Archive for the ‘Book reviews’ Category

Postcards from the Edge

Posted: January 1, 2018 in Book reviews
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postcards-from-the-edge-9781439194003_hrBy Carrie Fisher

Movie actress Suzanne Vale is trying to put her life back together after a drug overdose, but this proves harder than she thinks, a stint in rehab helps, but the vacuous nature of Hollywood and her romantic and career interactions keep her off kilter enough to ever wonder if she can be happy again.

There’s something very poignant about reading this book a year after Carrie’s untimely death, though not an autobiography this novel is clearly autobiographical, with Suzanne Vale, with her drug problems and famous mother, a fictionalised stand-in for Carrie herself.

The first thing to note is that this is nothing like the film. I haven’t seen it, but I know that at its core is the relationship between Suzanne and her mother and so it took me by surprise to realise that Suzanne’s mother barely appears in the book—seems there were a lot of changes when Hollywood decided to film it (though Carrie also wrote the screenplay).

The structure of the novel took a little getting used to as well. Split into five sections (plus prologue and epilogue) the book shifts between first person and third person narrative and even the point of view changes. After the prologue, which is in the epistolary style in the form of postcards, the first section is told first person, and from the perspectives of Suzanne and Alex, a screenwriter with a major drug problem. In this section Suzanne is in rehab where, after a major bender that almost costs him his life, Alex joins her. In many ways I think this was my favourite section of the book, if only because it’s the rawest. By the time we enter Suzanne’s life she is off drugs, and so Carrie uses the character of Alex to give a glimpse at how Suzanne likely ended up in rehab.

The Suzanne sections are humorous and hopeful, but interchanged with these the Alex sections are incredibly, almost frighteningly manic (and given the nature of Carrie’s diagnosis with bipolar disorder one can’t help but see the parallels between the calm Suzanne and the manic Alex).

Alex’s descent towards overdosing is terrifying, as is his refusal, initially at least, to accept he has a problem, and even after he does he sees rehab as research, grist for his writing mill. Not for the first time you get the feeling that in this book life imitates art which in turn imitates life, and so on. As a window into Carrie’s mind I think this book is a doozy.

The next section is told in alternating monologues between Suzanne and Jack, a film producer with whom she’s having a relationship. Suzanne is talking to her therapist, Jack his lawyer, and though their relationship is consensual it’s easy to see a low-level Weinstein like vibe in Jack’s attitude toward women.

The book shifts into third person for the rest of its sections (bar the epilogue). The first section deals with Suzanne’s first post rehab job on a B-movie, this section is quite amusing but also depressing, and again the position of women in Hollywood is at the forefront.

The final two sections detail Suzanne’s day to day life, her relationship with her friend Lucy, and an incredibly shallow Hollywood party. I found these parts my least favourite to read, although Carrie does a good job of showing how shallow most of the people in Hollywood are, she almost does too good a job. Plus, without a clear idea of who characters might really be representing none of them come alive enough for this satire to work to the fullest.

The epilogue at least is a neat and amusing return to the start of the book.

I can’t say for sure that I enjoyed the book, and if I did this enjoyment waned somewhat towards the end. It’s perhaps at it’s most engaging while Suzanne is struggling, and limps a little towards the end. What is clear is that Carrie was a talented writer, in particular the scenes of Alex’s drug fuelled bender are incredibly harrowing, and this certainly hasn’t put me off reading some of her other books.

As a thinly veiled description of a specific time in Carrie Fisher’s life, and a snapshot of Hollywood, this is incredibly insightful, and as an example of her literary skill it’s enlightening, but as a narrative it all ends up feeling a little hollow and unfinished, but then that’s probably the point, because it’s clear in so many ways that Carrie was probably a little too switched on for Tinsel Town, a place that doesn’t always value introspection and prefers the shallow, something she so clearly wasn’t.

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Edited by Mark Morris.

I was hunting for something new to read in Waterstones and this caught my eye. I like a good horror anthology, plus I’d read some of the authors before.

There are nineteen stories in the book, and I’ll try and say a bit about each one, in particular shining a spotlight on the ones I really liked, and the ones I really didn’t!

As with most anthologies, the stories within this books pages are a mixed bag. This is both the strength of an anthology—if you didn’t like a story chances are you might like the next one—but also a weakness—it can be hard to keep your momentum going, especially if you get several rum tales in a row.

An added problem with any story, no matter its length, is that often some stories are great set-ups with weak endings, and sadly there was a lot of that in this book. This doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy those stories, it’s just a shame the endings didn’t live up to the central idea.

The collection opens with The Boggle Hole by Alison Littlwood, which is a fairly mild horror, a nice way to ease yourself in, though not one of the highlights of the book.

Next up is Shepherd’s Business by Stephen Gallagher, a well written story centred on a young doctor taking up a position on a remote Scottish island. I liked this, and the story ended up going somewhere I didn’t expect.

No Good Deed by Angela Slatter is an excellent tale of magic, poisoned brides and revenge from beyond the grave. Definitely one of the highlights, although I’d say it leaned more towards fantasy than horror.

The Family Car by Brady Golden has an interesting premise, a young woman whose family vanished in the family car years before suddenly finds herself stalked by the titular vehicle, but the ending let it down.

I adored the writing at work in Four Abstracts by Nina Allen. It gripped me from the off and I got really involved and engaged with the characters. The ending is a damp squib but there’s much to enjoy before you get there thankfully.

Sheltered in Place by Brian Keene is a sharp little tail with a wonderful twist in the tale.

The Fold in the Heart by Chaz Benchley is a romantic tale set around the Cornish coast. It’s ok but didn’t really grip me.

Departures by A.K. Benedict is an inventive tale where the newly dead wind up in limbo, which is an airport bar.

The Salter Collection by Brian Lillie is a delightfully creepy tale of demons and hidden messages on old wax cylinders. It ends a bit abruptly but has a nice atmosphere.

Speaking Still by Ramsey Campbell is a pretty stock tale of messages from the beyond the grave.

The Eyes are White and Quiet by Carole Johnstone is an interesting post-apocalyptic story, though it doesn’t get much time to breathe unfortunately.

The Embarrassment of Dead Grandmothers by Sarah Lotz is a darkly humorous story about a young man who takes his gran to the theatre, only to have her die in her seat, suffice to say that the young man doesn’t do what any normal person would do in this situation. It’s ok, but a bit throwaway.

Eumenides (The Benevolent Ladies) by Adam Nevill is a turgid tale of a man who goes on a date with a woman from work to a local deserted zoo. It goes exactly where you expect it to go and takes ages getting there.

Roundabout by Muriel Gray has an interesting central conceit—a monster living on a roundabout—but like the previous story it’s a bit of a slog to read.

After struggling with the previous two stories, The House of the Head by Josh Malerman was a welcome improvement. Yet again the ending is a bit of a let-down, but the story of a haunted dolls house is wonderfully creepy anyway.

Succulents by Conrad Williams is sadly another tale that didn’t connect with me. A father and his young son take a bike ride whilst on holiday in Spain and the tour guide makes the father partake of a strange fruit with strange results.

Dollies by Kathryn Ptacek is one of the highlights of the book, as a young girl grows up she names each of her dolls Elizabeth and in turn each of them “dies” of smallpox. Not an easy read but it’s well written and heads in an unsettling and unexpected direction.

When it comes to stories with weak endings, The Abduction Door by Christopher Golden is the reverse, I thought it was fairly average until the final few pages where it really comes alive and has a hell of a twist. Another highlight.

Rounding out the anthology is The Swan Dive by Stephen Laws, a grim and gory tale of a man who tries to commit suicide and finds himself led on a murderous tour of Newcastle by a demonic creature. It’s not the best the book has to offer, but is far from the worst and is a good way to finish the book.

All in all your typical anthology, a mixed bag and if you like horror you’re bound to find something to like here.

How Not To Be a Boy

Posted: November 11, 2017 in Book reviews
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By Robert Webb

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Before he was a husband and father, before he danced for comic relief, before he found fame as one half of a somewhat successful double act with David Mitchell, before he went to Cambridge and became vice president of Footlights…before all of this Robert Webb was just a boy like any other boy.

Well maybe not like any other boy, because he didn’t always seem to think and act like all the other boys, but growing up in the 70s and 80s he was very clearly given certain rules to follow; don’t cry, love sport, play rough, drink beer, don’t talk about your feelings.

Now Robert wonders if these rules are any use, and explores what it means to be male in the 21st Century.

 

As a big fan of Mitchell and Webb, and having read David Mitchell’s autobiography, Back Story, there was no way I wasn’t going to read Robert Webb’s book, although calling it a straightforward autobiography does it something of a disservice. Oh, sure it’s autobiographical, but Robert has a point to make beyond just regaling us with his life story, and for me it resonated quite a bit.

I share a lot of common ground with Robert. Not so much now, what with him being star of stage and screen and me, well me not being a star of stage and screen. I never went to Cambridge and my parents didn’t divorce when I was a child and I certainly didn’t have to experience the trauma of losing my mum when I was a teenager.

But setting aside all of that there’s a lot of the book that felt very familiar. I’m two years older than Robert Webb and, like him, was a working-class boy, so when he talks about a childhood spent in the 1970s and 1980s this is the kind of childhood with which I was acquainted. He talks about the Television shows he watched and it was the same telly I watched; The A-Team, Buck Rogers, Doctor Who etc. But beyond this is how he was described as a sensitive child. A quiet child. God did I ever hear myself described in that fashion time and again, and though unlike Robert I do actually like football (watching it at least) I too recall standing on a football pitch trying to stay as far away from the action as possible and dreading the ball coming anywhere near me.

Anyone expecting a book chock full of celebrity tittle tattle may be somewhat disappointed. Robert does touch on this aspect of his life, and there’s a wonderful story featuring Carrie Fisher, but for the most part this isn’t really about Peep Show or That Mitchell and Webb Look, it’s about growing up, about how difficult it is to be a boy, and a man, and how expectations and the unwritten rules affect all of us, especially when it comes to sharing our feelings. It’s no surprise that men are more likely to kill themselves than women after all, but this also helps explain (but not excuse) what’s now referred to as toxic masculinity, because growing up if you didn’t drink lots of pints and shag lots of birds, well what was wrong with you? You weren’t a poofter, were you?

Robert’s prose is a little workmanlike at times, but on the whole its eminently readable. It’s also honest, brutally honest. This is a warts and all life story; he doesn’t hide from any of the things he’s done, many of which he clearly regrets and none of which he seems inclined to excuse himself for, even if at times you kinda think he had a bloody big excuse for being a dick.

This is a book to be enjoyed on several levels, both as a straightforward autobiography, but also as a meditation on masculinity. If, like me, you’re a bloke who grew up around the same era, then I think this will resonate for you too, but I think this is a book that anyone, irrespective of age or gender, can appreciate.

An enjoyable, often very funny, and sometimes very sad, tale of a man who, before he was famous, was just a boy, and a fairly rubbish boy at that, or at least a boy who felt rubbish because of society’s expectations about what a boy should be. Suffice to say I know the feeling, and it’s nice to know I wasn’t alone.

Pulp Fiction

Posted: October 17, 2017 in Book reviews
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By Quentin Tarantino

Jules and Vincent are hired killers, Butch is a punch-drunk boxer with one last pay day ahead of him. Marcellus Wallace is a crime boss who only likes to be fucked by Mrs Wallace, and Mrs Wallace, well she wants to dance, she wants to win, and maybe she wants a hit of what she thinks is cocaine.

Over the space of a few days their lives will intersect, and not everyone will get out of this story alive.

Reading a script is a lot different to reading a novel. For starters they tend to be a much quicker read—realistically you should be able to read a script in the time it takes you to watch the completed film. A script is a story boiled down to its constituent elements, with every ounce of fat trimmed from a story’s bones.

There’s a rush to reading a script, especially a good script, and whatever his faults—and I think he has a few—reading the script to Pulp Fiction is a salient reminder that Mr Quentin Tarantino has (had?) a huge amount of talent.

I’ve watched Pulp Fiction dozens of times, and I’ve always thought it is a fantastic film (and it remains to this day my favourite QT film) but even so reading the script has made me love it more.

Weaving multiple narratives, back and forth in time, Tarantino produced an elegant, finely tuned story that even on the page makes perfect sense, grabs you by the scruff of the neck and gives you no choice but to come along for the ride.

And what a ride it is.

Tarantino’s dialogue crackles with electricity, each individual conversation sparks more vividly than entire screenplays by other writers. Sure, there’s an argument that all of his characters sound kinda the same, but when the dialogue is this good, and when it’s back before he began believing his own hype, who damn well cares?

This was bought me as a birthday present by friends because I’d told them I was contemplating trying my hand at screenplays, and if you’re going to learn why not learn from the best. There’s a reason this script won an Oscar after all.

It’s interesting as well to catch sight of bits that didn’t make the final film, either because they were excised completely, or because they were reworked during filming (and I have to say this was always for the better).

Pulp Fiction’s a great film, and the script was a great (not to mention educational) read.

Although mention of Harvey Weinstein in the credits is more than a little sobering mind you…

Revenger

Posted: October 10, 2017 in Book reviews
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By Alastair Reynolds

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It’s Tens of thousands of years in the future, yet humanity prevail, living within the Congregation, what was once the solar system, only now planets have been long shattered, and the Congregation consists of millions of tiny outposts. Moons and planetoids and space stations. It’s roughly the eighteenth century of the 13th occupation and, in order to try and save their family from bankruptcy, teenage sisters Adrana and Fura Ness have signed on aboard a sun-jammer captained by a man named Rakamore. Rakamore’s ship is one of hundreds that make a living by cracking ‘baubles’, planetoids surrounded by impenetrable force fields that, every so often when the conditions are right, become accessible, allowing those brave, or foolhardy, enough to approach time to scavenge for ancient technology.

It’s a perilous enough way to earn a living, but there are even worse dangers out there in the void between worlds, notably the legendary, and extremely vicious, pirate, Bosa Sennen, and when Rackamore crosses paths with Sennen’s night-jammer all hell will break lose, and Fura Ness will have to grow up fast if she’s to save herself, her sister, and her crewmates.

So, apparently this is a young adult book, which I only discovered once I’d finished reading it. I have to say that nothing in the novel screamed YA at me, aside from the young age of its protagonist, Fura Ness, but a teenage hero does not necessarily a young adult book mean, and as far as I was concerned it was an adult novel (but maybe that’s how the best YA should work). Anyway, there’s no foul language or explicit sexual content, however the book is quite bloodthirsty in places.

Whether it’s YA or not is irrelevant. All I know is that I really enjoyed it!

Sure, it took me a few chapters to acclimatise to the universe Reynolds has created here, but once I did I was well and truly hooked. A few silly missteps aside (the police have flashing blue epaulets!) the Congregation and those that populate it are fascinating. By hurling humanity so far into the future Reynolds has carte blanche to create a world at once very different from our own, yet also very similar.

At its core this is a tale of pirates and buried treasure, complete with piratical dialogue that manages to sit just the right side of yo-ho-ho parody, but Reynolds also finds time to drop in a subplot about nefarious banking practices and a wider story about aliens that I’m guessing will be picked up in any sequel, and I really hope there is a sequel because I definitely want to follow more adventures of Fura Ness.

The first-person narrative does limit the story sometimes, and lots of things happen off camera, but by letting Fura tell the story we see how she grows from a naïve young girl into a hardened spacefarer, and this also provides Reynolds with an excuse to explain the minutiae of the universe he’s created, since Fura and her sister had a sheltered upbringing.

If the book has one fault it’s that some of the secondary characters seem a bit interchangeable. Fura serves on several ships and at times I wanted to have a better handle on her crewmates, and sometimes I had to flick back to remember who a certain character was.

That’s a minor quibble though, because on the whole this was a hugely enjoyable story with a great central character and, like I say, I’d like to see future voyages of the Revenger!

 

By Joe Hill

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In the near future mankind is ravaged by a spore known technically as Draco Incendia Trychophyton but more colloquially as Dragonscale, or merely The Scale. Once infected victims display black and gold markings on their skin that look like beautiful tattoos but, sooner or later, the disease causes the victim to spontaneously combust, so as well as death by disease, large scale fires become a fact of life.

School nurse Harper has been infected. She and her husband, Jakob, had discussed what to do if they became infected, and had considered mutual suicide, the trouble is, since that discussion Harper has discovered she’s pregnant, and now she doesn’t want to die, instead she wants to try and bring her baby to term before the Dragonscale gets her, much to Jakob’s chagrin.

Luckily help is at hand from The Fireman, a mysterious stranger who leads Harper to a refuge where a group of the infected have discovered a way to control the Dragonscale. What initially appears to be a paradise might soon descend into something more akin to hell on earth, and Harper and her newfound allies will have to fight many battles, against friend as well as foe, if they’re to survive.

 

Do you watch The Walking Dead? It’s ok if you don’t, this isn’t a mammoth spoiler. Anyway, in the second season of The Walking Dead the survivors chance upon a small farm and stay there…and stay there…and stay there…and, well, not a great deal happens. The Fireman is a bit like season 2 of The Walking Dead.

Hill’s central conceit is a great one. The Dragonscale is a wonderful creation, and the first section of the book where Hill details the spread of the disease and the gradual disintegration of civilisation is wonderfully evocative.

The trouble begins when the Fireman takes Harper to Camp Wyndham (I see what you did there, Joe). Given the size of the book (close to 800 pages) I was expecting some kind of sprawling epic where Harper and the Fireman have to cross a barren wasteland to find safety, and whilst this does happen, eventually, you have to wait until almost the end before this odyssey begins. In the interim what you’re faced with is 300+ pages dedicated to the folk at Camp Wyndham. Suddenly a book about the end of the world turns into something smaller scale, with some of the group eager to implement a cult style leadership.

Now that’s fine, and it isn’t like small groups falling apart isn’t a staple of the post-apocalyptic genre. I mean, Joe’s dad has handled this kind of subject before, in the Stand or Under the Dome, or the novella The Mist.

You might think it unfair to compare a man who’s gone out of his way to escape his father’s shadow with that father, but given this book is so clearly influenced by King’s work, and given in his introduction Joe admits shamelessly stealing his dad’s ideas, I think it’s a fair thing to do (in fact it was only when I read other reviews after finishing the book that I realised just how many Stephen King Easter eggs there are in the book).

The Stand is a similarly doorstep sized hunk of a book, but in that King provides a large cast of characters, both good and bad, and tells the story from multiple viewpoints. By contrast 99.9% of the Fireman is told from Harper’s POV, which means Hill has to pull all kinds of literary contortions in order to keep her in the mix, or have stuff happen off camera. As a result none of the other characters really come alive because we rarely get inside their heads. In particular the Fireman is poorly served, and spends much of the novel off camera, sick or otherwise incapacitated. The reason for this is clear, having given him what are effectively superpowers, Hill has to keep finding ways to keep him out of the picture lest he resolve every problem by throwing some handy fireballs. It might not be so bad, but Harper never really comes alive, but then that’s hardly surprising given her defining character trait is that she’s a huge Mary Poppins fan, and that’s about it. By contrast the Fireman’s defining trait is that he’s British (though he never feels it to this Brit).

So what you’re left with the story of a group of survivors turning on themselves and turning to a crazy religious leader, which is what King did in The Mist, only he did it much better with two thirds of the page count.

Another issue is the Dragonscale itself, and whilst initially Hill keeps it fairly grounded, by the end of the book it’s gone from something that’s at least vaguely plausible, to something completely preposterous that imbues people with magical powers.

The book picks up in the final couple of hundred pages, although even here it lollygags, and more than once I found myself wishing Joe would just get a move on.

A great concept, a strong first act and an ok final act are let down by an overwrought, overlong and over-written middle section, paper thin characters, out of the blue betrayals worthy of a WWE wrester’s heel turn, and fantastical events that break many of the rules Hill laid out initially about the Scale.

I think a decent editor could have lopped half the book and still left something coherent, and probably better. As is this is a fire that burns white hot at first, but which soon fizzles out before sparking into life once more near the end just when you think the embers have finally  gone cold.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Posted: July 11, 2017 in Book reviews
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By Truman Capote.

In 1940s New York an unnamed narrator moves into an apartment in a brownstone and soon becomes enraptured by one of his fellow tenants, the carefree Holly Golightly, a woman who’s card on her mailbox advises that she is “travelling”, and so she is, though she doesn’t quite know where to, only that she’s looking for a home, and she’ll know it when she finds it. She has a cat with no name and a penchant for rich, often older men, including, amongst others, an imprisoned gangster, a possibly gay millionaire playboy, and a Brazilian diplomat.

Holly is a former actress turned socialite and looking for a rich man to marry, though there’s more to her than meets the eye as the narrator discovers more and more of her background, including her humble origins, she is more than just a gold-digger, she’s a beautiful bird that refuses to be caged, but will she ever find happiness?

 

It’s strange how life goes. I was aware of an individual named Truman Capote, but I didn’t really know much about him, and I had no interest in reading any of his works. Odd then that in the space of half a year I’ve now read, and enjoyed, his two most celebrated works. Enjoying—if that’s the right word—his seminal true crime tale In Cold Blood prompted me to seek out Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and I enjoyed this just as much, though can two books be so different?

Never having seen the film (actually that’s a lie as I think I’ve seen the final moments in the rain several times) I think I actually had a more romanticised notion about what Holly Golightly’s story was about, so it was a surprise to discover it was quite racy, with a dynamic female lead.

It’s hard to quite pinpoint what’s so good about it. Is it Capote’s prose, which is superb, each word seemingly chosen with utmost care, and yet never pretentious, never a chore, or is it Holly herself, a flighty girl about town who should be all rights be annoying, yet whose refusal to bow down to what society expects of her is somehow refreshing, especially when married to her clear fragility (and now I understand why Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe for the part), or is it Capote’s decision to give us a narrator who we know barely anything about (other than that he’s a writer) a man whose name we never learn, although Holly christens him Fred after her brother. It’s an interesting narrative choice, which allows Holly to remain the focus of the story, although Capote leaves just enough breadcrumbs to ensure we know full well that Fred loves Holly just as much as every other man she meets.

In the end I think the story’s strength is its sheer effortlessness, and the fact that it manages to be both flimsy and profound, much like Holly herself. Because it’s a novella it’s a slim tale, but it packs a lot in, and the ending is poignant. Holly may or may not find her forever home, but at least someone does.

The novella is supplemented by three short stories, and each in their own way is very different, and engaging. Of these the first is House of Flowers, the tale of a poor young girl living on the island of Haiti who’s torn between her love of a country man, and her former life as a prostitute. Of all the stories in the book this was probably my least favourite, and the one whose ending was least satisfactory, which doesn’t mean it wasn’t interesting.

A Diamond Guitar focuses on the relationship between two prisoners, a grizzled old lifer, and a passionate younger man. It’s a really well-crafted tale of a platonic love affair between two men, and features betrayal, hope and regret in equal measure, and Capote really gets inside the characters, making them believable human beings despite the story’s brevity. I really enjoyed it.

The final tale, which I’ve heard some describe as autobiographical, is A Christmas Memory, and tells the tale of a seven year old boy, and his elderly female cousin and their preparations for Christmas, which mainly revolve around a tradition of baking fruitcakes. I won’t say too much except that I found it a beautiful and incredibly touching story of love and friendship, and I’d rank it alongside the titular novella as my favourite story in the book, and it was the only one that very nearly moved me to tears at the end.

Highly recommended and I suspect I will be searching out more Capote before the end of the year.