Saturday 31 October 2015

Book Review: The Luck of the Weissensteiners (Three Nations Trilogy, Book One) by Christoph Fischer


Synopsis: In the sleepy town of Bratislava in 1933 a romantic girl falls for a bookseller from Berlin. Greta Weissensteiner, daughter of a Jewish weaver, slowly settles in with the Winkelmeier clan just as the developments in Germany start to make waves in Europe. The political climate in the multifaceted cultural jigsaw puzzle of disintegrating Czechoslovakia becomes more complex and affects relations between the couple and the families.

The story follows their lot through the war with its predictable and also its unexpected turns and events and the equally hard times after.

Review: I like fiction books that can go outside of their basic remit to be a page turner, to excite and to thrill. In the case of Christoph Fischer's epic series, I can honestly say I was informed and educated also. The Luck of the Weissensteiners is a truly epic historical work of fiction. When you are going through the early pages, the author goes to great lengths to explain the historical accuracies, but also where it is based on pure storytelling.

Following the lives of the family, the stand-out characters for me are Greta and Wilma. As they make their journey from hell to safer parts of Europe, it is like we go on that journey with them. I was literally exhausted reading this book, but in a good way.

Not everything about the book is perfect, the pace is a little too slow at times, but when it picks up, boy does it. This is a tale that rewards the patient reader.

Having said that, the pace is fitting for the narrative. This is a long tale,indeed, a long journey. The group go through hell and I was stomach churned by some of the descriptions. If you are a little queasy about such things, get over it, because I think this marks out average story telling from great story telling.

I did not read this book quickly. Even with other demands on my time, it was quite something to finish this book. But the author has put his all into this, you can tell he is passionate about the story. I have tried in this review to talk about my feelings about the book, not so much the story itself, because this has been covered in the many good reviews already placed here.

I heartily recommend this book. Get a drink, a place by a warm fire, and get lost in this tale.

Friday 30 October 2015

Film Review: Spectre (Bond 24)

Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Daniel Craig, Lea Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Monica Belluci, 
Ben Wishaw, Christoph Waltz

Vodka Martini, shaken not stirred. An Aston Martin. Beautiful girls. Amazing stunts. Great fist fights.

You could say that Spectre has it all. Opening up with a daring sequence in Mexico, celebrating the Day of the Dead, we see various figures wearing skeleton costumes. James Bond (Daniel Craig) is in one of those costumes, looking for his prey. Just before he manages to do that, there's time for a quick liaison with a Mexican beauty.

What follows is an extensive sequence with a helicopter, as 007 battles to stop the man, Sciarra, getting away. Bond eventually gets his man, and, as is customary with the franchise, we are treated to great visuals and a bombastic song.

Or are we? Any singer would have felt pressure to follow up Adele's Oscar winning Skyfall, but Sam Smith's Writing on the Wall is not just a bad Bond theme, it is a poor song in general. I have heard that people say it sounds like Michael Jackson's Earth Song. It doesn't.

What is it about the fourth film for an actor in the franchise? Pierce Brosnan's last outing as Bond was in 2002's Die Another Day. Madonna's theme song was awful - even though she is generally good, the song didn't fit, the film is generally considered the worst of the series, and in that I agree.

Fortunately, Daniel Craig's fourth turn as 007 is a great film, not hampered by a terrible song. Sam Smith became part of a select group of male singers to pen a Bond theme. He follows such luminaries as Matt Munro (From Russia With Love) and Tom Jones (Thunderball). The song, ultimately, was too big for Sam, and would have perhaps been better sung by a female vocalist. When the talk was about the song being about an emotional Bond, I didn't buy that at all.  Daniel Craig is a man's Bond, and women like him too.

If you can put the song out of your head, the next part of the film focusses on Bond being chastised for not being in Mexico on official government business. M (Ralph Fiennes) is even harder on Bond than his predecessor ( played by Judi Dench).

Not for the first time in the series, 007 is told to stand down, and worst of all, is told by Q (Ben Wishaw) that he cannot have the new super Aston Martin. That car is going to 009. 

It's not all bad. Bond is given a watch. When asked 'what does it do?' Q replies dryly, "It tells the time."

Spectre feels a lot like a pre-Christmas present to Bond fans. It cleverly links the three previous Craig movies, but there are generous nods to others in the series. So Spectre does not offer much in originality, but as a huge fan of the series, that hardly matters. 007 fans watch the movies to be entertained, and Bond 24 is a hugely entertaining movie.

Despite second billing, Monica Belluci doesn't have much screen time. But she is a stunning looking woman for 51, and the brief love scene with Bond is well done.

C is a new character and immediately locks horns with M. The idea is to link the Nine Eyes framework together so that it will be a kind of Bilderberg group for the digital age. Everyone in our world fears this kind of thing, and in Spectre it is used to chilling effect. The 'baddie', played by Christoph Waltz, is the mastermind of the organisation, and I really felt the initial scenes with him harkened back to the Sean Connery era Bond, with its Cold War overtones.

However, there is a problem with a number of post-Connery films. The movies all tend to lurch towards two and a half hours long. Even Skyfall (2012) suffered from a bloated final third. One wonders just how good a two hour Bond film would be.

Christoph Waltz plays Oberhauser, who is a whizz with a computer and uses one to inflict a lot of pain on 007. The scene isn't as intense as the 'rope' scene in Casino Royale, and again, there's a lot of deja vu about Spectre. It seems like it wants to please fans of the early movies with modern 21st century update.

There's nothing wrong with that. Spectre does what it does - entertains. Some reviews say that Daniel Craig has brought no humour to the series, but I disagree - some of his lines and situations are truly funny and enjoyable.

Better than Quantum of Solace, strong when compared to Skyfall, but way behind Casino Royale, Bond 24 can be considered a solid addition to the series.

If Spectre is to be Daniel Craig's swansong as 007, I think he is signing off the series on a high.

Previous review Crimson Peak Next A Hologram for the King

Thursday 29 October 2015

Film Review: Crimson Peak

Director: Gulliermo del Toro
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain

Gulliermo del Toro had been the original director slated to helm The Hobbit. When that film series floundered, I was left with a feeling of what might have been. Gulliermo del Toro had previously directed a truly great film, Pan's Labyrinth, which consistently hits many a film fan's top 100 list. It is an even more impressive feat considering the film is not in English, but Spanish.

Since I first heard about Crimson Peak, I was excited for its release. Gothic horror? Yes. Haunted House? You bet. Great cast? Of course. What could go wrong?

Well, the first thing to say about the film is that it is a truly visual masterpiece. The attention to detail of Victorian England, and the same period in the US, was superbly executed. del Toro has a great eye for detail. The buildings, the street scenes, the costumes all deserve a special mention.

My bet is that Crimson Peak will score many an award next year for art direction, special effects, costume design and photography.

The overall story is about a warning from Edith Cushing's (Mia Wasikowska) dead mother, who in ghost form warns the girl not to visit Crimson Peak. She does not know what it means, but she never forgot the warning. The introduction of the ghost, through the jumpy scenes through a mirror, to a door banging shut, may seem formulaic, but they are not - it's well done and gets the audience jumping early!

Edith's father is a rich man, and when Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) approaches him for investment into a digging project, Mr Cushing (in a nod to horror great Peter Cushing) is less than impressed with the oh so English Baron.

Sharpe had previously failed to get investment for his project, and though Cushing doesn't know it, he really is the last chance for the young Baron.

Cushing promptly turns him down. Things are complicated further with Sharpe's interest in Edith, who is a writer of ghost stories, though yet to be a published one. When he suggests it is a good story, she becomes endeared to him, and he suggests to her father that he is in love with her.

Strike two for Sharpe. Cushing believes the young Baron to be a cad, a charlatan, and much worse.
He orders Sharpe to break his daughter's heart, and he will pay him to get out of her life. It's a rather sad scene when Sharpe tells Edith that her work is childish and amateur.

Of course, he really loves her, and the next day, when Mr Cushing is murdered (in a very brutal scene that will shock some viewers) attention moves to Sharpe, but by then, he has already returned to England, to his home at Crimson Peak.

Edith soon joins him, because she has no other family in the US. She believes he really loves her, but things are not quite right at the old house. Of course, when Edith learns of the house's name, she is reminded of her mother's warning.

Still, she wants to make it work with the Baron, and it is at this point we are introduced to his sinister sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain). It's clear from early on that the two women are not destined to get on, with Thomas and Lucille appearing a little too close for a brother and sister to be.

Soon after, Sharpe marries Edith, much to the annoyance of Lucille, and when they stay away one night to consumate their marriage, the two women have a showdown, in which Edith shows her anger by saying 'Lucille - I am his wife.'

Lucille continues to act odd, barely holding back her contempt for Edith. When she sees ghosts in the house, her statements are dismissed as 'well, it's an old house'.

Edith is also warned not to go to certain parts of the house, but needs must, and as the story unfolds, we realise the Baron's true intent, and his sister's plan for Edith.

To say any more would reveal too many spoilers. Let's just cover off a few things where the film fails to deliver.

You see, I wanted to see a gothic horror film. Crimson Peak is more of a gothic romance - a bloody, brilliantly executed gothic romance, but as a horror, it misses a few targets.

The ghosts, for example, are wonderful to look at, rather than scary. But I don't want to deal the film down, because ultimately I enjoyed it and would recommend it.

All three leads give it their all. Jessica Chastain was especially wonderful for me, and Mia Wasikowska makes for an interesting heroine who has a spirit enough to give other modern heroines like Katniss Everdeen a run for their money.

The ending is great, but the story is always engaging. You will want to know what happens. Whilst the violence is sporadic, it is very strong when it happens. The implied theme of incest will turn off some viewers too. But I hope del Toro returns to the horror theme in the future.

Previous review: Macbeth Next: Spectre 

Tuesday 20 October 2015

Film Review: Macbeth

Director: Justin Kurzel
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, David Thewlis

This is the first of my film reviews for the blog. I hope to add more over time. I saw this film two weeks ago at the cinema.

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's most infamous plays, often referred to as The Scottish Play so as not to add a curse to those talking about it. I read it many times as a child, but not had any interaction with it as an adult, so approaching this now was interesting. Would I still like it?

Perhaps 'like' is a strange word to use. It is recited in Shakespeare's English, of course, but spoken in a Scottish accent (Watch out for a turn by David Thewlis, Harry Potter's very own Professor Lupin, as King Duncan).

The story is well known but I will reiterate the film's take on it, which thankfully does not deviate much from the original script.

In essence, Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) is a great general in the King's army, and on completing a battle, he meets three witches who profess that it may be time for a new King to rise. It is all done through symbolism, for example, one of the witches holds a dagger covered in blood and infers that a time of change may be at hand.

Macbeth, like many of his men, is tired of an apparently weak King. Duncan leads by inertia rather than via strong command, and on discussing the strange events of the day with Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) 

he decides, or rather she does, that they should in fact murder the King. They have sex, and then plan to execute their plot the very next day. Sex and planning a coup does not a good combination make! Lady Macbeth wants to seize the opportunity, telling her husband that he can blame the murder on the King's incompetent men (they aren't, but he makes it so by getting them drunk).

Apart from the extremely violent opening battle scene, the murder of King Duncan, via a simple knife, is very bloody and dramatic. I saw some people looking away when the scene played out.

Lady Macbeth chastises her husband when he fails to leave the bloody knife at the scene. He goes back and plants it. The following day, when the King's body is discovered, no-one would consider blaming Macbeth. But there is no heir, no-one who could take over. 

Through careful and ruthless manipulation of the Court, Lady Macbeth ensures her husband in crowned King, with herself as his Queen.

As with many of Shakespeare's plays, the happiness cannot last, and Macbeth begins to rue what he has done, and slowly, both of them descend into madness.

So, is Macbeth any good? Does it work on the big screen? My answer would be a resounding yes. 

The direction is fantastic, creating a hellish version of Scotland with red fiery hues adorning the screen. Both leads are tremendous, and I say that without having seen the talented Michael Fassbender in any other film.

40 year old Marion Cotillard looks like she is in her late 20s, with her olive skin and elven looks, she was a treat for my eyes. Her obvious beauty takes nothing away from her considerable acting talent. I would like to see her amongst the names for an Oscar next year.

Macbeth is bloody, brutal and brilliant. Find the cinema with the biggest screen possible, and enjoy every moment.

Saturday 17 October 2015

Book Review: The Little Book of Horrors by Lacey Lane


Synopsis: Three chiling tales to mess with your mind. The tales that can be found in this book are Karma's a Psychopath, Bloodlust and The Monster Within.

Warning. This book contains explicit content.

Review: A collection of three short stories that doesn't pull its punches, the aptly named Little Book of Horrors will have you reaching for the light switch - that's if you dared to turn it off and foolishly try to go to sleep.

The first story, Karma's A Psychopath, is a clever tale that makes us think how we should treat those around us. You'll be feeling for the 'hero' of the story, that's for sure. Even though the brutality and horror pervading throughout this book is stark and horrifying, it remains a compelling read. This one really messed with my head.

Bloodlust was probably my favourite of the three, given my fascination with vampires, and especially of the female variety. This tale is truly macabre, disturbing and viciously satisfying at the end.

The Monster Within is a clever tale that never tries to trick its readers with a big Aha moment. It is subtle in its growth, and as it reaches its conclusion, one wonders how they got there.

As a collection, it certainly fits to and adds much to the well worn horror genre, but it also would fit as a psychological horror too. Over the course of the pages, you feel like you know the characters.

The narrative is sharp and clever.Hence why you will be thinking about these stories long after you have closed the book and turned the light off. Or maybe you'll choose to leave it on.

Suitable for Halloween, huddled around the camp fire? I don't know. I would be suspicious of someone telling me these tales!

Also suitable only truly for a mature audience, and definitely over 18's - though if I was at school, I'd peek at this - it's a deliciously wicked treat.

Friday 16 October 2015

Book Review: An Independent Woman by Frances Evesham


Synopsis: With nothing left from her childhood except a tiny portrait of a beautiful woman, some skill with a needle, and the knowledge of a dreadful secret, Philomena escapes her tormentor, Joseph, and the dank fogs of Victorian London, only for a train crash to interrupt her quest for independence and freedom.

Trapped between the upstairs and downstairs occupants of a great country house, Philomena hears whispers of the mysteries and lies that lurk in empty corridors and behind closed doors. Her rescuer, the dangerous, enigmatic Hugh, Lord Thatcham, wrestles with his own demons and makes Philomena’s heart race, but she must fight her passion for she can never marry.

Haunted by her past, Philomena’s only hope of happiness is to confront the evil forces that threaten to destroy her.

Review: Having read a number of historical romances this year, it's nice to read a book that has engaging characters, but also sets the scene perfectly.

We are familiar with the Victorian era through books and films, but rarely is it presented so well, as it is here in the author's debut novel.

I literally felt I was on the streets of Victorian England. Even though the south is mentioned, it's nice that the south west - Bristol in this case, is featured too.

The cover was a real grabber for me - the thoughtful pose of the character but also the beautiful background detail really gives you an insight into the author's setting for this book.

As a romance, it works well. Philomena, like the women of the period, was not allowed to travel outside alone. So she abounds on her adventure into the outside world dressed as a boy. What will be the repercussions of her behaviour? Will she be in some trouble if / when found out, or much worse?

Fortunately the author has penned an engaging drama that has no need to be over the top with, shall we say...'energetic scenes'.

Yes, the hero, Lord Thatcham, takes a liking to Philomena, but even more so when she reveals her true self.

Maybe the ending isn't in doubt, but that hardly matters. For a debut novel the author shows a real command of her world, one I will be happy to revisit.

Tuesday 6 October 2015

Book Review: Without You by Preethi Venugopala


Synopsis: When Ananya, a bubbly twenty-year-old engineering student, reaches her Grandmother's house in Sreepuram on a month long vacation, romance is the last thing on her mind. However, she meets Dr. Arjun there and falls head over heels in love.

As it often happens, the path of true love never runs smooth. Circumstances force them apart even though they were madly in love. She becomes a victim of depression. When everything fails to return her to normalcy, help arrives from an unexpected source. Will she ever find happiness again? Will time allow her heart to heal and forget Arjun? What indeed is true love? What is that strange secret that locks all the circumstances together? 

Travel with Ananya to the picturesque Sreepuram, face the chaos of Bengaluru, and relish the warmth of magical Dubai in this heartwarming tale of love, betrayal, friendship, and miracles.

Review: Without You is the debut novel of Preethi Venugopala and it is an uplifting tale of romance that will stir your heart and fire your passion.<

It's obvious from the early pages of this book how passionate the author is about her subjects. The main characters, Anu and Arjun are fun to watch, as their relationship develops and goes through its various ups and downs.

The author's forewarding notes, as well as the quotes that open each chapter are endearing and make you think.

As befitting an Indian author, readers should be prepared for an indoctrination into Indian culture. This is to be welcomed, because the author writes with a style and panache that always engages the reader.

Some lines I liked:-

"If you had given this to Shakespeare, he would have written a thousand sonnets about it." (Anu discussing food).

"Both of us can't bear to live without the other. But we still managed to make our lives a living hell making asinine assumptions about each other."</i> (Anu and Arjun, on the difficulty of relationships.)

Without You is a credible addition to the romance genre, fans of which will see inspiration from all kinds of authors, from William Shakespeare to Jane Austen. There's a hint of Judith McNaught in there too - no bad thing.

It's a lovely story that romance fans will hold dear to their hearts.

On Amazon this book gets five stars.

Saturday 3 October 2015

Book Review: Misery by Stephen King


Synopsis: Paul Sheldon. He's a bestselling novelist who has finally met his biggest fan. Her name is Annie Wilkes and she is more than a rabid reader - she is Paul's nurse, tending his shattered body after an automobile accident. But she is also his captor, keeping him prisoner in her isolated house.

Wow. Only two years since I last read this? I thought it was ten!

Scratch the five stars above. This book deserves SIX. Below is a photo of my actual paperback copy from 1990.

My 2015 Review:-

If you are one of those people who has never read a Stephen King book, whilst it might be tempting to read a short story collection of his, like Graveyard Shift or Everything's Eventual, I would strongly direct you towards Misery.

The book is simply a masterpiece and one of my all time favourite books. Reading it again, and again - reveals something new. This is why some reviewers of books who think they understand a book after one read through....let's give some authors, especially the really great ones like Mr King their due.

You may have to read it more than once. I know - you might say 'oh life is too short and there are so many books to read' - and I will agree with you there.

But to read this book only once does it a disservice.

The brilliance of Misery is in its simplicity. King strips down the book to just two main characters, and the tension never lets up, not for a second. 

Paul Sheldon is a writer who has a car accident. He survives the crash, only to be dragged into a nightmare, because rescuer / retired nurse Annie Wilkes is Grade One on the crazy list.

How many she killed, we never really find's just clever of King to drop these little things in the book to think about.

Why hasn't she taken him to hospital? Why doesn't she phone an ambulance? Why does she fly off the handle one moment, only to tell Paul that she *loves* him, the next?

Because she is his Number One fan. She's not too happy, to put it mildly, that her favourite character from Mr Sheldon's books - Misery Chastain, is killed off in the latest (and presumably final) Misery book.

She's even less impressed with his manuscript for his first non-Misery novel in a while. She hates the title, the story, the characters, and the swearing.

Paul, meanwhile, is getting addicted to the painkiller she prescribed him - Novril.

And he learns early on that Annie has no intention of letting him go.

But before all that happens, he would have to bring Misery back from the dead. And he had better do that right, too!

If Stephen King wrote a book to show how appreciative he is of his fans, I think Misery would be that book. 

Through Paul Sheldon, he tries to explain things to Annie, things only a writer would know and understand.

She rebels of course, because that's how she's written. She thinks she knows it all. She's been in a position of power and authority before, and wants to exercise on Paul in this story.

The book becomes a battle of wills. Paul has his little victories, like managing to get out of the room that has become his prison.

There's comedy, that from my point as a writer, I understand. Yes - the letter E is essential, and I would be lost without it. In Misery, we get these scenes. They are wonderfully created and executed.

Nearly 370 pages and yet it reads like a dream, even when Paul is writing Misery's Return, just for Annie - we get an insight into what that story is actually like.

Some may find that, along with it's typeface (in the print edition) off putting, and distracting from the real story.

It doesn't add, nor take away from it for me. But its inclusion is an interesting one. Say what you like about Stephen King, but he takes risks and it pays off.

Boy, does it.

The One (The Selection, #3) by Keira Cass


Synopsis: The time has come for one winner to be crowned.

When she was chosen to compete in the Selection, America never dreamed she would find herself anywhere close to the crown—or to Prince Maxon's heart. But as the end of the competition approaches, and the threats outside the palace walls grow more vicious, America realizes just how much she stands to lose—and how hard she'll have to fight for the future she wants.

Review: The Selection was an enjoyable, light read. As a standalone book, it offered romance, a love triangle and some dystopian elements.

The Elite actually took some of those elements forward and made it a more intriguing read.

By the time of The One, you would think these elements would collide into each other to create
a hell of a finale.

In some ways, it delivers on these.

America, or Mer, remains a divisive character. Sometimes I think she is really growing into the role of Number One Princess, other times she doesn't seem to have grown much from the girl who left her
family in Book One.

There's simply no reason for her to like Maxon. Over the three books, he remains a mystery to me. He doesn't  seem remotely 'kingly', and yet his only apparent competition is Aspen - who is still hanging around after telling the poor girl to 'do one.'

Main characters aside, I'm actually growing quite fond of Celeste. She's not Bad Girl Number One - she actually has some reasoning for her actions, and even though her cattish behaviour was a bit annoying in The Selection, she's actually become my favourite character.

Marlee remains nice. And that's it. She's nice, and that's all anyone can say about her.

So why stick with the series?

Well, it's actually rather readable - a minimum requirement for a book, but in this regard Keira Cass succeeds. I credit her for trying something different, even if the idea of a monarchy in a dystopian world isn't fully realised for me.

By the end of The One, whilst some of it you just know is going to happen, there were some things I did not expect.

Finally the rebels actually do something - and for the first time it seems we could be in for terrific finale.

I kind of believe The One isn't so much the end of Mer's story, but the start of Eadlyn's one (The Heir - which I will definitely be reading).

I probably wouldn't go for the short novellas unless you are a real Selection fan and a completist.

The One just about delivers. On Amazon, I will be giving this book four stars.

Book Review: A Circle Around Forever by Robert K Swisher


Synopsis: The outstanding characters in A Circle Around Forever create an epic tale that will fill you with wonder and touch every emotion that is humanly possible: A spirit that is all of the sky, pictographs that come to life to protect and also teach, ghosts of evil and ghosts of good will, stones with the knowledge of immortality, people that are both young and old at the same time, a man with the gift of rainbows, a lady whose tears sprout acres of flowers, a murderer, a boy born with all the knowledge of the world, an evil ghost that longs for nothingness and whose sole purpose is to defeat all who love, a love between two people that started with the beginning of time and is tested to its limits, a battle between Love and Hate that can either plunge the world into darkness or light.

Review: A Circle Around Forever works on so many levels that it is hard to quantify exactly what the author has created here. The story of how wicked Grandma Bertha controls her grandson from the grave is quite something. When he starts exhibiting actions that no young child should be able to do, and how he cryptically talks about the 'voices', one might think they are in for stock horror fare.

When it's done correctly, there's no problem with that.

I have to say that this book came highly recommended to me, so expectations were already high. What I did not expect was my own expectations to be blown out of the water.

It's not a long book, but maybe that's because it is written so well. I was pulled in from the start, wanted to let it go and indeed had things to do. When I wasn't reading it, I was thinking about it - another good sign.

The battle of good versus evil takes on a new meaning in this book. It's amazing that amongst the amount of popularist pap that so often hit the top of the charts, or are fawned over on book programmes that lavish praise on the author but rarely have a book to back that praise up, that this title would have been possibly overlooked by me.

The book has a real power to shock, not in an overtly grisly way (although when it does, it is executed brilliantly). I'm trying to think where I may have read a story like this before, and I cannot offer another story to you like this one.

There are some biblical references which serve to highlight the overall seriousness of the book, but the author never drags us down into a 'repent, lest ye will be judged' situation. It's pretty much perfectly balanced between thriller, epic, horror, and ultimately is a story that makes you think.

My only regret is not getting to this story sooner.

Some may find the tone is too bleak or unsettling for their liking. For me, this was one book I didn't want to end. I can give it no higher recommendation than that!