Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

Matryoshka

Posted: June 7, 2021 in Book reviews
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By Penny Jones

Lucy thinks there’s something wrong with her husband, Mark. She keeps hearing rumours, whispers behind her back. Why is he always working late? And what of the mysterious neighbour who looks eerily like a young Lucy? Fearful of forces beyond her understanding, Lucy will go to any lengths to protect both her young daughter and her unborn child.

This novella is a quick read, but it is a powerful story, and if I was slightly disappointed this was down to some reviews indicating it was more ambiguous than it actually is, because unless I missed something this is a relatively straightforward story, unsettling yes, but I was never in any doubt what was going on.

Lucy is an empathetic protagonist in spite, or perhaps because of everything, and the portrayal of the kind of depression many mothers must deal with is moving. I genuinely cared for and worried about Lucy, but I was also incredibly worried for her daughter and her unborn baby.

The presence of a few typos was a little disappointing, but overall a well written story about mental health that left me desperate to know what happened next!

Norse Mythology

Posted: May 17, 2021 in Book reviews
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By Neil Gaiman

It should be noted that much of what I know of Norse mythology comes courtesy of Gaiman, even before I read this. There’s obviously American Gods, but even back in his Sandman days he’d slip in Odin, Loki and co. Here he commits to a deep dive into Norse mythology that goes way beyond the usual suspects like Thor, though as he says in his foreword, sadly many tales have been lost over the years.

What’s amazing is the way he takes what appear to be disparate stories on the face of it, and weaves them into a narrative arc that takes us from the creation of the nine worlds though to the final days of Ragnarok- in between are takes of giants and dwarves, gods and mortals, betrayal, humour and love. You might know some of what’s in here, but it’s doubtful you’ll know it all-I certainly didn’t!

Gaiman has always been a master wordsmith and this book is no exception. His prose is excellent, yet sparse, making this a rip-roaring read, a real page turner that never outstays it’s welcome and leaves you wanting more. I really enjoyed it.

by Darryl Jones

Why do we frighten ourselves for fun? Why is horror such a huge genre? Books, films, TV shows. Darryl Jones, English Literature professor from Trinity College Dublin, strives to explain.

I’ve always enjoyed horror, right from being a kid and watching old Hammer films. I remember being terrified of the original Blob, and the thought of sleeping with the curtains open still gives me the shivers thanks to the miniseries of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, shown on the BBC in the eighties, so Jones’ book appealed. It helped that it had such a groovy cover as well.

It’s a slim text, less than 200 pages, but no less interesting for that. Jones splits his treatise into various sections; Monsters, the Occult and Supernatural, Horror and the Body, Horror and the Mind, Science and Horror, and dips into books and films related to each section. From vampires to zombies to the devil, serial killers to mad scientists. And he doesn’t only talk about (relatively) modern horror, pointing out that horror predates Stephen King, MR James, and even Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Shakespeare deals with horror, and Jones goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks.

Horror has always been with us and always fascinated us, but it isn’t some one size fits all, generic genre, and Jones makes an important distinction between Terror and Horror; Terror is about fear, Horror is about shock (and below both is Revulsion, the gross out.)

Jones has interesting things to say, and even when going over old ground he seemed to find something new to say. I won’t say I always agreed with him, but Jones’ scholarly approach is always interesting, even when I didn’t, and I learned a lot, because for a small book its chock full of little morsels of information; For example the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould who wrote an influential treatise on werewolves in 1865, was also the man who wrote the words to Onward Christian Soldiers, and Jones makes an interesting link between the rise of the supernatural and Darwin’s Origin of the Species, as Darwin strove to explain the world, those of a religious bent reacted by emphasising the spiritual.

An interesting read for anyone interested in horror, or why people gravitate towards horror, that emphasises the cathartic nature of horror, and makes the point that many of those involved in the enjoyment and creation of horror are well adjusted level-headed people. Horror is good for you!

Well I could have told you that 😉

The Usual Suspects

Posted: April 19, 2021 in Book reviews, Film reviews
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By Christopher McQuarrie

In the aftermath of a brutal gun battle on board a ship in San Pedro Bay, twenty-seven people are dead, and there are only two survivors. One is a badly burned Hungarian mobster, the other is Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint, a con artist with cerebral palsy. Verbal has somehow managed to wangle immunity for almost all of the crimes he’s been involved in, but still US customs agent Dave Kujan flies in from New York to interview Verbal. His interest is in a former cop turned hardened criminal Dean Keaton, a man who may or may not have died during the gun battle in San Pedro.

Verbal explains the series of events that led to he, and Keaton, winding up on the dock. It began weeks earlier when Verbal, Keaton and three other criminals (Michael McManus, Fred Fenster and Todd Hockney) are arrested in New York in connection with the hijacking of a truck full of weapons. Used as a line-up they are quickly released, and just as quickly decide to team up to rob some corrupt cops. After one successful job they embark upon a second in LA, but things don’t go to plan and they find they’ve been brought together at the behest of Keyser Söze, a mythical Turkish gangster, quite literally the bogeyman.  Söze claims they’ve all stolen from him in the past, and now to clear their debt he wants them to attack a ship in San Pedro Bay.

Kujan is convinced Keaton is actually Söze and that he survived the massacre in San Pedro, but is he right?

Okay clear spoiler warning here. This review relates t the script of a 25 year old film with one heck of a twist in the tail and if you somehow have managed to avoid that spoiler for goodness sake just go and watch the film! Otherwise carry on reading.

McQuarrie won the best original screenplay Oscar for this, and it’s easy to see why because it’s exceptionally well put together. It’s a lean script, without an ounce of fat and with not a single extraneous scene that doesn’t contribute something towards the plot. Yes you could argue that the characters are thinly drawn yet none quite feel like mere cyphers, and this is a script that comes down to it’s plotting, an elegant case of misdirection, a magic trick using words instead of smoke and mirrors. It’s easy to see why this won an Oscar and it’s a great example of writing that I think every script writer, or aspiring script writer could learn from reading.

The Film

Reading the script inspired me to watch the film again, for perhaps the first time this century! Given I’d watched it so recently after reading the script it seemed churlish not to say a few words about the film as well.

Now obviously this is a film that comes with a lot of baggage these days, directed by Bryan Singer and starring Kevin Spacy. Heck you can even throw in the late great Pete Postlethwaite in brownface with a dodgy Indian accent for good measure. Oh, and the sole female character exists only in relation to Keaton.

But still, this is a very good film—how could it not be coming off of that script—and yes it’s directed very well, and damn it if Spacy isn’t annoyingly good. With hindsight it seems much more obvious that Kint is Keyser Söze, heck in that early scene on the boat you can make out it’s Spacy and hear his voice, of course much of that might just be knowing what to look for! Similarly the big reveal feels a little less special, and damn Kint must have really good eyesight given how far away from the noticeboard he is.

But the measure of a good film, especially one dependant on a twist, is how enjoyable it is when you know what’s coming, and this was still a hugely enjoyable film, and the decent cast make the best of wafer think roles (kudos to del Toro who damn near steals the show). A sharp, violent thrill ride that still holds up a quarter of a century later.  

The Lady in the Lake

Posted: April 6, 2021 in Book reviews
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By Raymond Chandler

When PI Philip Marlowe is hired by rich businessman Derace Kingsley to find his wife, Crystal, he has no idea how what seems like a simple case will skew into something with wider implications. Supposedly Crystal has eloped with her lover, a gigolo named Chris Lavery, only Lavery is still in Bay City, and there’s no sign of Crystal with him.

Marlowe’s investigations will take him from Bay City up into the countryside and Little Fawn Lake, where Kingsley has a cabin. Suddenly it isn’t only Crystal Kingsley who might be missing. What happened to Muriel Chess, wife of the caretaker of Kingsley’s cabin, and what, if any, connection is there between the two women and the wife of Dr Almore, a woman who died months before, and who lived across the road from Lavery? And how is thuggish cop Al Degarmo involved?

My third Chandler novel, and yes I am reading them all out of order, but this doesn’t seem to matter so I’ll continue doing so. The plot of this book felt somewhat more organised than in the other books I’d read, and I had wondered if this was an original story by Chandler, but no, checking after finishing it becomes apparent that yet again Chandler cannibalised three of his short stories. For saying that it’s impossible to see the joins, he knits the distinct elements together well, and I’ve no desire to dig deeper into the matter because the novel worked just fine for me, in fact for once Chandler caught me on the hop with the final reveal, and what at first seems a relatively simple tale is far more serpentine than I’d imagined, with great characters and a notable femme fatale.

It’s interesting to see Marlowe out of his comfort zone and away from LA, and to see references to soldiers guarding the dam on his way to the lake, this was written not long after Pearl Harbour and American found itself once more at war. There’s a great little section that talks about how politics and policing needs good people, but doesn’t always pay enough to attract them which is still quite pertinent almost a century later.

Though at times it’s a little old fashioned, particularly grammatically, I continue to adore Chandler’s prose. Before the next Chandler novel I might investigate his short stories, though I am nervous of chancing upon the basis for some of his books.

All in all a fine outing for Philip Marlowe.

by Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton

For those unaware, Inside No.9 is a BBC anthology show, each episode a self-contained half hour story, usually set in a single location (a house, a car, even a wardrobe once). The series is comedy of the darkest variety and aside from the statue of a hare that can be seen in most episodes, the only  linking element is the use of the number 9, often in highly ingenious ways. Written by League of Gentlemen alumni Shearsmith and Pemberton, each episode features one (usually both) of the actors, in addition to a phenomenal list of guest stars, attracted not only by the quality of the material but by the singular nature of each episode.

Following in the footsteps of anthology shows like Armchair Theatre and Tales of the Unexpected, Inside No. 9’s great strength is the range of stories it can tell, from domestic dramas to gothic horror. No two tales in each series are alike and the writers are incredibly inventive. The humour is black, the stories often tragic, and horror is a repeating theme, and though there isn’t always a twist in the tale, most episodes feature one. It’s also a gloriously moving show as well, and the only limits seem to be the imaginations of its creators, and they seem to have a surfeit of creativity.

When I spotted that the scripts for the first three series had been released, I immediately added it to my Christmas wish list, and thankfully Santa obliged.

The main takeaway from reading these scripts is the reinforcement of just how good Pemberton and Shearsmith are as writers. Take series 2’s ‘The 12 Days of Christine’ arguably the strongest episode of the show to date, part of it’s charm was a fantastic lead performance from Sheridan Smith as the eponymous Christine. She’s wonderful, bringing Christine to life, making us love her and breaking our hearts in the process, but even without Smith the story itself is a masterpiece that grabs your heartstrings and tugs for all it’s worth, and I felt myself welling up as I got to the story’s end, even though I knew what was coming.

Sure, some work better than others on the page. Take Sardines, which has such a huge cast of characters that it’s difficult to keep track when you don’t have faces on screen, but some other episodes worked even better. I probably enjoyed Last Gasp more on the page than I had when I watched it for example. On the whole though, the thing with Inside No.9 is that you can find something joyous, even in episodes that left you a little cold (comparatively speaking, not sure there’s ever been an episode I didn’t enjoy to some extent.) and reading the scripts really hammers home, not only that they’re good writers, but also that they’re clever writers—take the central conceit at the heart of ‘The Devil of Christmas’, or the intellectual contortions of ‘The Riddle of the Sphynx’ or the use of song lyrics to reveal character and plot in ‘Empty Orchestra’.

This isn’t just a cold intellectual appreciation though, at times reading the script elicited genuine cares, genuine pathos, and very often I found myself laughing out loud.

For fans of the show, for those interested in great TV writing, and frankly for anyone interested in good writing of any kind. Highly recommended.

I can’t wait to get my hands on the next volume!

by Becky Chambers

In a bid to leave her old life behind, Rosemary Harper joins the crew of the spaceship Wayfarer as a file clerk. She quickly fits in amongst the multispecies, and somewhat unconventional crew and life is good. But then the crew get an offer they can’t refuse, the chance to build a hyperspace tunnel from a distant part of the galaxy. They’ll each earn a fortune, the trouble is they have to take the slow way there, and they’re going to have to pass through hostile terrain. Can the plucky crew survive the challenges the universe has in store for them?

There are books I love, and books I hate, but perhaps the saddest books are those that disappoint. The blurb of this book hooked me, and the opening chapters reeled me in. Yes, there’s more than a hint of Firefly here, but compared to some homages I’ve read this was at least well done. Chambers’ world building was good, and her characters leapt off the page.

The concept is great, the universe is nicely put together, and the characters (mostly) interesting…

Yet in the end I felt a little cheated.

 Why’s that, you ask? Well in the main because there’s one vital ingredient missing from the story of this crazy diverse crew. Drama. I was tempted to add plot as well, but there is a plot, sort of. I was about a third of the way through before I realised they really were taking the long way to that small angry planet, and worse they were taking the episodic route as well. This was originally self-published and at first I wonder if it’d been released in instalments, because it has that feel about it. Episode 1: shopping. Episode 2: Space insects. Episode 3: Pirates… etc.

This is fine, the characters are interesting enough that the fact that they meander from one situation to the next didn’t bother me that much. The trouble is the lack of drama. Seriously, every problem they face is resolved quickly and easily with the minimum amount of fuss or danger. It gets to the point where I stopped getting excited as the next big thing showed up, because I knew the tension was going to be sucked out of the situation within a page or so, and regular as clockwork it was.

Don’t get me wrong, as a Trek fan the idea of characters resolving issues through chat rather than gunplay isn’t anathema to me but at least mix it up a little.

And don’t get me started on the disappointment of what happens (or maybe what doesn’t happen) when they finally reach the titular small angry planet.

I did enjoy it up to a point though. Chambers’ prose is excellent, and while I’ve read better world building, I read an awful lot worse. Characters like Jenks and Kizzy and Dr Chef and Sissix were fun and interesting. I just wish they’d had more difficulty reaching that small angry planet, and, you know, maybe spent some time there.

Perhaps for all my protestations of being an optimist, in the end I’m too cynical for this nicest of nice stories, or maybe I just want something that isn’t quite so wet. In the end I’d still recommend it as a decent read, just don’t get your hopes up for edge of the seat excitement.  

Edited by John Joseph Adams

I’m the kind of contrarian who, on a blazing hot summer’s day, would squirrel myself away in a cool, dark cinema (and will again once its safe to do so) so perhaps its no great surprise that during a pandemic I would find comfort in an anthology of post-apocalyptic stories.

Some may find this curious but to me it makes perfect sense. Much as fictional horror helps us process the real horrors of the world, what better way to deal with a pandemic that, terrible as it is isn’t going to destroy humanity, than by getting lost in stories where characters really are facing the end of it all.

This is far more than a collection of mere Mad Max clones, and Adams has pulled together an interesting, and eclectic collection of stories. For starters there’s dizzying array of apocalypses on offer, from your run of the mill nuclear Armageddon to your biological weapon running amok. There’s climate change and alien invasion and simple even ennui as deep time ensures that humanity is simply too bored to go on.

And the characters are as varied as the settings. Adams has drawn writers from a diverse background, which means we get to see as many women as men facing the end of the world, with people of different ethnicities and sexualities struggling with Armageddon. There’s even disabled and trans characters. On both counts this helps keep the collection fresh though there’s still action aplenty.

There’s over 30 stories on offer, so I’m not going to go through them all, but here’s a selection of ones I particularly enjoyed.

The Last to Matter by Adam-Troy Castro is a surreal jaunt to the far future. It’s completely bizarre and could have been annoying as hell but somehow Castro keeps the right side of weird.

Where Would You Be Now by Carrie Vaughn shines a positive light on the post-apocalyptic environment, taking unexpected turns and flipping the usual evil brigands’ trope.

The Elephants Crematorium by Timothy Mudie depicts a world where no more babies are born but rather than focus on how humans react to this the story instead relates to elephants, and it’s genuinely moving.

As Good as New by Charlie Jane Anders takes the monkey’s paw/genie of the lamp tale and gives it a fresh end of the world spin. Original and amusing.

Cannibal Acts by Maureen F. McHugh takes grim subject matter but layers it with emotion. Nowhere near as lurid as the titles suggests.

Shooting the Apocalypse by Paolo Bacigalupi feels very prescient, featuring a photographer and a journalist looking for a story in a near future world where climate change has caused drought to blight various southern American states. It’s tale of desperate people risking everything to cross borders feels scarily like it’s only a few years away from being reality.

Come on Down by Meg Ellison shows how even the most curious of things, a game show, can provide hope in the most trying of times.

Polly Wanna Cracker? by Greg Van Eekhout is another quite surreal, far future entry, but it’s amusing and features a great last line.

I really enjoyed And the Rest Of Us Wait by Corrine Duyvis, set in an underground shelter it follows a young Latvian pop star who also happens to be disabled. Another story that essays the curious things people might take hope in, while also detailing the difficulties the differently abled might face in the event of the apocalypse. A story I desperately wanted to continue.

So Sharp, So Bright, So Final by Seanan McGuire is, on the face of it a zombie tale, but Seanan gives it an inventive, grounded twist, and it’s very well written.

Snow by Dale Bailey starts out as a tale of disease sweeping the world, but morphs into something else entirely, and takes a heart-breaking journey into the dividing line between love and survival.

The Air Is Chalk by Richard Kadrey has echoes of The Omega Man, the central character a celebrity bodyguard trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles menaced by…well some very strange monsters!

Finally Francisca Montoya’s Almanac Of Things That Can Kill You by Shaenon K. Garrity rounds off the collection. An inventive entry that on the face of it is merely a list of the various deaths available at the end of the world, yet still manages to tell a story.

As with any anthology there’s good and bad, but there were very few tales I didn’t enjoy on some level. The only flaw is that it’s quite a weighty tome, which meant that, by around three quarters of the way in, even I was starting to tire of the end of the world, but that’s a minor foible. A very good anthology.

Bone Silence

Posted: December 19, 2020 in Book reviews, science fiction
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By Alastair Reynolds

And so we reach the final part of the trilogy that began with Revenger and continued with Shadow Captain.

I’ll try to keep spoilers for this book to a minimum but obviously may reveal things about the previous two novels, so be forewarned.

<insert spoiler gap here>

Having inadvertently caused a major financial crisis across the congregation the Ness sisters, Fura and Adrana, along with their mismatched crew, find themselves and their former pirate ship still hunted by a fleet of ships now led by an implacable enemy more ruthless than either of the sisters. Now they must not only evade capture, but also try and solve the twin mysteries that have intrigued them both. What is the true purpose of the Quoins, the curious currency in use across the thousands of worlds of the Congregation, and what force is it that restarts humanity after each Congregation falls into anarchy (humans are now in their 13th).

As the sisters become separated each must face off against nefarious foes, but if they’re lucky, not only will they survive, they might just discover answers to those questions, answers that may change the nature of the Congregation, of all future Congregations, forever.

Well after each of the previous books was told from the POV of one of the sisters, here Reynolds eschews the first person for a third person view that broadens the scope of the story, and its no surprise that this is the meatiest novel of the three.

I’ve really enjoyed the trilogy, and whilst Reynolds says in his afterward that this is the last we’ll see of the Ness sisters for a while, he also acknowledges that they might force his hand and shoehorn their way back into his thinking. I really hope they do, because while questions are answered, you feel there’s still a long way for the Ness sisters, and the Congregation to go, and having created such a vibrant far future world of pirates and privateers, it’d be a real shame if he doesn’t return to it because there’s still so much untapped potential.

As always Reynolds’ prose is superb, and I found myself caught by a horrible dilemma. On the one hand I could barely the put the book down—page turner doesn’t do it justice—but by the same token I really didn’t want it to end.

The Ness sisters are great creations, but the real star of the story is the world Reynolds created, a radically altered solar system tens of thousands of years hence, yet analogous with the 18th Century high seas, with the planets long since broken up to form thousands of tiny worlds, some planetoids, some huge space stations. Suffice to say from the grandest element to the absolute minutiae Reynolds’ worldbuilding is as superb as ever.

It isn’t perfect. Many of the supporting characters do blend into one another, the villain deserved more screen time, and the ending feels a little rushed, but these are minor gripes. A fab end to a fab trilogy. I only hope it doesn’t remain a trilogy for long!

Summer Crossing

Posted: November 5, 2020 in Book reviews
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By Truman Capote

Grady McNeil, a 17-year-old debutante, refuses to travel to Europe with her parents and instead remains in New York where she pursues a relationship with Clyde Manzer, a Jewish parking lot attendant. Over the course of a sweltering summer their relationship becomes increasingly serious, even as the cultural and class divides between them becomes ever more obvious.

I came to admire Capote quite by chance. A few years ago the university I worked at gave away free copies of In Cold Blood and, never one to turn down a free book, I took one, not expecting to read it. But read it I did and blimey it was amazing! Having enjoyed one book, I soon snapped up Breakfast at Tiffanys, and again I really enjoyed it. Of course even when I decide I like a writer I can be very slow in picking up other work by them, so flash forward a couple of years and I finally buy another Capote book when I got a copy of Summer Crossing.

This is Capote’s first novel, one he started writing in 1943 before eventually discarding it unfinished. For many years it was thought lost until a manuscript was found at the Manhattan apartment that Capote had lived until around 1950. The finders initially thought they’d located a fortune, but the manuscript failed to sell at auction because publication rights to all of Capote’s work are held by a literary trust. Eventfully the New York Public Library agreed to buy the manuscript for it’s Capote Collection and soon after the book was published.

This is both interesting but also important context. It explains why the novel is so sparse (more of a novella really) why it ends quite abruptly, and also why, in parts, it’s a trifle rough around the edges. Don’t get me wrong, Capote’s way with words is here, and his characters leap off the page, but this is clearly someone at the beginning of his career rather than someone more assured in his prose.

Grady is an interesting character, and I can see why people have made comparisons with Holly Golightly, although I’d say Holly is a much more fully rounded character. Grady is at first insufferable, in a way teenagers often can be, certain of her own importance, feeling invincible and disdainful of others. As the story progresses though our perceptions of her shift, until by the end we remember that she is barely an adult, and Capote deftly makes us care more about her when she realises she’s little more than a child playing dress up, and there are consequences to her fun and games.

Manzer is interesting too, especially his backstory and the tragedy relating to one of his sisters. Peter Bell—Grady’s friend and possible romantic interest—is intriguing. Is he genuinely interested in her, or is he actually closeted and does he see Grady as merely a cover to prevent awkward questions being asked? He clearly loves her, but is his amour platonic or romantic? Capote leaves us guessing either way.

The other major character is New York, and Capote evokes a time and a place I’ve only seen in movies. The oppressive heat is ever present however, providing a pressure cooker environment for Grady and Clyde’s tempestuous relationship as they bounce from practically breaking up to taking their relationship to a whole new level.

It’s fair to say this is probably my least favourite Capote work, so far, and you can see why he abandoned it, I do wonder where he would have taken the story, the ending we get is bleak yet ambiguous, and I can’t help but think he had yet more despair lined up for Grady, though perhaps with some form of redemption with Peter, though if some critics are correct about Peter’s proclivities this might have been a hollow kind of happiness. As it is Grady ends the book slave to her passions, but maybe that’s for the best.

An intriguing read, and hopefully it won’t be a few years before I buy another Capote book.