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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: ‘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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My Top 10 Fantasy Series

Top 10 Fantasy Book Series

Picking my Top 10 Fantasy series is such a subjective task.  The books I love carry with them the weight of not just my own tastes, but also my nostalgia.  Some of the books I’d put in my top 10 aren’t even objectively the best books, but they are books that I have loved at some point in my life and want to share with people.

Some you may have heard of, others, perhaps not. I’ve not bothered putting Tolkien or Pratchett on the list because if you don’t’ love Tolkien or Pratchett you don’t love Fantasy. But these are my personal Top 10 fantasy series of all time (in no particular order).

The Name of the Wind

The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss


First Book: The Name of the Wind

When The Name of the Wind was first released, my mother came home with a hardback copy.  She’d picked it up on the way home because it sounded like something I might like, and did I ever!  I would go so far to say that this series is the best of modern fantasy.

It is a story of youth, told by a man who is to become the world’s most renowned magician.  It’s full of action, adventure, romance, friendship and above all, magic!

BattleAxe

The Axis Trilogy by Sara Douglass


First Book: BattleAxe

When I was twelve a friend of the family gave me a book for my birthday.  That book was Sara Douglass’ Threshold.  Looking back I was way too young to have been given that book, let alone be reading it, but it started my life-long love affair with everything Sara Douglass.  I loved her so much I even applied to be her shadow for my year 10 work experience.  Even though it didn’t happen, I still have the reply that she sent me to this day.

The Axis Trilogy is an epic series full of family feuds, the magic of the stars and doomed romances.  It has strong female characters, tackles issues of abuse and religious zealotry, environmentalism, xenophobia and is the series that I come back to again and again.

The Lies of Locke Lamora

The Gentleman Bastards Sequence by Scott Lynch


First Book: The Lies of Locke Lamora

This whole series is irreverent and darkly humorous. Locke and his compatriots carry out schemes and heists and are the perfect anti-heroes that you can’t help but fall in love with.  The characterisation in this series is superb and the setting is so rich you almost feel you could step in to its pages.  It’s a long series that is barely half way through, but it’s one that is so worth committing to.

The characterisation in this series is superb and the setting is so rich you almost feel you could step in to its pages.  It’s a long series that is barely half way through, but it’s one that is so worth committing to.

The Dark is Rising

The Dark Is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper


First Book: Over Sea, Under Stone

This is the series that made me want to become an historian and started my lifelong love affair with everything Arthurian.  I read the series in the fifth grade, and turned to my parents and told them that I wanted to find The Holy Grail.  When they asked me how, I said research!

This is such a fantastic series for adults and children alike, and is so woefully overlooked.  They are darker than a lot of children’s fantasy novels which is very welcome.  The first book is more of a seaside adventure story and the books get darker as they progress until they end with an epic battle of Arthurian proportions.  The Dark is Rising Sequence will make you fall in love with reading all over again.

The Earthsea Quartet

The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula Le Guin


First Book:  A Wizard of Earthsea

Ursula Le Guin is probably as influential as Tolkien.  Many of the series in this list have clearly been influenced by The Earthsea Cycle.  So many modern fantasy series rely on appendices, family trees, and other extra information to help build their worlds.  With Earthsea though Le Guin offers us a master class in world building.  The evil itself is largely abstract; a force rather than an evil with a face. The series tackles the huge task of covering themes like life and death.

The first three books act as a Trilogy and can easily be read on their own.  The fourth book Tehanu is usually packaged with the first three (while the last two books are largely ignored) but is a largely different book in substance and style to the three that came before.  This series is a must read for anyone who loves fantasy.

Taliesin

The Pendragon Cycle by Stephen Lawhead


First Book:  Taliesin

I picked up the first two books in this series from my school library when I was in my early teens.  Since then I’ve tried to get a copy of the whole series, but they’re surprisingly difficult to get hold of (especially if you want the whole series with the same covers – seriously publishers, WHY?).

Arthurian legend is a subject covered in literature time and time again, but in my opinion, this is one of the best.  It mixes Arthurian legend with Celtic history and even myths of Atlantis with elements if historical Minoan culture!  It’s a fantastic mix of fantasy and historical fiction that is so well researched you could almost believe it to be true.

Hood

King Raven Trilogy by Stephen Lawhead


First Book:  Hood

The Legend of Robin Hood is known by pretty much everyone.  It’s been made in to countless films and plays and stories, but never has it been done in such an original and well-researched way. Lawhead sets his trilogy in the time of the Norman Conquest on the Welsh borders and gives every element of the story its own place in history.

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Obernewtyn

The Obernewtyn Chronicles by Isobelle Carmody


First Book:  Obernewtyn

I must admit, my obsession with The Obernewtyn Chronicles has waned somewhat over the years.  I was absolutely obsessed with the books in my childhood, but as more time passed between her releasing books and  I got older, I simply lost interest.  There was nearly a decade between book 4 and 5 and there is only so long I can keep my expectation for a series going, especially since she started other series during that time.

Still, despite my brief disenchantment, The Obernewtyn Chronicles remain a seminal work of YA literature.  Like most post-apocalyptic novels this series covers everything that a coming-of-age story needs and goes further covering deeper elements of prejudice, tolerance, responsibility and even human and animal rights.

After 28 years the series was finally finished with the 7th novel released in 2015, so you’re safe to pick it up now.

 

The Mists of Avalon

Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley


First Book:  The Mists of Avalon

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Avalon series takes Arthurian legend and re-tells it from the perspective of its female protagonists, which is a stroke of genius.  The experience of reading these books is therefore completely different to what you get from many other books in this genre.  The big battles and power struggles that are usually so prevalent in Arthurian legend instead serve as backdrops to the lives of its women.

While it’s fantasy, it does serve as an important work of feminist literature, giving voice to the women who are largely silent in the old legends.

 

The Screaming Staircase

Lockwood & Co. by Jonathan Stroud


First Book: The Screaming Staircase

It’s been a long time since I’ve been this excited for the release of new books.  I describe the Lockwood & Co. series as if J. K. Rowling had written The Woman in Black.  While it’s technically middle-grade fiction there is a lot here to be excited about.   The prose is witty with beautifully fleshed out characters with completely unique personalities.

There are chills galore and an overarching story that makes me desperate to read on. I can’t recommend this series enough!

So there they are, my top 10 fantasy series.  And the best thing?  There’s still plenty more out there to discover!

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