Thursday, 20 November 2014

Review: Disclaimer by Renee Knight

We're all familiar with the disclaimer that comes on some books, films and television programmes - something along the lines of any resemblance to real people or situations being coincidental. But what if that resemblance wasn't coincidental, what if it was done on purpose?

In Renee Knight's Disclaimer successful documentary maker Catherine starts reading a book she finds on her bedside table, only to discover that the main character is based on her, and the events of the book mirror something that happened long ago, and that she hoped would never be revealed to her nearest and dearest.

Disclaimer initially comes across as your average domestic psychological thriller, but it quickly becomes clear that Knight has crafted something sophisticated and different to the glut of Gone Girl imitations that have come out in the last couple of years.

Chapters alternate between Catherine, who is reluctant to reveal details about her past, and the writer of the book, whose motives are initially obscured. Disclaimer features two narrators who are both unreliable in their own ways, making it difficult to work out what really happened, but that's part of the joy of the book. And when the truth is finally revealed, it's nothing you could have imagined.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Review: A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale's A Place Called Winter could be a staid, fairly predictable story about a man who leaves Britain to go to Canada on a journey of self-discovery. Instead, from its explosive opening chapter you know that it's going to be so much more than that.

Shy Harry Cane lives a conventional life with few surprises and little excitement. Although content with his wife and her family, one day Harry's life changes completely when he embarks on an affair. When his illicit relationship is threatened with discovery Harry leaves his wife and daughter behind to head to Canada, where he plans to become a farmer. His dreams for a simple life are in his reach, but war and a man with evil intentions could threaten everything.

My description, I'll be the first to admit, is inadequate, because A Place Called Winter is so much more complex than I've led you to believe, but I want you to read it spoiler free, so there is a lot I can't and won't say.

What I can say is that A Place Called Winter is so much more than you would expect from any description (mine or someone else's). Its opening section is completely unexpected, with Gale thrusting the reader into a completely unfamiliar situation with any reference point (it's certainly not hinted at in any synopsis), but it completely works - I didn't want to put the book down because I was so intrigued and wanted to know how Harry had ended up in the situation he was in.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

FutureBook14 conference - my favourite bits

What is the future of the publishing industry? That's one of the questions the FutureBook conference (full disclosure: run by my employers) aims to answer. This year it was as much about looking outside the industry as it was about looking internally, with appearances from speakers from Tumblr, YouTube and more. Here are my nine favourite bits from this year's conference, some serious, some not so...

1. Humans eating humans (sort of)
The fabulous Carla Busazi, chief content officer @WGSN - "If you don't cannibalise own business, someone else will."

2. Zoella, Zoella, Zoella
Penguin Random House UK's CEO, Tom Weldon, made a bold statement, that Zoella's book Girl Online will be number one at Christmas. We can check this one in just a few weeks.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Review: Storm by Tim Minchin, with DC Turner and Tracy King

Clever, lyrical and beautiful, Tim Minchin's beat poem Storm has been viewed millions of times on YouTube, and it's finally been turned into a book. So how does it fare?

Pretty well. Okay, that's an understatement. It's fares brilliantly. Minchin's poem about two dinner guests (Michin and the eponymous Storm) in a verbal battle over science and belief is lifted seamlessly from the screen to the page.

It all hinges on Minchin's poem itself, which is rhythmical and flows beautifully. The video of Storm, of course, has Minchin reading aloud, but reading the poem yourself the lyricism is still there. And that moment when Storm is first said works brilliantly - I could hear the thunder crackling and imagine ominous music playing as I read those first few pages and got to that opening.

And then it's backed up by absolutely gorgeous artwork. Storm on the page is slightly darker than Storm on the screen, but it's no less appealing for that. Each panel holds motion within it even though it's a still image, and the words flowing over the top create a movement from picture to picture.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Review: Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Hausfrau is a bleak novel about an unhappy, almost unfeeling, woman. It's not a novel you have fun reading, but it is a novel you can't stop reading, because despite the fact that's not fun, it is very, very, very good.

American Anna has lived near Zurich for almost 10 years with her husband Bruno. She has three beautiful children, but there is something missing. Anna is unconnected from her life, has refused for years to immerse herself in the culture of Switzerland, has never learnt to drive so has to take trains everywhere, and has never learnt the particular version of German the people surrounding her speak. To fill the void, Anna embarks on an affair with a man from her German class, and over the course of three months, Anna's life goes from cold to falling apart.

Hausfrau is split into three sections, one for each month of Anna's life that we pass with her, but the timeline Essbaum's novel spans is much, much larger. While it is clear what is happening each month, Essbaum purposefully keeps all other events less time-specific. We see snippets of conversation between Anna and her psychologist, Doktor Messerli, although we never actually sit in on a full session. These snippets have Anna analysing guilt, love, language, memory and more, all of which form themes in the book.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Ninja Book Swap 2014

Who doesn't love getting proper mail, as opposed to bills, leaflets and junk, in the post? And if that mail is books, even better.

So I signed up to the lovely Ninja Book Swap, a scheme which pairs you up with another book obsessed person, and you send them a parcel, and get one in return from another book obsessed person. It's Secret Santa, but with books and book bloggers.

My parcel came with the instruction on the back that it was full of "ninjaness", which it absolutely was, thanks to Hanna @bookinginheels. Not only did she get me books, she also got me a couple of other treats...

I've been wanting to read Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and Looking for Alaska by John Green for absolutely ages, so these are perfect. Both will be going on the pile of books I'm saving to read over the Christmas break. And my lovely notebook, letter writing set and the postcards are just beautiful.

Thanks again Hanna!

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Review: Banished by Liz de Jager

I dislike reading books that are part of a series. Not because I dislike the concept, but because inevitably, when I find a series I like, most of the books haven't come out yet, and then I'm stuck waiting impatiently.

Which is why I didn't want to read Banished by Liz de Jager. Also, because I kind of know de Jager via Twitter, and what if I didn't like the book? Awkward.

Thank goodness that I had nothing to worry about when it came to not liking the book, because I really did, but that obviously means the core reason I don't like reading books in a series did materialise - there are two more books to come (I think), one, Vowed, released today, and another released I don't know when.

Anyway... Kit is a Blackhart, part of a family protecting the non-magic human world from evil. When Kit rescues fae (magic) prince Thorn, it's the beginning of an epic battle between good magic and bad. If Kit and Thorn fail in their quest, not only will the fae world fall, so will the human world.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Film review: Interstellar starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine and Jessica Chastain

Despite its name and the posters featuring Matthew McConaughey in a space suit, Interstellar is a film that is as much about earth and humanity's connection to it as it is about space.

McConaughey is Cooper, an engineer and former NASA pilot who is now farming corn, the only crop able to grow on a damaged earth, in a remote town. Living with him are his precocious and intelligent daughter Murphy and teenage son Tom, along with Cooper's father-in-law Donald. When Cooper, through a message left by 'ghosts', discovers NASA has been operating in secret - to find a habitable planet accessed through a wormhole by Saturn - he leaves his family to pilot a ship to connect with pilots who have gone out before and are sending back a signal that the planets they have landed on can sustain the human race.

Interstellar sees McConaughey continue his run of strong performances, and he's a joy to watch as he cycles through frustration, joy, anger, sadness and more. But while Cooper is believable for being complex, some of the other characters are a little one dimensional. It's a little difficult to believe that Murphy, played as an adult in the film by Jessica Chastain, holds onto her annoyance at her father for so many years. Luckily, Chastain is one of those actresses you just want to watch, and works well with the material she's given. She and McConaughey are the stronger links. I loved David Oyelowo as the immediately likeable Principal, but you don't get to know him well enough, and the same is true for Wes Bentley's underused Doyle,  who I wish could have swapped places with Anne Hathaway's Brand.

Which brings me to weakest link acting wise - unfortunately it's Hathaway (and I'm usually a Hathaway fan). Her character is one-dimensional, cold, hard to warm to, and given one monologue about love, which doesn't work, both in wording (not so much her fault), believability (there was a lot of scoffing by the audience I watched with) and execution. Hathaway's weak monologue, her major contribution to the film, is more marked when you compare it to the strength of Michael Caine's delivery, as her father Professor Brand, of Dylan Thomas's Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, which is arresting, especially played as it is over the scene of Cooper's space ship leaving the earth.

Cutting between earth and space, Interstellar focuses as much on the ground as it does on Cooper and his mission. The film opens in a dust-bowl like town, it's all very The Grapes of Wrath. Devastated as the earth now is, NASA's mission is to find a planet just like it, and Cooper's mission has to choose from three possible planets with supposedly survivable conditions. And while Cooper is in space, he's connected to the earth by the thought of his children who, because of the time lapse sciency stuff, he doesn't feel like he left as long ago as he did. Plus, there are the video messages he receives from his son, who is growing up and having a family (not quite sure how these messages come through the wormhole, but whatever).

Interstellar is visually stunning, with a soaring soundtrack (although at times it's a little loud), but this is the most stressful film I've sat through for a number of reasons. First, there are the shocks director Christopher Nolan throws in - massive explosions, cut aways - which get your heart going. 

I didn't know too much about this film going on, so when Cooper and his team land on one of the planets it came as a complete surprise to me who was waiting for them. If you can resist spoilers, do so, because this whole sequence is made all the more better, and is all the more tense because you can't prepare yourself beforehand. It had me holding my breath at times, rolling my eyes at others, and just wanting to grab Cooper out of the screen at times to keep him safe.

Then there is the fact that it's genuinely hard to tell how happy a ending this film is going to have - and by happy I mean you're unsure if even one person is going to survive. And finally, there's the slightly unbelievable science in parts that just stressed me out, and the weird supernatural/ghost elements.

The Nolans (Christopher wrote the film with his brother Jonathan) have created a complicated film, one filled with science, and it's explained enough to make me just about believe it. However, it goes a little strange towards the end, and it's hard (but not impossible) to forgive the rest of the film for the last part. The only phrase I can use to describe the goings on in the last act is borrowed from Doctor Who - it's all timey-wimey. I'm not sure the five dimension/love stuff worked, even though I could see it was coming from the beginning of the film.

But for all its strangeness, its obsession with mourning the earth and finding a place to live that is identical to the one we now occupy, and its ability to become a hot mess at times, Interstellar is definitely worth seeing.


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