mystery

REVIEW: Ghost Squad by Claribel A. Ortega

Shortly before Halloween, twelve-year-old Lucely and her best friend, Syd, cast a spell that accidentally awakens malicious spirits, wreaking havoc throughout St. Augustine. Together, they must join forces with Syd’s witch grandmother, Babette, and her tubby tabby, Chunk, to fight the haunting head-on and reverse the curse to save the town and Lucely’s firefly spirits before it’s too late.

I haven’t read a middle grade or children’s book since I was the intended demographic for such a book, but when I heard about Ghost Squad, I knew I had to check it out and I’m very pleased I did. Yes, the humour is naturally more juvenile than my kind of thing as an adult but there’s still some moments that made me smile to myself and Syd especially had some witty observational one-liners.

I read Ghost Squad in two sittings and it was a great way to spend some time. I got pulled into the story almost immediately and Lucely and Syd’s friendship was so great. I liked both girls a lot and they have a proper ride or die friendship and there’s pretty much nothing they can’t say to one another. I liked that a lot actually, that they weren’t afraid to ask each other tough or potentially personal and uncomfortable questions and the other never getting upset with those questions. Instead, it was a sign of how deep their friendship was as they could be so open with one another even when it was about something that could hurt them.

I really liked how present the adults in Lucely and Syd’s life were. Yes the girls go on a lot of adventures on their own and figure things out together, but it’s nice that when adults are made aware of what’s happening, namely Syd’s grandmother Babette and Lucely’s dad Simon, they’re supportive and help the girls solve the problem. As I said, I haven’t read much middle grade but with YA there’s often a lot of dead, abusive, or emotionally or physically absent parental figures in the main characters lives. This tends to be so the main characters can have their adventure and story without worrying about the pesky adults getting in the way but Ghost Squad shows how your child hero characters can be the heroes of their story but still have love and support from the adults in their lives when they need it.

The ghosts themselves and the monsters they can create were excellent and suitably spooky. The action sequences and the magical items the girls and Babette use to capture and fight the ghosts were fun too. Ghost Squad really captured the sort of childlike wonder of a situation full of ghosts, like the items used to fight ghosts could only be found in a children’s book and it was great.

I found how Ghost Squad delt with death and family really interesting and effective. Lucely can still see pretty much all of her dead family members thanks to their spirits being connected to her home while her dad has lost that power and can only see them as fireflies. So, for Lucely no one is truly dead and gone so when something threatens them, and her grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins start to get almost sick even though they’re already ghosts, it’s a really scary time for her. On the flipside to that, her mother left Lucely and her father and that grief and sadness is there unlike the grief of losing a loved one to death. It’s a really interesting parallel and shows the difference between losing someone due to something out of their control, and losing someone due to their own choices.

I’m really pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Ghost Squad considering middle grade isn’t something I read. I liked the characters, the adventure, the spooky vibes, and that there was a fat cat called Chunk that was more than meets the eye. It’s a fast-paced and fun story that has some depth to it. It’s definitely a book well-suited to Halloween season. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Luxembourg: Dr. Mabuse by Norbert Jacques

Translated by Lillian A. Clare.

Set in 1920s Germany, Dr. Mabuse is a greedy anarchist who assumes many guises and controls a legion of henchmen (both willingly and unwillingly) through money, power, and telepathic hypnosis. State prosecutor Norbert von Wenk gets put on Dr. Mabuse’s trail after strange things happen at gambling halls and so begins a game of cat and mouse.

Dr. Mabuse is a great villain. He’s truly evil and is a power-hungry master-manipulator. He can hypnotise people to do what he wills, whether it’s cheating at a game of cards or even taking their own life. The way the hypnotism is described by one of he’s victims is very unsettling and uncomfortable, especially when he’s forcing his will upon a woman. It is for all intents and purposes rape of the mind and body. He’s also great at disguises and putting on different personas so at times von Wenk and Dr. Mabuse are in the same room and may even be talking to one another but von Wenk has no idea that it’s the man he’s after until later.

The writing style of Dr. Mabuse is that typical late nineteenth century style. The language, the mystery, and the action reminded me both of Sherlock Holmes and Raffles at times. If you like stories about those characters – though they’re both far more heroic than Dr. Mabuse – then you might like this one too.

Dr. Mabuse is a fun, pulpy, mystery. It’s full of twists and turns and though some of them are unbelievable – how this man manages to evade capture at some points incredible – but it just goes to show how Dr. Mabuse is the kind of criminal mastermind that’s always a few steps ahead. Though it goes to great lengths to show how smart Dr. Mabuse is, it doesn’t do so at the detriment of von Wenk. He’s a pretty smart and capable man himself, and has enough pull with the law to get police officers (and a lot of them) where he needs them quickly. It is fun seeing von Wenk put things together and try and solve the case. There’s a lot of surprises and when some of Dr. Mabuse’s accomplices would rather die than say anything about him, von Wenk faces a lot of dead ends.

Dr. Mabuse is a pretty enjoyable read and being set in 1920s Germany it’s interesting to see the effects of the First World War on the German citizens and society. They were often only passing mentions but it helped make me understand the place that Dr. Mabuse was operating in. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Bahrain: QuixotiQ by Ali Al Saeed

Guy Kelton is a young man with a troubled mind. His shattered dream and the relentless mundane life he’s been living, alone and broken away from his family, takes an unexpected toll on him, driving him to violent, reckless extremes. He falls deeper and deeper into a bloody abyss; through extremes that would eventually lead him to the most devastating discovery about his existence. Going through his mid-twenties, Patrick Roymint, lost and confused, still struggles to come to terms with the loss of his whole family many years ago. But soon as he decides to change all that and try to rebuild the future he’s not had, he is dragged into the unseen, disturbing and filthy underworld of the little, diminishing Okay County. As both men go through a series of mysterious and bizarre events, their lives take dramatic turns that lead them to new revelations about their past, present and future. They somehow find their fates connected by some mystic, unfathomable power.

At second time of trying, I managed to read QuixotiQ. I think there’s a few reasons why I struggled with this book even though it’s pretty short at less than 200 pages long. The first is the translation/editing. It’s a self-published novel and I believe the translation was done by the author, or the author wrote it in English but that was their second language. I say that as there were a few instances where it didn’t quite read right to me, a native English speaker. Sentences were phrased awkwardly or adjectives were used which didn’t really fit the context of what was going on.

Then there was the plot itself. It was a bit difficult to figure out what was happening with Guy and Patrick. Guy especially has a lot going on in his head and he has dreams or visions where both he and you as the reader can’t really tell what’s real and what’s not. It makes the story kind of hard to follow and you’re unsure if he’s going mad, just having vivid dreams or if QuixotiQ has some surreal fantasy elements.

The chapters are short and there’s sometimes point of view changes between the chapters and in the chapters, shown by a line break. However, it can sometimes be hard to tell whose point of view your in to begin with as the first three or more paragraphs just use “he” or “she” rather than a character’s name so it can be disorientating. Mandy, Patrick’s girlfriend, and Christina, her friend and former co-worker, also have chapters from their points of view.

All four of the characters are going through tough times and their thoughts and motivations are often jumbled. I supposed it’s a good way at showing how lost these characters are, but it does make things hard to read at times and I didn’t particularly like or connect with any of the characters. Especially as things spiralled out of control for Guy, I just couldn’t comprehend why he was acting that way or see what had tipped him over the edge. The writing style and the story made character motivations unclear to me.

QuixotiQ is the only book I found by a Bahraini author in English. If I wasn’t doing my Read the World Project I would’ve probably DNF’d it as I found it muddled and uninteresting. The bright side was that the chapters were often very short so it was easy to pause and take a break when the strangeness and unclear character motivations got too frustrating.

T is for The Trouble with Harry (1955)

The trouble with Harry is that he is dead and, while no one really minds, everyone feels responsible. After Harry’s body is found in the woods, several locals must determine not only how and why he was killed but what to do with the body.

Because some of Alfred Hitchcock’s most well know films like Psycho, The Birds, and Rear Window (only one of which I’ve seen but their reputations precede them) are horror or thriller films, I always get a bit surprised when I watch one of his films and find it’s a comedy. There’s still a dead body and the mystery of who killed him, but The Trouble with Harry is a much more light hearted film than I expected.

While everything does revolve around a murder the dialogue is often quite witty. As the characters try and figure out what happened to Harry and who was really to blame, the situation surrounding Harry’s body gets more absurd as by trying to save themselves, they might actually be making themselves look more and more guilty.

The Trouble with Harry is Shirley MacLaine’s first feature film and it’s so interesting to see her in a role like this when all the films I’ve previously seen her in she’s been a cranky and/of humorous older lady, granting wisdom or causing mischief. It’s clear she had her comic timing from the beginning and she has good chemistry with John Forsythe – even if their characters romance seemed a bit rushed. Though that’s probably because the events of The Trouble with Harry all take place across just a couple of days, meaning any reveals or blossoming romance between characters does feel a bit quick.

Even though there’s a corpse at the centre of The Trouble with Harry, thanks to where it’s set and all the scenes outside, it feels like a very autumnal film. It has a charm to it that I wasn’t expecting and is a very family friendly murder mystery. 3/5.

REVIEW: Boss Level (2021)

Retired Special Forces officer, Roy Pulver (Frank Grillo), is seemingly trapped in a never-ending time loop that restarts as soon as he dies.

I shall start off this review by saying perhaps you shouldn’t read this review. Because Boss Level is one of those films that is truly a delight and perhaps works even better when you know nothing about it. All I knew was that it starred Frank Grillo (an actor I always like) and I’d seen some positive buzz about it on my Twitter feed. But I enjoyed this film enough to want to write about it so do read on if you fancy learning about why Boss Level worked for me.

Boss Level begins by throwing you right into the time loop with Roy. By this point he’s died over 100 times and can predict and counter the moves of his attackers. His dry narration sets the tone of the film and shows just how bored he is of going through the motions. People are trying to kill him and he doesn’t know why and sometimes he doesn’t even care. By starting the story after Roy is used to his predicament, you’re learning about any new occurrences as he does and it adds to the mystery of it all.

Boss Level is also really fun and often funny. The fights, car chases and shootouts are great, and as there’s so much trial and error for Roy as he goes through certain scenarios (the error leading to his death again) you get to see how his skills grow as he learns what works and what doesn’t in a fight. The editing between the different loops as Roy gets further and further before dying is great too. How the film never over explains things and manages to briefly show you the steps Roy has taken since waking up without it ever getting boring is impressive. It trusts the audience to understand the time loop scenario (as there’s been many a time loop film) so if we join Roy in a loop further along, we have a good idea of what he’s already had to do since it’s pretty much the same every time.

The humour comes from Roy’s attitude to this situation he’s in, and from a lot of his deaths. Some are so sudden and unexpected while others he just sighs and waits for it to happen. Frank Grillo’s voice suits the almost wry narration style perfectly and he looks good doing a lot of the fight sequences himself. There are times where the tone gets more sombre, almost naturally there’s a lost love, but Grillo handles those moments well too.

Boss Level is action packed and innovative. The reasoning why Roy is stuck in a time loop is slowly revealed and the action and fights are always entertaining. Boss Level is just a real good time and it’s one of the first new-to-me films I’ve watched in a while that I’ve fully enjoyed and not just thought was simply fine. Honestly, I was starting to think I didn’t know how to like films anymore! 4/5.

REVIEW: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

In October of 1994 three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, while shooting a documentary. A year later their footage was found.

The Blair Witch Project is one of those films that I knew of but hadn’t watched because I am a wuss. I did wonder how effective The Blair Witch Project would be with so much of it has become a part of popular culture and referenced in various other types of media, so I was aware of certain shots and the general story before actually watching it. I’m pleased to say it was still nerve-wracking and creepy.

The pace of The Blair Witch Project is really smart. The opening twenty minutes is the three students talking to residents of Burkittsville, hearing the stories about the Blair Witch and the other weird and horrifying things that have happened in the woods outside town. This sets the tone and makes you expect weird and creepy things to happen, and soon they do.

The trio of filmmakers all give great performances and it’s easy to see why people could believe the events of The Blair Witch Project actually happened. The fear, panic and stress is clear to see and their reactions to the unexplainable events are understandable. Heather is the projects director and she’s the one who is always filming everything and to start with doesn’t seem to mind the creepy things that are happening around them as in her mind it’ll make her documentary even better. She’s joined by Josh, who she knows well, and Mike, who she doesn’t, and as things get weird, tensions rise.

As the trio bicker as they traipse around the woods, getting more and more disorientated, the addition of unexplainable and strange piles of rocks, sounds and bundles of twigs gets everyone feeling anxious and just wanting to go home.

The Blair Witch Project is a classic of the horror genre and it’s the film that really kickstarted the found footage subgenre of films. As someone who very rarely watches horror films in general, never mind the found footage subgenre, The Blair Witch Project is tense and eerie from the outset and all the tropes that are so common now, are effective and unsettling. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Yemen: A Land Without Jasmine by Wajdi Al-Ahdal

Translated by William Maynard Hutchins.

Under the watchful eyes of the men in her community the beautiful, virtuous university student Jasmine goes about her daily business, keeping to herself and avoiding the male gaze at all costs. That is until one Valentine’s Day, when she disappears without a trace. As the details surrounding her sudden disappearance emerge the mystery deepens. Sexual depravity, honour, obsession; the motives are numerous and the suspects plentiful. Family, friends, fellow students and nosey neighbours are quick to make their own judgements on the case, but the truth may be far stranger than anyone anticipates.

I found A Land Without Jasmine strangely captivating. It’s a super short novel, less than 100 pages, and has seven chapters, each from a different character’s perspective. The first is from Jasmine’s, as she describes the heated gazes she receives from all men, young and old, even when wearing her niqab. How uncomfortable she feels, how their attention often makes her feel anxious as she wishes to be treated for more than what she looks like. The following chapters are from the perspective of detectives, neighbours, and family as they try and piece together what has happened to Jasmine.

The way Jasmine describes the unwanted attention she receives is uncomfortable to read, but what’s even more uncomfortable is when the story is from the point of view of her teenage neighbour who is infatuated with her. He, like a lot of the other male characters, seems to be unable to separate his desires and dreams from reality. His desires are explicit, and he becomes obsessed with figuring out what happened to Jasmine, forgetting to look out for himself or how his actions might be perceived by the police or Jasmine’s family.

I thought the writing in A Land Without Jasmine was often very good and provocative. However, there were some phrases that felt a bit stilted down to a choice of a word when another might’ve been more suitable but that was likely to be down to the translation. It did take me a little while to get into the story though. I think that was down to it being written in first person and I can’t remember the last book I read that was written in that tense. I think sometimes first-person narrative can make the writing seem more simplistic. At some points this seemed to work in the novels advantage, as it sometimes made statements more impactful, but at other points it made reading it feel slow and awkward.

A Land Without Jasmine is a almost a sexy mystery story – though while it does have erotic language in it, the way the characters objectify and belittle Jasmine doesn’t make it particularly sexy or appealing. There are some moments of wry sense of humour here, and how it brings in family politics, the importance and power of different family tribes for one, is interesting as that’s something I knew little about. A Land Without Jasmine is a strange mystery but once you get into the writing style, it becomes a compelling one. 4/5.

REVIEW: Enola Holmes (2020)

When Enola Holmes (Millie Bobby Brown), teenage sister to Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes (Henry Cavill and Sam Claflin respectively), discovers her mother (Helena Bonham Carter) is missing, she sets off to find her. Soon she become entangled with a missing Marquess (Louis Partridge) as she follows the clues and fights to make her own way in the world.

Now Enola Holmes was just delightful! It is based on the book series by Nancy Springer, a series I haven’t read so don’t know how well it fares as an adaptation or to what extent the quirky humour and fourth-wall breaking may be from the novel. Because that’s the thing, the film opens with Enola talking to the camera, giving the audience a rundown on her life and what the immediate mystery is, and throughout the film she makes quips and gestures to the camera to highlight her true feelings about what is going on. Breaking the fourth wall tends to be something you find in comedy films, think Deadpool, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Trading Places, so to have it here, in what is in all intents and purposes a cosy mystery drama just adds something different to the film.

Millie Bobby Brown is brilliant as Enola. She’s funny and headstrong and resourceful, but she also shows the softer side of Enola. Her mother has taught her a lot, both academically and in terms of fighting skills, but she is still quite naïve about the world. She’s lived a sheltered life with her mother so when she disappears, it’s like her life crumbles a bit – especially when Mycroft wants to send her off to a finishing school.

Speaking of Mycroft, I was somewhat bemused by Claflin playing the eldest Holmes especially when Cavill is three years older than him and (no offence to Cavill), he looks younger and more boyish than Cavill – despite the help of a bushy moustache. This is Enola’s time to shine and the Holmes brothers aren’t featured all that much but when the siblings do get to share scenes, either all three together or just two of them, they all work really well together. Mycroft and Sherlock have been absent from Enola’s life for so long that they don’t know her, and she doesn’t really know them, so seeing how they do (or don’t) start to try and understand one another and build connections is interesting and shows different sides to each character.

The whole mystery aspect of Enola Holmes is a lot of fun too, and surprisingly politically. Enola has been raised to be a very modern woman for the early twentieth century and women’s suffrage and the ‘Representation of the People Act’ both play key parts in the two mysteries Enola is investigating.

Enola Holmes is just a delightful and charming film. The tone might not suit everyone, what with its lively score and often unconventional characters, but it’s the kind of film you can sit back and relax as you’re swept up in the adventure. I do hope we get a sequel, even if the more famous faces don’t all make a return. 4/5.

REVIEW: Personal Shopper (2016)

Maureen (Kristen Stewart), a personal shopper in Paris, refuses to leave the city until she makes contact with her twin brother who died there. Her life becomes more complicated when she starts receiving text messages from an unknown number.

Personal Shopper is one of those films I’d recommend going into knowing as little as possible – and avoiding the trailer at all costs. All I knew about it was “Kristen Stewart played a personal shopper and things aren’t what they seem” and I had no idea the level of unnerving suspense that would be throughout this film.

Maureen, like her twin brother, is a medium and while she doesn’t necessary believe in the afterlife and the souls of the dead, she does believe she can feel presences. What worked really well was how her beliefs aren’t mocked by those around her. Some characters also believe and treat the idea of spirits as perfectly normal, and even those who are a bit dubious don’t laugh in her face or belittle her for trying to get a sign from her brother.

Personal Shopper is all about grief and trying to find connections. Kristen Stewart is fantastic here, playing Maureen’s search for any sort of contact with her brother with desperation, and when she starts receiving text messages that seem to know far too much about her, she’s close to tears but also has a steely determination to see things through. Maureen responds to the texts and things spiral as she tries to figure out what’s happening – could it be her brother on the other end of the phone? Stewart is in every scene of Personal Shopper and is just magnetic to watch, you can’t take your eyes off her as the camera lingers on her as she tries to process things, often while trying to stifle tears.

Personal Shopper is an unsettling blend of drama, horror and thriller. There are so many moments that can be left over to the viewers interpretation, making Personal Shopper an interesting film to discuss with others. There’s an eeriness throughout the film, and a tension that I wasn’t expecting. The sound, and sometimes absence of sound, in Personal Shopper gets under your skin, leaving you on edge and waiting for the other shoe to drop almost constantly.

Personal Shopper really was an unexpected delight. I was captivated by its eeriness and by Stewart’s performance, how she can portray so much with so few words is wonderful. Personal Shopper really is a film that’s open to interpretation, what certain scenes mean, whether there are spirits, and if Maureen does the right thing. It’s an often creepy but always stunning film. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Bolivia: The Matter of Desire by Edmundo Paz Soldán

Translated by Lisa Carter.

Pedro, a Bolivian-American political scientist teaches at a university in upstate New York. Having become entangled in an erotically charged romance with Ashley, a beautiful red-headed engaged graduate student, he returns to Bolivia to seek answers to his own life by investigating the mysteries of his father’s past.

The Matter of Desire starts with Pedro arriving in Bolivia and in the present he is reconnecting with old friends, living with his Uncle David, and trying to learn more about his father; a political activist who was assassinated when Pedro was a child. The story also jumps back in time every now and then to show how Pedro met Ashley and the progression of their relationship.

Pedro isn’t a particularly likeable character. He is the epitome of the self-absorbed academic character and it gets old and annoying very quickly. Instead of focusing on academic work and research which are more challenging (and is what his university expects him to do), he has made a name of himself by being the go to academic for news sources to quote on any events or issues concerning Latin America, something that doesn’t require as much thought or attention. He even admits to using other academic works as templates for his own, copying their style and then overlooking figures and research that don’t support his claims. He just doesn’t seem like the sort of person who should be teaching, never mind the fact he got in a relationship with a student.

Pedro is also obsessed with finding out more about his father. It’s understandable as he was a child when his dad was killed, and his dad has become an almost legendary hero to the people of Bolivia as he was fighting against a supposed corrupt and totalitarian government. Pedro’s father wrote a book before he was killed, and Pedro is desperate to find hidden meanings in it and believes the book, like his father, is great. While the book also has a kind of cult status, it’s not generally seen as such a great achievement as Pedro thinks it is.

Admittedly I found the politics aspect a bit confusing. I know nothing about Bolivia’s political history and was confused when googling the names mentioned as some of them were real people, while others weren’t. The author may have been using a pseudonym that Bolivian’s or people who are familiar with Bolivia would know who was meant, but someone like me was left confused. Also, I’m pretty sure Pedro’s dad was a fictious figure, as was the city where this was all taking place.

The fact that naturally a lot of the books I read for the Read the World Project are translated doesn’t really register for me a lot of the time. I’m someone who looks for an enjoyable or interesting story first rather than how well a book is written. I would be interested in seeing The Matter of Desire in its original language though, as there’s parts of the book, often dialogue between a native Spanish speaker and someone who’s learnt the language, where there’s the odd word, phrase or sentence in Spanish dropped into the conversation. I think this is a prime example of Spanglish. A lot of the time based on context, you can easily pick out the meaning of the Spanish word or phrase based on the rest of the conversation that’s in English. I’d be interested to see if in the original Spanish version, the phrases that are in Spanish in the translated version, were in English in the original.

The first half of The Matter of Desire was very slow to get into. It’s difficult to become attached to a self-centred character and one who fails to communicate with a lot of people in his life including friends, family, and Ashley who he is supposed to love a lot. The second half of the 214-page book (which sometimes felt a lot longer) was a bit more interesting as Pedro was learning more about his father. Perhaps it’s cruel but I think I enjoyed that part more as the things he was finding out about his dad weren’t all good and it was taking the shine off the idolised version of him that Pedro had. Pedro was so obsessed with the fact that his father was a great man, that seeing him have to deal with the fact that may not have been the entire story was kind of enjoyable.

All in all, I did find The Matter of Desire a struggle to get through. I didn’t really care about Pedro and towards the end as more secrets and lies are uncovered, things seemed to get pretty complicated very quickly and without much of a clear explanation. 2/5.