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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: ‘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 Gospel of Loki’ by Joanne Harris

Joanne Harris - The Gospel of LokiJoanne Harris’ The Gospel of Loki read more like a twelfth grade creative writing project than the work of a long established author. Loki’s voice was childish and with incongruous modern inflection which made this book a lot less enjoyable than anticipated.

The concept is a good one; telling a well established mythological text from the point of view of a relatively minor player. Loki is a recognisable name, but has had very little fleshing out done of his character in Norse mythology. As such The Gospel of Loki was rife with possibility, but in my mind simply fell short of the mark. While we get a better sense of Loki as a character, the way this was developed was not in an engaging way. Harris’ prose is far too full of but-more-on-that-laters and yours-truly’s to ring true. It really felt like she’d taken an exam essay question (Loki is a relatively minor character in Norse Mythology. In 150000 words or less give examples of the importance of Loki’s role in Ragnarok referring to the original text. Discuss.) been given 3 hours writing time and simply had to go for it!

The style of ‘gospel’ didn’t quite work in the context of the mythology. Loki’s relatively modern voice was incongruous with the formal language usually associated with Gospel, and the lack of cohesive narrative to tie each smaller story toegether made it difficult to engage with the narrative on a deeper level. Norse mythological characters have become such household names, that to do the underdeveloped character of Loki some depth he really needed to be, well, developed. Loki went places, and did things, but I really didn’t get a sense of who Loki was, or his true motivations. He is of course a child of Chaos and so all hi actions are motivated by and cause chaos, however this just didn’t feel like enough. He was bound to the human world and has some terrible things happen to him, we even have glimpses of his emotional development. But that is all these were, glimpses. With the role he would play in Ragnarok there was some real scope to take an in depth look at his motivation, and indeed make him a character who we could understand and relate to. But every moment with hints of emotion was quickly overshadowed by a quick turn of events or even just looked over completely.

The Gospel of Loki had potential to be a wonderful piece of literature, and even an important instalment in the understanding of the characters in Norse mythology. On all fronts however it fell short of the mark. I still believe with some more fleshing out this could still prove to be a wonderful work, and I hope in the next few years we see a revised edition. In the mean time I’ve picked up A. S. Byatt’s Ragnarok. It was recommended to me as a better alternative. I’ll see if that one lives up to my expectations.

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Review: ‘Shotgun Lovesongs’ by Nickolas Butler

Shotgun Lovesongs

I can understand why people would enjoy Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs, a slow paced homage to friendship and the rural American way of life. It felt nostalgic, and Butler’s prose is beautiful and descriptive, his characters warm and inviting. It is a book however that will not speak to everyone’s tastes, which is no judgement of Butler’s clear talent, but simply a fact of individual reading tastes.

Set in a rural Wisconsin farming town, Shotgun Lovesongs elicits a sense of home. The pace is slow, teasing a novel from everyday experiences and not much action. Butler’s language is familiar and comfortable, like talking to an old friend you’ve not seen in a while. His characters, Kip, Ronny, Henry, Lee and Beth are well realised with their own motivations, but for me I simply didn’t feel invested. Each chapter is narrated by a different character who’s stories intertwine, but although Butler’s writing style is fluid and easy to read, he lacks a clear voice for each of his characters. Without the convenient initial at the top of each chapter I would have struggled to know who was speaking.

We meet these characters in a series of small moments, around the time of various weddings. Shotgun Lovesongs is a very relationship oriented book, both friendships and love interests. Because of this, while I felt I knew the characters, my views did not feel well rounded. All the characters reactions to certain things are seen only within the snapshot of their immediate relationship dramas. If we had got to know the characters within their everyday moments I would have felt a greater sense of them. As it was, some of the reactions seemed slightly more implausible than I would otherwise have felt them to be and it made the plot slightly too predictable.

Where this novel really fell short for me was the very end. It escalated far too quickly and made me think that Butler had simply struggled to find a suitable resolution to what was otherwise a slow paced story. The slow pace is what had made Shotgun Lovesongs so good to begin with, and the unnecessary action of the last few pages felt forced and unnatural. The love and heart he poured in to the rural Wisconsin setting almost felt betrayed by this slightly ridiculous ending.

Despite its flaws, Shotgun Lovesongs is a beautifully written book with heart. Despite its essentially mundane subject matter it was well realised and was never boring, however I must admit that it simply wasn’t to my taste. Despite Butler’s clear talent and obvious love for his subject matter the whole reading experience felt nice, but somehow not that special.

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Review: ‘Finders Keepers’ by Stephen King

Finders KeepersReading Finders Keepers, Stephen King’s new crime thriller directly on the back of Mr. Mercedes was both a blessing and a curse. While I enjoy Stephen King novels once in a while as a distraction, I’ve never been a huge fan. He does really excel at horror writing and so both Mr Mercedes and Finders Keepers, purely crime novels, somehow felt a little lacking.

The overall pace of the novel was exciting. It was a general page turner like so many of King’s novels are. It lacked the grizzlyness of Mr Mercedes however, and for a crime novel seemed to focus more on the psychology of poverty and the psyche of the criminal. No bad thing, let me assure you, but it certainly felt like a departure from the viscerally graphic murders of the previous novel. The descriptions of the Mercedes massacre and the job fair, and of Brady Hartsfield’s mother after imbibing poised hamburger meat in Mr Mercedes stayed with me for a few days after finishing it. The murders in Finders Keepers on the other hand were over relatively quickly with little to no fanfair or excess grimness attached. Without the insertion of Det Ret Hodges and his new company ‘Finders Keepers’, you could be forgiven for thinking you were reading a book which was not in the same series as Mr Mercedes, let alone a book which was the direct follow on from it.

In Mr Mercedes we were introduced to Bill Hodges, Holly Gibney and Jerome Robinson, the characters who should be integral to the plot of Finders Keepers but in reality were barely in it. With the introduction of Holly as a character left to very last minute in Mr Mercedes I did expect there to be a little more development of her character in this novel. While the characters from the first novel existed, their appearance is brief, and did not really flow with the rest of the plot which developed the new characters of the antagonist, Morris Bellamy, and the unfortunate Finder and titular Keeper of the stolen notebooks of the late, murdered, fictional Salinger-esque John Rothsein. Even Rothstein’s unpublished body of work is almost a character in its own right. Through Morris Bellamy and Pete Saubers I did start to feel attached to Rothstein’s work and wished I could read it for myself. With all of this in mind, I actually think Finders Keepers would have been a better novel had Hodges and co. not actually featured in it and it had stood alone as the spiritual successor to King’s earlier novel Misery.

Despite it’s other flaws, such as some clunky allusions to events of the previous novel, an unnecessary and irrelevant (to the plot of this novel at least)supernatural plot twist involving the near brain-dead Brady Hartsfield, and some questionable decisions of the part of its characters, Finders Keepers was a welcome distraction. It wasn’t brilliant, it didn’t blow me away, but it kept me entertained on some long journeys home. And isn’t that sometimes just what you need?

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