Reads of 2018 part 2

To carry on where I left off last week…

Florida Gothic, Mitzi Szereto. I wasn’t sure what to make of this book when I first began reading. The tense and style isn’t one I would usually opt to read, and there was perhaps more tell than show…BUT, there’s so much woven into this tale it works. I came away having thoroughly enjoyed it and the style was part of that. It worked for the story the author wanted to tell, making it a novel rich with facts and flavours of the Florida setting and cultural mix. The chapters hop from character to character interlinking their individual stories in an entertaining and darkly humorous way (I caught myself laughing). I could picture this as a film. If you like a fun-filled retributive horror this fits the bill.

The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins. Unsure how I feel about this book. It’s well thought out, decently written, and I can see why it’s had recognition. My personal feelings, however, are I would have preferred this thriller written in third person. First person with multiple viewpoints pulls me out of a story (it’s told by three women) and I wasn’t sure they were distinguishable enough. I guessed the outcome a little over half way through the book, and, though I don’t believe characters should be perfect, that flawed people make for a more interesting read, I found every person in the book thoroughly unlikable so I struggled to care about any of them, and kept searching for more redeeming features. Well plotted and an easy read despite this, but I’m left feeling ambiguous. I want to watch the film, though, to see how they handled the material.

Shattered, Dean Koontz
Another re-read of the year. This one is probably the first in order of publication that gives a hint into some excellent pacing and tension of which Koontz is capable. He says in the introduction he wanted to create the aura of paranoia that was taking place at the time in of the story setting and he certainly does that.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Playscript), J.K.Rowling. Essentially the eighth book, takes place ‘in the future’ when Harry is a 40-year-old man and one of his son’s is struggling to settle into Hogwarts in much the same way Harry did. Both Harry and Draco’s sons carry the shadows of their fathers with reputations difficult to live up to. No real plotting surprises, but the story carries through with enough tension and it would be good to see on-stage with all the relevant special effects.

Project Prometheus, Book 2: Hope of Heaven, Esther Mitchell. The second in the Project Prometheus series. This continues with a sub-character from the first book, featuring part of the cast, but introducing new people, and deepening the underlying plot. More romantic than the first, the story of Peter and Hope covers a long time frame making for a longer than expected novel. I’m left wondering whether the length could be tightened without elements feeling rushed (difficult to explain without spoilers), but would hesitate to choose where. The series continues to be a blend of romance and suspense with an interesting background of mythology. Definitely makes me want to check out book 3. Generally, the series leaves me feeling it’s more suited to the mainstream market than a mid-range publisher but I’m glad the series is available in whatever format.

Banquet of the Damned, Adam Nevill. I can see why this book may receive mixed reviews, and it’s purely owing to stylistic preference. I sank into a rich vocabulary and longer sentences so often lacking in modern fiction. I don’t want to use the term literary as it carries an unfortunate modern-day connotation of dusty libraries and mildewed books written by notaries of a by-gone age (a sad view of the classics that were part of my childhood reading and nowadays occasionally termed ‘too difficult’) and this definitely isn’t like that, but one would have to say this is a more literary ‘style’ of horror. Another way to describe it is I can see a few editors returning the manuscript circling several sentences as purple prose. Thank goodness the publisher ignored them if they did. The style Nevill uses is carefully chosen to weave a delightfully successful spell on any reader able to appreciate the opulent seductive description spiced with the ‘creep’ factor; the sense that something is coming and might be present on the next turn of a page. This seems to be where Adam Nevill excels. I’ve read two of his titles so far but will check out more.

The Night Clock, Paul Meloy. First, I have to say I like this book. I need to say because it may not be obvious. Paul Meloy’s imagination packs a punch. Unfortunately, the story is superior to its execution. Grammatically there are so many instances of ‘it, was, and were’ sentences to bog the story down and make it drag. I took way too long to finish this. The book suffers too much tell instead of show (too many instances of the type such as ‘he was standing’ required the simple improvement of ‘stood’), and I’m unsure if the writer has any real concept of tenses or tried to be artistic in the use. I can see a few people complaining over the ‘purple prose’, though that doesn’t always bother me if used well. There’s a greater book here and some fantastic ideas that do not gel in this length of a novel. I wanted to know more of the characters and to care about them. The various threads read more like perplexing even unnecessary tangents though draw together, but left me feeling the narrative strove to be clever rather than engaging. Instead, the promised level of threat never quite manifests and I didn’t much care whether anyone survived by the conclusion. A pity, as this visionary setting promised much and had me enthralled. I love the overlapping story threads and blending of genres. It’s an interesting read. I’d consider reading more by the author.

The Circus of Dr Lao, Charles G. Finney. The film, 7 Faces of Dr Lao fired up an already overactive imagination in my childhood so when I came across the ‘obscure classic’ (as John Marco who pens the foreword for this book describes this novel) I had to read it. The introduction and foreword explain much of the book which can be classed more as a longer short story rather than a novel. There’s no real plot, no real pattern to the narrative, and no satisfactory conclusion, plus a lot of remarks that definitely wouldn’t pass any level of ‘correctness’ in a fair, just, modern day society and rightly so. But every book like all works of creativity are of their generation. It’s a difficult story to categorise, recommend, or denounce. People visit the travelling show. Some of them leave and some of them don’t.

It’s easier to ask why the story of Dr Lao’s circus retains a degree of fondness if not outright love in so many hearts. Possibly, it’s the circus itself, a carnival not of acrobats, trained animals, and clowns, but of creatures and entities far more magical, of mythology and legend, and conceivably far more dangerous. Where my young self felt unsettled by performing animals long before such acts were widely frowned upon, I might have been more excited to view a mermaid, a sea serpent, and to peek at the Medusa through the safety of a mirror. When Dr Lao yells for everyone to see the show, the circus calls.

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Stephen King, proves what I’ve always said, that King is labelled wrongly as a horror writer. He’s a storyteller. I can see where some may label this collection as self-indulgent but then, as a storyteller, he no doubt wants to share these tales and has earned some forbearance. Not that there’s no other reason to read this collection. I liked it. I didn’t adore it, but some stories I liked more than others, a few I loved, and there were none I hated so I’ve given the book 4 stars where I might prefer to give it 3.5. Short story collections are books I dip in and out of and often take me weeks, even months to complete, while I soar through novels, but I found King’s writing here so familiar and familiarly ‘comfortable’, I finished the book off without setting it aside. Some stories are a tad silly, some fun, some questioning…I wouldn’t say any are scary but then I’m seldom scared by King’s work, or by anyone’s, so I’m not singling him out in that regard. As a ‘constant reader’ adding this to my bookshelves was a no-brainer and while it’s not the best of his work, I wasn’t disappointed.

The Sisterhood, Emily Barr. From a style point of view I wouldn’t have bought this had I realised it was first person with three viewpoints. I usually prefer first person books to tell the story through a single character. Here we’re told the story of two half-sisters: Helen and Elizabeth. Unfortunately, I disliked Elizabeth from page 6 when her thoughts dismiss a homeless person the moment she walks into Waitrose. My opinion of Helen didn’t get much better despite her less than perfect parents. She’s born into a privileged position she seems to moan about more than take advantage of, although the reasons are clear by the end of the book. Instead of choosing to do something with her life she makes finding Elizabeth her mission—not terrible except that her motivation is for all the wrong reasons. Neither sister seems to deserve much interest though both could carry the mantle of ‘victim of circumstances’. I’m loathed to review this book because though the writing didn’t engage me, there’s nothing wrong with it, and all the plotting elements are carefully constructed. I failed to identify a protagonist I could root for, and there, for me, the book isn’t one to find a permanent place on my bookshelves. Made me think of ‘Gone Girl’ if that’s any help. I could see this as a made-for TV movie or 6-part series, though for me it was a frustrating read.

Sepulchre, Kate Mosse. A historical paranormal thriller with romantic undertones is probably the best way to describe this novel. It’s expertly told in past and present-day sections that interlink and progress steadily side by side. As Meredith Martin investigates her ancestral past the story of Leonie comes to light with threats both old and new, and sometimes unexpected. There’s not much to critique here — the wonderfully plotted book has enough suspense to hold the reader’s interest. The only possible negative and it’s not really a negative at all is that the paranormal influence is subtle at times, maybe too subtle for some who may be more interested in the supernatural aspects of the tale. The conclusion wasn’t as riveting as it may have been owing to that but it all rounds off satisfactorily where many books fail. This may interest those who like classical ghost stories, or historical thrillers, or even historical romances, although it’s not romantic fiction.

The Rising, Brian Keene. Though I feel the writing could be better, this is a revised, edited edition and not only did Keene bring a devastating and frightening twist to the Zombie mythos, he wrote the worst-case, bleakest spin. The ending…though I don’t entirely agree with it, in many ways it’s perfect. Not a read if you’re looking to be cheerful.

Crank, Ellen Hopkins. An interesting exercise in poetry and the subject matter of drugs is eye-opening to adults and teens alike.

Night Chills, Dean Koontz. A re-read for me as I’m going through some older titles on my shelves hoping to whittle down the number of books I own. Well plotted suspense though the technology parts slow the novel a little. To be fair, those parts interested me more first time around and that and some other story content is naturally dated now including the sexual violence. When Paul Annandale takes a trip with his son and daughter little does he know he’s about to suffer overwhelming heartache…and if I have a negative, that’s probably where it lies: I would have liked to experienced this man’s emotions more, but that’s not always laid out so much in a suspense novel, yet it’s the one painful spark of the book that remains long after the book’s finished. The subject is more worrying today than when the book was written when one considers so much more is possible with each passing decade.

The Bullet Trick, Louise Walsh. I’ve read one of Louise Walsh’s books before (though the title escapes me) at a friend’s recommendation. I do recall not being particularly taken with it. This book I enjoyed more. The writing is slick and I like the way the story jumps back and forth between settings and time. The big reveal, not so big, but an enjoyable, cosy thriller. One I liked for the writing and presentation more than the plot.

In the Place of Fallen Leaves, Tim Pears. Felt myself falling into this story almost right away, certainly by the start of the second chapter. The writing is lyrical, creating images and imparting information in an intricate weave. It’s a book without a plot, though, more a memoir in tone than a story, an exposition of events over a long, hot summer in Devon, sometimes grave, others times sad and humorous. Not one to speed through. Beautifully nostalgic.

The Girl Next Door, Jack Ketchum. This book is hard to review objectively. On the one hand it borders the style of horror termed as torture porn. On the other, and in a part for that reason, I’m sure it does what it intends to do. It provokes emotion and, I hope, for most people, in the right way, making the reader uneasy and restless. Ultimately, I wasn’t able to forgive anyone, not even the protagonist. There’s something voyeuristic in the reading, speaking to a part of the reader that wants to put the book down. Yet, like watching a train wreck, another part of the human soul/nature wants to discover the outcome. Wants justice. Retribution. Wants to ‘do something’, to act, particularly as this is based on a true story—the book’s real saving grace, as it highlights the plight of all abused children, spiking the guilty nerve of anyone who doesn’t want to get involved. The book is confrontational and unsettling in so many ways it questions the causes behind my dislike. The book is terrible, and in that it’s possible it achieves its purpose, making of the book a conundrum both excellent and dreadful. It’s a repulsive, grim read that’s hard to turn away from or to dismiss, though I’m positive not everyone who reads this will have the same experience as I did. I dislike this book (especially as, since reading, I discovered the sister never wanted it published and had I known I would not have purchased), but I appreciate it as a job well done: vile but emotive because of that.

Between, Clarissa Johal. I love this writer’s work. I feel her stories deserve a place in a far larger market. Her imagination is faultless though I’m sometimes left feeling her books are one edit or two away from being perfect. I found Between to be a little disjointed and the ending felt a little rushed compared to the rest of the pacing but as always, a bright spark of an idea and powerful imagination is at the heart of the story.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote. A perfect example of how different a film can feel from the book it’s based on. Hepburn’s performance and the alterations made for the screen gave Holly Golightly a pained aspect to her existence that doesn’t seem to so readily come across in the book. While I can admire it as a classic work and well-written, I found none of the characters likeable, not that I found them much better in the film, but they showed a few saving graces that seems lacking in the narrative.

The Walking Dead; Rise of the Governor, Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga. Unsure what I expected from this. Being a fan of the graphic novels and the television series, I stumbled across this the first in a series of novels second-hand. Much of this first book contains what the producers used in a flashback episode in the series though with some differences. In this ‘the Governor’ Philip has a brother who comes across as the anthesis of Philip’s strength. As those travelling together fight to survive and Philip descends into madness, there are some unexpected twists that, though not part of the graphic novels or the series, throw a different light into the mix. I can’t say more without giving too much away.

Toast, Nigel Slater. Nigel Slater’s memoir told around the meals he shared with his family may be unique in its style and the childhood remembrances of joy at the simple pleasures instilled by food. For anyone of a certain age it will spike the memory, and for those too young to know what people used to eat it will be a history lesson told with real humour. His recollection of the dreaded crates of (often warm) yucky milk that would arrive at school is one I share, only had it been me made to stand at the front of the class until I drank it all, I would have stood there all day rather than even make the attempt. It’s hard to believe we used to consume even half these things, even more difficult to believe a few still exist. Along with stories of how children caught diseases such as measles and mumps (not in the book but when one child caught something, the others sent round to make sure they caught it too so they all got it over and done with) with no talk of vaccinations may sound shocking now, but was a commonplace occurrence then. He tells some of these memories with the innocent callousness only a child can muster; as an adult Slater has said he regretted being so harsh, but I think it’s forgivable as these are childhood recollections not tempered with time and understanding, more real for all that.

Monsters, Emerald Fennell. A book I picked up in a charity bin with a few others, I think this one caught my eye because it’s set in Fowey. I believed it to be a children’s book because of the ‘golden rule’ in publishing that if a book’s main protagonist is a child, the book is for children. With that in mind this black comedy first struck me as surprising. I thought this would be a story about two children who commit murder, not murders that captured their interest leading them on a downward spiral that seems to more often delight them than scare them or bring about the ‘change’ most plots put in place for their protagonists. It’s surprisingly funny in places, well-plotted and worked out. I’m uncertain the tone quite sat well with me for 13-year-olds. Some of their vocabulary seemed too sophisticated, at other times their behaviour too immature, but I’ve only personal experience on which to base my assessment and others may feel differently. This is an entertaining quick read, like a child’s book for adults. As for two children you wouldn’t want to meet (the tagline), I couldn’t help thinking I wouldn’t want to meet any of the adults either. I’m pleased to say I’ve come across none of these characters in Fowey.

Dodger, Terry Pratchett. It’s confession time. I have the guilty pleasure of not having finished all of Terry Pratchett’s books. I’ve loved his work ever since I picked up The Colour of Magic more years ago than I care to recall. I have my favourites but never have I been truly choked over the death of a writer, possibly over anyone I didn’t personally know. The term ‘genius’ is often banded around regarding his work, those who are literary aficionados of the type who insist one must be a name on the cover of books of dark weathered tomes read by only those with an IQ in the numbered region possible to stretch to the moon, dismiss with contempt, but Pratchett was a genius of satire. A friend of mine always took his work to be about ‘little wizards running around’. Like many it escaped her notice that the Discworld was our world, that the University of Magic was our Parliament, the wizards there our Government. I’ve a few books of his left unread. About 4 set on the Discworld, I believe, a couple of factual books, the fantasy series he wrote with Stephen Baxter, and the last book he ever wrote. They’re rare treasures awaiting my attention because once I’ve read them there will be no more.

Dodger stands alone. It’s loosely set in the first quarter of Queen Victoria’s reign as is stated in the Author Acknowledgements — a section worth reading in itself even if you pick up the book in a shop and stand there while you do. Pratchett did write books for younger readers and though the wordage in this book is an easy read and the plot rather uncomplicated, Terry gave it the spins only he could, setting up questions any decent society should ask itself, and showing how much has changed. Not my favourite Pratchett but a thoroughly entertaining read.

The Vision, Dean Koontz. Another re-read for me. This is okay for a book of its age but not as good as it should be. It seems to lose its way somewhat when introducing a Ouija Board and ultimately the element on which the plot hinges didn’t come across as believable.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson. My first introduction to Shirley Jackson’s work, though I’m sure it won’t be my last. This is a masterful story. A disquieting tale that’s not quite what it seems, with a creeping and insidious uneasiness. It’s a strange mix of humour, sadness, innocence, and wickedness that has no real surprises and yet is surprising even so. The story extends beyond those in the house to become a doleful look at a small community throws a larger uglier light on society.

The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson. Known as a classic and often hailed as the best ghost story of all time, I found this an odd surreal and disconnected read. However, I can see it’s definitely sets the basis and tone of all haunted house stories although the haunting here is more cerebral. It’s hard to review — one of those books that walks a line between being nothing special yet lingers after it’s finished making one wonder whether it deserves the high praise it receives. It’s probably met with some reserve in these modern times because writing styles change.

The Chalk Man, C.J.Tudor. A book I thought might be more paranormal horror but is fitting in the thriller market, but has a good touch of creepiness. I enjoyed this book in the main for the way it’s plotted out, it’s never-ending cliffhangers and slow reveal.

The Face of Fear, Dean Koontz. A re-read for me as I’m going through some old titles but though not the best of Koontz it was a nice reminder of why I found this book quite gripping the first time. Not giving anything away the blurb doesn’t, the chase up and down a 42-storey building is at the heart of this book, more so than the murder, and the ‘face of fear’ is the main character having to face his own fears to save both himself and the person he loves. The psychology may be accurate but it felt a little ‘dumped’ and even contrived, and I would have liked to see this book more deeply developed and not to feel the ending is so abrupt but that may just be me — for thrillers of this type, especially when it was written and first published, there’s nothing lacking.

The Walking Dead; Road to Woodbury, Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga
The second in this series. If not a fan of The Walking Dead, these books will probably skip a reader’s radar. If a fan these are surprisingly readable, written in present tense — something that rarely carries through a whole novel. Because of the television and the action-based plot this reads well, like watching a television show and continuing to add depth to the Governor’s background even though this books starts out with a group seemingly unrelated to those in Woodbury. This book reveals more of the town’s development and underlying subculture and discord. There were a few moments where I struggled to put the book down and I have to wonder what will happen in the next instalment.

I began The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, a huge book I’ve had awhile and it will take me ages to get through this owing to the way I intend to read it. Very much a book I intend to dip in and out of over several months so I’ve only completed the first 100 pages, the section of poetry. Many hidden gems here though I have to say the reason his most loved and best-known poem is The Raven shines out. The cadence and emotional response it invokes never ceases to impress. Hoping there’ll be many gems and new tales to discover in the story section of the book.

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry is a well-written book, with well-plotted layers and subtext. Alas, it’s not cohesive enough, maybe owing to the omnipresent head-hopping style. Occasionally, I forgot I was reading a book set in 1893. It’s worse fault, though, is the likely error of the marketing department. The blurb promises one thing, the book another. Readers expect a developing romance wrapped around a mystery. The ‘Serpent’ of the title is a creature not so much myth as misunderstood. It is often figurative, a metaphor, subtext…which might be fine if it did not lead readers to believe otherwise. As for the romance, I had patience for that until around 60 pages from the end when my emotions turned to exasperation and disgust. I so wanted to say I loved this book but have to settle for liking it. The true heroine of the book reads, to me, as Stella and that’s a stretch. The writer may tell the story he or she wants, of course, and it’s true that humans are imperfect. Again, I sense that the novel’s marketing leads one to expect something it’s not and so does the author and novel no favours. This is not a mystery, and not a romance. It’s a set of characters and a slice of their shared histories.

The Cabin in the Woods, Tim Lebbon. I have to say this is one occasion where I have to recommend sticking to watching the film. There’s nothing wrong with this novelisation but it adds nothing to the experience. I expected more depth but some character’s internal perspectives didn’t quite seem to gel with what I already had in mind, and maybe that’s the problem — had I read this before seeing the film I might feel differently so I feel a little guilty only liking this rather than loving it. To anyone who loves the film, I’d recommend the visual companion. The story itself (both book and film) is hard to categorise. Either people will see more to the story or they won’t. On the surface it seems to be a twist on a B-Movie gore-fest (though not as gory as most) with undertones of Evil Dead, but at heart it’s asking questions about the essence of the horror genre, why it draws interest, how far would we push to survive, and at what price. Not everyone will pick up on or agree with the underlying intent of the story and that’s why it will always have mixed reviews.

Mortal Engines, Philip Reeve. Dark in places for a YA offering. Though I’ve not seen the film, I read the book first. Love the concept and most of the characters. If anything the book feels underwritten as if there’s much more story to tell but maybe it’s why it became a quartet. A magnificent exercise in world-building, though I imagine the city of London is much more immense in the novel than what I’ve seen on the screen in trailers. I can understand the allure of the book to a filmmaker like Peter Jackson. I may well read the rest in time.

Dickens at Christmas, Charles Dickens
Only began the book so will finish another year but right away A Christmas Carol shines out.