Book Review – Watchmen by Alan Moore and David Gibbons

To comic or not to comic, that is the graphic novel?

This is the first graphic novel that I have had on my list. To avoid the issue (or stumble straight into?) I will use the terms “Graphic Novel” and “Comic” interchangeably in this review. If you don’t like it, lump it 🙂

As well as being the first graphic novel on my list, Watchmen was also the first graphic novel I had read for a very long time. It is a book that I only recently acquired for my birthday in June 2016 and I pretty much instantly promoted it to the top of my reading list! I have read and very much enjoyed graphic novels in the past, most notable of these previous adventures was The Crow by James O’Barr. I re-acquired that for my birthday too, so it will be re-read and reviewed at some point in the future 🙂

watchmen_coverTo start this review I need to at least touch on the comic *thing*. I could waz on about the relative merits of comics and graphic novels compared to scripts and books for ages, but I’m not going to (Ha!) Others have and are doing that ad infinitum and it really isn’t overly relevant to this review. Suffice to say that all literary and visual art, books and comics included, allow their creator the latitude to deliver sublime beauty or a hideous pile of shite, sometimes at the same time.

All I will say is that I think graphic novels provide a very interesting way to bring image and word together. I touched on the subject of efficient, tight prose in my review of The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. As a medium, the graphic novel provides a spectacular way to allow the text to concentrate on dialogue and story, while the pictures provide a wonderfully powerful symbiotic support. If a picture paints a thousand words, then Watchmen is longer than Anna Karenina (which I still haven’t finished!)

The actual review

Watchmen is, quite frankly, an excellent story told in an amazing, very deep and considered way. It is obvious that the original spark for this book was huge, but every further consideration, every extra detail of the whole story is etched into the quality of the characters, their floors, their heroism and the events that unfold in such a perfectly orchestrated way. You can see the quality of that creation process. Moore wrote a forward for the version of the book that I have. In it he suggests that the story is somehow weaker in its early stages as they had not developed the whole story arc and the characters. I never noticed!

The complexity of the various stories and the layers of characters, events and background is almost overwhelming. I found that you drew as much as you could from the text and images and still felt the rich reality of life sat behind what you gleened. There are so many oblique references and throw away observations that allow the the book to be of its time and timeless all at once.

If that wasn’t enough of a success, in multiple places, two separate storylines are told together and this device is used to infer deeper meaning in one or both. There is a pirate story, a comic within a comic, which is an obvious example. Sections of a person reading a pirate zombie comic interleave with a conversations and events in the real world. The medium conveys the reality of what is happening in an unambiguous yet extremely subtle way. It truly is sublime storytelling. This technique is also used in other parts of the book where two parts of the main story overlap and complete each other, or where one person is talking and the other is thinking. It is nothing short of astounding when I look back and think what pages of paper managed to do! (OK, pages of paper and a pair of extremely talented people!)

watchmen_example

Watchmen is also a perfect example of  the “show don’t tell” writing rule. Intelligence is expected of the reader (yeh yeh, and I managed to struggle through!) You have to join the dots you put two and two and two together and you get what you can out of it knowing there is more you missed. That’s it’s beauty.

A final example of the exquisite subtlety of this otherwise very un-subtle story is the way that you relate to the characters. There are two very distinct sides to some of the characters; mask on and mask off. Watchmen feasts on the fallibility of people. I have managed to get to this point without mentioning the Watchmen unique selling point. The Superheroes are real people and far from detract from the whole history of superhero comics, it adds its own layer of realism without causing damage to the original format (it might be naivety and the healing passage of time that has given me this view?) Watchmen has  however spawned a wealth of sub-culture. The likes of Mystery Men, Kick Ass, Super Bob and maybe even Scot Pilgrm if you squint (there’s also an Ex Machina reference in there as well.) were all conceived from the much more serious, more grounded and grander story that is Watchmen I can only imagine being into the comic/super hero scene and reading Watchmen when it came out.

Found heavier text at end of each chapter hard going against the fluidity of the comic sections. But they provide the depth, the background.

 

So, that’s it. Read Watchmen. I haven’t scratched the surface of what it has to offer. I was never going to succeed, so I didn’t try 🙂 I’ll end with a quote from the book that I loved.

“Whether tales are told by the light of a campfire or by the glow of a screen, the prime decision for the teller has always been what to reveal and what to withhold…”

Rating: 9/10

 

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Book Review – Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain by Barney Norris

The Random Intro…

If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter then you know that I tweet a lots of quotes from books as I read them. In every tweet, I do my best not to give anything away. I aim to give everyone who hasn’t read the book some thoughtful quotes and a reason to maybe read the book. If any of you have already read the book, then I hope what I deliver provides a chance to reminisce as we go along. 

I take the same approach when I review a book. I try to capture the driving themes, the good and the bad, without giving the story away. Sometimes I don’t even really mentioning the story. I want to capture the essence of the book, not simply create a facsimile of the blurb that you can find anywhere (including on the back of the book!)

fiveriverscoverThe Review

Why did I tell you all that? Lovely though it is, I am meant to be reviewing Fiver Rivers met on a Wooded Plain by Barney Norris, not the justification of my approach to Tweeting. The all important link between the two is this; there were so many parts of Barney Norris’ book that I wanted to share. So many sublime sentences that captured a feeling or a mood or a situation perfectly. I restrained myself as much as possible, but you can see from the link below. There were still quite a few, and they are as good under review as when I first read them.

All my #FiveRivers tweets

It is pretty obvious that Barney can see life laid out in front of him. He is a young man, but he understands every age and every type of person. The perspective of others is such a powerful thing to be able to experience. I feel I can also see this way to a lesser extent than Barney. To be able stare out through the windows of someone else’s eyes, and feel what they feel; young or old, rich or poor, close or completely opposed to your experiences. It’s a powerful thing and Barney delivers it beautifully. He can also take the reader to emotional heights as well; love and death, happiness, despair and everything in between.

The book starts with an exquisitely wrought flyby of the history of Salisbury, it’s landscape and its cathedral. This is followed by Rita’s story which is a million literary  miles away from such a poetic beginning. These juxtapositions, the separation of each story, provide the structure for the whole book. The linkages and the multilayered connections between these different stories is the lifeblood of the book. Barney sows the threads throughout each of the distinct stories, but all the time the threads are being gathered, knitting together to make a complete and poignant story.

Barney uses strongly developed skills to deliver each character’s internal speech and his script style dialogue worked well providing direct, clean prose. It shines through that Barney comes from a script-writing background and the format of the book plays to these strengths. Barney sees the raw truth of people. The things they think between the things they say, and every character of the diverse set in the book is so different. You connect with each because they talk with an eloquent, intelligent, deep internal voice. For some characters this is conscious and others don’t fully understand the way they think. The book conveys so much truth of people.

On a related theme, there’s something I want to mention about ‘the magic of the real world’. As some readers will know, I grew up on a fantasy heavy reading list, and magic was one of the main draws for me. A well written supernatural scene, or a properly realistic, grounded piece of magic can make a book. Conversely, poor magic can kill an otherwise good book. I have read a few cross over books, Sixty One Nails by Mike Shevdon comes to mind,  where there is actual magic in an otherwise modern and realistic world. But Fiver Rivers met on a Wooded Plain manages that exquisite other type of magic. The real magic of the every day. Emotion, intelligent interpretation of situations and a sprinkling of belief conjure (yes, that is a magic pun.) that same feeling, one that really is part of everyone’s experience of life, even if we don’t all accept it for what it is.

So to conclude, Fiver Rivers met on a Wooded Plain is a set of wonderful stories that intertwine not so much because they need to, nor because they have been created, but because that’s the way life is, and that’s how rivers work. The book shows the tangled web of life’s visible connections and the ten fold numbers that you don’t… It shows people in all their individual glory and it shows how the world has changed in 50 years. Lives change, but so does agriculture and travel!

Agriculture and travel. It’s subtle, but you’ll have to read the book to find out. I recommend that you do.

Rating: 9/10

 

 

 

 

 
A picture of how a landscape and a people with together

Book Review – The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

How I came to buy this book

JoannaCannonReadingI bought The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon at a book reading event that was held at my local Waterstones. Joanna was interviewed by Tom Bromley who Teaches a Faber Academy course that Joanna attended.

The event was a great opportunity to hear about how Joanna had progressed through the publishing process and what inspired her to write her first book. Events of this kind are immensely interesting to me as a reader and a writer. I also found the event interesting as it was the first time I have met other book bloggers. So, Hi to Shaz and Jackie Law at NeverImitate. I’m on a slightly different quest to them and am obviously not as experienced in the ways of book blogging at the new book end of the market! (See my book list for details…)

Anyway, I came away from the evening having had a great time and with a signed copy of the book in my hand. I had not read any reviews and barely knew the synopsis. Everything I knew about the book I had gleaned from the hour or so of the reading event. I tend to prefer things like this as I can make my own mind up without other people’s opinion getting in the way. Without further ado, here is some of my thoughts and opinions on The Trouble with Goats and Sheep!

The book and Me

thetroublewithgoatsandsheepbookcoverThe book starts on 21st June 1976, which happens to be only a few weeks after my birthday. I know everyone says that the summer of 1976 was hot, but it was great to read something set in THAT summer. Chapters in the book are dated, and this triggered thoughts of my Mum and Dad doing what you do with a baby. There are so many events that occur concurrently across the world and you only ever see the ones that directly affect you. As I was having my nappy changed, events similar to those in the book were happening in another place under the same baking sun.

I will also mention here that I really liked the blue of the cover. It fits the book perfectly and because it’s a hardback, you see an edge of colour in your peripheral vision as you start and end each page. It feels like the colour of the summer of 1976…

Tense and Person Prose…

First off in the prose section I would like to mention tense and person! I really liked the way that Joanna has written events in the present of the book in past tense, third person. Memory chapters are written in present tense first person. This works really really well because memories are always internal and subjective, and you remember what you experienced (first person present tense.) It is such a powerful tool that I am amazed I have not seen it in any other book, at least I don’t remember reading it… This tense and person change also provided a very obvious but non intrusive way to stay in touch with what part of the story you were reading 1967 or 1976.

Efficient Prose

During the reading event, Joanna talked a little about “tight” prose. I also had a short conversation about it with her as she was signing my book. I used to wish that I could write a book with an absolute minimum number of words, to evoke a reader’s own imagination and to intrude on that as minimally as possible to direct the story. This is of course a fool’s errand. To take so much away from a story misses the beauty of the prose that keeps you reading and keeps invoking similes in your memory.

Joanna has succeeded in her aim, and I found the writing to be relaxed, effortless and still succinct. At the same time it was also very evocative. There were however times when I think the prose was almost too full or too efficient. I didn’t always get time to savour the depth of what was being painted for me.

This tightness of prose also led to some interesting descriptive passages. Some brilliantly realised:

On Libraries “It smelled of unturned pages and unseen adventures, and on every shelf were people I had yet to meet, and places I had yet to visit.”

And in some cases, slightly odd:

“…the thread of the carpet, worn down by heavy conversation.”

How does conversation ware down a carpet??

Anyway, the odd oddity aside, Joanna’s writing style was brilliant and beautiful. The whole book is told in a way that allows the reader to pour their own experiences into it. A lot of references don’t need to be interpreted, but depth is provided if you take your time. It’s like when “Ron swears” in Harry Potter. My son at 8 had a completely different lexicon for this and a different expectation of hour Ron would use his.

Conclusion

I had some trouble sticking with this book at times, and it took me a while to realise why. This is a brilliant book but it is not an easy book to read. I have already said that the writing is very good, and the general themes are all well realised and well paced, so what is my problem? The book is written around people and relationships and how they react to various problems for example; marriage issues, heat, the miss-understanding of children and people who can not accept differences in race and personality. This means that there is a lot of unspoken suspicion and social menace throughout the book. The reality of people I suppose! I found this tension quite hard to read for any length of time, even though I was enjoying the main thrust of the story.

Then, from nowhere Jesus arrives (He moves in mysterious ways!) and it was lovely to read this section because everyone pulled together. Well, almost everyone. I’m not going to go into the religious aspect of the book too much. It’s there, it’s a device and a good one at that. All to soon Jesus has gone and the tension returns.

Anyway, suffice to say that it was the tension that I was not comfortable with. It was definitely a tension that needed to be there for the story, and as I said, it was a story worth reading.

 

Rating: 8/10

Book Review – Love all of the People by Bill Hicks

Oh my god! You know that I have found some draft book review hanging around on my blog that I never published? Well, either way, I have. The other two posts were skeletal lists of thoughts about Consider Phlebas by Iain.M.Banks and Eden by Tim Smit. Then I found this. Why I didn’t click the publish button I don’t know, but I didn’t, so here it is. My quite detailed thoughts on Love all the People by Bill Hicks that I finished reading in January 2015!

Actually, thinking about it, I think I kept putting the review off as I never felt it was complete. Bill Hicks was quite important to me in my formative years. Here we go…

—- 3rd January 2015 —-

2014-12-05 20.26.03This book review is not really going to be a book review, at least not of the book Love all the People by Bill Hicks and John Lahr! I suppose that in a way it is, but my relationship with Bill Hicks and his philosophies go so much deeper than that.

My first introduction to Bill was on a video (VHS) that my best mate got when we were about 17. It was at the time Bill, or at least his material, first impinged on the British consciousness.  Our relationship with him grew and peaked in unison with Bill’s spark of a life. Many a late night drinking coffee and smoking fags was inspired by Mr. Hicks! In reading this book I have rediscovered some of the most brilliant routines and original thoughts that had faded from my memory over the last 20 years, becoming part of the patina of who I am more that I had credited. You could say that I was not surprised when I read certain parts of Bill’s routines about capitalism and consumerism I had to introspectively acknowledge that there is some interesting reasons why I created a blog Titled “Post Consumer”. An un-recognised, unconscious homage to the philosophy of Mr. Bill Hicks. Thank you Bill.

For the record, I also know that I am not going to be able to do justice with this review. How do you review something that was as much remembered as read? I will try to review the book, Bill and his philosophies. I hope I succeed in some small way?

Bill Hicks is the iconification of a concept that I touched on in my unsustainable post. Most people can not relate global issues to individual actions. They ask “Why should that matter to me? ” Some people understand the global issues yet can’t take the message out there or affect individuals on a big enough scale. Bill Hicks was that perfect mixture of intellect and understanding. He also had the drive, wit and outspoken opinion to make people listen. He did everything in his own unique style, but it was “the message and not the words” that were important. Bill managed to do something that almost everyone else couldn’t, and he managed to make it funny too! I suppose that requires the introduction that powerful little word “genius”?

I have a feeling that Bill was beginning to separate comedy from philosophy and politics towards the end of his life. In reading the letters and interviews in the book, it looks like Bill’s message was getting through, but that after being his first love and break though, comedy was beginning to get in the way. His style of delivery didn’t portray the real Bill Hicks’s, not fully anyway. The source of his material was always the inspection of people, the very translation of national and global problems into individual, personal idiosyncrasies, the amazement that people couldn’t see the stupidity in their actions and their beliefs. For those that understood and agreed Bill’s condemnation of these mentalities were very funny. Either they were thoughts and ideals that you had experienced, or ones that you didn’t consider as being so dangerous until Bill told you. I think that by the time he died he was beginning to feel that stand-up was now holding his serious ideas back. He was practically screaming about these subjects and all he was getting was a laugh. Bill definitely spoke to me, but I don’t think he really ever got feedback from his audiences that anything was going in. I don’t know, maybe for many others it didn’t? If he could have found a different way to “advertise” his message and still do the comedy he may have found a more successful, more harmonised balance. Keith Olberman says in the front cover of the book “With his clarity of vision and gift for words, if Bill Hicks had had any more time he might have started a revolution.” I think that revolution may be a strong word, but I also think that it wouldn’t have been as a comic.

Bill was quite obviously someone who pushed himself relentlessly into whatever he did, but that single mindedness was as much a floor as a strength. He was hoist by his own perturb. He knew it I think, but it meant he missed out. Smoking is great, I used to do it, but Bill took it to the limit and it cut him short. He rebelled against a lot of things (like ‘the beach’) that many people do, but discovered after it was too late that there is merit in these things, that’s why we do them. But Bill had to be the way he was, his intellect and opinions produced the brilliance that we all know, but maybe sometimes at the cost of the person??

One thing I was surprised at in reading the book was Bill’s religious beliefs. He was always very obviously attacking the church e.g. Fundamentalist Christians. There was also quite a high Devil content in his material “Thank you Vanilla, now send in MC Hammer.” So Bill believed in God, but not in organised religion. As I thought more and more about Bill and his routines the whole thing made more sense. I am an atheist, but I do occasionally give a nod to the sky. Not sure why, but that’s just the way it is. If I’m going to have a paragraph about God, then I have to include Bill’s (IMHO) slightly OTT relationship with various other aliens 🙂 I can see where he was coming from and the way that considering that opened the mind, but you have to admit that that was a particularly powerful batch of mushrooms!

Capitalism, consumerism and advertising. It is pretty obvious that I have an issue with advertising similar to Bill’s. The stuff is poured down our throats and you can’t get away from it in the modern world. But it is a necessary evil. If you want to make a good product and sell it to people you need to advertise. The problem is that there is a pretty obvious line where honest selling becomes manipulation and everything very quickly becomes cynical from that point forward.

Bill used advertising. His books, DVDs and shows were all advertised. His face appeared on posters, he did the circuit of interviews and appearances to achieve the success he did, but he did not step over the line. His hatred was of the other side of the line.

I have a similar problem. If I want to increase readership of my blog, then I will need to use the same processes. For me it is like the decision I made to call my blog Post Consumer instead of anti-consumer or any other more negative title. There is a place for buying things. If you don’t buy stuff good people and good products wouldn’t be made and then where would we be? The arts of all denominations need patrons and followers to be involved, and to get that you need a way for everyone to find out what you’re up to. The problem is that the whole advertising world needs a huge slug of ethical, responsible restraint and in a capitalist system that is never going to happen.

The advent of the internet has accelerated consumerism and the way that advertising is used is at the heart of it all. They are two halves of a slightly odd Yin Yang. The internet does so much good and provides spectacular access to information and learning. The internet is driven by the money that is made from advertising. The vast majority of websites make their money from advertising, and that is because it is easy. WordPress puts the odd advert on my blog so that I can run it for free. I can take that off for a small fee and add my own to monetise my site. A lot of people use this to make their living and some do it without giving a shit for anyone. Google makes it so easy, and that is why they have made it so big (and you thought it was all about searching!) The question is what could you replace advertising with to make money on a website. I dont have an answer for that yet. We need the adverising equivalent of Bill Hicks’ shooting bananas into people mouths.

So, that ‘s it, a disjointed wander through some of Bill’s drivers along with some of mine. The book is in there somewhere. It contained a large number of Bill’s routines. It was repetitive in places, but for your persistence you got to see how the routines evolved over time. The book mixed in some background and interviews that gave a good insight into Bill off stage as well as some of his letters and a couple of snippets of very powerful writing that I am truly glad that I have now read.

Oh, and I’m not even going to mention Alex Jones? A million plastic surgeries and at least two brain transplants and you might be close on that theory!

Rating 9/10 (as much because I really like Bill Hicks as anything else)

link to  Love all the People by Bill Hicks and John Lahr on Goodreads

Book Review – Cold Calling by Russell Mardell

Russell and his new genre

Cold Calling is the second book I’ve read by Russell Mardell. My first was Bleeker Hill back in December and I really enjoyed it, but this new book is completely different: Russell has moved from ghost story all the way to romance at the other end of the literary spectrum!

It’s rather refreshing to see an author who is able to move between genres. If you have the talent, generally speaking only the very famous and the self published are allowed to make that sort of  switch. An agent or publisher will usually be concentrating on a single focused path and that means a restricted set of genres. I guess that this is an astute approach: if you find a seam, you mine it, but at what cost? Life is a many faceted thing and people are built to live in it. As a reader I can cross any genre boundary I like, I feel strongly that authors should have the same right!

Russell has used his artistic freedom (unfortunately not as very famous author, but fortunately as a very talented self published author !) to produce Cold Calling, a book every bit as good as Bleeker Hill (Russell has written 5 books.) It is so totally, completely different that I’m not sure what measure I would use if I tried to compare the two books, so I won’t 🙂

Cold Calling

cdgv3n7xeaq4ler-jpg_largeOur story starts: Two star crossed lovers… [cue sound of needle scratching across a record.]

Cold Calling is not a conventional love story, nor does it have a simple A to B plot. The story just sort of happens, and you are taken along as the two main characters and their supporting cast open themselves up to you and to each other. Most, if not all of the book is written in first person, and we join a varied cast as the story unfolds. I was reminded of Dracula here, but Cold Calling is not a written account that we read as a posthumous voyeur, we join live events and thoughts; thankfully no one has to write a bloody diary! Russell cleverly uses the supporting roles to reflect the thoughts and actions of Anya and Ray. This creates depth and an ability to subtly cross examine the story.

Characters carry the day

The whole book is full of insightful, realistic characters. The story comes alive as layer upon layer of high quality observational writing is laid down. It really does feel like a window on people’s lives more than a story.

Subtlety, depth and insightfulness all come together to allow Cold Calling to encompass some very personal thoughts and emotions competently. There were multiple times when I recognised my own internal thoughts in someone else’s!

When Anya starts talking about her past life it becomes obvious that Anya is more closed off and is obviously forcing herself towards a confession of reality. Ray, on the other hand, has received counselling and is happier to voice his issues. Characters who can hide or articulate so much are the lifeblood of this book. Writing that  is able to articulate those personal emotions can only be described as excellent. The characterisation in Cold Calling is one obvious place where l could describe it as “better” than Bleeker Hill, but its a different type of story, in this case one that needs a deeper emotional attachment to it’s characters. It has delivered.

l don’t want to wax on about the same subject for too long, so I will close the characterisation section with love… Yes, dear reader I love you very much, you must know that by now? But you miss my point. I’m still talking about Cold Calling. It depicts love in many ways: caring, friendship, real, melancholy, lost, misunderstood, brotherly. My list is not exhaustive, yet my point is simple. Cold Calling is wonder fully complex.

Anya and Ray’s cold calls, and all the events that surround them, come together to form a coherent whole. A group of story lines that blend very well throughout the book. I dont think there was a story strand I didn’t like or actually any part of the book that I wanted to skip through.

The Publishing industry

Anya’s best friend Eva is a successful author.This character had a dual role in the plot. There was a beautifully self indulgent aspect to her that drew stark contrasts to the more fundamental events other characters were experiencing. On the other hand Eva provided an interesting glimpse into what literary success might look like? There is some good observations of the publishing industry in there, but importantly, Eva hates her fame. This created an interesting sub-plot in the book, but I really empathised with the dislike of this dual life that authors now need to lead: part literature generating hermit, part self promoting limelight junky.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that I really enjoyed this book. It took me through a very articulate set of emotions in a story that was believable and engaging. It managed to deliver all this and was still able to inject just the right amount of comedy. There were moments that I almost laughed out loud. Cold Calling didn’t affect me in any fundamental way, but I know that some things will happen in my life and l will be reminded of a situation l read in Cold Calling!

For the hundredth time since I started this blog, Cold Calling is not a book l would usually have read. But I’m very very glad I did.

Thanks Russell.

Rating: 9/10

 

Draft Book review – Eden by Tim Smit

9781905811274Here comes another one. The text that follows was found under the digital cushion of my WordPress sofa… I originally wrote in July 2015 when I was reading the book. I tend to take notes as I go, tweeting some, sticking some in the barebones review post. I got as far as a list of stuff, but for some reason didn’t finish it or post it. As with Consider Phlebas, this is the raw notes, so glean something about the book, or see it as a spectacle of how I go about creating posts. Either way, enjoy 🙂

 

 

—- It is July 29th 2015 —-

Flowery descriptions

Wonderfully evocative descriptions of people, usually concentrating on the personality and qualities as much as the physical.

Good chapter names

1/2 way through and the book is turning into a list of people and events more than anything else. Lots of roles they didn’t know they needed even though they had successfully enticed every big name or business into the project.

But. It is immense!

My two main questions answered:
The design of the domes (p172/284)
The soil (p284)

Project management

The chapter “the big black box of dreams is almost an essay in its own right and the sparkling jewel if the book.

Tim charges governments to legislate for recycling like Germany. I see why, but this is at odds with the earlier ethos of the book to employer individual ownership and responsibility. In reality I agree that both these approaches are needed and the balance is the difference between the baby state and anarchy.

——–

Great book about a fantastic, exceptional wonder of the world and how it came to be.

Rating: 8/10

 

Draft Book Review – Consider Phlebas by Iain. M. Banks

ConsideringPhlebas_CoverI have been having a bit of a tidy up and managed to find a couple of partly finished book reviews from Summer last year (2015.) I’m not sure how I managed to miss them, but as I have other things to do I thought it would be fun to whack them out as they are, basically just a bunch of notes that give you an idea what I thought of the books. There is this one and Eden by Tim Smit.

—- Imagine its the 19th July 2015 —-

Quite a bit about religion and god. Communism and the way the Culture sees life.

The pace is very good. It’s a long book, but when the build up comes for the final events they build slowly and you have read enough of the story to fully appreciate the effort and gravity (accuse the pun) of the crescendo.

Another example of spectacular writing that transcends the book itself and the genre. When Iain talks about self and evolution and comparison of humans to the minds of AI it is separate yet completely integrated with the rest of the book.

——–

That’s it! I loved this book and have other Iain.M.Banks in my book list, so everything is good with the world 🙂

Rating: 8/10

Book Review – Captives by Shaun Hutson

 

CaptivesMy Horror heritage as an intro…

I used to read a lot of horror and a good portion of that was Shaun Hutson books. This is because I used to be scared of the dark and the 15 year old me decided to take the problem head on by turning a love of fantasy into q quite an intense period of reading horror. Many, many classic films and books later and hey presto; I barely bat an eyelid if I see a witch decapitate one of the neighbours. This does happen in the particular part of rural England that I call home! Anyway, my horror days are a long way behind me. After Phantasm, Hellraiser and Scanners all did their jobs I decided that  horror can get quite repetitive (or it was in the early 90′s.) Either that or I over consumed? I went right through acclimatisation and into boredom! These days I have a nostalgic love for horror and that is what I was expecting to tap into when Captives by Shaun Hutson came up on my TBR.

That beautiful slug of back story simply served to bring us to the point when I started reading Captives. I hadn’t read “proper” horror for a while;

  • Dracula didn’t count as it wasn’t written in the last hundred years
  • I read The Fog back at the start of my book blogging journey didn’t really cut the mustard.
  • The Woman in Black did a good job, but that was a different genre.

I have done quite a bit of thinking about what makes us frightened recently for a story I would like to write. There is a definite separation between the gore of a horror book’s and the ghost story’s jump/scare. Even a jump/scare is not the frightful thing; it’s the build up that gets you. It’s your back to an open space, finding out something safe is not, the teeth snapping at your heals. But I digress (as per usual,) we are here to talk about Horror…

The Captives review

Dating is good

I dove into Captives with a surprising amount of enthusiasm. The first thing I noticed was a lot of references that dated the text. People were tearing around in Sierras and Cortinas. The Police gave chase in Rovers. It was all very much of a specific time. All of the references to money also take you back. Not that I would know, but apparently it cost £60 for a wank in a seedy club and “a couple of pound coins” for some new stockings!! Lastly, technology is not there. No one knows who is calling them on the phone!

At the start this did not sit well with me, but dating is good for this book! I started off feeling that the references got in the way, that they detracted from the story. By the end I found it gave the book a perfectly acceptable stage that forgave it some of its roughness. A grand backdrop to a horror; Psycho murder in Ashes to Ashes. Southern Comfort, hookers and fast cars. Murders and gangsters. Blood, dark coppery blood. Blood.

Writing, Grammar and editing

My notes on this subject start with “Trashy writing and grammar.” On finishing the book I don’t think that this is completely fair. Essentially if a good slug more editing had taken place, this could have been a well polished book (couldn’t they all,) but that editing didn’t happen and although the book is not as strong because of it, I think it fits the genre quite well. I suppose I got what I needed from the book. 

There are various examples of poor editing, or missed editing. The book has two speeds. The stuff that links horror sections together and the turbo charged horror itself. These could have been blended more subtly, and dare I say it, a little less gore would have rounded the whole book off. BUT, I fall into my own trap of correctness. If this book was wonderfully crafted, if it stopped to allow you to take the last gory step yourself it would not be horror and it would not be Shaun Hutson. You are forced to look at every single detail. Head forced round firmly to stop you from looking away.

“Oh no, Shaun isn’t going to take us there is he?”

“Yes he is. Definitely he is. That’s the point, didn’t you know that?”

Shaun clips speech to keep it snappy, this is good, especially with edgy, hard characters. Unfortunately there is too much description to back it up, too much internal retrospective. The book could have been tightened greatly if the two types of writing had been reversed. Some dramatic dialogue to replace padded background thought. *note to self, go and re-edit your book. It is full of this!*

To bring the writing review up to the macro level, there are some story devices that just don’t make sense. Two police men just go and dig up a body at night without any reference to that being a bad idea. The alternative, more realistic, solution of doing it the official way would have been just as compelling. Later in the book the chief of Police doesn’t want to exhume bodies because of the trouble it would cause if the police were correct in their theory of what was going on! On the other hand, this could be an accurate observation of the state of policing in the 70’s. No idea!!

This slightly random trend follows through to the book’s characters. They occasionally act out of, well, character. This issue should also have been resolved in the edit. Jim Scott, the main character, goes from a beginning as a gentle giant, quite mild mannered and caring to suddenly become very violent in a short space of time. This violence is required for the plot, so the change should have been blended better or the earlier parts of the book just plain changed.

You know what you get and get what you know

Captives is horror kitsch. Maybe Horror is the kitsch of genres? It is unapologetic, content in its own existence. This is true for other horror I have read, not just Shaun Hutson and there is nothing wrong it. A little honesty does us all good. 

So what are you getting when you pick up a horror book? What do you expect?  Realism shot through with too much violence. A good story augmented with blood and guts and pain and vindictiveness and graphic descriptions of horrid things. If that’s what you expect, then you will like Shaun Hutson as I did all those years ago, and you will like Captives.

On a specific point that is important to horror, Shaun does a very good job at describing the physiology of violence. He resorts to the medical names for things so that in some cases I needed to look up exactly what he was talking about. Once research had been done, I was treated to a wonderfully close up description of exactly how bodies can come apart. One of Shaun’s favourites in the book is the effects of being stabbed in the head and what that does to the inside of one’s mouth!! Tongues are cleaved, teeth are scraped by blades or cut out completely. Within the genre: This is excellent 🙂

Given that I have referred to physiology of the human form, I must correct a common misconception that horror books manage to reveal very well. For your information, human beings are all just bags of blood and gore with bones made of chalk. The slightest touch oozes blood or cracks bones, or just plain makes you pop gore everywhere!

Conclusion

My love of the genre carried me through, I read this book very quickly and enjoyed it. I hope that you get a duality from my review though? It is obvious that there are some pretty serious issues with this book. Issues that would have sunk others, but the good ship Captives still sails the literary seas. The story and the writing is good enough at what it does to concentrate on the important aspects of horror and leave the rest of the text alone. It is unashamed of what it is. Be bold, be proud, be horror!

Captives is compelling. This is a word that I used to describe Lieutenant Hotshot recently too. I use it in a totally different way for Captives. This is the adult horror that I refer to in the Hotshot review. It is allowed to be many things other books are not; you know to expect a concentration on gratuitous violence before you even open the cover. You get what you expect and no excuses if you’re surprised!

In conclusion, two wrongs do sometimes make a right. This is not the best book Hutson has written by as long shot, but I whizzed through it and liked it for what it was, even if it could have really benefited from a good edit. Maybe I’m noticing the editorial requirements of books I read the more as I get into writing myself??

Rating 7/10

Book Review – Dracula by Bram Stoker

2016-03-16 14.07.36I had been looking forward to reading Dracula by Bram Stoker. It is obviously a very famous story, and after my failed (so far; now on pause) attempt at Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, I was hoping that Dracula would provide some of the classical hooks with a little more oomph in the form of some quality horror. I have to say that I didn’t really get it! 

Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy the book. On its plus side the first parts as Harker travels to Dracula’s castle and all of the events that happen there was great. It is the remainder of the story (which equates to about 2/3 of the book) that is more of a problem. I have three main issues with the book.

Please note, this whole review has spoilers. I don’t usually do spoiler type reviews, but be warned!

1. Pace

One of the book’s strengths is its format. It is made up of various diary entries and logs of events and these add a realism to the work that I really liked. What I didn’t like was the fact that quite a few parts of the book that should have been urgent and full of excitement were actually crammed with people making sure that their diaries were up to date, or ordered correctly, or that everyone had read everyone else’s accounts or that Mina (see later) had diligently typed everything up. It must have been top of her list even once she became sure she was turning into the undead. Nothing fends off Dracula’s curse like a bit of light admin!

Its also worth mentioning that if I was going through what the group go through in the book, recording everything in my diary would be very low on my list. The book’s concentration on tasks that have no relevance to the main story is aggravating; even when  one character’s wife (Lucy) dies and we find out that there really are undead creatures in the world the fact isn’t driven home by the narrative.

This fascination with recording everything  greatly detracts from the well known, preserved drama of the Dracula story.

To further exacerbate the painful nature of the book’s pace, I come back to a part of the book where Lucy is being munched by Dracula every evening. Each morning Lucy appears to have magically lost blood, and each day the hardy menfolk fill her back up with blood transfusions from anyone who is available, then proceed to bungle the next night’s vigil. This became tedious for me. The book expected me to accept that mysterious things were afoot, but the reasoning for repeated failures was not compelling. It felt like padding.

My final example of the pace issue exposes a rather fundamental problem. There is a lot of buildup towards various events throughout the book which in themselves are fine, maybe a little lengthy, but fine. The problem is that the bang is not worth the wait. Its like queuing for a fireworks show that turns out to be 100 people all stood watching a sparkler. The Finale to the whole book is the best case in point. There is huge amounts of work put in to catching Dracula, then in a little more that a sentence, they cut off Dracula’s head, he disintegrates and that is that. Done deal, don’t know what all the fuss was about. Well, bloody hell. Brilliant. Thanks for that.

2. Dialogue, Grammar and Van Helsing

Van Helsing is one of the main characters in the book. He is not like any other depiction of the character I have seen in other versions or in related genre fiction that uses the name. The original is a great character. Older, wiser, not your stereotypical hero type. I actually like him for his originality when he first appeared. “Oh ho” thinks I, “here comes the action!” And so it does in the books own way (see problem number 1.) But Van Helsing changes over time. His speaking part builds over the course of the book. By the time we get the the long build up to the finale Van Helsing is talking a lot and the problem is, that the dialogue is shite.

Sorry to be so blunt, but I have no idea what Bram or Bram’s editor were thinking. I read a review that said Bram was trying to be funny; if he was, then he failed with me. Van Helsing is from Holland and his sentence structure is wrong. This could be accepted as an endearing quality, except it was not “the little grey cells” of Poirot, but a jumbled narrative that continually kicked you out of the story.

3. The last rant before the conclusion: gender equality!

The book portrays women in an odd way. I can accept that equality of the sexes was not in place (shame it’s still a thing at all!) when the book was written. There are references throughout of the divide that society imposed, yet that isn’t the final problem I want to highlight about the book. I am going to take umbridge at the book’s inconsistency. Mina Harker was involved in so much at the start of the book. She went out alone to a foreign country to find her husband, she nursed him, bought him back and strived to understand his situation. After that, she read and transposed his harrowing diary and subsequently everyone’s diaries. And even after that, she watched her friend be taken by Dracula. Suddenly, when co-incidentally, it would be useful if she remained part of the team and abreast of events, she is rleft out of the action as its “too dangerous” and is relegated to the typing pool because important man work is required! The menfolk dash about being manly and using dogs because they know about hunting and stuff while Mina is systematically and rather quietly munched every night.

And even after that, when the company finally do allow Mina to know everything again, the now munched by Dracula, has drunk his blood herself, might be turning into the undead… is going to be a secretary again!!

Pah.

Conclusion

I really can see where all of the fascination around Dracula came from, but I’m glad that it got adapted and updated. The original didn’t work for me. I got to the end, but it was a struggle. Watch the film instead.

Rating 6/10

Book Review – Lieutenant Hotshot by Julia North

Lieutenant HotshotLieutenant Hotshot is a Young Adult novel from first time author Julia North. When I ventured into the local bookshop and bought a copy, I had heard an excerpt of it in our book group and knew only a little of the story. I can not say that I expected what I read, but it is an amazingly good book. I originally planned to read it then pass it on to my 12 year old son. I will come back to that at the end…

Lieutenant Hotshot is about child soldiers in Uganda, but that doesn’t even start to convey the harsh, gory, grittiness of the novel. It contains violence that at times felt overdone, and language that further draws you to a place that you would probably rather not go. But this is the book’s strength; the picture it paints is hard to read and at the same time utterly compelling.

If I had been reading an adult horror book, then I would expect some of the scenes as an attempt to appal me because of the genre; something to excite the senses. Lieutenant Hotshot contains these same horrific scenes, yet it is a Young Adult novel! The book is not for the faint hearted, but it works perfectly for the simple reason that it is based wholly in fact. Adults and young adults combined will read this book and become consciously aware of what happens all too regularly somewhere on our planet.

People do terrible things to Modetse (the main character), he does terrible things to others, yet ultimately, the book is one filled with hope and love. Positive thoughts are strewn throughout the book and are all the more obvious when set against the horrors. To be dramatic, love and hate are rendered as close together as Yin and Yang; there is very little room for grey to separate the two extremes in this book.

The whole story is written in the first person and this is fundamentally important to it’s success. It is only as you take the journey with Modetse that you fully appreciate how the environment and the actions of others pulled him into a way of life that he didn’t understand. If there had been other perspectives, the spell would have broken and the reality of what was happening would have spoilt the story as soon as it was started.

As I read and experienced some of the harrowing scenes, I could see how something so counter intuitive is able to happen and how the whole awful wheel of manipulation works. There were even very well architected indications that some of the adults who were leading the soldiers had started out as child soldiers themselves and were still under the spell of their conditioning; so well converted that they could know the truth as an adult and still be able to believe themselves to be right. The blinkered way that an individual’s perception can can be warped reminded me of Lord of the Flies, but more extreme, in more depth and based on reality.

There is a quality to the book that I have wanted to capture for some time in my own writing. The articulation of the real world in a magical context. Not really ‘magical realism’, more the realisation that magic exists in our mind, in our intrinsic interpretation of the world (wow, deep man.) Lieutenant Hotshot is essentially a story of war. Not just the physical war that it directly describes, also a theological, nay, magical war for the ‘soul’ of Modetse and others like him. Julia has perfectly balanced the whole storyline of the book to convey both of these battles beautifully.

A final perfectly executed balancing act is that of religion in the book. The book portrays a strong understanding of the power or religion in a very specific way. You can see how Christianity is supremely effective in the battle against real evil in Uganda and I was minded to think how it’s use in that powerful way might have been a reason why the world’s major religions have spread so far and wide from their original countries.

As an agnostic I was concerned that Christianity may sit too heavily on this book. I was wrong. Julia writes in such a way, walking the tightrope perfectly to balance the anger, gore and belief of the first part of the book with love and a different belief at the end. I can imagine that some of the passages would have been extremely powerful if I was Christian, but I can still appreciate the drive and purpose of the mission and it’s positive effect, maybe more now! How else do you fight bad spirits but with good ones??

To start to bring a close to this review and my Yin Yang analogy a, I have created a list of some opposites that I noticed as I read. They are quite a powerful, thought provoking list in themselves. Hopefully they will give you an idea of the places the story goes without giving too much away, even, maybe whetting your appetite?

  • Bad spirits from the witch doctor – Good spirits and Jesus
  • Drinking blood of enemies – Drinking the blood of Christ
  • Cutting as a rite of passage – Baptism

So, there you go. As I said at the start, I found Lieutenant Hotshot to be an amazing and surprising read. Try it for yourself.

My final thought; will I let my 12 year old son read it?

Yes

There is definitely an emotional maturity required to read this book (child or adult!) My son has that, and he knows just about every swear word under the sun to boot. The evil that people do and the good that balances it? It is a reality that we all need to understand, accept and try to resolve. So yes, yes I will let him, if he wants to…