Quick Review: MONSTER by John Gregory Dunne (Vintage)

DunneJG-MonsterUSAn entertaining, engaging memoir of screenwriting

In Hollywood, screenwriters are a curse to be borne, and beating up on them is an industry blood sport. But in this ferociously funny and accurate account of life on the Hollywood food chain, it’s a screenwriter who gets the last murderous laugh. That may be because the writer is John Gregory Dunne, who has written screenplays, along with novels and non-fiction, for thirty years. In 1988 Dunne and his wife, Joan Didion, were asked to write a screenplay about the dark and complicated life of the late TV anchorwoman Jessica Savitch. Eight years and twenty-seven drafts later, this script was made into the fairy tale “Up Close and Personal” starring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer. Detailing the meetings, rewrites, fights, firings, and distractions attendant to the making of a single picture, Monster illuminates the process with sagacity and raucous wit.

This is a fascinating, unreserved memoir of John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion’s long, often frustrating experiences writing Up Close & Personal. It’s engaging, entertaining and illuminating. Continue reading

Quick Review: THE NIX by Nathan Hill (Vintage)

HillN-NixUSA compelling, engrossing story of a son’s quest to learn the truth about his mother

It’s 2011, and Samuel Andresen-Anderson hasn’t seen his mother, Faye, in decades — not since she abandoned the family when he was a boy. Now she’s reappeared, having committed an absurd crime that electrifies the nightly news and inflames a politically divided country. The media paints Faye as a radical hippie with a sordid past, but as far as Samuel knows, his mother was an ordinary girl who married her high-school sweetheart. Which version of his mother is true? Two facts are certain: she’s facing some serious charges, and she needs Samuel’s help.

To save her, Samuel will have to embark on his own journey, uncovering long-buried secrets about the woman he thought he knew, secrets that stretch across generations and have their origin all the way back in Norway, home of the mysterious Nix. As he does so, Samuel will confront not only Faye’s losses but also his own lost love, and will relearn everything he thought he knew about his mother, and himself.

It took me a long time to read this, but I’m very glad I finally did: Hill is definitely a new author to watch, and I can’t wait to read his next book. The Nix is the story of Samuel’s quest to learn the truth about his mother, who abandoned him when he was still a child. The novel has so much going on, it’s difficult to encapsulate it in just a few sentences. It’s not perfect, but it is excellent. Continue reading

Quick Review: VANISHING GAMES by Roger Hobbs (Corgi/Knopf)

HobbsR-G2-VanishingGamesUKPBThe Ghostman returns, to save his mentor…

I work alone. 

I may be the best thief in the world but no one will ever know a single thing about me. Well, almost no one. 

A lifetime ago I had a mentor, Angela. She taught me how to be a criminal, how to run a heist. 

And now, six years after she vanished and left me high and dry on a job in Kuala Lumpur, she’s sent me an SOS.

Or at least I think it’s her. If it is, then I’ve got to go. I owe her that much.

So soon I’ll be on a plane to Macau, either to see a friend or walk into a trap. Or both. 

But that’s the way I like it. Sometimes the only thing that makes me happy is risking my life. 

Time to go.

I very much enjoyed Roger Hobbs’s debut, Ghostman: it was fast-paced, entertaining and offered an interesting twist on the international, high-tech thief genre. In this sequel, Hobbs gives readers more of the same. For the main, this is a very good thing, and I blitzed through Vanishing Games. Continue reading

New Books (June-July)

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Featuring: John Joseph Adams, Andy Abramowitz, Edgar Cantero, Joshua Cohen, Bennett R. Coles, Ctein, Dennis Dunaway, Matthew Dunn, Vaughn Entwhistle, Michael R. Fletcher, Teresa Frohock, Caseen Gaines, John Gilstrap, Ed Greenwood, Janet Groth, Paul Kane, Marshall Ryan Maresca, John Niven, Tom Pollock, Ronda Rousey, John Sandford, Charles Stross, Neely Tucker, Jon Wallace, Fran Wilde, Daniel H. Wilson Continue reading

New Books (September/October)

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Featuring: Mitch Albom, Gillian Anderson, Kelly Armstrong, Lauren Beukes, Adam Brookes, Christopher Buehlman, Blake Butler, W. Bruce Cameron, Michael Carroll, Al Ewing, Tana French, Peter F. Hamilton, Michael Harvey, Lee Henderson, Steffen Jacobsen, Rajan Khanna, James Luceno, Todd Moss, Claire North, Pierre Pevel, John Sandford, Graeme Simsion, Matthew Smith, Peter Watts, Alec Worley Continue reading

“Black Moon” by Kenneth Calhoun (Hogarth)

CalhounK-BlackMoonUKAn interesting premise, well-executed, but still slightly flawed

“A black moon had risen, a sphere of sleeplessness that pulled at the tides of blood-and invisible explanation for the madness welling inside.”

The world has stopped sleeping. Restless nights have grown into days of panic, delirium and, eventually, desperation. But few and far between, sleepers can still be found – a gift they quickly learn to hide. For those still with the ability to dream are about to enter a waking nightmare.

Matt Biggs is one of the few sleepers. His wife Carolyn however, no stranger to insomnia, is on the very brink of exhaustion. After six restless days and nights, Biggs wakes to find her gone. He stumbles out of the house in search of her to find a world awash with pandemonium, a rapidly collapsing reality. Sleep, it seems, is now the rarest and most precious commodity. Money can’t buy it, no drug can touch it, and there are those who would kill to have it.

I hadn’t heard of this novel before it arrived through the post. As someone who has a soft-spot for post-apocalyptic novels (and the various sub-genres that covers), and also someone who has always suffered from varying degrees of insomnia, Black Moon’s premise jumped out at me. Given its slim length, too, I decided to read it right away. What I found was a novel that is, strangely, both excellent and also wanting.

To be sure, one of the things that drew me into the narrative was the insomnia aspect. In this story, rather than ravenous zombies prowling the streets and eating the living, we have a population suffering from true insomnia – no sleep whatsoever, rather than the more common syndrome that restricts sleep and prevents restfulness. As a result, the majority of the global human population is going through the debilitating symptoms of hallucinations, dissociative disorder, emotional turmoil, and eventual death. On top of this, and here’s where the peril for non-sufferers comes in, those suffering also experience homicidal rage when they are either confronted with someone they believe to be a “sleeper” or if they actually witness someone sleeping. The descriptions of what those in the early stages of suffering experience was very close to home, and I immediately sympathised with them all. [Interestingly, and rather meta, I ended up reading Black Moon well into the wee hours of the day, unable to sleep myself…] Here’s one example (I share Carolyn’s frustrations):

“Unlike Carolyn, he had never had trouble sleeping. Early in their relationship, his ability to drop off anytime, anywhere, had been a point of occasional contention. It offended her not only in that she felt that he was using sleep as a means of avoidance, but also because she held sleep so precariously. The slightest noise or change in the light could wake her. Her mind, roaring in the chassis of her skull, pounced on painful memories and worries about the future of the challenges of her studio work, batting them around for hours as she tossed and turned. Meanwhile, he snored at her side. They had decided that sleep was his super-power…”

CalhounK-BlackMoonUSDespite a great premise, however, the novel felt rather underdeveloped and, perhaps, far too short. Calhoun can certainly write, and his prose and pacing drew me on through the novel at quite a clip. However, we are never really given the chance to get to properly know the characters, which left me rather uninvested in some of their fates. Certain characters were far stronger than others (Biggs, Felicia, for example) and I think their storylines offered greater storytelling potential than a couple of the others (Chase, for example, who was a little irritating by the end). I think this would have benefited from being longer, which would have allowed us to feel the tensions of the world a bit more, get to know the characters better, and become invested in their struggles. The work-around developed by the sleep institute was arrived at rather suddenly and out of the blue, too, which robbed yet more of the tension.

True, the novel is structured and composed in a way that reinforces the hallucinatory symptoms of prolonged true-insomnia, which made it rather disjointed at certain points (on purpose) while at the same time evoking an appropriate atmosphere. This was a solid attempt to do something different, which is always welcome, but the vagaries of what I was reading often just obfuscated certain elements of the story, which meant my investment waned as things became worse.

Ultimately, there were certainly things I liked in Black Moon – the insomnia-induced zombification and mania, for example, and also the work-around that they develop (which, while suddenly introduced to the story, was also pretty cool), and the aforementioned stronger characters. Sadly, however, I didn’t love the book. It will be interesting to see what the author comes up with next, though, and I await his next novel with anticipation.

Books on Film: “Warm Bodies” by Isaac Marion (Vintage)

MarionI-WarmBodiesMovieA brilliant zombie love-story…

Movie Synopsis: Life for Julie (Teresa Palmer) and R (Nicholas Hoult) couldn’t be more different. R is a zombie; with a great record collection; limited vocab and an overpowering love of brain food. Julie is a human; beautiful; strong; open minded and all heart. When R makes an unexpected decision and rescues Julie from a zombie attack, his lifeless existence begins to have a purpose. As the unlikely relationship develops, R’s choice to protect her sets in motion a sequence of events that might just change both of their worlds forever. Directed by Jonathan Levine (50/50) and based on the debut novel by Isaac Marion, the heart-warming Warm Bodies is 2013’s zom-rom-com with a twist.

Director: Jonathan Levine | Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, Rob Corddry, John Malkovitch

I stumbled across Isaac Marion’s novel when I was in New York. I read the synopsis in the Union Square Barnes & Noble (one of my favourite places in the world…). Despite being intrigued, I wasn’t in a zombie-mood at the time, so I passed over it – rather unfairly, as it turned out. After the movie was released on DVD, though, I decided to watch the movie first – not something I usually do, but given the vast array of books I have to read, I wanted to squeeze this in. And I’m very glad I did.

All of the actors do a great job, and Nicholas Hoult does a wonderful job of making “R” an engaging and even sympathetic character. He’s funny, he’s awkward, and his internal monologue is wonderfully relatable to anyone who has ever felt stuck, awkward, or like their lives need a change. It’s brilliantly done, all-round, and as we see R’s evolution (“re-evolution”?) we realise just how brilliant Hoult is as an actor. It’s a peculiarly sweet love story, and I loved how it was both true to zombie lore and also unexpected and original, as well as paying tribute to some of the greatest love-stories (Romeo & Juliet, for example). It also has a superb soundtrack…

Very highly recommended. I will have to move the novel up the tottering TBR mountain.

Book Synopsis: “R” is a zombie. He has no name, no memories, and no pulse, but he has dreams. He is a little different from his fellow Dead.

Amongst the ruins of an abandoned city, R meets a girl. Her name is Julie and she is the opposite of everything he knows – warm and bright and very much alive, she is a blast of colour in a dreary grey landscape. For reasons he can’t understand, R chooses to save Julie instead of eating her, and a tense yet strangely tender relationship begins.

This has never happened before. It breaks the rules and defies logic, but R is no longer content with life in the grave. He wants to breathe again, he wants to live, and Julie wants to help him. But their grim, rotting world won’t be changed without a fight…

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