Book Review: The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Brian Selznick)

This beautifully crafted children’s book tells the tale of Hugo Cabret, a young boy in 1937 living inside a train station in Paris ever since his father died. He keeps the clocks running. Meanwhile, in his spare time, he is working on putting back together an automaton, a little mechanical man sitting at a writing desk. Hugo feels that if he can just fix the device, that the little man wants to write a message just for him.

Meanwhile, he gets tangled up with a grumpy man and his daughter, who works at a toy shop near the railway station. Finally, there is a thread of the cinema that Hugo loves so much. We know that somehow all of this is connected, but how?

To say any more would spoil the fun, but this is a really nicely done story. What makes it so outstanding, however, is that the book is a cross between picture book and novel (thus why it looks formidably thick on the bookshelf but is actually a really easy read). Sometimes the pictures take over and we have page over page of illustrations carrying the story forward – then other times there are texts. It’s a bit strange to start with, but once you get used to the style, it’s quite charming.

I can understand why Martin Scorsese has decided to make this his first children’s film (and his first 3D film).

A great read, and proof that e-books won’t be able to replace books straight away, if they keep making attractive illustrated volumes like this.

4 out of 5.

Book Review: The Church of Irresistible Influence (Robert Lewis, Rob Wilkins)

One of the most inspiring books that I read last year. In a day and age where the church is increasingly getting a bad name, this tells the tale of a church has become beloved by its local community. Fellowship Bible Church in Arkansas, hit a crisis in the 90s. They had around 2,500 members, but they were feeling dissatisfied.

Everyone loved being there, but they felt as if they were really just talking amongst themselves. Finally, after a church retreat, they decided to take seriously Jesus’ call to “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Nowadays, the church is largely known in the wider world for disagreeing with things. Otherwise, I’m not sure that people know a lot about what goes on. So I was really inspired to read about a church that decided to become known for its love for the community first and foremost.

So Fellowship proceeded to restructure its entire church so that it is built around groups offering various services to the community. (Anything from working in schools in rough areas to helping the poor. You name it.) The book is not a narrative as such – it’s actually a non-fiction book to guide other churches through the same thinking – but the results speak for themselves.

Now Fellowship and the other churches that partner with it in Arkansas are known and as well as their regular services, every year, they will mobilise large scale operations to help their community. Imagine, if you will, what it would be like if 300 Christians decided to spend a weekend fixing up the most falling-apart school in your city, for free? That’s just one of the things that happened as a result of this church’s change in focus.

For those that are theologically worried that the church got too caught up in social work and lost sight of the Gospel, the book deals with that too. It’s a nice companion piece to The Ministries of Mercy by Tim Keller, which I reviewed recently.

5 out of 5.

 

Book Review: Tokyo (Mo Hayder)

Mo Hayder is an English (female) thriller writer, who would have to be one of the strongest writers out there working in the thriller field. Her stories contain enough darkness to warrant the horror label, but they are written as thrillers – so would reach a wider audience. (Think Silence of the Lambs and you know what I mean.)

I’m not sure how she does it, but I find myself torn in two directions when reading any of her work. Her characterisations and narrative skill are so strong that I’m instantly sucked into the plot and get carried all the way through like a conveyor belt – and yet the places that such stories take me are so terrifying that by the end of the book, I can’t bear the thought of reading another one of her books.

It’s not just me. I lent this book to a friend of mine at work who is also into horror and is comment afterwards was, “I think I’ll go read some children’s books for the next two weeks.”

However, despite the fact it took me two hours to physically get my breathing back to normal after finishing it, I believe Tokyo is the best novel I’ve read all year so far – and is likely to be the best one all year as well. Hayder herself describes the story as a psychological thriller that combines Silence of the Lambs with Empire of the Sun with Lost in Translation. That probably sums it up.

A mysterious young woman named Grey (we’re never told whether this is her first name, last name, or not really her name at all) arrives in Tokyo with barely any money to spare. For some reason which we are not initially told about, she is obsessed with the Nanking massacre of 1937 – a true life event in which Japan invaded China and brutally massacred around 300,000 Chinese. Grey has reason to believe that there was a particular atrocity committed during the massacre that was filmed – but only one copy of this film exists – and it is in the hands of an aging Chinese professor working in Tokyo.

The professor refuses to share the film unless Grey does some spying for him on a certain Japanese gangster – so she gets drawn into the underworld of Tokyo, by working as a hostess in a high-class club. From here, the book develops a split narrative: Grey’s exploits in Tokyo, and the increasingly dangerous circles she moves in and, most fascinating of all, the Chinese professor’s narrative (taken from his diaries) of days in 1937 leading up to the invasion of the Japanese.

We already know in the Chinese story that something horrific is going to happen, and there’s a growing sense of menace in the Japanese story as well – so the two start to converge together like a giant pair of scissors till we arrive at one of the most truly disturbing and yet moving endings I have ever come across in a story.

All in all, this story is so horrific that I can think of very few of my friends that I would recommend it to. But if you can stomach it, it is a phenomenally well-constructed piece of fiction. I also find it fascinating from another perspective as well, but that involves some major spoilers on my part. You can either stop here or continue reading below if you’re interested.

5 out of 5

 

***SPOILER ALERT***

I have always believed that the best horror stories take things that are horrible in real life (things that we perhaps prefer not to talk about or think about) and then exaggerate them so we can’t ignore them. A classic example is the school bullying that takes place in Stephen King’s Carrie.

In the case of Tokyo, Mo Hayder has captured the horror of abortion – I’m not sure that she intends to make any political statement about it, but she certainly touches on it. As Grey’s back story unfolds we find out that, as a naive teenager, she became pregnant. Not knowing any better, she attempted to cut the baby out of her stomach – not to kill it, but because she thought it might live and be able to escape from her parents. But, as Hayder’s prose so painfully captures, there is a certain age when an unborn child is counted as a foetus (in which case, nothing will be done to save the child’s life) and when it is counted as a baby. And Grey’s child was extracted on the foetus side of that timeline, and so for the rest of her life, she is haunted by her dead daughter, wondering where she is, and if she will ever forgive her mother.

There are many, many stories related by mothers who have had abortions that describe the psychological trauma they have gone through years after the event – forever haunted by a child that they did not know. It doesn’t happen to every woman who undergoes an abortion, but it happens a lot more often than we hear about. I can’t help but think that the story of Grey – over-exaggerated with the horrific twist of her being the one that extracted her own child – is a nod to these stories.

Whatever the origin, it’s the aspect of the tale that will continue to haunt me the most.

Book Review: The Ministries of Mercy (Tim Keller)

I read this last year as part of some research on how our church can start to get involved with serving the community around us. This book was a really good place to start. (The other one was The Church of Irresistible Influence – review coming soon.)

The book is essentially divided into two parts – the first is primarily theological, arguing the case for the church’s involvement in helping those in need. This might seem like a pointless thing, because didn’t Jesus talk quite a bit about helping the poor? Not to mention the early church, and the apostles?

Well, yes, they did. But despite that fact, for the better part of the 20th Century, there was a major split between those churches that valued social involvement over adhering to the tenets of Christianity (the “social gospel” we normally call it) and those who were big on the truth of the Scriptures, over and above getting involved in social issues. So it got to the stage where, if an evangelical church was to consider getting involved in any kind of social action, they’d be looked upon as being a bit suspicious – as if they were getting liberal.

So we can all thank God for this book, where Pastor Tim Keller from Redeemer Presbyterian in New York tackles the issue head on. He argues the case consistently and persuasively that the call of Jesus is one of not just sharing the Gospel and meeting people’s spiritual needs – but helping their physical needs as well.

This then leads into several sub-discussions that are important as well. If you’re going to help people, what are the limits? Who do you help? Should you draw a distinction between “deserving” poor and “undeserving” poor? The chapter in there on our money and finances is one of the hardest-hitting I’ve ever read, and well worth a look.

The second half of the book details more practical matters. How do you get such ministries off the ground? (Keller recommends mobilising small grass-roots groups, and if some of the ministries take off and get series, putting more resources behind them.) There’s also a really helpful framework on how to deal with people who could potentially become dependent on the church for handouts – by putting limits on your support to them in a spirit of grace (you want to help them support themselves) rather than a spirit of vindictiveness (“They’re always scabbing off the church – let’s not give them any more time or money.”)

There’s not a lot of books floating around in evangelical circles on this topic, so I highly recommend anyone interested in the subject get a hold of this book. Better yet, grab some church friends, read it together and then start seeing what sort of needs you can meet within your local community. Really encouraging stuff.

5 out of 5.

 

Book Review: Carrie (Stephen King)

This is Stephen King’s first published novel and reading it now, it’s easy to see how he burst on the horror scene like a new force. Like James Herbert and The Rats, King also started with a particularly nasty but real part of life, and then took it to an even darker level.

In the case of Carrie, the issue that was being dealt with was school bullying. It tells the story of Carrie White, an overweight, plain-looking girl with a overbearing religious mother. Because she stands out, in terms of her strange clothes and naivety, she is the victim of relentless teasing. The twist, which King introduces early on, is that Carrie has telekinetic powers – she can move objects using her mind alone.

To make this more believable, interspersed regularly throughout the book are excerpts from various books, news articles and scientific journals – all analysing, several years later, the Carrie White situation. At first these excerpts are a bit strange, because they keep interrupting the narrative, but they’re cleverly placed. As the story continues, the “non-fiction” excerpts start to discuss an event known simply as “Prom Night”. You’re not sure exactly what happened on Prom Night, but you realise very quickly that it wasn’t good.

And so the novel starts to build up a sense of impending doom which only intensifies as the story heads toward the Prom Night. I must confess that I did kind of have a heads up on this because for years, I’ve seen the image on DVD covers of Sissy Spacek covered in blood, with a raging fire in the background and heard something about a prom night going disastrously wrong.

But still, nothing quite prepares you for how expertly King pulls off the Prom Night. It is indeed the horrific finale to everything he has been preparing you for. But what makes it so horrific is that, at all times, we are clear that what brought this situation on is “man’s inhumanity to man” – both that of Carrie’s sadistically religious mother and the viciousness of her schoolmates. Especially poignant, I thought, were those people who sat on the sidelines, wondering if they could have done anything different to make a difference in this girl’s life and avoided the disaster that occurred.

For me, it was a clear reminder that the true horrors in life are sadly not things that writers dream up – they’re real events that occur to people around us all the time. Are there Carrie Whites in your life?

4 ½ out of 5.

 

Book Review: Blockade Billy (Stephen King)

I said earlier on this blog that I’ve been trying to read some more Stephen King and I thought that what I would do is go back to the beginning of his published work, but also try and stay on top of his published work from 2010 onwards. So to that end, I sought out the very slim volume of Blockade Billy, which was put out in early 2010, after King’s rather massive Under The Dome. This is perhaps not the best book to start with if you’re embarking on a journey of reading Stephen King.

The story is a narration by an ageing ex-baseball player (to Stephen King) of an incident that occurred when he was playing for the New Jersey Titans baseball team in 1957. Short of a catcher, the team managed to get hold of William “Blockade Billy” Blakely, who came in to help them out. The young man was an excellent baseball player, but after he joined them, increasingly disturbing things started to happen on and off the field.

I can’t really say any more because it’s a very short novella and anything more would give the entire story away. As someone who’s not very knowledgeable about baseball, I must confess that I was scratching my head over some passages trying to work out what they meant. But the overall story made sense to me, and I thought it was an enjoyable little tale, with a suitably shocking ending. (Enjoyable is probably not the word, but you know what I mean.) Not worth the $25-$40 that I’ve seen it selling for in the stores, but worth the $5 on the Kindle store if you’re a King collector.

If you’re only a casual dabbler in the man’s work, you can probably give this one a miss altogether.

3 1/2 out of 5.

 

Book Review: The Rats (James Herbert)

I’ve been rather reticent to write anything about the horror genre for a while, because I’m still trying to work out how, as a Christian, to approach it. It’s one of those many grey areas that Christians fall into in the 21st century. Christians are notorious enough as it is for judging the quality of a piece of art by the amount of violence, swearing and sex it contains – and excusing those which have “a good message” buried under all that.

But how do you handle the horror genre, which is renowned for being of full of nasty stuff, and often doesn’t have “a happy ending” at the end of all that? And what kind of people like horror? To those who do not like the genre (and I’m aware that that is probably the majority of filmgoers/readers out there), they have a suspicion of those people who like horror. Are they really closet torturers and murderers, getting their kicks from reading about horrid things done in fiction? Do they have dark thoughts? In short, “how can anyone like such horrible stuff?” is their thought – I’m sure.

(I just ran this past my wife and she completely agreed. “How can anyone like watching this horror? I’ve got enough bad stuff fuelling my imagination without having to add horror.”)

But because I’ve recently started re-exploring the works of horror authors James Herbert and Stephen King (British and American, respectively, but both were first published in 1974) and some others, I’ve been questioning what is it about the genre that I enjoy, what do I get out of it, has it got redeeming qualities, etc?

I don’t know if it’s an acceptable answer, but I have two thoughts so far and I might think up more as I go along:

1)      First off, horror is unable to escape from a moral compass. It’s quite simple – for something to be horrible, you have to first of all have a revulsion to it. If we don’t have a revulsion to it, then it’s not horrifying. One of the more noticeable trends over the last few decades, which I don’t have time to explore here, is how the horror genre is struggling because the things that people used to find horrific are now passed off as entertainment. (Here’s a simple example, not actually from the world of horror, but enough to give you an idea: When Steven Spielberg made his WWII film, Saving Private Ryan, it had the most realistic gore ever seen in a war film up to that point. However, since Ryan, it has now been common for all battle films that aren’t afraid to get beyond the American PG-13 rating to feature higher and higher levels of gore, played out as entertainment. Thus, we now have films like 300, which feature endless decapitations and sword-thrusts, with the maximum gore possible, but it’s actually meant to be a fun feature of the film. The sense of horror has shifted.)

2)      Ultimately, I think it comes down to storytelling. Those of us who like good horror like the power of the storyteller’s craft. I think most of us who like fiction (unless you like to dive in for a bit of quick escapism) want a story to totally engross us. We want to be moved, we want to feel things, we want to share the experience. And horror (or the several dark genres that have spun off that) works because, if the writer is good, it can be some of the most immediately visceral and thrilling writing there is. We feel things straight away, because the writer knows how to push our buttons. When a horror writer is on his game, the stories (while unpleasant) can become far more engrossing and far more powerful than any other type of literature. And when it’s over, we can shut the book, because it’s just a book. I don’t know if I’ve done justice to the lure of the genre, and I don’t expect to convert anyone to this type of story, but that’s the attraction for me.

Which brings me to The Rats, the first novel published by British author James Herbert in 1974. This book really marked a watershed moment in how horror was written. Previous horror stories (if you ever pick up an old anthology of the classic stories) often held back on the details. Some of them, such as Dracula, are beautifully written, but they don’t really elicit that sense of dread any more. In fact, they almost seem like mild diversions.

The probable cause for this is that there are far worse things out there in the world than in these stories. James Herbert knew that, and he has consistently used that as the starting point for his stories. He paints a picture of a very seedy 1974 London featuring seedy locations and seedy people. What he succeeds in doing is painting a world where there’s lots of dark things going on already and then he adds in a horror element. It may not be so shocking to readers nowadays, but back then, the descriptions of alcoholics and other sordid characters would have been in-your-face enough, but then Herbert brings in the rats…

About the size of small dogs, the rats suddenly appear in the poorer parts of London and starting attacking people – both good and evil alike. They usually attack in packs and kill you straight away, but even for those who survive, they carry a toxic virus that kills within 48 hours. Like the best creature stories (The Birds, Jaws, Jurassic Park, etc), Herbert very quickly ramps the tension up from small isolated rat attacks to a terrifyingly plausible scenario where rats really do rule the city.

There are some brilliant set pieces in this book (the most striking being a chapter where hundreds of rats line up outside a school to attack the children) and never has mankind felt more at the mercy of creatures than in this story. I first read this when I was 15, and have still been amazed by it to this day. It was made into a movie once (a very unsatisfactory story, from what I’ve heard, that has never been released on DVD), and I think it would be a great story for a filmmaker to revisit one day with modern technology, but for now, we have to live with the book.

What lifts the game on this one is that Herbert grew up in the East End of London, in some fairly filthy parts of town – he remembers a time as a boy when a rat came through the door of the house. And so, through this genre of horror, he was making a social comment about London at the time, and what goes wrong when there is a lack of concern for the living conditions of poorer people. Unusual, but highly effective way of making a point.

4 ½ out of 5.

 

Book Review: The Third Day, The Frost (John Marsden)

The third book in the Tomorrow series picks up where things left off, with Ellie and her friends still stuck out in the bush, with an invading army all over the countryside in Wirrawee. There’s definitely a feeling of increased trauma in this book – nothing is fun, nothing is going very smoothly any more.

It covers fairly similar ground to the other books for the first three quarters, with another typical John Marsden action set piece in the middle involving blowing up a harbour that will translate quite well to the big screen when they get around to filming this book, I’m sure.

This third outing in the Tomorrow series was somewhat less philosophical than the others – probably because there wasn’t a great deal of time for the characters to do much thinking – so there wasn’t the same sort of “teenagers rethinking their parents’ morality” ideas coming through, which made this book probably the least subversive of the ones I’ve read so far.

What I didn’t see coming was the shift to a new location (which I don’t really want to say any more about) in the last quarter of the book and what happens there. Needless to say, it’s one of the most traumatic experiences our heroes have had yet and the writing is some of Marsden’s most powerful.

All in all, another exciting read in one of the greatest Australian action series ever written, but not quite as memorable as the first two.

4 out of 5

Book Review: Duncton Wood (William Horwood)

This book has been out of print since the  90s now, which goes to show how quickly things disappear in the print world. But when I was a teenager, there were six Duncton books that came out (two trilogies) and they were all best-sellers. Which was funny, because they were all gigantically long novels about moles. Yes, moles. The little animals that dig tunnels and eat worms.

How did they get to be bestsellers? Was there nothing better to do in the 80s? (Well, it was before the internet, so we probably had a longer attention span, which would help.) Actually, the secret was that William Horwood was an exceptionally good writer.

Duncton Wood is the first one that was written and was probably designed to stand by itself, because it’s fairly self-contained. It details the life and times of two moles – Bracken and Rebecca – who lived in the system of Duncton, and all the things that befell them.

It’s hard to explain if you don’t actually read it, but Horwood’s prose is stunningly beautiful. He’s adopted the voice of ancient mole telling us a legend. So everything that happens is given a gravitas and weight that lifts it up above many animal tales. Also, this is a story that is definitely written for adults. It’s not gratuitous by any stretch of the imagination, but it contains some moments of sexuality and strong violence.

But I think the strength of the story, and the thing that Horwood successfully tapped into is the spiritual element that he gives the moles. Right in the centre of the Duncton system on the top of a hill, stands the Stone. It is a huge standing stone which is not actually their god, but representative of “The Stone”, the being that they believe looks over them and cares for them.

The Stone is a slightly weird combination of several religions, so you’ll be able to recognise elements of Christianity, Buddhism and other things. But what spoke to me most about the story is that it wrestled with nearly every major spiritual question that mankind has faced – but by giving us moles as characters, Horwood can deal with the issues in a way that is slightly removed from the real world.

So, for instance, when the story opens in Duncton, the system has fallen into a situation where nobody really has a connection with the Stone any more. Life is just a regular routine of mating, fighting and eating worms. If that’s not a metaphor for life in the Western world, I don’t know what is. But there are several moles out there, like Bracken and Rebecca, that believe that there is more to life than this. It’s this element of the story that most spoke to me.

For the most part, mainly because of the strength of the prose, the story is feeling gripping. There are several patches where I feel things could have been trimmed, and I also tend to hit the middle of long books and want them to be over, but when the arc is completed, and the full novel is complete – the story is immensely satisfying.

So if you come across a copy of Duncton Wood in a second-hand bookstore, and you have the time required to do it justice, I’d pick it up. And you never know, it might just come back into print. William Horwood just released a new fantasy novel last year (Hyddenworld: Spring), which I’ll try to review soon) and if that does okay, there might be a renewed interest in his other books. We’ll see.

4 ½ out of 5.

Book Review: The Fellowship of the Ring (JRR Tolkien)

This is my second read-through of The Lord of the Rings. My first was just before the Peter Jackson films came out, and so I was racing through the books trying to finish each one before the film came out. If you’d asked me back then, I would have said that it was a bit like trying to read a fantasy adventure crossed with the King James Bible. Quite slow and ponderous. I mean, what was Tolkien doing? He’d take two pages to describe the landscape, then when the action came, it’d be over in two paragraphs!

But now that I’m back to reading it again, I’m a little bit more understanding of what he is doing. I also made a point of reading a couple of the Appendices first, rather than waiting till the end. If you approach his story armed with a knowledge of the history and background of the place, then his story comes alive – he really is giving us a zoomed-in view of a year in Middle Earth – an eventful year, but one that is part of a much broader sweep of history that has gone before it.

I think that’s what I missed the first time. I wanted action and adventure and for the story to get to the end. (And if you want that, the Jackson films have cleverly recrafted the story to provide all this.) However, what Tolkien provides is a much different experience. In real time, almost, day by day, he is recounting what happened to his characters and he will not be rushed. He is not interested in where the story is going, but the journey itself. Thus, the landscape and the history are important to what he is doing.

So if you take a deep breath and read it slowly, the richness of the world starts to come alive. (And I can’t help but wonder how strange this would have been to the original readers.) We’re kind of used to having hundreds of fantasy worlds, all with maps in the front of the books, strange names and their own rules. But I’m not sure how many of those existed when Lord of the Rings was first created.

The theme that seems to recur most often in the first book (apart from impending doom) is this feeling of ancient civilisations disappearing, to be replaced by new ones. Was this something Tolkien saw happening in England (a country where many ancient civilizations have settled and mixed together)? I don’t think we’ll ever know completely, and that’s probably okay. Will look forward to seeing how the other two volumes hold up.

4 ½ out of 5.