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review 2018-11-16 10:08
"V For Vendetta" by Alan Moore. Narrated by Simon Vance.
V for Vendetta - David Lloyd,Alan Moore

"V for Vendetta" is one of the few movies that, in these days of crowded shelves and almost infinite digital storage, I chose to own a physical copy of. It is beautifully shot, perfectly cast and boldly told. It is that rare thing, a movie that dares to be true to its intent, even at the risk of being unpopular. The result is a cult classic.


Take a look at the trailer below to get a feel for what I mean.


[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VCzfxcVrxfE&w=560&h=315]


I first saw it in the cinema in 2006 and found it startling and inspiring. At the time I was more transfixed by how well a comic (graphic novel for all you who just groaned) could be brought to the screen rather than by the political message. I saw the anti-fascist stance as obvious and necessary but the idea of fascism gripping the UK so firmly seemed like an exaggeration to make a point.


This year, in response to the Guy Fawkes Night book task in the 24 Festive Tasks challenge, I decided to do something new. I read the "novelisation" of the movie or, rather, I listened to the audiobook, expertly narrated by Simon Vance.


I've always avoided novelisations. The word itself is ugly and the literary snob in me, which is quite happy to watch movies adapted from books, was instinctively scornful of reading novels adapted from movies.


As usual, my literary snob was an idiot. If I had come to this novel without seeing the movie, I would have been praising the quality of the writing and the structure of the story. It's well-written, faithful to the movie but enhancing it in ways that are appropriate to the novel form. I recommend it to you.


Listening to the audiobook in 2018, twelve years after seeing the movie, Britain as a fascist state no longer felt like an exaggeration to make a point. It felt like a possibility that we are only a few missteps away from. The mechanics of the manipulation of the media, the creation of enemies of the people, the appeal to national pride in a mostly-mythical glorious past, the exploitation of the fear and hatred of the foreign and the different all felt too contemporary to be dismissed.


V, the hero of this story, is not a nice man. Not a man you'd want to make friends with or even spend time with. When I first saw the movie I was horrified by his treatment of Evie, who he shapes into a weapon of sorts.


Now, I begin to understand that there may be times when we all need someone like V to remind us that our governments should be more afraid of us than we are of them.

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review 2018-11-15 17:58
"The Elementals" by Michael McDowell
The Elementals - Michael Rowe,Michael McDowell

If you're looking for a deeply atmospheric, well-written and perfectly narrated novel to fill you with an inexorable dread, "The Elementals" is the book for you.


"The Elementals" has a remarkably powerful, cliché-free start, that embeds your imagination in the South like a throwing knife splitting a rotting log. What better way to start than with a funeral that goes from dire and depressing to deeply disturbing in a few pages.


I'd never read Michael McDowell before but I wasn't surprised to learn later that he was an excellent screenwriter.  The style of"The Elementals" is cinematic in a lots-of-close-ups, see-the-motes-in-the-sunlit-air lighting and strange but intimate camera angles kind of way.


The characters, especially Luker and his preciously independent daughter India are engaging and believable. Despite being unconventional people (Luker came from around hear but he raised his daughter in New York City so you can't exactly expect them to be normal, can you?) become the anchor points for sanity in a world that is sliding towards the lethally strange with the slow grace of an unmoored house sliding of a cliff into the sea.


The heat becomes almost a character in the story in its own right. India discovers for the first time the heat and humidity induced languor of the South that bends time and alter perceptions. Luker explains to her that this hot humid coastal resort of Beldame is:

"...a low energy place. The kind of place where you can only get one or two things done in a day and one of those is getting out of bed."


Not surprisingly, the horror in this book is of the slow but deeply disturbing kind. It seemed to me that the dread in this book had a pulse: slow and strong, like an ambush predator waiting on a branch.


Having this atmospheric tale delivered to my ear in R.C. Bray's gravelly but insistent voice was a remarkable reading experience.


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review 2018-11-13 10:24
"Beau Death" by Peter Lovesey
Beau Death - Peter Lovesey

I bought this book because it's set in Bath in the UK, a city I've just returned to after sixteen years away, which may explain why I've missed the previous sixteen books in this series featuring the career of Police Detective Peter Diamond dealing with crime in Bath.


I dived in to the latest book, without starting at the beginning of the series, because the idea of a skeleton, dressed in what appears to be the style of clothing worn by Beau Nash, being discovered in an attic of a condemned building in Twerton during its demolition was just so Bath I couldn't miss it.


The plot of Beau Death is a pergola supporting an artful display of Bath past and present. Diamond does investigate two deaths in this book and finds the guilty parties through a mix of detailed police work and imaginative insight but these activities seem secondary to exploring Bath, its neighbourhoods, its history, its remarkably diverse and often eccentric citizens and of course, the phenomenon that was Beau Nash.


The book is peppered with humour. One incident that made me laugh was a pet shop owner is giving the police the code to a smart lock. She tells them her mnemonic is "Hampsters".  They look blank. She explains that hampsters are cannibals. They still look blank. Then she tells them the code (read it aloud and you'll get the cannibal thing); 181182


I've been living in Bath since 1985 so I remember the Bath that the young police officers in this book think of as olden days. I recognised all the places and I remember how they used to be as well as how they are now. For example, for years Beau Nash's house contained a restaurant called Popjoy's (the name of Nash's mistress), It's been called something else for years now but it's still Popjoy's to old folks like Peter Diamond and me.


There's a lot of close observation of how class and wealth (not always the same thing) work in this town and a firm understanding of how policing here has changed (there is no real Police Station in this town of nearly 90,000 people any more - the old station now belongs to the University and the Police commute from halfway to Bristol when they're needed.


This is a pleasant, easy, entertaining read that works well as an audiobook. If you want to take a slightly unorthodox virtual tour of Bath, I recommend letting Peter Diamond be your guide.

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review 2018-11-12 23:35
"The Stranger Diaries" by Elly Griffiths - some excellent storytelling undermined by a very disappointing finish
The Stranger Diaries - Elly Griffiths

I've enjoyed Elly Griffiths'"Ruth Galloway" novels so I was pleased to see a new standalone mystery from her that was gaining lots of four and five-star reviews.

My wife and I settled down to listen to the audiobook version over a few evening and mostly enjoyed ourselves.


We were amused by the sometimes cringe-making accuracy of the humour and the way the characters described each other. We speculated on where the plot might go and the identity of the baddy.


We discussed how structuring this tale of murder into first-person accounts / "stranger diaries" given by three very different women had the novel consequence of hearing three convincing female characters talking about themselves and their impression of each other without the comments being centred around men.


We enjoyed the way the contrasts and commonalities between the woman made the story richer: an English teacher with a fondness for Wilkie Collins and an obsession with modern gothic; her teenage daughter who dabbles in white magic and writing murder mysteries and a young Indian Detective Sargeant who is investigating the murders that the novel revolves around and who gives an outsider's view on mother and daughter but who went to the same school that the mother teaches at and the daughter attends. Using a different narrator for each woman also gave a boost to the audiobook.


We were impressed by how convincingly "The Stranger",  a short story at the heart of the novel, matched the style of M R James.


In other words, for the first nine hours or so of the novel, we were having a good time.

Tonight, we reached the dramatic conclusion with lives at risk, a rescue being attempted and the identity of the murderer finally being revealed but instead of going "That was good*, we looked at each other with raised eyebrows and said, "Is that it? Did I miss something". 


The ending felt cobbled together. The identity of the baddy carried all the conviction of a "the butler did it" solution.


I was so surprised that I began to reconsider the whole book, wondering whether Elly Griffiths was offering a kind of "Northanger Abbey" version of the gothic novel and I'd missed out on the joke. 


I like Elly Griffiths' books. I liked ninety per cent of this one but the ending left me feeling like I'd waited for hours for a Soufflé that failed to rise.


Listen to the SoundCloud extract below to get a feel for the M R James style story that opens the novel.


[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/515618340" params="color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /]


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review 2018-10-30 18:10
"Bellwether" by Connie Willis - great fun
Bellwether - Connie Willis

I've just re-read Connie Willis' 1997 novella "Bellwether" and enjoyed it tremendously.


I first read it about twenty years ago, when Chaos Theory was still relatively new to non-mathematicians like me, and what I remember most is how exciting I found the ideas around the relationship between chaos and fads or trends.


This time around I found that, while the ideas still stand up, what impressed me most was the gentle, wise wit that powers this book on how science works. It was a delightful, easy, clever read that made me smile and sometimes laugh out loud.


I'm very glad that I did my reread as an audiobook. Kate Reading's performance is remarkable and captures every ounce of humour and wisdom in the book.


The book itself is a kind of science fairytale, complete with a Cinderella scientist, a not so handsome and distinctly fashion-challenged Prince and a fairy godmother. Our heroine's research into the causes of fads and her knowledge of the history of scientific breakthroughs delivers a fascinating mix of humour and education.


You can forsee (most) of the outcome as you barrel towards it but that's part of the fun. Along the way you'll get to enjoy satire, slapstick humour, thought experiments and a love story, as well as encounters with recalcitrant sheep, a secret benefactor and an annoying but remarkably believable agent of change called Flip who unthinkingly creates chaos and possibility wherever she goes.


Despite being twenty-one years old, this book feels fresh and current. Having just spent three years working with engineers, scientists and mathematicians on digital technologies and artificial intelligence, I found myself smiling in rueful recognition at Connie Willis' description of Management using acronyms and marketing hype to  try and wrangle creative people into producing "science on demand" (in my case it was called digital disruption or the fourth industrial revolution but it seems nothing much has changed).


If you're in the mood for a light, witty, well-paced, literate fairytale with real scientists (and a lot of sheep) at its heart, this is the book for you.


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