Sunday, March 11, 2018

Book Review: Memnon

Scott Oden's Memnon examines the era of Alexander the Great, but from an outsider's point of view. Memnon of Rhodes was the commander of a group of Greek mercenaries who served the Persian King and is largely thought to have been the empire's best chance against Alexander the Great increasing power as he grew from controlling Macedonia to all of Greece and eventually most of the Ancient World.

The story follows Memnon as a young man in Rhodes, desperate to see his fortune in war, through his own rise to power under his brother Mentor and eventually as the last, best hope of the Persian Empire in the face of Alexander.

I've always been a fan of familiar stories being told from a different point of view and Memnon did not disappoint. Although I wish the book had been a little shorter, the structure was well done and Alexander takes on a very different look when he's eyeing your land as his next conquest.

A really interesting read.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Book Review: A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal

Going into this book I actually had no idea who Kim Philby was, or indeed what was ultimately betrayed. I read it as it was a book club selection made by my friend Ron, and having already decided to read it, I didn't see any need to go any further into researching the book (which I'll often do if I'm deciding whether or not to read something new).

Little did I know at the time, I had already read a book in which Philby was a main character only a few years previously, so when the aspects of his story started coming out to me, I had the delicious feeling of things falling into place as I moved along.

If, like me, you are unfamiliar with Philby, he was a Russian spy who began working undercover in British intelligence during the Second World War aiding in the Allied effort, but secretly reporting everything he had witnessed, acted on, and read over to his handlers in Moscow.

I don't actually want to get into how long it took to uncover him, or exactly how the discovery of his actions came about, as the book was much more engrossing for me to not know, wondering every time that his number appeared to come up if this would be the time he would finally be caught.

Ben MacIntyre's book is incredibly well-researched, a great example of how non-fiction can be truly engrossing, and a surprising look at just how much a well-placed spy can get away with in a culture that is unwilling to even theorize about a spy in their own midst.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Moive Review: The Shape of Water

Ok, so no surprise, I really really loved Guillermo Del Toro's 2017 film The Shape of Water.  

Focusing on the relationship between a woman (Sally Hawkins) and an aquatic creature being studied at a Baltimore research facility in the early '60s, the film clearly borrows some inspiration from the classic 1954 film The Creature from the Black Lagoon, but is such an engrossing look at a relationship unlike any I had ever seen before that I have a little trouble describing it.

Honestly, do yourself a favour and go see this if you've got the time, because honestly, it is simply a delight to see, mixing the mundane with the fantastic and the hopeful with the horrific.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Blog: Book Review: Paperbacks from Hell

While browsing through a bookstore a year and a half ago I had the delight of discovering author Grady Hendrix, who's book My Best Friend's Exorcism was both a delightful look at high school in the eighties and a really effective horror novel focusing on demonic possession. Last year I read his earlier work Horrorstör which, although not quite as good as exorcism was still a fun read and had some really great moments of tension as his characters worked their way through a haunted IKEA-style store. In some ways it reminded me of China Mieville's 2005 short story "The Ball Room", both in subject matter and high tension.

Then last year I found Hendrix's nonfiction work Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction and was simply blown away. The book covers the boom of Horror paperbacks that started in the late sixties with Rosemary's Baby and ended in 1988 with Silence of the Lambs (which re branded Horror as Thriller).

The book includes everything from monsters and Satan through to V.C. Andrews and apocalypses, and although Stephen King and Anne Rice (who dominate the Horror section in any bookstore), the book is a treasure trove of the crazy stories that were published over these two decades and as a long-time horror fan I wasn't sure if I was more delighted when Hendrix examined books I loved or introduced me to titles (and series) I had never heard of before.

A really fascinating read and the cover art of these stories is well displayed and makes for a great book to dig into or just browse through.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Book Review: Wildings vol. 1: Under My Skin

Charles de Lint's most recent series moves away from Newford and into a small coastal town in California called Santa Feliz.  Under My Skin follows Josh Saunders, a young man simply trying to make his way through high school when one day he transforms into a wildcat during a fight with his stepfather.

Over the last six months this strange phenomena has been plaguing the town and a heightened police presence is in effect with a threat of a potential quarantine just around the corner.  Called Wildlings, these effected teens seem to have the ability to change shape and no one seems to be aware of their purpose beyond being a potential threat.

As with similar stories about the secret lives of teens (the X-Men immediately spring to mind), Josh has to quickly disguise his new abilities and attempt to make sense of the strange new society he is quickly becoming part of, with new friends and foes appearing in his life while one of his best friends may be hiding something herself.

As a YA book it was a lot of fun, and has me interested to see where the author will go with this action/adventure story about a young man in over his head that combines elements of fantasy, science fiction, and a little horror.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Movie Review: Insidious: The Last Key

My first theatre film of 2018 was Insidious: The Last Key and in the end I had some mixed feelings about it.

The Good: Lin Shaye's performance as parapsychologist Elise Rainer is consistently the best part of these films.  Honestly, I'm thrilled to see any franchise with a female lead older than 40, regardless of genre and her brave, yet troubled character makes each film the franchise much more emotionally involved than I have any right to expect.

In addition, although yes, the film does have a few jump scares and fake outs, (the lack of which were a huge part of why I loved the first film in the series), much of the best stuff happens on the astral plane (called "the further" in the film series), and that exploration is a really interesting journey that I don't see very often in haunted house films.

The Bad: The film suffers from working as a joining piece, stretching in between the events of Insidious Chapter 3 and the first film in the series.  In many ways there are sequences in this film that I wish had been done different (specifically one taking place in the further and an early sequence with a six or seven year old Elise) but I'll shy away from specifics to avoid spoilers.

In the end the film is a functional conclusion to the series and was a fun filmgoing experience, but would not be for newcomers and suffers from a need to reinforce the franchise, rather than telling its own story.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Game Review: Heavy Rain

One of my favourite things about the winter break is the ability to catch up on some long awaiting books, movies, and games that I've been meaning to get around to for a long time.

Case in Point, Heavy Rain a thriller designed for the Playstation 3 and released in 2010, which follows multiple leads over the course of a week in the search for a missing boy and the serial killer who has captured him.

Throughout the game you play the boys father, a journalist, an FBI agent, and a Private Detective, all racing to solve the crime before the young boy dies.

What I loved about the game was the whole "choices have consequences" aspect, wherein main characters can die or make decisions that dramatically effect the later chapters of the game.

What I actively disliked about the game was the way that Madison Paige (the jounralist), the games only female protagonist, was largely involved to nurse the other characters or act simply as a sex object.  I'm all for sexuality in games and stories, but it would have been great if she had had anything more to do than the very basic traditional female roles given to her in the story.

Of course my favourite aspect of the game was the fact that the main character, Ethan Mars (the missing boy's father) spends much of the game solving horrible Saw-style puzzles to get clues as to where his son might be, and each successful trial gives him more letters in a hangman-style game which he has on his phone, spelling out the final address.  After one trial, I'm pretty sure he could have taking the partial clue to his local library and solved everything on day two (of seven).

Overall a fun game, but the follow up Beyond: Two Souls was much better, and I won't be keeping this one having finished it.