October Round-up | Books read

I was reasonably pleased with my reading in October, especially as I had a couple of mini-reading slumps. The issue for me at the moment seems to be that I get about a quarter of the way into a book then no matter how much I am enjoying it I kind of stop. See if you can spot a pattern….

Pandemic * Sonia Shah [10 October]

More than three hundred infectious diseases have emerged or reemerged in new territory during the past fifty years, and ninety per cent of epidemiologists expect that one of them will cause a disruptive, deadly pandemic sometime in the next two generations.

Recommended by the ladies of This Podcast Will Kill You (a must-listen if you are at all interested in diseases etc.), this uses cholera as an example of how pandemics start and spread as the basis for theorising about how any future pandemic might behave. Fascinating and a bit scary, especially when the author talks about how groups are scapegoated when disease breaks out.

The Year of Learning Dangerously * Quinn Cummings [20 October]

I have said here before that I am a great admirer of Quinn and support her through Patreon so that she can tell small stories through Twitter. Anyway, this is the second of her three books that I have picked up, and it is all about home-schooling her daughter. A mixture of personal experience and the history of the home-schooling movement, I found it fascinating and hilarious.

A Long Cold Winter * Max Gladstone & Lindsay Smith [20 October]

When I bought this I knew it was a short story but wasn’t paying enough attention at the time to notice that it was, in fact, the first part of a serial called The Witch Who Came in from the Cold written by multiple authors. So I treated this a taster and enjoyed it very much. I didn’t realise that I needed Cold War magical spycraft in easter Europe quite so much, but apparently, I do.

The Luminous Dead * Caitlin Starling [21 October]

a caver on a foreign planet finds herself on a terrifying psychological and emotional journey for survival.

Less of a horror story than I expected, more of a creepy character study. I probably shouldn’t have read this in the wee small hours while in the throes of insomnia. It was totally worth it, but not for anyone who suffers from claustrophobia. Trust me.

The Twilight Pariah * Jeffrey Ford [22 October]

All Maggie, Russell, and Henry wanted out of their last college vacation was to get drunk and play archaeologist in an old house in the woods outside of town.

Another short read, this was definitely a horror story. They probably shouldn’t have removed that thing from the trench they dug because of course there were Consequences. Really liked this but the end just sort of happened; the story concluded but it looked like there was going to be more. Which I would have welcomed.

Longer * Michael Blumlein [24 October]

Gunjita and Cav are in orbit. R&D scientists for pharmaceutical giant Gleem Galactic, they are wealthy enough to participate in rejuvenation: rebooting themselves from old age to jump their bodies back to their twenties. You get two chances. There can never be a third. After Gunjita has juved for the second and final time and Cav has not, questions of life, death, morality, and test their relationship. Up among the stars, the research possibilities are infinite and first contact is possible, but their marriage may not survive the challenge.

Not sure the payoff worked but there were enough thought-provoking ideas along the way to make it worth reading. I just wanted a bit more.

Ad Astra

If ever there was a Marmite movie this is going to be it. I’ve seen Ad Astra described as thrilling and a masterpiece, but also as boring and dull despite having (MINI SPOILERS) moon pirates and killer monkeys.

My thoughts will follow a quick detour to Planet Synopsis

Astronaut Roy McBride undertakes a mission across an unforgiving solar system to uncover the truth about his missing father and his doomed expedition that now, 30 years later, threatens the universe.

So after surviving a quite spectacular fall from a space structure tethered to Earth which serves to demonstrate that space is dangerous and Roy is a very calm dude, he is called in by his bosses to take part in a secret mission to find out if his Dad is still alive and the cause of cosmic blasts from around Neptune which are wreaking havoc in the solar system (and actually caused Roy’s accident). Of course, he says yes because he wants to find out what happened to his father.

I will say no more.

The tone of this film is hugely important and it’s constant calmness, reflecting Roy’s view of the world, reminded me very much of 2001 with periods of silence interspersing the action.

It’s also key that this is not far-future space; the fact that much of the infrastructure shown is plausible in the next few decades allows the audience to engage with the characters. I say characters but this is very much Brad Pitt’s film. He is so good in this role, displaying a calm and dispassionate outlook but with anger and hurt and resentment just below the surface. Such a contrast to the last film I saw him in!

The supporting cast is excellent though most of them don’t have much to do. The scenes between Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones as his Dad are very powerful, and the great Donald Sutherland is always a treat to watch.

I was not at all surprised to find that the director, James Gray, was responsible for The Lost City of Z, a film I adored (you can find my thoughts about it here), as the tone and approach is very similar.

So as you might have guessed, I loved Ad Astra and would happily watch again. It is thoughtful and engrossing and gave me a lot to think about.

Dazzling details: Ad Astra is directed by James Gray, is 2h 3m long and rated 12A for infrequent strong language, moderate violence, threat, gory images killer space monkeys

The Ka of Gifford Hillary | Dennis Wheatley

Dennis Wheatley is one of those authors that I feel I have to apologise for enjoying because he is definitely problematic. Born in 1897 he was as conservative as it is possible to be. I first came across him when I saw the (now very dated) Devil Rides Out adaptation starring Christopher Lee and released in 1968. I’m pretty sure I read the book afterwards and loved the pacing and development in terms of plot, even if the characters were very Wheatleyan.

The man himself was a staunch supporter of imperialism and the class system all of his life, and his views permeate his novels and can’t be ignored even as the reader (OK, me) enjoys the story. And reading this one had me rolling my eyes so hard it gave me a headache, even as I read on to find out what was going to happen.

First published in 1956, the Ka of Gifford Hillary is listed in the recent set of reprints as Black Magic Book 5, though I won’t be giving anything away by pointing out that this is more of a science fiction thriller with a bit of the occult thrown in rather than a full-blown book about magic.

Gifford Hillary runs a company which builds boats and has several contracts with HM Government, and it appears that the book is going to be all about that as Wheatley takes the opportunity to air his views on the future of the British Armed Services. To be fair this is something he knows quite a bit about, given that he served in various capacities during WW2 devising strategic military deceptions to fool the enemy.

But really this is a book about a man (Gifford) killed by someone who wants to be his wife’s lover by ingenious means which leads to his soul leaving his body and floating around invisibly trying to communicate as he is (a) buried alive, (b) unable to help his wife falsely accused of his murder, (c) unable to help his young relative accused of treason because of his (Gifford’s) loose lips and (d) did I mention he was buried alive? Oh, and when he reconnects with his body he is then charged with murdering the man lusting after his wife, who was actually killed by someone else.

If you can put aside all the racism, imperialism, sexism (evidence below)
and the huge sense of entitlement based on class and wealth (evidence also below), this is actually a very interesting story. The only thing that lets it down in terms of plot is the ending, which was a little too reliant on one of the few female characters finding the one piece of evidence that will resolve the situation given that the truth, which Gifford spells out, or at least up to a point, is too fantastic to believe.

And with a single bound he was free; far too rushed given the build-up that had gone before.

Evidence for the prosecution:

On the charge of sexism:

Women cannot be judged by the same standards as men. They are much more apt to become dominated by their emotions than is the case with our sex.

On the charge of entitlement:

By it I could enter houses unseen and listen to the most intimate conversations. That at least offered a prospect of taking my mind off my own worries.

I know I’m going to read more of his books and but not for a while I think.

Men in Black International

The Men in Black have always protected the Earth from the scum of the universe. In this new adventure, they tackle their biggest threat to date: a mole in the Men in Black organization.

MIB: International is, of course, a reboot of/sequel to the very successful movies with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones from back in the day. Here we have Tessa Thompson (still have a huge girl crush on her) who is determined to become an MIB agent after having an experience with a tiny alien when she was a child and failing to be neuralised. You have seen the poster, so you know she gets her wish, courtesy of the amazing Emma Thompson who is as close to the Big Boss as we see.

Agent M, as Tessa becomes, is sent off to London where there is an Unspecified Problem and finds herself working with Agent H, played by Chris, the Greater Hemsworth. There is action aplenty – much of London is wrecked though I think Greggs may have survived – the inevitable heroes on the run plot, and some lovely scenery. All is, of course, resolved more or less satisfactorily.

I guessed who the mole was going to be within the first 5 minutes, based on a tried and trusted formula which I will not share here but which has worked for almost every TV crime story I have ever seen and didn’t let me down.

We could have done with a few more actual aliens, though the ones we have, especially the alien twins, were pretty cool and I even liked Pawny (who some have found annoying I know).

The touching reunion at a key moment plot device was fairly obvious, the person being signposted as the mole was clearly never going to be the one, and there was insufficient Emma Thompson, though honestly when is that ever not the case?

I suppose I’m being really picky here but I genuinely liked the film. The chemistry between H and M is the main reason it worked for me. It’s light, amusing rather than laugh out loud funny and fairly predictable in its story, but for a Thursday night date movie it hit the spot, and I can see myself happily watching it again. It’s fun, and sometimes that’s all a film needs to be 🙂

Dazzling details: directed by F Gary Gray, MIB: I is 1h 54m long and rated 12A for moderate violence, threat, sex references, language

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

The crypto-zoological agency Monarch faces off against a battery of god-sized monsters, including the mighty Godzilla, who collides with Mothra, Rodan, and his ultimate nemesis, the three-headed King Ghidorah.

I enjoyed both the original Godzilla (as in the 2014 version, not the original original Godzilla from the 1950s) and Kong: Skull Island and was very keen to see the next stage in this universe (as we have to call these things now). Main takeaway for me is that if you are looking for a big dumb movie with the emphasis on dumb (at least where the humans are concerned) then you have come to the right place.

Things have moved on and the impact of the events from the previous two films has been felt around the world, so much so that the US government, as is its wont, is keen to seize control of the research into the Titans from Monarch. It’s clear that there are many more of these creatures than was originally thought, and nefarious plans are afoot to deploy them to rid the world of humans, courtesy of Charles Dance’s eco-terrorist. Cue the action.

Without going into spoiler territory there are several things that stuck with me after the film ended. Apologies for the brain dump to follow 🙂

  • I still like the chunky Godzilla design, don’t care what anyone says
  • why did that character have to die?
  • why did that other character have to die?
  • how come Bradley Whitford (for it is he) got all the best lines – not that I’m complaining, I love Mr Whitford and believe in fact that there was not enough of him in the the movie, but still
  • I like the design of Mothra even though I loathe moths, to an extent that is just short of a phobia
  • there was SO MUCH destruction, I kept on wondering just how many people in this film died, and think there should be a John Wick scale to measure such things
  • talking about dying, that character simply had to die because of what they had done; can you imagine family gatherings if they had survived?

However, the thing I found most silly was the recurring tendency for characters to yell the at/for other characters who could not possibly hear them due to a combination of at least two of the following taking place at any one time – (1) hurricane-level storms, (2) exploding volcanoes, (3) roaring monsters in general and (4) bashing each other vigorously. How did they think anyone was going to hear them?

Having said all of the above I actually enjoyed Godzilla: King of the Monsters, even though most of the people were annoying and the plot was also a bit silly, and (heresy I know) I think there may have been too many monsters. But it was a Tuesday evening and it made for a fun date night. A film not to be taken too seriously I think.

Dazzling details: G:KotM was direeted by Michael Dougherty, was 2h 11m long and rated 12A for moderate threat, violence and infrequent strong language.

Annihilation

A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition into a mysterious zone where the laws of nature don’t apply.

I loved Annihilation when it was published back in 2014 and devoured it and its sequels as soon as they were released, so I was really interested when I saw that a film version was on the cards. It’s taken me this long to watch it because although I have Netflix we didn’t (until very recently) have a smart TV, and I had heard that it was best to watch this on the biggest screen possible. So when our new TV was installed this was the first movie I watched by myself.

So as the description above explains, Natalie Portman is a biologist who takes part in an expedition into an area of the country known as the Southern Reach where something, possibly extraterrestrial, has led to something called the Shimmer, where nature and time are corrupted. Natalie’s character has become involved because her husband (Oscar Isaac), missing for a year, suddenly returns and she finds out that his secret mission was one in a line of expeditions which have all failed – no-one has come back before him.

The new team is made up of Natalie and four other women – in the books they have no names and are just described by their roles – and one of the strengths of the film is watching a team of intelligent and brave women working together to solve a problem. When things fall apart they do so in the same way that all of the other missions were affected, mostly due to paranoia.

What makes this special for me is that the film doesn’t shy away from the horrors of a place where things are so out of whack. There are deformed animals including the most frightening bear you will ever see on screen and evidence that the teams before them did some terrible things – a gruesome and shocking piece of footage from her husband’s expedition in particular. The film also doesn’t skimp on beautiful visuals showing just how strange the world inside the Shimmer can be – plants growing in the shape of humans, strange colours and so on.

It is such a shame that Annihilation wasn’t given a theatrical release, especially as it seems to have been due to the studio freaking out that the film was too intellectually challenging, which makes me sad. Don’t get me wrong, if you’ve been reading here for a while you will know that I love science fiction in all its forms, however “dumb”, but sometimes it’s nice to have a film that gets you thinking long afterwards (and not because you’re trying to fill in major plot holes).

Also pleased to say my Tessa Thompson girl-crush is firmly in place.

It’s bloody and creepy and beautiful. I loved it and will be watching it again I’m sure.

Dazzling details – Alex Garland directed, the film is 1h 55m long and rated 15 for strong language, gore, sex

Captain Marvel

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Captain Marvel  was one of the films I was most looking forward to in 2019. But what’s it all about, you ask, next to the rock from under which you have just crawled.

Well, according to IMDb:

Carol Danvers becomes one of the universe’s most powerful heroes when Earth is caught in the middle of a galactic war between two alien races.

Does she though? I mean, at the start of the film she is already one of the universe’s most powerful heroes and her connection to Earth is tenuous at best. But I quibble, of course, because that’s what I do.

So, I went into this film with high expectations which were not only met but exceeded. I wish films like this had been around when I was a girl (which was a very long time ago let me tell you) but I am so very glad they’re here now.

This is an origin story with a twist. As I mentioned above, Carole Danvers is already hugely powerful but is living under the impression that she is something she is not. When the events of the film bring her to Earth and cut her off from her team, she teams up with Nick Fury (for it is he) and slowly begins to piece together her past, what happened to her and that rather than being supported, she is being held back by the race she has inadvertently become a part of. The relationships in this story are hugely important, not only with Fury but with her best friend Maria and Maria’s daughter Monica, and those relationships which give her the means to get to the bottom of what’s going on.

Oh, and there is Goose; a very, very special cat.

Brie Larson is excellent in the lead role, with just the right balance of vulnerability and strength. The special effects are of course really well done, especially the process used to make Samuel L Jackson and Clark Gregg younger versions of themselves, the aliens are all brilliant and there is added Annette Bening, which is always a good thing.

Ignore the small group of haters on social media; I love this, and can’t wait to see Captain Marvel in the new Avengers movie. Not long now 😀

Directed by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck | 2h 3m running time | 12A for moderate fantasy violence and implied strong language.