Bad Moon Rising – The Shining by Stephen King

shiningThis review forms part of the Hodderscape Review Project.  Since The Shining is well over thirty years old, I’m assuming if you’re read this review, you’ve at least seen the film and probably read the book.review-project

Last month saw me review Jasper Fforde’s Eyre Affair, a book I had thoroughly enjoyed some ten years ago. For this month’s book Anne and the team at Hodderscape sent me even further back in time, to a book I read at the age of 15, some 25 years ago. Stephen King’s The Shining, arguably his most famous book.

When it plopped through my letter box, I must confess to being slightly disappointed. I’ve had a King phase (I think most people do), but consider him an author I’m no longer that interested in reading. Having been out of vogue for a number of years, King seems to have undergone something of a critical reappraisal. Where he used be derided for clunky prose, and fatuous storylines, these days he is acclaimed as one of the finest proponents of the genre. (For a similar rehabilitation, note the career of the Pet Shop Boys).

Each new novel King produces these days is acclaimed as a return to form, but on the odd occasion where I bite, I’m left with a bitter taste. Under the Dome comfortably makes it into the worst five novels I have read in the last five years. This month King is back, with Doctor Sleep, a novel that is garnering excellent reviews and fresh analysis of King’s career because it is a story about Danny, the child at the centre of the Shining.

And here I am.

One thing that struck me as I read is that nearly every memory I have of the book has been obliterated by the Kubrick/Nicholson masterpiece/interminable bore. I could swear that I remember reading pages and paragraphs filled with ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’, only to find that the phrase doesn’t appear in the book at all. I have created the memory of reading it. I don’t remember a mallet, I remember a fire axe. I found I couldn’t remember who dies and who survived. Well I could, but I was wrong.  This is possibly the most scary aspect of my King reread. My memory cannot be trusted, how much of the rest of my life is based on fabricated memories?

So, the book itself. In the main I enjoyed it. It is terrifying and tense in a number of places. Jack Torrence’s descent into madness is masterfully handled, as is the character of Danny, the boy who can read minds. There were many things I hadn’t realised as a fifteen year old, that gave the book greater resonance. Stephen King’s own battle with alcoholism for one, but also the need for peace and quiet that comes with being a parent. On my first read, Jack is only a monster, but now I can see the human side of him.

The job at The Overlook is his chance for redemption. He can find the solitude to write again. Can he prove he can hold a steady job, stay off the drink, control his temper? He has the chance to make his life right. This makes his self-sabotage all the harder to watch. The idea of man under pressure unravelling due to cabin fever is compelling. It is not only the boiler that’s going to blow.

Even when he hurls the snowmobile’s magneto into the wilderness, I had some sympathy. What parent would give up their one shot at putting life on track, because their child has seen ghosts?  You may sympathise, you may comfort, but you are unlikely to travel through treacherous conditions, three to a snowmobile, to a town where only destitution awaits.

Ironically, perhaps since King is a supernatural horror writer, I found the supernatural elements the weakest part of the novel. They added many pages of reading without, for me at least, adding much to my enjoyment. Curiously I was fine with Danny and his Shining, but the idea of a malevolent house just didn’t really capture my imagination. At the end of the day, apart from the ghosts, all the house does is shout really offensive things at people. OK, there’s the hedges too, but the Overlook as villain felt weak, compared with Jack’s psychological unravelling.

I have mixed feelings too about the novel’s climax.  The death of Jack and his partial redemption really struck a chord, but the final battle felt somewhat anti-climactic, and what were the chances that of the four people at the Overlook that day, only Jack would be the one to die?  The final pages are trite, tying a neat bow around everything.  Except now we know the story hasn’t finished. Doctor Sleep promises to tell the story of Danny grown up, and with the tagline, ‘Life Father, like son.’ , it’s going to be a hard book to resist.

My full ThoughStream can be found here. You can also find author James Smythe’s Shining reread, along with the rest of King’s backlist, here

Doctor Sleep is out now, and available just about anywhere you can buy books. 

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Parva Through the Looking Glass – The Glass Republic by Tom Pollock

glass

It appeared he’d gone to the same school of crisis management as her mother, and learned the same universal strategy: combine heat, sugar and dairy products in the magnitude required until evil is defeated. 

The Glass Republic confirms two things. Tom Pollock is a man with ideas to burn, and is a writer with long and glittering career ahead. There is an obvious comparison with Neil Gaiman, and it wouldn’t surprise me if, in twenty five years time, readers mention Pollock in the same hallowed tones as they do the creator of Neverwhere and American Gods.

This novel is a direct sequel to The City’s Son, a novel that I enjoyed it parts, but overall found a bit confusing. There were so many great ideas jammering for attention, it was hard to focus on which ones were important. It was not unlike tea-time in the Brooks household. I couldn’t help feel that the reader would have been better served by fewer ideas explored in more detail.

I am thrilled to report that The Glass Republic contains fewer ideas and explores them in greater detail. In this book we go behind the mirror to London-Under-Glass, a mythical world that exists in our reflections. The resulting novel, is a beautiful urban fable.

The Glass Republic mostly follows Pen, some time after the events of the first novel.  Her scars have left her self-conscious and she now spends most of her days, hiding in a disused part of the school, staring at her reflection in the mirror. Or rather communing with it, for Pen’s reflection is Parva; Pen’s mirror-self, and denizen of London-Under-Glass. When Parva disappears, leaving only a bloody hand print, Pen knows she must enter the reflected world and rescue her.  This brings about a double-edged deal with another of Pollock’s finest creations from book one, Johnny Naphtha and the Chemical Synod. With their dubious assistance, Pen finds her way into the mirrorscape and sets about finding her mirror twin.

Pollock’s inverted world is beautifully constructed. From the elongated, distorted versions of buildings alongside the Thames, to the inverted, subverted idea of beauty. In the mirror world, symmetry is ugly, and imperfections sought after. With her scars, Pen is the most beautiful woman in the world. Pollock uses this inversion, to look at self-image, esteem and the malleable nature of beauty.  The divided world of Mirrostocrats and half-faces can even be seen as metaphor for the Britain’s ruling elite and the underclass it seems to be trying so hard to create.

“You don’t matter. You don’t count.” That’s how their power works, by convincing people they can’t do anything about it.

As in the first novel, characterisation is excellent. The strength and determination of Pen, make her wholly likeable. Above the mirror, in the real-world Beth, is undergoing something of an existential crisis, and this too adds something to her character. The villain of the piece is the implacable Senator Case, the leader of this reflected London. She is a powerful charismatic ruler, very reminiscent of Mayor Prentiss from Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy.

Pen discovers her doppelgänger is something of a celebrity in London-Under-Glass, and using this power she tries to gain a lead on Parva’s whereabouts. As she scratches the silvered-surface, she discovers things are very wrong in the city.  Terrorist group The Faceless, are responsible for many atrocities, but perhaps there is validity to their concerns? Together with her new lady-in-waiting, Espel, another strong character, Pen tries to understand just what is wrong in the reflected city. A time-limit imposed by her deal with the Chemical Synod, gives the novel urgency and as each layer of truth is revealed Pen becomes more desperate to complete her mission.

The plot of the book is intriguing and full of excitement, and the novel builds to an exciting crescendo. This being the middle novel of a trilogy, things are left wide open for the final book in series, but without too many loose threads hanging.  The central story is resolved, but there are plenty of things for Beth and Pen to worry about in the future. The Glass Republic, is everything I wanted the City’s Son to be. It marks Tom Pollock as writer to watch, and the Skyscraper Throne trilogy as a must read-series. Can’t wait for volume three ‘Our Lady of the Streets’

Many thanks to Tom and Jo Fletcher Books for sending me a copy of this book. Tom can be found on Twitter as @tomhpollock, and is well worth a follow. Particularly if you like puns… 

Perfect Crime. Imperfect Book – Salvation of a Saint by Keigo Higashino

saintI loved Keigo Higashino’s breakthrough novel, The Devotion of Suspect X. It is a taut tale of cat and mouse, that inverts the genre by forcing the reader to root for the murderer. It is one of my favourite crime novels ever. So it was with great excitement that I opened Higashino’s latest offering. Sadly I was disappointed.

It is always hard when reading follow-ups to much-loved books. So often enjoyment founders on the rocks of expectation. Had I not loved Suspect X perhaps I would have been more forgiving. Suspect X is a novel that’s perfectly paced and seamlessly plotted with great characterisation. It’s impossible not to love. Here, whilst the crime is elegant, the pacing is flat and the characters flatter.

The mystery here revolves around a businessman, found dead from drinking poisoned coffee.  The most likely suspect, his wife was hundreds of miles away when he died.  If it was her, how did she do it? There are a few other possibilities, but everything points to the cool collected wife. I liked Suspect X, because it was clean and simple. The crime was neat, there was no sensationalist gory violence. And so it is here, but it’s almost too clean. There are few clues, and the main source of investigation is where the water came from; filtered, bottled or tap? It’s hardly the stuff of legend.

Added to this are flat characters. Ciphers. Jilted wife, young mistress, arrogant and meticulous victim. Even the police officers are dull. The lead investigator’s supposed infatuation with the prime suspect, was utterly unconvincing, again in complete contrast to Suspect X. There is one recurring character in the two novels, Yukawa, expert physicist and part-time aider of investigations.  In this book he is set off to one side. He occasionally chips in with helpful comments to keep the investigation on track, but he was detached from the events of the novel, reducing his interest to the reader. When he does make an appearance, he comes across as a poor copy of Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory.

The reveal of the central mystery is interesting, but some of the discovery of clues was fortuitous to say the least, robbing the novel of credibility.  So all in all, this was a disappointment. I’m not sure it could ever have lived up to Suspect X, but I feel that the author focused so hard on constructing the perfect crime, he took his eye off those vital components, pacing and characterisation. If you haven’t read Suspect X yet, then I urge you to do so. If you have, move on, wait for the next one, and hope for the best…

Gwenda Bond – Author Interview

TheWokenGods-300dpiEarlier this month I reviewed Gwenda Bond’s young adult thriller Woken Gods. Whilst not completely convinced by the novel as a whole, I became fixated with its central premise. – What would happen if the Gods from mythology really walked the Earth? Gwenda kindly agreed to answer a few of my questions.

1) The Gods that feature heavily in the book are quite obscure. Was this a deliberate choice? To use Enki and Legba, rather than say Hermes and Loki.

It absolutely was a deliberate choice. While I wanted there to be some gods and pantheons people might be more familiar with–as you mention, Hermes and Loki would be good examples of that, and both are in the book–I also very much wanted to mix things up and include some gods and pantheons that are not among the usual suspects that turn up routinely in fiction. The vast body of world mythology is filled with rich and fascinating stories and characters, so why not use more of them? I wanted the gods in the book to feel more alien and less familiar on the whole.

2) Which is your favourite mythological God?

I have a problem with favorites! I’m too greedy to pick. Honestly, I don’t have a favorite, but a slew of favorites instead. I will say it was great fun getting to research the Sumerians for the book. I wasn’t overly familiar with them beforehand, and there were lots of interesting alleys and corners (and ziggurats) to explore in that mythology. But I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a mythology I don’t find fascinating or that doesn’t have a god or goddess I’m particularly intrigued by.sumerian-gods

3) The book contains almost no reference to modern deities. Considering the pantheistic nature of Hinduism and the importance of Christianity in the US I found this surprising. Why aren’t they referenced more?

Well, the entire premise of the book is that these are the gods of ancient mythology who have awoken. There’s simply no way I could have fit in all the gods or even all the pantheons directly into the confines of this single story–it’s a difficult proposition, writing a world with all the gods. And I very much knew I wanted this to be an urban fantasy set in D.C., but I did not want to imply that the U.S. would be the only place in the world that mattered or a place all the gods would flock to.

Tricksters have always been my overarching favorites among the gods, and given their traditional and special roles in most much of mythology, it made sense to me that they would be the ones that would be willing to play intermediaries with humans, in this world. Even within that subset, however, I obviously couldn’t use every trickster (and also some tricksters are more “culture heroes” than gods, so those were out), and then I picked the seven that seemed most diverse, defined, and right for this book to me. Likewise, the government has shifted elsewhere, and the main political power as far as dealing with the gods is the Society of the Sun–I didn’t want them tied to any one religion either, because that just doesn’t scan to me. And there are semi-spoilery reasons why the Society uses their U.S. HQ as their main base for dealing with the tricksters, rather than their offices in other parts of the world, that have to do with the architecture of D.C.

All that said, there is a relic in the book that’s discussed called the Babel Stone, and its ties to the Judeo-Christian tradition are obvious. I didn’t want to leave it out entirely. But I think it’s important to know what you want to write about and I was not so much interested in exploring religion and religious issues as in mythology and politics.

4) Do you have any plans to show what happened to the Christian church in light of all the other Gods turning up? (You may be able to tell I’ve been thinking a lot about this!)

Not particularly. There are a few places in the book that address religion and worship in this world–and I believe there’s an outright statement that (in Kyra’s view) in a world filled with gods, all the religions are true and none of them are. I think there would be people who would continue to be strong in their faith from before, be it Christianity or any other religion, and lots of others who might worship or pay tribute to a particular other god or gods, or to all of them. I think there would be plenty of cults that would spring up in certain places or that people would embrace apocalyptic traditions in various faiths (like the church member Kyra meets in the book). But we’re also only five years from the gods’ Awakening at the beginning of this book. That’s not a tremendous time for all these things to shake out. While it may have somewhat settled down and into a new normal, this is still a time of tremendous upheaval and a world that is very different not just on a global scale but on a localized one.

5) Why did you decide to write the novel as a YA book? I could see it working really well as a brick sized American Gods style book. I felt I wanted more depth on the history and politics of the Gods, but maybe that’s just me. I’m probably significantly older than most of your readers!brick

Ha! Well, I’m sorry you wanted more of that than was here–it would have been difficult to justify much more world-building explication on those things when the book’s largely in first-person present POV. As a reader, I tend to like more suggestive world-building that leaves some questions…so that’s the approach I take (though I did try to include everything you need to know to understand this story). I think most fantasy readers tend to fall in one camp or the other, most of the time. And, of course, no book is going to work for everyone.

Anyway, it’s funny, because I was an early reader for American Gods and I do love that book. As I say in the acknowledgements  Neil actually is how I first discovered Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World (he recommended it to me), without which I doubt The Woken Gods would exist. But I had no desire to try and rewrite American Gods myself; I had to write the book I had to write. I wanted a world in which the existence of the gods was very much out in the open, and that had undergone a big shift, and I wanted to tell a specific kind of story within it. I write YA because that’s my natural voice, or at least has been for the stories I’ve been drawn to tell so far, and I really wanted this big, strange world to be centered on one girl, who gets pulled into intrigue far beyond what she would think she could ever deal with. Kyra’s story is the most interesting part to me, and fits in with the larger mythological tradition of humans left to grapple with the games of gods.

Many thanks then to Gwenda for some very thorough answers. The more I think about Woken Gods the more captivated by the central idea. There are countless stories to be told. The possibility of writing some fan fiction is tantalising; for example what does the Pope do these days? I think it would also make brilliant source material for a role-playing game. My final question to Gwenda was whether she would welcome Woken Gods fan fiction.

She replied ‘I very much did want to and try to design the world of the book hoping it would feel that way — filled with possibilities and stories — and that people would want to see other corners of it and possibly make up stories themselves. (And so there’d be lots of room to play in it myself.) So, yes, I encourage it. That would be the coolest ever.’

It is very tempting…

Woken Gods is out now, published by Strange Chemistry.

Nothing Clings Like the Past – ‘More than This’ by Patrick Ness

morethan

A book…It’s a world all on its own too. A world made of words…where you live for a while.

Readers of my review of The Crane Wife, will know that I am fully paid up member of the Patrick Ness fan club. So, it was with great excitement that I greeted news of a new YA novel. Those lovely people at Walker books were kind enough to send me a copy, and it went straight to the top of the reading pile.

More Than This is staggering. From start to finish, it is a relentless, captivating read. It opens with Seth, a boy on the cusp of adulthood, floundering in freezing waters, thrown onto jagged rocks. He dies. The rest of the book shows what to him happens next. Much as with The Crane Wife, to disassemble ‘More Than This’ and lay it bare for review, is to diminish it. The narrative and themes link together to form a beautiful, seamless whole that cannot easily be conveyed.

To be honest, I needn’t add much else. Stop reading this, and go and find a copy, now!

On the off chance you’re still here, I shall try to explain just why I think the book is so good. I won’t dwell on story and plot points. They’re impeccable but they’re only half of what this novel is about. This a novel about life, about existence, about our place in the world. With its target audience struggling to work out where they fit in, More Than This might just be the perfect handbook.

It offers no easy answers, for there are none, but it is an ideal tonic for those who are feeling unloved, unappreciated, misunderstood (i.e. most of us). The exact nature of Seth’s destination remains malleable; hell, alternate reality, past, present or future, virtual, hallucination or real? Seth’s quest to discover the truth of his predicament reveals more about himself than it does his location.

This is a beautiful life-affirming novel, about friendship and trust, about accepting our life for what it is, and ourselves for who we are. The writing makes for effortless reading and is wonderfully observed. In places it is devastating, and should carry a health warning for a parent with boys of 8 and 4. It had me in pieces.

In my opinion this book surpasses my previous Ness favourite, The Ask and the Answer, but they are both great for similar reasons. Both tales twist their readers preconceptions, and in doing so reveal a little piece of how humanity works. The conclusion to the story is well balanced and in perfect keeping with what came before. It is, perhaps, the novel’s assertion that there may not be ‘more than this’, and so we should make the very best of it. Start by reading this book.

Many thanks to Sari and the team at Walker Books for being kind enough to indulge this desperate fanboy!

Art against the Machine – ‘One Night in Winter’ by Simon Sebag Montefiore

winter‘Dear friends, beloved romantics, wistful dreamers! Open your books. I hope you’ll always remember what we’re going to read today. We are about to go on a wonderful journey of discovery.’

One Night in Winter is a romantic thriller set in Stalinist Russia, just after the end of the Great Patriotic War. It is a companion novel to Sebag Montefiore’s earlier novel Shashenka. Whilst this novel stands entirely alone, shared characters and references mean that those who have read Shashenka will find added depths to this latest offering.

The two novels are thematically very similar. Though the opening section of Shashenka dealt with the communist revolution, much of that book is set deep inside Stalin’s regime, amongst the self-cannibalism of denunciations and forced confessions. And so it is with One Night in Winter.

The novel opens in a school. A school for the children of the Soviet elite. Despite being the children of grim faced Marshals, some of them are united by their love of Pushkin. In this they are encouraged by their teacher Benya Golden (a figure who appears in Shashenka).

The group are so in thrall to the works of Pushkin, that they even dress up and act out key passages in the text. This blatant display of bourgeois sentimentalism will have deep repercussions that reach far beyond the group. During the end of war celebrations two of the group are shot dead. The resulting investigation will tear friends and families apart.

This novel is really about The Machine. The terrifying world where Stalin is the ruling God of a religion free regime. The children are subjected to the full force of the Lubyanka’s interrogators, and, as their questioning continues, a ‘plot’ to overthrow Stalin is found. The author shows that nobody is safe. In the world where a six year old can be interrogated, and their words used against their parents, how could anyone be?

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s meticulous reconstruction of the Lubyanka’s workings once again reveals a regime consuming itself. Against this backdrop are three romances. That of Serafima, one of the Pushkin club members and sweetheart of the class. Another, a historical affair between two party grandees and finally the love of Benya Golden, for life, literature and his students.

The regime crushes all beneath it, but love and passion seeps through the cracks. It will not be contained. Sebag Montifiore uses this to bring forward hope in the direst of circumstances. His characters are well-drawn, and we root for all of them, but the story is a little underpowered. Terrible though the events are, there are few surprises in the novel and little narrative beyond, who loves who.

Shashenka had many of its characters go full circle, from firebrand revolutionaries, to powerful egomaniacs before becoming broken victims of the monster they created. This gave it an additional depth, and sense of irony. Here we start in the middle of the story and that angle is lost. Having said that, Shashenka is incredibly slow to get going. One Night in Winter is immediately gripping, having one of the finest opening lines I can remember.

One Night in Winter is a readable, often heart-breaking read, that entertains from beginning to end. I found it wasn’t quite in the ‘Oh My God! You have to read this novel’ category, but is still an accomplished novel written by one of our finest chroniclers of Soviet history.

Many thanks to Najma at Century/Cornerstone/Random House for sending me a copy of One Night in Winter

My thought stream can be found here.

The Man in the Shadows ‘Night Film’ by Marisha Pessl

nightfilmNight Film is a long meandering novel. A horror-chiller homage to film noir. At its centre a mysterious film auteur. A director of banned films. Cult horrors that push their actors and audience to their very limits.

Investigative reporter Scott McGrath tried to investigate the reclusive Stanislas Cordova once before. His thriving journalism career is now in tatters. When Cordova’s daughter turns up dead, apparently from suicide, McGrath sees an opportunity to reopen the case. Just who is Stanislas Cordova, what exactly does he do in the name of his art? And was it his secrets that drove his daughter to her death?

The opening chapter of Night Film is, frankly, terrifying. A masterclass in suspense writing. After that the chills come in fits and starts, and it may even be fair to say they never quite reach the heights of the opening chapter.

The body of the novel is a curious beast. Mainly first person narrative, but interspersed with various multimedia clippings. Newspaper reports, webpages and text message conversations, all make up the story of McGrath and his hunt for the enigmatic Cordova. In the main this approach works, giving the reader a more hands on feel to the investigation. The story could easily be turned into a fully fledged multi-media experience.

But at the end of the day these snippets are little more than an effective gimmick. What’s the story actually like? There are definite shades of Stephen King here, though Pessl’s writing doesn’t have the compulsive readability of King’s. The King connection and Cordova being a feted film director, combined with the isolated, reality-bending house that features in the latter half of the book, very much put me in mind of Kubrik and The Shining. There are also a number of similarities between Night Film and Don’t Look Now, most notably a red coat.

McGrath is quickly joined by two young people, both acquainted with the Ashley Cordova. For varying reasons they each feel compelled to discover the truth. Their investigation is heavily detailed, as the chase down lots of esoteric leads. Occasionally things threaten to run to boring before suddenly being snapped back by something macabre and disturbing. The longer the narrative runs the more peculiar it becomes.

Cordova’s films, we are told, push the boundaries between what is real and what is artifice, and so it is with McGrath’s investigation. He becomes embroiled in the world of a man who is a God in his own kingdom; Cordova it seems can manipulate the reality of those around him. As the novel nears its end, McGrath finds himself isolated with a broken watch at the mercy of Cordova’s unique imagination. In the final reckoning we are all alone with only our thoughts for company.

It is impossible to talk about the end of the novel without destroying the entire house of cards Pessl has built, but I imagine its openness with infuriate some readers. After reading so many pages, being bamboozled by so many possibilities and freaked out by all the macabre goings on, you might feel entitled to a more complete conclusion. Yet the end is entirely in keeping with what Pessl shows us about Cordova and his creations.

Night Film is an impressive, almost academic piece of work. There is a glorious chapter devoted to imagery and motif in Cordova’s work. It fascinated me, and it was worth reading the book for that alone. I suspect Night Film will develop a sizeable cult following and be mentioned in the same respectful tones as people talk about Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves. It also reminded me of Theodore Rozak’s slow burning masterpiece, Flicker.

This is a book that will bear repeated rereading, undoubtedly giving up new secrets with each pass. A story shot in greys, with the truth malleable throughout, Night Film is a thoughtful enigmatic and scary read that will sink in its hooks and never let you go.

I ran a thought streams list whilst I read Night Film. As for my first attempt for the Eyre affair, I’m still not 100% sure I’m using this new tool effectively, but it’s there for those who are interested!

Many thanks to Emma at Hutchinson for sending me a copy of Night Film.