Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Book review: Alice and the Fly by James Rice

I'm terrified of spiders, but my fear doesn't control my life or my actions or my mind, like it does for Greg, the protagonist in James Rice's devastating debut Alice and the Fly.

Teenager Greg has severe arachnophobia, rich parents, no friends, and a crush on a girl at school, Alice. As his fascination with Alice grows, Greg nurtures his love for her and tries to combat the debililitating fear he has of spiders.

Alice and the Fly is beautifully told, especially so given its serious and sometimes dark subject matters. Rice somehow manages to make the book uplifting in parts, despite the tragic events that unfold.

But it's Rice's intimate examination of mental illness that deserves the most praise and attention. Told by Greg, Alice and the Fly both offers an insight into the mind of a teenager suffering from mental illness, while simultaneously making the reader realise just how difficult it is to ever understand what someone suffering from arachnophobia is going through. That doesn't mean, however, that you shouldn't try to understand, something Rice conveys through Greg's parents, who clearly love their child but don't know how to help him, and in some ways have given up.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Book review: The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

Some love stories are meant to be told over and over again, and Laura Barnett takes that and twists it slightly for her debut novel The Versions of Us.

Eva and Jim meet at Cambridge in 1958 when she swerves on her bike to avoid a dog. That remains the same in each of their lives, but what happens afterwards changes in the three versions of their lives, together and apart, that Barnett tells. Through marriage, divorce, children, affairs, jobs and more, we follow Eva and Jim from that first meeting in 1958 through to the present day - in three different versions.

The Versions of Us is easily described as One Day meets Sliding Doors, but that would be simplifying how intricately plotted and told this novel is. Barnett almost (I have read a very early proof on which there is a tiny bit of work to be done) seamlessly weaves together three stories, connected by major milestones - birthdays, deaths etc - but otherwise completely different. Barnett takes the small things that make a life and uses them to create three rich worlds.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Book review: Summertime by Vanessa Lafaye

The mark of a really good book is how long it stays with you after you've finished reading it.

I first read Vanessa Lafaye's Summertime in March 2014, and when I shut my eyes I can still recall with perfect clarity one of its final, most brutal, upsetting scenes. But more on that in a moment.

Summertime is set in 1935, in a small town in Florida. The town is divided by race, while just outside the borders of the community is a settlement of veterans, heroes from the First World War who have been failed by their country on their return home. As tempers and tensions rise in the hot weather, a hurricane of devastating power approaches, intent on destroying everything in its path.

While the characters of Summertime are fictional, the hurricane it depicts, the racial tensions, and the fact that soldiers back from war were forced to live in prison-like camps, are all very, very real. Yet it's a period in American history that is largely hidden. Summertime exposes that period and its horrendous events - that the soldiers who fought in the war for America were then abandoned, and during this hurricane were left to die. Another mark of a great book is that it makes you want to learn, and Summertime makes you want to go away and learn more about this hurricane, these men, and this world.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Book review(s): Poison, Charm, and Beauty by Sarah Pinborough

Fairytales are for children, right? Wrong, if you go by Sarah Pinborough's retellings of Snow White (Poison), Cinderella (Charm) and Sleeping Beauty (Beauty).

I'm assuming I don't have to recount the basic plot points of any of those three stories, and I can't really expand on how Pinborough changes them, and adds to them with other fairytales without spoiling the stories, so let's just hope straight to the review part...

Pinborough's books are definitely for grown ups, although the core elements - princesses, princes, massive castles, adventure - are all there. What isn't there is that clear line between good and evil, which is one of the many things that make the books far more adult than most fairytales. Instead of an easy categorisation of good and evil, Pinborough presents everything in shades of grey, along a scale, meaning you feel sympathy for so-called bad characters. Top of the list here is Lilith, Snow White's stepmother, who rather than being a jealous harpy is a multifaceted character whose nature has been formed by terrible experiences in earlier life. It's easy, in Pinborough's world, to understand why she does bad.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Five books to read in 2015

What to read? That's always a question I'm grappling with, because there's so much good stuff out there. If you don't have time to browse bookshelves, here are five adult fiction books that should absolutely be on your radar for the first half of 2015 (links in titles go to publisher pages).

1. Summertime by Vanessa Lafaye
Based on a true event, Summertime explores racial tensions, a segregated society and the treatment of veterans against the backdrop of a community hit by the tragedy of a hurricane. Summertime is a great story, but more than that, it educates you about a horrible time in history that's been almost completely hidden away.
Out January 15, 2015, from Orion

Gale's story is about a privileged man who leaves his cushy lifestyle in London to farm a homestead in Canada in the early 20th century. But A Place Called Winter is not a typical story about a man finding himself, from its opening it's something completely unexpected and filled with layers upon layers of excellent storytelling.
Out March 26, 2015, from Tinder Press

The story of one woman's unhappiness has the potential to be grating, but instead it's compelling, and full of tension and shocking and heartbreaking moments. Plus, the way in which Essbaum uses language is absolutely brilliant, and Hausfrau is the kind of book you can read again and again, and each time see news things in. (Also, this book's cover is just beatiful.)
Out March 26, 2015, from Mantle

Covering six days during the 1992 LA riots, Gattis presents a fictional account of some of the crime that took place away from the main rioting. Telling the stories of gang members, innocent bystanders, emergency service personnel and more, All Involved is shocking storytelling, compelling and like nothing I've read before.
Out May 7, 2015, from Picador

Three beautiful, complicated, moving love stories about the same couple. Eva and Jim meet the same way in each of the three versions of their lives, but what follows in each is very, very different. Not only is this a stunning book, I'm also in awe of Barnett's craftsmanship, as she weaves together three tales virtually seamlessly.
Out June 4, 2015 from Orion

Monday, 15 December 2014

Review: Mobile Library by David Whitehouse

I love books, so it stands to reason that I love books about books, like David Whitehouse's Mobile Library.

Twelve-year-old Bobby lives with his horrible dad and his dad's girlfriend, waiting for his mum to come home. Needing protection from the bullies at school, Bobby befriends Sonny, who is soon taken away from him. Just when he needs friendship and love the most, he meets Rosa and her mum Val, who is a cleaner in a mobile library. The books in the library provide Bobby with an escape, but he, Rosa and Val soon need to use the mobile library to physically escape, heading off on an adventure of the type you only read about in books.

Mobile Library is an absolutely charming book, full of flawed but loveable characters. Its central storyline is just one part of the book, Mobile Library is also an homage to great books and the escape they provide. Whitehouse's story is about the power of stories and about believing in the impossible (it might not always work out, but sometimes the impossible can come true).

Bobby is a wonderful protagonist, at once a sweet, hugely naive child and a wise old man, albeit not in age. He's appealing because he's a good kid dealt many bad hands, and when he finally finds people who appreciate him and love him unconditionally, you're genuinely happy for him. Val and Rosa provide Bobby with what is missing, and he also fills a gap in their lives, of brother, of friend, and of protector. 

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Film review: Snowpiercer, dir. by Bong Joon-Ho and starring Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton and Song Kang-Ho

Forget what you know about heroes, because Snowpiercer is going to remake your image of what a hero looks like.

It is almost 20 years after an experiment designed to stop global warming instead resulted in the earth being frozen over. Now, all survivors live on a train - Snowpiercer - which hurtles its way round the earth, between the snowdrifts. But society has not banded together to survive, instead the haves live luxury lives at the front of the train, while the have-nots live in squalor at the back of the train, surviving on a diet of brown, jelly-like bars and a taste for equality and revenge. Led by Curtis (Chris Evans) the have-nots decide to stage a coup, get to the front of the train, and destroy the class system forever.

I can't begin to tell you just how good a film Snowpiercer is, and how much it pains me that it hasn't received a cinema release in the UK. This is, undoubtedly, one of the best films released this year. Beautifully shot and directed by Bong Joon-ho, Snowpiercer is painful, violent and bleak, and brilliant with it.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Film review: The Hobbit - The Battle of Five Armies

And so it ends, not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with a sense of bittersweetness after 14 years spent in Middle Earth.

The Hobbit - The Battle of Five Armies does exactly what it says on the tin. It's a battle between five armies - the dwarves, the elves, the humans, the goblins and the wargs. 

The film opens with Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) destroying Lake-town as Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) attempts to guide Kili (Aidan Turner), a couple of the other dwarves and bard's children to safety. Bard (Luke Evans) manages to escape from his prison cell, and as the city goes up in flames and Smaug swoops overhead, he goes face to face with the dragon. It's an explosive opening, full of drama, tension and oh my goodness moments, and paves the way for an action packed film.

The heroic Bard decides the only way the people of Lake-town will find shelter is if they visit Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) in the Lonely Mountain and claim the gold he promised them. But Thorin is not so willing to keep to his oaths, and has instead descended into madness as he hunts in the treasures of the Lonely Mountain for the Arkenstone, a gem shaped by one of Thorin's ancestors.

Bard and Thorin are deliberately set out as opposites, with Evans playing the hero convincingly. It's just a pity that he disappears towards the end of the film, with the story of the men ending way too early and being sacrificed for some of the more impressive looking battles. Meanwhile, Armitage's Thorin is loathsome, although we do see glimpses of the charming and likeable dwarf. His redemption arc isn't really an arc though, it's like one of the giant eagles came in and picked him up when he was at rock bottom and yanked him in a vertical line back up to being a good person. It's kind of sudden, but you can forgive it.

What I can't really forgive is the awful love triangle between Thoriel, Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Kili. It's boring, detracts from the action of the film, and is not at all believable - there's little passion between Kili and Thoriel, and Legolas' pining creates a character that is completely out of sync with how we find him in The Lord of the Rings. In The Lord of the Rings the love story between Aragorn and Arwen is beautiful, in The Battle of Five Armies the love story is a drag.

And the reason I've mentioned director Peter Jackson's other J R R Tolkein trilogy is because it's constantly referred to in The Battle of Five Armies. And not always in a good way. It works when we see Saruman staying behind to deal with the fall out after Sauron attacks Gandalf, who is being rescued by Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving). But it doesn't work when Legolas flips onto the back of a giant thing in a mirror of flipping onto an elephant in The Return of the King, or when Thranduil (Lee Pace) directs Legolas to go find Strider. The hints are in your face, and distracting because they're so obvious.

But really, I've spent too large an amount of space complaining, because I actually loved the film. The battle scenes are so beautifully choreographed I almost gasped at times at just how stunning they were. Yes, it's all very safe and there's no blood, but the scenes are still just gorgeous. And the CGI is absolutely brilliant too. 

And I can't believe I've got this far without mentioning Bilbo (Martin Freeman) who is the real heart of the film. He, rather than Bard, is the true foil to Thorin. Where Thorin is loud and mad, Bilbo is quiet and sensible. The pair's clashes are filled with tension, while the quieter moments between the two are touching and so filled with friendship that the conclusion of their tale brings a tear to the eye.

The Battle of Five Armies would have had to perform miracles to have been as good as the conclusions to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and it didn't. It remains in the shadows of the mountain that is The Return if the King, but that doesn't mean it's not a good film. It's a great film, with some fantastic, jaw-dropping moments. And for those people who have grown up watching Jackson create magic on screen, it is a fitting, loving finale to a great series of films.

Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

A family drama, a whodunit, and an examination of racial politics in the 1970s, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng is many things, and successfully so.

Lydia is the favourite middle child of Marilyn and James Lee. Clever, a hard worker, she looks set to fulfil her mother's dream of becoming a doctor. Then, one day, Lydia goes missing. And soon, she is found dead in a nearby lake. Each member of her family deals with Lydia's death in different ways - Marilyn is determined to prove Lydia was a happy teenager who did not harm herself, James puts himself on a path that could destroy his marriage, Lydia's brother Nathan is convinced Jack, who is sort of the boy next door, is responsible for what happened to Lydia. But it's Hannah, Lydia's younger sister, who is the most observant and knowledgeable of all.

At the centre of the novel is Lydia, who dies right at the beginning, but whose presence haunts us as much as it does her family throughout the book. You can draw comparisons between Everything I Never Told You and The Lovely Bones, but unlike that novel, Lydia has no voice of her own (and what happened to her is a lot less clear). Instead, we get to know Lydia through her family's memories of her, and some flashbacks, but none in the first person. That Ng has managed to create such a strong sense of character for a character we never meet in the present is stunning.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Fiction books of the year 2014

It's that time of year when books of 2014 round-ups are appearing everywhere. I might not have the prestige of a national newspaper, or the fame of a top writer, but hopefully my choices will throw up a few books to add to your to-read pile. Most of my choices are, by complete coincidence, by women. Here goes...

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
If I had to pick favourites from my books of the year, this would be one of them. A beautiful, literary post-apocalyptic tale about art, the interpretation of it, memory and community, Station Eleven is as close to perfection as you can get in book form.

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld
I read this book months and months and months ago, and when I think about it, it still feels as though someone is squeezing my heart. This would be the other book I'd pick if I was picking favourites of my favourites, because even though it's harrowing and painful, it's also utterly brilliant.

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
I'm not a funny book type of person, but Dear Committee Members is not just funny, it's witty and moving and a little bit sad. And it's also written entirely as letters, all by one person, which shouldn't work. But it does.

The Storms of War by Kate Williams
Epic family drama against the background of the First World War, Williams covers feminism, love, desire and more in the first instalment of this series. Forget Downton Abbey, pick this up instead.
The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman
I'm not picking books by women on purpose (even though 2014 has been dubbed by many as the year of reading women), but there was just so much out there this year written by fabulous women. Not only is The Fair Fight written by an uber cool woman, its focus is also women who are busy breaking glass ceilings. This book kicks butt all around.
The Secret Place by Tana French
Yes, this is a crime novel, but it's also a novel about teenage girls and the secret world they inhabit. French had me guessing the murderer until the very end, and also impressed me with how good she is at getting inside the mind of teenagers.

Dear Daughter by Elizabeth Little
This is also a murder mystery, but of a completely different kind to The Secret Place. I loved the snarky narrator, the pop culture references and the sheer whodunnit-ness of it. This is a novel for right now, and it's fun with it.
Her by Harriet Lane
This book is a master class in how to do psychological thrillery type fiction, and that ending still has me stunned.
My review

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey
Who knew a story about an old woman trying to track down her friend would have me on the edge of my seat? Healey's book is moving, and packs as much of a punch as any thriller. It's also a beautifully illustrated novel.
My review

The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey
A book by a man! That's not why this book is on my list though. It's here because it's a zombie novel that manages to not be about zombies at all, but about humanity and the places it can be found. Absolutely brilliant.
My review


Monday, 1 December 2014

Review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

I get the train to and from work every day, but I can't say that I pay much attention to what's happening outside - I'm too busy reading (and sometimes sleeping, shh).

And I think Paula Hawkins' The Girl on the Train is the perfect book to read while commuting, for reasons that are sort of obvious.

Rachel gets the train to and from work every day, and every day the train stops at red lights in the same place - opposite a house that is home to a beautiful young couple. Rachel has given them names, and careers, and lives vicariously through her imagined version of their perfect lives. And then one day, things are not so perfect. The woman in Rachel's perfect couple goes missing, and the man is under suspicion, and Rachel thinks she knows something about what happened.

The unreliable narrator is in vogue right now, but Hawkins injects a welcome shot of something different into Rachel. She's definitely an unreliable narrator, but Rachel wants more than anything to be reliable. She knows people don't trust her, and she knows she's give them no reason to, but she also knows that she's not cried wolf before about something like this. Accompanying Rachel as she struggles to work out what she knows about the missing woman, and how she knows it, is fascinating. Hawkins has created a character full to the brim with faults, but despite that Rachel is sympathetic and likeable, and I rooted for her all the way through.

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.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Review: Misty Falls by Joss Stirling

Savants and an evil serial killer are hardly the stuff of realist fiction, but somehow, with her latest young adult novel, Misty Falls, Joss Stirling has created a book that is realistic while having plenty of elements that make it wildly fictional.

Misty's savant gift means that she is compelled to tell the truth (a little like Ella Enchanted, but not that bad) and she can also use her powers to make others around her more honest. Unfortunately, that's not always a good thing, and Misty's honesty has gotten her into trouble plenty of times. On a trip to South Africa, Misty meets Alex, who is gorgeous and confident, but who seems to dislike Misty on sight. But the pair have bigger problems - a serial killer is killing young savants around the world, and Misty and Alex are prime targets.

The heart of the story is Misty, who is both a Mary Sue - the perfect female character girls often write themselves as in (fan)fiction - and painfully realistic. Unlike a Mary Sue, Misty has many, many faults and insecurities, but that's exactly what makes her appealing, and what makes readers want to be her. Misty is first the insecure teenager we all were, then a savant, meaning we relate to her in spite of her powers.

In Misty Falls Stirling tells both a love story and a murder mystery, and combines them both seamlessly. Lighter moments, like Misty and her friends attending a summer camp and Alex and his schoolmates competing in a debating competition, sit alongside the darker parts of the storyline. And rather than splitting the book in two, the serial killer storyline is always in the background of the other action.

Misty Falls is the fourth book in Stirling's savant series, and characters from the previous three pop up, which I love since it offers familiarity, but also moves the story forward because this time round we get to spend more time with members of the Benedict family we haven't seen before ( and who doesn't love a Benedict boy?!). Stirling could continue expanding the savant universe (and she can because she's built up her mythology so well) and I would read every word.

How I got this book: From the publisher, Oxford University Press. This did not affect my review.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Review: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

I could try and be clever and write my review for Dear Committee Members - a collection of fictional letters written by a professor - as a letter of recommendation (LOR), but author Julie Schumacher has done such a great job with her book that any LOR I write would look awful.

Jason Fitger teaches creative writing and literature at a small arts college. His ex-wife hates him, his ex-girlfriend's feelings towards him are not much above freezing, the economics department on the floor above his is having millions spent on a refurbishment, no one will give his star pupil Darren Browles a chance, and Fitger spends most of his time writing LORs for various ex-pupils and colleagues.

A collection of letters might not sound like a barrel of laughs, but from the opening missive (an LOR to a literary residency), Dear Committee Members is a laugh out loud read. There are constant references to the Seminar, on which Fitger based  the one book that made him momentarily famous, and where he made friends who would go on to become frustrated with him and his clearly nitpicky, slightly selfish ways. Fitger's letters, whether they be to the new head of his department (a sociologist), or to the dean of the college, or to a food company seeking to employ one of his former students, are full of humour, tinged with bitterness, and flavoured with exasperation.

But the reason Dear Committee Members is so good is because, even though Fitger is clearly an annoying guy, he's also a guy who really cares about (one of) his students, and who tries his hardest to get help for Darren. He may be ornery and stuck in his ways (email recommendation forms are one of Fitger's pet hates and this provides great amusement) but as the book moves forward you can see that beneath the bluster Fitger is a guy who cares. He may hurt people, but he doesn't intend to. It's just, you know, sometimes you end up sending an email to every member of college staff instead of just your ex-wife who you still love.

The art of writing letters is slowly disappearing, but Schumacher’s hilarious, heart-warming and, at times, sad, novel is a perfect illustration of the power of words written in ink on paper. Epistolary novels are difficult to pull off, but Schumacher succeeds, putting together a novel through which the voice and character of the protagonist shine through in every funny, painful, cringe-worthy and heartbreaking letter. In the course of dozens of letters, Schumacher gives us a character who is believable, exasperating, and dare I say it, loveable. I'm not writing a letter of recommendation, but if I was, I'd recommend you read this book.

How I got this book: From the publisher, The Friday Project. This did not affect my review.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Avengers: Age of Ultron - thoughts (and feelings) on the teaser trailer

Broken. That's how I'm feeling after watching the teaser trailer for Avengers: Age of Ultron, and it's no surprise, since all the Avengers seem to be broken as well.

The worrying thing is, this teaser trailer comes in at just over two minutes. How an earth will I cope with a two hour long film? Well, partially by analysing and filling in the gaps and coming up with theories for what I think is happening, which is exactly what I'm going to do with this teaser trailer. Warning: I'm not a Marvel expert, just a big MCU fan, and this post will be fandomish as all get out...

For an evil entity, Ultron sure is appealing. Based on this trailer I wouldn't mind listening to James Spader read out the phone book. It would just be a very creepy phone book. 

We know that Ultron in the MCU is created by Tony Stark, and then the robot basically rebels and turns into a sentient being. Which clearly explains the narrative of this trailer, where Ultron crushes other robot suits and talks about having his puppet strings cut. It's frightening, but his words are also pretty poetic:

I'm going to show you something beautiful
Everyone screaming for mercy
You want to protect the world but you don't want it to change
You're all puppets tangled in strings
Now I am free
There are no strings on me.

The (old) Avengers
There is plenty to be worried about, based on the teaser, when it comes to Captain America, Black Widow, Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Clint Barton, and even Thor, who as a god from another world should be relatively immune.

Tackling them one at a time is easiest, although there clearly seems to be a common thread running through their story lines in Age of Ultron - that of either being reminded of their dark pasts, or having dreams/nightmares about their pasts.

The Black Widow is probably the character we know the least about (aside from Barton), even though we've seen her a lot. Worry no more, or a lot more, because some of her past is clearly going to be revealed. That glimpse of a row of girls in severe black ballet costumes seems to be related to Natasha - I don't know how accurate or based on the comics it is, but Natasha as a ballerina or as being able to dance is a popular trope among the MCU fandom. Whether we get to see the Red Room, I couldn't tell, althought there is a glimpse of what I assume is a hospital trolley and some surgical equipment right after a shot of Natasha in an empty office block.

Banner is so, so broken in this film. There are two glimpses we get of Banner in the trailer which frighten me - in both he is slumped on the floor looking like he's just seen his nearest and dearest torn apart, and like he's about to lose his mind. On the plus side, there was a glimpse of the Hulk kicking butt, so perhaps it's not all bad.

Stark is clearly feeling some guilt here, and not making friends among the Avengers, if we're going by the scene in which Thor picks him up by the neck in a fit of anger. Although Thor and Stark have fought before, so there may be nothing to read into there (I doubt that though). And could Stark's words - "It's the end, the end of the path I started us on" - be hinting at the Civil War storyline at supposedly will make up the second phase of the Marvel movies?

I can't comment too much on Barton/Hawkeye, since he's such an unknown entity - we didn't get to know him in Avengers Assemble since he was brain washed for most of the film. What I can tell is that he's got a new costume, and I really like it.

Thor is another hard one to pin down. He's got some anger, which I've already addressed, but the two standout glimpses we get of him are distressing - the look of pain on his face as he is borne out of the water (no idea what's going on there), and the fact that he drops his hammer. What could cause Thor to drop his hammer? The guy is not afraid of much, so it would have to be something shocking.

But let me be honest here, it's Cap I want to speak about the most. Already a broken man from the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it looks like things aren't going to get much better for Steve. He's in the midst of all the fighting scenes we glimpse, and is he looking for Bucky in that shot we get of him kicking down the doors the massive building that looks like it's somewhere in Eastern Europe? But it's that dream/nightmare scene we see, where Cap is in a 1940s dance hall, that has me worried. It's not a memory, because we can safely assume Cap never went to a dance hall in his new Cap body, but he did talk about it with Peggy, and with Bucky, in Captain America: The First Avenger.  What if this scene has Cap seeing Bucky, who he's been hunting for since The Winter Soldier (almost two years previous in the MCU timeline I think) and Peggy dancing together? My head canon is really making me miserable. 

But not as miserable as that shot of a limp hand by Cap's broken shield. I'd like to stick my fingers in my ears and shut my eyes and pretend that broken shield isn't real, since it's supposedly made of an unbreakable metal, and I can kind of believe that if I believe my theories about some other people in this film...

The (new) Avengers
So, Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch has the power to alter reality in unknown ways, which leads me to theorise that some of the scenes we see of the Avengers suffering could come from her. What if she's altering what the Avengers see and hear? Eventually, Scarlett Witch joins the Avengers, but the last time we saw her she was locked in a cell and under the command of Baron Wolfgang Von Strucker (presumably somewhere in Europe if we're going by his name).

As was her brother Quicksilver, who in this trailer is the least angsty of the characters we've seen. Sure, he's shouting angrily alongside Scarlet Witch in a scene which Ultron narrates but mostly we see him moving very fast and fighting robots (at one point with Cap seemingly by his side/nearby).

Perhaps the scenes in Europe are where the Avengers find the Maximoff siblings, who I'm sure are good at the core, but who maybe don't start out that way. I don't think they're bad, but perhaps a little cautious, which makes them not trust the Avengers at first.

Everyone else
SHIELD has still not recovered, by the looks of it, although that won't keep Fury down. And I definitely caught a glimpse of Rhodey in the scene we see of the Avengers on the bridge. There's also a third female there I can't make out (Black Widow and Scarlet Witch being the first two, I think), possibly Maria Hill? Please be Maria Hill. And I'm sure someone said they saw the Vision in there somewhere, but I can't make him out yet. And I'm not sure what the creepy silver robots were, but they're not good.

Around the world
We've got some massively creepy looking castles, definitely in Europe somewhere, and also some scenes in snowy landscapes (Russia? Fits with the whole Hydra thing), and also in what is possibly South Korea (Cap having cars chucked at him). It seems the Avengers are truly going global in Age of Ulton.

Basically, I've been broken since I saw the trailer, and there are a lot of reactions like mine out there. Here is one of my favourites though (and although this isn't a post about diversity, Bim Adewunmi has a point at number five...)

So what have we learnt from the first teaser trailer? Well, that Avengers: Age of Ultron is going to be painful. So I'm hereby setting up a support group. Let me know in the comments if you'd like to join - there will be lots of flailing, use of exclamation marks and swear words, and some cracking of hearts.

Review: Nobody's Child by Kate Adie

As a journalist, Kate Adie has a knack for interviewing people, and getting them to open up, and it's knack that's displayed in Nobody's Child from the get-go.

Partially a memoir about Adie's own upbringing as an adopted child, partially a history of foundling children, adoption and fostering, and partially a collection of interviews, Nobody's Child is shot through with humanity.

Adie frames each chapter of Nobody's Child around a question, from the opening "what is your name?" to the closing "do you have a criminal record?". Some questions may seem like they're easy to answer, but Adie's purpose is to explore what these questions mean for people who don't have access to those pieces of information that we so readily attribute to being part of someone's identity.

I really liked the social history Adie dotted throughout Nobody's Child, looking at the different ways in which church, state and society at large, in a variety of countries, tried to deal with abandoned, unwanted and orphaned children, most of the time unsuccessfully or with a cruelty they did not seem to acknowledge.

In between this, and her own story, come the stories of various people Adie has interviewed, nearly all of them foundlings. And it's with these stories that the book becomes less like a book, and more like watching someone be interviewed. In most cases, Adie chooses to reproduce entire conversations with her interview subjects, which often are monologues. It's unconventional in a narrative book, and unlike anything of Adie's that I've read before, but it's powerful reading when it comes complete with rhetorical questions, awkward comments, half-told jokes and more.

Nobody's Child is a moving read, at once both the personal story of Adie and her interviewees, and also a damning account of the difficulties foundlings have faced, and still continue to face. It's a book to make you angry, but also one filled with hope.

How I got this book: Bought

Monday, 20 October 2014

Review: The May Bride by Suzannah Dunn

The reign and life of King Henry VIII always provides great fodder for books, television and film, and Suzannah Dunn taps into that fascination for her novel, The May Bride.

Not that Henry VIII makes much of an appearance in The May Bride - this is firmly a book about Jane Seymour and her life in the years before she went to court. When she is 15, Jane's brother brings home his new wife Katherine Filliol. Older than Jane and more wild than anyone in the Seymour family, Jane finds herself drawn into an intense friendship with Katherine which burns brightly for one summer, before fading out. Two years later, Katherine's husband makes an accusation against his wife that will change the Seymours forever, and that will inform the way Jane acts when she becomes part of the court of Catherine of Aragon.

Written by an older, wiser, Jane who is about to marry Henry VIII, it is clear from the beginning of The May Bride that something truly terrible has happened to the Seymour family, and that Katherine is at the centre of whatever went wrong. From almost the very beginning of the first chapter, we see Jane blaming herself for not having seen Katherine properly. Dunn's book is not about revealing what Katherine has done as much as it is about Jane coming to terms with her role in what happened, and the guilt she feels. As the book progressed, I found myself more fascinated with Jane's actions and reactions than by finding out what Katherine's role was, perhaps partially because I could guess the gist of Katherine's deed from close to the beginning of the novel.

Where Dunn's book really shines is in the portrayal of the friendship between Jane and Katherine. As an impressionable 15-year-old, Jane is enamoured with Katherine. It might be difficult for anyone living in the 21st century to imagine such a relationship forming, but it's easy to understand Jane's feelings when you consider how isolated she was and how normal the Seymours' existence was until Katherine arrived like a whirlwind.

The May Bride is a slow burn book, which builds to its central revelation gradually, and then crests slowly downward, and into more familiar territory to those of us who learnt about Henry VIII's wives at school - but this is a book that puts women in the centre, and marginalises the famous king, although his relationship with Jane hangs over the entire novel. Dunn gives a voice to Jane, and, although we never hear from her directly, to Katherine as well, who despite her bravery and brightness is the person most without a voice in the novel.

Dunn's novel is all fiction, but it's based on real events, and is an interesting take and filling of the gaps on a story we think we know the most important part of. Reading The May Bride made me realise that it wasn't Jane's marriage to Henry that was fascinating, it was her past that made her the woman she was.

How I got this book: From the publisher, Little, Brown. This did not affect my review.


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