Showing posts with label reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label reviews. Show all posts

Thursday, 2 July 2020

My Year in Books 2020: June

Fingers crossed, I think I might be out of my slump! Hooray! For the first time since the lockdown started, I feel like I've really been able to get back into reading for pleasure. I've read quite a few novels this month - way more than I've been doing - and I found myself getting lost in the stories much more than I've been doing. I'm very pleased about this, as I was starting to think I was never going to enjoy reading again.

As always, here are my reviews of the books I read earlier this year: January, February, March, April, May

And here are my reviews of the books I read in June:

Car Park Life: A Portrait of Britain's Last Urban Wilderness by Gareth E. Rees (2019)

Last month, I saw an intriguing retweet from a Twitter account called Unofficial Britain, which was about a visit to a car park. Linked to the tweet were details of Car Park Life, Gareth E. Rees’s ‘portrait of Britain’s unexplored urban wilderness’. Something about the tweet and the description of the book had me hooked, and I immediately ordered a copy from the publisher. I was not disappointed. Car Park Life is an exploration of a series of British car parks – retail and chain stores only, as outlined in Rees’s manifesto early in the book – that takes in strange decorative features, hints of criminal and sexual misbehaviour, odd reclamations and reimaginings of history (dinosaur footprints at Asda, a steel sculpture of a Bronze Age man at Holiday Inn), trolleys, litter and ashtrays. The book is a sort of psychogeography, but with a darker, more self-reflective tone in places. It reminded me of Jon Bounds and Danny Smith’s Pier Review (which I read last October and loved). Like Pier Review, Car Park Life transforms a rather mundane feature of the British landscape into a ‘heart of darkness’. The book is as much about the power the landscape exerts over the author as it is about the landscape itself. And, like Pier Review, the book imbues its subject with a profundity it can never fully explain. It’s a rare treat to read a book that not only doesn’t give you answers, but leaves you with questions you didn’t know you could have.

The Moth: 50 Extraordinary True Stories, edited by Catherine Burns (2014)

Back to my charity shop to-read pile for the next one… I picked this one up in Aberystwyth last year. I hadn’t heard of The Moth, a storytelling event series that began in NYC in the 90s. Participants are invited to tell ‘true’ stories of their own lives and experiences (though with a bit of direction and editorial advice). This book is a collection of fifty stories that have been told at Moth events, arranged thematically. As you might imagine, the stories are relatively short, making this a real pick-and-mix of a collection. There are stories about love (of all kinds) and relationships, life-changing experiences, grief and death. I have to admit it is a bit of a mixed bag. Some of the stories are a bit ‘literati’ for my tastes (bull-fighting with Ernest Hemingway was not one of my favourites). Others are quirky little slices of unusual lives (Mike Massimino’s story of fixing the Hubble telescope was pretty memorable). Of them all, it’s Darryl ‘DMC’ McDaniels’s story absolutely took the prize for me. Painful, moving, funny and ultimately life-affirming, it’s a story that’s going to stick with me for a long time. The beauty of a collection like this is that each reader will find something different to enjoy within the pages, and they’ll have differing appreciations of the various styles, tones and techniques that the storytellers use. I’ll admit it’s not quite as profound as I’d expected, but it’s an enjoyable selection of off-beat and (generally) well-told stories.

After the Accident by Kerry Wilkinson (2020)

As I’ve said a couple of times over the past few months, I’ve been really struggling with reading during the lockdown, and I’ve been struggling to get lost in stories. My mum’s been lending me books she’s enjoyed, and the pile keeps getting bigger. I decided just to jump straight in and read the one on the top. I didn’t read anything about After the Accident (even the blurb) – which makes it sounds like I put incredible trust in my mum’s recommendations! – because I thought it would be cool just to go in without any expectations. And I think I was right to do that, I think it added to my enjoyment. After the Accident is told in an unusual narrative style. It’s a series of snippets from interviews with a family group (and a couple of additional, periphery characters) conducted – surprisingly enough – after an accident. The McGinley family have gone to a Greek island for a holiday, but on the first night one member of the family is found unconscious after falling from a cliff. The style of the book is what really made it for me. It’s to Wilkinson’s credit that so many different voices, appearing in such short snippets without description or action, can come alive as an engaging and vivid cast of characters. As you may know, I’m a fan of unreliable narrators, ambiguous narration and uncertain endings, so I loved the fact that I couldn’t trust a single word any of the characters was saying!

Lies by T.M. Logan (2017)

I decided after I read After the Accident that I probably needed to just go for another thriller to help me get back into reading (and enjoying) novels. This was an impulse e-Book purchase with that specifically in mind. Again, I think this was the right choice. I actually read Lies in a single sitting – something I’ve not done for ages. It’s a well-crafted domestic thriller, with a few twists and turns (though I did see the ending, in part, coming). Joe Lynch is a happily married family man and schoolteacher. One day, after picking his little boy up for school, he spots his wife’s car and decides to say hello to her. That one insignificant decision leads to a discovery that makes Joe question everything he thinks he knows about his life. Or, at least, it makes him begin to question it. Actually, he still takes a few things for granted that perhaps he shouldn’t! I enjoyed this one; it was a fun ride, and Joe is an engaging (if slightly foolish) protagonist. I will admit there were times when I thought the machinations of his conniving nemesis were a little bit OTT – verging on ‘super-villain’ at one point – but the book stayed just on the right side of plausible. I also loved the way technology, specifically social media, was handled with a skilful blend of mundanity and menace. Overall, this was a well-written and fun read that kept me entertained. I think this one was a good choice.

The Other Wife by Claire McGowan (2019)

Next – and I’m not sure this is something I’m proud of – I just let Amazon make the decision for me. I picked the next two books I read this month from the suggestions that followed when I read Lies. That did mean I ended up with a couple of domestic noir thrillers, but that’s the way it goes. I read Claire McGowan’s What You Did a few months ago, and I enjoyed it, so I thought I’d give another of her books a go. I think I probably enjoyed The Other Wife even more than What You Did (probably), but I can’t quite put my finger on why. I think I just found one of the characters really engaging. The Other Wife is told from multiple perspectives (of course it is – no thriller worth its salt has just one narrator nowadays!). In the first part, we meet Nora, a widow in her forties who has been forced to sell the family home and move to a rented cottage after her husband’s death. The cottage is next-door to the one occupied by Suzi and her husband Nick. Suzi is pregnant, and feeling guilty about a bad thing she did. The third narrator is Elle, an insecure woman who worries that her husband might be cheating on her. These three stories come together in a not-altogether-surprising way at the end of the first part, but The Other Wife still has a couple of surprises in store – not least an unexpected character arc.

The Suspect by Fiona Barton (2019)

I read Fiona Barton’s The Child back when I started doing these monthly mini-review posts. I think it was one of the first books I reviewed, and I seem to remember enjoying it. The Suspect isn’t quite as intriguing as The Child, but it has its moments. It also has its problems. The story centres around two teenage girls, Alex and Rosie, who go missing in Thailand. Journalist Kate Waters (the protagonist of The Child and The Widow) decides to write something on the case, after being contacted by her old acquaintance D.I. Bob Sparkes. Sparkes thinks the case may be of interest to Waters, as her own son Jake is currently working in Thailand. (Jake’s departure, against his mother’s wishes, was a subplot in The Child). As you can probably imagine, Alex and Rosie’s disappearance turns out to be much more serious than just two teenagers forgetting to phone home – leading both Waters and Sparkes to travel to Thailand to investigate. While the plot does have its charms, it does rest on a rather easy to guess ‘twist’ and a bit of a massive coincidence (and it also contains a massive spoiler for The Widow, if you haven’t read that one). Worse, though, is the portrayal of every Thai character (all minor) as corrupt, lazy and (borderline) criminal and the clichéd depictions of the teen girls. Rosie, in particular, is a broad-brush portrait that really could’ve done with some depth or nuance. Overall, this one was a bit disappointing.

Six Wicked Reasons by Jo Spain (2020)

You might have picked up from previous posts that my mum and I are both big Jo Spain fans. I saw on Twitter that the next book in the Tom Reynolds series is out soon, and when I went to check the publication date, I spotted a standalone novel of hers I hadn’t read. Now, I’ll admit I didn’t enjoy The Confession as much as the Tom Reynolds books, so I was a little bit unsure about Six Wicked Reasons. Happy to say though, I really enjoyed this one. I found it utterly engrossing and got completely lost in the story – and I didn’t see the ending coming (though I loved it when it did). This is the story of the Lattimer family, a slightly snobby, kind of wealthy, very middle-class clan. Parents Frazer and Kathleen have six children – James, Ellen, Kate, Adam, Ryan and Clio – who each have their own demons to battle growing up. In 2008 (ten years earlier), Adam Lattimer walks out on his family and isn’t heard from for a decade. Six Wicked Reasons begins with Adam’s surprise return to the family home and a fatal accident that occurs at the reunion party. Spain then takes us back through the lives of the Lattimer children, and their relationships with their parents, as the truth of what happened when Adam unexpectedly returned is pieced together. Some stylish characterization, and a lot of cheekily unreliable narration, make for a compelling tale with just the right amount of melodrama.

Wednesday, 3 June 2020

My Year in Books 2020: May

It's another short post from me this month. I'm still really struggling to read for pleasure during the lockdown (and, as you'll have seen, I haven't been able to write any other blog posts either). I started three books in May that I haven't finished yet, but I did manage to read three novels in a single weekend in the middle of the month. This post is just about the novels I actually finished in May (the others will have to wait until another time.

As always, in case you're curious, here are my reviews for the rest of the year so far: January, February, March, April

The House of Lyall by Doris Davidson (2000)

I decided to have a weekend of reading books from my ‘random charity shop purchases’ pile. The House of Lyall was the first one I picked up off the pile. I knew nothing about it – and I’d never even heard of the author before – but I bought it at a charity book sale raising money for a local community group. Davidson’s book is a family saga (not normally a genre I read) set around Aberdeen, and it starts with the story of Marion Cheyne, a young girl who runs away from service and her family to begin a new life. Marion arrives in Aberdeen with nothing but the money she’s stolen from her former employer, but she soon falls on her feet and starts to build a new identity for herself. The story starts in 1894, but we follow her (and her family) through to 1955. As I say, this isn’t a genre I’m very familiar with, but I enjoyed the first part of the story. Young Marion isn’t a particularly likable character, but there’s something sympathetic and intriguing about her (and I don’t really need my heroines to be likable to enjoy their stories). As the story progressed, though, I became a bit frustrated with it. The pace was uneven, and it felt like we were rushed through far too much story in the second and third parts of the novel. Perhaps it should have been a trilogy? I struggled to follow/believe character motivations in the later chapters, unfortunately.

The Ambleside Alibi by Rebecca Tope (2013)

The next book on my charity pile was this one, which I bought at a booksale for a local care home. Again, I wasn’t familiar with the author, but I bought it simply because it’s set in Cumbria. What I didn’t know was that this is the second book in Tope’s Lake District crime series. However, that wasn’t too much of a problem, as there are only minor references to the first book in this one (and none of them are spoilers). As I haven’t read the first book, I had to ‘get to know’ the characters here, but that also wasn’t a problem. Weirdly, like The House of Lyall, this was another book that started really well, but disappointed me in the second half. I loved the introduction to what appeared to be an intriguing little mystery – florist Persimmon ‘Simmy’ Brown delivers a bunch of flowers to an elderly lady, which claim to be from a granddaughter she didn’t know existed. Shortly afterwards, another elderly lady is found murdered in her home. Are the two incidents connected? And how come Simmy has been dragged into both? I loved the sense of place that Tope evokes here, and the puzzle looked like it would be fascinating. Unfortunately, the book takes an odd turn part way through, and ultimately becomes rather far-fetched and – dare I say it? – silly. The real no-no for me is that no one really solves the mystery – the culprit just dramatically makes themselves known. A bit frustrating.

The Girl in the Painted Caravan: Memories of a Romany Childhood by Eva Petulengro (2011)

This was the last book I read during my charity shop weekend. And it’s the one I enjoyed the most (though not for the reasons I expected). I bought this one in a charity shop in Blackpool, as it seemed appropriate to buy a book by a Petulengro in Blackpool. Turns out Eva Petulengro made her name reading fortunes in Brighton, not Blackpool, but let’s not worry about that. Petulengro’s memoir is ostensibly a story of the lost Romany culture into which the author was born. And there are some charming (and deeply romanticized) details about vardos (caravans), horses and hawking pegs – all viewed through thoroughly rose-tinted glasses. But although that’s the aspect on which the book was marketed – and online reviews show it’s the aspect most people wanted to read about – there’s another story here that I found much more interesting. The book actually begins with a chapter set in 1964, where Eva reads the palms of (two of) The Beatles. It’s the story of how a young Romany girl, born in a traditional caravan to a travelling family, ended up as the clairvoyant darling of the Swinging Sixties. This story reveals much about Eva’s family’s showmanship, and along the way it encompasses Billy Butlin’s Skegness amusement park, some shrewd business decisions, and the constant evolution of working-class leisure activities. It’s not actually the story of the seaside resort of the fairground, but rather a glimpse into one part of the periphery. And what a delightful glimpse it is.

Saturday, 2 May 2020

My Year in Books 2020: April

Time for my monthly round-up of the books I've read. Like last month, I've really struggled to do much reading for pleasure. I read four novels in April, which was one more than last month, but I'm still definitely reading less than usual. I did have one really nice surprise this month, with a book that I got completely lost in (first time that's happened since the lockdown started).

In case you're interested, here are my reviews for the rest of the year so far: January, February, March

And here are my reviews of the books I read in April...

A Sight for Sore Eyes by Ruth Rendell (1998)

I picked up this one at a book sale to raise money for a local community group. I generally like Ruth Rendell’s stuff – though I tend to prefer the books she published as Barbara Vine – but this was one I hadn’t read before. It’s an unusual narrative: three characters are introduced who seem to have no connection at all to one another. We begin with the story of Teddy Grex, or rather we begin with an introduction to the two people who will become the parents of Teddy Grex. They’re a strange and not very likable couple, who produce a strange and not very likable son. Teddy grows up in squalor, but craving beauty, and his parents’ neglect leaves him utterly devoid of compassion or empathy. Alongside Teddy’s story is that of Francine, a young woman who witnessed her mother’s murder as a child. Francine lives under the shadow of her stepmother Julia, who is determined to ‘protect’ her. And then hovering around Teddy and Francine is Harriet, a woman who was once lover to a rockstar. Harriet was immortalized with her former beau in a famous painting, but now lives in a sort of self-obsessed loneliness with a deeply unlikable husband (spoiler alert: almost all the characters are unlikable!). The really satisfying bit of A Sight for Sore Eyes comes when these three disparate stories come together. It’s not quite a collision, more an inexorable convergence. I enjoyed this one, but it’s got a very dark and cynical heart.

Night Film by Marisha Pessl (2013)

I genuinely don’t know where I got this book from – which seems almost fitting, given the plot. I was sorting out some boxes of books that I’d stored away in the attic a while ago, and it was just… there. I don’t remember buying it or being given it. Night Film just appeared in my house at some point. But I’m glad it did – I really enjoyed this one. Night Film is a thriller with supernatural undertones (overtones?). Scott McGrath is an investigative reporter (who clearly wants to be the hero in his very own film noir). McGrath had a brush in the past with illusive and enigmatic film director Stanislas Cordova, which left him with his career in tatters and a hefty legal bill. When Cordova’s daughter Ashley is found dead in a run-down warehouse, McGrath thinks this might be his chance to pick up the story again. The trouble is, no one will admit to having ever met Cordova, the reclusive director of a series of controversial films, and few people are interested in helping the disgraced reporter. Two unlikely sidekicks emerge – Hopper, a charismatic but lost young man who McGrath meets at the site of Ashley’s death, and Nora, a coat-check girl who may have been one of the last people to see Ashley alive – and McGrath begins an investigation that will take him to some very weird places. Night Film is gripping, noir-ish fun, and the legends that surround Cordova are surprisingly believable as Hollywood mythology.

He Said/She Said by Erin Kelly (2017)

Another book that just randomly appeared in my house. I’ve seen mention of He Said/She Said a few times when I’ve been reading domestic noir, as Erin Kelly blurbed a number of the books I read last year. It’s also a title that pops up on lists of ‘mind-blowing twists’ and ‘unreliable narrators’. I didn’t know I actually had a copy until I was sorting out some boxes in the attic. I think I must have got this one at a charity shop at some point. Sadly, not everything out of the attic boxes has impressed as much as Night Film. He Said/She Said was a bit of a disappointment, and it contains no mind-blowing twists and an unsuccessful unreliable narrator. Laura and Kit met at university. Kit is obsessed with solar eclipses. When they’re at a festival in Cornwall to witness the 1999 eclipse, they disturb the rape of a woman called Beth and are later called as witnesses at the trial. Afterwards, Beth appears to go mad, which makes Laura start to doubt her story. There’s no mystery, no surprise, and little doubt as to what happened in Cornwall. But, at the end (and there have been no earlier hints), Kit reveals he’s been lying all along and that he slept with Beth the night before the rape, and then made it look like she was mad by setting fire to their flat while Laura was asleep. And then, I don’t know, he went to see another eclipse.

Haven't They Grown by Sophie Hannah (2020)

I bought this one – newly published this year – for the same reasons as a lot of people. The premise is just irresistible. Beth (for reasons that will become clear later on) stops by the house of Lewis and Flora Braid, once her close friends. Beth hasn’t seen the Braids and their children for twelve years (again, that will become clearer later on). Imagine her surprise when she spies Flora getting out of the car with her children… but the children haven’t aged a single day! Thomas and Emily Braid look exactly like they did when Beth last saw them. How could I resist reading this one to find out the explanation? Sophie Hannah is a good writer, and I’ve found her other books readable and enjoyable (though not, admittedly, among my favourites). I also trusted that there wouldn’t be a supernatural ‘twist’ to this one, based on what I’ve read of her work. Sadly, though, Haven’t They Grown is a bit of a let-down. There’s a lot to enjoy – Beth’s relationship with her teen daughter Zannah is really well-done, for instance – but unfortunately I think Hannah wrote herself into a corner with that amazing premise. There really is no possible (sensible) explanation for why Thomas and Emily haven’t aged in twelve years, and so instead we get a rather silly and implausible one. I read it in a single sitting, but was left at the end with a whole host of ‘But hang on! If that’s… then what about…?’ questions.

Monday, 6 April 2020

My Year in Books 2020: March

So... this post is a little late, and a little short. I probably don't need to explain why, do I? Looking at social media, it seems lots of people have been reading loads during the coronavirus lockdown, but I just haven't been able to. A combination of working-from-home stress and a struggle to concentrate has left me finding it very hard to just lose myself in a book. I'm hoping I can get my reading mojo back soon, but for now here are my reviews of the three novels I read in March.

In case you're interested, here's a catch-up on my other posts so far this year: January, February

Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne (1931)

As you may remember from previous posts, my mother-in-law has been keeping me well supplied with British Library Crime Classics over the years. I save the Christmas-themed ones for December (naturally), but this month I was in the mood for a couple of the less festive titles. Murder of a Lady is subtitled A Scottish Mystery, as it takes place in a gloomy old castle in the Highlands. Mary Gregor, sister of the laird of Duchlan Castle, has been found stabbed to death… in a locked room. Inspector Dundas is called in to investigate, and he’s soon joined by Wynne’s amateur detective Eustace Hailey. There’s a pervasive air of menace around Duchlan Castle, as well as references to local superstitions about evil fish creatures. More interestingly (for me, anyway), there are contradictory statements about the character of the deceased. Was Mary Gregor a paragon of selfless virtue who devoted her life to looking after others? Or was she more of a controlling puritan? Wynne’s novel is certainly carefully plotted, but it lacks the deeply immersive sense of place that characterizes many of the BL Crime Classics. There are a lot of comments on the character of ‘the Highlands’, but I didn’t get a really strong sense of Duchlan Castle. I found the character of Mary Gregor quite intriguing though, and I enjoyed the way the family’s past is slowly – and reluctantly – revealed. Fans of Golden Age crime might raise an eyebrow at the final explanation, however… you have been warned!

Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Croft (1938)

Another BL Crime Classic next, but this is quite a different type of novel to Murder of a Lady. As is explained in Martin Edwards’s excellent introduction, Freeman Wills Crofts wrote a number of ‘inverted’ crime novels in the Golden Age, where the focus is on the murderer and his motivations, rather than on the whodunnit puzzle. Antidote to Venom is along these lines. George Surridge, the director of Birmington Zoo, is a man who has rather lost his way in life. He has money worries, and his marriage is starting to fail. (The book’s blurb also states that he is concerned about an outbreak of disease at the zoo, but this is a tiny bit misleading, as it isn’t really a major plot point!) George starts to imagine rather questionable ways of getting out of his predicament, and the reader would be forgiven for thinking that they know the direction the story is going to take. However, Crofts plays a little game of bait-and-switch, and things take a rather different turn. I really enjoyed the unexpected nature of the narrative, and the fact that, despite us feeling like we know exactly what is being planned an executed, there is still a perplexing little puzzle to be solved. George Surridge is an engaging character as well, though he is utterly frustrating at times. I almost found myself shouting ‘Oh George, don’t do that!’ as various points in the book. Slightly unusual, but really compelling – and a definite recommendation from me.

The Woman in Blue by Elly Griffiths (2016)

I’m not sure how it’s happened, but I seem to be determined not to read Elly Griffiths’s Dr Ruth Galloway novels in any particular order. This doesn’t seem to be a problem for this series though, as each one only contains very minor references to the previous ones, and I’m not sure any of them would count as spoilers. I do keep losing track of where things are up to in the private lives of the detectives, but I can usually work things out based on the ages of the many many children they all keep having (seriously, has any detective team in fiction ever been this fertile?!). The Woman in Blue sees Griffiths’s archaeologist drawn into sinister events around the pilgrimage sites of Walsingham. An old friend – now a priest – gets in touch with Ruth to ask for help with anonymous letters from someone who clearly doesn’t like women priests; Cathbad thinks he had a vision of the Virgin Mary while house-sitting; DCI Nelson and team investigating the murder of a young woman, whose body was found in a graveyard. Are these things connected? When another woman is found murdered – a priest, this time – it seems very much like they are. In terms of the mystery plot, I think this one might be my favourite of the series so far (though I am aware that I’ve said that before). I loved the evocative details about Walsingham, and there were some neat clues too (some I spotted, others I didn’t!).

Monday, 9 March 2020

My Year in Books 2020: February

I'm a little bit late posting this one, as we're coming into the second week in March. Oops. But I'm trying to catch up with stuff as best I can! So, it's finally time for my round-up of the books I read for pleasure last month.

In case you're interested, here are my reviews of the books I read last month: January

And here are my reviews for February...

The Neighbour by Fiona Cummins (2019)

The first book I read this month was an impulse buy at the supermarket (which I seem to keep doing). Sadly, it was a bit of a disappointment. I really struggled with this one. The blurb promised a story about a family that buy a new house, only to discover that there’s a serial killer on the loose in the neighbourhood, and everyone’s got a secret to hide. That isn’t quite how the book pans out, although there is a family (the Lockwoods), who buy a house, and there is a serial killer (the Dollmaker), who operates almost exclusively in the neighbourhood around the new house. The main problem I had with The Neighbour (aside from the utter implausibility of a family deciding to buy a house on a street at the centre of a multiple murder investigation, with the intention of ‘bouncing’ it as quickly as possible) was that I found it really difficult to engage with any of the character. The chapters alternate between a bewildering array of viewpoints (one minute we’re following the family, the next a police officer involved in the investigation, the next a first-person narrator), and it’s not always clear who the narrator is or why we’re following their perspective. The story is really fragmented as a result, and I didn’t feel particularly immersed in it. Weirdly, I also guessed who the murderer was about two thirds of the way, which meant I was just frustrated for the final sections. Not a recommendation, unfortunately.

What You Did by Claire McGowan (2019)

The next book was included with an Amazon Prime membership, and I thought I’d give it a go. The book begins with a group of six university friends meeting up again after twenty years (although they have seen each other in various combinations since they graduated). Ali and her husband Mike are hosting the reunion party at their well-to-do house, and the guests include Karen (Ali’s long-time best friend), Callum and Jodi (who got together at uni) and the somewhat enigmatic Bill. Alongside the grown-ups are Mike and Ali’s kids Cassie and Benji, and Karen’s son Jake. The reunion begins with the expected snobbery and passive aggression – these are a group of social-climbing friends who met at Oxford, after all – but it turns into something much more horrible when Karen stumbles into the kitchen, visibly injured, claiming that Ali’s husband has raped her. The accusation sends shockwaves through the group, and also tears at Ali’s loyalties. It leads to further revelations as well, including some long-buried secrets. What You Did is a readable and engaging thriller. I found it to be a bit of page-turner. All of the characters are a bit unlikeable, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing! I’ve seen some reviews that say Ali’s behaviour is unconvincing, but I think McGowan does a good job of negotiating the character’s competing motivations. I wouldn’t say this is the best book I’ve read this year, but it’s a decent story that kept me entertained. What more can you ask?

Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama (2012)

I feel like I don’t read many books by men, so I should probably vary things a bit. Six Four is Hideo Yokoyama’s sixth novel, but the first that was translated into English. It’s a police procedural, but one that offers an unconventional perspective on a cold case. The eponymous ‘Six Four’ case is an unsolved kidnapping and murder, which took place just before the death of Emperor Hirohito, at the end of the Showa period (which lasted until its sixty-fourth year). Yoshinobu Mikami has been transferred to Media Relations, and is tasked with orchestrating press coverage of a visit from the commissioner general. The police’s relationship with the press has broken down, the father of the victim has refused to take part, and Mikami begins to believe the commissioner’s visit might have a hidden agenda. As he starts to ask (mundane, at first) questions, he uncovers things about ‘Six Four’ that unsettle him – things that haven’t been spoken about in fourteen years. Six Four is a slow-burning, brooding book, with a lot of the focus being on Mikami’s response to the secrets he reveals. It also explores the complex machinations of Japanese police politics and the relationship with the press, which can feel rather alien to the non-Japanese reader. However, I didn’t feel lost at any point, as Yokoyama’s writing carries the reader through and keeps us fully engaged with the somewhat troubled protagonist. The plot is labyrinthine, but the denouement is a satisfying one. I enjoyed this one.

The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman (2002)

Next up, it’s another charity shop find. I picked up this one when we were in Truro before Christmas. The endorsements on the back cover promised something a bit ‘Gothic’, and also a meeting of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Both of those assessments are totally fair. We begin the story with Jane Hudson, a Latin teacher at Heart Lake School for Girls. Jane is an ‘old girl’: she was a pupil herself at Heart Lake. When three of Jane’s students (who are known by classical nicknames assigned by their teacher) begin acting strangely, ghosts from the past are conjured up. The second part of the book takes us back to that past – specifically, events that occurred between Jane and her two roommates during her time as a student. History is certainly repeating itself, but does that repetition have a supernatural cause? or is there a more human hand behind it. I liked this one – it’s slow-paced, and I occasionally wanted to give Jane a good shake, but the characters were far more endearing than those in The Secret History. Some of the revelations (including the ‘biggie’) I saw coming, but that’s not a bad thing, as The Lake of Dead Languages is more a character study than a straightforward mystery. The pleasure of this one lies in how immersed you become in Jane’s world, and how much Goodman’s writing leads you to seeing things through Jane’s eyes. I definitely enjoyed this one.

The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas by Daniel James (2018)

I’ve had this one on my to-read pile for a while, as my alter ego interviewed the author for Hannah’s Bookshelf back in 2018. It’s a bit of a genre-bending one, and I’m not sure I can explain it in a short review, but here goes… Ezra Maas was the avant-garde darling of the art world, building a legion of devotees and creating a ‘Foundation’ that ruthlessly guards his legacy. He disappeared a number of years ago, prompting all sorts of speculation and conspiracy theories. Now Daniel James – something of an enfant terrible of the journalism world – has been commissioned to write a biography of the enigmatic artist, without the consent of the Ezra Maas Foundation. Or has he? Is that what’s happening here? Who is Ezra Maas? For that matter, who is Daniel James? Stitched together from fragments of partially destroyed manuscripts, interview transcripts and copious footnotes, there are shades of House of Leaves here, but this is blended with plenty of (sometimes heavily lamp-shaded) neo-noir stylings and compelling characterization. I was expecting the book to be cerebral, but I was very pleasantly surprised by how downright gripping it is. As a fan of unreliable narrators (and unreliable narration), I enjoyed the fragmentary and convoluted storytelling, and the meta-fictional quality that permeates throughout. But it has to be said, The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas is a bit of a page-turner too, and I found that I didn’t want it to end. Which is lucky, really, because it doesn’t.

Sunday, 2 February 2020

My Year in Books 2020: January

I've decided to carry on with my monthly book review posts (can you believe this is the third year now!). I'm finding it a good way of keeping track of the books I read for pleasure - much more useful than using an external site - so you're kind of stuck with these posts for now!

First post of the year, so it's my short reviews for January! Here's what I read...

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith (2018)

I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while, as I really like Robert Galbraith’s fiction. (Weirdly, I don’t like any J.K. Rowling books – a fact that baffles me.) Lethal White is the fourth book about private detective Cormoran Strike, and his secretary – then assistant – now partner – Robin Ellacott. The story opens with a prologue that follows on directly from Career of Evil, but then it jumps ahead to the following year. After the events of the earlier book, Strike’s detective agency has been thrust into the public eye (well, even more so, as the events of The Cuckoo’s Calling also brought it some notoriety). As well as juggling multiple cases, Strike is offered two intriguing puzzles to solve. Firstly, an apparently mentally ill man called Billy arrives at his office claiming to have witnessed a murder when he was a child. Secondly, an MP asks for Strike’s help, as he’s being blackmailed. Of course, it’s not long before there’s a hint that the two cases might be connected somehow. I will admit, I was dubious about the length of the book before I read it. The paperback is a bit of a doorstop, and way longer than is usual for the genre. However, as with the other Strike novels, it’s incredibly readable, and so it really didn’t feel overlong. Yes, perhaps, some of the sections about Strike and Robin’s relationships could have been cut down slightly, but there’s an excellent mystery (with well-placed clues) at the book’s heart.

Local Girl Missing by Claire Douglas (2016)

This next one is a book I picked up in a charity shop in Aberystwyth when we stayed there last November. I thought I’d read another book by the author, but I realized afterwards that I’d got confused about that. Still, the blurb was intriguing enough, even though I had a suspicion it might be a domestic noir-type thriller (and I’ve still got a strange relationship with that genre). Local Girl Missing is the story of Francesca (and it’s partly told from her perspective), who grew up in a small seaside town in the South-West. Twenty years ago, Francesca’s best friend Sophie fell off the old pier, in an incident that has haunted her ever since. Now Sophie’s brother has called Francesca to drop the bombshell that Sophie’s remains have finally been found, and he wants her to return to Oldcliffe to help him find out what happened. Francesca’s narration is interspersed with entries from Sophie’s diary in the run-up to her disappearance. As she and Daniel speak to Sophie’s old friends, Francesca feels increasingly (and almost tangibly) haunted by the past – is there something else going on here? I’ve got to admit, I did twig what was going on a bit before the end, but I still enjoyed Local Girl Missing. It’s a quick read, but it’s well-paced and Douglas builds the suspense effectively, plus I found some of the flashbacks to Francesca and Sophie’s relationship both nostalgic (as I’m roughly the same age as the characters) and convincing.

The Wych Elm by Tana French (2018)

I was looking forward to this next one, but ultimately it was a teeny bit of a disappointment. Don’t get me wrong, The Wych Elm is excellently written and has a compelling story. It’s just that I’m such a huge fan of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad novels that this one had a lot to live up to. The Wych Elm is a standalone –a mystery thriller rather than a detective novel. The central character is Toby, a privileged (and rather charming) man in his late twenties, looking forward to a happy future with his girlfriend Melissa. One night, everything changes, as Toby suffers a life-altering and traumatic assault. In recovery, he returns to his old family home (now his uncle’s), as his uncle has developed terminal cancer. Toby needs to heal, but he also needs to take care of his relative. However, a chance discovery in the garden upends Toby’s life even further – a skull is found in the eponymous wych elm tree. Perhaps Toby’s happy conception of his life – and his family – aren’t strictly accurate. As I say, the story is pretty compelling, but I found it didn’t grip me quite as much as the Dublin Murder Squad novels. Some of the revelations are a little far-fetched, though I did like the way in which Toby’s patchy memories become tangled and uncertain. The idea that a family history might be misremembered or experienced differently was definitely interesting, but there was something a little flat about this particular family.

The Guesthouse by Abbie Frost (2019)

I picked this one up (as usual) on a whim at the supermarket. The blurb looked like it might be a bit like And Then There Were None – seven guests check into a guesthouse, but it looks like they might not all survive. And… I was right. The Guesthouse begins like a millennial version of And Then There Were None. The central character, Hannah, is a twenty-five-year-old woman who is dealing with some stuff. She checks herself into the eponymous guesthouse for a week’s holiday to take her mind off things, and also to reconnect with her past. The guesthouse is in a remote location in Ireland, and the access is not as easy as the website promised. And there’s a storm coming too… I’m in two minds about this one. I loved the way Frost updated the central conceit of And Then There Were None for the twenty-first century, and the way the guests were brought to (and kept) in the guesthouse was definitely pretty cool. I also found Hannah – in the first half of the book – an engaging and relatable character. However, the plot isn’t quite as classy as Christie’s (and I shouldn’t keep comparing the two books, but it’s impossible not to). Rather than ramping up suspense and suspicion, The Guesthouse instead ramps up the backstory to the point of (almost) implausibility. I became less invested as the story went on, and the eventual reveal(s) really stretched my credulity. It’s a shame, because the book starts well.

The Family by Louise Jensen (2019)

I bought The Family in a charity shop in Truro at Christmas. I didn’t realize until part way through that I’d chosen to read a book with almost the exact same image on the cover as The Guesthouse – that was a complete coincidence. And, cover art aside, The Family is a bit different to The Guesthouse. Laura and her daughter Tilly are left grieving and in debt following the death of Gavan, Laura’s husband. A chance kindness from a woman called Saffron (someone Laura vaguely knows through her work) leads the women to a farm in Mid Wales that’s being run as a community/commune by a mysterious young man called Alex. As the book hints from its very first page, bad things are going to happen on the farm. And they do. I’ve got to admit, I didn’t really enjoy this one. I struggled to sympathize with the characters, mostly because they weren’t plausible for the ages they were meant to be – Laura doesn’t feel like a 34-year-old, and Alex isn’t believable as a 28-year-old. I also found I was drawn out of the story a lot by little anachronisms and inaccuracies, and by a timeframe that doesn’t quite make sense. No spoilers, but the ending was probably the best part of the plot, as it moved the story back into the realms of the believable. However, it was hard to get too enthused, as I really hadn’t engaged with the characters. Overall, this one probably needed much tighter editing.

She Lies in Wait by Gytha Lodge (2019)

The next book I read this month was one I picked up at the supermarket because the blurb looked intriguing (I probably have to stop doing that!). She Lies in Wait is a cold-case detective novel. Teenager Aurora Jackson disappeared thirty years ago, after going camping with her older sister and her friends. When a body is discovered in the woods, it quickly becomes apparent that Aurora has finally been found. A murder investigation is launched by DCI Jonah Sheens, and Aurora’s sister Topaz and her friends are the prime suspects. She Lies in Wait is a fairly standard cold-case story, with a bit of Secret History-esque conflict between the rather privileged bunch of suspects (in fact, one of the characters actually draws attention to the similarity in an explicit reference to Donna Tartt’s novel). It’s a very readable story, and there are some interesting interactions between the police team, but I found the actual mystery at the heart of the book to be a little disappointing. The problem is that there are clues implicating all of the suspects, and nothing that points to any particular one of them. By the time the reveal came, I felt like it could have been any of them, and I felt a bit cheated as a reader, as I could only guess the answer, not solve it. Nevertheless, Lodge is a good writer, and I did enjoy the way the story unfolded. Not the best mystery, but definitely not the worst one either!

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

My Year in Books 2019: December

And so I've come to the end of another year of writing reviews of the books I've read for pleasure. This month's books have a very festive feel, so this is definitely a very December-y post!

In case you're interested, here are the posts from the rest of the year: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November

And here are my reviews of the novels I read in December...

Devil's Day by Andrew Michael Hurley (2017)

I should probably start this with a confession… I haven’t read The Loney (Hurley’s acclaimed debut novel), which makes me one of the only people I know who hasn’t. I included Devil’s Day on a list of books about autumn traditions last year, but didn’t actually get chance to read it until this winter. It’s a strange book – not because of the subject matter (I really don’t mind strange subject matter!) – but in terms of its inconsistency. It has moments of absolute brilliance, but also some sections that don’t really seem that well-written. The story unfolds in a non-linear fashion (great) with an unreliable first-person narration disguised at times as third-person (even better). John and his wife Kat have returned to his family’s farm at the Endlands for his grandfather’s funeral, intending to stay on for Devil’s Day and the Gathering (traditions on the farm that presage the start of winter). As the story of that year’s Devil’s Day unfolds, older stories are woven in – the Arncliffes who built the mill, the Dennings who once owned the land, events from John’s childhood, the presence of the Owd Feller himself. There is an incredible sense of place evoked in the book, and I particularly enjoyed the episodes involving the Far Lodge (a building one of the Dennings had constructed on the land). However, there is less clear sense of character created, and I struggled to engage much with any of them. Ultimately, perhaps the Endlands itself is the best-drawn character here.

A Midwinter Promise by Lulu Taylor (2019)

So… bit of a misstep, this one. In December, we went away for our annual holiday to Cornwall. The weather was wild, but we were cosy and warm in our cottage. All year, I’d been saving Christmas-themed books to read while we were there. However, on our first night away, I spotted A Midwinter Promise in the supermarket and decided that it would make perfect holiday reading. The blurb promised (a) winter, (b) secrets, and (c) Cornwall. I bumped it to the top of my list, casting aside all the festive books I’d been saving. And, sadly, I was very disappointed. Taylor’s book begins with a woman called Alex reminiscing about her childhood at Tawray, a rambling old house in Cornwall. When Alex’s dad has a stroke, she starts to wonder about her mother’s early death, and about the secrets that may have been kept by her family. The book then alternates this storyline with chapters set in the 70s, 80s and 90s, which tell the story of Julia (Alex’s mother) and her life at Tawray. The problem with the book is that (a) it’s only partly set in the winter, (b) although characters keep secrets from one another, Taylor doesn’t keep any secrets from the reader and so Julia’s story is crystal clear from the off, and (c) Tawray may nominally be located in Cornwall, but there’s very little sense of place, save a few mentions of how nice the sea looks. Really not impressed with my decision here.

The Darkest Place by Jo Spain (2018)

Back to the books I’d been saving for my holiday… as I’ve mentioned in previous months, my mum and I really like Jo Spain’s DCI Tom Reynolds novels. In fact, it was last December when I read the first in the series and passed it on to my mum. The Darkest Place is the fourth book in the series – though I’ve actually already read the fifth one (I read them out of order so that I could save this one for going away). The Darkest Place is set at Christmas (like With Our Blessing) and sees Reynolds called away from his family celebrations (as in With Our Blessing) to investigate a crime in a remote – and very creepy – location (as in…). The setting for The Darkest Place is a disused asylum on an island, which is accessible only by boat. A mass grave has been discovered, but there’s a body in it that shouldn’t be there. Psychiatrist Dr Conrad Howe disappeared at Christmas forty years earlier, and it now appears he was brutally murdered and left in the hospital grave pit. Reynolds is faced with opening up a cold case, which leads him into the dark heart of the asylum and its ‘treatments’. The Darkest Place treads familiar ground – Spain often returns to darker aspects of Ireland’s history in her books – and its lighter on the personal lives of the detectives than some of the others. Nevertheless, this is a satisfyingly creepy story with a clever puzzle at its centre.

Murder in Advent by David Williams (1985)

I’m not having the best luck with my festive reading this year. This next one was another book I was saving till Christmas, as I thought it would be a good seasonal read. I actually bought it in a charity shop in Truro last Christmas, but I didn’t chance to read it then. I’ve saved it all year, only to discover… it’s not actually a Christmas book at all (despite the title). Murder in Advent is set in the small (fictional) cathedral city of Litchester. The cathedral owns a thirteenth-century exemplification of the Magna Carta, which they are considering selling to raise much-needed funds for the cathedral. Banker Mark Treasure (apparently Williams’s series character) arrives, as he has a deciding vote in the matter, but before anything else can happen, there’s a disturbance in the Old Library. The Dean’s verger is killed, and a fire destroys the valuable artefact. The problem I had with the book (aside from the fact that Advent and Christmas aren’t actually part of the story) is that I simply couldn’t follow who was who. The key characters are introduced in a dazzling chapter early on, and there are a lot of them. If you’re unfamiliar with church roles and titles – if you don’t know what a Dean’s verger is, for instance – it’s a bit of a tricky read. And it’s made harder by the fact that all the characters seem to speak in a similar voice. Sadly, this one just didn’t do it for me.

Mistletoe by Alison Littlewood (2019)

Now this is festive reading. Just what I wanted! Littlewood’s book has all the elements you want from a Christmas book… snow, an isolated farmhouse and ghosts. The book is the story of Leah, who is recently bereaved (she’s lost her husband and young son), and so decides – impulsively – to leave Manchester and buy an abandoned farmhouse in Yorkshire. At Christmas. Buying the farmhouse was Leah’s late husband Josh’s idea, and so she believes this is a way of honouring his memory by trying to bring his dream to reality. The farm – Maitland Farm – once belonged to Leah’s family, so it seems like fate might be playing a hand as well. But when Leah arrives at Maitland Farm, in the darkest depths of winter and heavy snowfall, she discovers that it may be harbouring some grief of its own. Mistletoe is a classic Christmas ghost story, and Littlewood is adept at conjuring an atmosphere that is equal parts tragedy and horror. Leah’s experience of the ghosts of Maitland Farm comes through visions, which take on a life of their own. The past and the present begin to blur, with the eponymous parasitic plant weaving its way through the stories. I’d be wary of calling this a ‘cosy’ story, as there are some disturbing elements, but it certainly belongs to a good old tradition. The ghost story (or the story of the ghosts), perhaps, holds few surprises. But the way that it’s told is just wonderful, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Secret Santa by Trish Harnetiaux (2019)

I picked this one up in the supermarket on a whim (despite having collected more than enough festive books over the year). There were a couple of reasons why it caught my attention. A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece of flash fiction called ‘Secret Santa’, and since then I seem to keep getting drawn to writing weird versions justice-dispensing Father Christmases. Secondly – and more importantly – the blurb looked like it’d be a good old-fashioned ‘everyone’s locked in the house getting picked off one-by-one’ tale. Claudine and Henry Calhoun are high-flying real estate types in Aspen. Every year, they throw a fancy Christmas party, which involves a competitive Secret Santa game that’s the talk of the town. This year, Claudine’s been contacted by pop star Zara (who bears some slight similarity to a real-life pop star who shall remain nameless). Zara is interested in buying Montague House, the first property Claudine and Henry ever built, and so Claudine decides to move the party to the somewhat remote building. The snow starts to fall, the guests assemble, and there’s an additional gift on the Secret Santa pile… This book was a lot of fun – it’s a quick read, and not necessarily the story you might be expecting, but I really enjoyed it. The tension is well-paced, and Zara emerges as a rather engaging character. Plus, there’s a bit of intrigue, secrecy and rivalry as well. I’m glad I picked this one up – it was a very enjoyable festive read.

The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley (2018)

Managed to time my festive reading so I could end the year with a New Year-themed book! The Hunting Party takes place during a New Year’s Eve party, so it was the perfect way to end December. A group of old university friends meet up for their annual New Year’s Eve celebrations – this year, they’ve booked an exclusive (but isolated) hunting lodge in the Scottish Highlands. Over the course of the booze-fuelled party, old secrets and resentments surface… and someone’s not going to survive the party. The book is much marketed as an ‘Agatha Christie with menace’ (hmmm… I think Christie’s books had enough menace of their own!), but it’s also been compared to Tartt’s The Secret History (which I didn’t enjoy). However, the book actually does its own thing, and it’s not really fair to compare it to Christie or Tartt’s work. There was a lot that I really enjoyed about The Hunting Party. I loved the multiple narrators, and I was impressed with how easy it was to keep track of a large group of characters. Most of the characters are a bit unlikeable (as you’d expect), but they were very believable and Foley snuck in just the right amount of sympathy. I also enjoyed the way the landscape is used to create an additional sense of seasonal threat. Only downside… Foley’s not quite at Christie’s level when it comes to hiding clues, and so I did work it out very early on. Nevertheless, definitely enjoyed this one.

Happy New Year!

Saturday, 28 December 2019

Game Review: Mystery Case Files: Moths to a Flame Collector’s Edition (first play)

Developer: Eipix Games
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Original Release Date: 23rd August 2019
Platform: PC

This is quite a delayed post. I actually played Mystery Case Files: Moths to a Flame back in the autumn, but I haven’t had chance to write a review until now. Sorry about that.

So, Moths to a Flame is the latest instalment of the Mystery Case Files series, which is currently in the hands of Eipix Games. I – like a lot of MCF fans – was a little less than enthused by the last game in the series, The Countess. It wasn’t a bad game as such, but it just couldn’t hold a candle to the early Ravenhearst games. Not much can, to be honest. Although I thought The Countess was okay, I pretty much came to the conclusion that I was done with Mystery Case Files. I’ve seen other people saying the same thing when new titles come out… this series is pretty much done now. No more Mystery Case Files games for me.

And then they release a new game, and we all fly to it like… ahhhhh.

Moths to a Flame is set up as one for the fans. In fact, the storyline would probably be a bit confusing for anyone who hasn’t played at least some of the earlier titles in the series. The Mystery Case Files unit – and the Master Detective himself (the player-character seems to be male in this instalment, though obviously that’s a controversial subject in the series) – are under attack. Some files have been stolen, and an ‘Archivist’ (with a grudge against the MCF agency) is holding a group of agents hostage in order to draw the Master Detective into a twisted game.

The game involves visiting recreations of the settings of some of the detective’s iconic cases (specifically, Ravenhearst, Madame Fate’s carnival and the boarding house from Broken Hour) to piece together the puzzle of why this is all happening. These recreations are housed in the Zenith Museum of Oddities, which is part prison and part tribute to the Master Detective. You have to navigate your way around the museum to solve the case and free the other agents.

The game design is very good here, with lovely attention to detail in the scenes. Obviously, a big draw for MCF fans is the recreations of settings from earlier games. These were well-done, and there was a definite attempt to capture the intricacy and style of those games. However, the problem with offering recreations of iconic scenes from earlier games is that you are openly encouraging comparison with those games. And, for those of us who love them, the new game will fall a little short.

It’s hard to say exactly what’s missing from these facsimiles of Ravenhearst and Fate’s Carnival, but something is missing. I think the game – like most of the later MCF series – lacks the darkness of the earlier instalments. I don’t mean it’s too bright and colourful, but rather that it’s just a bit… harmless, when compared with the disturbed malevolence that rippled under the surface of the other games. So, although there’s a good attempt to capture the visual feel of previous chapters, Moths to a Flame doesn’t quite capture their soul. (Also, I missed the theme music. It really felt like it should be there for this one, and it sort of was at times, but, again, the soundtrack lacked something when compared with, say, Escape from Ravenhearst or Fate’s Carnival.)

Gameplay in this one, as expected, is pretty slick and has all the bells and whistles we’ve come to expect. It’s standard point-and-click on the whole, with movement between scenes (without too much distracting back-and-forth). There’s a Custom difficulty level (yay!), collectibles and morphing objects. The puzzles are a mix of HOGs and mini-games, which you can replay afterwards on the CE. Some of the reviews I’ve read have commented on the welcome return of the Rube Goldberg puzzles, which were a characteristic feature of some of the earlier MCF games (most notably Fate’s Carnival). I was happy to see these but, like much of the game, the Rube Goldberg puzzles were a shadow of their earlier counterparts. They just lacked the intricacy and weirdness of some of the early instalments.

However, Moths to a Flame does have a very classy (and unexpected) element to its gameplay. I’m loath to say much about this, as it’s a spoiler for anyone who hasn’t played or who has only played the demo. All I’ll say is that something I thought was going to be a bit of annoying feature has a brilliant twist to it that I very much enjoyed!

As this is a first-person, single-player game, all eyes are on the player-character – in this case the Master Detective. There’s very little detail given, as is usual for the MCF games, though the motive behind the antagonist’s actions does suggest that the character’s reputation precedes them. This isn’t the first time someone has become obsessed with the Master Detective, so the success in the previous games has certainly brought the detective to people’s attention. Not, sadly, to the Queen’s attention this time, as Moths to a Flame eschews the once familiar phone call from Her Majesty to kick the adventure off.

Of the NPCs, the most interesting one is the antagonist. The others (the agents who have been taken captive) are, at least, a bit more well-rounded and a bit less whiny than the NPCs in some other games. They can’t complete the adventure for you, but at least they don’t just sit and demand that you perform tasks for them. The Archivist is the one who gets a bit more attention, as it’s his obsession that has resulted in the storyline happening at all. Unfortunately, once again, the game hampers itself with its own continued reference to older games. The Archivist was fine, as antagonists in HOPAs go, but by encouraging a comparison to the Ravenhearst arc, the game was drawing attention to the fact that he’s a far cry from Charles Dalimar (he’s not even Alister Dalimar). There was a moment, part way through, where I thought there might be a twist ending in which it turned out the Archivist was a Dalimar, but sadly that was not to be.

I played the Collector’s Edition, so there was a bit of bonus content. The main feature of this is the bonus chapter, which in this case is a sequel chapter (more a sort of coda to the main adventure). This didn’t add a lot for me, as it all felt a bit arbitrary – as though the developers knew they had to extend the gameplay for a little longer, but couldn’t think of any more storyline. Outside of this, I enjoyed being able to replay HOGs and mini-games, and to have another chance at getting Achievements. The bonus content also includes a Souvenir Room (popular with some) and the usual wallpapers and extras. It’s all as you would expect from a HOPA Collector’s Edition.

So… has Moths to a Flame redeemed the Mystery Case Files series? The jury’s out on that one. It was a better instalment than I was expecting, but those early games just set the bar too high. I suspect I’ll play the next game (which is already out, since it took me so long to write this review!), but my heart hasn’t been torn away from Ravenhearst yet.

Monday, 23 December 2019

Review: Abertoir: The International Horror Festival of Wales 2019 (Thursday and Friday)

19th-24th November 2019
Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Wales

This is the second part of my review of the films we saw at this year's Abertoir Festival. We saw a LOT of films during the festival, so I'm trying to make my review more manageable by doing it in three parts. You can see my post about the films we saw on Tuesday and Wednesday in my previous post, but here are the films we saw on Thursday and Friday.

Thursday 21st November

The Monster Club (dir. Roy Ward Baker, 1981)

Although the ‘headline’ theme for this year’s festival was sci-fi horror, Abertoir was also marking the centenary of Donald Pleasance’s birth. There was an interesting exhibition about Pleasence’s career in the Arts Centre, and the programme was peppered with films featuring Pleasence. And Thursday’s screening started off with a fun example. The Monster Club is a British anthology horror, sort of in the mould of Amicus and Hammer’s classic anthologies, but made just as the fashion for such narrative-driven horror films was waning. Loosely (very loosely) based on the short stories of R. Chetwynd-Hayes, The Monster Club features a fictional version of Chetwynd-Hayes (played by John Carradine), who is accosted by starving but courteous vampire Erasmus (played by Vincent Price). As a thank you for the ‘small donation’ the writer (admittedly unwillingly) gives Erasmus, he is taken to the titular nightclub, where various supernatural creatures gather to party the night away. Erasmus offers an explanation of these creatures, including the hybrid ones, leading into the anthology stories. The episodes are punctuated by scenes in the club itself, with madly incongruous 80s pop numbers interspersing the stories of vampires, ghouls and the ‘Shadmock’ (a hybrid creature possessed of a demonic whistle). Pleasence gives a riotous turn as a vampire-hunter in one of the stories, and the whole piece culminates in a gleefully disturbing speech by Price about how humans are really the greatest monsters. There are some moments of genuine creepiness – Lesley Dunlop’s ‘Humghoul’ explaining how her town gets its clothing and food ‘from boxes’ is my favourite bit in this respect – but mostly it’s just bizarre fun. The film is notable for being a late horror pairing of Carradine and Price – apparently Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing turned down roles – and it made for a great start to the day.

Short Films Competition Part 2

And now: the second panel of short films. The Original (Michelle Garza Cervera, 2018) is a stylishly made near-futuristic piece about a woman struggling to deal with her partner’s debilitating illness and the implications of a medical procedure. A nasty twist makes for a satisfyingly uncomfortable ending. Rain Catcher (Michele Fiascaris, 2018) – another stylishly made short, with a noir inflection – is about a photographer who keeps seeing a mysterious man in his pictures. In Unmade (Steven Sheil, 2019), a woman visits a medium ostensibly to speak with her dead husband one last time; however, she has more planned than a simple conversation. While Unmade feels like it’s treading ground we’ve seen before in short films, it’s well-executed and has a real bite to it. Where Blood Lies (Byron Qiao, 2019) – in which a Romanian hunter seeks to protect his village from Nazi vampire-hunters – is also well-executed, with a distinct 'who is the real monster?' flavour. Two less successful offerings, for me, were Paranoia (Katherine Lindhorst, 2019), a somewhat unpolished animation about surveillance, and Wild Will (Alan King, 2019), a monster film that (strange as it is to say) leaves far too much to the imagination. More effective were Retch (Kier Siewert, 2018) and Swipe (Neils Bourgonje, 2019), films that – while not massively original in their content as such – go a good way to showing off the talents of the filmmakers. The former is a body transformation sequence that showcases visual effects skills, and the latter is a creepypasta-inspired tale of dating app horror with a confident grip on narrative tension. Perhaps my favourite film in this panel was Midnight (Katie Bonham, 2019), a clever and compelling haunted house piece whose content belies the short running time. The winner of this year’s Abertoir prize and the Méliès d’Argent was Rain Catcher.

Donald Pleasence: Portraits Of Affection, Eccentricity and Mischievousness - a presentation by Tristan Thompson

The festival continued its celebration of the career of Donald Pleasence with a talk by Tristan Thompson. Combining biographical detail with an overview of Pleasence’s work, Thompson’s talk was an engaging and entertaining introduction to the man and his varied career. There was a good balance, as well – the details and anecdotes about Pleasence’s family and personal life never overshadowed the focus on his film career, and there was a consistent focus on his horror roles. I was particularly interested to hear about Pleasence’s theatre career, and his recurrent appearances in Pinter’s The Caretaker, which Thompson talked about in the context of the man’s varied film career. All in all, this talk was an apt celebration of Pleasence’s work, offering a solid introduction for people who didn’t know much about him, but also including enough detail to entertain those who did. And now to watch the great man at work…

The Flesh and the Fiends (dir. John Gilling, 1960)

The Flesh and the Fiends is based on the murderous careers of Burke and Hare, and on their financial arrangements with Dr Robert Knox. The first – very odd – thing to note about this film is that film censors (in various countries) refused to allow the names ‘Burke’ and ‘Hare’ to appear on the film’s title card. Apparently, The Flesh and the Fiends, Mania (US title) and Psycho Killers (alternative title) were perfectly acceptable, but to include the words ‘Burke’ or ‘Hare’ would be too much. Thompson mentioned this fact in his talk, and it’s baffled me ever since. Anyway, the film is set in 1820s Edinburgh. Peter Cushing plays Dr Knox, an eminent medical practitioner and lecturer, who needs to get hold of cadavers for his anatomy lectures. And he’s far too lofty and academic to concern himself much with where these cadavers might come from. Donald Pleasence plays William Hare, a man with an eye for an opportunity, and George Rose is his accomplice William Burke. When they realize that there’s money to be made in corpses, they decide to provide the good doctor with a regular supply. There’s a subplot involving one of Knox’s students and a prostitute, as well, which allows Billie Whitelaw to give a lusty turn as Mary. Overall, The Flesh and the Fiends is a bit of period horror fun. Cushing plays Knox almost as a cousin to his more famous role, Victor Frankenstein, and Pleasence is consistently (but rather charismatically) unpleasant as Hare. The latter also has the distinction of, perhaps, the only accurate accent in the film, as he gives Hare a convincing Northern Irish accent that was (probably) historically accurate, which stands out in a sea of English and bad imitation Scots. Not a ‘classic’, but still a very enjoyable screening.

Sator (dir. Jordan Graham, 2019)

I’m a bit unsure about reviewing this next film, as it’s very much a one-man project with a personal element to it. I’ll say up front that it wasn’t to my taste, and will try to be constructive in my comments. Sator is an impressionistic and rather cryptic story of a family torn apart by the titular demonic presence. Adam lives apart from his family, tracking something in the woods around their home. Intercut with the woodland scenes are sequences in the family home – with Adam’s siblings, and with his grandmother, who talks about her long relationship with the presence she calls ‘Sator’. This is clearly a demon, but the grandmother speaks of it as a more benign presence. There is certainly a clear attempt to create atmosphere here, with more than a few nods to The Blair Witch Project. However, there’s no clear narrative and very little characterization. Perhaps part of the problem is that it is a one-man project (as the on-screen credits make patently clear). One thing that really struck me from the Q&As with guests (Norman J. Warren and Gary Sherman) and the discussion of Donald Pleasence’s career was a repeated focus on how collaborative filmmaking is. All of the guests spoke warmly of the contributions made to ‘their’ films by other creative professionals (and, occasionally, not so warmly about the contributions of more administrative professionals!). They also spoke of their influences, mentors and heroes, evincing a love of cinema and of horror, and a recognition of their power. Unfortunately, with Sator, none of this was obvious. Aside from Blair Witch, there was no evidence of any awareness of other filmmakers or any love for the horror genre more widely. It is a one-man project, and sadly this often results in the audience themselves feeling excluded.

The Satanic Rites of Robin Ince

The next event was a theatre show – a stand-up comedy show from Robin Ince.
The Satanic Rites of Robin Ince is a frenetic reflection on the comedian’s lifelong relationship with horror and other related creepy things. The stage is littered with bits and bobs from Ince’s collection, including novels, film journals and posters, and the backdrop is a PowerPoint presentation featuring yet more ephemera (and a lot of video clips). Ince rattles through his collection, seemingly (of course, deceptively) at random, pulling out little gems and waxing lyrical about their content. There are po-faced reviews of gory horror films, the obligatory shock at revisiting public information films from the 70s, and some well-selected clips from cult movies and TV shows. The highlight of the show, for me, was Ince’s readings from Guy N. Smith’s Crabs novels, and I would happily have listened to loads more of this. The books themselves are funny enough, but Ince’s performance and commentary really brought out the absurdity of it all. Less successful, perhaps, was the hectic listing of traumatic things from 70s childhoods – not that this wasn’t rather funny, but it has been done before a lot. I’m not sure there’s any new way to say that The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water was messed up, or that Children of the Stones was kinda weird. Nevertheless, the strength of Ince’s show is the presentation style. It feels so personal and off-the-cuff that it’s very easy to imagine that he’s literally just grabbed an armful of stuff from his attic and rocked up on stage. His Abertoir performance was enhanced by his direct address to the audience as fellow fans of horror, as though we were already in on some of the jokes. I really enjoyed the show – and I did laugh a lot.

Vivarium (dir. Lorcan Finnegan, 2019)

The next screening was Vivarium – which is not (as I was slightly worried it might be) about snakes. Instead, it’s a bit more of an existential horror. Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots play Tom and Gemma, a couple looking to buy their first home together. They visit an estate agent who shows them a housing development called Yonder and, despite not being particularly enthused, they agree to a viewing. Yonder is at once an exaggerated suburban parody and a Kafkaesque nightmare. However, if you’re expecting a Stepford-like descent into the claustrophobia of consumerism and conformity, you’re mistaken. Again, Vivarium is a bit more of an existential horror. Left alone in Yonder – and with no way of leaving – Gemma and Tom aren’t thrust into a world of enforced marital harmony and competitive domesticity, but rather into a world of parenthood. Shortly after they have realized the extent to which they are trapped in the blandness of the Yonder show home, Gemma and Tom receive a package – a new-born baby that they are instructed to raise. Again, the audience is somewhat wrong-footed by this plot development, and any assumption about the direction the plot is heading (or the direction the relationships between the characters are heading) is likely to be proved wrong. For the most part, the film relies on its low-key set and near-absurdist storyline (for instance, Eisenberg’s Tom spends much of the latter half of the film digging a hole in the garden) to provide the unsettling and off-beat horror. However (and without spoilers), the film’s ending was the real high point for me. Ultimately, Vivarium is building towards a conclusion that is way darker than anticipated – and which just gets darker the more you think about it afterwards. Definitely enjoyed this one – and I’m glad it wasn’t about snakes.

Once again, stymied by lack of energy (I'm still blaming the cold). This time, we had to miss the late-night screening of First Love (dir Takashi Miike, 2019).

Friday 22nd November

Blood and Flesh: The Reel Life and Ghastly Death of Al Adamson (dir. David Gregory, 2019)

We weren’t sure what to expect from the first film today. I don’t like to read the programme in too much detail before screenings, as I like to go in with as few expectations as possible. All I knew about this one was that it’s a documentary – and, I assumed from the title, a documentary about Al Adamson. And I have to admit that, before seeing the film, I didn’t know anything about Al Adamson. I’m very happy to say that this has now been rectified. Adamson was an American filmmaker who specialized in B-movies and exploitation films, with titles such as Psycho-A-Go-Go and Satan’s Sadists on his CV. The son of silent film star Denver Dixon, Adamson was a prolific director between 1965 and the early 80s, as well as being something of a larger-than-life character. In a horrible twist to the story, Adamson was murdered in 1995 by a man he’d hired to do some work on a house he owned. Gregory’s excellent documentary is an insightful and highly entertaining look at a life that was, in some ways, stranger than fiction. The film strikes the perfect balance of talking head reminiscences from Adamson’s friends and colleagues (with admirable authenticity and honesty), archive footage of Adamson, and clips from a good number of his films. Some of the stories – like how Psycho-A-Go-Go got its name, and how Russ Tamblyn came to be closely associated with Adamson’s work – were just genuinely fun to watch. However, the film handles the darker side of the tale (Adamson’s murder, but also the aftermath of the death of his wife, Regina Carrol) with sensitivity and the appropriate level of gravity. This is a documentary which is both testimony and tribute to a life lived through cinema. A definite highlight of the festival programme.

Gary Sherman Masterclass - Creating the Illusion: Poltergeist III and the Secrets of Practical Special Effects

The next event was another theatre event (to accommodate some film students who were attending). It was another one that I wasn’t sure about. I mean… with the best will in the world, Poltergeist III isn’t exactly the most iconic horror film of all time. How interesting could a talk on the special effects be? It turns out… very! Gary Sherman began his talk by explaining that, when he was first invited to direct the third film in the franchise, he wasn’t keen. It was quite a different kettle of fish to his usual projects, so he only agreed on certain conditions. For the purposes of today’s talk, the most important condition was that all the special effects on the film were practical effects, and that there would be no computer manipulation. Now he had our attention. Sherman’s talk was a fascinating and engaging explanation of how various on-screen effects were created for the film. A lot of these involved the use of mirrors of varying types, which finally explains why, in this film’s narrative, the ghosts have to use mirrors to make contact with Carol Anne! I really enjoyed seeing how decisions about how to do effects led to certain choices with storytelling. It was also good to hear about the film’s prolific use of reflective glass panels placed at strategic angles on the set, as I’m pretty sure this is a version of the Pepper’s ghost stage trick (and I enjoy the continuity). Sherman was a great speaker – entertaining and information – and his answers to the audience’s questions were illuminating as well. Of course, Sherman’s warm and personable style – in addition to the interesting revelations in the talk – has created a strange effect of its own. I think Poltergeist III is now my favourite instalment of the franchise!

Off-Site Screening: Prince of Darkness (dir. John Carpenter, 1987)

Each year, Abertoir stages an off-site screening as part of the programme. Last year, we watched Friday 13th Part 3 in a barn in the middle of nowhere. This year, the scheduled film was Prince of Darkness, and we had a sneaking suspicion we knew where we might be watching it. And we were right! The buses dropped us off by a (not quite) abandoned church in the mid-Wales darkness. It was the perfect location for the screening. Carpenter’s film isn’t, perhaps, the most critically acclaimed of his work, but this screening was a lot of fun. The film tells the story of a group of students, who are assembled by a quantum physicist, Professor Howard Birack, to investigate a mysterious green cylinder in the basement of an old church. Birack has been called in by a priest, in order to offer a scientific perspective on something that may or may not be a manifestation of Satan. From this (admittedly far-fetched) premise, the film builds into a claustrophobic horror in which, one-by-one, the various students are either killed or possessed by the eponymous bad guy. Some of the science is rather cheesy, and the underlying supernatural element is a bit OTT, but there’s still a lot to like about Prince of Darkness. Not least… another appearance from Donald Pleasence (who plays the priest)! And a cameo from Alice Cooper as ‘Street Schizo’! Although it’s a bit of an uneven film, there are some great sequences in Prince of Darkness as well, and I particularly like the recurring dream that the students all experience. It’s an unsettling effect that is one of the more stylish elements of an otherwise quite riotous affair. Overall, I really enjoyed this screening. Like last year’s off-site screening, the location and atmosphere really made the experience.

Mystery Screening: Synchronic (dir. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, 2019)

From an off-site screening to a mystery one… when the buses brought us back to the Arts Centre, we went into the cinema for a surprise. The next film was listed simply as ‘Mystery Screening’! There’d been quite a bit of speculation as to what this would be, but it turned out (as some people guessed) to be a screening of Synchronic, the new film by Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson. Synchronic returned us to the world of sci-fi horror (though, I guess you could say that Prince of Darkness did this too). Two New Orleans paramedics are called in to what appears to be a standard drug overdose death, but they discover some strange circumstances when they attend. As further cases follow, they realize that they may be dealing with the effects of a new designer drug called ‘Synchronic’. The two paramedics, who are also old friends, have their own personal issues to deal with. For Dennis (played by Jamie Dornan), it’s family issues that play on his mind. For Steve (played by Anthony Mackie), it’s a cancer diagnosis. For me, the film is at its strongest when it’s exploring the relationship between the two men, with the (potentially) creepy narcotic storyline forming a backdrop to this. Nevertheless, the drug – and specifically Steve’s investigation into its effects – comes to the fore when Dennis’s teenage daughter decides to partake. I wasn’t completely convinced by all the developments from that point, but I enjoyed the film’s neo-noir aesthetic and low-key dystopian vibe. Ultimately, the story unravels a bit, as though it doesn’t really know how to end, but it’s still a stylishly presented piece, with engaging performances from Mackie and Dornan. There’s a bit of buzz about this one, so it was great that the festival was able to secure it.

UK Premiere: Diner (dir. Mika Ninagawa, 2019)

And now to something quite quite different (I do love the mad variety you get on a good festival programme)… The next screening was the UK premiere of Mika Ninagawa’s new film, Diner. Based on a novel by Yumeaki Hirayama, via a manga adaptation by Takanori Kawai, Diner is a film that revels in sumptuous, rich and occasionally kind of surreal visuals. The story is a little slight, with a lot of elements left underdeveloped, but that’s because this is a film that favours style over narrative. And that’s not always a bad thing. Tina Tamashiro plays Kanako, a hapless girl who dreams of ‘something’, but ends up captured and forced to work in the enigmatic ‘diner’ of the title. This place is actually a clandestine restaurant run by assassin-turned-chef Bombero (Tatsuya Fujiwara), and its clientele are exclusively larger-than-life killers for hire. The visuals, which constantly threaten to become overwhelming, take their cue, in turn, from manga and graphic novels, knowing nods to other action films, and visual art installations. Such plot as there is involves two strands: the resolution of Kanako’s predicament, and the fallout from the death of the leader of a yakuza gang. However, Ninagawa’s film constantly draws us away from these almost incidental plot concerns with violent set-pieces, charming comedy (including a bit of wordplay around Kanako’s name that even non-Japanese speakers will get), and some broad-brush character arcs. I’ve seen a couple of other reviews that highlight Tamashiro’s performance as Kanako – and this is a fair assessment, as she gives a surprisingly relatable turn here. However, for me, it was Fujiwara’s seductive, charismatic and unexpectedly human Bombero who stole the show. Diner isn’t the sort of film I’d normally go for (in terms of style and genre), but I was actually quite charmed by it.

Once again, we missed the final screening of the night. This time, it was more through choice than tiredness. I think we may have been the only people at the festival who don't like Event Horizon (dir. Paul W.S. Anderson, 1997)!

One more part of this three-part review to come. My next post will be about the films we saw on Saturday and Sunday.