Autumn Fiction Round-up #1

 

The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay

This was a planned read for a book club that I follow but don’t actually attend, using mostly for reading ideas (as if I needed any more help in finding books….). The Cabin is the most recent of Tremblay’s horror novels and the first one (but not the last) that I have picked up.

Wen, who is seven, is on holiday in a remote cabin with her dads, Eric & Andrew, when a huge young man turns up asking to be let in with Wen’s help. He is soon joined by three others, two women and a man, and they have a mission – they need Wen’s family to make a sacrifice to avoid the end of the world.

It’s a home invasion story with a twist, and it’s never made clear through all of the terrible events whether the incomers genuinely believe they have a mission to head off the apocalypse or whether they are just horrible people doing nasty things. There are clearly events happening in the outside world which are informing their actions, but we never really find out what’s going on.

It’s all very vague & ambiguous, especially the ending which doesn’t provide any closure at all, but I was hooked and thought it was very well done.

Night Film by Marisha Pessl

One night in a warehouse in New York, the body of Ashley Cordova, daughter of a famously reclusive film director, is found dead. Most people, including the police, believe that she has taken her own life, but this doesn’t convince Scott McGrath. He’s a journalist who ruined his career by pursuing Cordova the father, making rash allegations that he couldn’t prove. And he’s still obsessed.

This is a literary thriller and a huge one at that. I was given this as a Christmas present a few years ago and hurried it up the TBR pile when I saw it mentioned in a list of recommended horror novels earlier this year. I had to cave in and buy the Kindle version because I found it physically difficult to read in hard copy, so be warned.

It seems to be a real love-it-or-hate-it book; if we’re keeping score, the Guardian hated it and the Telegraph loved it. I fell somewhere in between – it was worth reading and I did gallop through the second half when I was on holiday, but I didn’t really warm to any of the characters (except for Scott’s wee girl, who was adorable and hopefully grows up undamaged by the way her parents behave) so it became more about the puzzle than the people. The structure is interesting and the idea of a filmmaker so reclusive, and whose work is so horrific that it is only viewed in bootlegs by ardent fans, was intriguing. Some reviewers likened it to The House of Leaves (which I loved and need to re-read), and although I can see how they came to that conclusion I don’t think Night Film has the same impact; certainly not on me.

So an interesting novel, frustrating at times, and if you pick it up be prepared to make a significant investment of time.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers

Longlisted for the Man Booker prize and winner of the Arthur C Clarke award, Jessie Lamb is yet another post apocalyptic novel, or more of a rushing headlong towards extinction novel if I’m honest. I cannot resist these at all.

Jessie is 16 and living in a world where an act of biological terror (presumed not explicit) has set loose a virus which is activated in a woman when she becomes pregnant, resulting in an extreme form of CJD and the death of the mother and baby. Science is looking at solutions and settles on the concept of Sleeping Beauties – women who will be put into an artificial coma and given drugs to stop the disease progressing while their baby comes to term. Once the child is delivered, immune to the disease, the woman will die.

Jessie has made a choice to become on of the Beauties, and the novel is about how she reaches that choice and the consequences. This is particularly an issue for her parents, who see the need for the solution but don’t want it to be their daughter. Jessie’s story is told against a background of civil unrest and protest, and her decision is he attempt to make the world better.

I like Jessie very much, though she clearly sees the world very much in black and white as most teenagers do. Some scenes, especially when she is imprisoned by her desperate father, are very upsetting but not gratuitously so. I’ve seen a couple of commenters mention the heavy religious symbolism of her name (Jessie = Jesus, lamb = sacrifice) but I have to say if that was the author’s intent it went completely over my head.

I thought this was very well done, and not as bleak as many of the novels I read in this genre; it makes clear that sometimes there are no easy choices. Well worth reading.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody 2018I have been a fan of Queen since for ever – I distinctly remember bopping to Killer Queen at our school Christmas disco in 1974 when I was 12 – and I have most of their albums as well a couple of 12″ picture discs (the younglings will not know what those are, sadly), so there was no way I was going to miss seeing Bohemian Rhapsody.

It was awesome IMHO.

The film tells the story of the band from its inception until their astonishing Live Aid performance in 1985. Although obviously Freddie Mercury is front and centre given his astonishing showmanship and ultimately tragic death, the other band members get a fair amount of attention also.

The casting is brilliant. Rami Malek is amazing as Freddie, capturing his distinct style of performance without getting lost in what could have been merely an impersonation. Gwilym Lee looks so much like Brian May, ditto Joe Mazzello as John Deacon, that it’s almost easier to accept that time travel exists! There are also lots of well-known British actors in supporting roles though I totally missed Mike Myers in his cameo.

The controversy around the film before it was released centred on how Freddie’s sexuality was going to be portrayed, and although it’s a 12A and therefore shies away from the more lurid aspects of his life, I don’t think it was straight-washed as many had feared. Of course it’s a movie and not a documentary, so some elements were changed to increase dramatic tension and the timing of certain events was tinkered with, but I thought the essence of the band and its history was largely maintained and I wasn’t disappointed in any of the changes made.

Clearly it’s a very old-fashioned, traditional biopic but the performances and especially the recreations of the various musical numbers are so special that it doesn’t matter that there are no real risks in the storytelling or direction. I loved every second of it, managed not to sing along until the end credits, and will very happily watch it again in its DVD release.

Honestly, if you like Queen you will enjoy this film (although you’ve probably seen it already!), and I’ll be stunned if Malek doesn’t win awards for his performance.

Directed by Brian Singer (though finished by Dexter Fletcher when Singer was sacked from the project) BoRap is 134 mins long and rated 12A for moderate sex references, drug references, infrequent strong language

This Week in Books & a Non-Fiction Round-up

It’s been getting cooler and duller and lights are being switched on earlier each day so we are definitely in curling up in a chair and reading a good book season. So how did this week in reading go?

Currently reading

  • Global Crisis – I’ve not progressed this since my last post so will be making time for a few chapters this week
  • The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch – this the sixth of the Peter Grant books and I’m about halfway through; I like to read series in order of course and you will understand why I picked this up because….

Books bought

  • Lies Sleeping by Ben Aaronovitch – this is the seventh Peter Grant book and when it arrived I realised I hadn’t read the previous one; what can I say, I decided to deal with that immediately (see above)
  • Fire Lover by Joseph Wambaugh – more true crime, the story of the Pillow Pyro arsonist; I bought this because I heard the story in a back episode of My Favourite Murder and wanted to get more details
  • Black Mad Wheel by Josh Malerman – apparently ‘plunges us into the depths of psychological horror, where you can’t always believe everything you hear

Books finished

  • Bestial by Harold Schechter – more true crime, this is the story of one of the first known serial killers in the USA; I have NOTES so will write about this another time.

I also wanted to write up a few thoughts on recent non-fiction reads because I am a completist.

Victorians Undone by Kathryn Hughes

All about how the Victorians viewed their bodies told through five specific stories. So many fascinating details, it’s the kind of book has you reading things out to anyone within hearing distance; for example, Charlotte Bronte apparently spoke with a strong Northern Irish accent – who knew?

The final story in the book tells the horrendous murder of Fanny Adams, and the magistrate involved in the case was Jane Austen’s nephew Edward Knight, born in 1794 and died in 1879. The author makes the excellent point that although we feel the need to carve our history up and put things into boxes Edward Knight’s long life is ‘a reminder of how bodies join up the past in a continuous ribbon of experience and feeling‘; I loved that idea so much.

Unnatural Causes by Richard Shepherd

I picked this up as a sort of follow-up to the book I read earlier this year by Dame Professor Sue Black about her life as a forensic anthropologist, and she was quoted on the cover of this volume. So Richard Shepherd was one of the most senior and well-known forensic pathologists in the UK. He’s handled a number of the most significant and high-profile cases in the country, including (controversially) the Marchioness disaster, the Harold Shipman murders, and the London bombings.

This is a memoir of his life and career and the impact that his work has had on his personal life – after all, he reckons he’s carried out over 20,00 autopsies. It’s a very honest book and worth reading if you are at all interested in this subject.

The Ends of the World by Peter Brannen

We all know what happened to the dinosaurs, but it was only one of (so far) five major extinction events that have taken place in Earth’s history. A good example of popular science at its best, the author goes through the various ways life on our planet was almost extinguished via fire, ice, poison gas, suffocation and of course asteroids. He also speculates on what all of this may tell us about the future.

Hope you all have a great reading week!

 

 

Bird Box

a5f8363bd1c3503ed0b4004cda9803feA creepy take on the post-apocalyptic survival genre, I bought Bird Box ages ago but decided to read it now because a film version starring Sandra Bullock is coming soon to Netflix and/or cinemas (if it isn’t there already!)

So, Malorie lives alone in a house with her two children, known only as Boy and Girl. We know something awful has happened but at this stage not what, except that it requires avoiding looking outside and wearing tight blindfolds whenever leaving the house.

As the story develops we learn that around several years previously there were reports of people seeing something which immediately drove them to carry out extreme acts of violence. It started in Russia and then spread across the world (presumably); certainly to the USA. In flashbacks we learn the impact of these events on Malorie and the group that she took refuge with, how she came to be alone with the children, and her plans to finally head for safety.

I enjoyed the structure of the book which flips backwards and forwards between (I think) three timelines. I would have loved to have had lots of detail about the threat that everyone is hiding from, because I relish the build up to the end of the world in the same way that I love hard SF – I like to know how things work, what can I say. But having said that, the lack of detail actually works really well in building up tension – for example, is this actually real or some kind of global hallucination – and giving the sense that the reader knows as little about what’s happening as Malorie does. The particular details of how she ended up alone are both sad and horrifying.

What didn’t work quite so well for me was the ending. There is a clear conclusion to Malorie’s story but it left me with questions and a mild sense of dissatisfaction. However, the bulk of the book is well written and I have already got my hands on more of Josh Malerman’s books.

I am intrigued about how this is going to work as a movie, and I also now want to see A Quiet Place which seems to have a similar premise, though focussing on hearing rather than sight.

Widows

MV5BMjM3ODc5NDEyOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTI4MDcxNjM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,631,1000_AL_Four women lose their husbands in a robbery gone spectacularly wrong. They find themselves in danger from the victim of the robbery, and the gang leader’s widow, Veronica, realises that the only way to put things right is to carry out the next job her husband had planned.

I was very excited to see Widows, both because I had fond but vague memories of Lynda LaPlante’s original series from (I think) the 1980s, and because of the amazing ensemble cast. The action has been moved from London to Chicago but the key elements, especially the fact that no-one would suspect these women as robbers, are very much in place.

It’s an impressive and gripping film, beautifully structured and with strong performances from everyone involved. The stand-outs for me were Viola Davis as Veronica, Elizabeth Debicki as Alice and Daniel Kaluuya as Jatemme, but to single these performances out is to do a disservice to everyone else in the film. All of the characters are ideally cast and excellently performed, from the members of Harry’s gang whom we see fleetingly at the beginning, to the politicians who are involved in this crime up to their necks.

I saw one critic (I think it was Mark Kermode) say that the writing was particularly strong in that none of the characters felt the need to explain the plot to each other; the audience is trusted to work things out on their own. I think he is absolutely right; the dialogue is so clear and realistic, as you would expect from Gillian Flynn who adapted this from the original series.

It’s less of a heist film than a character piece, but the final robbery is still exciting and heart stopping, and the film’s conclusion is very satisfying. I thought this was absolutely fabulous. My husband’s verdict? “All the men are shits!” And he isn’t wrong!

Highly recommended.

Directed by Steve McQueen, Widows is 129 minutes long and rated 15 for strong violence, sex and strong language.

 

September Movie Round-up

fullsizeoutput_8aeCatching up with my backlog of posts, here we have the films I watched (to be accurate, mostly re-watched) in September

Avengers: Infinity War

Seems fitting to be revisiting the Avengers in the week that we lost Stan Lee. I enjoyed this movie very much in the cinema but didn’t really review it properly; I’m ready to put that right. Given this is a story with eleventy-billion characters which brings to a partial climax a story that’s been told over the previous 10 years worth of movies, this is surprisingly well put together.

It’s fair to say that it probably works best for fans than it does for the casual viewer But sometimes that needs to be done – focus on the audience that will definitely be attending. The best bits for me (and for many others I’m sure) are where members of the Marvel Universe who haven’t come across each other before meet up and build new alliances; my particular favourite being of course Thor, Rocket & Groot. Very excited to see the follow-up next year.

The House with a Clock in its Walls

A young orphan named Lewis Barnavelt aids his magical uncle in locating a clock with the power to bring about the end of the world.

I’ve never read the book but was drawn into this film having seen the trailer on previous cinema visits. I liked it. It’s not a great film – it seems very much like a lot of others I’ve seen before, but the cast is engaging – I really like the way Cate Blanchett and Jack Black spar with each other and the actor playing young Lewis is very sweet and not at all annoying. It is quite an old-fashioned film

I still want to call it the Clock with a House in its Walls though…..

Deadpool 2

This was a re-watch on the arrival of the DVD. My original review is here; laughed like a drain second time around, but with a better appreciation of the various cameos. So much fun.

Phantom Thread

fullsizeoutput_895I love all things fashion so was very excited to see this film. Unfortunately, I missed it in the cinema but treated myself to the DVD on release and I’m so glad I did. It was very much worth waiting for.

Phantom Thread is set in the world of couture in London in the 1950s. Reynolds Woodcock (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) is a renowned dress designer who is famously difficult and requires his home and working space to be rigidly ordered to his particular requirements. Supported by his sister Cyril (the amazing Lesley Manville), he is captivated by a succession of young women who act as his muse, but who are despatched by Cyril once Reynolds inevitably becomes tired of them. Into this set-up walks Alma (Vicky Krieps), a very different type of young woman willing to stand up to Reynolds and his frequently appalling behaviour.

This is a beautifully constructed film. We are quickly brought up to speed with the type of man Reynolds is; a self-absorbed creative talent who uses his position as an artist to get away with demands and behaviour that would be completely unacceptable elsewhere. Obsessed with his late mother, reliant on the practical skills of his sister, he favours young women with his attention until boredom hits and he dismisses them out of hand. When Alma is brought into the household we expect the same pattern to repeat itself, but she is more than capable of holding her ground and will not go willingly. Over the course of the film the two of them battle for supremacy and eventually reach a solution which to my mind is rather drastic but seems to satisfy them both.

The acting is, as you would expect, wonderful; the whole cast seems to thoroughly enjoy delivering a succession of fabulous lines with an air of waspishness which I loved. And of course the clothes are so sumptuous and beautiful I could stare at them for ever. I would love to see them exhibited somewhere but not sure if that will ever be on the cards.

I also absolutely love House Woodcock, a combined living, working and selling space which would suit me to a tee.

If you are interested in fashion and want to experience overbearing masculinity subtly put in its place in a somewhat Gothic setting then I recommend this highly.

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread is 2hrs 10 mins long and rated 15 for strong language.