Archive for the ‘Book reviews’ Category

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?

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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.

Meddling Kids

Posted: January 20, 2019 in Book reviews, horror
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By Edgar Cantero

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In the summer of 1977 in Blyton Hills, a small mining town in Oregon, a groups of child detectives known as the The Blyton Summer Detective Club, solved their final mystery when they unmasked a treasure hunter who was masquerading as the Sleepy Lake Monster in order to scare people away so he could search the abandoned Deboën Mansion for it’s supposed riches.

13 years later and the happy go lucky band of young detectives have long since gone their separate ways and all have problems. Kerri, the smart one, has issues with alcohol and struggles to complete her studies, nerd Nate is in and out of mental institutions, Andy, is a nomadic tomboy with anger management issues who’s wanted in several states, and Peter, the golden boy who made it big in Hollywood, has committed suicide.

Slowly but surely the gang come to realise that there was much more to their final case than they thought at the time, and that the horror of what truly happened that summer has haunted them ever since. Andy convinces the survivors to team up once more to uncover the real story, and so the trio, accompanied by the Weimaraner, Tim, descendant of their original dog, set off for Blyton Hills, but what they’ll find there goes way beyond a man in a mask, and these meddling kids might have bitten off more than they can chew.

For someone who grew up with Scooby Doo, the Famous Five, Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, there’s an obvious draw to a story that riffs on the child detectives of my youth, and mixing that with a tale of Lovecraftian horror should have been the icing on the cake.

Shame to report therefore that, despite an engaging premise, this was a book I struggled to love. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it in places, I just wish it had been more than the sum of its parts.

The central premise of a bunch of plucky kids struggling to find a place in the real world is intriguing, as is the post-modern slant. The trouble is this has been done to some extent, by Scooby Doo itself which in recent years reinvented itself by having real life monsters. It doesn’t help that the characters never seem more than ciphers, often the most interesting one was Tim.

The real problem however is Cantero’s prose, which is all over the place, he can’t even keep his style in place, for the most part it has a 3rd person narrative, but every so often, for no readily apparent reason except that perhaps he was bored, Cantero slips into a screenplay format, complete with camera directions and screenplay style dialogue. It’s incredibly jarring, as is Cantero’s purple prose and overabundance of allusions: Kerri’s hair is practically a character in its own right given the amount of description it gets. I’m sure some would say Cantero has a unique voice, but for me it was annoying and too often lifted me out of the story.

The story is well handled, though it does meander somewhat, and the monsters suitably monstrous in a Silent Hill kinda way.

It’s a decent enough read, but style over substance only really works if you like the style, and I merely tolerated it.

Maybe he’d have got away with it, if it wasn’t for this meddling reviewer?

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indexAbridged by James Goss from his original novelisation of the 1979 episode by Douglas Adams and David Fisher.

The Doctor and Romana arrive in Paris 1979 in hopes of a relaxing, cultured holiday, but all too soon they’re drawn into a plot to steal the Mona Lisa concocted by the mysterious Count Scarlioni. Throw a gritty British detective with a tendency to punch first and ask questions later, and a captive scientist working on time travel into the mix, and if the last of the Jagaroth have their way life on Earth won’t just be wiped out, it’ll have never existed in the first place!

Back in the day there was no Netflix, no iPlayer, no DVD boxsets and episodes of Dr Who were rarely replayed, so unless you were fortunate enough to have an early video recorder you had two options, the first was to make a sound recording of the episode, the other was to get hold of the novelisation, and from 1973 to 1991 Target books published practically every classic era story.

In recent years the BBC have resurrected the Target brand to release novelisations of modern Who episodes, including Russell T Davies writing an adaptation of Rose, and Steven Moffat with a novelisation of The Day of the Doctor. One of the few classic stories never to get the Target treatment (until now!) was City of Death.

It’s a lean novel, but no less fun for this. Of course Goss had great subject matter to work from, because the original script is a fun and frothy adventure (which depending on your view may be a good or a bad thing—some people don’t like the silliness inherent in this story, whilst others see it as a very early forerunner of how the modern show was able to marry the serious and the silly at the same time).

The dialogue sparkles, and because I’m so used to the serial it’s easy to hear the voices of Tom Baker, Lallla Ward, Julian Glover et al. So classic lines such as: “I say, what a wonderful butler! He’s so violent!” are as much a joy to read as they are to watch. Goss doesn’t just rely on the script however, and he fills in a lot of gaps, for example it’s made clearer here that Scaroth is only vaguely aware of his other splinters, in fact it seems Scarlioni doesn’t even realise he is a Jagaroth until the reveal at the end of part one which isn’t how it comes across on screen.

It isn’t perfect, but in the main what failings there are come from the source material, and to be honest the trope of aliens being responsible for human development is something that annoys me in far more Who stories than just this one.

I don’t know how this would read if you were unfamiliar with the source material, but as a fan I found this a fun read. Now I really must dig my DVD out!

Save the Cat!

Posted: November 20, 2018 in Book reviews, Regarding writing
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By Blake Snyder

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We’ve all sat in a lousy film at some time or another and thought, I could write something better than this. And so a whole industry has sprung up, with a multitude of gurus offering their patented way to million dollar script’dom…for a price, and even though the spec boom of the 1990s has long since passed, plenty of people are desperate enough to pod out as lot of money to learn the so called secrets of success.

Some books on script writing have gained more cachet than others of course, take Syd Field’s seminal work, and Save the Cat! Is one of those books, with its slightly arrogant subtitle as The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need it’s been the go to book for millions of aspiring screenwriters.

Well a million and one because obviously I’ve bought it too.

To be honest it’s only the second book on screenwriting I’ve ever bought, and the first was decades ago, because there’s a lot of great advice and guidance for aspiring screenwriters out th ere that doesn’t cost a penny, or certainly doesn’t cost very much (The University of East Anglia runs a free course through Futurelearn, and I’d also highly recommend the Scriptnotes podcast by John August and Craig Mazin. If you want to access the back catalogue it’s $1.99 a month, but the most recent 20 episodes are always free). But having said that I’d heard enough about Save the Cat to be intrigued, even though some of what I heard wasn’t that complementary.

You see what Snyder (who sadly passed away in 2009) promised was a fool proof blueprint for writing a successful script, and given the book cost less than a tenner I figured, what the hell, reasoning there was bound to be some useful information in there.

And to be fair, there is useful bits to be gleaned from this work, but I don’t think it’s the scriptwriting panacea it claims to be and certainly isn’t a skeleton key to unlock movie writing success.

The title refers to the act of having your lead prove they’re a good guy or gal by doing something worthy early on in the script, like saving a cat, although the odd thing is that he based this on Ripley saving Jones the cat in Alien, which she doesn’t actually do till near the end? It’s also worth noting that for much of Alien Ripley comes across as an officious jobsworth, none of which stops us rooting for her (especially once we realise that if she’d been allowed to keep the others outside nobody would have died…well apart from Kane obviously, but you can’t always save everyone). Anyway, the point is that even the title of the book seems a little erroneous if you give it some thought.

Snyder provides some interesting thoughts on genre, even going as far as to create his own list which is surprisingly useful, so rather than comedy/romance/horror movie etc. He lists ten genres, and here’s just a few: Buddy Love (which covers not only romance but buddy comedies) Dude with a Problem (think Die Hard) Monster in the House (which covers not only horror but a lot of thrillers) and Institutionalised (which covers anything from One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Police Academy).

Now we get into the meat of Snyder’s work, when he starts talking about the format of a screenplay, but this isn’t just about a three act structure, Snyder goes way deeper than this, micromanaging a script to the point where he claims that there’s effectively a tried and tested formula for writing a successful script.

He identifies 15 ‘beats’ and if you look online you’ll find numerous versions of his patented ‘Beat Sheet. This is all well and good, and structure is an important thing to get your head around, especially when you’re fairly new to screenwriting, so there’s “Theme stated” “Catalyst” “Fun and Games” and “All is Lost” to name but a few. The problem is the anal lengths Snyder insists you go to, even down to specifying exactly when certain things should happen! The catalyst must happen on page 20, you must introduce all your main characters in the first ten pages etc.

To be honest it’s a trifle ridiculous. In fairness Snyder did sell a lot of scripts, although only two of them ever got made; Blank Check (no I’ve never seen it either) and Stop or my Mom will Shoot (which again I’ve never seen but I have at least heard of) so he must have been doing something right. Even if this is the sure and certain path to success (and clearly it’s unlikely to be given how many copies of the book have been sold and the finite number of screenwriters out there) I’m not sure I want to write a cookie cutter script that hits all the right marks to impress some Hollywood reader who’s just looking for an identikit script.

But it was still an interesting read. Snyder’s prose is amiable enough (though he gets a trifle annoying at times when he becomes obsessed with how successful—or not— he feels Memento was) and there’s interesting stuff around loglines (those mini elevator pitches beloved of Hollywood) genre, structure, and the basis business of screenwriting, but I feel I’ve learned more about screenwriting from listening to John and Craig and from just watching movies/reading scripts so read it by all means, but don’t treat it as the be all and end all.