zaterdag 28 mei 2016

"Rosemary's Baby" by Ira Levin

“'The costumes, the rituals,’ Mr. Castevet said; ‘every religion, not only Catholicism. Pageants for the ignorant.'”

Newlyweds Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse move into a fantastic apartment in the prestigious Bramford building in New York. The building has a quite a reputation: there are innumerable stories about killings, suicides, child eaters and satanism all through the long history of the house. The young couple doesn't mind these tall tales, though, and they're sure they will be very happy there. They soon befriend their neighbours, Roman and Minnie Castevet, who have just lost their foster daughter. Guy in particular seems very much taken by the elderly couple. Minnie and Roman are quite intrusive, though, and especially when Rosemary gets pregnant and the older couple shows an unhealthy interest in the baby, Rosemary starts to feel uncomfortable. After a few troubling incidents, and after she discovers a link between the Castevets and some of the old stories about the house, Rosemary is convinced that Roman and Minnie are out to take her baby away from her. Is Rosemary just an over-protective pregnant woman worrying about nothing, or has she really been thrown into a cove of witches and devil worshippers?

"Rosemary's Baby' is one of the best examples of psychological horror I've ever read. It's a quick, and easy read and basically a very simple story, but it's incredibly intense. The characters are very well written. As a reader, you never know if you're just reading about Rosemary's silly worries or if her suspicions are justified. The terror builds very slowly and culminates in a fantastic finale.  These days, I very much prefer these kinds of horror stories to the blood and splatter novels I used to enjoy. Brilliant novel!

Author: Ira Levin
Title: Rosemary's Baby
Publisher: Corsair, London
Year: 2011 (orig. 1967)
Number of pages: X + 229 p.
ISBN: 9781849015882

zondag 22 mei 2016

"The Beast Master" by Andre Norton

“To the spectator the ex-Commando might be standing impassively, the meerkats clinging to him, his hand resting lightly on Surra’s round skull, the eagle quiet on his shoulder. But an awareness, which was unuttered, unheard speech, linked him with animals and bird."

"The Beastmaster" was one of my favourite movies when I was growing up. An epic fantasy about a young man whose village is destroyed by the troops of an evil sorcerer, and his quest for revenge. The film was inspired by a novel by renowned fantasy/SF author Andre Norton. It turns out, though, that book and film are very, very different entities altogether. The fact that the main characters in book and movie can communicate telepathically with animals, and the general theme of revenge, are just about the only similarities.

To start with, the novel's setting is a future in which mankind is spreading through the universe, and the Conan-like sword & sorcery setting of the movie has absolutely nothing to do with this. The story: Earth has been destroyed after a long war with the Xiks. Survivors flee to Terran colonies all through the universe to find a new home. One of them is Hosteen Storm, a Navajo Indian, ex-military and beast master - a commando who can communicate with and lead a team of genetically altered animals. He arrives on the planet Arzor, along with his team: an eagle, a giant cat and two meerkats. And he has a mission: Storm has made a vow to his grandfather to track down and kill a man named Quade, who was responsible for the death of his father. On Arzor, Storm meets members of the Norbies, the native inhabitants of the planet. They share quite a lot of traits with Storm's ancestral culture and they also seem to be undergoing the same fate. It's no wonder then, that Storm starts bonding with them.

In essence, "The Beast Master" is a western-in-space. It's basically what these days we would call a juvenile or YA book, with adventurous teenage boys as the prime target audience (do they still exist, these days?). You know the thing: it's all about honour, friendship, courage - certainly no room for girls and romance, let alone sex. The ideas about Native Americans are a bit naive (the "Tonto-speak" of the Norbies in particular is a bit annoying), but remember, this book was written in 1959, a time when Indians were still usually the bad guys in westerns, so the sympathetic portrayal of the Indian-like Norbies was pretty revisionist for its time.

Sure, the writing comes across as a little dated. That doesn't bother me, though. I really like delving into these no-nonsense adventure books - I read so many of them when I was growing up that they make me feel young again. Just for a while, anyway.

Author: Andre Norton
Title: The Beast Master
Publisher: Ace, New York
Year: 1959
Number of pages: 247 p.

woensdag 11 mei 2016

"The Princess Bride" by William Goldman

"'Don't pester him with so many questions,' Fezzik said. 'Take it easy; he's been dead.'"

I distinctly remember watching the movie "The Princess Bride" an eternity ago and loving it to bits. So it was a no-brainer that I'd buy the original novel when I came across it on a shopping spree in Brussels a while ago. Author William Goldman presents this novel as an abbreviation of his favourite book (which, incidentally, he has never read) by one S. Morgenstein, with all the boring parts cut out. Of course, the story is all Goldman's - the introduction about his history with the book, the anecdotes about his wife and son, ... they're all made up, but they make for a refreshing point of view. The introduction and his short intrusions in the story are as funny as the main story is.

In a distant past, in a small, forgotten country, the extremely beautiful (if not too bright) milkmaid Buttercup falls in love with farm boy Westley. When Westley decides to leave the farm to find fortune elsewhere, and subsequently is captured and reportedly killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts, Buttercup is heartbroken. She vows never to fall in love again and even agrees to a loveless marriage with Prince Humperdinck, who is desperately seeking a wife to produce an heir. But shortly before the marriage, Buttercup is abducted by an odd group (including a hunchback, a giant and a Spanish fencer), only to be rescued by the mysterious masked Man in Black. This is only the beginning of an incredible tale, in which the main characters will have to overcome the most dangerous challenges - even death itself.

Well, let me start by saying that I loved this novel as much (if not more) than the movie. This book has got it all: a dashing young hero, the most beautiful woman in the world, True Love, pirates, a vengeful prince, chases and sword fights, deadly swamps and cliffs, poisonous snakes and spiders and other scary animals in the Zoo of Death, a terrifying torture device,... Oh, and there's this giant, who is obsessed by rhymes. Difficult to categorise the novel, but it's best to describe it as a modern fairy tale for grown-ups, which is just incredibly funny and exciting. Clearly influenced by the Errol Flynn-type of swashbuckling movies (Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, etc.) with a cast of the most unforgettable characters, and served with a sauce of very witty and clever language.

Definitely a recommend novel, if ever there was one. Now, let's track down a dvd of the movie...

Title: The Princess Bride
Author: William Goldman
Publisher: Bloomsbury, London
Year: 2008 (orig. 1973)
Number of pages: 319 p.
ISBN: 9780747590583

zaterdag 7 mei 2016

"The Revenant" by Michael Punke

“He would crawl until his body could support a crutch. If he only made three miles a day, so be it. Better to have those three miles behind him than ahead.”

The history of the Old West is full of stories about survival against all odds, which have been, rightly or wrongly, presented as true stories. Hugh Glass's is arguably one of the most famous, and has formed the basis for several books and films. Most recently, it won Leonardo diCaprio his first Oscar for his starring role in the movie "The Revenant", an adaptation of the novel by Michael Punke.

It is 1823, a time when the American West is opening and scores of people are journeying westward to find fortune in the vast, unexplored expanse of the American wilderness. While scouting for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, Hugh Glass is attacked by a grizzly bear and severely wounded. Not expected to survive, he is left in the care of two volunteers, while the rest of the group travels on. When the two feel threatened by an approaching group of hostile Indians, they leave Glass behind, taking all his possessions. Against all the odds, Glass survives and he makes his way back with only one thing in mind: revenge on the two men who left him helpless. But before he can have his revenge, he will have to survive even more dangers: packs of wolves, deadly Indians, incredibly harsh weather conditions and the merciless wilderness.

Michael Punke mainly writes non-fiction, and this shows in the sometimes dry passages in which he describes the backgrounds of the characters. This makes the novel appear an actual account of the events, which is not completely true. Punke clearly did extensive research, but he did have to add lots of fictional elements, as the full story of Glass's ordeals is lost to history and the legend that was handed down from generation to generation, clearly had a lot of exaggerations added to it. It is fiction, after all, but that doesn't take anything away from the story. One caveat: when writing about Indians, Punke still uses words like 'braves' and 'squaw', common words in old westerns, but which aren't used today when talking with respect about Native Americans. The portrayal of Indians is also -at best- a bit stereotypical. Apart from that, though, this is a well-written novel which tells a fantastic story.

Title: The Revenant
Author: Michael Punke
Publisher: Borough Press, London
Year: 2015 (orig. 2002)
Number of pages: 308 p.
ISBN: 9780007521326

zondag 1 mei 2016

"The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" by Rachel Joyce

“If I just keep putting one foot in front of the other, it stands to reason that I'm going to get there. I've begun to think we sit far more than we're supposed to. (...) Why else would we have feet?”

Harold Fry has just retired when he receives a letter from an old friend, Queeny Hennessy. The letter says that she is terminally ill - she has an inoperable cancer that will end her life soon. Saddened by the news, Harold writes Queeny a letter. He leaves his home to post it, but when he gets to the the mailbox, he decides to walk a little further to the next one... and the next... and the next. As he walks on, he feels that he just has to continue his walk until he can visit Queeny in person. He becomes almost religiously convinced that his walk will save her, so he sets on a journey that will take him from the south of England, all the way to the north, a hike of hundreds of miles.

Soon, Harold's 'pilgrimage' becomes major news and several pilgrims join him on his 'Walk for Life'. Harold, on the other hand, knows only one thing: he has to keep on walking to save Queeny's life. On his journey, Harold meets lots of different people, not all of them very nice. But they will all teach him something. While walking, Harold reflects on life, his upbringing, his marriage, the troubled relationship with his son,... and he realizes that he's not only walking to save Queeny, but also to cure himself.

What a wonderful novel this is. It's funny, sad, uplifting, heartbreaking,... often all at the same time. A story like this always risks getting overly sentimental, but this isn't the case in this novel. Also, in a time a lot of books are written in which older people are used more as a gimmick than as believable characters, it is refreshing to see that Harold is just a normal person, unremarkable but for his surprising quest. Definitely one of the best books I've read this year.

Title: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
Author: Rachel Joyce
Publisher: Black Swan, London
Year: 2012
Number of pages: 365 p.
ISBN: 9780552778091