When I read M.R. Carey’s novel The Girl with All the Gifts I was aware that the movie rights for the book had been optioned, but since I heard nothing further about the project, I thought it had been abandoned as it’s bound to happen sometimes: imagine then my surprise when I discovered that a movie was indeed filmed in 2016. I have no way of knowing whether the movie was a direct-to-DVD production or more simply it skipped the theatre run in my part of the world: what matters is that I was recently able to see and appreciate the filmed version of this amazing story.
The premise might seem taken out of a classic horror scenario: a fungal infection taking possession of the victims’ cognitive faculties turns them into ravenous zombies, and the few survivors live in military enclaves surrounded by the hordes of the “hungries”. In one of such besieged areas, a group of children is used as test subjects to find a cure for the infection: they were all born after the spread of the disease and, while affected like the rest o humanity, they retain both intelligence and rationality. These children represent the next stage, or the new humans, but for Dr. Caldwell (a chillingly efficient Glen Close) they are nothing but specimens, to be used in the search for a cure, and likewise the military personnel treat them like unthinking animals, unmoved by some of the children’s continuing demonstrations of intellect and empathy. The only person on the base ready to see the humanity beyond the danger is the teacher Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton), whose special pupil is Melanie (portrayed with amazing skill by emergent Sennia Nanua), narrating voice of the inspiring book.
Like the novel, the movie leaves little space to the zombie-like hordes roaming the Earth, and concentrates instead on the psychology of the characters, going beyond the somewhat limited focus of book-Melanie’s observations to delve deeper into the other characters: Sergeant Parks, the rough-mannered soldier trying to keep them all alive after the base has been overrun by hungries, the most vocal about the need to keep Melanie constrained like the dangerous animal he sees in her; Doctor Caldwell, whose “the end justifies the means” attitude allows her to conveniently forget that she’s killing children to save a doomed humanity, that they are alive and possess feelings – something she is unwilling to accept; and Miss Justineau, who enjoys teaching her young charges and is too happy to read them tales from the classical myths instead of instructing them in math or chemistry.
And a Greek myth is indeed at the core of this story, that of Pandora who set free all the afflictions contained in the proverbial box, but ended her act by also freeing hope as a parting gift: hope is indeed what remains for a beleaguered humanity in this post-apocalyptic world – not the hope of being saved by some miracle cure, but the hope represented by the next generation, the children who will inherit the changed Earth. It’s not exactly a comforting scenario but it’s definitely better than the usual total-annihilation solution that so many offerings of the genre portray.
What makes the movie – and the book – quite special is Melanie’s voice, given life on the screen by an emerging performer whose amazing talent gives the lie to her young age: Sennia Nanua shows Melanie’s transition from the initial secluded innocence to the awareness of who and what she is with remarkable skill, managing the coexistence of the helpful child – able to navigate unscathed the dangers of the changed world – with the feral creature who needs to feed on living flesh, or the merciless fighter battling against the wild children of the city to defend the adults who find themselves suddenly in need of her protection. The visuals are quite stunning as well, not so much because of any special effects (the movie does not possess the feel of the huge, money-heavy production) but because it’s able to create the right atmosphere with the abandoned buildings chocked by fungal growths and peopled by unmoving hungrier waiting for a sign of life to jump into murderous activity.
The soundtrack deserves a special mention as well, since it mostly consists of human voices raised in a wail-like song that seems like a lament for the end of the world: it’s eerie and terrifying and it complements to perfection the images rolling on the screen.
The Girl with All the Gifts is not exactly an uplifting movie, and neither was the book that inspired it, but if offers so much inspiration for thought, as a window on the human soul, that I can heartily recommend it.
I encountered a great deal of online praise for this series, so that when I had the opportunity to watch it I jumped in eagerly, and with no expectations of any kind, since I knew very little about it. What I found is a small jewel of a story, one that ensnared me completely and led to a quick, compulsive watch.
The story and background have something of a nostalgic feel, thanks to the opening titles that are a clear call-back to the ‘80s – the time period in which the events are set – and to the soundtrack through which we revisit a few hits from those years. Moreover, there is a definite Stephen King vibe to the plot itself, a faint reminiscence of “IT” and “Firestarter”, with some “Carrie” overtones thrown in: which does not mean that the story is derivative, not at all, but rather that it wants to pay homage to the undiscussed master of the genre. And this is just one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much.
In the small town of Hawkins, Indiana, young Will Byers disappears without a trace while returning home after a day spent with his friends Mike, Dustin and Lucas. Local police start the search for the boy, but it’s clear that they are not putting all their hearts and energies into it, so that his three friends decide to start looking on their own. Meanwhile, a frightened girl with weird powers manages to escape from a nearby secret government installation and connects with the three friends, who believe she might be able to help them find Will. Something else escaped from the secret facility, however, some formless creature from an alternate dimension, and the missing people’s count starts to go up…
The undeniable truth that characters are everything comes to the fore here in Stranger Things, because each and every one of them gets the chance to shine and to add his or her own contribution to a very satisfying whole: to my surprise, the young kids were the ones who worked best in the economy of the story. From my point of view, television rarely fares well with younger characters, either making them too “old” and adult for their age, or excessively playing on the cuteness factor; here, though, kids are kids, and in a delightful, naïve way that portrays them with accuracy, showing at the same time a richness of imagination that’s typical of that age and that is able to navigate the thin border between reality and fantasy with ease and profound belief.
When we first see them, before Will’s disappearance, they are playing at some board game, dealing with dangerous traps and terrifying fictional monsters with gleeful abandon. Once their friend vanishes and the mysterious Eleven literally lands on their doorstep, they are ready to acknowledge her weird powers with the same easy acceptance of gamers who are being offered a special card to play. This does not mean they walk into danger blindfolded, on the contrary their game-playing seems to have prepared them, both mentally and on a practical level, to face the hazards from unbelievable monsters, and uncomprehending adults, with enviable clarity.
Among the adults, the best performance comes from Joyce, Will’s mother, portrayed by Winona Ryder: the distraught desperation of a mother, ready to believe the unbelievable for the sake of her son, is depicted with amazing craft, never going over the top despite the truly crazy paths she chooses to travel. Close second comes Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour), a man marked by a tragic past and walking the very thin line between duty and the need to do the right thing.
Stranger Things, before the tale of weird horror it is on the surface, is above all a tale about marginalized people having to face extraordinary events: Will and his friends are smaller kids, not exactly geared for physicality, and therefore the butt of cruel jokes and constant hazing from the school bullies; Joyce is a single mother, struggling to make ends meet and therefore looked on with suspicion by the closed society of a small town; Sheriff Hopper has a history of drinking as a coping mechanism against his loss, and does not enjoy the full respect of his deputies – the two best (or rather worst) examples of small-minded members of an inward-facing community. And finally Eleven, a child who was taken from her mother at birth because of her peculiar powers, raised and trained by Doctor Brenner (a very disturbing Matthew Modine) with a cold, practical efficiency that to me represents the true horror of the story, even beyond that of the blood-thirsty monster from the parallel reality.
The eight episodes of the first season of Stranger Things manage to concentrate a great deal of story and character development in such a small time frame, and to make the most of that time with a judicious use of pacing and the levels of tension. While the main events do reach a sort of conclusion, the door is left open for further developments – either in the same setting or a different one – and not all mysteries are solved: a choice I greatly appreciated and one that will keep me on the alert for the arrival of Season Two.
TOP TEN TUESDAY is a meme created at The Broke and The Bookish, with the aim of sharing Top Ten lists of our favorites – mostly book related.
For this last week of the year, the topic is: Top Ten Best Books of 2016
When the time comes to draw up a list like this, I find myself faced with some hard choices, because most of the books I’ve reviewed – and for 2016 they amount to a round 60, which is something of a record for me, given the limited time I can devote to reading – are books I liked quite a bit.
I spoke of reviewed books, rather than simply read, because some of the titles I picked up ended in the DNF pile, and of these I reviewed only a few – those for which I felt a very strong need to share the reasons I didn’t like them, although I managed to soldier on past the 25% mark that for me is the “make or break” point. Which means there are a few more that didn’t even make the list because I could not connect with either story or characters and moved on quite swiftly.
So, of these 60 books, only 3 were abandoned before the end, and I had to pick my favorite 10 out of the remaining 57: as I said, not an easy feat, and that’s the reason I’m not going to list my ten favorite titles in any particular order of preference, but rather in the order I read them. It’s the most Solomonic solution I could come up with…
THE FIFTH HOUSE OF THE HEART, by Ben Tripp
ILLUMINAE, by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff
DREAMER’S POOL, by Juliet Marillier
MORNING STAR, by Pierce Brown
THE LESSER DEAD, by Christopher Buehlman
DARK ASCENSIONS, by M.L. Brennan
THE DRAGON’S PATH, by Daniel Abraham
HOUSE OF SUNS, by Alastair Reynolds
BABYLON’S ASHES, by James S.A. Corey (forthcoming review)
Ok, the count really goes to 11 titles, but I can bend the rules a little if I consider that the books in the October Daye series are all parts of the same whole. Can I?
And what about you? What are your favorite reads for this year?
When a book starts as strongly as this one did, with a story that’s attention-grabbing from page one, the disappointment for its failed promises hurts twice as much: this is what happened to me with The Unnoticeables, whose narrative arc… imploded (for want of a better word) two thirds of the way in.
The story runs on two different time tracks, separated by 36 years: Carey, living in New York in 1977, is a young man reveling in the time’s punk scene, spending his days getting drunk, stoned – or both – and generally causing any kind of mayhem he can think of; Kaitlyn lives in Los Angeles, in 2013, as a part-time stuntwoman, part-time waitress trying, and so far failing, to bring her stunt work to the next level. Both of them are confronted by something that is both inexplicable and terrifying, something that possesses all the markers of a slowly spreading invasion.
The first inkling that something terrible is going on happens when Carey sees a girl he’s interested in being attacked by what looks like a man-shaped oily mass: the thing acts like acid, consuming the unfortunate girl and leaving only bloody remains behind. Moreover, in the area where Carey and his friends prowl, some peculiar individuals start cropping up: they all appear good-looking and attractive, but as soon as one’s eyes leave them, their features blur and no ones seems able to remember what they look like. Worse, whenever these people – dubbed by Carey “the Empty Ones” – manage to attract any given individual, the unfortunates disappear without a trace.
Kaitlyn, on the other hand, suffers from a more close-and-personal confrontation: at a party she meets Marco, former sitcom star and her teenage years’ crush. Accepting a ride back home from the man, she’s first appalled by his reckless driving and uncaring attitude, which make her think Marco is somewhat deranged, then he forces himself on her. More shocking than the sexual assault is its modality: Kaitlyn feels something metallic slide down her throat, and her strength and willpower being drained away. Saved by someone who bodily extracts her from Marco’s car, she makes Carey’s acquaintance: older, probably wiser but still tainted with his old recklessness, he’s living like a borderline homeless, but he has information on the Empty Ones – and is willing to help Kaitlyn trace her friend Jackie who disappeared after that fateful party.
The novel’s chapters alternate between Carey’s past and Kaitlyn’s present with a relentless pace that makes the book a compulsive read while we follow their scary journey of discovery: the two main characters are the best and strongest elements of the story, their voices persuasively true and their dialogue or thoughts evenly balanced between stark, dramatic reality and sarcastic humor. Carey comes across as the best defined one, though: the outrageous style of life he and his friends are pursuing should make them offensive, and yet there is a sort of wild abandon in Carey, tinged with the somewhat lucid awareness of what he is, that managed to endear him to me, and to make me root for him – especially when his rough attachment to his friends comes to the fore, almost belying his devil-may-care attitude.
Once Kaitlyn’s disbelief at her new friend’s revelations evaporates, the two decide to go on the offensive to try and save Jackie, and they pursue Marco’s car in a mad motorcycle dash through the congested traffic of Los Angeles. They follow him to a mansion where a party is in progress, and though realizing that the place must be crawling with Empty Ones like Marco they decide to go in: this is where the story started unraveling and making less and less sense to me. For starters, I could not figure out what the two were trying to accomplish knowing they were vastly outnumbered by people (if one wanted to call them that…) who could not be hurt, harmed or stopped in any way. And then the real madness kicked in…
What had started as a horror story about strange beings preying on unsuspecting humanity, and the slow infiltration of the Empty Ones in various facets of society (the most chilling example being Kaitlyn’s trip to the police station to denounce Marco’s assault), suddenly morphed into something best defined as crazily grotesque: the dangerous environment of the hellish party is only the front for what happens in the closed back rooms, where blood-drenched orgies lead to every kind of imaginable (and unimaginable…) sex perversion, give way to a frenzy of horrific mutilations and killings, all of which with no apparent rhyme or reason, except maybe the author’s penchant for imagining and depicting the most revolting and senseless acts of destruction.
At that point, only the desire for some sort of explanation kept me reading on, despite the appearance of even more gory weirdness in the form of a strange contraption to which the Empty Ones’ victims were being fed, all in the name of a nebulous fight against entropy. Sadly, whatever form of explanation, or clue to understanding the bloody mess this story had turned into, was not enough to save this novel from the downward plunge it had taken in my consideration. I’m not even certain I entirely grasped whatever passed for explanation: the only thing I’m sure about is that I will not pursue this series further.
Right after the great find that was “The Lesser Dead”, I wanted to read more of Christopher Buehlman’s work and settled on this shortish novel set in the era of the Great Depression. Here the main character is former WWI soldier Frank Nichols, still haunted by nightmares about his war experiences: he lost his job as a history teacher after starting an affair with the young wife of a colleague with friends in high places, so that he and Dora – who divorced her husband to follow Frank – seem to find a break in their difficult situation when Frank’s aunt leaves him a small inheritance and the deed to a house in Whitbrow, Georgia. Forsaking the aunt’s warning about selling the house and never setting foot in the place, the two decide to start a new life: Dora will teach at the local school and Frank will write a book about the cruel history of a nearby plantation, owned by one of his ancestors and the theatre of a bloody slave revolt.
Shortly after arriving in Whitbrow, though, the couple starts hearing vague warnings about never walking in the woods across the river – curiously enough, the location of the old plantation – and they are faced with a strange ritual: every two months, the village’s inhabitants release two pigs into the woods, following a tradition that seems almost festive, if it were not for the historical moment’s privations and the need to provide for more urgent needs. It goes without saying that the collective decision to bow to the time’s hardships will unleash an unstoppable chain of terrible events…
What’s fascinating in this novel is that the truly supernatural horror, whose origin is revealed a good way into the story, seems to take almost second place to a different, and more human-related kind of dread. Whitbrow is a stagnant place, not only as a result of the Great Depression (even though its mark is deeply felt), but more as the product of an age-old torpor that has taken possession of the minds and souls of its inhabitants, and that quickly ensnares Frank as well. The drive to write his novel is soon drowned in the daily visits to the local store, where he engages in endless checkers games with the patrons under the guise of gathering background information for his story, but in truth succumbing to the timeless inertia that seems to be the village’s modus vivendi.
Whitbrow’s dullness goes hand in hand with a deeply rooted distrust of strangers, of those who are different: this extends to both out-of-owners (their quick acceptance of Frank due solely to his family ties) and the truly different, like the homeless moving across the land and, of course, black people. There are a few scenes where the animosity toward these “aliens” is shown in no uncertain terms: given the recurrence of this phenomenon in our present times, the unwillingness of some to extend human consideration toward the less fortunate “outsiders”, these pages take on a far more chilling flavor than it was probably intended at the time they were written…
And then there is the closing of the villagers’ minds to anything new, to the possibility of attaining something better in one’s life: Dora’s struggle to keep the children in school when their families prefer to steer them toward field work, is one such example. There is one situation in which she and Frank go to the home of one of her most gifted pupils, in the hope of offering her more advanced schooling, and the scene that Buehlman depicts is both historically accurate and vivid, as they are met with cold indifference and mulish refusal from the girl’s father, and a sort of hopeless compliance from the daughter:
[…] looked up from the chicken she was plucking in the kitchen and peeked through the doorway, but she did not risk a hello. I guess she never knew exactly when to speak in this house, but with her daddy it was good to err in favor of silence.
After these all-too-real evils, the apparition of the true horror seems almost mundane, even though the discovery brings forth an abomination that goes back a long time, something that has always dwelled near the village – ignored and maybe conveniently forgotten. And this is where the story’s magic fell somewhat short for me: from the opening’s chilling preview to the big reveal there is an increasing sense of foreboding that unfortunately loses steam once the proverbial cat (or rather critter) is out of the bag and the carefully crafted buildup flounders in a great deal of anti-climatic exposition that does not fully realize the expectations I nurtured up to that moment.
All in all it was still a good read, but I’m sorry I cannot rate it as high as the previous book I sampled from this author, even though this slight disappointment will not prevent me from exploring further Mr. Buehlman’s work.
I’m very happy to share the news that Australian author Ashley Capes is hosting a giveaway of his novella A WHISPER OF LEAVES on Instafreebie: you will find the download link HERE. The giveaway starts today and will go on until August 25th, so hurry and grab your copy!
The story, in short:
When ESL teacher Riko finds an old journal buried in the forests beneath Mt Fuji, a malevolent, untraceable force begins to threaten her at every turn.
But is it all in her head?
The more she studies the journal for answers, the more questions she uncovers. Worse, no-one takes her fears seriously and her best lead appears to be a belligerent old man, whose only care in the world is raking leaves deep in the forest.
With her grip on reality shaken and friendships strained to breaking point, Riko has to discover the truth about the journal in order to put ghosts of the past to rest, as strange events turn deadly.
If you’re interested, here is my review of the novella, but I urge you to go and read for yourselves this very moody, very peculiar story. Enjoy!