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Movie Review: THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS

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.

My Rating:


DUSK OR DARK OR DAWN OR DAY by Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is not only one my favorite authors, she is a natural-born storyteller – and that might be the very reason I enjoy her powerful writing so much. This is her second novel I’ve read that deals with ghosts (the first being Sparrow Hill Road), and although there is no connection between the two stories – except for the presence of ghosts, of course – the tie binding them together is the way McGuire handles the emotions connected to death and the afterlife.  The stark directness of her descriptions, the lack of any concession to morbid thoughts or easy sentimentality, make this story compelling and its characters unforgettable.

Ghosts are created when people die before their allotted life-span, so that they still move among the living – often in deceptively corporeal form, enough to be undistinguishable from the rest of humanity – until they have reached the amount of years pre-programmed, so to speak, into their existence: ghosts possess the ability to take time from the living, so prolonging an individual’s permanence on the Earth and at the same time shortening the giving ghost’s stay in limbo; they can also give time back, though, as a form of punishment for those who are deemed undeserving.

This intriguing premise has a negative side, though: witches (yes, there are witches moving among us, and some of them are bad) can trap ghosts inside mirrors and use them as a veritable fountain of youth, either for themselves or for anyone willing to pay for the chance of many more healthy, vigorous years. Even being dead does not free one from the dangers of human greed, it would seem…

Jenna is a ghost: once a small-town girl, she literally ran to her death shortly after her beloved sister Patty’s funeral.  Patty had moved to New York in search of a better life and, like many other disillusioned young women before her, choose suicide as a way of escape from her broken dreams.  Once dead, Jenna did not meet again with Patty – who, in all probability, was fated to die when she did – so she’s now going on as a ghost, working as a part-time waitress and as a volunteer at a suicide help line, where she earns time by helping people at the end of their endurance.   Decades of this routine almost-existence are profoundly shaken when it becomes clear that all ghosts in New York have disappeared, and Jenna decides to take action, shaking herself out of her unconscious complacency and finally facing her own… well, ghosts.

The actual plot at the core of this novel felt less important, to me, than the intriguing ideas and characters that supported it, starting with the whole concept of ghosts as indentured workers needing to serve their whole time before being set free: life is somehow compared to a form of duty one needs to fulfill before being allowed to move on.  That felt like one of the strongest arguments against suicide I remember reading, one that feels both right on its own merit and devastatingly clear in its simplicity.   Indeed Jenna, who still mourns the loss of her sister Patty, understands how her own accidental death squandered her potential, so that she feels the need to earn every single minute of time she gains, and more often than not chooses to donate it to someone in need.

Jenna is an intriguing character, because all throughout the story she appears somewhat detached from it all – not because she is a ghost among the living, but because it seems that she’s trying to protect herself from feeling too much: the loss of Patty, of the strongest emotional bond she had while living, left her apparently unable to form any meaningful connection with other people, either living or dead. It would be easy to classify her as cold and aloof, if it were not for the small group of friends she has gathered around her, the real mirrors of her personality: fellow ghost Delia, the landlady of the building Jenna lives in, a sort of mother figure for both living and dead in the community; corn-witch Brenda, the guitar-playing manager of the coffee shop Jenna visits regularly; or homeless Sophie, her muttered ramblings a cover for something deeper.  All of these equally fascinating characters show us who the real Jenna is by reacting to her with care and sympathy, making us understand that there is more to Jenna than meets the eye, even if she is the one telling the story and therefore being something of an unreliable narrator, up to a point.

What ultimately Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day is, is a contemplation of life an death, of the meaning of both, and the way we face them.  There is a quote that showcases what I most appreciate in this author:

Statistically, women are more likely to go for poisons than men are. We don’t like to leave a mess. We spend our whole lives learning how to be… how to be as neat and tidy and unobtrusive as possible, and then we go out the same way.

No preaching, no lengthy sermons, but a simply effective bluntness that’s one of McGuire’s landmarks and the reason I’ve become such a staunch fan in a relatively short time.  This might not be one of the “happiest” stories you might find, but it’s one that will make you think, and that’s always a plus in my book.

My Rating:


Novella Review: COUNTDOWN, by Mira Grant (from RISE: A Newsflesh Collection)

After I finished reading Mira Grant’s last  volume in her Newsflesh trilogy about the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, I wanted to know more about the changed world resulting from the rising of the dead, and discovered two short stories that acted as a prequel to the events described in Feed: one was Countdown – the story of how two independent viral researches combined into the infection that caused the dead to rise; and the other was San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats – a look on the first few days of the outbreak from the point of view of the participants to a sci-fi convention.

With time, these two stories were joined by a couple of novellas, How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea – set in a post-outbreak Australia, and The Day the Dead Came to Show and Tell – a tale of the post-Rising world focused on a group of school children and their teachers.

When the author announced she was going to publish a book that would gather all this material and a few new stories, I knew I had to read it: Mira Grant (the alter ego of UF writer Seanan McGuire) is an amazing storyteller and I was looking forward to more about this dystopian version of our world, either revisiting the older stories I did not review at the time, or enjoying the new ones.

COUNTDOWN

Countdown is indeed the tale about how it all began, how the seeds for the end of the world as we know it were sown, marrying human desire to cure both big and small ailments and the equally human stupidity of acting without thinking about consequences.

In Denver, Colorado, Dr. Wells is satisfactorily progressing with his experimental cure for cancer that uses a mutated strain of the Marburg virus to attack cancer cells and truly give a second lease on life to his patients. He’s checking in on one of his youngest patients, 18-year old Amanda Amberlee, who’s looking forward to her prom night and finally enjoying the freedom of simply being alive.

In Reston, Virginia, Dr. Alexander Kellis is conducting experiments on monkeys and guinea pigs with his miracle cure for the common cold: it might not look as ground-breaking as his colleague’s research into cancer, but alleviating even something as banal as a cold would greatly improve mankind’s living conditions.

In New York, journalist Robert Stalnaker writes an inflaming editorial concerning Dr. Kellis’ work, claiming that the cure will be available only to people with means, and calls the scientist’s efforts a “money scam”, reveling in the huge response – both positive and negative – the article receives.

And finally in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Brandon Majors, “self-proclaimed savior of mankind” decides to start a crusade that will result in the destruction of Dr. Kellis’ lab, the dispersal of his as yet not-fully-tested cure in the atmosphere, and its interaction with the Marburg-Amberlee cancer-fighting strain.

Countdown does not only lay the basis for the zombie apocalypse and its aftermath, but also shows the failure of institutions and media in keeping the public informed about what is really happening, in a last-ditch effort of containing the inevitable by burying everyone’s heads under the sand.  This is the point from which independent bloggers will take up the slack and fill the niche left vacant by more traditional information channels: one of the more interesting narrative threads concerns indeed Georgia and Shaun Mason’s adoptive parents, both teachers at the time of the Rising – they are pictured as normal people having to face extraordinary circumstances, showing the first glimmers of what they will become in the immediate future.

There is a sense of inevitable doom hanging over this story, of an unstoppable chain of events that will lead to an explosive climax, and knowing beforehand what’s going to happen only enhances the power of this tale of how the Rising came to be.

My Rating:


Review: FEEDBACK by Mira Grant (Newsflesh #4)

22359662It might sound strange when I say I’m very happy to be back in Mira Grant’s Newsflesh series, since it depicts a terrifying post-apocalyptic world following a zombie plague, but this author’s powerful, intense narrative always manages to draw me in, enthrall me and make me care and worry for her characters, so that every new installment in this saga is a highly anticipated and very welcome occasion.

A little background: some twenty years before the events at the core of this story, the dead started to rise. There is a well-thought out and scientifically-oriented reason for this: two independent studies were underway to find a cure for cancer (using a mutated strain of the Marburg virus) and the common cold. When both organisms were accidentally released, they combined into the Kellis-Amberlee virus, able to amplify its victims, i.e. transforming them into zombies, and since everyone on the planet was infected, even death by natural causes could bring amplification. Once the worst of the Rising is over, humanity finds itself in the grip of terror, forced to undergo blood tests before entering any enclosed space and to go through decontamination every time they are exposed to a live form of the virus, like blood or other bodily fluids.    The failure of the traditional media in reporting the facts of the Rising results in the emergence of bloggers as the most trusted form of information, and bloggers are indeed the protagonists of the Newsflesh series.

While the first trilogy (Feed, Deadline and Blackout) focuses on the Masons, a brother-sister team of bloggers, Feedback moves its sights toward a different team, although the story parallels –  both in content and in time-frame – the events of the first book in the series, with the bloggers following the last stages of the presidential campaign alongside a candidate’s entourage.   This might sound like the rehashing of an old plot, but it’s not, not by a long shot – and I must warn you that while this book can be read on its own, it contains spoilers for the first volume in the original trilogy.  Feedback complements the first three novels, and adds new insights and information, not unlike what happens when you observe a scene from different angles: since this is above all a story, or series of stories, about news people and the search for information and truth, no perspective can be deemed as superfluous or repetitive.

Aislinn “Ash” North is an Irwin, which in the post-Rising blogging community means the kind of journalist who goes out in the wild, facing the dangers of the undead to give her audience a sense of what the world outside is about.  She’s married to Ben Ross, the Newsie, the team’s writer of more serious, more thoughtful content: it was a marriage of convenience, since it helped Aislinn escape her native Ireland’s oppressive society, but it’s still based on a strong sense of companionship and respect, while their opposing approaches to news content keep the blog fresh and interesting. The other members of the group are Audrey Wen, the Fictional, who writes serialized stories, and Matt Newson, the tech-person who also publishes makeup tutorials.  They are a diverse and well-integrated group and while not at the top of the blogging pyramid like the Masons, they enjoy a good audience and hope to expand: this opportunity comes when they are enrolled by Democratic candidate, governor Susan Killburn, to report on her run toward the White House.  It will soon become clear that there are darker undercurrents in this presidential campaign and the team will discover, to their horror and loss, that the puppet masters are very powerful and will stop at nothing to bring their plans to completion.

What differentiates Feedback from its predecessors is the outward-directed focus on the post-Rising world: readers of the original trilogy will be already aware of the changes in life style, the need for constant blood tests, the bleach showers to remove any trace of contaminants, and so on. These elements are present here as well, but they take second place to a deeper investigation of the changes the Rising brought to society and people’s mind-sets.  Fear is the most powerful drive of the times, and with reason, since the threat of amplification always lurks around the corner, changing the way people must deal with everyday errands, the same ones we face without thinking about it, like entering an underground parking, or a supermarket, or boarding a flight.  So there are those who capitalize on that, as Ash notes at some point, with her irrepressible cheeky wit:

Fear wasn’t just an American pastime: it was a global addiction, and industries of every size existed to satiate it. Some of them were obvious, like the blood tests shoved in front of our faces at every possible turn […]

It’s a theme that was present in the previous books but takes center stage here, because that fear is shown as a useful tool – a lesson we need to be reminded of in these times when fear is used far too often in the same way. The fictional future and our present are therefore linked by this element that is also a commentary on the direction our society seems to be headed toward. As usual, Grant never preaches to her audience, but simply lets her characters’ dialogue connect the story to present-day issues, like a snippet of conversation about one of the candidates, a man who prefers to live in a secluded enclave, away from any contact with the rest of the world:

“The pre-Rising generation thinks of him as a visionary.”

“Everyone else thinks of him as a throwback,” said Rick. “He’s too reactionary, he’s too insular, he wants to build a wall across the Canadian and Mexican border. A wall. As if the damn fences in Texas and Arizona didn’t get people killed during the Rising.”

Considering that Feedback was published at the beginning of October 2016, the above quote takes a very special meaning, indeed.

Apart from these considerations, what I most enjoyed in Feedback are the characters: the group of protagonists here feels more approachable than the Masons were in the original trilogy, they appear more… human, for want of a better word.  The Newsflesh bloggers are all consummate professionals doing their jobs, granted, but Aislinn & Co. feel more in touch with the world, more interested in people than in the exploration of facts and the search for truth. It’s for this reason, I imagine, that Grant showed us more of the outside world in this novel: besides the cities and the convention centers, that featured in the first three books as well, we see some off-the-map communities on both sides of the spectrum, from the survivalists who want to keep away from the dangers of civilization, to mad Clive’s little domain ruled with intimidation and terror. We also see more interaction between blogger teams, and get a perception of what their community is like, how they view each other, be it with professional respect or envy and antagonism.  If I liked the Masons as protagonists, and cared for what happened to them, I grew deeply fond of Ash, Ben, Audrey and Mat – they felt more substantial, more flesh-and blood and less legend, if I’m making any sense. I found the reason for such a difference in a consideration by Aislinn herself:

[…] We’d never considered that letting ourselves be killed might be the answer. It wasn’t worth it. Maybe the Masons would think it was, but the Masons were zealots. They’d been born to the news and if they died making it, they wouldn’t think their lives had been wasted. I didn’t want that. I wanted to live  […]  and not become a footnote for the sake of a story than had never really been mine and had never been meant to be.

People, and what makes them tick, especially in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, are the reason for the continued success of this series, one that draws its horror from the darkness of the human mind rather than from the hordes of flesh-eating undead, that are just background “decoration” here, rather than the main props. Witnessing the cold-blooded exploitation, from those in power, of citizens’ frantic need for security is far more chilling than seeing senseless murders gleefully perpetrated with a barbed-wire-clad bat (yes, TWD, I’m looking right at you!) and it’s far more effective than any given quantity of blood and gore.

As long as Mira Grant (the alter ego for UF writer Seanan McGuire) will keep delivering these meaningful stories of the post-Rising world, I will be looking forward to learning more.

My Rating:


TV Review: STRANGER THINGS (Season 1)

strangerthings

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.

My Rating:


TOP TEN TUESDAY #4

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.

toptentuesday

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

A RED ROSE CHAIN & ONCE BROKEN FAITH, by Seanan McGuire  (I could not pick just one of them…)

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?

Review: THE UNNOTICEABLES, by Robert Brockway

23168833When 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.

 

My Rating:

Review: THOSE ACROSS THE RIVER, by Christopher Buehlman

10772903Right 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.

My Rating:


Review: DARK ASCENSIONS (Generation V #4), by M.L. Brennan

23590296After finishing this book I went in search of information on the Generation V series, and the possibilities to keep on reading about Fort, Suzume & Co., and what I found did not encourage me greatly: there are two more books planned, but they have yet to… find a home, so to speak, and therefore the author is concentrating on a new series. Much as I’m sorry to have to say goodbye (at least for now – I’m an incurable optimist) to these characters and their adventures, I can take comfort in the knowledge that I can look forward to more stories from M.L. Brennan: given how much I’ve enjoyed the Generation V novels, I know that I will buy everything she puts on the shelves, sight unseen.

That said, let’s move on to the review for the fourth installment in the series…

Transition. This is the word that has been looming ever larger on Fortitude Scott’s horizon since we first met him, and here – in a book that is mainly concerned with transformation and passage – that transition has become unavoidable, in more ways than one.   Madeleine Scott’s failing health, something we have been aware of from the very first novel in the series, has reached the point of no return and her passing heralds a series of changes that involve the main characters, both singly and as a group.

Madeline’s death is one the most quietly moving pieces of writing I can remember: I kept thinking, as I read, that in less skillful hands it could have skirted into cheap sentimentalism, but instead it turned into something that was both tragic and intensely emotional: “I felt the bond shatter, like a fluted sugar sculpture that had been spun out like stained glass and is dropped to the floor. The death of the bond, and the death of my mother, cut through me, and the pain was unimaginable.”  Those scenes were further enhanced by a few touches that reminded me both of a pharaoh’s death and a Viking’s funeral – which were entirely appropriate for such a strong, commanding character.  The aftermath presents what is probably the most difficult challenge that the Scott siblings have faced until now: since Madeline refused to name her heir, her three children are forced to work together and reach decisions… by committee.  Considering the huge difference in their personalities, the ensuing stalemate is hardly a surprise.

All three of them have come into their vampire-hood in different ways, so that Prudence – the eldest – is the less interested (to be nice about it…) in the collateral damage resulting from any decision, and her first and only answer to any problem remains destructive violence.  The phrase “death by Prudence” used by Fort at some point might be humorous in intent, but it paints an all too clear picture of the Scott firstborn’s attitude.  As the middle child, Chivalry stands between his two siblings, acknowledging Prudence’s need for a strong response and Fortitude’s penchant for the softer approach. And Fort himself, not surprisingly, is the one who always advocates taking the less violent, more humane path.

Once more I asked myself, as I observed the interpersonal dynamics between the three, if Madeline’s choice of different upbringings for her children was some sort of experiment, her way to shape a different path for her successors – or even for the vampire community. If the ultimate goal was to attain some kind of balance, the trio’s first attempts at it are less than successful, the only agreement they reach concerning as mundane a matter as the interior décor of the mansion…  What this means for the future of the family, and the empire Madeleine built, remains to be seen, although Prudence’s way of resolving the first impasse is far from encouraging. And yet there is hope for the three of them because – despite the differences in personality and outlook – they share a strong, if often unspoken, bond of affection transcending the individual leanings, much as Prudence’s side of it still scares the hell our of Fort, as he sums up with: “My sister was never more terrifying to me than when she was showing her affection.”

Another, more compelling consequence of the matriarch’s death is the completion of Fort’s transition into a vampire: until now, he has been able to deny his nature (or at least to keep at bay its less savory aspects) by emphasizing his humanity and accepting only the “good” sides of being a vampire, like increased strength and more acute senses. But without Madeline to draw blood from (in what I always saw as a very twisted analogue to breast-feeding…), Fortitude has no other choice but to submit to his needs, to finally acknowledge that he must drink blood to survive.  Again, I want to praise Ms. Brennan’s choice of giving this very dramatic moment a completely different outlook from what I expected: Suzume’s presence, as accomplice and moral support, removes any shade of horror or grossness from the scene, and even gives to Fort’s first feeding a patina of rightness that both eases him into this new side of his life (without “post-meal remorse”, as Suzume labels it) while helping the readers keep their image of the character substantially unchanged.

Suzume is indeed Fort’s center of gravity, the true rock on which he can stand – which is sort of funny, given the kitsune’s unpredictable behavior – and she’s the one who provides much-needed balance to his constantly shifting world and perspectives. Their relationship is one of the best facets of this story, because it’s quite unconventional and free of any traditionally romantic overtones – and how could it be, when Suze unashamedly bills the Scott family for the time she spends in Fort’s company? Despite this “hiccup” and the constant hazing she inflicts on him during his working hours (just two words: Kitsune Karaoke – enough said!), it’s clear that Suzume is quite committed to Fortitude and their relationship, and seems pleased when he takes a stand about it. Her ultimate goal is to wake him up to the though realities of life, so that they will not overcome him. As she tells him at some point: “I just don’t want you to end up like a marshmallow Peep in the microwave of the world.

This fourth book in the Generation V series is a game-changer, one that leaves its readers with many questions about future developments, and therefore makes the uncertainty about the continuation of the story doubly frustrating. Nonetheless this is a series I would recommend strongly to both enthusiasts of the genre and to those who are new to Urban Fantasy, on the strength of its rich characterization and strong writing.

My Rating:


GIVEAWAY! A Whisper of Leaves by Ashley Capes

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!

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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!