Books on Film: ANNIHILATION

Tomorrow, the highly-anticipated adaptation of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation arrives in theatres — well, in some theatres. For some reason, Paramount has decided to release the movie through Netflix in the UK, despite its internationally-popular star and critically-acclaimed director. Directed and screenplay adapted by Alex Garland, and starring Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Jennifer Jason Leigh (among others), here’s the trailer:

Annihilation is the first novel in Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the US, and Fourth Estate in the UK.

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Here’s the novel’s synopsis:

Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; the second expedition ended in mass suicide; the third expedition in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another. The members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within weeks, all had died of cancer. In Annihilation, the first volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, we join the twelfth expedition.

The group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain, record all observations of their surroundings and of one another, and, above all, avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.

They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers — they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding — but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another that change everything.

The trilogy has also been collected into a single volume, Area X (US/UK).

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New Books! (December, Pre-Xmas)

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Featuring: Stefan Ahnhem, Cristina Alger, Ros Barber, Clifford Beal, Stephen Birmingham, Eric Brown, Robin Burcell, Sarah Cain, Matt Carter, Toby Clements, Michael Cobley, Jamie Doward, Michael Ebner, Dan Fesperman, Alison Gaylin, Steven Gore, Ian Graham, Samantha Hunt, Mary Robinette Kowal, Joe R. Lansdale, Helen Lowe, Andrew Marr, Charles McCarry, Peter Newman, K.J. Parker, Daniel Polansky, Stephen S. Power, Terry Pratchett, Jamie Sawyer, Victoria Schwab, Charlotte Silver, Anna Small, A.F.E. Smith, Jean Stein, Tricia Sullivan, Michael Thomas, Ilija Trojanow, Catherynne M. Valente, Jo Walton, Hester Young

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Quick Review: HEAD OF STATE by Andrew Marr (Fourth Estate/Overlook)

MarrA-HeadOfStateUKA British political satire

It’s September 2017, and the United Kingdom is on the verge of a crucial referendum that will determine, once and for all, if the country remains a member of the European Union, or goes its own way. The stakes could not possibly be higher, and the outcome is delicately balanced.

But, unsuspected by the electorate, and unknown to all but a handful of members of the Prime Minister’s innermost circle, there is a shocking secret at the very heart of government that, were it to become known, would change everything in an instant. A group of ruthlessly determined individuals will stop at nothing – including murder – to prevent that from happening.

I have been familiar with Andrew Marr’s non-fiction work for years — his radio show has been a staple in my household for a long time. Therefore, when I learned that Marr had written a tongue-in-cheek political novel, I was very interested to read it. Head of State is an interesting, short novel; well-written and packed with insider knowledge. It was also, sadly, a little uneven. Continue reading

Audiobook Review Round-Up

Four recent audiobooks I listened to, provided for review by Audible UK…

SheenEstevez-AlongTheWayEmilio Estevez & Martin Sheen, ALONG THE WAY: THE JOURNEY OF A FATHER AND SON (Simon & Schuster)

In this remarkable dual memoir, film legend Martin Sheen and accomplished actor/filmmaker Emilio Estevez recount their lives as father and son. In alternating chapters-and in voices that are as eloquent as they are different-they narrate stories spanning more than 50 years of family history, and reflect on their journeys into two different kinds of faith.

At 21, still a struggling actor living hand to mouth, Martin and his wife, Janet, welcomed their firstborn, Emilio, an experience of profound joy for the young couple, who soon had three more children: Ramon, Charlie, and Rene. As Martin’s career moved from stage to screen, the family moved from New York City to Malibu, while traveling together to film locations around the world, from Mexico for Catch-22 to Colorado for Badlands to the Philippines for the legendary Apocalypse Now shoot.

As the firstborn, Emilio had a special relationship with Martin: They often mirrored each other’s passions and sometimes clashed in their differences. After Martin and Emilio traveled together to India for the movie Gandhi, each felt the beginnings of a spiritual awakening that soon led Martin back to his Catholic roots, and eventually led both men to Spain, from where Martin’s father had emigrated to the United States.

Along the famed Camino de Santiago pilgrimage path, Emilio directed Martin in their acclaimed film, The Way, bringing three generations of Estevez men together in the region of Spain where Martin’s father was born, and near where Emilio’s own son had moved to marry and live.

With vivid, behind-the-scenes anecdotes of this multitalented father’s and son’s work with other notable actors and directors, Along the Way is a striking, stirring, funny story-a family saga that listeners will recognize as universal in its rebellions and regrets, aspirations and triumphs. Strikingly candid, searchingly honest, and full of the immediacy and warmth that can only be added by the authors reading their story in their own voices, this heartfelt portrait reveals two strong-minded, admirable men of many important roles, perhaps the greatest of which are as father and son.

This is a pretty interesting idea, as biographies go. Martin Sheen is also President Bartlet in The West Wing, so it was difficult to listen to his chapters and not feel like they were in some way a presidential pronouncement… After listening to this book, I realised that I’ve seen far less of both Sheen’s and Estevez’s movies than I originally thought. We get great accounts of the making of The Way (Estevez’s movie starring Sheen), and also Apocalypse Now – the movie that almost killed Sheen, and gave Estevez and Charlie Sheen quite the exciting and unusual experiences. There are a fair number of chapters that cover shared experiences, but also plenty that give us better insight into Martin’s upbringing and also Emilio’s solo projects. If you are interested in the work of either of them, then I highly recommend Along the Way. The audiobook is excellent, too, with great production.

*

FryS-MoabIsMyWashpotStephen Fry, MOAB IS MY WASHPOT (Penguin)

a) A fatuous, wasted, degenerate and wholly useless existence captured in delicate, lyrical and exquisitely realised prose.

b) Lightly amusing anecdotes and tender reminiscences of the great men and women encountered during a rich, varied and rewarding lifetime, fondly remembered in the tranquil evening of a career of public service.

c) The autobiography of a dizzying life fuelled by the lust for power and the search for ever more degrading downward paths of repulsive sexual adventuring and self-destructive debaucheries: the unrepentant libertine author seeks revenge on his many enemies and tears the lid off the private life of blameless churchmen and librarians.

Fry`s autobiography is all and none of these. Too old to rock and roll, too young to die, the author looks back with bruising frankness at his life so far.

I finally got around to listening to Fry’s first biography – I really enjoyed The Fry Chronicles (which started me on my recent audio-biography binging road) and More Fool Me. This one focuses exclusively on his childhood, with the occasional mention of his work and colleagues/friends to come. It’s funny, honest, doesn’t sugar-coat his weaknesses and bad behaviour. He offers plenty of opinions on society, literature, schooling, Britain and so forth. Moab is My Washpot is a good listen, but I think the two follow up volumes are far superior.

*

MartinS-BornStandingUpSteve Martin, BORN STANDING UP: A COMIC’S LIFE (Simon & Schuster)

In the mid-70s, Steve Martin exploded onto the comedy scene. By 1978 he was the biggest concert draw in the history of stand-up. In 1981 he quit forever. Born Standing Up is, in his own words, the story of “why I did stand-up and why I walked away”.

At age 10 Martin started his career at Disneyland, selling guidebooks in the newly opened theme park. In the decade that followed, he worked in the Disney magic shop and the Bird Cage Theatre at Knott’s Berry Farm, performing his first magic/comedy act a dozen times a week. The story of these years, during which he practiced and honed his craft, is moving and revelatory.

Martin illuminates the sacrifice, discipline, and originality that made him an icon and informs his work to this day. To be this good, to perform so frequently, was isolating and lonely. It took Martin decades to reconnect with his parents and sister, and he tells that story with great tenderness. Martin also paints a portrait of his times: the era of free love and protests against the war in Vietnam, the heady irreverence of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in the late 60s, and the transformative new voice of Saturday Night Live in the 70s.

I didn’t know what to expect from Born Standing Up. This covers the part of Martin’s career that I am utterly unfamiliar with. There are mentions of some of his later (but still early-ish) movies and television work, but this book covers Martin’s introduction to show-business, stand-up comedy and eventually television. It’s an interesting introduction to his work, his opinions on comedy and “where he came from”. I hope

*

MillerA-TheYearOfReadingDangerouslyUKAndrew Miller THE YEAR OF READING DANGEROUSLY: HOW FIFTY GREAT BOOKS SAVED MY LIFE (Fourth Estate)

An editor and writer’s vivaciously entertaining, and often moving, memoir – a true story that reminds us why we should all make time in our lives for books.

Nearing his fortieth birthday, author and critic Andy Miller realized he’s not nearly as well read as he’d like to be. A devout book lover who somehow fell out of the habit of reading, he began to ponder the power of books to change an individual life-including his own-and to define the sort of person he would like to be. Beginning with a copy of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita that he happens to find one day in a bookstore, he embarks on a literary odyssey of mindful reading and wry introspection. From Middlemarch to Anna Karenina to A Confederacy of Dunces, these are books Miller felt he should read; books he’d always wanted to read; books he’d previously started but hadn’t finished; and books he’d lied about having read to impress people.

Combining memoir and literary criticism, The Year of Reading Dangerously is Miller’s heartfelt, humorous, and honest examination of what it means to be a reader. Passionately believing that books deserve to be read, enjoyed, and debated in the real world, Miller documents his reading experiences and how they resonated in his daily life and ultimately his very sense of self. The result is a witty and insightful journey of discovery and soul-searching that celebrates the abiding miracle of the book and the power of reading.

I received an eARC of this quite some time ago, but for some reason never got around to reading it. Then I had the chance to get it as an audiobook, and I thought it would be a good listen. I was… half right. The Year of Reading Dangerously is a most uneven book. It doesn’t start well, and I almost didn’t stick with it – sad to say, it was a bland beginning. Nevertheless, I stuck with it, and came to rather enjoy much of what Miller had to say on publishing, fiction and writing. He offers some great insight into the publishing and bookselling industry, and his sharp and sometimes acerbic observations were welcome and amusing. When talking about the books he’s selected to read for this project, however, I found the book a bit dull. Which is probably not what he was hoping for – these classic of literature, and he was not able to make me even remotely interested in what he had to say about them. So, a good book, but not great. Half interesting, half… meh.

*

“& Sons” by David Gilbert (Fourth Estate/Random House)

Royal.inddAn intriguing, engaging literary novel

The funeral of Charles Henry Topping on Manhattan’s Upper East Side would have been a minor affair (his two-hundred-word obit in The New York Times notwithstanding) but for the presence of one particular mourner: the notoriously reclusive author A.N. Dyer, whose novel Ampersand stands as a classic of American teenage angst. But as Andrew Newbold Dyer delivers the eulogy for his oldest friend, he suffers a breakdown over the life he’s led and the people he’s hurt and the novel that will forever endure as his legacy. He must gather his three sons for the first time in many years – before it’s too late.

So begins a wild, transformative, heartbreaking week, as witnessed by Philip Topping, who, like his late father, finds himself caught up in the swirl of the Dyer family. First there’s son Richard, a struggling screenwriter and father, returning from self-imposed exile in California. In the middle lingers Jamie, settled in Brooklyn after his twenty-year mission of making documentaries about human suffering. And last is Andy, the half-brother whose mysterious birth tore the Dyers apart seventeen years ago, now in New York on spring break, determined to lose his virginity before returning to the prestigious New England boarding school that inspired Ampersand.

But only when the real purpose of this reunion comes to light do these sons realize just how much is at stake, not only for their father but for themselves and three generations of their family.

& Sons is a very good novel. It’s a bit tricky to review, though. I was quickly drawn into the story, and the lives of the protagonists. It was by no means perfect, and sometimes downright weird, but Gilbert’s prose and characters were engaging throughout.

This is a peculiar novel, in many ways. Gilbert writes extremely well, but that didn’t stop the beginning from being a bit confusing – specifically, the narrative style wasn’t clear. I wasn’t sure who was narrating the tale. It is presented as if Philip Topping has written an account of the events, but bestowed upon himself omnipotence, able to write inside his subjects’ heads without really any way of knowing what was going on. A strange decision, but one that I quickly got used to and accepted.

It is the story of families, fathers and sons. Philip Topping, never particularly close with his father, was always enamoured of the Dyers – revering Andrew, idolising Richard and Jamie, glomming on to the family as an attempt to become a de facto member. For this desire, he has long been mocked and pranked by the elder two Dyer brothers. It was a strange and sometimes-creepy dynamic. Andrew Jr., the half-brother whose existence cratered A.N. Dyer’s marriage, is probably the best character in the novel, and I enjoyed seeing him navigate his world, and the strange dynamic he had with his father and brothers.

GilbertD-AndSonsLiterary fiction seems to require a peculiarity. I’m not sure why this trope has developed, but almost every literary fiction novel I’ve read contains a truly bizarre element or event, and this can often be the stumbling block that takes a great novel and almost ruins it. With & Sons, the peculiarity is the secret Andrew wishes to share with his sons. I’m not going to spoil it, but it kind of came out of nowhere, and we’re never sure if it’s real or a delusion of the fast-declining Andrew Dyer.

I’m not really sure what else to write about the book without spoiling the twists and turns, or delving too deeply or academically into its contents (which is not something CR has been doing in the past). Needless to say, I enjoyed reading & Sons. There’s a great deal of insight and shrewd observation about families – especially fathers and sons – presented in both remorseful and amusing ways. Despite the muddled narrative voice of the first couple of chapters, this grew to become a very strong novel and engaging read.

Recommended for fans of New York-based literary fiction – for example, Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch – and also authors such as Michael Chabon, Philip Roth and Richard Russo.

*

David Gilbert’s & Sons is published by Fourth Estate in the UK and Random House in the US. It is out now.