"A room without books is like a body without a soul." - Marcus Tullius Cicero

Monday, 23 July 2012

The Haunted by Michaelbrent Collings

Cap and Sarah are moving into their new home, a large old house which has been vacant (but not empty...) for a long time. Everything is perfect - they are even expecting their first baby - but as soon as they begin unpacking, strange things start happening, and they swiftly come to realise that they got more than they bargained for in buying the house...

The premise initially intrigued me as I like haunted house stories, and I had also been promised an ‘unexpected’ twist at the end. Plus, the cover looks very scary! I really did not like this book, however, for several reasons.

First of all, the characters are quite irritating. Everything is so wonderful for them and Collings insists on reminding the reader how deeply and utterly in love they are on almost every single page and it quickly becomes very tiresome to read. He not only records their cringe-inducing love in laborious detail, but we are also forced to bear witness to their childish jokes and the silly baby voices they babble at each other:
‘“Awww,” she cooed, making her voice high and silly as though addressing a mildly challenged toddler. “Is oo having twouble?”’
I don’t yearn for this sort of babyish lovey dovey romance in a horror novel, and it was way too prevalent to be in the least bit tolerable.

Moving on from the frustrating characters, the main problem with the novel was the profound lack of suspense and build of terror. The spooky occurrences began almost immediately, and then for 260 odd pages just kept going at the same rate of scariness, with events circling and recurring over and over. This meant the novel rapidly became boring and repetitive, and I really struggled to finish it.

The ‘twist’ was very disappointing because I guessed what it was quite early on; it was quite predictable and not very shocking, in fact it was very clichéd, so it did not redeem the novel for me.

Furthermore, the writing was of fairly poor quality, and was not enjoyable to read. There were a couple of badly phrased parts which could easily have been rectified with a little thought or a decent editor, such as:
“Angry, badgering sounds that conveyed anger.”
I don’t see the need to inform the reader that the ‘angry’ noise ‘conveyed anger’, as it’s self explanatory.

In conclusion, this novel was severely lacking in terror and suspense, was boring to read, was not scary and all in all was not enjoyable as a horror novel. It could definitely have benefited from being much shorter - my Kindle edition was 262 pages - which is way too long for the events that transpired, and perhaps cutting about a quarter of it might have increased the intensity of the couple’s situation and have made for a more exciting read.

Rating: 3/10 

Thursday, 19 July 2012

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

"When you play a game of thrones you win or you die."
 "Winter is coming."
Thanks to HBO’s two series, A Game of Thrones is big news at the moment, so I thought I should see what all the fuss is about. I wasn’t expecting to like this book, at least not as much as I did, not being much of a fantasy aficionado. For those of you who haven’t been sucked in by this series yet, A Game of Thrones is the first book in Martin’s ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series, and there are currently 6 sequels, all of which are erring on the mammoth side of the book length scale. ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ is often lumped into the fantasy genre, but don’t be fooled - you won’t find wizards in pointy hats, orcs and elves in the fashion of The Lord of the Rings here - as it falls much more neatly into the classification of ‘medieval fantasy’, with knights and kings and elements that would be right at home in a novel about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

The plot is fairly involved and a lot happens. Lord Eddard Stark is required to move away from his home in Northern Winterfell to the South when King Robert Baratheon of the seven kingdoms appoints him as Hand of the King, after the previous Hand died. There is treachery within Robert’s court, and a vengeance driven Viserys Targaryen seeks to overthrow Robert and take the crown he believes is rightfully his following the previous usurpation of his father by Robert. When I read the blurb on the back of the book, which is similar to what I have written above, I must admit that I wasn’t enthused to read the book, but it really is a brilliant story.

This book has one of the largest character lists I have ever encountered in a novel; there are helpful appendices detailing the members of each house which I used quite frequently when I first started reading. Having innumerable characters might put a lot of people off, but they are all painted very vividly which makes for an enjoyable read. Furthermore, with so many characters, each reader is bound to find a character they can identify with. I came to love some characters and completely loathe others - Tyrion ‘the imp’ is my favourite, he is very funny and lends some humour to an otherwise mostly serious book, and Eddard’s daughter Arya is entertaining as the tomboyish counterpart to her prim and proper sister Sansa. I really came to care for some of the characters as they felt very real, and I was close to tears more than once when learning what becomes of some of them.

The narrative is unusual, rotating between eight different perspectives in contained chapters which, when the characters begin to move away from each other, leave minor cliff hangers at the end of each chapter, making the reader eager to reach another chapter from the perspective of that particular character.

Upon embarking on A Game of Thrones, I partially expected it to display more qualities of young adult fiction than adult, or that it might at least parallel Terry Pratchett’s light-hearted style of fantasy. However, A Game of Thrones is very much an adult book - Martin does not shy away from rape, murder, thievery and deceit, which I am thankful for as it makes the story more realistic with regards to its medieval setting.

On a side note, having read A Game of Thrones and having now also watched the first series of HBO’s adaptation, I would strongly recommend people to read the book instead of or as well as watching the series, as the novel is far superior (although Peter Dinklage does an amazing job of portraying Tyrion Lannister). Furthermore the last episode of the first series covers a lot of material from the second book, so if you don’t want any spoilers I would advise you to read A Clash of Kings before watching the finale.

Despite being 780 pages long, A Game of Thrones is completely absorbing and does not lag at any point. Since it is the first book in a long series, A Game of Thrones leaves a lot of unanswered questions, and made me very excited to start reading the sequel - A Clash of Kings - immediately. I immensely enjoyed this book and I only hope the rest of the series is as strong as this first novel. The wonderful characters, the medieval setting and the multiple captivating stories included in the larger plot gripped me from the first page. This is definitely a new favourite of mine, and goes to show what gems you can discover if you crawl out of your comfort zone from time to time.

Rating: 10/10

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Film: The Amazing Spider-Man by Marc Webb

As I’m sure most of you will know, The Amazing Spider-Man is based off the comic book series first published by Marvel comics in the 60’s. In these comic books, Peter Parker is a high school geek who is inadvertently bitten by a radioactive spider and develops spider-like super powers. Many people don’t think a reboot of the Spider-Man franchise is necessary, considering the Sam Raimi trilogy starring Tobey Maguire as Peter and Kirsten Dunst as his love interest Mary Jane finished in only 2007. However, I personally felt that Raimi's trilogy was subpar, so I was excited to see a reboot, despite being more of a DC fan than a Marvel fan.

This film follows the familiar ‘how he became Spider-Man’ story in the first half of the film, which was very well done and more interesting than in the previous films. Furthermore, there is a scene in a tube train where Peter discovers some of his powers which is very funny, and was a much better way of introducing us to his quick reflexes and sticky spider hands than I have ever seen previously.

There is also a scene which features Stan Lee which made me laugh - Stan is in the foreground of the shot, in a library, with headphones on, and we are made privy to his relaxing classical music while Spider-Man and the Lizard have it out in the background, with dear old Stan completely oblivious to the mayhem going on behind him! There were numerous funny moments in the film, which I thought was necessary as I was worried that Marc Webb might have chosen to take the Spider-Man franchise down a darker, more serious path like Christopher Nolan did with his Dark Knight trilogy - which I cannot see working as well for Spider-Man as it has done for Batman - but fortunately although the film is more serious than previous films, The Amazing Spider-Man manages to keep a fine balance.

Once Peter Parker has evolved into Spider-Man, the latter part of the film focuses more on the antagonist - the Lizard. Dr. Curtis Connors is a biochemist with only one arm, who strives to grow his limb back using mutagenic chemicals, having been inspired by the way lizards have the ability to sprout new tails if they are removed. Lacking the confidence to test the formula on other live human subjects, he injects himself with it instead, and while it successfully grows his arm, it also has one major side effect - it mutates him into a giant lizard!

I was happy to hear that the Lizard would be the sole villain in the new film, as the 2007 Spider-Man 3 had no less than three main villains - the Green Goblin, the Sandman, and Venom, who appeared only right at the end so his role was largely pointless, and the mix of the three just made the plot a bit messy and made it seem as though the director wanted to cram as many villains as he could into one film.

The Lizard is a good villain for a super-hero movie: he’s very scary, absolutely huge and very cunning, which makes him extremely threatening. However I’m not sure I liked how he looked very much, and he reminded me a little of Godzilla - this similarity is even made a joke of in the film, when Captain Stacy is informed of a giant dinosaur thing wreaking havoc in the city he responds with Do I look like the Mayor of Tokyo to you?

The main love interest this time is not Mary Jane Watson but Gwen Stacy, an intelligent and beautiful student who somehow, at 17 years of age, has managed to secure a job at Oscorp laboratory, the building in which Peter is bitten by the spider. This decision by the film-makers renders the film closer to the original comics, as Gwen was Peter’s first love, before he began dating Mary Jane. There was a little too much romance for my liking, but it was not so profound that it deterred from my enjoyment of the film at all.

Another aspect of the film that renders it a more faithful adaptation is the fact that Peter makes his web shooters. Until recently and thanks to the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy, I thought that one of the powers the spider gives Peter is the web ability, but in the comics he creates the device, as he does in this film.

The film was visually engaging, and the effects were really amazing - especially in the scenes where Spider-Man swings through New York. It was brilliant to watch on the big screen and in 3D, the latter of which normally hurts my eyes, but it was really smoothly done in The Amazing Spider-Man.

The acting was great too. Rhys Ifans made a brilliant Dr. Curt Connors, and I liked Sally Field as Aunt May. Andrew Garfield however, was truly phenomenal and really stole the show with his portrayal of Peter Parker / Spider-Man. He managed to make Peter very likeable and real as a person, unlike Maguire’s awkward depiction of the character. I would love to see him in more main roles in the future as he one of those rare actors who actually has natural talent; a flair for acting which is exuded plentifully in the British drama Boy A of 2007, in which Garfield plays an ex-con looking to start anew.

In conclusion, The Amazing Spider-Man takes the franchise down a slightly more serious path, but nonetheless maintains a light-hearted overtone that stays true to the comic books. It was funny, and had a decent story with entertaining characters, great acting and superb visual effects. There were some jumpy moments too, particularly during scenes in which the Lizard was involved. It didn’t drag at any point and I was completely engaged and thoroughly entertained throughout, and I think this is definitely a film that almost anyone can enjoy.

Rating: 8/10

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet: Horror Stories by Richard Matheson

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet is a collection of some of Richard Matheson’s wonderfully creepy horror and suspense short stories, written between 1953 and 1969. Some of them, including the titular tale, were the inspiration for several episodes of the popular TV series The Twilight Zone, which first aired in the late 50’s and early 60’s. The episodes of The Twilight Zone were often a mix of horror, suspense, psychological thriller and science fiction, and this collection of short stories adheres to this mélange of genres as well.

I love a good short story, but more often than not they aren’t executed very well, and end up failing to meet my expectations. There is no such worry with this particular collection however, as almost all of the stories kept me captivated and shared the common element of impending terror, building to an often shocking climax. Matheson clearly has a brilliant imagination for shock-horror stories. Many of them are preoccupied with madness and there are several instances when the reader wonders whether the characters are really enduring what they describe or if they have simply lost their minds. Sometimes the endings are vaguely ambiguous - although not in a totally random and confusing way as with Jackson's The Lottery and Other Stories - and you as the reader are expected to fill in the blank, as is the case with ‘Through Channels.’

Except for a couple, all of the stories in this volume were extremely good, but a few really stood out for me:

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet: The first tale of the collection throws you in at the deep end, and it was probably my favourite story in the entire collection. Matheson succeeds in building suspense, tension and a sense of rising dread as the story progresses. A nervous flyer embarks on a flight and becomes convinced that a ‘gremlin’ is attempting to sabotage the plane! The trouble is, only he seems to be able to see the malignant creature...

Dress of White Silk: In this disturbing tale, a creepy little girl becomes obsessed with her dead mother’s possessions, including the titular silk dress. This one was very short and intense - just what a decent horror piece should be.

Blood Son: In ‘Blood Son’, we meet another apparently mentally disturbed child, who after reading Dracula becomes obsessed with vampirism to the extent that he decides he wants to become one himself. It provides the reader with an interesting and more realistic take on the tired vampire genre that has become consumed by the stigma of ‘supernatural romance’ in recent years.

Through Channels: The epitome of ‘the reader fills in the blank’ category of story, the ambiguous events of the tale are slowly revealed, although not in full, through a conversation between investigating policemen and a young boy who have witnessed a horrific crime-scene.

Legion of Plotters: This story has that shock factor that Matheson executes so skilfully. A man becomes so irritated with all the little things that people do around him - such as coughing - that he begins to believe that the world is conspiring against him. It is quite comical how angry such tiny things cause him to become, which serves as a stark contrast to the more serious, latter events of the story.

There are other brilliant stories in the collection, but these five really shone. If you enjoy The Twilight Zone then I would definitely recommend this collection, since the stories have very much the same feel. Furthermore, this would make a great read for those of you who enjoy shocking finales, as well as fans of horror and science fiction. The tales are mostly very short, intense and gripping and I enjoyed them very much.

Rating: 8/10