Recommendation: “Transcription” by Kate Atkinson

I am by now convinced that I’ll never not enjoy a Kate Atkinson novel. I can’t say this is my favourite of hers, but that still puts it above most other books. I picked this book up the day I found it had come out in paperback. Atkinson isn’t a writer who you see and don’t grab.

Juliet Armstrong is one of the hundreds of girls brought into the security service on the outbreak of the Second World War. Soon she is selected to join an MI5 operation tracking and recording Nazi sympathisers. We jump between 1940 and the doubts of the early days of the war, to 1950 as Juliet now works at the BBC and has to face new doubts about decisions she made during the war that might be coming back to haunt her.

As always Atkinson presents her story through and emotional and beautifully rendered world. If feels like a different type of historical spy novel. A spy thriller from the point of view of the transcription girl. And it is historical, based on real operations undertaken at the time.

As I said above, it’s not my favourite of Atkinson’s novels. She has written enough now that I feel that can be said without sounding like I’m saying she’s slipping. Some books will be better than others. It’s still an amazing read, and drags you along as soon as it grabs you.

Review: “Night Walking: A Nocturnal History of London” by Matthew Beaumont.

I really wanted to like this book more. In fact, I think the amount I wanted to to enjoy it is the only reason I managed to make myself finish it.

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The main concept is one of those that is oddly interesting: a history of London at night. But it is interesting. It’s one of those areas that you don’t realise you’ve never thought about. I mean, when did you last think about how much public street lighting must have fundamentally changed public life? Or what life in the was city like when it would literally be pitch dark at night? I didn’t know that the literal act of being outside at night was once considered a crime. Did you? 

And the conceit should work as well. Beaumont uses examples of literature from different periods throughout London’s history – from Shakespeare to Dickens – to show how these poets and authors – in their work and their lives – reflected these changes in society. How going outside at night without an explicit reason went from being a crime to a leisurely pastime of gentlefolk.

But unfortunately Beaumont took this in completely the wrong direction. Rather than a history shown through the lens of literature, he makes this a literary critique that simply uses history as a loose excuse to show off his own knowledge. His writing is overly literary and self important – seeing the Forward was written by Will Self was fair warning, I suppose – making large chunks of the book almost unreadable. The topics should be interesting, and most often start off that way, but then Beaumont will slip into deep literary analysis that makes it impossible to stay engaged.

Essentially, this could easily lose around half its word-count. It’s not a thin book so wouldn’t look anaemic, and it would be a much better read. Unfortunately Beaumont appears to be part of that literary scene who believe that part of a good book is making it as hard to read as possible. It’s not the subject he’s writing about that he wants us to be impressed with, but his own intelligence. This is not a book the writer intended to be enjoyed. I’m half convinced that Beaumont may have just published his PHD thesis.

It wasn’t so bad that I gave up on it. There was enough in there to chip through and enjoy. But it’s not a good sign when your reaction on finishing a book is relief.

Recommendation: “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern

It’s World Book Day. I hope you’re all revelling in your favourite reads, or throwing yourself into a book you’ve never read before. Because if there’s one thing that’s just as good as – or perhaps even better than – the joy of rereading an old favourite its that feeling of realisation that the book you’ve just begun is going to be wonderful. That deep happiness of knowing that you will never again get to experience this novel for the first time.

This is what I just encountered with Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.

I wish I could remember exactly who recommend this to me last year, because then I could thank them to directing me to the experience of this read. Sometimes, when you’re trying to describe something, you don’t need fancy words. On these occasions the simple ones will fit better, as they can portray the essentialness of something.

The words that best describe The Night Circus? “Soft” and “Beautiful”.

Le Cirque de Reves moves around the world. It appears in one place as if by magic, opens only between sunset and sunrise, and then after a few days disappears just as suddenly. Decorated solely in black and white, populated by performers and attractions so otherworldly and imaginative that you can barely believe they are real, the experience of walking through the gate is akin to stepping into a dream. And behind all this are Celia and Marcus, two young magicians engaged in a contest to which neither understand the rules or know how or when a winner will be chosen.

Morgenstern’s writing is comforting without feeling worn, and elegant without being pretentious. It has the feel of something new that’s been expertly hand crafted to feel old and comfortable. She doesn’t rush a single word. If you require fast paced action, this isn’t the book for you. The story takes its time, letting the characters and the world grow at their own pace. Without wanting to sound to pretentious, the experience of reading the book has the feeling of exploring the circus itself; leisurely admiring every aspect as it comes until you complete your circuit and finally understand the full layout.

While I was reading The Night Circus I never felt rushed. I never looked at the number of pages remaining to guess how much I had left. I felt completely immersed, to the point where I actually felt sad when I reached the end. If you allow it, Morgenstern’s writing will sweep you up and carry you off out of this world and into its own.

Recommendation: “Lost Empires” by JB Priestley

This is the second of J.B. Priestley’s novels I’ve read, and I am developing a definite love for his work.

Like The Good Companions – the previous Priestley novel I read – Lost Empires is a slice of life story set during the golden age of vaudeville and variety.The story is framed as the recollections of Richard Herncastle, an elderly painter, of the year he spent as the assistance and stage manager for his uncle, a successful magician on the variety circuit, before the outbreak of the Great War. The book read differently to more modern novels, and the plot isn’t set around some Big Adventure. The times and characters speak for themselves, portraying the tail ends of two worlds: The Golden Age of music hall variety, and English society before the destructive chaos of the War.

This isn’t to say that nothing happens, but rather that the event happen as they do in real life; as and when they come. Character come and go, in the way we expect in real life. Character grow no in sudden bursts of realisation and action, but over time and circumstances dictate.

But as much as you enjoy this beautiful written, soft depiction of a different time, when you reach the end you suddenly find yourself facing the sudden drop of “An Example Of It’s Time”. Throughout the book there are plenty of examples of what I came to think of as “patronising feminism”. Priestly clearly meant well, and was quite progressive for his time (Lost Empires was published in 1965). But that doesn’t free him from the prejudices of his time. You can’t say all his descriptions of women were complimentary, even if he meant them to be. We know better now. But while you can let these by, the ending is harder to swallow. The final climactic story consists of Richard and his uncle working to help a murderer flee the country because the girl he killed had been flirting with him for so long without any intention of sleeping with him that they don’t consider it fair for him to be arrested and executed for it, considering it the victims own fault that he snapped and killed her.

*Awkward cough*

So yeah, there’s that to be aware of. But as long as you can put that aside – like I said, this needs to be put aside as “And Example Of Its Time” and that the author had no malicious feelings other than the standard unconscious prejudices of the society he lived in – then this is a wonderful novel to sit back and enjoy.

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.