost books. Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) is ostensibly the most together of the Crain children, and she runs a mortuary. Living rent free in a guest house on her property is Theo (Kate Siegel) who works as a child psychologist. A sensitive, she wears gloves most of the time to keep her curse at bay, and has distanced herself from any emotional attachments.

This leaves the youngest, and perhaps most damaged Crain children. Twins Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) a man with a history of substance abuse, and Nell (Victoria Pedretti) haunted by sleep paralysis and recurring imagines of a particularly terrifying spectre.

There’s Henry Thomas and Timothy Hutton as the past and present versions of Hugh, and Carla Gugino as Olivia, the children’s mother.

Like all the best horror Flanagan’s tale is about something beyond scaring people. This isn’t some soulless fairground attraction, it’s a tale of guilt and loss and redemption, and above all else love and family. Even if there weren’t a possessed house involved, it’d be interesting due to the writing, the direction and the cast.

thumbnail

The Crain children think they’ve moved on with their lives, but the death of one of them will prove that, in many ways, they never left Hill House. The interweaving of timelines is exquisitely done, and not only between 1992 and 2018, even within the distinct timelines the story shifts back and forth as we see the same event from different characters’ perspectives.

In terms of frights there are some fantastic jump scares (a couple in particular had me literally screaming, even second time around when I knew they were coming) but beyond this there’s a palpable sense of dread, and many of the scares take their time, tension building as you wait for what you know is coming—take little Luke hiding under his bed as footsteps approach!!

By all accounts there are dozens of spectres in some scenes, hidden away in the shadows, though even on a second viewing I only spotted a couple of them. Two of the ghosts at the forefront are the most effective however. The tall man who menaces Luke (and there’s a Luke centric episode in the present that I’m sure Flanagan loaded with really tall extras so the ghost is subconsciously always on our minds) and the Bent Neck Lady who terrified Nell both as a child and an adult.

Which brings me to those two episodes. Episode 5 is named the Bent Neck Lady, a Nell focused episode that shows the full nightmare she experiences as she’s haunted by the titular phantom. It starts out utterly terrifying, but eventually morphs into something utterly heart-breaking. If you thought Nell’s fate in the book and the film were tragic you ain’t seen nothing yet, and by the end I was in pieces. One of the best episodes of television ever, in my not so humble opinion, and for a ghost story something that plays with time better than 99% of actual time travel sci-fi.

And then we get episode 6. Two Storms. A story that alternates between two thunderstorms, one in 1992 which the Crain family experienced in Hill House, the other in 2018 the night before Nell’s funeral as the family reconvene in the funeral home to talk about their sister, and old wounds will be reopened. The 1992 stuff is eerie, especially when one of the children goes missing, but it’s in the present day that the episode excels. The direction and cinematography, the script and the actors all combine to create (pardon the pun) a perfect storm of grief and anger captured in fluid tracking shots that show us spectres the family can’t see, and intercut between 2018 and 1992 seamlessly. It’s a heartrending episode where every single character’s wounds are raw. Again, strip out the horror and it’d still work.

HOHH_106_Unit_00068R

There are so many other things I could mention; the return of Russ Tamblyn in a cameo as Nell’s psychiatrist, the cup of stars (missing from the film),  Luke’s imaginary friend who it turns out is anything but ghostly, the character names (Shirley for Shirley Jackson, Steven for King etc), the secret of the red room that’s been staring us in the face the whole time, the clock repairman, Mr Smiley Face, the elevation of the Dudley’s beyond just creepy two dimensional plot points…and of course the fact that the five Crain siblings represent the stages of grief: Steve is denial, Shirley is anger, Theo is bargaining, Luke is depression, and Nell is acceptance.

Nothing is ever perfect, and maybe it could have been an episode or two shorter, and maybe it does all wrap up a little too neatly in the end, and yes, Oliva as the crazy woman who wants to kill her kids in order to save them isn’t a great trope, but any flaws are minor, and if a second viewing taught me one thing, it’s this, much like the film, The Haunting of Hill House is a series I will return to again and again because I think there’ll always be something new to take from the story, and much as with The Haunting these are characters I enjoy spending time with, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what Flanagan does with The Haunting of Bly Manor, based on The Turn of the Screw.

268c1092100d82c226cb173b70e4efed

In the final analysis this is a tale that’s stood the test of time for over sixty years, and might stand for sixty more, testament to the strength of Jackson’s original story. It’s been remade and reimagined, and even survived Jan de Bont and Liam Neeson! Nobody’s tearing this story down and sowing the ground with salt in a hurry!

A Nice Review

Posted: April 19, 2020 in Book reviews, Published fiction
Tags:

Just thought I’d link to this as I’ve recently had a lovely review of Do the Trains Run on Time.

The review can be found here and I heartily recommend checking out Matt’s other reviews 🙂

trains

81UzB7eGNYLBy David Mitchell

Mitchell’s previous book was titled Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse and since then everything has got worse (Brexit, Trump etc) I’m not sure this can entirely be laid at Mitchell’s feet, but in this collection of previously published Observer articles David tries to make light of, and in many cases attempt to come to terms with, many of the things that’ve happened in recent years; Scampi, politics, the Olympics, terrorism, exercise, rude street names, inheritance tax, salad cream, proportional representation and farts are all touched upon.

I’ve been a big fan of Mitchell and Webb for years, and it’s fair to say a slightly bigger fan of Mitchell (sorry Robert) who I find much common ground with, we’re both historians who’ve probably read more history than we di at university, we’re both centrists and both pedantic buggers. There are many differences obviously. I can drive, he can’t (in your face Mitchell) while he’s married to a woman who’s won millions playing poker (that driving doesn’t look so good now).

By it’s very nature this is an eclectic collection of thoughts and ideas, and as with any such collection, some stick and some don’t, but on the whole most are mildly amusing at least, and many are very funny—and it does help to have Mitchell’s voice in your head as you read them because his dry, pedantic delivery just makes it even better.

Thankfully I hadn’t read too many of the Observer columns used here, but I’ve hears some people who have were disappointed that  this wasn’t new stuff, but given this is made clear from the blurb I’m not sure why people still went ahead and bought it? There is some new stuff, but it’s limited. An introduction and some follow up comments on some of the things he wrote about years ago.

An interesting collection and well worth a punt if you’re a fan of David Mitchell.

9781781085967It’s 2081 and Judge Joseph Dredd is about to begin his second year as a street judge in this omnibus that brings together three very different novellas about Joe’s second year on the sked.

THE RIGHTEOUS MAN, by Michael Carroll

Even though Joe was the man to arrest his corrupt clone brother Rico, Dredd is viewed with suspicion by his fellow judges. In an attempt to get him out of the firing line Judge Goodman transfers him to a remote sector, and from here Dredd goes even further afield as he and two other judges are sent to a mining town in the Cursed Earth. Meanwhile the feared SJS, the Special Judicial Squad, who investigate crooked judges, have Joe in their sights and won’t stop until he joins Rico on Titan.

I liked this story. It’s nice to see some aftermath of the whole Rico affair, and good that people still distrust Joe, even though he brought Rico in, figuring if they’re identical clones then why wouldn’t they be identically guilty? The storyline out in the Cursed Earth isn’t that original—think the Magnificent Seven—but a town under siege tale is always fun and Carroll writes the action well. If there’s a criticism then it’s that sometimes Dredd gets side-tracked in favour of some of the secondary characters. Still very enjoyable and the Cursed Earth is always interesting.

 

DOWN AND OUT, by Matthew Smith

A routine stop and search leaves Dredd badly wounded, out of contact with Justice Dept and all alone in a very scuzzy sector. With only his wits and training to rely on Joe struggles to stay alive, even as a wider conspiracy unfolds.

The weakest story in the collection unfortunately, and one I struggled to get into, although it does have its moments. Part of the problem stems from Smith’s prose; his paragraphs are very long, and when I say that I mean VERY long, which made it a slog at times, but the story also feels just a tad too similar to the movie Dredd, with Joe struggling to survive being hunted by gang members. Also, there’s a fine line between portraying Dredd as a tough SOB and having him survive injuries that would kill, or at the very least completely incapacitate another man, and Dredd seems to spend most of the novella on his last legs, which leaves the action nowhere to go because he’s so badly injured in the first place. Still some nice bits, and while I guessed there was a Wall Squad judge involved I guessed wrong as to who it was and I always like being caught off guard.

 

ALTERNATIVE FACTS, by Cavan Scott

While the city prepares for an upcoming mayoral election Dredd investigates the murder of several journalists, teaming up with a psi judge and his former mentor when the case takes some unusual turns.

The third and final story is the pick of the bunch, and features a nice cameo from Judge Morphy (the senior judge who supervised Dredd’s final assessment as a rookie) as well as references to fatties, skysurfers, sleep machines, riot foam, and a whole heap of Mega City 1 lore. Is it a little too on the nose and referential at times, maybe, but I think for the most part it walks the line perfectly and, of the three, is the one that felt most like a story you’d see in 2000AD. The story twists and turns, and the resolution is satisfying, though it maybe suffers from one dramatic reveal too many, but best of all it’s just really well written.

 

So, to sum up; one great story, one good story and one decent story, not a bad package as omnibuses go so well recommended to Dredd/2000AD fans.

Fleabag: The Scriptures

Posted: February 4, 2020 in Book reviews
Tags:

9780593158272By Phoebe Waller-Bridge

Fleabag is a young woman with a wit as dry as the desert and a distinct lack of filter. She’s angry and grief ridden and she’s happy to lash out at anyone. She has a struggling business, and a best friend who committed suicide. She has a fractious relationship with her sister, Claire…and her brother in law, Martin, and with her father, and with her Godmother, and in fact with most people she meets. She has a voracious appetite for sex and a habit of breaking the fourth wall and talking to us as if we were her conscience, oh and she’s about to meet the man of her dreams, so what if he’s a celibate priest…

*

There’s a light effortless to Waller-Bridge’s writing that tells you she’s agonised over every word, written and rewritten every line of dialogue over and over again until it was just right. And there’s an economy of language that says she isn’t afraid to kill her darlings and cut every ounce of fat she can to leave a lean, and often incredibly mean, fillet behind.

Basically she makes it look easy, which likely means it was incredibly hard. Whatever you may think of her, the woman is damn talented.

When I watched the first season the show was an indie hit, by the time of the second season Fleabag had gone mainstream and the hype had gone into orbit. Did it deserve it? Well I’m biased but all I can say is, yes, yes it did.

There’s a palpable anger behind Fleabag, and also a profound, aching loneliness. Cursed by an inability  to not speak her mind she lashes out at everyone, and sometimes they deserve it. Her dithering father, her uptight sister, her supercilious godmother, her sleezy brother in law all do her wrong, yet she often does them wrong as well, and it’s testament to Waller-Bridge’s economy of words that she can tell us so much with so little, and as an aspiring script writer—ok, someone who’s considering trying his hand at it—there is much to learn about how brevity isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Not only do you get the scripts, you also get a few potted biographies of some of the people who brought Fleabag to life, written by Waller-Bridge, as well as some of the history behind the show, and a piece of music that was composed for the second season by her sister. Oh and did I mention it looks gorgeous?

A treat for fans, or anyone interested in good scriptwriting. Just watch out for the fox…

thumbnail

 

The City

Posted: February 2, 2020 in Book reviews
Tags:

51pEc6O8-4L._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_By Dean Koontz

Jonah Kirk is a young African American boy growing up in New York in the 1960s. He thinks he’s ordinary but he’s anything but. For starters he has a prodigious talent for music, especially the piano, just as well given he has a whole heap of middle names taken from famous jazz musicians. He also seems to have been chosen for something special by a kindly woman who claims to be the embodiment of the city made flesh. It’s just as well Jonah has friends in high places, because his path’s about to cross with some very dangerous people, including his own estranged father, and danger and tragedy are about to strike the young boy’s life, and things are never going to be the same again.

I’ve been a fan of Dean Koontz for a long time, enjoying his high concept thrillers that usually contained an element of horror, science fiction, or often both. Sure, he’s the master of a great set up whose finales don’t always follow through, and there have been the odd book I haven’t got on with, but on the whole I’ve enjoyed the vast majority of his books, and he, along with James Herbert, has always been a writer to aspire to, and many of the novels I’ve written have followed a similar thriller/high concept route.

When I picked this up I expected something similar but it’s actually very different. At first I wasn’t sure I was going to like it but soon it had me hooked. It’s a relatively simple tale, recounted in the first person by the adult Jonah, describing his life as a small boy in the 1960s. There’s an element of magical realism with regard to the mysterious woman who seems to be watching over Jonah, and his own precognitive dreams, but on the whole it’s quite grounded.

It’s a long book, and I suppose some may argue that nothing much happens for much of it’s page count, yet I found even Jonah’s everyday life utterly fascinating, Koontz’s prose is on the whole very good and Jonah felt like a fully realised character. Yes he seems a little too wise beyond his years at times, but given we’re hearing the story from an adult’s recollections I can let that slide. The cast of characters are excellent, from a truly scary woman who moves into Jonah’s building, to a dangerous psychopath with delusions of being some kind of counter culture freedom fighter, to the gawky boy who lives across the street from Jonah’s grandfather and a Japanese man with a tragic past who becomes Jonah’s greatest ally.

There’s more than a hint of Stephen King here (a smidgen of magic, real world horror and a coming of age/ loss of innocence tale) as well. Yes, things get wrapped up quite neatly in the end, especially given all the foreshadowing we get, but all I can say is that, despite this, I was enraptured by Jonah’s story. Highly recommended (rubbish title though!)

The Black Book

Posted: January 1, 2020 in Book reviews
Tags:

51g1ku1IhnLBy Ian Rankin.

(read in 2019)

Inspector Rebus has a lot on his plate. His wayward brother Michael returns to Edinburgh seeking a place to stay, and while Rebus lets him bunk in his flat—which he’s currently renting to students—when he’s kicked out by his girlfriend, Doctor Patience Aitken, he has no choice but to sleep on his own sofa. There’s a convicted paedophile who’s also returned to Edinburgh, and a half-hearted new operation in place designed to put one of local gangster ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty’s money-lenders out of business. Rebus would love to get Cafferty but doubts this will succeed.

And then one of his colleagues, Brian Holmes is attacked and ends up in a coma. Brian’s girlfriend makes Rebus aware of a black notebook Brian used when making enquiries outside of work time. It’s in code but she thinks it might be the reason Brian was attacked.

Rebus finds the book, and while he can’t decipher everything, it becomes clear that Brian was looking into a mysterious fire that burned down Edinburgh’s seedy Central Hotel five years ago. A body was found in the ruins, a man who’d been shot, but he’d never been identified.

Rebus begins digging into the fire himself, but it soon becomes clear that certain persons would rather the past stayed buried, and soon Rebus, and those close to him, find themselves in danger.

 

I am trying to read the Rebus novels in order, but obviously only as I come across them, so I may have missed one or two out. Still it’s easy to pick up threads, and Rankin is good at reminding you of what’s come before without hitting you over the head and spending too long on things.

I’m still not quite sure why I like the Rebus books. There’s nothing particularly original about Rebus. A hard drinking, divorced loner with a love of books and music and a past in the SAS, it’s all the kind of character traits you could cobble together from a heap of other detectives, yet it works. Maybe because of the Edinburgh setting, maybe because of Rankin’s gritty, hardboiled and very pulpy prose. Rebus doesn’t solve crimes through deductive reasoning or some inhuman intellect, he solves them through legwork and a healthy dose of luck (though much like Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder you can argue he makes his own luck by talking to so many people, asking the same questions over and over, and through judicious application of shoe leather. Like Scudder, with Rebus it’s often a case of shaking the truth free through sheer bloody-mindedness.

The same is true here. There are a lot of characters, and a lot of threads linking them together, and while at times it does get a little confusing, it never gets quite so labyrinthine that you can’t follow what’s going on.

There’s a healthy sprinkling of coincidence, and you really do wonder quite how Rebus still has a job after one ill-judged action, but the book trots along at a decent pace and doesn’t outstay it’s welcome, and Rebus’ grumpy interactions with a bunch of interesting characters are great.

A decent hard boiled crime novel that was intriguing enough to keep me turning pages, and whilst I’m not chomping at the bit to read the next in the series, I’ll continue to keep my eye out for them and will no doubt snag another one as and when I spot one.