Saturday, 3 December 2016

Book Review: The Elusive Elixir by Gigi Pandian

The Elusive Elixir is the third novel in the 'Accidental Alchemist' series. This sort-of-urban fantasy set in Portland, Oregon, is a pleasant romp. Using alchemy as the driver of its supernatural aspects is a different approach - even if, ultimately, it is used quite similarly to magic.

Zoe Faust is the 'accidental' alchemist the series is named after. Having discovered the philosopher's stone, she does not age, and has lived for several hundred years as a young woman. (All alchemists can discover the secret to eternal life, except it is a different one for each and its method cannot be transferred to any other)

In the first book, a living gargoyle, Dorian Robert-Houdin, turned up at her (newly acquired) door and turned her life upside down. Since then, she's discovered that a sinister group of alchemists have been using 'backwards alchemy' and a 'death rotation' to take alchemical shortcuts, which is Evil. Dorian, however, owes his life to it, and as backwards alchemy has started to crumble around the world, so Dorian, too, is rapidly losing life force.

The Elusive Elixir is therefore a book about Zoe's continuing quest to save her friend. The first two books were primarily (murder) mystery novels. The Elusive Elixir, too, is bound to please fans of Jessica Fletcher / Murder, She Wrote, but the urgency of Dorian's deterioration is more in the foreground than before.

The Accidental Alchemist series is pleasantly entertaining fun. Murder, mystery, magic (well, alchemy) and an incorrigible living gargoyle and an equally incorrigible teenager provide plenty of diversion. Meanwhile, as Dorian is a chef by training and Zoe is a vegan, the series is unique in its focus on vegan food, which features heavily. The foody descriptions throughout are plentiful, and each volume includes a bunch of vegan recipes at the end.

The one thing that Gigi Pandian has not quite mastered yet (in my opinion) is the art of exposition. There's quite a lot of it in each novel, mostly delivered by Zoe reminiscing. If you have not read the first book in the series, rest assured, all its plot points are delivered in each subsequent volume by means of slightly clunky exposition To make matters worse, there is an awful lot of repetition. If I didn't know any better, I would think Gigi Pandian is a fairly elderly writer, as it does have a bit of a nattering habit of self-repetition. (She's not elderly, at least not according to the 'About the Author' text in the back). Perhaps the Accidental Alchemist series is aimed at an older reader demographic (like the Brenda & Effie Mysteries series) - for me, it was a bit annoying.

If you like light entertainment murder mysteries, (urban) fantasy and a dash of vegan cuisine, and if you can forgive a little clunky repetition, you'll enjoy this book (and its predecessors) very much.

Rating: 3.5/5

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Book Review: In Calabria by Peter S. Beagle

Peter Beagle is one of the most highly revered authors of fantasy, especially among other authors.  The Last Unicorn is a hugely acclaimed and beloved classic (also an animated movie), but his other novels are not as well-known. He still writes, and In Calabria is his latest novel.

Incidentally, it is about a unicorn. Or rather, it is a novel about the impact a unicorn has when it appears one day in the back yard of a cranky old farmer in the Italian region of Calabria.

Our hero, Claudio Bianchi, is just the right sort of curmudgeon. He grizzles and growls, but without any malice. He's virtually a hermit, content to live at the outermost edge of society, but cares deeply about the animals he tends to. His only regular human contact is the postman, who teasingly asks Claudio about his poetry on a daily basis. Beagle knows how to create authentic reality by zooming in ever so briefly on the minutest, but most human detail, and this gives a richness to the flavour of his stories.

Two things change in Claudio's life: the unicorn appears, and, coincidentally. the postman's younger sister takes over responsibility for delivering the mail on Fridays.

In Calabria is a lovely novel. Even though it is set in the present, it has a strong sense of the Romantic (in the sense of the Romantic period of literature & art) and a yearning for magical beauty. It is also a novel about a curmudgeon slowly softening up, and a novel about defiance against evil. That said, it is not quite as wonderful as the recently published Summerlong: the story has fewer characters to play with, and, though unfathomable, the unicorn does not have the same charisma as Summerlong's Lioness...

Rating: 4/5

Sunday, 20 November 2016

After Atlas by Emma Newman

After Atlas is set in the same universe as Planetfall, but it is neither sequel nor prequel. It can be read as a standalone novel, but I rather suspect that it is the start of a separate strand of story, which will eventually meet up with story strand from Planetfall - I think Emma Newman is planning some huge opus in this universe.


After Atlas is the story of Carlos Moreno, a hard-nosed far-future homicide detective with a complicated personal history, who is assigned a gruesome case that is intimately interwoven with that history. He's the left-behind son of a woman who was on the interstellar Atlas spaceship that left Earth 40 years ago. He was, briefly, member of a cult that turned its back on the internet and technology. And, after fleeing from the cult, he became a refugee and ultimately a slave.

Stories don't get much more noir than After Atlas. Not only is our (enslaved) gumshoe a cynical lone wolf, not only is the locked room mystery grim and brutal, but the world is cruel and unforgiving, and the grotesquely gory case is just a bloody symptom of a larger, deeper corruption in the world.

After Atlas is very different from Planetfall. Where Planetfall is dominated by its psychological angles (tackling mental illness in a character trying to colonise a planet), After Atlas is much more conventional. There is a tangential element of mental health stuff going on (Carlos uses meditative practice to ground himself when he gets into situations he struggles to cope with), but for the first half of the book, solving the crime is really the be-all and end-all of the story. The second half - well, let's say that the story simultaneously widens out and narrows down in very unexpected ways.

What it does have in common with Planetfall is that this is not a feel-good novel. It's an intelligent, well-written and tense one, but it puts you through the wringer. Ultimately, its view of humanity and society is much more bleak than that of even the grimmest film noir. Worth a read, but be prepared for a tough time.

Rating: 3.5/5

Friday, 14 October 2016

Rawblood by Catriona Ward

I don’t read many horror novels. After growing up very timid and easily scared, I find horror novels  disappointingly un-scary these days. However, the description and buzz around Rawblood drew my attention. The promise of a modern gothic novel, genuinely unsettling, with originality and flair – who’d say no to that?

Rawblood is the name of a mansion, the home of the Villarca family. There’s something sinister about the house and the family. Alfonso Villarca and his young daughter Iris live alone in the mansion, with just Shakes, an old groundsman / servant / stablemaster to look after them. Iris is constantly warned to stay away from other people, to not dare to develop strong feelings. And the local people are similarly keen to steer clear of the Villarcas. All except Tom Gilmore, a boy of Iris’ age, who befriends her, much to their fathers’ concerns.

The story soon spirals outwards in time and characters. We follow Iris as she grows up, chafing against her father’s rules, yet deciding on a future worth adhering to the rules for. We also follow a friend of her father's, years before Iris is born. Those two narratives run in parallel for a while, revealing different aspects of Alfonso Villarca, and different glimpses of the looming darkness around the man.

Rawblood is a well-written novel, showing different narrative styles in different segments. Diary entries filled with long sentences and slightly florid language are intermingled with scenes told in minimalist language and dialogue that rarely includes a complete sentence. A lot of it is written in present tense and first person, which might not sit well with some readers. It can be a little disorienting, but for the most part, I was sufficiently engrossed in the book to not pay too much attention to this.

It’s not just a stylistic exercise - Rawblood also allows itself a measured pace. There is real skill in the way tensions and horrors shift. I wouldn't say the horrors escalate over time, but they start out all-too-natural and change as the story progresses.

With its fin-de-siecle prose, gothic leanings, and its setting in a rural mansion in the moors, Rawblood is every bit the atmospheric chiller you may hope for. Comparisons with Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca are more than justified - Rawblood is a classy, complex novel.

That said, all the atmosphere and writerly craftsmanship and style didn't quite manage to distract from the fact that the novel felt a little disjointed. For half its length, there are only two time periods and viewpoint characters. Then, as their narratives reach their climaxes, the number of timelines and viewpoint characters grows rapidly and unexpectedly. In terms of the reading experience, there’s a real moment of disjointedness, and a bit of a lull in excitement. The second half of the novel does add to the plot - significantly so - but the transition felt a bit hackneyed to me. It felt like reading two separate novels, rather than one.

There’s enough visceral horror and sinister horror to entertain most readers, I imagine. Is it scary? If you have the capacity to be scared by books, then I would wager that yes, it is. I didn’t find it scary, but then, the last time I was scared by a book was half a lifetime ago...

Modern gothic horrors don't get much better than this: it's original, atmospheric, and diverse in its sources of horror. It's a very smart novel.

Rating: 3.5/5

(People who love the horror genre may find it rates higher - for me, 3.5 is about as high as I would expect a horror novel to reach)

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

The Ferryman Institute by Colin Gigl

The Ferryman Institute is a fantasy novel with a premise that's more unique than most. Our hero, Charlie, is a ferryman, someone whose purpose is to accompany the souls of the recently departed and safely transfer them to their afterlife.

With its striking and evocative cover and its original premise, I was immediately sold on the book. Honestly, I could fawn over the beauty of the cover for a while - I adore it. That said, Colin Gigl imagines the Ferryman Institute as an office-based, public service type organisation. There are sadly no rivers to row across, no souls in the Styx...

Charlie's job, in fact, is to be there when a person dies, and when the spirit appears, to convince the spirit to walk through a door towards the light (their afterlife), rather than staying behind on Earth and becoming a ghost, doomed to fade from existence. His job is made hard by the mental state of the spirits just after death: depending on their demise, they can be distressed, confused, terrified, irrational...

We soon learn that Charlie is the best among Ferrymen: he has never failed to convince a spirit to walk through the door. He's the only Ferryman with such a perfect record, and he's been doing his job for a long while. But all is not well with Charlie: his work is eating away at him, grinding down his own soul. Unfortunately for him, he's immortal (and unable to sense pain), so it seems like he's stuck. Until, that is, a special assignment offers him a choice...

The novel is the story of what happens after Charlie makes that choice. It's in large parts a chase thriller, accompanied by wise cracking dialogue and sarcasm. The story moves at a cheerful pace and never fails to entertain.

On the other hand, if you're looking for something more than light entertainment, The Ferryman Institute is probably not for you. The humour is pleasantly diverting, but not cutting or particularly memorable. The story seems a little less original than I'd hoped for (it has quite a lot in common with Chris Holm's Dead Harvest, while the Ferrymen seem surprisingly similar to Dead Like Me - style grim reapers). Characters can occasionally seem a little contradictory (Charlie can go to and fro between being super-competent and completely gormless. Alice's ability to be humorous and sarcastic seems somewhat at odds with her debilitating depression). The plot can feel a little predictable. And the book does this post-post-postmodern thing of referencing pop culture a lot. One character even chose his own name from pop culture references. It feels a little like cheating - as if the author is either overly self-conscious of characters being too similar to others that went before, or as if the author is trying to use a shorthand way of telling the reader what to think and expect of a character / situation.

Basically, The Ferryman Institute is a good first novel. Solidly entertaining, fast paced and fun. A promising start, though not quite as memorable and original as I'd hoped.

Rating: 3.5/5

Saturday, 1 October 2016

TV show review: BrainDead

Eyes I could stare at for hours.
A few weeks ago, I was in the mood to watch something shorter than a movie, so I glanced through Amazon Prime's selection of TV shows to see if there was something worth watching an episode of. I settled on BrainDead because I was in the mood for something silly. Instead, I was surprised by the show - it's wry rather than silly.

BrainDead's premise is that alien brain-eating bugs have landed on Earth and headed for Washington D.C.. We follow the story through the adventures of Laurel, a young woman from a political dynasty who wants nothing to do with politics (she prefers using her film making degree to make well-meaning documentaries about heritage music of small communities around the world, but, unsurprisingly, there is not much of a market for Austrian yodelling or Melanesian choirs...). Pressured by her father, she agrees to work for her brother, a young senator, in the run-up to, and during, a government shutdown over budget disagreements between Republicans and Democrats.

BrainDead is a surprising show. It mixes West Wing style political drama with wry satire, scifi, and whimsy. Oh, and brain-eating, people-controlling bugs.

It feels like a labour of love from its spot-on casting to the delightful way that "previously on BrainDead" summaries are delivered at the start of each episode. It's a show custom-made for young geeky adults. It also seems about as good an explanation as any for the way US politics (and UK politics, and politics across the Western world) have got to the dysfunctional, somewhat crazy place they're in.

BrainDead definitely feels very, very contemporary (a year or two from now, it might feel aged): Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton appear in the background, and the political crises and topics will be familiar to anyone who follows the news.

I'm an unashamedly political person, so the notion that a Republican could be a fair approximation of a decent person is quite baffling and the single biggest obstacle to suspension of disbelief in the entire show. Brain-eating, politician-controlling alien bugs? Seems legit. A Republican with a heart? Inconceivable!

However, watching the huge-eyed actress last seen in Scott Pilgrim (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is always a delight, and makes up for the show's attempts to tread the political middle ground. And, of course, Tony Shalhoub is always entertaining, whether cameoing in Men in Black, leading in Monk, or antagonising in BrainDead.

Well worth watching - and watching now, before the US election, while it might still be funny.

Rating: 4.5/5

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Movie Review: Kubo and the Two Strings by Travis Knight, Marc Haimes, Shannon Tindle and Chris Butler

I've read about Kubo and the Two Strings, many months ago, when it was in production. Then I promptly forgot all about it. So, when I started seeing posters for the film appearing in Cardiff, I had no idea about the film at all. In fact, to my embarrassment, I thought it was that new Disney movie about Polynesians (the posters looked 'exotic'), only I couldn't quite figure out how the Japanese aesthetic and monkeys would fit with the tale. Let's just say the film turned out to be a surprise.

The first few minutes of the film were a bewildering experience for someone expecting YA Disney. The stop motion animation is absolutely gorgeous, and the look and feel of the film is on a grand scale. So far, so Disney-compatible. However, the very start shows a young mother in a storm on a tiny boat, coming to harm, cracking her head on rocks on the bottom of the sea, and a little cloud of blood... with that single cracked-skull sound, that facial cut, that moment of utter despair, we're left in no doubt that this movie is set in a more perilous universe than any (recent) Disney film.

From the harrowing beginning, the film works up emotional intensity as we follow young Kubo caring for his obviously mentally disabled mother, while scraping by as a gifted storyteller performing for crowds in the market. The film never really lets go of its emotional resonance.

Which is not to say that the film is sad or glum. In fact, it is filled with joy and energy and swashbuckling grand adventures enough for three movies. There is laughter aplenty, and we get frequent reminder that Kubo, much as he might be on a quest in tragic circumstances, is still a little boy who can be playful, stubborn, sarcastic...

Kubo's quest into the Farlands to find three magical items to protect him against the evil Moon King is wondersome and epic in the way of the best fairy tales. At the same time, the Japanese aesthetic and influence flavours his adventures with a tinge of melancholy and cultural richness. None of which prevents the movie from enjoying moments of physical humour and whimsy.

I have no idea whether Kubo's story is based on a "real" fairytale, but it is so rich in beauty and narrative that if it isn't an old tale, it easily could be. It has that mythical, archetypal quality, while featuring complex, likeable (and in some cases, genuinely scary) characters.

There are plot twists, but grown ups will see them coming a mile away. There is a sense of real peril, and characters can be wounded and harmed: Kubo's story is probably not suitable for younger children. Visually, the film is eye candy so beautiful that I want to see it a second time in the cinema.

If you love Neil Gaiman's Sandman, or Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, or the novels of Pat Rothfuss, then I am confident you will love Kubo's story, too. It's as close to flawless as a movie can get - highly recommended.

Rating: 5/5