Welcome to my monthly round-up of (non-746) books, movies and music that I’ve been enjoying over the last few weeks.
Reprieve by James Han Mattson
This was one of my RIP reads and a book I requested from Net Galley, mainly because of its fun premise. Quigley House is a full-contact escape room where teams of 4 attempt to go through 5 cells without saying the safe word – ‘reprieve’ – to receive a cash prize. We follow a group through the house until they reach the last room, when real-life intrudes as a man enters and kills one of the contestants. Mattson then goes back and follows the circumstances that brought these participants to Quigley House and explores the reasons for the murder.
Reprieve is billed as a horror, but it’s not that at all, and as a thriller, it is mildly diverting. However there are a lot of characters and story-lines vying for attention, which makes it hard to care about anyone involved. There is a thematic exploration of race throughout the book, but it doesn’t really go anywhere and if Mattson is commenting on social issues through the medium of horror, his point gets lost.
Sisters by Daisy Johnson
This was another RIP read which I enjoyed very much. As the novel opens, sisters September and July (born 10 months apart) are travelling with their mother from Oxford to Yorkshire to stay at a broken-down family property called Settle House. They are far from settled though as they are running from something that has happened at school in Oxford. Something life-changing. Told mainly from the point of view of July, the book explores the family’s past and the incident that has brought them here in a dream-like, fragmentary narrative. There is a beautifully gothic feel to Sisters and Johnson’s writing is evocative, if sometimes overdone. Her imagery is unsettling – and often terrifying – and the central reveal of the novel, is handled with an incredibly sure hand. I saw it coming, but that made it no less powerful when it arrived. I’ll definitely read more of Johnson’s work after this.
Dinner Party: A Tragedy by Sarah Gilmartin
Sarah Gilmartin is an Irish journalist and critic who has gone from reviewing debut fiction, to writing her own, with the publication of her debut novel Dinner Party: A Tragedy, which is winning praise from writers such as Anne Enright and John Boyne.
Gilmartin’s book is indeed a tragedy, exploring the emotional fallout on Kate Gleeson and the rest of her family after Kate’s twin sister Elaine is killed. Stretching from the 1990s to the present day, from rural Ireland to Dublin, it is an exploration of decades-long grief and how things unsaid and unresolved can ravage a family. Kate has struggled to cope throughout the sixteen years since her twin’s death, but as she hosts an anniversary dinner party with her brothers, things will come to a head and Kate will come to recognise the importance of family, the need to return home and the need to move on from the past as her life spins out of control.
The novel moves back and forward in time to different important points in Kate’s life and many of the key scenes take place around a meal, which highlights Kate’s struggle with anorexia. Food, like family, is one of our primal needs, but it can be as dangerous as it can be nourishing. The dysfunctional family is a regular trope in Irish fiction and I quite enjoyed this exploration of grief and loss, although my expectation that the whole book was set over one dinner party may have coloured my reaction to it. Kate’s eating disorder is explored thoughtfully but I didn’t feel any of the characters really came to life enough for me to fully recommend it.
Susan at A Life in Books has reviewed Dinner Party: A Tragedy here.
This was my family’s first trip back to the cinema since early 2020 and we couldn’t have picked a better movie. Ryan Reynolds plays a bank teller called Guy, who discovers he is actually a background player in an open-world video game, destined to always do and say the same things every day. When he realises that he doesn’t have to stick to his lines anymore, he decides to become the hero of his own story, with a little help from a brilliant Jodie Comer.
Free Guy is great frivolous fun, with charming performances, a clever concept and a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek self-awareness.
Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar
I read a review which called Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar the equivalent of a Muppet movie if the muppets were played by humans and I was immediately intrigued. Barb & Star, written by lead actors Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo (who collaborated on Bridesmaids) is a riot of nonsense about two single, middle-aged women from the Midwest who are made redundant from their cushy jobs at a furniture shop. To cheer themselves up they decide to take their dream holiday to Vista Del Mar where they end up shagging Jamie Dornan, fighting a sinister baddie and saving the beach resort from a swarm of genetically modified mosquitos with the help of a mermaid played by country star Reba McEntire.
As mad as this sounds, it actually works, mainly because the film is really, really funny and the actors are giving it everything. Jamie Dornan has a musical number, Morgan Freeman voices a crab called Morgan Freemond, the theme song is called ‘I Love Boobies’ and the whole film is a celebration of middle-aged friendship and the life-saving power of a good pair of culottes.
Barb & Star is quite possibly the most brilliant and bonkers film I’ve seen in a long time, but if you give yourself over to its irresistible madness, then you are in for an utter treat.
The North Water
In direct contrast to Barb & Star is The North Water, the BBC’s adaptation of Ian McGuire’s novel, starring Steven Graham, Jack O’Connell and a scene-stealing Colin Farrell. The North Water is about as far from fun as you can get. It tells the story of Patrick Sumner, a disgraced ex-army surgeon who signs up as ship’s doctor on a doomed whaling expedition to the Arctic, despite having an addiction to laudanum. On board he meets Henry Drax, a harpooner and a brutish killer whose fate will become entwined with Sumner’s when their ship sinks in the waters of the far north.
The North Water is brilliantly, and beautifully shot, perfectly capturing the claustrophobia of ship life and the loneliness of the expanses of the Arctic. It can be a hard watch at times, particularly in the scenes where animals are killed, but it is unsparing and subtle in its depiction of the evil that men can do. The cast is uniformly excellent but Colin Farrell is a revelation, as the hulking and frankly terrifying Henry Drax.
I usually steer clear of these big budget, hyped BBC dramas but thought that Vigil might be good, diverting fun. And it was to an extent, until it got bogged down in backstory and convoluted plot. Despite great performances, I nearly gave up around episode three, but kept watching to find out what had happened. By the end of episode six, I’m still not entirely sure what was going on, who was doing what, or why anyone was doing anything at all.
This month I reviewed the lovely new album by José González for No More Workhorse although I have mostly been listening to this gorgeous new piano track from Poppy Ackroyd, one of my favourite contemporary classical artists.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!