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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: ‘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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