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. 

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.

Review: Questionable Content Vol 6

I always love it when one of my webcomics releases their latest print edition. Being relatively quick to read, it’s a simple thing to do a re-read of the previous editions, basically reading the entire comic from the start. Webcomics are always interesting to read like this; a medium designed for to be read in small chunks read daily now available to read through in one sitting.

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Book 6 covers the period where the art style for Questionable Content kind of settled into it’s “final” stage. Like many other webcomics of the same era, Jacques’ art grew and developed as he wrote. Personally, still prefer the slightly more cartoony “middle” style of the comic which spanned the third, fourth and fifth books. That’s not to say I dislike the current art style, it’s just my preference.

As well as the art, Book 6 is where the characters began to settle and grow. The previous years were focused on the main trio; Martin, Faye, and Dora. Other characters were there, but they always revolved around the main group. Now things moved on, bringing in the supporting roles and developing their lives and stories. By this point the comic is more of an ensemble; portraying the life of a large group of friends, rather than more focused story of the original love-triangle.

Essentially, this collection can be considered to cover the period where Questionable Content settled into “Modern QC” rather than “Classic QC”. (Although if I wanted to be wanky about this I could actually call it “Classic Modern” or some ridiculous thing, and I think over the last year or so the comic has shifted again to focus into a new area, and is a little weaker than it once was.)

Questionable Content has always been one of my favourite webcomics. It’s always been either the first or one of the first ones I’ll check updates on when going through my RSS feeds. At this point in its run I still find all of the characters interesting, and while I have my favourites (Hannelore & Raven for ever!) it’s not the reached the point yet where there are enough characters for me to compare unfavourably with those I’ve always loved.

Questionable Content has always been, to me, one of the better webcomics out there over the last fifteen years. The characters are realistic enough to relate to and and just “other” enough from ours to keep it interesting without making it too genre. The fact that this is the latest printed collection and it’s still 7 years behind kind of makes me wish he would hurry up and push out the backlog so I can have the full collection, but I’m happy to wait. Plus, if I get impatient I can just go online and read them there.

Review: Herring Girl

This is one of my “Pick A Random Book I Know Nothing About” purchases, and this time around I had great luck with my selection. Debbie Taylor’s Herring Girl is an amazing book. Almost perfect in fact, if it weren’t for the fact that it manages to disappoint me through its not living up to its own promise. It’s strange when the main thing that detracts from the quality of a novel is itself. That’s how I feel about Herring Girl.

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The story is set up with Ben, a 12 year old boy with gender dysmorphia who’s desperate for a sex change before puberty sets in. Learning he has to have a psychological assessment he starts visiting a local doctor who leads him into past-live regression. Together they uncover the mystery of Anne, a young girl who went missing at the turn of the previous century and may, they believe, have been Ben’s previous life.

It goes on to explore the idea of reincarnation and group reincarnation, weaving together an incredibly compelling story and truly beautiful writing. I always take gushing cover quotes with a pinch of salt, but Taylor’s writing is so beautifully researched and realised that it’s impossible not to find yourself immersed in the world of an 1890s fishing town. The passion behind it shines through. I’ve never read a historical novel that managed to so complete put you right there in the immediacy of the period.

But the half of the story set in 1898 is told so well, the present-day sections just don’t keep up. The characters are great, but the story in these parts seems to coast along as a vehicle for the Past Life sections. That’s not to say they are bad, not at all. They’re just not as good as the other sections.

The main thing that bothered me was how the gender dysmorphia plotline fell back the wayside. I thought this was going to be a really interesting story, as it was clear Taylor had done her research and created the character so well that I wanted to know more about this side of them. But as soon as the past-life murder mystery kicks in the original plotline is barely mentioned again until the end.

I also felt that the reincarnation idea and past life regression therapy concept fell into place felt a little too easily. It seemed far to simple for someone to recall a previous life, and the way they were all linked was just a little too easy. The only obstacle seemed to be that certain people didn’t believe in it on principle. It has a lot of similar ideas and themes to Katherine Kerr’s Deverry Cycle, but where in a fantasy novel it’s easier to take outlandish ideas at face value, in a real-world setting I would have expected a little more difficulty.

It definitely picks up again towards the end, and the climax is astoundingly well written and wraps up the story perfectly. But such an intriguing opening and such a emotionally devastating ending, I just felt that the middle coasted along a little too much.

I can’t help but feel I’m being unfair to this book, as I’m only being harsh due to it’s own high standards. But there we are. It’s still a definite recommendation.

Wonder Woman

Okay, so a while ago on this blog I officially announced I was gaving up on the DC Cinematic Universe. After sitting through Man of Steel, Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, I was fed up of watching films that insisted on squandering their potential. All three of those films could have been excellent. They had so many interesting ideas and could have given us fascinating new takes on the characters of the DC universe. Instead, you could see the tooth marks where the studio executives had chewed them up and spat them out. 

And so I had decided I wasn’t going to waste my money on films whose studios couldn’t treat them or their audience with respect. 


However, with the release of Wonder Woman I decided that I would call myself a liar and go see it. I always try to keep my promises, but I will also change my mind if given sufficient cause. There were 3 main reasons why I changed my mind on this matter: 

  1. I wanted to support a prominent blockbuster with both a prominent female lead and director; 
  2. The reviews were basically universally positive, leading me to think it might be worth my time; 
  3. I had two free cinema tickets to use, so if it turned out to be rubbish I wouldn’t have wasted any money. 

And I am glad I did. I admit I went into this film expecting to be disappointed, but I ended up having a great time. Wonder Woman is a solid, well made superhero movie that makes very few mistakes. Sure, there are plot holes, and in any comic book movie there are elements you have to take with a pinch of salt as the move from the page to the screen – it’s a good job German soldiers never aim for the thigh, where she has none of that useful bullet proof armour – but there is nothing here that ruins the movie by its inclusion. Lighten up, it’s a comic book movie, not a gritty urban drama. It’s not groundbreaking. Plot-wise it gives us nothing we haven’t seen before, and most people over the age of 20 will see the story twists coming a mile away. But in a way that’s why it does so well. It seems that director Patty Jenkins realised that when you need to rejuvenate a failing franchise with a solid success – and when the multitudes of 4chan and internet “men-anists” – or, as they used to be called, “sexist people” – are going to be actively gunning for you to fail –  you need to create a solid, stable film. She didn’t need to take stupid risks or try and be “creative” or “unique”. She needed to show that a woman can direct a big budget action movie, that a woman can be the lead role in a big budget action movie, with that movie being a financial success. 

And she has succeeded. 

And while I really don’t want to single out a guy for a main point of praise in a film where the emphasis so much needs to be on the women who made and starred in it, Chris Pine needs a lot of credit here for showing how you can take the leading male role in an action movie and keep it as a secondary character to a woman without any sort of male ego. This is Gal Gadot’s movie, and at no point does he try to take it from her. Unlike, I’m sure, a lot of Hollywood actors out there, I fully believe he had no problem playing second fiddle. 

So yeah, despite myself I had a great time. I still don’t know if I’ll go see any more of the DC films. The trailer for Justice League promised to be everything the previous movies were and less. But I’ll probably go see Wonder Woman 2 if the same team are behind it. 

Oh, and if you have a young daughter and you don’t take her to see this film, you’re missing out something that will likely stay with her for life. I haven’t seen a cinematic role model for girls like Gal Gadot’s Diana in a very long time. Screw it, you should take your son as well. 

Halloween Countdown: 5 Days

We’re getting close now. Just 5 more days to go.

Or possibly less, if you happen to run into Mr. Creek.

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While there’s nothing particularly ground breaking about this film, it’s a solid example of the fundamentals of a horror short film done exactly right. Every aspect is used perfectly. Music, sound effect, creepy nursery rhyme, acting, briefest glimpses of the monster? Check, check and check.

It kind of feels like this should come in the middle of a longer piece. It has the feel of part of a larger story. Possibly the end of the prologue or the first act. It very much has a Babadook vibe going for it, which is definitely a good thing.

A genuinely creepy video, it’ll make you jump even if you’re expecting it.

 

But that’s not all I have for you today. Oh no. To coincide with the Halloween Countdown 2016, the e-book of The Serpent’s Eye is available free from Amazon from now until midnight on Halloween. If you haven’t got your copy already, head over there now to download a tale of creeping madness and incomprehensible fears.

And of course, if you prefer, the paperback version is available for purchase as well.

All I ask in return is a review on Amazon or Goodreads. I always like to hear what you all think, and it honestly helps me no end.

Recommending… Locke & Key

If I’ve not read something, its new to me. And if I’ve not even heard of it before and can experience it completely devoid of expectations? Well, that happens very rarely.

Everyone has a list of things they intend to read/watch in the future. Things we’ve been recommended or have heard talked about so much we know it’s got to at least be worth a go but haven’t quite yet had the chance to get around to. This is why I love Humble Bundle. It gives me the opportunity to pick up a bunch of books or graphic novels to load onto my Kindle for when I need something to read.

This allows me to try out writers I’ve had on my “must try” list. Recently I finally got around to trying Cory Doctrow’s work, for example. But it also gives me the opportunity to occasionally try out something completely new. Work I’ve never even heard of before. And this creates the opportunity for me to experience something both rare and magical: the once in a lifetime chance to read something brilliant without any expectations or preconceptions.

Such as happened when I downloaded Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s six volume graphic novel, Locke & Key.

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Locke & Key tells the story of the Locke family who, after losing their father in a horrific home invasion, move across country to their old family home; The Keyhouse. There they discover a collection of fantastical keys that, used with the correct doors, unlock extraordinary powers in themselves and the world around them. But soon they learn that behind one of those doors is a spirit both ancient and evil, and they discover the history of the keys, the story of their creation and the horrific events that caused their father to work so hard to hide them.

I think the best endorsement of this series is this; I gave up the writing time I get on my lunch breaks to keep reading. I needed to know what happened next. I’m incredibly lucky that all six volumes were included in the Humble Bundle so I could read them all in essentially one sitting. And when I finished, I went out and bought the slipcase collection (which is so pretty). Screen Shot 2016-04-03 at 12.57.47This is one of those books that you need to reread straight away, to give yourself the chance to see just how well the story has been plotted out and foreshadowed. Lines and images that seem incidental on your first read are revealed to have so much more meaning the second time around. Hill is a writer who knows exactly where he is going and where he is leading you.

Locke & Key is a Lovecraftian story, but I want to qualify that statement slightly. The word “Lovecraftian” has become a little watered down in many people’s minds. Forgetting the mountains of – let’s be charitable and call it “fanfiction”[1] – out there, there are professional, published, well respected writers out there who don’t quite get what Lovecraftian should mean. But Joe Hill gets it. He understands both the nature of the mythos, and that it comes second to character and plot.

Be warned, horrible things happen to people in this story. It opens with the Locke family suffering a home invasion involving murder and sexual assault, and the story largely focuses on the ways that the characters deal with this. It’s never forgotten or glossed over. A major theme is how our mistakes and bad decisions will haunt us and echo through the rest of our lives. Don’t expect everyone you meet to have a happy ending here.

Lovecraftian stories – and horror in general – are about fear of the unknown. And while a lot of that is embodied by “the monster” or “the powers we can’t comprehend”, there is also plenty of that in real life. Two stories run in parallel here; one about magic keys with a link to an ancient evil from the Plains of Leng, and the other about a family trying to deal with trauma and loss. About children trying to work out their place in the world without their father. About a mother coping with addiction and trying to keep herself together for her children. About that feeling of having no one there to lead us through.

I can’t really critique art in graphic novels. I’m afraid I’m stuck in the “I know what I like” category. But Rodriguez’s art fits in perfectly brilliantly with the writing, filled with character and background detail. Nothing throws me out of story like art that doesn’t fit the work. This one does. He works well with the writer, matching the style of the story and working bring the words to life. That seems good enough for me.

Locke & Key is definitely worth picking up if you’ve not yet discovered it. It ran between 2008 and 2013, so I’m assuming quite a few of you out there are scoffing at me right now for being so late to the party. But better late than never, and if I can direct any other poor souls who, like me, were living in ignorance, then I’ll be happy.

Enjoy.

 

[1] Please note I’m not trying to belittle Fan Fiction here, or the communities that surround it. I’m just trying to find the correct word for writing that enthusiastic but not quite up to – let’s say – a professional standard.

Recommendation Time: The Witch

It recommendation time again, and this time for a new film I managed to get to to see last night; The Witch: A New-England Folk Tale.

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This is one of those films that justifies why I retain my subscription to film magazines. Like The Babadook last year, I’ve been hearing good thing about this film for a while now, but hadn’t really seen any real marketing for it outside of the occasional poster. The kind of film which you will hear about if you’re interested in this kind of film, but otherwise will completely pass you by.

But if you like true horror films you can’t afford to let this one pass you by.

The film tells the story of a family of fundamental Puritans, recently emigrated from England to America and then expelled from their settlement due to their severe religious beliefs. Travelling into the wilderness they set up their new home on the borders of a forest. But when their new-born child disappears and their crops begin to suffer from a strange, they slowly begin to suspect they are the victims of witchcraft.

The first thing to point out is how amazing this film both looks and sounds. Using natural light where possible, and coming from a director who started out as a production designer, individual shots come across like paintings. thewitchstillRobert Eggers has an eye for beautiful, detail laden and atmospheric shots that just draw you into the world on screen. The dialogue, largely taken from documents and prayer books from the time is a thing of beauty to hear. A lot of that is down to the actors and a testament to their ability. As with most archaic language styles, such as Shakespeare, in the mouths of less skilled actors this dialogue would have come across as stilted and clunky. Not wanting to belittle the adults, its especially impressive that the words feel so natural coming from the child actors. For the most part, at least. There are some moments where they seem a little uncomfortable, but in no way enough to draw you out of the experience.

If you think horror consists jump scares, loud musical queue to make the audience jumps, pools of gore and sexual titillation, then don’t waste your time here. This isn’t that sort of movie. This is slow burning, unsettling, uncomfortable horror. The kind of film that builds over time to leave you tense and uncertain. This film oozes atmosphere. The setting and direction plays a big part in this – the religious fervour of New England in the 1600s is pretty much synonymous with witchcraft by now – but a lot of it has to be handed to the cast. After the disappearance of the youngest child, we slowly see them begin to fall apart; as sorrow, fear for their chances of survival, suspicions and folklore all combining as the supposed security of the family crumbles.

What’s interesting is how we’re never left in any doubt as to whether the Witch exists or not. The audience is shown there is someone in the woods from the very start, leaving us just one step ahead of the characters as to what is happening to them. It’s only the family that are uncertain of the cause of their growing misery. Fearful of the world, clinging to their faith as a shield against everything they can’t understand, trying to convince themselves they are simply being tested by God, rather than abandoned by him.

The Witch is a genuinely creepy film. The director manages to keep the pace slow while never losing the audiences interest. For all this is his first full length feature, it’s a masterpiece of cinematic horror. I’m slightly disappointed that his next film is going to be a remake of Nosferatu, but having watched this film I have hope and I’m far more likely to give it a chance. I’m really hoping that Robert Eggers will be bringing more films like The Witch in the future. This doesn’t come across a beginner’s luck, but something from a director who properly understands both the genre and the medium.

Unfortunately, as this is a small horror film it won’t be in cinema’s for long. That the latest comic book blockbuster is now in theatres will likely have now pushed it off most screens so it’s unlikely you’ll catch in it in cinemas. But I really urge you to grab this one on DVD.

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2014: Looking back, then forward

So 2015 is almost upon us. It’s been an interesting year, with lots of things moving forward in my career. And in the spirit of the New Year I thought I would have a look back at where I was a year ago and what I have planned in the future.

So you know, a New Years update. Groundbreaking, I know.

2014 and things that have been

So at the beginning of the year I was unemployed, and so therefore in the wonderful position of being able to write full time. At this point I was focusing on two things; working on building up The Æther Collection and the final polish of The Serpent’s Eye. I also had a couple of short stories out into the submissions cloud, but so far I had nothing published.

The Serpent’s Eye became available to download as an ebook in July. This is my first published work, and I’m very please with how it has turned out. I’ve had some great feed back, some from friends I trust to be honest with me, and some from total strangers which in a way is better that they’re not going to care one bit about my feelings.

I have discovered that putting together and self publishing an e-book is not a simple process. At least, not if you want it to be any good. You can write the best story in the world, but if you give it crappy production values people are never going to give it a chance. I’ve been very lucky that I have a sister who is an artist and designer, meaning I was able to get an excellent cover done for free. But even with that I had to teach myself how to actually format and produce all the necessary files and upload them correctly to the necessary websites. Honestly, it took me several evenings to get everything right on this before it could go up.

The Æther Collection slowed down a lot this year. Mainly this was due to my getting a full time job and my writing time being slashed. I have to really prioritise my projects at the moment, and unfortunately this has had to take a back seat. Still I’ve managed to get a couple of stories up, and I have at least two more almost finished.

Part of what has taken up my time are other short stories. I’ve been trying to get my work out into the world, and one of the main routes is getting my short stories into anthologies. This year I have finally managed to reach this goal, with my story ‘Nice, or Naughty’ being included in Dark Holidays. I have also had another story, ‘Hielora Road’, accepted in a new horror anthology from Thomas Hill Press which will be coming out in the New Year.

2015, and things that are to come

I have always planned to release The Serpent’s Eye as a physical book, but it has taken me some time to get around to finalising this. I had originally intended to get it out for Christmas, but as it was taking me more time that I planned I decided not to rush it. Deciding on a printing service and making sure all the layout is perfect is very time consuming for someone who has never done this before. I’ve been working my way along the learning curve, and am now doing one last proof read while I wait for my sister to complete the full cover art.

I was always aware that with an ebook I could always fix any errors that came up, but with a printed book I can never make changes if something slips through. I want this to look as professional as possible, and as much as I put effort in for the presentation of the ebook, but I’m being doubly careful. I am fully aware I am not the greatest proofreader of my own work. I know I’m going to miss some stupid mistake, but I’m doing my best to make sure it’s not so glaring and obvious that it ruins the whole thing.

At the moment I’m looking at a February release date, but I don’t want to commit to a time frame for fear of hubris. Having never done this before I have no idea how long it will take or what delays there might be.

Once that is done, my main project for 2015 will be completing the Æther Collection. This has been unavoidably on the back-burner for a while, but I want to get it completed and out to buy by the end of the year at the latest.

The main question I am trying to answer right now is how long do I want to make it. I currently have 9 stories written, and 1 more ready in my head for a first draft. That gives me 10 stories coming in around around 55,000 words. Ideally I would like a bit of a longer word count and a couple more stories. The problem is that so far stories have simply been added to the collection as they have come to me. I’ve had no real plan on how many there will be once it is completed.

So once of my tasks will be sitting down and having a long think about this. I need to decide if there are any more stories to be told in this collection, then I need to decide on what order to put them in. There is obviously the choice of chronological order, but I’m not yet convinced that this will be the best way. I have a feeling there is a thematic way to arrange them. I just need to find it.

One other thing is that I don’t think I will be publishing them online once completed anymore. As much as I want you all to read them, the original object of having them available up on my site was to have something up there for visitors to look at and comment back to me on. But now that is less of a priority as people can find my work elsewhere. I may actually take some of them down. They still need polishing, and I would like for at least some of the collection to be new to the reader. So expect some of them to disappear over the next couple of months so I can work on them in peace.

I also still fully intend to produce more one off short stories for publication. I have several in my mind that I really want to get done and a couple actually half written. The problem at the moment is time. With a real life job and real life family issues taking up a lot of my time, writing it limited. Short stories are a great palette cleanser between big projects, and also great fun in their own right, but often I have to leave them simmering in the background for longer than I would like. I then even when they are finished it can take time for them to get accepted into collections, and then however long for that collection to come out.

So that is the coming year. Hopefully 2015 will show an increase in my workload and publicity. I know that the next stage in my writing career involves an increase in marketing, but this is something way out of my comfort zone. I have never been any good at promoting myself, so it’s going to be an interesting journey trying to make it happen.

But it’s definitely going to be fun.

See you all in 2015.