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

Saturday, 13 August 2016

The Conclave of Shadow by Alyc Helms

The Conclave of Shadows is the second book in Alyc Helms' Missy Masters series. You should definitely pick up & read the first book before you buy this one.

Picking up where the superbly fun, ultra-twisty The Dragons of Heaven left off, Missy tries to re-establish normality in her day-to-day life in San Francisco. Her alter ego, Mr Mystic, has been hiding from the press attention and the clutches of Argent, the western world's premier (capitalist, corporate) superhero organisation.

It is not to be. Her acquaintance Abby, who is an Argent hero, looks her up and drags her back into the spotlight. Meanwhile. San Francisco has been experiencing a series of increasingly powerful minor earthquakes, the supernatural protections that Lung Di had put in place to separate the worldly realm from others are crumbling, and her friends and family are all juggling competing interests and problems...

Conclave of Shadows affirms that Dragons of Heaven was not a fluke (not that anyone would ever think so). Alyc Helms really can write, and write very well indeed. Infused with wit and humour, filled with a fundamentally open and kindhearted warmth, this is the contemporary speculative fiction at its stylistic best. Contemporary, in that it features multicultural characters of various sexual orientations, women characters who are central to the story, and adversity which is not powered by pure villainy, but by conflicts of interest between complex individuals and entities that each try to be as good as they can, within their own moralities...

Is it just me, or is there a trend for (women) writers to write books that are a bit more huggy in recent times? I'm thinking Karen Lord, Becky Chambers, and now Alyc Helms. The Missy Masters series differs from Long Road to a Small Angry Planet and Best of All Possible Worlds in one key aspect: it mixes the huggy warmhearted approach to its characters and events with a big dollop of action adventuring. It's what the Marvel Cinematic Universe would be, if it had just a little bit less testosterone...

This is not to say that Conclave of Shadows is perfect. The second half of the novel is a bit repetitive - it feels like a character in a video game having to pass level after level, battling a boss at the end of each stage. And, after all the twists of Dragons of Heaven, the number of major plot revelations in Conclave feels oddly subdued. The biggest obstacle to my own enjoyment of the book is that there are too many characters. I kept forgetting who's who, especially among the male side characters. Then again, that is a particular problem of mine: I keep forgetting who's who in the organisation I work for: I have a rubbish people memory.

That said, the series is definitely on my must-buy, must-preorder list from now on. Urban fantasy at its very best. It's on a par with Ben Aaronovitch's Peter Grant series, Daniel O'Malley's Checquy series, Genevieve Cogman's Invisible Library and slightly superior to Chris Holm's Collector series. Thrilling, funny and fun. Go get it now!

Rating: 4/5

Saturday, 6 August 2016

The Beginning Woods by Malcolm McNeill

The Beginning Woods was originally written and published in German (with a title which translates as 'The Forest of Dreaming Stories'), by a Scottish Brit living there. Now, it's being published in English for the first time. This is the sort of cultural mixing worth celebrating about Europe and the EU...

OK, ok, back to the topic at hand. The book, not Brexit.

While it is marketed as a children's novel, The Beginning Woods strikes me as book that grown ups will appreciate more. Reading it on an e-reader, I can't be absolutely sure, but my impression was that this is a fairly thick novel. It's not just the length that might intimidate children - the story starts with two nestled prologues, each of which concerns adult characters. One explains the back story of this world - people have started vanishing and leaving behind only a puddle of clothes, and no one knows why - while the other introduces readers to a scientist and a witch.

Only after those preambles do we meet our protagonist, a kobold baby in a human orphanage, too ugly to be adopted. Except, at the very last minute before he would have been discarded / moved to permanent accommodations (apparently, orphanages are sort of showrooms for children - those no one wants are taken elsewhere. Who knew?), a one-armed man and his wife adopt him after all. They call him Max.

Max grows up, and over several chapters we follow him during his childhood. Eventually, he reaches an age where he starts to resent his parents (who had been nothing but loving), predominantly for being different from him and not wanting him to be a complete bookworm. Then, books are banned as a scientist claims they are to blame for the vanishings, and events rapidly take turns for the dramatic.

The Woods, which are mentioned in the prologue, only begin to enter the narrative when Max crosses from the real world into theirs, in search of his origins. Once in the woods, Max meets Marta, a cold girl, and the story gains a lot of heart, soul and joy. It becomes playful where it had been sullen and sulky.

The English blurb reads like a movie trailer. The German blurb, meanwhile, calls the book a dark fairytale with philosophical depth, perfect for fans of Carlos Ruiz Zafon and Michael Ende. It's pretty clear in both cases that publishers and editors saw a treasure in this book. They are not wrong.

There is indeed a lot to love about the novel. Once Max is having adventures in the Woods, the story is alive and wonderful. However, it takes a long time before the novel reaches that point. Comparisons with The Neverending Story and The Shadow of the Wind are well deserved: the book is indeed rich and deep. Like the Neverending Story, the transition between worlds happens almost halfway through the tale. However, unlike the Neverending Story, the joyful, pacey half comes second. The Neverending Story hooks you from the start, while The Beginning Woods hook you in the latter half of the tale. With a somewhat plodding pace (similar to Shadow of the Wind's), the first half might lose readers' attentions.

I don't really think this is a children's novel. No, there is no inappropriate language, gore or sex. However, children't novels rarely follow characters as they grow from babies to teenagers. Usually, children's books take place at a specific age of their protagonist's life. Similarly, children's novels tend to start with children, not with prologue after prologue about adults. Most importantly of all, children's novels don't usually allow themselves any slack in their pace. It takes patience to stick with this book. Much as that patience is rewarded by the richness and depth of the fantasy woods, I fear child readers are unlikely to persevere (and I'm not entirely sure about adult readers, either).

The Beginning Woods is indeed a magical, beautiful book. It's much better than Shadow of the Wind (in my opinion), but not as accessible to young readers as The Neverending Story. Recommended for grown ups who love stories, books, and stories about stories.

Rating: 4/5

Friday, 22 July 2016

The Dragons of Heaven by Alyc Helms

The Dragons of Heaven is a debut novel, set in a world where superheroes and some kinds of magic are real. It's also a world in which not everyone believes in magic - sceptics believe the superheroes just have very advanced tech (which some do) and very good PR (ditto). There are laws about 'citizen vigilantes' and some form together into SHIELD-like organisations, some commercial, some state-run. But all of that is merely backdrop: the novel is much more interested in its Chinese-influenced mythology and magic and a hero's journey.

Our hero is Mr Mystic, one of those superpowered vigilantes. Able to control shadows and even drift from the 'real' world into a shadow realm, Mr Mystic is a fedora wearing, arch-British-sounding, Chinese-magic-wielding martial arts expert. Oh, and she's also a woman, Missy Masters, who inherited the superpowers from her grandfather, the original Mr Mystic, whom she impersonates. (Said grandfather, meanwhile, has disappeared without a trace or a goodbye).

Superheroes tend to be the stuff of movies and comic books, but The Dragons of Heaven is a funny, slick, energetic romp, filled with action and jaw dropping (but believable) plot twists.

I will admit that it took me a while to get properly absorbed by the story: the timeline is a little wobbly at the start of the novel, with two parallel storylines (one in the now, one in the past) and flashbacks galore. Also, I am not good with (character) names at the best of times, so I tended to get confused between all the Asian characters. Worst of all, I read the book while stressed / struggling with concentration, so even though I noticed the humour and the playfulness, I really struggled to focus on anything. (This has to do with life issues rather than any issues of the book, but it makes me feel I missed out on enjoying this book properly).

Eventually, even though the stress factors in the real world were still there, the book hooked me, and by the end I was not just invested in Missy, but her world and all the characters within it. In fact, The Dragons of Heaven is a novel where there is no such thing as a pure villain - all characters, even the antagonists, have reason and richness and perspectives that are perfectly understandable.

Basically, if you want a book that is fun, funny, action-packed, thrilling, a bit romantic and sexy, joyful, whip-smart, and a good romp, The Dragons of Heaven really should be up your street.

Rating: 5/5