Film #276: April and the Extraordinary World (2015)

aka: Avril et le monde truqué
directors: Christian Desmares & Franck Ekinci
language: French
length: 101 minutes
watched on: 23 March 2017

I picked this up randomly when I was back in the UK at new year. In fact, I think I bought it mainly because if I bought two DVDs with a particular deal, they’d be £20 for two (it was this and Departure, if anyone’s wondering, and I also bought a bunch of other movies too). DVDs are expensive, yo!

Anyway, my last foray into French animation was a complete dud, so I was slightly worried that I’d have the same problem again, but this is not computer-animated. Phew! It’s gone down the Japanese route of adapting a comic book (manga, bande-déssinée, whatever you want to call them) to the big screen, and it looks the part. A lot of the character styles, and the sensibility of the animation, remind me strongly of Tintin, and likewise a lot of the humour seems to be drawn from a similar source.

The movie is an alternate history story where the age of steam didn’t die out, electricity was either never discovered or never harnessed properly, and things stayed roughly as they were in the 19th century. The film is set around the 1930s or so, but the history is completely different: needing coal and wood to power everything, Europe faces an energy crisis and starts fighting over who gets to strip-mine Canada. It’s “steampunk”, in a word. Things that would be controlled by electricity in the real world are clunking great steam machines. It’s very much in the vein of Howl’s Moving Castle, or the Japanese anime Steamboy, which I watched a few years ago. In fact, the plot of Steamboy, just reading back on Wikipedia, seems suspiciously similar to this one. There’s a MacGuffin (the elixir of life, or something), and people have to fly around on clunking machines to get at it.

Anyway, the characters are funny – I like the fact that the main character is female, for one thing. She has a talking cat pet, which also tangentially reminds me of Tintin. I think the world is well-developed and looks nice, if very brown. From the exquisite descriptions on the DVD case of the visual style of the film, I was expecting something less beige. But it does make the colourful parts come alive a bit more.

Say no more for now, but the film just goes bonkers in the third act when the identities of the secret captors are revealed. I think by this point I’d decided just to enjoy the film, and even though it’s stupid, it ties together somehow. So I can let it off.

The level of technology in steampunk stuff always amuses me. It’s always way above and beyond what we in the real world can produce, despite being set a hundred years ago. This is guilty of that – the “bad guys” have some kind of super space age ‘copter that can control the weather and go invisible, but the rest of the world are stuck with heavy pollution and mechanical parts that break a lot. It reminds me of the bonkers last act of Wild Wild West, when Kevin Kline has a giant mechanical spider. Like, there’s steampunk, and there’s pushing the boundary of what can be considered physically possible, and that danced right over the line.

It’s enjoyable, anyway, one of those gems I was lucky to find by browsing (this is why physical stores are important). And if anyone wants to borrow this or any of the other DVDs I have, you’d be welcome. Has anyone else seen this? What do you think?

Book #132: Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

aka: Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death
author: Kurt Vonnegut
language: English and some German
length: 313 minutes (5 hours 13 minutes)
finished listening on: 22 March 2017

I got this on a cheap deal from Audible, and what a coincidence: it’s narrated by James Franco, who I just watched chew the scenery in King Cobra. I’ve been meaning to read some of Vonnegut’s work for a while, as he’s one of those authors that’s constantly referenced in other works – and is rightly considered a classic author of sci-fi.

The book is a kind of comedy about war, written semi-autobiographically about Vonnegut’s experiences in Dresden during World War II. In that vein, it fits well with Catch-22, but is less obviously comedic in its outlook. In fact, it is a lot more morbid than that book – Catch-22 waits until near the end of the book when we’ve become emotionally invested in its characters before it starts killing them off, but this book starts right from the beginning.

The story of the book is that the main character Billy Pilgrim gets “unstuck in time”, and later kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians, aliens who can see all of time simultaneously and are fatalistic in their worldview. Billy Pilgrim also adopts this worldview. To this end, every time a death is mentioned in the book (which is a lot), the book uses the Tralfamadorians’ catch-phrase, “So it goes”.

Like all the best books, and especially sci-fi, this book can be read on multiple levels – on the one hand, it’s the adventures of a man who travels through time a lot and meets aliens. On the other, it seems to be a depiction of PTSD flashbacks, or some other mental illness brought on by Billy’s experiences during the war. Also, because of the non-linear way the book is structured, it is probably best to read it two or three times to get everything, to really understand what is going on. Like Catch-22, jumping around so much could leave me confused as to where I was.

I also realized while listening to this that this was certainly the inspiration for the aliens in Arrival. I feel like I’ve read them in the wrong order now!

As for James Franco, honestly I don’t think he’s cut out for audiobook reading. There’s an awful lot of vocal fry and mumbling in this (especially when he repeats the Tralfamadorian mantra), and the book also contains a few sentences of untranslated German, which Franco utterly mangles. I couldn’t understand what he was saying at all. Can audiobook producers not screen that kind of stuff before producing an audiobook? I complained about Franco in my review of King Cobra recently – I also just realized that I complained about him (indirectly) in my review of 127 Hours, about five years ago, although not by name because I didn’t know him at the time. That film relied so much on his one performance, and he couldn’t quite carry it.

So I think I’d like to read this book again just to absorb it better, but maybe in print form this time. I think it’s beautifully structured, to the point that a single reading doesn’t quite cut it. Anyone else read it? What do you think?

Film #275: A Single Man (2009)

director: Tom Ford
language: English and a bit of Spanish
length: 100 minutes
watched on: 17 March 2017

I think I knew this film would be sad when I watched it, but it was a major LGBT-themed release from a few years ago that I completely missed… and it would certainly be amiss for me not to watch it.

The film’s central character is played by Colin Firth, a gay man who lost his partner, but was not allowed to attend the funeral. After about a year of mourning, he decides to take his own life, and the film follows his final day, preparing to commit suicide, interspersed with flashbacks to his long relationship.

The film’s use of colour is very advanced – I especially like how things and people that spark something in Firth’s character come into sharp focus and high contrast primary colour. The movie starts out with a lot of sepia colouring and wood panelling in the background, and it shifts to more supple tones, and it seems to be Firth moving from boredom and depression to a different mindset. But at the same time, it becomes laboured as soon as Firth’s characters explains to Nicholas Hoult’s character, the young student who basically seduces him over the course of the movie, in detail what each primary colour represents. I thought it would be better to keep this more subtle.

The period of the movie, in the 1960s or 70s, is demonstrated very stereotypically, just like I mentioned with other recent things I’ve watched like High-Rise – it’s cold war broadcasts about Cuba and students smoking in class. It’s like a weird shorthand filmmakers have got.

Basically the whole premise is sad and depressing – I can’t even imagine what it must be to go through such a loss. But – and there are major spoilers coming up – I felt really cheated by the ending. After the movie puts a lot of effort to show Firth’s redemption and how he regains vigour and a sense of purpose in life by the end of the movie, just as he puts away the gun and decides not to commit suicide, he dies of a heart attack. I was livid – I did not just put in two hours of my time to watch the story of a man rediscover the beauty of life just to have him killed off by some lazy, barely-foreshadowed plot device. I do not need to hear another story about a depressed professor who discovers the inevitability of death.

So there’s a lot of good about this movie – it shows the struggle of gay men growing older and how we deal with the loss of life. It is composed very beautifully. It is a good character study. But that ending ruined it for me.

Film #274: Se7en (1995)

aka: Seven (much more sensible)
director: David Fincher
language: English
length: 127 minutes
watched on: 12 March 2017

I’ve dropped off the radar a bit with this blog – blame sickness. I had some grand plans to go on a cycling trip this month, but I had some kind of nasty throat infection and that looks like it’s not going ahead either. But I’ll have a few days off at least.

But anyway, this post is meant to be about the film I watched. It’s now been one month, and not a lot of Se7en has stuck with me. I had wondered why I waited so long to watch it, but 18-rated films that came out when I was a kid were never really on my radar, that much is obvious.

And the film has that rating for good reason – it’s pretty gruesome. There are a lot of mutilated bodies in it, and we follow two detectives, the old-timer Morgan Freeman and the newbie Brad Pitt, in their search for a serial killer who’s killing people he believes have committed the seven deadly sins.

The film is now over twenty years old and is considered a classic of the crime-thriller genre, so it’s pretty easy to go out there and find information about it. Honestly, I wasn’t that impressed. I did think it was thrilling and exciting, to a degree, and I was interested to see what would happen next and so on. But there’s a major twist near the end that turns Pitt and Freeman’s decisions into a moral quandary, and I just kind of shrugged my shoulders at that point.

The rest of the film is mostly a bit monochrome, like I wished they would add a bit more colour into it.

But I don’t think I’m going to convince anyone to see this film or not by writing this – it’s a pretty old movie – so let’s turn it into a conversation: what do you think? I’d like to hear your comments!

Book #131: We Are Legion (We Are Bob) (2016)

author: Dennis E. Taylor
language: English
length: 570 minutes (9 hours 30 minutes)
finished listening on: 10 March 2017

I like science fiction books, and I’ve been through enough of them that most of what Audible recommends me now are sci-fi (that and cheap knock-offs of the Peter Grant books). But sci-fi for me can be hit and miss, and this unwieldily-titled book is for me an almost exact repeat of Ready Player One. It’s compelling enough to finish and has a nice central idea, but doesn’t appeal to me for a number of reasons – and yet has very high reviews on Audible and Amazon, leading me to try it.

The central idea is that the main character Bob signs up for a new cryogenic freezing project, but his consciousness is instead uploaded a hundred years later into a spaceship intended as a Von Neumann probe – a self-replicating deep space explorer. His job is then to go out to the nearest stars and try to find planets where earthlings can colonize, then to replicate himself and send the new replicants out to other planets, and so on.

I think a lot of its appeal to mid-30s men is that it’s full of pop-culture references. The main character often references Star Trek, for example. One of the 22nd century human characters remarks that he has to brush up on his 20th century sci-fi, and I felt the same way. The other thing is that every time Bob replicates himself the new replicant adopts a new name, often taken from pop culture. Things like Riker from Star Trek, or Homer Simpson, or Calvin and Hobbes. So there is a nice element here if you can recognize the names.

The book also borrows heavily from 1984 with its political fragmentation – there’s an American equivalent, a United States of Europe, and China controlling all of East-Asia. It does have a Brazilian Empire, the main antagonists, an African republic, and Australia, so not as simplified, but when Bob wakes up in the 22nd century they’re talking about the Ministry of Truth in the new American theocracy called “F.A.I.T.H.” – with such name changes, it could get difficult at times to remember what the book’s countries were meant to be.

Basically my main problem with the book is it doesn’t have any coherent structure, and it doesn’t have a proper ending, as it ends on a bunch of cliffhangers. I think the author wants to set up a big space opera setting, but it’s a bit tedious. I would have much preferred something that gave closure on some kind of main plot, but as it is, it’s difficult to say which is the main plot. It splits off after the first replication into one character that stays to try and terraform a planet, another who goes back to Earth to try and sort out the political situation there, and several who go on to other planets. The original Bob ends up finding a “primitive” alien civilization and influences them, while a more introverted replicant finds evidence of a larger alien civilization who have strip-mined a solar system – but this is part of the teaser for the next book, it seems.

The other problem is, there’s just one character, and he’s boring and obnoxious. The book goes to pains to distinguish the new Bobs from one another, giving them new names, and in some cases the narrator of the audiobook tries unsuccessfully to give them new voices (but he can’t imitate Homer Simpson, who ends up sounding like a Minnesotan or Canadian). They talk about how their personalities differ… but it’s not enough. It’s a cast of one guy talking to his own clones. I know this could be done effectively – although it’s a different medium, just look at Orphan Black, for instance, where one actress plays upwards of ten completely different characters. Bob is just a bit masculine in an insipid way, and this book is what a lack of diversity looks like. (There’s also a more minor issue that reminded me of Neptune’s Brood, in that the now-robotic character is hard to relate to in a human way.)

I also had major issues with the tribal culture he comes across. They don’t look like humans, but in every other way, they do. They have two genders, the strong males who do the hunting and the weak females who do the childrearing and gathering fruits and berries. The author even speculates that this might be universal. Like, he can do whatever he wants in his own universe, but I’ll never be convinced that aliens follow the American/Western gender binary. On those last two points, I just want to mention The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – in that case, although I was annoyed that the aliens tended to have a gender binary, it was almost always completely different from what we’re used to. And the set of characters didn’t consist of one guy replicated over and over. It was, in a word, more diverse.

OK, I have one more problem, actually. The fight scenes never left me feeling in jeopardy. None of the Bobs actually get killed in a fight until quite near the end. But as soon as they started replicating, I was hoping the author would consider them more disposable and start killing them off to engender a sense of danger when confronting the other characters. They also use the same tactics each battle. I just got bored with these scenes.

I did keep going with the book because I did want to find out what happened next, and I think there is a sense of wit there. It’s just, it’s not what I would hope for in sci fi. The book closes with humans settling on two planets, that our nerd fanboy main character has named after two planets in the Star Trek universe, and the book’s final line (spoilers lol) is “Roddenberry would be proud”, and I completely disagree – Roddenberry’s Star Trek was a character-driven diverse show that tried to break boundaries in society (viz. the first interracial kiss on American TV and the strong gay subtext between Kirk and Spock)… and this book is an idea-driven book about one straight white American dudebro talking to himself for most of the book. I hate to break it down to simplistic labels like that – I don’t think those kinds of arguments necessarily hold water, but “Roddenberry would be proud” is a strong claim.

So if you want flawed but amusing soft sci fi fluff, it’s okay. It does its job. If you’re expecting more, there’s plenty of better stuff out there.

Film #273: King Cobra (2016)

director: Justin Kelly
language: English
length: 92 minutes
watched on: 9 March 2017

I heard about this film late last year and was instantly intrigued – it’s about the gay porn industry, and specifically Brent Corrigan, gay porn’s poster boy for the past twelve years. It’s based on the young porn star’s life as a teenager getting into the porn industry, and then the drama that ensues.

Brent Corrigan’s name will probably be familiar to most gay readers, I think – I guess it’s funny that I don’t think any straight porn stars have the same level of fame. The real Corrigan has since branched out to real acting under his real name, Sean Paul Lockhart – he was in Judas Kiss, for example, which I watched a few years ago.

As seems to be par for the course with biopics (viz. Tickled and a few others), Lockhart has publicly denounced this film and called it exploitative and misrepresentative of the gay porn industry. No doubt, but it’s a fun interpretation of a book written about the Brent Corrigan saga.

The climax (spoilers, by the way!) deals with the eventual murder of Christian Slater’s character, the producer who’d worked with Corrigan and claimed copyright on the name Brent Corrigan, by two rival producers, James Franco’s character and his young lover – who were trying to get Corrigan to work for them. This much is apparently true, although the aftermath was rushed in the film and the real Lockhart has complained about this section in particular.

The other main point in the film is the relatively well-known fact that Lockhart was only 17 when he made his first couple of movies, making the movies illegal child pornography. The fallout from this also seems to be true-to-life.

The film is sexy, and it has a nice colour palette, with a lot of pink and red – it almost reminded me of Pink Narcissus, although that might be too high praise for it. It looks very polished, too, and I thought it was fun to watch. Christian Slater’s and James Franco’s characters are suitably creepy, although the real Lockhart has complained about this too. I noticed they were trying to really go for the mid-2000s as a period, so it was funny to see the amount of flip-phones being used, and the old-style websites. It’s funny that we’re already at the point that we can stereotype that era.

But it’s also exploitative, often treating sex as a joke, and it doesn’t know how to balance tone. James Franco is probably partly culpable here – I find his attitude towards the gay community in general to be exploitative (and there’s an argument to be made that this is his vehicle more than anyone else’s). It’s usually quite funny and playful, but will throw a character’s history of sexual abuse in your face at a moment’s notice. It’s also weird sometimes – as if to try and raise the glamour level of porn, the main characters are constantly discussing porn loudly in expensive restaurants, to the point where it got annoying and unrealistic. Don’t these people have offices?

Also, while I did enjoy the colourfulness and the set design in general, I think the director still has some way to go with editing and cinematography. I remember one long take of one particular conversation, that cut halfway through to shot-reverse shot style, and I was jolted out of watching it. I think he still hasn’t found his own style, not quite.

There’s also the issue of the ending, which is rushed. I wanted to see more of the fallout from the murder, but it was framed as the climax here. There’s also a comment from Corrigan working as a porn producer right at the end, which echoes directly a comment made by Christian Slater, suggesting he’s no better than the creep who came before him.

Basically, it has a lot of issues and it is pretty amateurish, but it was fun to watch. That’s the best way to describe it, I think.

Film #272: Pink Narcissus (1971)

director: James Bidgood
language: silent (with some radio clips)
length: 65 minutes
watched on: 8 March 2017

It’s not the first time I’ve watched this, but I saw images of it online recently, and the desire to see it again was brimming for a while. The last time I saw it was back in 2008, quite a long time. As of writing this, it’s available on Youtube, so I recommend people search it out (but be careful, it does get very explicit).

I honestly think there are few more iconic films than this one, especially gay ones. Its visual style is very distinct, and there are plenty of imitators – the artists Pierre & Gilles, for example, or Bavo Defurne’s films that I watched last year.

Nominally, there’s a plot (it’s supposed to be the fantasies of a young male prostitute, but this is rather awkwardly tacked on to the film), but it’s more of a series of erotic images played to viewers with music – with no dialogue, presumably too expensive to record at the time. Apparently it took several years to make in the director’s New York apartment, which was extravagantly dressed up for all the different scenes. And the film was originally credited to “anonymous” – and no wonder, given the time period, and how explicit it gets.

But it’s a long tease – penises don’t show up on screen until the third act or so, and the moment is built up a lot. There’s a lot of thrusting and sex acts already, including a belly dancer waving his dick around under a thin cloth covering. A thinly-veiled penis indeed. I was almost surprised when they eventually lifted the veil, as it were.

And not all the images are sexual, although that’s obviously the main focus. One of my favourites is where the film, or the screen, seems to crack, but it zooms out to show it’s actually a spider’s web.

Now obviously I like watching guys naked or in very tightly-fitting clothing that outlines their butts – and Bobby Kendall, the main actor, is super cute – but it’s the music, perfectly matching the images, and the vivid colours that make this film work. There’s just something special about it.

Book #130: Openly Straight (2013)

author: Bill Konigsberg
language: English
length: 339 pages
finished reading on: 6 Mar 2017

It remains the case, at least from what I can see, that it’s easier to find young adult LGBT novels than it is to find more grown-up stuff. Perhaps my readers have a different perspective? Let me know if you know anything good! Anyway, for me this follows on from similar books like Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, which I read last year. It’s similarly easy to read, and the story is also generally optimistic.

The conceit here is a boy called Rafe who is openly gay, but tired of being The Gay Kid at his school, and wants to be treated “normally”. So he ups and moves right across the country to attend boarding school in Massachusetts, where he decides he’s not going to reveal his sexuality straight away – going back in the closet, as his best friend and family term it.

The arc of the story is very predictable – I could tell what was going to happen within the first two chapters, as all the main characters are introduced. But this predictability is a boon in this genre, actually. It’s comforting to be able to know what will happen next.

The exploration of identity is interesting, but I’m definitely out of the target audience of teenagers still trying to work this stuff out. But I could see parts of myself in it too. I was never “out” in high school, but I would never have wanted to be seen as The Gay Kid. I’m reminded of something my coworker said recently – being gay is important to me but it’s not my primary identity, nor the first adjective he’d describe me with. His impression was that Americans seem to be more eager to make it the centre of their identities, and if I was American I might want to be seen as That Gay Guy.

Not sure about that, but that idea is reflected to some extent here – the other characters are shocked when they find out the main character is tired of broadcasting his identity in such a way, and it looks into the labels we apply to each other. Once he stops broadcasting that he’s gay, he immediately picks up other labels, such as “jock”. And it’s more subtle, but names, too, are very important in the book – the main character goes by different names to different people, and his friend gets angry when people call her the wrong name. I think this was a sensible choice from the author to demonstrate other shifts in identity that everyone makes.

I’m not so into many sports myself, and sports are also a big theme of the book – so I switched off a bit for the descriptions of soccer or American football, but I liked the bits where they went skiing. Selective, perhaps.

It gets very, very awkward at some points, though, in that way of teenagers unable to express their feelings well. Similar to Boys, the last movie I watched, it reminded me in a bad way of the anxiety of coming out.

So while I enjoyed its exploration of the character’s identity, and in general I found it easy to read and enjoyed the variety of characters and situations, I still think I need to get away from stories of coming out and coming of age.

And thus I reiterate my initial request – does anyone know any gay novels that aren’t about coming of age?

Film #270-271: Boys (2014) + bonus short film

aka: Jongens
director: Mischa Kamp
language: Dutch and a bit of English
length: 76 minutes
watched on: 3 Mar 2017

I’ve been seeing pictures and gifs of this movie online for a while, and it looked good. It’s yet another gay coming-of-age movie. You’d think I’d have had enough of them by now, but I don’t get a whole lot of choice in the genre. Anyway, I bought it on DVD when I was back home.

This movie is basically harmless, and it can be fairly described as “nice” for most of its runtime. It tells the story of two teenage boys on the running team in a rural Dutch school who fall in love. Meanwhile, the main character, in deep denial, also gets a kind-of girlfriend to fit in with his best friend and his brother. Unlike his romance with the other boy, which develops slowly and naturally, this seems forced and rushed. Towards the end it comes down to a choice between the two.

The film has a good visual style. It’s clean and uses contrast and symmetry well. I noticed this watching it, and then the director said that’s what she was trying to achieve in the DVD extras – they wanted something that would be iconic enough that individual frames could be screenshotted easily.

The other important thing about the movie is that I think it’s the first “PG” rated gay film I’ve ever seen – and this was also very deliberate on the part of the director, as her target audience was young people just figuring out their sexual orientation. In terms of sexual content, it goes as far as kissing and making out, but not further. I guess some of the homoerotic exercise shots reminded me of Bavo Defurne’s work, which I watched last year, but they were also pretty tame.

Overall, I liked the visual style of the movie, but as I say, I need to take a break from movies about coming out. I think on the same day I watched this, I read That Article that’s been circulating about how gay men are all lonely and emotionally stunted from the experience of being in the closet (I partially agree with it, but it’s a very pessimistic article and has some faulty arguments/conclusions without advice on how to break such a cycle), and watching this film, about being in the closet and figuring oneself out, didn’t help my anxious feeling that day. Still, I’d recommend the movie, it’s basically harmless and optimistic, and feels really genuine and warm-hearted.

The DVD also came with a bonus short film:
Film #271: Even Cowboys Get to Cry (2013)
aka: Cowboys janken ook
director: Mees Peijnenberg
language: Dutch and a bit of French
length: 25 minutes

So I just waxed lyrical a bit about the importance of having a PG-rated gay movie… and the distributors kind of ruined that by packaging it with this 18-rated short, meaning that young teenagers trying to figure out their sexuality can’t even buy this movie legally in the UK. Like, this doesn’t concern me a lot personally, but it’s annoying. I can see why they added it, though – the main feature is a bit shorter than usual at 76 minutes.

The movie is connected to the other by dint of sharing two main actors – in Boys, they are the boyfriend and brother of the main character, here they are best friends and troublemakers. They have a “bromance” going on at the start of the movie and there are some scenes showing how close they are. But then, one of them starts a fight after drinking, and the other gets in a coma as a result of the ensuing violence. The rest of the movie is his rehabilitation and the first boy’s guilt – they sort of drift apart and reconcile at the end.

It’s not gay like the other movie, actually, although it’s very easy to read subtext into it. And the sexual content that gets it an 18 rating is pretty superfluous – firstly, there is a scene where one boy walks in on the other while he’s having sex with a girl, meant to show how they are inappropriately close, and the other is in the hospital, when we accidentally see his erect penis. I think these scenes are meant to titillate, and I think they could easily be extracted from the film.

A bit disappointing, but an interesting look at disability and rehabilitation.

Has anyone else seen this/these?

Book #129: Magpie Murders (2016)

author: Anthony Horowitz
language: English
length: 947 minutes
finished listening on: 26 Feb 2017

This is one of the bestsellers on Audible at the moment, which is how I heard about it, and it’s a book with a unique conceit, which is why I chose to listen to it. It’s basically a book within a book – and while that’s not in itself a unique conceit, I don’t know of any other books that reproduce an entire fictional book within its own pages.

It’s nominally a crime thriller / murder mystery in the vein of Sherlock Holmes or Poirot, but it’s actually the story of an editor, Susan Ryeland, reading a book and finding that it has missing chapters at the end, and then trying to find out how the story ends. Meanwhile, the author of the book, Alan Conway, is murdered, and she ends up in her own murder mystery.

The conceit works well in the audiobook format, as the narrator switches to a male voice for the book-within-the-book, and switches back to the female voice for the parts narrated by the editor of the book. The male narrator does well with the fictional book, which is set in a rural part of England, and has a German main character in Atticus Pund (or Pünd, maybe – I didn’t see the name written down, but there was a reference to an umlaut at one point, although neither narrator pronounced it correctly if there was), who is the book’s detective. He had quite a dynamic voice and range of accents. The female narrator isn’t as good at accents, but that works well for her sections, which are narrated in first person and more conversational in tone – she’s doing things like commenting directly on the style and narration of the book within the book. I actually forgot at one point that she was also, strictly speaking, a character in the novel, which is pretty rare! But basically, when she narrates dialogue, the other characters all sound posh, and the Scottish accent she attempted for one character was laughable.

It’s not my first experience of Horowitz’s writing, but the last time I read him must be more than a decade ago – he wrote the very popular Alex Rider series, and I read the first few books when I was young. They were pretty formulaic young-adult James Bond clones, but exciting for teenage boys. I think one even got made into a movie. My brother was also into them, more than me. I actually think Horowitz is still writing them, and I’m sure they’d be interesting to read now, but I’m well out of the target audience. I also read another “adult” book by him, also a long time ago. I get the feeling he’s been pigeonholed as a children’s writer, leading to frequent comments that books like this are a rare break from form for him.

In the book, this is actually reflected in the author who is murdered, who doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as a murder mystery writer, and that’s one of the many levels that the book works on. Similarly, aspects of the murder of the author are reflected in aspects of the murder in the story he wrote in the story. It gets confusing if you think about it for too long.

But I liked the book for that. In the first half it’s a straight murder mystery in the style of Poirot or Holmes, but also reminiscent of J.K. Rowling’s post-Potter work (the Cormoran Strike series or The Casual Vacancy) – a little old-fashioned with its 50s setting in a village.

It then goes ahead and deconstructs itself, and even the whole murder mystery genre, in the second half. At this point it takes on a fairly accurate description of modern Britain (I always appreciate seeing gay characters, even if one of them is the murder victim, and not everyone is unrealistically white), reminiscent again of J.K. Rowling or the Peter Grant series (although that’s a lot more self-conscious about breaking that mould).

Then in the final act, it dives right back in to the murder mystery schtick for the Reveal, first as Susan solves her side of the mystery, and then as she finally finds the missing chapters and we get to hear the solution to the original mystery. And as it goes, there are further excerpts from Conway’s writing and from other characters and authors in comparison, and Horowitz writes each style distinctively and adeptly.

There are also a number of nice twists in the ending, and I laughed out loud on a train when the secret of the detective character’s name is revealed. It was nice to get closure on the story – at one point I hadn’t expected to get it – but the two endings didn’t tie together quite as nicely as I’d hoped.

So I would recommend it overall. It’s not ground-breaking, exactly, but it accomplishes something unique, and going right out of the story in the way this does lends it a special quality. Anyone else read it?