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