Category Archives: reviews

The Conjuring 2

Conjuring_2Last night we spotted that Sky Movies were showing The Conjuring 2, based on the true events of the ‘Enfield Hauntings’ in north London in the 1970s.

In the case, an ordinary family appeared to be targeted by ghostly and/or poltergeist activity in their home, and called in help in the shape of ghost-hunter Maurice Grosse and some specialist paranormal investigators from America.  The whole thing was made into a TV series (starring Timothy Spall) a couple of years ago, so whether or not you believe the events were genuine or a massive hoax, it was interesting to compare and contrast the series with the film.  (There’s a fascinating article, by Will Storr who was researching a book on the case, on the possibilities of fakery, if you’re interested.)

For starters, where the TV series concentrated on Mr Grosse’s efforts to help the family, the movie focussed on the American couple, Ed and Lorraine Warren, who’d helped investigate the Amityville horror.  Presumably this was so that the film could be more easily marketed in the USA, with an obvious American link, and it was interesting to see the haunting through the eyes of other, different people.  However, there were times when it took the focus away from the actual events of Enfield, and may have contributed to a more formulaic, ‘horror movie’ approach.

Where the tv series took a more balanced, down-to-earth view (that the hauntings could, just possibly, have been faked), the film plunged in with a more stereotypical approach: that the paranormal elements were genuine, and that anyone who didn’t believe them was either foolish or controlled by demons.  As a horror movie, it worked well enough.  You rooted for the family who were being demonised (in more ways than one) and wanted everyone to believe their story.  However, as a portrayal of true events it was less successful, because it was so sensationalised that you assumed it was all just movie gloss and special effects.  The real-life story of real (and very frightened) people got lost in the noise, sometimes literally.

The ending of the TV series also worked better, with the revelation that Janet, the child most associated with the paranormal activity, had quite possibly been faking some of the effects.  Maurice Grosse was left with the unshakeable belief that there was something unexplainable going on, but he couldn’t prove it, and ended up having to walk away.  In other words, exactly as it would be in real life.

The movie, however, went off into full scale standard horror film hysteria about twenty minutes from the end, with characters rushing about and screaming, people insisting on going into dangerous situations without so much as a torch, and the demon attacking people willy-nilly, often in different places at the same time.  In other words, it was all very frantic and rather silly, and I found myself chuckling at the overdone, even hackneyed effects.

This is a shame, because the rest of the movie is unsettling, genuinely scary and a good re-telling of the Enfield case.  It’s perhaps just a shame that they bolted on too much of a cut-and-dried Amityville ending to what was otherwise an intriguing and insoluble mystery.

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Shadow of the Wind

1232I realised earlier today that I’d never got round to putting a review of this wonderful book on Goodreads.  So, to put the damage right I’ve now added a review and given it five very well-deserved stars.

As I mention in the review, it did take me a while to ‘get into’ the book and I had a couple of false starts where something jarred and I got stuck.  However, the third time the author’s style or voice spoke to me; I got over the sticking point, kept going, and never looked back.

The book is quite simply stunning.  I love the whole idea of a library for forgotten books so much I think I’d want to spend all my time in there!  And the mystery of the book that’s selected, and the danger it brings for the young hero, is really compelling.

As with many of the best reads, this one is by no means quick or easy.  The whole thing clocks in at a whopping 500+ pages and the narrative style is quite slow, even ponderous.  But that and the beauty of the prose just add to the overall atmosphere.  I ended up loving it, and want to doff my virtual hat to both the author and the translator who seems to have done an excellent job transferring ‘Shadow’ to English idiom while keeping the lyricism of the original Spanish.

Oh – and if you want to read my rather more concise review on Goodreads, it’s here!

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National Trust: challenging gender stereotypes

I associate the National Trust with many things – history, beautiful gardens, hill farming, scones and jam.  But not so much with views on unconventional sexuality.

Yet in their latest members’ magazine that’s exactly what they’re doing, with a fascinating piece called ‘Prejudice and Pride’ on the less conventional people to have lived in their properties over the centuries.

There’s an initial, more general article by author Sarah Waters which explains how a better understanding of the challenges facing some former residents helps us to understand the places themselves.  And that’s followed by a series of mini biographies of some of the more unconventional figures themselves, linking them to the various National Trust properties where they lived and loved.

As you might expect, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West loom large, not least because the National Trust now owns several of the properties (Sissinghurst, Knole, Monk’s House) they were associated with.  But there are also some less well-known figures, such as actress Ellen Terry’s daughter Edy (Smallhythe Place), 19th century MP William Bankes (Kingston Lacy), and theatrical designer Oliver Messel (Nymans).  More of a cop-out is Henry Paget, 5th Marquess of Anglesey, who seems to have been labelled as gay (both at the time, and now) simply because his marriage failed and he enjoyed dressing up.

However, apart from that it’s an intriguing exploration of a subject that’s too often swept under the carpet.  I particularly liked Ms Waters’ comments about the many hundreds (perhaps thousands) of servants living and working in these properties over the years, who struggled to hide their own unconventional relationships.  Overall, hats off to the National Trust for a sensitive and unsensational article.

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Imaginate

Brand new magazine Imaginate has just released its first ever issue.  The magazine takes a specific theme each time and in this case it was ‘travel’, with poetry, articles, short stories and flash fiction exploring the many facets of travel – both abroad and, seemingly, through life itself.  Future issues will concentrate on music, weather, water, and earth, to name just a few of the themes listed on the submission guidelines page.

The magazine is nicely put together and available to read free on the net.  There were perhaps a few too many full-page adverts for books written by the editorial team but first issues are often hard to fill space in; hopefully as the magazine gets more widely known there’ll be more content and less promotion.

If you want to take a look for yourself, head over to the Imaginate website and click on the front cover.  And happy reading!

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Shapeshifters

100FS-ShapeshiftersThis little book seems to have rather sunk without trace, which is a shame as it deserves better.  It’s a beautifully produced little volume for one thing, with nice crisp white paper and eye-catching cover art.  And the stories too are worth more than a second – or even third or fourth – glance.

Part of the ‘Pockets’ range from Fox Spirit, this is sci-fi, but it’s so much more than your usual bunch of aliens, robots and tentacles – or even alien robots with tentacles.  Yes, some of the stories have aliens (or robots, or tentacles) but they also have intriguing, thought-provoking shapeshifters inspired by folk tales and legends from around the world.

My own favourites were K A Laity’s Hispanic dragon tale ‘Carlos’, and ‘Bultungin’ by Joshua Reynolds, a strange, dream-like story set in Lagos and clearly based on African mythology.  But every other story was good too – all original, all well written, all edging the literary end of science fiction.  I loved them.

Oh – and if you do decide to check the book out, you can read my own tentacle (yes, I went there!) romp ‘The Boyfriend from Hell’ while you’re at it.  It may not be as literary as some of the other contributions, but I’m hoping it’s just as much fun.

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‘Burning Bright’ by Tracy Chevalier

Burning Bright Chevalier is, of course, best known for ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’. I’ve still not read that, but have read various other books of hers and enjoyed them. So when I found this in a discount book store just before a trip away, I grabbed it for some good holiday reading.

The result wasn’t quite what I expected. In fact, I probably shouldn’t be reviewing it at all, since I only managed to read three chapters. I was so surprised by the book’s style and content that I sought out Ms Chevalier’s website to check if this was a children’s book. But the account on the site suggests it’s intended for adults after all.

Basically the book is about a young lad, Jem Kellaway, who moves to 18th century London with his family, lives next door to the painter William Blake, and befriends a local girl. It’s told (mostly) from the point of view of the boy, and uses very childlike language throughout. This may be a conscious attempt to show the world through a child’s eyes, but the trouble is that it continues even when the point of view has changed to an adult character.

Those point of view changes seemed frequent. The first chapter started off in Jem’s voice, switched to ‘third person omniscient’ for an info dump about a tragedy that claimed Jem’s brother’s life, and then hopped again to Jem’s mother for the last two sentences of the chapter. Chapter two seemed to be mostly from Jem’s father’s point of view, but with sudden veerings into Jem’s head for things that only he could know. And the third chapter was different again. I found all this ‘head-hopping’ disconcerting. If I’m reading a book with one main character I like to get to know that character, slip inside their head and see the world through their eyes. I don’t want to get dragged out again at the bottom of the second or third page.

Nothing else about the early part of the book gripped me. The adult characters were surprisingly two-dimensional (neurotic mother, ineffectual father, bluff circus owner) and the children themselves didn’t do enough, quickly enough, to catch my attention.

If I’d read this without the cover or title page, I’d have been hard pushed to recognise it for a Chevalier novel since the style seems so completely different from her previous work.

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‘The Ruling Passion’ by David Pownall

I’ve had to give up on this, which was a shame as I really wanted to like it. It’s about a period of history that I know very little about – the death of King Edward I and the accession of his unpopular son Edward II – and all the blurbs raved about the ‘infatuation’ of the younger Edward for his friend Piers Gaveston.

Take this, for instance, from the front cover: “When Edward, Prince of Wales, met Piers Gaveston, it was the start of a passionate and defiant relationship that was to bring England to the brink of Civil War.” Sounds fascinating, I thought. How interesting to find out exactly what happened and what effect such an unusually open homosexual relationship had on the medieval monarchy of England. The trouble is that by the time the book starts, Edward has already known Piers for about ten years so all the drama of their meeting is lost, and the author seems to positively shy away from any mention of a sexual relationship between the two men. An occasional minor character mouths off about ‘sodomites’ and there are pages of angst between Edward I and his chief advisor William Wild about the problems the infatuation is causing, but nowhere does the reader get to see that infatuation, or anything more than a close ‘buddy’ style friendship, for themselves. Indeed, the few times Prince Edward and Piers appear together it’s in wholly innocent pastimes – teaching a servant to swim, riding off to the hunt, chatting and drinking and having the sort of fun that young men have together in any historical era. We’re never, ever shown why this relationship teeters over into infatuation or why it should be so dangerous to the crown.

The book’s style doesn’t help. Apparently Pownall is better known for writing plays and it really shows. There is very little action and very little narrative beyond some rather basic descriptions of the ‘she was wearing a blue dress’ variety; instead all we get is pages and pages of modern-sounding, iconoclastic dialogue between various characters which is rather banal and wholly repetetive. A quarter of the way through the book, the old king and his advisor were still having the same conversation they’d had on the very first page, which boils down to ‘What are we going to do about Ned?’ ‘I don’t know, sir’. I expect dialogue to accomplish more in a book. It should reveal things about the characters – their background, their hidden feelings, their habits – not just be used to ram home the plot or the book’s major themes for pages at a time. Added to this the whole style of writing is surprisingly juvenile with simple sentences, childish speech-patterns and a distinct lack of imagery. Prince Edward is supposed to be nineteen but comes across as about ten years younger than that which is disconcerting to say the least.

Pownall has written a total of eleven novels. I couldn’t help noticing that whilst the earlier ones were published by the likes of Faber and Gollancz, this one was published by ‘Herbert Adler Publishing’, who I have never even heard of before. Whether that was a deliberate choice or not I have no way of telling, but the book really isn’t very good. I’ll be taking it back to the library tomorrow.

~~~~~

Review also appearing at Speak Its Name.

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