Recommendation: The Johnny Maxwell books

I find it strange how there are some of Terry Pratchett’s books that tend to get forgotten. Maybe people have come to blend him and the Discworld so much that his books outside that series don’t get the same recognition? Or maybe they just aren’t aware of them? But, as a whole, I believe his children’s books don’t get the recognition they deserve.

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The Johnny Maxwell books are examples of these. Only You Can Save Mankind (1992), Johnny and the Dead (1993) and Johnny and the Bomb (1996) tell three separate stories about Johnny Maxwell, a boy who seems to have a ability to see through the world into something more; whether it be entering a computer game while he sleeps to save the aliens from the players, speaking with the ghosts of the dead to save their graveyard from destruction, or travelling back in time to the Second World War.

I’ve always felt that Pratchett had a real knack for children’s books. He was able to take the ideas and themes found in all his work and streamline them for a younger audience. Rereading them now I find it a little odd and oversimplified, which is maybe why they are overlooked, but as a child I remember them being incredibly real. They felt like adult books to me. I was already reading the Discworld novels at this point, but I know now that a lot of the details went over my head.

I prefer the Bromeliad Trilogy (Truckers, Diggers, and Wings) (a separate series, but there are enough connections to assume these two series are in the same universe) but I’ll always have a soft spot for the Johnny Maxwell books. If you’re a fan of Pratchett but not given these ones a go, I highly recommend it. 

For the record, Johnny and the Bomb is my favourite.

One final point: having been introduced to these book through the audio book versions I cannot read them without hearing the words in Tony Robinson’s voice. I don’t get that with the Discworld books. There’s just something about these three that sticks in his voice. Weird how that happens. 

Review: A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

When fourteen year old Marjorie Barrett begins to display the signs of acute schizophrenia, her family’s life begins to fall apart. The doctors are unable to stop her illness spreading, and when her father loses his job the family is soon running out of money, patience, and hope. Soon they reach out to the Catholic Church for help, and agree to participate in a reality television show in order to fix their worries.

Fifteen years later Merry, Marjorie’s littler sister, recalls the events she lived through as a child. As she does so, painful memories and forgotten secrets begin to surface.

I enjoyed this book. I just didn’t love it. There’s nothing wrong with it. The writing is good. The characters are solid. The structure is interesting and the ending, while not mind blowing, is at least interesting and well set up.

The exorcism is a old an favourite sub-genre in horror. Tremblay is aware of that, and works it into the story. He is skilful in the way he makes the reader aware that he knows this isn’t a groundbreaking premise. It’s just that after he’s done this he doesn’t then add anything new.

I went into this book expecting more of the conflict between Marjorie’s illness and the lengths the family went to cope. How both religion and the media seemed like the only options available to them, despite how obvious seems that neither was going to help. In the end it felt as if Tremblay didn’t commit enough in either direction. It needed to commit more to this, or throw itself fully into the standard exorcism plot.

It’s still a solid read, and you could find a lot worse out there. Tremblay is a good writer – aside from some very clunky dialogue in the ‘present day’ sections – and I’ll probably keep an eye out for his other work. I was just left a little underwhelmed by the plot.

Recommendation: Spider-Man: into the Spider-Verse

If you get the chance then I highly recommend going to see Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

I can’t say I had high expectations for this when I first saw the trailers. My initial thoughts were that this would be a cynical cash grab by a studio desperate to wring out as much money from the IP before Marvel inevitably took back all the film rights. But after glowing reviews we decided to give it a look, and boy was it worth it.

Other than being an interesting and engaging take on the Spider-Man concept (pudgy, tired, over-the-hill, Spider-Man anyone?), this movie is simply a love letter to the comics. The look is amazing, even going as far as using that old fashions colour bleed outside of the lines.

The writing is fresh, the look beautiful, and the characters new and engaging. Sometime you wonder how there can be so many different versions of the same character without exhausting the audience. Then something like this comes out and reminds you of that unique attribute of certain iconic comic book characters that allows them to be reinvented over and over.

But if you’ve ever felt ill watching a 2D film, be warned. I don’t think the camera was still for more than a second for the entire film. It’s a swirl of colour and art. All of it’s beautiful, but the least descriptive word I can think of is “kinetic”.

TV Show of the Year 2018: Final Space

I had a few contenders for my TV Show of the Year. Both Bojak Horseman and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend had new seasons, and there are always amazing new shows coming out. And then, right at the end of the year, The Haunting of Hill House came out and blew me away. I mean, I was and still am angry that it did the lazy thing of buying the rights of the book just to use the title to draw people in (it is nothing to do with the novel) but the series itself was amazing.

But in the end I’m picking Final Space as my TV Show of the Year 2018.

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This is one of those shows that surprises you. Like Bojak Horseman you go in expecting little more than a fun, lighthearted animation, but by the end of the first season you realise you’ve been tricked into watching something deep, filled with intelligent plot and complex characters.

If you give this show a go, you need to push through the first couple of episodes until the style clicks. At first the protagonist comes across as not as funny as he’s trying to be. A little too zany, seemingly throwing around jokes that don’t quite hit. By after a while you realise they’re not meant to be jokes. It’s not him doing a “bit”, but just his personality.

I’m not saying that it’s the greatest show ever. There have been ones this year that have been more complex, worthy, epic, or emotional. But Final Space gives an experience that subverts your expectations, making what you think will be a simple cartoon sci-fi programme and giving you character depth and plot complexity that you just weren’t expecting.

Plus, if you don’t fall in love with Moonpie then you have neither and heart nor a soul. And that’s just sad.

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I have a Moonpie cushion, because my wife knows how to buy good birthday gifts!

Film of the Year 2018: Hereditary

I’m not saying Hereditary is a perfect film, but it comes so close. Combined with the sheer ambition and potential it shows in the first time director Ari Aster, it easily takes the spot as my Film of the Year 2018.

HereditaryHereditary tells the story of Annie Graham, a miniatures artist dealing with the recent death of her estranged mother. After hearing that her mother’s grave has been desecrated, Annie begins to feel her mother’s presence in the house in a reflection of how she had hovered over her in life.

It’s one of those films you can’t say too much about for fear of giving away too much of the story. I can say that members of Annie’s family all take time as the central focus; her social outcast daughter, her disaffected stoner son, and her husband trying to do the right thing as his wife, it seem to him, begins to display the mental illness that runs through her family. And a short way into the film there is a massive shift in direction that I did not see coming and completely changed where I thought the story was going. 

Hereditary, as I said, is not perfect. The opening is strong, as are the characterisation and story. However as you get into the second half it begins to lose its focus. This could have been studio interference, but I have a feeling that it was more a case of Aster wanting us to know the full details of his story and worrying the audience would miss bits. What could have been a tight and pleasingly open narrative that left the viewer to piece everything together gets wrapped nice and neatly so we’re in no doubt as to what has happened.

I’m a massive fan of horror stories that manage to leave you guessing as to whether the supernatural element is real or in the mind of the protagonist, and that’s where this film should have gone. The fact that they spell everything out in the final half hour is a disappointment.

However, it’s still an amazing film. It was divisive, and there were friends of mine I thought would love it saying they were completely disinterested. But for me, this just making the whole thing more interesting. And as I said, for all it’s flaws this film shows Aster as a directer well worth watching. I have very high hopes for what he will create once he’s a more seasoned filmmaker with the confidence to leave the audience guessing.

Book of the Year 2018: ‘Life After Life’ by Kate Atkinson

So my Book of the Year 2018 was actually published in 2013. Yes, I’m kicking these off with an “If I Haven’t Read It, It’s New To Me”. I’ve actually read more new releases this year then I have in the past and really wanted to pick one of those to have an actual book of 2018. (With that in mind I would have picked Laura Purcell’s The Corset, so you should definitely look into that one if you can). But my final choice had to be Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.

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This one grabbed the top spot both because of how good it is, and that it introduced me to Atkinson as a writer. I’ve since read more of her work and she’s shot right up to the top three or four of the list of my favourite writers.

Life After Life is the story of the multiple lives of Ursula Todd. The story starts with her dying at birth on a cold February night. Then it restarts, on the same night, this time with her surviving birth only to die early in childhood. Then it restarts, over and over, each time restarting on the same February night. And each time she brings with her small memories and feeling from her last life to help her shape the next.

While this may sounds a little Groundhog Day, it’s far more complex than that. Ursula doesn’t get reborn with all her memories. All that she retains are images, memories and vague feelings. For example, after one life where she drowns, in her next life when she goes to enter the sea on that day she has an unexplained panic attack, leading someone to notice her going in who is able to rescue her. But unlike Groundhog Day it doesn’t stick to the simplistic idea of retrying your life until you “get it right”. Some of Ursula’s lives are better than others, with each one echoing differently into those that come next. And while most lives are largely similar, some veer off wildly, showing how the smallest chance events can have a massive impact on your life.

What’s amazing about this novel is how Atkinson manages to entwine timelines together. I am a massive sucker for interwoven non-linear timelines in novels. I think it’s something that I know can only go one of two ways; perfectly or crash-and-burn. I’d also want to do something similar one day but I’m not sure I’d be able to pull it off.

Her style is so smooth and natural the concept never seems gimmicky or trite. And you honestly come to care about Ursula and her family. You truly get a feeling of relief when you see her avoiding an event that ruined a previous life.

I honestly can’t recommend Kate Atkinson’s work enough. I’m only three books into her backlog and looking for the rest each time I’m out for a new read. 

2018: Looking back, then forward

Wow. Six months. I’ve really not been good and keeping this blog updated. I wanted to at least post once a month this year, to keep things alive and connecting to you all. That didn’t work out did it? I’ve had plenty of ideas for blog posts. I’ve just either lacked the time or motivation to put them down onto the page. So my bad, sorry.

But now it’s Christmas. The tree is up, the cards have been posted, and I off work until the New Year. So at last I can give this blog some love and catch up with you all.

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The bookshelf is feeling the Christmas spirit

2018, and things that have been

2018 has been a mixed bag. Some amazing highs, some deep lows. So overall, not great but not terrible.

Let’s start with a high, our new house. It’s been a year, and we still love living out here (unless we’re traveling back from Central London late at night). Most things are all sorted now. All the important things anyway. There’s lots of little things that still need to be fixed or put in, but they’ll get picked up as and when we save up the cash.

The biggest low was losing one of my good friends to cancer in the summer. I’ve had grandparents pass away, but that’s something you kind of expect. This is the first time a friend, someone my own age, has died. It’s something different entirely, and the thoughts I’ve had about it have been hard to express. The idea that one of those people I just unthinkingly expected would be around for decades to come has gone forever is… I think the best word to describe it is unsettling. I’ve had a post about my feelings on this in my head for months. I’ve just not managed to get it down onto the page yet. Maybe this year.

On to my writing. Despite my stated goals at the start of the year, I haven’t managed to get my latest book finished. In general my creative energy has been really low this past year. I just haven’t been feeling the mojo. Which is why there have been so few posts on here, really. When I’ve had the time and energy I’ve needed to focus it on the book rather than one off ideas.

One thing I did manage was to get to more writing events. These were a mixed bag.

York Festival of Writing: York, of course, excellent as always. I can’t really say much more about this event than I have before. Three days of writing courses followed by socialising (drinking) with agents and other writers. I caught up with old friends, left with some new ones, and had a couple of agents ask to see my manuscript. Hopefully we’ll see something come from this in 2019.

Edge-Lit / Sledge-Lit: These are one day events in Derby, and I had a great time at these. I stayed in Derby overnight both times, but next time I’ll probably just drive up and back on the day as nothing happens in the evenings. I got to catch up with friends and meet new writers, which was awesome. Also, Edge-Lit comes with a goodie back of books!

Winchester Writing Festival: This one was less of a success. I had high hopes for Winchester, as it looked pretty similar to York. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out like that. While the courses were fine and the Agent one to ones are there, it just lacked the social aspect. People were too spread out, the halls of residence were a ten to fifteen minute uphill walk from the campus, and the bar held a Open-Mic night both nights. While that’s a fine idea, it means you can’t actually talk to anyone. And if I can’t meet and connect with people. what’s the point? I might try it again next year, but I’ll just attend the Saturday and then go home.

 

2019, and things that are to come

My main aim in 2019 is to get What They Really Know 100% complete. It’s been over two years that I’ve been working on this one. It’s been just generally hard to write. The first draft just did not want to come together and while the rewrites were easier I just haven’t felt the creative mojo. I’m still proud of it though. Currently it’s with my Alpha Readers, and as long as none of them come back with any major changes it should be a final round of polishing and copy-edits and then I’ll be ready to send it out. Fingers crossed.

While I’m waiting to hear back I’ve started working on my next project. This one’s working title is A Better Thing We Do. It’s an idea I’ve had in my head for years, and it’s the one I’m most excited to work on next. I’ve been pulling together ideas over the last month, and actually in the last couple of weeks I’ve had a burst of creativity and have the first draft of several chapters in place. So, fingers crossed this one will be easier to write.

Finally, I want to keep this blog updated a little better. Even if all I put up are mini-reviews of books I’m reading or films I’ve seen. Hopefully I’ll manage more than that, but we’ll see.

See you all next year.

Out Now

And remember, both The Serpent’s Eye and The Æther Collection are available now. If you’re looking for a present for the reader or book fan in your life, or just want to pick up a good horror story as a gift for yourself, click the links to grab your copy now.

Summer Holiday reading

Last week I went on holiday! Five days in sunny (or at least warm) southern Spain. My last couple of holidays were either spent sightseeing, or with friends who had their child with them, which meant I didn’t get as much sitting around doing nothing done. But this year, other than one day to visit the Alhambra – which is beautiful and should be on anyone’s list if they ever go near Grenada – we had nothing to do by drink, sunbathe, and read in the sun.

I have to admit I was overconfident and packed far more books than I managed to actually read, and also had to follow tradition and pick something up at the airport, but these are what I got through.

“A God In Ruins”

I can’t remember who recommend Kate Atkinson to me. I know if was someone I met at the York Festival of Writing last year, but whoever it was I owe a dept. This is only the second of her books I’ve read, and she’s gone straight onto the list of authors who make me wonder why I bother trying to ape their talent. Her writing is so elegant and the story so intricately woven around itself. If I can ever write anything with such a perfect mastery of plot and time, I will die a happy man.

“Locke and Key”

I don’t why I had the urge to reread these, but the timing fitted perfectly for the trip. And I still love them. Joe Hill ready gets what ‘Lovecraftian’ is supposed to mean, and the art fits the setting perfectly. I’ve read more of Joe Hill’s work since I first discovered these, and can safely say his graphic novels are better than his novels. I think it’s because the medium of graphic novels prevents the bloated overwriting that Hill shares with his father.

“The Handmaid’s Tale”

I’ve not seen the TV series, but since it came out this has been a book I’ve had a lot of people recommend and so when the book I was looking for the in the airport wasn’t available, I decided I’d pick this one up instead. I’m so incredibly happy I did. I’m so far only a little over half way through, and the writing and structure is just exquisite. Margaret Atwood manages to perfectly tease out character, setting, and backstory in such a beautiful way. And I can see why it’s resonating with so many people at the moment. It’s scary how possible the bits I’ve read so far seem.

So, has everyone else got their holiday reading lists up and ready yet? What have you got lined up for the summer?

Review: The Beauty of Murder

This was an odd one for me. Taken in it’s entirety, I liked every aspect of it. It’s only looking at each aspect individually that different elements jarred for me.

fullsizeoutput_33a4The Beauty of Murder has an truly fascinating concept; how do you track down and capture a time travelling murderer? Someone who can dump a body centuries before they committed the crime? Or even after? Stephen Killigan is a newly arrived Cambridge lecturer who stumbles upon the body of a missing beauty queen that seemingly disappears before he can show anyone. Soon he finds himself caught up in the web of Jackamore Grass, a man with the ability to time travel and a fascination with the apparent beauty of death.

The book itself is great. I’m not a massive fan of crime mysteries, but this avoids most of the tropes I dislike and its concept gaves it a twist that adds a wonderfully fantastical element that other books of this genre often lack. The writing itself is great, and for the most part the characters are interesting and believable.

The only one who put me off a bit was, unfortunately, the protagonist himself. I didn’t go to Cambridge so I might not know the place or the culture, but Stephen Killigan just didn’t quite fit for me. He was a little too cool, and little too instantly popular. The scenes of him teaching didn’t really feel believable for someone starting a prestigious new job. (He also seemed to have a habit of getting tattoos on a whim, from tattooist who will work on people who have just wondered into their shop, which left me a little judging as to their integrity, but I think that’s just me.) Most of the time I had no problem with him, especially once the story got going and I was able to settle into him. It just took a little while to get comfortable enough to slide past those ragged parts.

The other issue I had was the timeframe. About halfway through there is a massive time jump which didn’t seem to be addressed. Without wanting to give too much away, one of the main characters goes through a serious operation that would have required several weeks of recovery. But this jump isn’t addressed, and I was left with the feeling that the plot just paused for a few months. It didn’t ruin the story, I just feel that there needed to be something more here to address this as it left me wondering why all the other character just got on with their lives waiting for this one to get batter.

But other than these two gripes I really enjoyed The Beauty of Murder. It took a few chapters for me to get into it, and the middle had this jarring point where timeframes didn’t match up, but the rest of it was great. A brilliant concept, intriguing ideas and a murderer with methods I hadn’t read anywhere else.

Review: Stick and Stones

Imogen has lived her life under the control of her husband, Phillip, from the first day she met him. Even after her left her and their son for a younger woman, their shared past has meant she’s never been able to be truly free of him. But when he suddenly demands she move out her house in two weeks, it start of a series of events that brings Imogen together with Phillip’s first wife and new girlfriend. Together they learn that through Phillip they share a bond no one else can understand, and decide that they will finally no longer allow him to control them.

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Sticks and Stones (Or Exes Revenge in America) is an amazing debut novel, and an astounding piece of domestic noir. Opening with the Phillip’s funeral, we’re then taken back over the previous two weeks – and the years preceding –  to discover exactly what happened that led to his death.

The story is expertly put together. It manages to twist and turn without ever feeling gimmicky or predictable. At no point do you get bored or feel anything is being padded out. Jakeman’s writing is lean and slick, leaving in nothing unnecessary. She perfectly keeps the mystery going without resorting to cheap tricks or cliches, throwing in red herrings and distractions that made it impossible to guess where we’re heading. At times I thought I’d guessed incoming reveals onto to discover I was completely wrong.

But as good as the story is, it’s the characters that really make this book. The concept of the mentally abusive husband and dominated wife finally seeking revenge is one that could easily become two dimensional, but Jakeman has created a cast of characters who all feel fleshed out and real. You really feel for Imogen, who never comes across as either comically weak or impossibly resolved. When she changes it’s because her character development brought here there, not because the plot required it to move forward. She comes across as a real person doing her best to avoid conflict with an ex-husband she knows can control her but can do nothing about, all the while fighting to protect her son over everything else. Phillip, too, is never a pantomime villain. He may be a monster, but he’s a monster of the type we all know is so very real. The kind who hides behind a reputation and knows exactly what they are doing.

Sticks and Stones isn’t any easy read. There are trigger warnings for all aspects of domestic abuse here. But all of it is packaged in an impossibly hard to put down story of one woman discovering how far she is prepared to go to defend her child and get revenge on a man determined to ruin her life.