The Southern Reach Trilogy – final part

Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

What began in Annihilation, follows on in Authority, concludes in Acceptance. Although I’ll give scant details of what happens below, discussing the third part of a trilogy will necessarily reveal small facts you may prefer not to know if you intend to read these books. See also my reviews of the first two parts: Annihilation and Authority.
Southern Reach Trilogy covers

The clue is in the title. In Acceptance, we have a coming to terms with the nature of Area X – but I never said it was going to be easy!

If you’ve read the first two, you’ll know that Authority ends with Ghost Bird and Control effectively breaking into Area X. We’ll come back to them in a moment, but after a prologue in which The Director, who has also gone into Area X talks directly to us, we’re back in time before Area X with Saul the Lighthouse Keeper. We meet Henry and Suzanne from the Séance & Science Brigade – a scary research organisation studying paranormal phenomena, “Prebiotic particles, … Ghost Energy” as Henry puts it. They are obsessed with the lens of the lighthouse and Saul doesn’t trust them one inch. We are also introduced to Gloria, a nine year old that plays on the beach, and Charlie – Saul’s lover. With those introductions, our cast is complete.

Acceptance jumps back and forth between the three story strands: with Saul before Area X, with the Southern Reach Authority during the period of the expeditions, and with those last unofficial explorers into Area X. We find out that the layers of conspiracy in the SRA are labyrinthine and totally bonkers in their complexity. We find out how the military used Area X – as a garbage can for space debris – sending dead satellites into the border to wink out of existence. We learn the truth about the biologist/Ghost Bird and why the lighthouse is so important. We also encounter more of the (de-)evolved creatures that made the first volume so scary:

The flesh had sloughed off, runneled down the sides of the bones, vanished into the soil. What remained was a skeleton that looked uncannily like the confluence of a giant hog and a human being, a set of small ribs suspended form the larger like a macabre internal chandelier, and tibias that ended in peculiar nub-like bits of gristle scaenged by biards and coyotes and rats.
‘Its been here awhile,’ said Control. (p34)

It’s fair to say that with its non-linear narrative, Acceptance lacks the singlemindedness that made the first two volumes so compelling. But, in order to resolve the story, there is a lot we need to know in each of the strands. This makes it more messy and you’re less able to devour it in a page-turning way as each revealed nugget leaves you trying to place it in the mix. That said, I still really enjoyed the book and think I understand how it finally reaches the end! Acceptance may be the weakest one of the three, but taken as a whole, The Southern Reach Trilogy is amazing. The first two parts have grown on me since I read them and the mind-boggling concepts between the brightly coloured endpapers of each volume have kept me thinking about them. Having read Ballard’s The Drowned World immediately before reading Acceptance also made a fascinating counterpoint – swapping one account of de-evolution for another!  (7.5/10)

Southern-Reach-UK paperback-covers

UK Paperback covers – out July 2015

 

I shall leave you with a little ditty that seems sort of appropriate, although the home-video accompanying the song is charmingly amateur… From 1969, I bring you Erika Eigen’s song ‘Lighthouse Keeper‘ (which was featured in the soundtrack Kubrick’s film, A Clockwork Orange, repopularised a couple of years ago in an advert for M&S for you fact-fans!)

Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer – pub 4th Estate, hardbacks:
Annihilation (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – Feb 2014, 4th Estate, 208 pages.
Authority (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – May 2014, 352 pages.
Acceptance (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – Sept 2014, 352 pages.

The Southern Reach Trilogy

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

annihilationHaving just read Annihilation, the first volume of Vandermeer’s series known as The Southern Reach Trilogy, I think I’m really going to enjoy the other two parts – entitled Authority and Acceptance. This trilogy was published last year – with three months between volumes. They’re lovely things too in hardback with attractive covers and bright endpapers – but what’s inside?

Annihilation is the story of the 12th expedition sent in to investigate Area X – an area of an environmental disaster, monitored by a secret agency known as The Southern Reach. They’ve been monitoring it and sending in expeditions for thirty years – few return alive, and those that do are never the same as before.

The 12th expedition is a team of women: led by a psychologist, the others are a surveyor, an anthropologist and our narrator – a biologist who is never named. Their mission is to take samples, chart the land, keep journals – to help the Southern Reach understand Area X better.

The method by which they are transported through the mysterious border into Area X is unknown. The candidates for the team had all had to go through months of training and psychological conditioning including frequent hypnosis. They just awake in Area X and set off for base camp which had been set up by previous teams. There is real tension between the four women right from the start, and it’s not long before things start to go wrong.

It kicks off when they discover an uncharted tunnel, that appears as a tower built down into the ground. Some of the team start to descend including the biologist. It’s not long before they discover lush and glowing fungal growths on the walls – which releases spores onto the biologist. She doesn’t tell the others, but can immediately sense she’s changed.

The first thing I noticed on the staging level before we reached the wider staircase that spiraled down, before we encountered again the words written on the wall… the tower was breathing. The tower breathed, and the walls when I went to touch them carried the echo of a heartbeat… and they were not made of stone but of living tissue. Those walls were still blank, but a kind of silvery-white phosphorescence rose off of them. The world seemed to lurch, and I sat down heavily next to the wall, and the surveyor was by my side, trying to help me up. I think I was shaking as I finally stood. I don’t know if I can convey the enormity of that moment in words. The tower was a living creature of some sort. We were descending into an organism.

Later, the biologist realises that the spores have made her immune to the psychologist’s controlling hypnotic suggestions. It becomes clear that the psychologist has her own plan too which doesn’t include the rest of them, and the pressures on the women in this lush Eden-like world take their toll. Soon it’s just the psychologist and the biologist, and the psychologist decamps to the lighthouse – the main structure that was on the map, perhaps a remnant of this world pre-Area X. On her way to the lighthouse to challenge the psychologist, the biologist is on the canal bank when she catches a movement:

Then the dolphins breached, and it was almost as vivid a dislocation as that first descent into the Tower. … The something more wrenching occurred. As they slid by, the nearest one rolled slightly to the side, and it stared at me with an eye that did not, in that brief flash, resemble a dolphin eye to me. It was painfully human, almost familiar. In an instant that glimpse was gone and they had submerged again, and I had no way to verify what I had seen.

Before I started reading it, I had wondered whether it was going to be all conspiracy theories and X-Files style cover-ups – the rest of the series could be of course, but I was very happy to find a dystopian SF eco-thriller with horror overtones! I’ve deliberately not looked at where the story goes in subsequent volumes – the first volume does have an ending, but it can be read in several ways.

Annihilation started slowly, almost keeping us at bay as if we weren’t allowed into the minds of those who went into Area X. Once the biologist is exposed to the spores however, she changes, and this frees her to confide to us why she volunteered for a potentially fatal mission.

This novel also triggered so many memories in me of other books I’d read and programmes I’ve seen over the years:

  • thissideofparadisehd244Descending deeper and deeper into the tower reminded me of Mark Z Danielski’s wonderful and very weird novel House of Leaves.
  • The word ‘spores’ will always for me associated with the classic Star Trek episode This Side of Paradise from 1967 – in which spores from a flower make Spock experience bliss. One of my favourite Star Trek scenes came from this episode – when an infected Spock is hanging like a sloth from a tree branch, grinning away!
  • The dolphin reminded me of two things:  The Underwater Menace from the Patrick Troughton era Doctor Who, in which a mad scientist in Atlantis is operating to turn humans into Fish People – and the Doctor has to save sidekick Polly from this fate. Scared me stiff that did!  Then, more recently in Star Trek: The Next Generation -there was an episode called Genesis (1994), the crew begin to experience strange symptoms which lead to them starting to de-evolve. Captain Picard is infected and starts to become anxious and fearful and Data says he might soon de-evolve into a primate like a lemur or marmoset!

Vandermeer has created a beautiful yet dangerous world in Annihilation. I didn’t want it to stop. The tension was very well done and it was really rather creepy, I can’t wait to carry on and find out more about the controlling biological force in Area X. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer – pub 4th Estate, hardbacks:
Annihilation (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – Feb 2014, 4th Estate, 208 pages.
Authority (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – May 2014, 352 pages.
Acceptance (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – Sept 2014, 352 pages.

House Of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski, pub in 2000 by Doubleday, 736 pages.

Three Slightly Shorter Reviews

I’ve got a series of posts lined up for the week in between Christmas and New Year with my hits, misses, finds and stats, so it’s time to catch up with my review pile backlog and some shorter reviews…

The Undertaker’s Daughter by Kate Mayfield

undertakers daughter For anyone who loved the TV series Six Feet Under, this is what it’s like in real life to grow up living in an American Funeral Home, and sometimes it’s not that different! Kate Mayfield’s family moved to the town of Jubilee in southern Kentucky in 1959 where her father could realise his dream of running his own funeral home. Kate was already used living in the same house:

Back in Lanesboro, I had been the first in our family to be carried as a newborn from the hospital directly into a funeral home. Birth and death in almost the same breath.

We grow up with Kate in the business. We experience the competition between the rival businesses, and the favours and kindnesses that her father secretly does for the owner of the funeral home for the black population – for Jubilee in the 1960s was segregated. Kate’s father is a bit of a conundrum, totally professional and controlled, yet charismatic and a real dandy and, with his own hidden secrets of hard-drinking and womanising, no wonder Kate’s mother is brittle and desperate to fit into this community where they are initially outsiders. We learn a lot about the funeral business with Kate as she grows up, becoming a quietly rebellious teenager in the 1970s. We also see how the business of death can divide communities, cause family feuds and rattle a lot of skeletons in closets.

This memoir was absolutely fascinating, I heartily recommend it. Source: Publisher – Thank you, (9/10)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

kjfI’ve read this for book group – we’ll be discussing it in early January, but I won’t post about that discussion because I don’t want to spoil this novel for anyone that hasn’t read it yet – is there anyone?

The story is told by Rosemary who, at the start is at university, and still trying to come to terms with the disintegration of her family that started when she was five and her sister Fern disappeared from her life.

Rosemary takes us back and forwards through her life and the details gradually fall into place. However the big plot twist happens on page 77, early on in the novel.

As it happens, I knew the twist and I can honestly say it wouldn’t have taken me by surprise. The clues are all there (don’t read the tagline on the back cover for starters!). I’ve read several other books over the years that cover much of the same ground – without the twist.

After that it’s all a bit inevitable. That said, I did enjoy this book a lot, although I didn’t like the way the author continually signposts where we are in Rosemary’s story by referring to the beginning, middle, end and points inbetween.  I’m still confused too why the Booker judges thought so highly of it as literature, but it is a good read. Source: Own copy, (7.5/10).

The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

murakamiI’ve had mixed success with Murakami, but loved this beautifully illustrated novella, translated by Ted Goossen.

A boy gets an urge to find out about Ottoman tax collection and stops off at the library on his way home. Directed to the basement and the stacks of withdrawn books, he finds himself in the weirdest of horror stories featuring a sheep man, a cage, doughnuts and a girl who talks with her hands amongst many other strange things. It’s a very weird story – sort of Alice in Wonderland meets The House of Leaves.

The beauty of this little volume is in the illustrations, many of which are pages from old catalogues and text books. The end-papers are marbled and on the front is a pocket to hold the book’s ticket – Harvill Secker, the publishers have done a lovely job. I must admit I pored over the illustrations, finding the story almost as secondary, but loved the whole. (If you need a late Christmas present for someone this would be ideal.)  Source: Own copy, (9/10).

murakami spread

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To explore any of these on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate links):

 

The Prisoner meets 1970s public information films – be very afraid…

Discovering Scarfolk by Richard Littler

scarfolkI love reading creepy novels in autumn, and this year I’ve had the pleasure of not only reading the fabulous Horrorstör (see here), but also the even creepier Discovering Scarfolk by Richard Littler.

Anyone will be able to enjoy this book, but to really get the most out of it, you need to have an appreciation of when it is set  which is firmly in the 1970s – a few years after The Prisoner and at the height of paranoia about the threat of nuclear war.

Between programmes, TV was full of those fatuous public information films and patronising posters were on billboards everywhere.  We watched Dr Who from behind the sofa and cringed at a certain track-suited DJ (whom I had always reviled) on Top of The Pops.

As a child of the 1960s and teenager throughout the 1970s I was there! (Although a bit young for The Prisoner first time around.)  Discovering Scarfolk brought it all back!

A real Hamlyn Guide from the 1970s from my shelves

A real Hamlyn Guide from the 1970s from my shelves

Again, like Horrorstör, this book is impeccably well-designed. The cover is in the style of a book very much in the Hamlyn guide mould with the san serif Helvetica font. When I first saw the book, I had to do a double-take (again) not seeing beyond the cooling towers at first glance – then you see the eye’s pupil and read the sticker flash and it dawns that this will be an hilarious horror spoof.

Let me tell you about the text a little…

The Introduction is by Ben Motte, Editor of the International Journal of Cultural Taxidermy. He tells the reader that it contains:

 a selection of archival materials pertaining to Scarfolk, a town in North West England, which is just west of northern England, though its precise location is unknown.’

Motte had been sent a large parcel of said papers including a worn copy of a 1970s’ tourist guide to said town. The papers are well-thumbed and ‘accompanied by often nonsensical annotaions.’ of which he realised he knew the author – one Daniel Bush (‘a fellow student when we read Telepathic Journalism at St Cheggers Pop Christ College, London, in the late 1960s.’).

Scarfolk poster 1It seems that Daniel was trying to get out of Scarfolk with his two young sons, but they disappeared at a motorway service station. Daniel was overcome and later found himself back in the town with two boys who said they were his sons…

Motte pieces together Daniel’s tale from all the papers, and in doing so gives us a portrait of this unique town.

What raises Discovering Scarfolk above Horrorstör is not only that it’s an even bigger design job – there’s scarcely a page-turn without a familiar yet different graphic that makes you look twice. Each paragraph too yields nuggets of pure 1970s gold that I devoured as I carefully read this book – I didn’t want to miss any, often chuckling out loud.

As you can see from the scary (but not the scariest illustration by far) Scarfolk information poster above, immense attention to detail has been taken to make it appear as if it had come out of a parcel folded up. Book covers have scuffed corners, pages are foxed, typed reports are slightly fuzzy, colours are often faded; all subvert familiar images from the period.

An important note on the bottom of each Council poster etc. says:

For more information please reread this poster.

This one is real!

Compare it with the real thing!

I also loved how Littler, the author and designer, is also the mayor of Scarfolk. He has a truly warped sense of humour and I loved it.

Oh the joy of reading this book!  I don’t want to tell you any more about it, because it will just spoil the fun of discovering all this for yourselves!  You may want to visit the website, but I saved it until after I’d read the book.

I might be buying this for everyone for Christmas I loved it that much (folks, you have been warned!). (10/10).

I shall leave you with one more quotation – from the ‘Things to Do’ page:

Old Market Square
You can now take a tour of Scarfolk’s historical market square from the comfort of your own car. It is, or rather was, located where the Market View multi-storey car park now stands. The Market Square was originally situatioed approximately 22 feet below Level O between exits 0A and 0B and is commemorated with the sticker attached to the fire extinguisher by the disabled parking spaces.

Open 9am to 9pm,
Good parking facilities.

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Source: I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Discovering Scarfolkby Richard Littler. Pub October 2014 by Ebury publishing. Hardback, 192 pages.

For more information please reread this blog post.

A clever parody or a triumph of style over substance?

Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix

Horrorstor_final_300dpi
A couple of weeks ago, I got inordinately excited when this book I’d ordered arrived.

For all its faults, IKEA is the booklover’s friend. Affordable shelving, in practical and/or posher versions, is what the bibliomane needs (I’m speaking as a 10x Billy owner here – I can construct those boys at speed!). I’m an IKEA fan – but only if I pick the right time, i.e. when the least number of people are likely to be there – say opening time on a Tuesday term-time morning. I can happily spend the morning browsing and filling my trolley to the brim with crocks, lamps, picture frames, throws, cushions, wine glasses and all the things those clever marketers put in my way in the circuitous you-must-see-everything route to the checkout.

The front cover of Horrorstör is stunning!  At first you don’t notice the faces in the pictures, or register that the title has the word ‘Horror’ in it – you just giggle at the umlaut and you want to get inside the book and see more of the IKEA parody. Horrorstör, like the giant it is parodying, is a clever piece of design – there are floormaps, furniture descriptions, order forms, and more. Each chapter is named after (complete with umlauts as needed), and preceded by an illustration, of a particular piece of furniture. My favourite was the Hügga office chair – available in Night Leather.

The novel starts well:

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It was dawn, and the zombies were stumbling through the parking lot, streaming towards the massive beige box at the far end. Later they’d be resurrected by megadoses of Starbucks, but for now they were the barely living dead. Their causes of death differed: hangovers, nightmares, strung out from epic online gaming sessions, circadian rhythms broken by late-night TV, children who couldn’t stop crying, neighbours partying until 4 a.m., broken hearts, unpaid bills, roads not taken, sick dogs, deployed daughters, ailing parents, midnight ice cream binges.
But every morning, five days a week (seven during the holidays), they dragged themselves here, to the one thing in their lives that never changed, the one thing they could count on come rain, or shine, or dead pets, or divorce: work.

And that’s just the employees. They work for Orsk – an IKEA-copycat furniture superstore, at the Cuyahoga, Ohio branch. There’s Amy, who’s too clever to be just a floor saleswoman but is stuck in a rut, Basil the deputy manager – a real jobsworth, Ruth-Anne a gentle soul who always thinks well of people, Trinity – a Goth who believes in the supernatural and her boyfriend Matt who doesn’t.

As the story opens, the staff have arrived to find that furniture has been moved and soiled – a Brooka sofa to be exact, not the first item to be vandalised in the past days. Basil, who knows that a management inspection is imminent, persuades (with the lure of double time) Amy and Ruth-Anne to stay in the store with him overnight to seek out the perpetrator and get rid of them – he suspects a tramp has got in somewhere. Trinity and Matt say it’s ghosts – the Orsk site has history apparently. Trinity has visions of moving on from Orsk to hosting her own TV show about haunting, and she and Matt sneak back into the store after work with detectors to look for the spectres.

That’s all I can tell you about the plot, suffice to say that – surprise! It’s not a tramp that’s trashing the store. It all gets nastier and nastier in the early hours of the morning. Will any of them get out alive?

As a ghost story, once we find out about what happened back in history, the plot was entirely predictable. We’ve all read that kind of horror story before, but I did really enjoy it. The author has taken a classic haunted house trope and relocated it in a commercial world where management-speak rules and work is the treadmill you get on every day. That extends to the customers too – as Matt explains: ‘Orsk is all about scripted disorientation. The store wants you to surrender to a programmed shopping experience.’

There are some genuinely creepy moments – this will make you shudder with recognition…

She took one last glance around the room and noticed that the sign on the wall had changed. Its message used to be “The hard work makes Orsk your family, and the hard work is free.” But the running water had worn away many of the letters. Now it simply read: “Work makes you free.”

There are other moments that will make you squirm with laughter and disgust – the thought that lazy parents will change an infant’s nappy on a display sofa and stuff it down the back rather than retrace their steps the half-mile to the toilets is the ickiest thing in the whole book! (sad but probably true too…)

So – was this book a clever parody or a triumph of style over substance? My answer is both! Every aspect of the design of this book is well done inside and out – even the sizing – no prizes for guessing whose catalogue it matches. The line drawings, fonts, all the little details are so well done and the design team get their credits on the inside back French flap. The substance of the plot may not be terribly original – a debt to Stephen King is in order, plus a nod to Mark Z Danielewski’s ground-breaking House of Leaves (I must re-read that!), but the sheer comedy in the spoofing of management goobledegook and rigid work practices is spot on and raises the text above an average ghost story.

Hendrix cleverly makes Orsk a cut-price IKEA, putting them on a pedestal in a ‘We’re not worthy’ way. While IKEA can’t officially approve of this book, I bet they love it as much, or even more, than I did. (9/10)

P.S. An ideal Christmas present for Billy bookcase fans…

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Horrorstorby Grady Hendrix. Pub October 2014 by Quirk Books. Softback, 256 pages.
House Of Leavesby Mark Z Danielewski

Reprint reviews at Shiny…

It has been lovely to contribute to the section of Shiny that Simon edits – Reprints in our August inbetweeny – and not just one article, but two!

BonfiglioliFirstly I’d like to highlight Don’t Point That Thing At Me by Kyril Bonfiglioli, the first in a series of cult classics from the 1970s reprinted this summer by Penguin – full review here.

The books feature Charlie Mortdecai – minor aristo, lover of wine, sex, art and having fun. Together with his manservant they have a sort of anti-Jeeves and Wooster relationship, and this book is very funny, very non-PC and is sort of Jeeves & Wooster crossed with Raffles and Lovejoy with a good dash of Ian Fleming thrown in. Loved it.

They’re making a film of one of the books out next year. The trailer is all over the internet. Please – read the books and ignore the film trailer – the film could be brilliant, but it will probably spoil the books for you!

aickmanNext – more cult classics reprinted from the 1960s onwards. I’d not heard of Robert Aickman and his ‘strange stories’ but loved the first two volumes of Faber reprints (with two more still to read).

See my review of them here. Aickman turned out to be a fascinating chap, so I compiled a Five Fascinating Facts article for the BookBuzz section too, see that here.

That’s my plugs for Shiny New Books done now.  I can promise you a book review or two very soon, meanwhile tomorrow evening I’m off to London for a Hesperus do to see Cilla and Rolf Borjlind, scriptwriters for the Swedish Wallander series and authors of a great thriller called Spring Tide.

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Source: Publishers – Thank you!

To explore titles mentioned further at Amazon UK, please click below:
Don’t point that thing at me: The First Charlie Mortdecai Novel (Mortdecai Trilogy 1) by Kyril Bonfiglioli, Penguin paperbacks.
Dark Entries and Cold Hand in Mine by Robert Aickman, Faber paperbacks.
Spring Tide by Cilla and Rolf Borjlind, Hesperus paperback, March 2014.

 

I reached the Dark Tower!

Stephen King’s Dark Tower Saga

dark-tower-button2

It’s been a long time a-coming, but I have finally reached the end of Stephen King’s epic fantasy series The Dark Tower.

I began reading the books back in May 2011 in a readalong with Teresa and Jenny at ShelfLove.  It was to have been a monthly readalong, but I only managed the first four then, adding the next two at roughly six monthly intervals, and the last after just a couple of months.

That totals 4111 pages of sometimes very small print, and I’ve loved it, and what is clear from Stephen King’s notes that accompany the volumes, so did he.

He wrote the seven books over a period of 34 years, starting in 1970; turning out the first four steadily through the years up to 1997, then the final three in a splurge over two years ending in 2004.

This epic saga is truly genre-bending. Starting off very much a Western, before descending into SF and Horror with monsters aplenty, but also containing elements of high and dark fantasy and, most surprisingly, the Arthurian chivalry of medieval knights – although when you find out that King’s inspiration was Robert Browning’s poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, it makes sense – the poem is included in volume VII as an appendix.

As it’s a complex saga you have to begin at the beginning. Here are the links to my posts on the previous six volumes, so you can start at the appropriate point for you.  Although I’ve finished the main series, I now have a new volume to read – The Wind Through the Keyhole, published in 2012, sits between Vols 4 & 5.

Now for what I thought of the last book …

The Dark Tower: Dark Tower Bk. VII by Stephen King

dark-towerThe final volume is where it gets really personal. Stephen King fans will know that the author was almost killed by an out of control driver whilst out walking near his home back in 1999.

In Song of Susannah, King introduced himself as a character and Eddie and Roland went through a door to visit him to get him to help them. In The Dark Tower, they realise that he hasn’t done what he was meant to, and that the end of their story may not get to be written, so Roland and Jake go back…

He (Jake) opened his eyes. ‘The writer? King? Why are you mad at him?’
Roland sighed and cast away the smoldering butt of his cigarette; Jake had already finished with his. ‘Because we have two jobs to do where we should have only one. Having to do the second one is sai King’s fault. He knew what he was supposed to do, and I think on some level he knew that doing it would keep him safe. But he was afraid. He was tired.’ Roland’s upper lip curled. ‘Now his irons are in the fire, and we have to pull them out. It’s going to cost us, and probably a-dearly.’

Jake and Roland have to stop King being killed in a potentially fatal car accident.  It appears to happen exactly as it did in real life, except that Jake and Roland are present.  Even the guy driving the car with the distracting dog has the same name as the real driver of the car that nearly killed King.  King’s treatment of himself is again, largely uncomplimentary.

I’m not going to expound on the plot except to say that it ties up many ends, brings in even more references to King’s other works, and is full of drama in Roland’s relentless quest.

As to Roland – Does he ever reach the top of the Dark Tower?
I can’t tell you, but I certainly didn’t predict the ending!  (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Dark Tower: Dark Tower Bk. VII by Stephen King, Hodder Paperback 736 pages.
The Dark Tower Book I: The Gunslinger by Stephen King.

A Trio of Short Reviews

I thought I’d sneak a couple of short book reviews into that week between Christmas and New Year.  Too bloated with turkey, booze and chocolate to concentrate on reading, I often find I’m scouring the web at this time for stuff to read and do!

The Last Kings of Sark by Rosa Rankin-Gee

last kings of sarkThis is the story of new graduate Jude, who is engaged to be a tutor during the summer to Pip, a sixteen year old boy and Sofi, a young Polish cook from Ealing. The action takes place initially on the island of Sark (one of the smaller Channel Islands between England and France).

It’s an odd household. Eddy, Pip’s father, is often absent, away on business. Esmé, Pip’s French mother, mostly stays upstairs and never appears to eat anything. Pip doesn’t want a tutor, but it is to prepare him for school on the mainland for the sixth form. Sofi, meanwhile is full of life, and not a very good cook!  When Eddy goes away on an extended trip, the three drop lessons and get a life. Needless to say summer doesn’t last forever and the trio have to part after an extended farewell. The last part of the novel looks back several years later at where the three of them are now, and how they wish they could rekindle that summer.

This was a beautifully crafted novel, but not enough happened in it for me. Narrated by the quieter Jude, Sofi dominates the story and her weird little flashes of insight can’t make up for her limited ambitions and love of partying. Pip is underdrawn, and I couldn’t bond with Jude either, and wanted to know why Esmé was so reclusive. This could have been brilliant, but was rather so-so for me. (6/10, review copy)

The Orphan Choir by Sophie Hannah

orphan choirThis was another novel I really wanted to love – Sophie Hannah turning her hand to a short horror novel in Hammer’s new imprint.

Set in and around Cambridge and Hannah’s invented Spilling, The Orphan Choir concerns Louise Beeston, a woman who is slowly being driven mad on all sides (we think): by her neighbour’s late night parties that always end with the same Queen song played at loud volume; by her husband who wants to get their expensive house sandblasted, which will mean covering the windows and living in the dark for weeks; by Dr Freeman, the choirmaster of the boarding school where her seven year old son is a chorister – Joseph has to board, and he is taking him away from her; and the voices of children singing! She finds escape, persuading her husband to buy them a second home in a gated community near Spilling, but after an idyllic start the voices start again. Is she going mad?

While I could understand Louise’s problems, especially with her son having to board at only seven years old, I didn’t like her at all. The first half of this quite short book went on for so long with the spat between Louise and her noisy neighbour, I got a bit fed up with it, then the second half rushed by, getting twistier and twistier in Hannah’s trademark style, and I reached the end thinking what just happened?  However, Hannah is always readable, and her twisty plots are something else – I look forward to her next horror outing, but this one missed being a hit for me. (6.5/10, own copy)

Dr Who: Last of the Gadarene by Mark Gatiss

bbc-book-50th-3I love all Mark Gatiss’ TV work, but I’ve not read one of his novels before. This Dr Who one, reissued as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations probably wasn’t the best place to start, I should have tried one of his Lucifer Box novels perhaps?

This novel features the third incarnation of Dr Who, as played by Jon Pertwee together with his assistant Jo Grant. The Dr was Earth-bound at this stage of Who-history and worked for UNIT, investigating supernatural phenomena.  Set in a disused RAF base in East Anglia, which is taken over by a secretive organisation. Local villagers go missing, only to return grinning inanely, having been taken over by the Gadarene who are invading Earth as their own planet is dying.

It may have had a classic plot, but there were quite a few boring bits in this novel, and the Doctor didn’t appear until over a quarter of the way in. I didn’t quite warm to Gatiss’ style of writing here either – a little overdone in places, and quite adverby. Basically though, I’m not a fan of the third doctor – his outfit, cape and yellow vintage car (Bessie) wasn’t my cup of tea, even if the Maggots (remember them?) scared me stiff (though not as much as the Yeti).  (6/10, own copy)

Sorry to end my book reviewing of the year with several books that didn’t quite make the grade for me – but you may think differently!

I will be back in a day or two with my BOOKS OF THE YEAR post.

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To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Last Kings of Sark by Rosa Rankin-Gee. Pub Virago Nov 2013. Hardback 288 pages.
The Orphan Choir (Hammer) by Sophie Hannah. Pub Hammer Oct 2013. Hardback 336 pages
Doctor Who: Last of the Gaderene: 50th Anniversary Edition (Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Collection) by Mark Gatiss, pub 2000, BBC paperback 320 pages.

Mr Sandman, bring me a dream …

The Sandman by ETA Hoffmann, translated by Christopher Moncrieff

sandman

I’m slightly familiar with the 19th century author E.T.A. Hoffmann through adaptations of his on the stage: the ballets Coppélia by Delibes, and Christmas evergreen The Nutcracker, also Offenbach’s opéra fanastique, The Tales of Hoffmann – but I’ve never read any of the source stories before. Alma classics has just published a new translation The Sandman, and sent me a copy to read.

The Sandman of Hoffmann’s imagination is nothing like that in the song by the Chordettes from 1954 win which the girls ask for certain qualities in their dream male:

“Give him a pair of eyes with a come-hither gleam,
Give him a lonely heart like Pagliacci,
And lots of wavy hair like Liberace.”

That interpretation derives from the nice Sandman in Hans Christian Andersen’s story (1841), in which he sprinkles sand or dust on children’s eyes to send them off to sleep and give them good dreams.

Hoffmann’s earlier version from 1815 is truly nasty – a complete opposite.  The boy Nathanael is traumatised as a child when his nurse tells him about the Sandman who throws sand in the eyes of children who won’t sleep and this makes their eyes fall out which the Sandman collects to take to the moon as food for his children who have beaks and peck at them.

See – there are two sides to every story!

Hoffmann’s tale starts with letters to and from Nathanael, now a young man, to the brother of his fiancée Clara, in which he recounts episodes from his childhood when his beloved father had a regular visitor in the evenings. That was Doctor Coppelius, and together they carry out alchemical experiments. Nathanael hides in his father’s room and when discovered Coppelius threatens to blind him with embers from the fire. A year later his father is killed in one of their experiments and Coppelius disappears. So a terrified Nathanael equates Coppelius with the Sandman. Then one day an Italian barometer salesman called Guiseppe Coppola appears, and Nathanael is convinced he is Coppelius in another guise and all his old fears are reawakened.

Nathanael is spiralling into depression and his relationship with Clara and her brother Lothario is threatened, especially when he becomes besotted with Olimpia, the beautiful doll-like daughter of Spalanzani, whom he sees in the opposite window… Anyone who has seen Coppélia or The Tales of Hoffman, will be familiar with the second half of this story which features in both.

I loved that in the best metafictional tradition, the author inserts himself into the story as the narrator and friend of Nathanael …

…I have done my utmost to begin Nathanael’s story in a meaningful, original and moving way: “Once upon a time” – the finest possible opening for a tale, too prosaic! “In the small provincial town of S., there lived …” Slightly better – at least it builds up to a climax. Or why not medias in res*: “‘Let him go to the devil,’ exclaimed the student Nathanael, his eyes filled with horror and rage as the barometer salesman Guiseppe Coppola …” In fact this is what I had already written, believing that I sensed something comical in Nathanael’s wild eyes – although the story is not exactly amusing. I couldn’t think of an expression that even began to reflect the glorious colours of the inner portraits, so I decided not to try. So, gentle reader, take the three letters that his friend Lothar kindly entrusted to me as a brief outline of the picture to which, by now telling the story I will endeavour to add more and more colour.

* Medias in res – a quote from Horace – in the midst of things.

This edition includes a fascinating extract from an essay by Siegmund Freud after the short tale. Freud subjects the tale to psychoanalysis, interpreting Nathanael’s fears of losing his eyes as a common, albeit terrible childhood dream, and goes on to cite blindings in literature and more. This was a big bonus to this slight volume, indeed my only regret was that there weren’t more of Hoffmann’s tales included. (9.5/10)

The end result of reading this novella is, of course, an immediate desire to read everything else Hoffmann wrote, there are two more on Alma Classics’ list. However, being a collector of luxury editions of fairy tales, I’d love it if the Folio Society would ‘do’ Hoffmann!).

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Sandman (Alma Classics) by ETA Hoffmann, pub Alma classics, new translation Dec 2013, paperback, approx 100 pages.

Scary reads for Halloween

Today I thought I’d pick out a few books from my archive that would make scary reading for Halloween tomorrow. I know, more recycling of posts, but it’s fun for me to look back at my blog, and maybe you’ll find a book you might like to read too. The links are to my reviews in the text, and where you can buy at the bottom.

Firstly, a book for all ages (well for brave 8yrs+):

Moviewatch - Coraline (3D)

Coraline by Neil Gaiman.  This is a deliciously scary children’s novel that is destined to become an absolute classic. Think Clive Barker for kids, but with a sense of humour and you’re about there.  The animated film is rather wonderful too.  I never thought I’d get scared of everyday items of haberdashery, but Coraline will do that for you (see the bottom of this post if you dare!)

Now for a grown-up novel about werewolves:

red moonRed Moon by Benjamin Percy. Imagine a post 9/11 America into which a new threat has emerged to fuel a nation’s paranoia. It’s the age of the werewolf, or Lycans as Percy dubs them.  Percy’s take on the werewolf genre is firmly grounded in the real world rather than the paranormal which does add a genuinely different feel to this novel. His new approach takes the paranormal out of lycanthropy, and creates a grisly and gritty horror-thriller of speculative fiction.

… and IMHO the best vampire book yet written:

lettherightoneinLet the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist. When I came to this Nordic vampire novel, I found something truly dark and horrific that needed a strong stomach and nerves of steel. It is a real contemporary chiller, full of violence and gore, totally relentless – yet at its heart is a the redemptive relationship between a twelve year old boy and a 200 year old vampire frozen into the body of a young girl. A bit long, but stunningly plotted and easily the equal of the best Scandicrime novels.

I shall finish with a classic:

jekyllDr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by R L Stevenson. I love novels about mad professors – and this is the daddy of them all. Most of us in the modern age will know the essential twist but there is so much more to Stevenson’s clever story than that. The edition I read also contained two very Gothic short stories by Stevenson too – The Body Snatcher and Markheim – both brilliant also.

What scary books are you reading for Halloween?

34154-coralinephoto

You can button your own eyes at Coraline.com Click on the portrait in the house …

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To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Red Moon by Benjamin Percy
Let the Right One In John Ajvide Lindqvist
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson