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Review: “The Midnight Dance” by Nikki Katz

Phew.  Ok, that was a tough read, and boy am I glad it’s over!  I really can’t think of many more ways that The Midnight Dance could have let me down.

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It’s only 320 pages long and took me a month to read, and I’ve got to admit, from the 40% mark I was skimming it.  The lingering question I was left with was ultimately, why?  I don’t understand why anything in this book happened?  And I must warn you, that if you proceed to read from here there will be spoilers.

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Ok, let us proceed.

 

The setting of Nikki Katz’s The Midnight Dance is a manor house where a whole lot of girls live and learn ballet.  This brings us to our first why.

Why Ballet?  Ballet is totally pointless to the narrative.  The girls could have been in a regular boarding school, a work house, a brothel, the International Space Station; the narrative would have been exactly the same.  I got the feeling that Katz just liked the idea (and has probably seen Coppélia a few times) and thought it would be a cool plot device.  But it ultimately serves no purpose.

Why is the Master trying to control people’s minds?  No seriously, I have no idea.  Maybe it’s because I skim read it, but I really am not sure what the villain’s motivations were other than Penny was a special snowflake and he was totally in love, (which again, why?).  There was an intro about a boy with a missing leg who grows up to be the master but because he was teased by his sister, he wants revenge, gets a robotic prosthetic, and experiments with mind control on a whole bunch of young girls who are ballet students.  Confused?  Yeah, me too. But seriously, why?

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Penny (our protagonist) has a grandfather, who’s not her grandfather, who wants to help her (but not the other girls, because they are obviously not as special as special, special Penny), but is also the medical mastermind behind all these experiments in the first place.  But why?  For the love of God and all that is holy, why, why, WHY??  There is no plausible reason given for his agreement to carry out the experiments to begin with.  He can apparently create artificial limbs and perform medical miracles unknown at the time, but instead of doing something useful he lives in a cottage by a manor house for ballerinas catering to the whim of a madman who has no good reason to want to control the minds of all these girls in the first place.

The Midnight Dance by Nikki Katz

God, this plot was just such a hot mess of different ideas that just went y nowhere.  The narrative was batshit crazy from the start, so there were no surprises anywhere along the way.  Nothing that happened was shocking.  There was a bit of a romance that was just ‘meh’, an attempt at a love triangle that was just a bit gross and creepy, a lot of other characters who I forgot almost as soon as they graced the page or who appeared for the first time a few minutes before they were conveniently needed, and loads of Italicised Italian thrown in just to prove that the book was, in fact, set in Italy.  If there hadn’t been a date at the beginning of each chapter to tell me when it was set I wouldn’t have had any idea.  The way the characters spoke wasn’t believable, the setting didn’t give a sense of time, or place, and where the plot device was discussed it was, in fact, historically wrong.  (Ballet dancers used to be stocky and muscular, and pointe shoes at the time that this was set were not used for long periods as they were nothing more than regular satin shoes with some extra darning reinforcement at the toe and sides for the sake of occasional balances rather than prolonged dancing).

 

The Midnight Dance was just a really mediocre read with a less than mediocre story.  The plot was nonsensical and the characters forgettable.  Do yourself a favour.  Read something else.  But hey, at least the cover is great.

 

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Review: ‘Ready Player One’ by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One by Ernest ClineErnest Cline’s Ready Player One is a tough book to rate.  Its characters are two-dimensional and generally either unlikeable or forgettable, the antagonists are like cartoonish caricatures of an evil corporation, everything that helps resolve the plot is just a little too convenient.  There are also some pretty glaring logical inconsistencies that had me shaking my head at times thinking, seriously?  But did any of that matter in the end?  Not even a bit, because this book is just so. Much. Damn. FUN!

Cline knows his audience well. The narrative of Ready Player One is so chock full of pop culture references that I’m surprised he managed to fit a plot in there at all.  From old arcade games, through to John Hughes films and more prog music references than you can poke a stick at (I’m looking at you, Rush!), there’s something in here for everyone who grew up or was born in the 80’s.  He manages to create a palpable sense of nostalgia which drives the plot forward and had me giggling with joy whenever he mentioned something that I was particularly fond of.  And there we have the appeal of this book.  The age of the Geek is now, but so many of us grew up at a time when being a gamer, reading science-fiction and fantasy and listening to prog rock until the early hours of the morning made us anything but cool.  A book like Ready Player One brings those things into the now and lets us enjoy them alongside a youth who don’t suffer the same stigma associated with those interests.

Ready Player One’s pacing is perfect.  It starts off with just the right amount of exposition, gets us interested in the world that Cline is building and then sets off running.  The search for the keys is exciting, and I found myself trying to solve the clues along with Wade to see how good my own 80’s pop-culture memory was.  The clues are cryptic enough to not be solved quickly, but make sense when they’re resolved without feeling forced.  There are moments of tension and intrigue, and the way the final battle was written was so well rendered that I could almost see it right in front of me.  With that said, however, there are lots of moments when things are a little too convenient.  Wade just happens to be good at everything the plot needs him to be good at, and characters just happen to find the right objects immediately before needing them.  But these conveniences did move the plot a long pretty quickly and only slightly detracted from the tension, and because I was enjoying the experience so much I was willing to forgive this much more readily than if the same had happened in any other book.

The biggest issue with Ready Player One is the characterisation.  As exciting as the narrative is, it’s carried along by the reader’s interest in the culture and the concept, and certainly not by the strength of its characters.  Wade is unlikeable, with the emotional range of a wet rag, Art3mis was pretty much the generic manic pixie dream girl, Aech was ‘token’ to say the least, and Daito and Shoto were nothing more than a stereotype of how the western media has portrayed all Asian gamers since there were Asian gamers.  There is a romance between Wade and Art3mis which was incredibly unromantic and completely unbelievable, so it’s a shame that the book ended with it as it was the weakest part of the narrative.  It made me feel a little disappointed at the end after having so thoroughly enjoyed myself for the rest of it.  The main antagonist, Sorrento, head of operations at IOI, the evil corporation who serve as the big bad of the narrative, is even worse.  He was like Dr Evil or Monty Burns, and it was hard to take his over-the-top threats seriously, especially since Wade seemed so completely unfazed by them!  Because Ready Player One was so full of action, I feel it would have been served by a more subtle antagonist who was undermining, rather than overbearing.

Ready Player One is far from a perfect book.  It has flaws, lots of them, but ultimately it doesn’t matter.  If the point of reading is to have fun, then Ernest Cline has achieved that.  This is the most fun I’ve had with a book in ages.

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Review: ‘Experimental Film’ by Gemma Files

Experimental Film by Gemma FilesExperimental Film shows first-hand how a first-class concept isn’t enough to carry a novel.  Gemma Files is incredibly knowledgeable about film, and it certainly shows.  I was not at all surprised to find out she was a film critic and screen-writer in Canada.  But it does mean that she falls into the trap of writers with specialisations like this; going into far too much unnecessary, incidental and boring detail about the way the industry works, that they lose sight of the plot, or what makes a story engaging.

The story follows protagonist Lois Cairns as she tries to uncover the mystery behind a woman who may have been Canada’s first female filmmaker.  Lois is an out of work film critic, ex-teacher, and mother to an autistic son.  While reviewing freelance in Toronto’s underground film scene she embarks on a journey that takes her to derelict mansions, will make her delve deep into Eastern European folklore and come face to face with her own inner demons, as well as outside forces.

The concept for Experimental Film is a strong one.  The medium of film has so much potential to create a stirring atmosphere.  Film can convey so much within a very short space of time, and if a picture can paint 1000 words, a moving picture can do even more.  The disappointment is that the supernatural elements of the novel simply don’t really seem to hold any relevance to the art of film making, other than it being a convenient plot device that the author just happens to know something about.  The antagonist as well seems incredibly out of place.  Essentially, we have a sun worshiping demi-god who for some reason chooses to manifest in Toronto, a city that never seems to rise about 24 – 27 degrees Celsius, even in the height of summer.  The setting, the premise, the antagonist; everything had potential, but the narrative simply didn’t make use of any of them.  Files seemed to stick with familiar, rather than appropriate.

Lois Cairns herself was a well-developed character. She was interesting, flawed, relatable with the kinds of insecurities that we can all relate to. Unfortunately, most of her development happened within the first quarter of the novel, meaning that the plot didn’t really get going until half way through the book.  Lois’ insecurities, while interesting, weren’t enough to carry the novel’s interest for so long.   For a character with clear and obvious mental health issues (dealt in a way that should have been refreshing) who was clearly on the verge of a breakdown when the book started, the characters that surrounded her really seemed to just blindly accept her supernatural experiences.  No one seemed to question her in any real depth, which really stopped my suspension of disbelief as there was never any compelling evidence that anything supernatural was occurring, rather than Lois just having a breakdown.

The side characters of Experimental Film fared much worse in their development.  Lois’ husband Simon existed to be the perfect supportive partner, her research assistant Safie was just a glorified sounding board, her son Clark (Lois and Clark…believe me, I groaned inwardly at that one) was autistic, which of course was used to create creepy-kid-communing-with-the-supernatural syndrome, which I found equal parts offensive and overdone within the genre, and the minor antagonist Wrob Barney was such an over-the-top caricature of narcissistic unprofessionalism that I simply couldn’t take him seriously.  The minor characters were at best, archetypes, at worst, caricatures.  They really took away from everything I feel Experimental Film was trying to be.

With poor pacing, far too much unnecessary exposition, a premise that didn’t deliver and a narrative that failed to scare, I must say that Experimental Film was a bit of a disappointment.  All the parts were there, but nothing was followed through in a way that could satisfy.  Bits and pieces read like poor imitations of other works, like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods mixed with Night Film by Marisha Pessl (another book about film that failed to deliver a satisfying conclusion).  If you’d like to know a lot about the Canadian underground film scene, old film stock, and how to get a Canadian Arts grant, then this is for you.  Otherwise, there are more satisfying horror novels out there.

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Review: ‘The Outcasts of Time’ by Ian Mortimer

The Outcasts of Time by Ian MortimerOn the surface, Ian Mortimer’s The Outcasts of Time has everything an historical novel should have.  It was full of sumptuous description, historical accuracy, and a well-developed protagonist used to illustrate his own zeitgeist.  It is a shame then that no strength of writing could make up for the one thing that The Outcasts of Time was really lacking.  A plot.

Within the first few pages, I was already worried that Ian Mortimer would go the way of so many historians turned novelists, and my worries were ultimately well deserved.  The Outcasts of Time gets so caught up in its own historicity that it forgets what it’s actually written for.  To tell a story.  Instead of a flowing narrative that goes somewhere and means something, instead, we are treated to a set of historical vignettes that read like a morality play for the importance of the study of history.  I’m a professional historian, so I’m all for that, but the setup was just so contrived that I caught myself physically rolling my eyes at moments.

I find it difficult to write too much more about the novel because nothing happened.  What makes this book great is the way that Mortimer brings the historical periods to life (with the exception of John of Wrayment’s foray into the 19th Century, which was just full of exposition rather than any real sense of time or place), but just giving me a good sense of history isn’t enough.  The protagonists skip from day to day, century to century, never really getting to know anyone, or really do anything except give us a snapshot of life in their times.  But if I wanted that, I would have read one of Mortimer’s exceptional non-fiction books. His Time Travellers Guide series is excellent! But a novel is more than just beautiful prose.

Ian Mortimer’s ultimate aim in writing The Outcasts of Time is summed up by one quote, that is often repeated at the end of the novel:

The man who has no knowledge of the past has no wisdom.

It’s a bit on the nose, but that’s the ultimate point.  History is important, and we are all the sum of what came before.  It’s an admirable thought, but it doesn’t make for gripping fiction without a strong narrative to lead us there.

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Review: ‘The Fourteenth Letter’ by Claire Evans

The Fourteenth Letter by Claire EvansNo one was more surprised by my enjoyment of Claire Evans’ The Fourteenth Letter than me.  It looked like the kind of book I would enjoy as a fun distraction, but nothing more.  And I was sorely in need of a fun distraction.

The Fourteenth Letter opens with a grisly murder.  What follows is an historical mystery with a classical twist, blending old world British Gothic with new world American ingenuity.  It was a book about madness, privilege and eugenics, and while it didn’t keep me guessing through the whole reading experience, it definitely swept me along for the ride.

I was impressed with Evans’ characterisation.  Her characters were deeply flawed, mysterious, but personable.  Their experiences created a sense of real personal growth.  The William Lamb of the end of the novel was virtually unrecognisable from the character we’d met at the beginning, but his growth and development were so natural that it really gave his character depth.  Savannah Shelton, the American gunslinger as well, was introduced as a rough and hardened criminal.  Even she proved to have real depth, while Evans’ masterfully omitted the details of her erstwhile crimes, leaving the reader to judge the character on her personality and deeds through the novel rather than her sordid past.  The remaining heroes were appropriately heroic, with the generic good-guy police constable who served to move the plot at an even pace, and the villains were appropriately dark and menacing.

The pace, plotting and characterisation, however, were belied by The Fourteenth Letter’s title and branding.  The cover is more evocative of a feminine gothic family saga/romance.  There was nothing that screamed historical murder mystery.  The titular ‘Fourteenth Letter’ as well, was introduced far too late in the plot for it to have any real impact or meaning.  This was the book’s biggest letdown.  The big reveal was hardly a reveal at all, as I hadn’t even known in was an option up until that point.

All in all The Fourteenth Letter was a strong entry into the historical crime genre.  It was a fun read that was equal parts cliché and original that was just really, really enjoyable.

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Review: ‘Rattle’ by Fiona Cummins

Rattle by Fiona CumminsRattle won’t deliver anything new or provide any unexpected twists and turns, but what it does provide is a pretty gripping read that I devoured in only a few sittings.  Fiona Cummins gives us a strong, albeit formulaic, addition to the crime thriller genre that seethes with menace and tension.

I don’t want to give a plot outline because I honestly think that it will detract from the reading experience.  But what this book does have is a pretty unique psychopath and a bevvy of damaged characters who are just trying to get through life the best they can.  We see the abduction of their children affect two families in very different ways, and best of all, Fiona Cummins has included some interesting details about dealing with Natural History collections and biological specimens.  As a former museum curator, I loved reading about that part of her story.

Rattle is full of rich descriptions.  There is one passage that I thought was so beautiful I just have to share it:

Ribbons and sheets of ossified matter.  Stalagmites and bridges.  Twisted plates and bony nubs… He stands alone in the hallway, and drinks in the glory of the skeleton in its glass case, mesmerised by its distortions, the incursion of bone into thoracic cavity, the calcified trimmings decorating his spine.  A young boy trapped in a prison of stone.

It makes the human body sound like a work of art.  I’d heard of Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressive before under its more commonly used name, ‘Stone Man Syndrome’ but I didn’t know a lot about it.  Rattle managed to give it a human face as I realised how difficult it must be not just for the sufferer, but for the families who have to see their children become trapped in their own bodies.  The Frith family were strong, but damaged, and had very real reactions to the reality of living with a sick child.  The Frith’s grew as characters as the novel progressed, and I was impressed with the reality of their emotions and the way Fiona Cummins wrote them in a way that ensures empathy rather than pity.

DS Etta Fitzroy was an interesting character herself, although not entirely original.  Every crime novel these days needs a disgraced detective with a tragic backstory, so she seemed more like an archetype than a real, fleshed out character.  She also made stupid mistakes unbecoming of a detective that felt contrived to bring a bit more tension to the narrative rather than for any reason that made sense to the story.  It was moments like these that brought the quality of Rattle down for me.

For me, my biggest disappointment with Rattle was its lack of any real resolution.  I’m not sure if Fiona Cummins was setting it up for a sequel or to become a series, but because of this, the whole novel felt somehow, unfinished.  Instead of making me want to desperately pick up the next book when it’s written, it made the preceding parts of the story feel somewhat lacking.  I just needed more from it.  I needed more explanation, more detail, more motivation and more resolution.  The ending betrayed what had, up to that point, been a stellar novel.

All in all, Rattle was a gripping, enjoyable read.  But if you’re looking for something groundbreaking that will reinvent the genre, then you’ll have to keep looking.  While the villain was interesting and unique, the plot, in general, was on crime thriller rails.  If you’re a fan of the genre, you’ll know where it’s going.  But at least you’ll enjoy the journey.

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