Monday, 28 May 2012

Heart-Shaped Box, Joe Hill


Coming out the other side of a reading slump, I found myself in the fantasy and horror section of the library looking for something a bit different. I'm working my way through The Lord of the Rings, one chapter per night, so I didn't want a Tolkien-inspired high fantasy epic, nor did I want anything with vampires in. But Heart-Shaped Box stood out from the rest. When it was published a few years ago, I'd read the back blurb more than once, but never got as far as buying it. Ditto Joe Hill's other novel, Horns. But there was something that appealed about these books - and Neil Gaiman's recommendation on the front sealed the deal.

Retired death metal star Judas Coyne has built up quite a collection of sinister and macabre artifacts over the years, so when he sees someone selling a ghost on the internet, he can't refuse. But when the black, heart-shaped box arrives on his doorstep, Jude discovers this is not just any old ghost, but one which will make him confront the darkness in his past.

Heart-Shaped Box had me utterly gripped from the beginning. To buy a ghost on the internet was a brand-new idea in a world of recycled stories. I wasn't really sure what to expect from this book: was this a quirky dark fantasy or an out-and-out horror? It turned out to be a more straight-forward horror than I was expecting - though perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised, since Hill is the son of Stephen King, and from whom better could he have learned his craft? He doesn't take long to launch into a story of suspense, with fear being conjured by descriptions of the wrong sort of nothing, and then when that is replaced by the wrong sort of something, it is narrated so matter-of-factly that it took a moment for what I was reading to sink, which, when it did, happened with a really creeping horror.

The ghost of the story is a far more solid presence than in other ghost stories, possibly because he is quickly named and described as "Craddock" or "The dead man." This haunting is no vaguely hostile threat that may or may not be influencing Jude's world. Craddock is a person, not just a presence, and a particularly malevolent one. Once he appears, the story becomes more standard horror fare - there's something in Jude's house that is out to get him, and might also be in his head. But that's not all there is. There is plenty of variety in Heart-Shaped Box: it is a something-in-the-house horror story, a road trip, a psychological thriller and more. Three or four times, when I thought I had an idea of what sort of story this was going to be, Hill threw in a twist that changed everything.

Jude Coyne is a seriously messed-up individual, and I can't say I liked him. Having an unsympathetic protagonist will usually turn me off a novel - but though I didn't like Jude, he wasn't unsympathetic. He was a man with many layers, a tough history and believable reasons for being who he was. I was convinced at first that his fate was inescapable - and I didn't want that. I wanted him to survive and come through the story unscathed, if not unchanged. (You'll have to read the book to find out if he does or not.) Once or twice, I nearly lost all sympathy with Jude - he does/is/has done some pretty awful things - but Joe Hill kept me caring despite Jude's best efforts. And I loved Marybeth, (also known as Georgia,) Jude's stubbornly loyal girlfriend of half his age.


Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange - Mark Barrowcliffe

Coventry, 1976. For a brief, blazing summer, twelve-year-old Mark Barrowcliffe had the chance to be normal. 
He blew it. 
- From the cover blurb of The Elfish Gene.

In his sometimes comic, sometimes painful and often lovably geeky memoir, Mark Barrowcliffe writes of a youth misspent around the Dungeons and Dragons table. Misspent, you wonder? OK, it's a hobby, and not one generally considered cool, but it's just a bit of fun. People do it. So what if it's not "cool?" Still, Barrowcliffe chronicles the way that this game took over his life, stirred up his imagination and led to him living more in the world of make-believe than reality.

I felt rather sorry for the teenaged Mark, awkward and obsessive, someone who, like all teenagers, was keen to find his niche in the world, who, if he must be a misfit, would be a misfit with all his might and main, but who wasted so much time and energy trying to impress people who clearly despised him. It made me feel rather sad to read of how much he idolised Porter, the dungeonmaster of his D&D group, who never pretended to have any time or respect for Mark. Come on, kid, I wanted to yell through the pages and across the years, you can do better than that! Worst of all was when he would side with Porter in a sad attempt to win a smidgen of approval - or, at least, not have Porter kill off Mark's D&D character! - against his true friend, Billy.

The Elfish Gene was full of outrageous stories of boyish experiments gone horribly wrong and Mark's attempt to try to weasel his way out of ridiculous situations. I could sympathise with his all-encompassing obsessions. Friends and family would confirm that I usually have something that's always in my mind, and at one time it was The Lord of the Rings - which, of course, had a huge influence on the world of Dungeons and Dragons (and subsequently on Mark Barrowcliffe, with several chapter titles being lifted from the novel.)  Barrowcliffe claims to have read Lord of the Rings seventeen times, and yet he claims that there are no females in the whole novel except ethereal elf-maidens and cuddly hobbit-wives.

Excuse me?!


Ethereal elf-maidens, cuddly hobbit-wives and Eowyn, the asskicking shieldmaiden of Rohan, if you please!



(Calm down, Edwards!)

Similarly, although I have never D&Ded (though I came close a couple of times,) I took exception to Barrowcliffe's claim that girls just didn't - although I can appreciate the lack of appeal to females in the groups he described in his memoir. Because, quite frankly, Barrowcliffe presents his teenage self as rather a brat: irritating, obnoxious, pretentious and too much intent on idolising other obnoxious brats, although amusing to read about, from a safe distance. It was actually quite embarrassing to read in times, and although Mark's love for the game was clear, I felt that there was a sneering undertone in the narration. I felt that this was a bit dorky to be associated with and am a little embarrassed even writing a review of a book about Dungeons and Dragons - and I am geeky and proud! I think the adult Barrowcliffe's ridicule rubbed off on me from the pages, and it's upsetting that someone should feel this way about something that they used to devote so much love to.

Barrowcliffe is honest and unflinching in sharing a slightly embarrassing past which nonetheless made him who he is today - and yet, I suspect he doth protest too much when he tries to persuade the reader that he's left this life behind him.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

The Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists, Gideon Defoe


Apologies for the lack of recent reviews. I'd been in a bit of a reading slump, having £20 to spend in Waterstone's and not finding anything I wanted to buy with that money! It is a strange feeling for me, and quite unnatural. But upon seeing The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, I remembered Hanna's review and thought this might well be the thing to make me want to pick up a book again. It seemed to work. My next stop was a coffee shop, where I proceeded to embarrass myself by giggling a lot at this book.

"Ship's biscuits? I've got ship's custard creams, and ship's bourbons."

The Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists is a rollicking adventure featuring a crew of very stupid pirates who find themselves... surprise, surprise... caught up in an adventure with scientists. Namely, a young Charles Darwin, along with his trained monkey, Mr Bobo. I think every child at one point in their life has a dream of becoming a pirate, and Gideon Defoe plays with the childish impression of piracy on the high seas - lots of roaring "arrrgh!" to fill in time between adventures - and thumbs his nose at the idea of any kind of realism. The Pirates!...& Scientists is written in a very simplistic style of prose, packed with deliberate anachronisms for comic effect. The whole thing read like a cross between Monty Python, Lemony Snicket and the Them's version of the Spanish Inquisition in Good Omens. (Art thou a witch, Viva Espana?)


Although it reads rather like it was written by an overimaginative ten-year-old making things up as s/he goes along - which is not meant as a criticism, because ten-year-olds have not yet grown out of pure creativity - there was just enough satirical commentary beneath the silliness to demonstrate that it was not as simple as it seemed - though mostly it's just a very enthusiastic adventure, with a bit of innuendo, a lot of slapstick and a couple of lines that had to be references to popular culture, such as the Pirate Captain's "brilliant impression of what a lady sounded like," and his failure to spot an approaching hurricane.* The Pirates!...& Scientists is a quick read, slightly surreal, very silly indeed, and simply a lot of fun.

The Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists has been adapted as an animated film by Aardman (the people behind Wallace and Gromit) with an all-star cast headed up by Hugh Grant as the Pirate Captain and David Tennant as Charles Darwin. I'm wondering if this might be a good use of my Cineworld gift card... (Elsewhere the movie is called The Pirates! Band of Misfits for some mysterious reason.)






*In 1987, Michael Fish, a BBC weatherman, infamously reported: "Earlier on today, apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way; well, if you're watching, don't worry, there isn't."


There was.


(Well... not technically a hurricane, but the worst storm including hurricane-force winds that Britain's known in my lifetime.)

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Favourite book quotes

Note: These are just ten of my favourite quotes from books, not the ultimate top ten of all time, because that would be impossible. 




Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.




"The point is," said Crowley, "the point is. The point is." He tried to focus on Aziraphale.
"The point is," he said, and tried to think of a point.
 "The point I'm trying to make," he said, brightening, "is the dolphins. That's my point."
Good Omens - Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.


"I am inclined to think --" said I.
"I should do so," Sherlock Holmes remarked, impatiently.
The Valley of Fear - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.


Is it sad to fancy David Tennant when you're dead?
Her Fearful Symmetry - Audrey Niffenegger

"The planet has - or rather had - a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy."
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams


“The house smelled musty and damp, and a little sweet, as if it were haunted by the ghosts of long-dead cookies.”  
American Gods - Neil Gaiman 


"But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him." 
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - J. R. R. Tolkien. 


“I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible.” 
Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen 


 “Anne had no sooner uttered the phrase, "home o'dreams," than it captivated her fancy and she immediately began the erection of one of her own. It was, of course, tenanted by an ideal master, dark, proud, and melancholy; but oddly enough, Gilbert Blythe persisted in hanging about too, helping her arrange pictures, lay out gardens, and accomplish sundry other tasks which a proud and melancholy hero evidently considered beneath his dignity. Anne tried to banish Gilbert's image from her castle in Spain but, somehow, he went on being there, so Anne, being in a hurry, gave up the attempt and pursued her aerial architecture with such success that her "home o'dreams" was built and furnished before Diana spoke again. ”  
Anne of Avonlea - L. M. Montgomery 


"Your head is not allowed in Hogsmeade. No part of your body has permission to be in Hogsmeade." 
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - J. K. Rowling 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way-- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
A Tale of Two Cities - Charles Dickens

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Before I Go To Sleep, S. J. Watson


Memories define us. So what if you lost yours every time you went to sleep? Your name, your identity, your past, even the people you love - all forgotten overnight. And the one person you trust may be telling you half the story. Welcome to Christine's life.
(Cover blurb for Before I Go To Sleep.)

I'd had my eye on this book since it was published, and when I boxed up nearly all my books in order to decorate my bedroom this week, I borrowed this from the staff library at work. Although I'd read books about characters with amnesia before - and even made a half-decent attempt at writing one - Before I Go to Sleep was something altogether new. Christine Lucas wakes every single morning having to learn everything about her life and the world from the last twenty years - sometimes more. Before reading this I wondered just how Watson was going to manage to tell this story; how the reader would learn with Christine and not have to endure endless repetition as she rediscovered everything anew. Watson manages this with a simple solution: Christine's journal, which she reads before adding to each day, meaning that we are on the same page, as it were.

Before I Go To Sleep is a deep insight into what it must be like to live with amnesia: the fear and horror of not knowing anything, the world being a strange place, and discovering each day that you're twenty-odd years older than you thought. There were almost time-travel elements, as of course the world has changed a lot in the past decades. Where the world has changed gradually, to Christine it happens all at once, and she has to come to terms with the existence of mobile phones, photoshop, the Gherkin and London Eye - and living in a post 9/11 world without any understanding of the significance of that date - or knowledge that it is a significant date at all. "I must have missed so much," Christine writes. "Disasters, tragedies, wars. Whole countries might have fallen to pieces as I wandered, oblivious, from one day to the next."


Being a book all about memory, there are inevitably plenty of flashbacks, which are rather disorientating to read. Christine's mind is a very intense, confusing place to be, and the flashbacks can read like actual, physical shifts in time. Her perception of the world is a mishmash of past and present, real and imagined, and filling in the gaps where memories ought to be - but aren't.

The storytelling is very well-paced, with questions answered at satisfactory intervals - and with every question answered, another two are raised. The most straight-forward resolutions to mysteries add to the suspicion by posing another question: if this is the truth, why lie about it or conceal it up until now? Before I Go To Sleep is an intelligent, well-written thriller and psychological study that keeps you turning the pages wanting to know just what's going on. Although I had guessed at a major twist early on, it was revealed to give me a sense of satisfaction for figuring it out, rather than disappointment with the author for not being cleverer than me - a rare achievement.


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