Disclaimer by Renee Knight: A Book Review

This book isn’t good.  No, this book is excellent.  While it didn’t grab me straight away, I was certainly hooked by the end.  Coming after ‘The Improbability of Love’ this book helped to restore my faith in storytelling.

So what is it about?  The blurb says

‘When an intriguing novel appears on Catherine’s bedside table, she curls up and begins to read.  But as she turns the pages, she is horrified to realize she is a key character, a main player.  This story will reveal her darkest secret.  A secret she thought no one else knew…’

Perhaps its me but those three little dots have a deeper meaning than at first appearance. Coming after that blurb they they tell of something insidious.

When the story is read it has disatrous consequences for not just those involved but her family too.  Isolated doesn’t even begin to explain what is happening.  Catherine is forcibly pushed out from her family.  What happened in the past was unforgivable. The problem is, what is written in the book is a false version of events.

By the time the truth comes out, severe damage has been done.  The author of the book, Stephen Brigstoke, decides to make amends for his sins.  Now everyone knows the truth  Catherine considers whether it is a good idea to rejoin the family.

As you might have guessed, I have skipped around the story without revealing too much.  When you come to read it, I know you’ll love it.  Be careful though, it is a story for adults.

 

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Show, Don’t Tell

As a fledgling writer you are taught that you should ‘show, don’t tell’.  But why, you might ask? What is the harm in telling anyway?  For that matter, what do you mean by that phrase?

Let me give you an example of show first:

Michael crept across the darkened kitchen and stopped at the fridge, his hand resting on the door.  He glanced round before opening the door. The light from the fridge made his skin glow as he fished for his favourite snack, salami.  After giving it a sniff he devoured the cylinder of pork.  Closing the door, he licked his fingers and returned to bed.

And here is an example of tell:

Ever since he was a child, Michael had fostered a secret habit nighttime eating.  The first time was at the age of eleven he had woken during the night with hunger pangs.  Desperate to have something to eat, he snuck downstairs and gobbled a plate of cheese left on the side.  His mother, Maureen, wondered who had eaten their food until one night she caught him red-handed.  The scolding she gave out did not deter him however.  He knew what he was doing was bad for his health but he could not help himself as he stole across the kitchen and raided the fridge.  This time he went for the salami.

Here’s the problem, in the first example the story evolves before your eyes.  You get an impression that Michael is probably impulsive by nature.  You don’t know what the original cause was for this secretive eating, you are left to your own conclusions.

In the second example I have told you the reason.  In order to do that I had to pull away from the story to tell you.  The flow was been disrupted in order to give you this piece of character-building information.

The reason I bring this up now is because of the book I am reading ‘The Improbability of Love’ by Hannah Rothschild. Parts of the book are engaging however Hannah does have a habit of telling rather than showing.

In short bursts, I admit, it is useful to tell some back story.  When it stretches to two pages and the story to one paragraph, then I have a problem.  While I haven’t finished the novel I keep asking myself the same two questions ‘Do I need to know the motivation of every character in the story?  Do I need the life history of said characters too?’

Currently, the answer is no.

The Night Manager: Episode 6

When you have a suspicion about something, you try and confirm it.  That is exactly what Roper did in this, the last episode in the series.  As expected it was too little, too late.

With barely any resources at her fingertips, Angela Burr finally outsmarted Richard Roper. Watching Roper’s final realisation as his house of cards toppled was delicious.  His arrogance up to the last minute made it all the more sweeter.

I was convinced that Jed’s betrayal would lead to her death, thankfully that wasn’t the case.  With some careful footwork and some fortuitous timing, she was saved just as Roper’s deal was going up in smoke.

What surprised me most was the secret source inside Angela’s team.  His few lines were enough to show what he had done and who’s side he was on.  It was a pity that the senior members of MI6 didn’t suffer the same fate but I guess you can’t have everything.

From the start the acting was excellent.  Olivia Colman’s portrayal as a woman under siege felt human.  You too would feel harrassed and betrayed as your enemies, former friends, pulled the rug from under you.  From there it only got better.

Tom Hiddleston’s performance as Pine/Birch was fascinating.  Using friends he had not seen in years, Pine turned the tables on Roper.  A clandestine meeting followed by a late night drive set in place a plan which would see Roper ruined in front of a client.  As the deal went sour, Hugh Laurie’s skill as an actor shone through.  The mixture of vexation and haughtiness was wonderful to watch.

There has been a suggestion that this series was a perfect audition for Hiddleston’s potential hiring as James Bond.  There were many similarities including playing roulette (a convenient plot device to pass a code to Pine) so I can see why people would think this.  While it is not up to me to decide who should play Bond, it would make a refreshing change to see Hiddleston in the role.

In conclusion, after watching this series, I find myself wondering what accolades it will win.  One more thing, I had better add another John Le Carre novel to my collection.

The Night Manager: Episode 5

Looking back on last night’s episode I got the feeling that the success of the team is not just about a race against time, but also avoiding being trapped between a rock and a hard place.

We begin with a trip to the Haven,  a camp of soldiers set close to a refugee camp.  In order to avoid too many questions, Roper hands out some aid boxes on the way.  On arrival, Roper is greeted like royalty by his men.

Personally I found this difficult to watch, not least because they are essentially mercenaries.  While ‘mercenary’ is a dirty word, PMCs or Private Military Companies are numerous.  They have been taking over the less onerous tasks from the military for some years (the industry is now worth billions of dollars).  Certainly the group surrounding Roper did not have a professional feel about them.  Perhaps it is because of their diverse nature, I’m not sure.

Pine’s task was to supervise a firepower demonstration for a potential client.  While it went well, I’m not sure it gave the impression it was looking for.  By that I mean, some of the performances felt a little off.  For example, Hugh Laurie’s line about napalm was a little too close to the famous Apocalypse Now quote, for comfort.

In the meantime, Rex Maberley, Angela Burr’s boss, gets the push from his boss.  The ‘good’ side are losing friends fast, even the Americans are pulling out, too.  To top it all, a senior member of MI6 warns Angela Burr off, personally.  These deals which Roper is overseeing, are valuable to the country.

With time and friends vanishing at a rapid rate of knots, Angela Burr soon finds herself on her own.  Pine, with the arrival of Corcoran, is feeling the pressure too.  A night time excursion to deliver a message is spotted by Corky, leaving Pine no choice but to take him out.  Roper, desperate to find out who has been selling his secrets casts suspicion over everyone.  With Corky’s death, a convenient scapegoat is found.

Lastly we come to the convoy fiasco.  Angela Burr’s team, via Pine, hears about a convoy of weapons disguised as humanitarian aid heading to the border.  On interception, it is found to contain grain and agricultural equipment.

While it was a good episode, there were some scenes that did not feel right for me.  I was looking for either a gleeful, happy evil from Roper or a darker, colder one.  Instead it felt flat, neither cold nor anything else for that matter.

The performances from the rest of the cast was very convincing.  Elizabeth Debicki’s confession scene felt real.  Her lines were excellently thought out and well delivered.  Just one more episode to go for this intriguing story.

The Night Manager: Episode 4

Now that Pine is deep inside Roper’s crew he can be trusted to own one of Roper’s companies and it is here where we start.  His meddling has not gone unnoticed by Corcoran who has taken more than a dislike to Pine.  Threats ensue especially after a nighttime liaison.  While at the time there was nothing untoward going on between Pine and Roper’s girlfriend, they soon develop a more intimate friendship.

Angela’s back-up source has been getting cold feet and needed persuading to help once more.  His fears are realised later on when he is found dead.  The information he gave was pivotal in more ways than one.

For a start Angela’s team, with the help of a mole, (I use the term loosely here) is able to discover who is set to gain from Roper’s deals.  Shockingly the people are senior members of MI6.  To make matters worse, a member of the government is embroiled in it too.  Wheels must turn which results in the aforementioned death.

While this is going on Roper and Co. make their way to Istanbul.  It is here that Pine must carry out his first transaction of his new company.  As expected, all goes smoothly.

Then we come to a scene which I felt was unnecessary. We know that these deals involve weapons, through dialogue as well as carefully photographed documents, so why show Roper and Co. visiting the ship the weapons arrived on?  Perhaps it is to add an air of excitement or danger to the proceedings.  Without actually seeing the weapons the story could come across as being lukewarm.  I can only guess.

Pine’s antics with Roper’s girlfriend were not as secret as you might think.  Angela’s team have discovered the affair and they order him out.  Panicking, Pine informs Roper of a police presence and they escape just in time.

This episode, despite the earlier reservation, was very good.  The plot twists and turns, never quite going where you think it is.  It helps that brilliant acting brings the story to the fore.  While I have taken the time to highlight the main cast, the supporting members are excellent too.  Even the dinner guest who lost a lobster salad to Corcoran’s antics was well played.

 

photo courtesy of intheequation.com

When Breath Becomes Air: A Book Review

Reviewing this book feels a little sacreligious as the subject is a difficult one, but I shall give it a try.  For those of you who do not want to read a review that threatens to be morbid, you might want to skip this one, I’ll understand.

What caught my eye as I walked through my local bookshop was the title.  It took me a second or so to realise it is about death.  Not just any death but the death of the author, Paul Kalanithi.  He did not die at his own hands but by that rather too common cause, cancer.

Like a lot of books these days, it punches you in the gut first before allowing you to rest.  By that I mean, it deliberately alters the chronological order to highlight a specific point in time.  In this case it is the initial diagnosis of lung cancer.

What makes this book poignant is Paul’s life and career.  At first he wished to be a writer.  He wanted to understand the morality of life, especially when it comes to suffering.  However he found language was not enough and so through a series of events, changed his mind to follow a path in surgery, specifically neurosurgery.

Working on the brain is like messing with a person’s personality.  One incision in the wrong place (we’re talking millimetres here) could change a person’s life forever.  It is downright scary and humbling what neurosurgeons do.

Throughout his career, Paul performed many operations, some more successful than others.  He comforted many families, made people’s lives liveable, even if only for a short while.  Easing a patient’s suffering was what drove him yet he still struggled with the beast he faced every day, death.

And then it happened.  Strictly speaking, it didn’t happen out of the blue. Severe back pain had wracked his body for many weeks and it was only when he lost a lot of weight did he take notice.

With the diagnosis the tables were flipped, he was now the patient.  When the cancer was in remission, Paul decided to go back to work.  I should point out that a neurosurgeon close to qualifying as chief resident works an incredible amount so it was not a decision to be taken lightly.

To begin with, Paul made ‘baby-steps’.  Slowly but surely he increased his workload until it was almost back to normal.  Then it came back.

With barely two weeks before his baby girl was to be born, his body rebelled.  Both stage one (a drug) and stage two (chemotherapy) had failed.  From this point Paul’s health deteriorated.

The exception to his life of pain was his daughter.  What joy little Cady gave to her father I cannot begin to fathom.  However I do have the last paragraph which brought me close to tears.

Reading this book was hard at times but also revealing.  What is it that we strive for in our lives?  We want our life to have meaning.  We want to do something useful with our time. We want to prove to ourselves we don’t just exist, we take part.

 

Photo courtesy of theguardian.com

Ex_Machina: A Review

Do you know what it feels like to be duped?  That feeling you get when you know you’ve been outsmarted.  Its not very nice, is it?  Perhaps you thought you were clever, thriving on it.  Then someone comes along and shows you how foolish you can be.

So I guess my take on this film is this; its smart, very smart.  A thought provoking film that will lead you one way and yet be heading in an entirely different one.  That, my friends, is the hallmark of a great story.

The premise is this, a man wins a competition to spend a week with his boss.  Not just any boss, the boss, the owner of the company he works for.  The winning and the journey are irrelevant except to give a sense of remoteness to where he ends up.

On arrival Caleb, the winner, discovers the ulterior motive.  He is to help perform a Turing Test on an AI the boss has built.  For those who don’t know, a Turing Test is used to see if a candidate can pass as being human.  In this case the AI is a female called Ava.

Throughout the week Caleb and Ava learn about each other.  Not content to leave them to it Nathan (the boss) watches them through a CCTV system.  After all, he needs to observe the test in order to have a point of reference when comparing notes with Caleb.

As new pieces of information come to light, you begin to empathise with the characters.  Trapped in the wilderness they are, in essence, in a cage of their own making.  Who is the caged and who is the keeper?  That is the question.

So it is a given that things start to go wrong.  How and why, I will not reveal but it does add tension to the story.  Over the course of the film they help to reveal loyalties between the parties.  Which all aids to inform their behaviour.

I can’t help but imagine what must have been going through Caleb’s mind over the course of the week.  Who does he trust?  His unsavoury boss or the woman who’s caught his attention?

This film could not have worked without three great actors.  Domnall Gleeson expertly plays a tentative yet thoughtful, Caleb.  Alicia Verkander performs wonderfully as Ava.  Without her wiles working their magic this film would not be as good as it is.  Finally we come to Oscar Issac.  As Nathan, he plays a pretty damn good antagonist to Gleeson’s naive looking protagonist.

As each character is significantly different, they are easy to get into.  But the depth each actor brings to their role makes them feel alive.

Credit must also go to Alex Garland who wrote the story.  I think we forget that if it wasn’t for the story, there would be no film.  If this is what he comes up with, I can’t wait to be outsmarted again.