Archive for the ‘Book reviews’ Category

Thin Air

Posted: August 13, 2019 in Book reviews, horror
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51KucvZBi0L._SX343_BO1,204,203,200_by Michelle Paver

Kangchenjunga is the third highest mountain on Earth. It’s 1935 and a British expedition plan to be the first to reach the summit. The book’s narrator is Stephen, he’s the team doctor and his older brother Kits, who he has a fractious relationship with, is another of the climbers. The group, five British men and a small army of Sherpas, are following the route taken by an Edwardian party led by a man named Lyall. Lyall’s expedition was a failure and several men died. Lyall survived and wrote a book which Stephen and Kits read as a child, which is part of their reason for undertaking the expedition.

Before the expedition starts Stephen has a disturbing encounter with a man named Tennant, the only other survivor of Lyall’s expedition, who warns Stephen and his group not to follow the same path.

They ignore his warnings and begin their slow ascent.  As the journey continues Stephen becomes more and more convinced that there is a spectre on the mountainside, an entity that means them harm.  Kangchenjunga is one of the deadliest places on earth, but a restless spirit might make it even more hazardous for Stephen and the others.

 

Paver’s central idea is a great one, there have been many haunted houses over the years, not sure I’ve seen too many haunted mountains, but given even today may people don’t return from attempts to claim the highest peaks, the idea of restless spirits hovering between base camps is a doozy.

Her research is meticulous, and goes into incredible detail about how such an expedition mounted in the 1930s may have functioned. Similarly her characters feel real for the time, especially in their, at times, barely disguised racism in their treatment of the Sherpas, and yet despite this there are no pantomime villains here, well except maybe for Kits because I think she does overdo the smug older brother trope a little.

There’s a lot of build-up before anything supernatural happens, and at times it feels a little like a travelogue, but her prose is good and, as stated, her research excellent, so the book is always interesting, and there is a subtle but mounting sense of dread as they draw closer to the mountain.

Once they’re climbing for real the horror begins. This isn’t a gorefest, and I’ve read quite a few reviews that state it isn’t very scary, and in truth it isn’t that chilling, and I can see what some people have said about the ending being something of an anti-climax, but when it works it’s very unsettling, especially when Paver puts you on that mountain, because it’s easy to imagine you’re on the mountainside, all alone in a blizzard, with only thin canvas between you and the malevolent spirit outside. The origin of that spirit, when it’s explained, is pretty horrific as well.

Perhaps it never quite lives up to its high concept (pardon the pun) and maybe it almost works better as a tale of men against the environment than a ghost story, but I enjoyed it and was never bored. She wrote another book beforehand that sounds similar, with a ghostly presence haunting an arctic research station, and on the basis of Thin Air I’m inclined to search it out.

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Reservoir Dogs

Posted: July 27, 2019 in Book reviews
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By Quentin Tarantino

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Six criminals using codenames are hired to rob a jewellery store, but when they’re ambushed by the police a simple job turns into a bloody massacre. The survivors rendezvous at a deserted warehouse where it soon becomes apparent that one of them may be a rat.

Though not the first thing Tarantino wrote, Reservoir Dogs was his feature length debut, a violent crime thriller that cemented his reputation from the off as a man able to coolly marry violence with almost effortless dialogue.

Now I’ll be honest, I was never the greatest Reservoir Dogs fan in the world, it has a nasty streak running through it that always put me off somewhat, and I’m not even sure I could tell you the last time I watched it, but reading the script has planted the seed in my head of wanting to see it again because it reads so well.

In many ways Tarantino is a terrible example to look at if you’re planning to write screenplays yourself, not because he’s not good at what he does, but because he breaks so many rules. That he gets away with this shows you just how good a writer he is.

A standard rule of thumb is that sections of action or dialogue in a script should be relatively short, three or four lines at most, but Tarantino throws this rule out the window, douses it in petrol and sets fire to it while Stuck in the Middle with You plays on the stereo. Forget acres of whitespace as a good thing, his pages are packed with words, dense paragraphs three or four times the industry standard.

I suspect a lot of prospective screenwriters have flopped by trying to emulate Tarantino, thinking all it takes is cool, pop culture references and witty dialogue to write the next Pulp Fiction, but at his best there’s more to Tarantino than that.

His scene descriptions are quite stripped back, and at times his dialogue is relatively mundane taken out of context, it’s just that the turn of phrase he can bring to bear turns a chat about Like a Virgin, or the ethics of tipping into conversations you can’t take your ears off!

This is actually a sparse script, the story is fairly straightforward, we know early on who the undercover cop is, but the pleasure is in the interactions between the characters. Many have accused all Tarantino characters of sounding alike, I know I have on occasion, but on the page it’s so clear that every character in this has his own voice. You could remove the names and you’d still probably be able to identify Mr Pink’s dialogue, or Mr Blonde, or Nice Guy Eddie, or Mr White, and whilst you may not like these characters, they’re all interesting and they’re clearly each the hero of his own story.

I haven’t always liked everything Tarantino’s done, especially his later work, but reading Reservoir Dogs one thing is clear. The guy has talent.

Essential reading for fans of his work and/or those interested in screenwriting, just don’t plan on copying his style, because you’ll fall flat on your face if you do.

51pTAwfCAhL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Edited by Stephen Jones

A collection of chilling short stories and novellas published in 2012.

I always have a feeling of trepidation when I buy a book like this. The days when I hung onto every book I ever read are long gone, and I read a lot of anthologies like this, so I always worry that I’ll pick up an anthology I’ve read before. Luckily within the first couple of stories it was clear I’d never encountered this collection before, so phew!

As with any anthology there’s good and bad in here, which at least means if you didn’t like a tale, you’ll probably like the next one, or at least the one after that.

There’s 26 stories in here and I don’t intend to go through all of them, but I will highlight the ones I thought were most impressive, and maybe some of the duds as well…

Some Kind of Light Shines from Your Face by Gemma Files is an interesting tale of carnivals and Greek myths in the Depression era dustbowl. Like the location its set in, it’s an arid read, and the notion of Gorgons existing on the edge of 1930s American society is an intriguing one.

The Photographer’s Tale by Daniel Mills is a story of a possibly haunted lens that allows a photographer in 19th Century America to see more than he’s bargained for. This is one of my favourites, the conceit is an intriguing, if not wholly original one, but the execution is well handled, and like all the best horror, it’s about more than is at first apparent, in this case the sins of the past and a profound guilt at past wrongs.

The Tower by Mark Samuels is one I didn’t like. Maybe I didn’t ‘get’ it, and I’m sure this tale of a man who sees a mysterious tower in London that he can never reach has a broader meaning I’m just not understanding, but I was glad to get past it.

I’m a sucker for a pulpy detective story, especially one with supernatural overtones, so I enjoyed Dancing Like We’re Dumb by Peter Atkins. The punkish lesbian detective Kitty Donnelly makes for an engaging narrator, and while the end was a trifle limp, for the most part this tale of possessed old records was a blast!

In Miri by Steve Rasnic Tem the protagonist is still haunted by what can best be described as an emotional vampire who he had a relationship with at university. An uncomfortable story with some disturbing ideas behind it.

Sad, Dark Thing by Michael Marshall Smith is a meditation on depression and a cautionary tale about driving down remote backwoods’ roads!

Smithers and the Ghosts of the Thar by Robert Silverberg is an interesting tale of a mysterious phantom town in colonial India, told in the style of Kipling. I liked it, but did feel it was more a fantasy tale than an out and out horror. There’s more than a touch of Brigadoon about it.

The Crawling Sky by Joe R. Lansdale touched a nerve somewhat because his tale of a demonic presence living in a well in the old west is kinda similar to something I’ve written myself! True what they say, there’s no new ideas under the sun. Luckily our respective tales deviate quite a bit! Anyway, it’s good.

Wait by Conrad Williams was a little disappointing, but bonus points for his cave system being modelled on Poole’s Cavern in Buxton which I’ve been to, and the idea of caves that have remained sealed for millions of years is an interesting one, even if the execution was only so-so.

The Ocean Grand, North West Coast by Simon Kurt Unsworth features an interesting trio of characters, with a grand old art deco hotel providing the fourth. The ideas at work were intriguing, but like so many horror stories the ending was somewhat limp.

The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer by John Ajvide Lindqvist is an unsettling tale of a father and son who move to a remote cabin, where the son begins piano lessons but soon starts playing music that should never be played…

Like I say, a decent anthology, albeit the usual mixed bag of good and bad tales, but I’m sure there’s something in here to provoke a few nightmares!

Picnic at Hanging Rock

Posted: May 24, 2019 in Book reviews
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71xqeY6UPhL.jpgBy Joan Lindsay

It’s Valentine’s Day 1900, and in Australia the girls of Appleyard College, a private boarding school, undertake a picnic to Hanging Rock, a distinctive geological formation created by volcanic activity millions of years ago. During the afternoon four students wander off to climb the rocks. Eventually one of the girls returns, distraught and dishevelled. A search is conducted but no trace of the girls is found, and in addition it’s discovered that one of the teachers is missing too.

As the days pass the search becomes more and more intense, but even after one of the girls is found the mystery is no nearer to being unravelled. Did they fall and die in an ancient cave, were they carried away by nefarious individuals intent on rape and murder, or is there a more mystical explanation?

We may never know, but the disappearances hang heavy over the staff and pupils of the school, as well as a young Englishman who was almost the last person to see the girls, and tragedy will follow tragedy, because with no resolution in sight, can anyone really move on?

 

I half remember watching the film as a child (and probably being unimpressed because there was no grand reveal) but this may be a fake memory for all I know. I do know that the tale of Australian schoolgirls going missing in the outback seeped into my consciousness, especially since it became apparent that it was a true story.

Except of course it isn’t, that was just a literary trick of author Lindsay, the 1960s equivalent of Myrick and Sanchez insisting that three students really had wandered into the woods in search of the Blair Witch and vanished into thin air.

It’s a heck of a good device however, and the book is peppered with pseudo journalistic prose.

Even after reading it I’m unsure whether I liked it. In very real terms you can argue not much happens, the disappearances happen very early on and (spoiler) the mystery is never resolved (There is a missing chapter that provides far more of an explanation-more on that later). For much of the book, which is lean but not a quick read, it’s more about the effect the disappearances have on everyone else.

Still it has kind stuck with me. There’s a dreamlike quality to some of the prose, and a fascination with nature that’s a little unsettling, and Lindsay does sprinkle tiny clues here and there. The fact that watches stop working near to the rock formation, the fact that the missing teacher, Miss McCraw, is a mathematician obsessed with finding short cuts, a death later on that its never clear whether is murder or suicide, and the sense of dread hanging over the school, as if everyone is somehow cursed.

Lindsay is prone to waffle at times, and though it becomes clearer later on, initially it’s difficult to determine who various people are, despite a list of characters at the start of the kind you might find in a play, and the fact that two of the missing girls are Miranda and Marion doesn’t help.

Lindsay does catch you off guard, in particular the return of the one girl who’s found to school does not go remotely as I’d have imagined.

A book that’s as intriguing as it is infuriating.

* * *

Ok, now a few spoilery bits

The missing chapter, which I’ve only read a precis of, seems to make it abundantly clear that the girls travel through some kind of time warp, possibly even transforming into animals as they go (very aboriginal). Still this leaves questions. The girls meet a woman they don’t recognise but it must obviously be Miss McCraw, except she doesn’t recognise them and vice versa, could it be that she’s been in this other world far longer? Enough time to lose her mind and become unrecognisable to the girls? And where does this leave Irma, the girl who’s found, how come she isn’t discovered during the initial search? Was she caught up in some other time, and spat back out later?

I can see why her editor suggested excising the chapter, the best mystery is one that isn’t explained after all.

A couple of other points. First is Mike’s failed romance with Irma. The book suggests he steps away from her because it’s Miranda he was drawn to (as it seems is everyone) and in many respects he’s clearly guilt-ridden for feeling that he rescued the wrong girl, but I wonder if Lindsay had more at play here. Mike’s friendship with his uncle’s coachman, Albert, is quite intense, and remember, though Mike heads off to the Northern territories, he’s quite insistent that he wants Albert to go with him, so are they merely friends, or something more, something neither man could admit to?

There’s certainly a homoerotic undercurrent at work in the book, as I’ve said everyone seems enraptured by Miranda, and again this seems to go beyond friendship in the case of some of the girls.

Finally there’s the mystery of what happens to Sara, the orphan Mrs Appleyard, who’s never presented as anything but a nasty piece of work, detests. At first I thought Mrs Appleyard killed her, but in hindsight I realise we’re supposed to realise Sara killed herself, which explains why Mrs Appleyard was searching her room, she was looking for the suicide note.

Mrs Appleyard does at least get her comeuppance, making her way to the Hanging Rock and hurling herself from its heights. I wonder though, was her intention suicide, or was she hoping to escape her many problems by somehow following the girls and Miss McCraw to wherever, or whenever, they ended up?

The Princess Diarist

Posted: April 30, 2019 in Book reviews
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indexBy Carrie Fisher

Published not long before her death this is a memoir centred in the main around the filming of A New Hope (i.e. Star Wars Episode IV, or just plain Star Wars). In it Carrie talks about her early life as the child of celebrities, and her initial desire not to follow her mother and father into showbusiness, a desire she failed at the first hurdle by  auditioning for and getting a role in Warren Beatty’s Shampoo, from here Star Wars was her second job, and there’s fascinating info around her casting, and interesting titbits around the decision to go with that iconic hairdo!

The bulk of the book, however, is taken up with recollections of her affair with Harrison Ford during the filming of Star Wars, something both kept a secret for decades. The decision to make this public now was, apparently, connected to her finding her old journals from that time, and these pages are replicated in the middle of the book. I’ve seen some people make the argument that Carrie was cashing in on her return to fame with the release of The Force Awakens, throwing Harrison under the bus, as it were, to turn a quick buck. Maybe this is true, maybe not. I’m not going to begrudge her making some money, or in revealing secrets 40 odd years after the fact.

What’s interesting, or maybe not, is how uninteresting this revelation is. As a kiss and tell goes, she doesn’t really tell us that much, yet spends a long time doing it, and the abiding thought it left me with was a slight uncomfortableness with a 34 year old guy conducting an affair with a 19 year old woman, albeit one who probably gave the impression of being far more worldly and less innocent than she actually was at that time.

The early sections are very interesting, and the bits relating to Ford diverting at least. The replicated journal entries are everything you might expect of a lovestruck 19 year old with a way with words, for me it was a trudge to get through this bit, but others might feel differently.

The final part of the book concentrates on more recent events, and Carrie talks a lot about fans and signing autographs, and about the fact that to many people she’s indistinguishable from Leia. This section’s quite melancholic, and it’s painful to read her recounting the tale of a fan telling another fan who’d balked at how much she charged for an autograph, that at least it’d be worth more once she was dead.

Carrie always had a way with words, and was a best-selling author and a noted scriptwriter, so this reads well, and there is interesting stuff in here. It all just feels a little lightweight and thrown together, with the journal entries and the revelation around her and Harrison being the major selling point, with the other bits little more than padding. Odd then that these extra bits turned out to be the parts I enjoyed the most.

At the end of the day it’s worth reading if you’re a fan, but maybe not worth paying full price for. It hasn’t made me admire Carrie any less, and maybe even made me like her more.

By Nick Clark Windo

s-l300In the near future, everyone is connected to the Feed, a near constant link to both the internet and everyone else’s thoughts and feelings. In this world Tom and Kate struggle to retain some sense of themselves, opting to go ‘slow’ on occasion by turning off the Feed. When a world-wide cataclysm hits however, everyone’s connection to the Feed is severed. In this new, harsh post-apocalyptic world Tom and Kate, plus their daughter Bea, struggle to survive, but even in a world of famine and disease, plagued by bandits, there is an even greater threat out there. Just why does everyone have to be watched as they sleep?

 If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know I love a good post-apocalyptic tale (hell I’ve written two post-apocalyptic novels, City of Caves and Darker Times) so this novel intrigued me when I spotted it in the book shop, and I just had to buy it.

It’s a curious read, and it would be harsh to say I didn’t enjoy it, and it certainly kept me hooked to the end, but by the same token I found it flickered between being really interesting, and incredibly mundane.

The central premise is fantastic, most of us today would struggle to survive without the trappings of technology, and Windo turns this up to 11 by envisaging a world even more reliant on the internet than ours, and then taking it away from them, and the notion of people having to learn things they never really knew, just accessed, is intriguing, but even more fascinating is the addition of a more insidious threat, and a curious invasion that was behind the collapse of civilisation. There’s also a killer twist at one point which certainly took me by surprise.

I think the trouble is that outside of the window dressing, Windo doesn’t quite know what story he wants to tell, and for too much of the page count what we’re left with is characters trudging from one location to another, camping out, feasting on berries, and talking, they do a lot of talking, which would be fine if it was always interesting, but too often the book’s just a bit turgid.

And whilst the setting is fantastic, this is a double-edged sword because it separates us from the characters. It’s like writing an opening chapter set in the Star Trek universe, then destroying the Federation, it’s hard to understand what people have lost when we can’t necessarily relate to it. Similarly it took me a while to realise the book is set in England (at least I’m pretty sure it’s England). I’m not sure whether muddying the waters as the location was a deliberate choice to appeal to as wide a market as possible, but again it serves only to distance the reader from the story. Similarly Tom, and especially Kate, seem little more than ciphers. The most interesting character, Sylene, who we meet later on is perhaps the most fully rounded person in the book.

Like I say, the premise and twist are worth the price of admission alone, and there’s a nice hint of something akin to Wool about the world, I just wish the story hadn’t been quite so bleak, and quite so meandering. You could have chopped 50/100 pages out and not really damaged the story.

Tentatively recommended.

9781910400739By James Hawes

I did my degree in history, yet oddly I’ve probably read more history books later in life than I ever did at University, which is something I apparently have in common with David Mitchell (as in Mitchell and Webb David Mitchell, not the guy who wrote Cloud Atlas—although maybe he’s developed a fondness for history later in life as well?)

The trouble with history is that there’s rather a lot of it, and a lot of history books—especially ones that cover a long period of time—tend to be large, often impenetrable tomes, which tends to put me off, so what Hawes does here is truly amazing, detailing the history of Germany from the time of the Romans, through to the era of Angela Merkal, in just a few hundred pages.

Sure, a lot of nuance is probably lost, but for that I could always drill down in more detail and Hawes’ book is a great overview that gives you a taste of German history and leaves you eager to learn more.

It is, at times, a depressing read. From the opening pages we learn that the Roman Empire was concerned about immigration, savages heading south to steal jobs and corrupt Roman culture. The more things change the more they stay the same, eh? And of course the rise of the far right and Hitler, which Hawes understandably goes into a lot of detail about, seems pertinent even today, but he notes that anti-Semitism didn’t start with Hitler, Adolf just took it to a hideous extreme.

We start with Romans and Franks, and Charlemagne the Holy Roman Emperor who united much of Western Europe from 800AD. Later we meet the Teutonic Knights who founded the region that will come to be known as Prussia, and one of the most interesting facets of German history is this conflict between East and West; the West predominantly Catholic, leaning more towards France and England, whilst the East was more protestant—Martin Luther came from the East after all. And so there’s a tussle for the soul of Germania, with one side alternately battling with/eager to emulate France, England and eventually America, and the other side obsessed by Poland and Russia, and in displacing the slavs, and Hawes makes an interesting argument that the worst thing that happened to West Germany was the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification.

Hawes’ prose is eminently readable, yet he manages to explain complex issues without ever needing to dumb down the material. If I had one flaw it’s with the maps, which in the paperback version have been poorly shrunk to the point where at times they’re barely legible, but this is a minor niggle. overall a hugely enjoyable, and hugely informative read.