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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: ‘Under a Watchful Eye’ by Adam Nevill

Under a Watchful Eye Book CoverI’ve long been a fan of Adam Nevill, so when Under a Watchful Eye was released my expectations were naturally high.  When I started reading, I must admit I wasn’t entirely sold.  The book has a slow moving, brooding narrative, and I found myself at one point thinking I’d need to come back to it when I was in more of a leisurely reading mood.  But I kept reading, and the experience was better for it.  The dread was palpable, and the way Nevill writes is darkly beautiful with a lyricism that you rarely see in horror novels.

Seb Logan is a well-known horror writer, working on his new book from his comfortable seaside home.  His idyllic life is crashed into disarray when a friend from his past appears and threatens everything Seb has worked so hard to achieve.  What follows is a descent into the darkest recesses of the self, where Seb must confront sinister forces from within and without.

Adam Nevill taps into the everyday fears we all have and writes them in a way that makes them terrifying.  We, as readers, see ourselves reflected in his characters and that is what makes his works so frightening.  His prose is florid and expressive with an originality that makes him a unique writer in the genre.  He is descriptive in a way that builds his world naturally, without forcing too much information on the reader.  The fact that we can build our fears into his descriptions is what gives the weight of real horror.  With an antagonist like Thin Len (who will no doubt visit me in my dreams for many nights to come) he is so terrifying because he will appear differently to every reader.

The characters in Under a Watchful Eye are not the most deeply developed.  Some appear only for a few pages before disappearing into obscurity, and the motivations of some others I found to be a little ambiguous in places.  At first, this is what made me enjoy the book a little less, but the more I read, the more I realised that it was essential to making this novel so chilling.  Seb is a character who is trapped, and by minimising his interactions with other characters, it only serves to heighten the feeling of isolation that surrounds him at almost every turn and makes us question his sanity, just as the characters around him do.  We experience Seb’s subjective reality, one that Nevill manages to make real in all its terrifying and grotesque glory.

Under a Watchful Eye felt a lot more subtle than Nevill’s previous works which initially threw me.  But once I was engrossed it proved itself to be a creeping tale of horror that was both visceral and stimulating. It was a story that blurred the line between life and death and fiction and reality with allusions to one of his previous novels, Last Rites, that help tie everything masterfully into his fictional universe.

Adam Nevill is a master of horror and a writer that every reader who considers themselves a fan of the genre should become acquainted.  Under a Watchful Eye has proven his versatility and talent as a writer and is a must read.

 

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Review: ‘Fir’ by Sharon Gosling

Fir - Book CoverSharon Gosling’s Fir was an interesting addition to the already extensive collection of YA horror, but like many books in the genre didn’t quite live up to expectations.

Fir tells the story of the Stromberg family, who leave their comfortable inner city Stockholm life to move to a remote tree farm where the Stromberg patriarch hopes to rebuild the lumber business.  But there is something out in the old growth forest that begins terrorising the family, while they try and survive the harshness of Sweden’s remote winters.

There were some fascinating elements in Fir.  The forest had character, and the descriptions of the woods, the cold, the dark and the isolation were incredibly well rendered.  There were some promising moments with the introduction of old world mythology which had the potential to make this a much deeper story and Gosling took the opportunity to make some important and tactful observations about environmental ethics without coming across as forceful or on the nose.

Unfortunately, despite these elements, Fir utterly failed to be believable.  Within the first few pages, it had already fallen into the YA trap of choosing just to have unreasonably rubbish parents to mask the fact that it’s difficult to write a believable relationship between a teenager and a parent once you’re past the age where you no longer rely on them.  I say difficult, which is why so many YA authors just either omit the adults of the story entirely (I’m looking at you Leo Hunt) or make them such caricatures of bad parenting that the focus naturally sways toward its teenage protagonists. Their reactions to situations and lack of communication with their daughter were simply not believable, and so made the plot feel entirely contrived.

One of the most effective elements was that the plot developed to allow for some ambiguity as to the truth of the ‘supernatural’ occurrences in the book.  I liked this, as it left it entirely open to interpretation, and made the premise of isolation even more frightening.  Letting the characters’ experiences speak for themselves made the local mythology even more interesting, as it highlighted how remote isolation could give rise to fears like these.  Had the book ended before the appendix I might have rated it far higher, but instead, Gosling chose to spoon feed the readers a supernatural ending that detracted from the whole narrative.  A book is only as good as its ending, so had it ended a few pages earlier, it would have been a much better book.

Overall, Fir was a quick and easy read.  It wasn’t particularly cerebral, certainly didn’t bring much to the YA horror genre, but was most definitely full of unrealised potential.  The plot had the potential to be unique with a critical message about environmental responsibility,  but instead just read as a generic supernatural YA story about bad parenting.

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Review: ‘I See You’ by Clare Mackintosh

I See You by Clare MackintoshI had heard such wonderful things about Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go (which I have yet to read), that I jumped at the opportunity to read I See You which promised a just as interesting premise, and had been described as “an edge-of-your-seat, page-turning psychological thriller”.  A quarter of the way through the book, and I was still waiting for something to happen.

Instead of a thrilling, fast paced jaunt through a dark underworld I was treated to long passages about boring police procedure, parenting problems, financial accounting and misogynistic bosses.  Every character was hinting at something, but nothing really progressed or went anywhere.  I didn’t care who was hungry and who had skipped dinner; the entire first quarter read like a boring treatise on everyday life.  I found myself skim reading just to get it over and done with.

The pace certainly doesn’t pick up much as the narrative progresses.  There was no sense of impending dread, no excitement, no tragedy. The characters lacked depth and I felt myself completely unable to engage in their lives. Everyone felt like caricatures of their archetypes. Teenagers with ‘you wouldn’t understand man’ attitudes, unfulfilled housewives, philandering ex-husbands, struggling writers and troubled cops with tragic pasts and rogue ways who take issue with authority. The victims were nothing but faceless plot elements, something that I abhor in crime writing. I should feel sympathy for the victims, and sadness at their misfortunes, but instead, they were just names with no voice. There was nothing new in I See You, and nothing that made me desperate to read on or invest myself in the characters’ lives.

But worst of all? It was predictable! Everything followed on rails to a formula that was all too familiar. There were an appropriate number of red herrings from the 3/4 mark so you knew who to eliminate as a suspect. When the antagonist surfaced they were given little to no legitimate and believable reason and ability for the crime, and the final plot twist was given away by a rather jimmied in explanation of a particular character near the end of the novel. This explanation (without giving anything away) highlighted a certain skill set making the ‘surprise’ ending exceedingly unsurprising, while also managing to invalidate some of the descriptions of the character earlier in the book.

I really wanted to like I See You. I might even still try I Let You Go. You can’t become such an overnight sensation if you have nothing going for you. Maybe I just started with the wrong book?  I did see a talented writer buried beneath all the formula. Clare Mackintosh ‘s dialogue was convincing and her prose was fluent and interesting to read in and of itself. But for me the plot never came to life. It didn’t build, it lacked depth and the characters weren’t particularly likeable or interesting. I didn’t hang on the story, desperate to read on and know what happened. I didn’t sound out the words in my head or savour them. Instead, I speed read the book in a day. It was just good enough for me to want to finish it, but not good enough for me to care that I had.

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Review: ‘The Fireman’ by Joe Hill

The Fireman by Joe HillJoe Hill’s new novel The Fireman is a strong addition to Hill’s already fantastic bibliography.  It took a number of different formulas that had already been tried and tested in the horror genre and melded them together to make something poignant, throwing in pop culture references that don’t seem to fit and yet only add to the strength of the novel.  What should be a grim and depressing slog through a plague ridden post-apocalyptic wasteland is instead turned in to a novel of hope, strength and the power of community.

The Fireman jumps straight in to the action.  The plague known as Dragonscale, which causes its sufferers to spontaneously burst in to flame, is already well under way when the book begins.  We get to know the characters in the reality that they inhabit while still getting a sense of their characters, without any unnecessary build up or exposition.  We immediately know who our protagonists are and the kind of people we’re dealing with, all without them ever being caricatures of their archetypes.  Each character has a struggle that they must overcome, and even the antagonists are agonisingly human in their misguided beliefs and mental instabilities.  There are good characters and bad characters, but one gets the sense that if the story had been told from the other side those roles could so easily have been reversed.  The titular Fireman is certainly no prince charming, and yet he is a character with such hidden depth and sarcastic wit that we can’t help but relate.  Nurse Willowes herself is a strong female character, fiercely protective, proud and yet equally aware of her own flaws.  Even the peripheral characters have enough depth and back story to make us care about them and relate to their struggles.

The way Hill deals with relationships in The Fireman is quite unique, and individual to each case.  He shows marriage in both its positive and negative aspects.  He doesn’t dwell on sweeping romantic gestures and instead shows romance as organic and often mundane, but beautiful in the every day things that make up a relationship.  He shows how relationships can create strength but also weakness, how it can bind but also tear apart.  The characters remain individuals and unique as part of their relationships, whether they be romantic, communal or familial and ultimately it the actions of individuals that can make or break the ties that bind us.  The Dragonscale itself plays an interesting part in the portrayal of these relationships, responding to human connection in a way that gave the book the unique depth that it has.

This novel is so much more than its genre would suggest.  Hill is the master of humanising the supernatural and using it in such a way as to draw attention to ourselves and our own reality. The Fireman reads like a perfect blend of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Shirley Jackson’s The LotteryThe Walking Dead and Adam Nevill’s The Ritual,  all interspersed with Hill’s signature wit and humanity.  The Fireman isn’t neat, there are no perfectly tied up conclusions, people can be cruel and life unfair, but through it all the novel is full of hope and sympathy.  A perfect novel for an imperfect world.

 

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