Skip to content

Rachel Hyland Posts

READING THE TBR, DAY 2: Mortal Engines (2001) by Philip Reeve

I bought this book back in 2009 when it was announced that Peter Jackson was planning to helm a film adaptation of this award-winning YA steampunk novel… and then promptly forgot about it. This is weird, because I am an avowed adherent of Jackson’s adaptations (a marathon of The Lord of the Rings extended editions is, at the very least, an annual event at my house), and also YA steampunk is very much in my, if you will forgive the pun, wheelhouse.

Pun because this book (and the three that follow it, making up the Mortal Engines Quartet) are about cities on wheels. Specifically, we spend a lot of time in London, many thousands of years in the future, as it rumbles through the wastelands, gobbling up smaller cities on wheels and plotting world domination using old tech from the Ancients. (That’s us, obvs.)

I will confess that I saw the movie a couple of weeks ago, which I wouldn’t normally do, before having read the source material. Oh, there are plenty of adapted films I have seen without reading their basis, of course, but this is mainly because I had no plans to read said books. Or I was unaware the film was an adaptation until it was too late. (Don’t you hate it when you’re already in the cinema when the dreaded “based on the novel by” credit flashes up on the screen? This happens alot, nowadays.)   

I… didn’t love the movie. And I am hardly the only one. It is being called the biggest flop of 2018, or even the worst movie of 2018 in some quarters, which seems pretty harsh in a year that gave us Overboard and Future World. Yes, in my review for Romantic Intentions Quarterly, I called it “Mad Max meets Howl’s Moving Castle meets Stardust, and far less than the sum of those parts.” I said it was “a visually splendid but largely forgettable experience.” All of this is true. But there was enough that was good about it that I wanted to read the book that inspired it. I was certainly intrigued enough by the world we are shown, by the characters we — barely — meet and the hints of greatness sprinkled throughout that I dug out my long-owned copy of the book that began it all, and dove right in.

It really is very, very good. And I can see why Peter Jackson, a man with a grand vision and a penchant for taking risks, would want to try to bring it to life. But I can also see why he, by and large, failed to do so. Because boy oh boy, Mortal Engines is so many things at once — action adventure and allegory and revenge tale and dystopia and gigantic improbable cities on wheels, for goodness sake — that capturing all of that oddity and having it make any kind of sense was always going to be a massive undertaking.

Having seen the film and read the book in such close succession, I can see where cuts were made, characters were eliminated and/or conflated and events were twisted, and mistakes were definitely made there, no doubt about it. The standout characters of the novel — bookish Tom, firebrand Hester, noble Katherine, earnest Bevis, assorted fussy and venerable Historians — are given too short a shrift. In the book, you care about them. You’re invested in Tom and Hester’s burgeoning relationship. More than that, you believe it. I don’t think the same can be said for the film. Meanwhile, zombie cyborg soldier Shrike is great in the film, but so much better in the book. (And in the book, you properly understand that he is a zombie cyborg soldier.)

For all the movie’s flaws, I have to say that I am glad I saw it, if only because it led me to read Mortal Engines. It is a whirlwind of a book, a treasure of a book, with a fascinating (if outlandish) premise, a cast of likable and/or relatable characters, quite thrilling action sequences, and it is not afraid to pull any punches or kill any darlings. YA dystopia is a vast and varied playground in which I have spent many a long year and many a happy/sad/frustrating/glorious hour, but Mortal Engines has now taken its place among my very favourite examples of the genre.

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 2: Mortal Engines (Mortal Engines #1) by Philip Reeve.
GENRE: YA Dystopia/Steampunk
PUBLISHED: 2001
TIME ON THE TBR: 9 years.
PURCHASED FROM: Borders! Somewhere on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. That is how long ago it was that I bought this book.
KEEP: Yes. And I will definitely be reading the sequels.

 

READING THE TBR, DAY 1: Black Coffee by Agatha Christie and Charles Osborne

In preparation for clearing this book from my TBR pile, I have been re-reading Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot series across the last couple of weeks. Although Black Coffee was originally published in 1998, I had never heard of it nor seen it listed in any Poirot bibliography until I found it in a second hand bookshop a couple of years back, as it is an adaptation — by Australian novelist Charles Osborne — of a 1930 play, the first penned by Christie.

Some cursory online research suggests that she wrote this play because she was unhappy with the stage version of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, adapted by Michael Morton in 1928 and renamed Alibi for some reason. Or perhaps the reason was that the stunning denouement of Ackroyd might have kept playgoers at home, because they already knew it, whereas with a new title, they might have mistaken it for a different tale entirely. 

Incidentally, I just reread Ackroyd last week, and even knowing how it all plays out, it is still an incredible read and a truly remarkable achievement in mystery writing. 

Anyway, displeased with how her Hercule was portrayed in Alibi, Christie decided to write her own stage version of his adventures–which led to her second career as a successful playwright. Arguably the most successful modern day playwright, given that The Mousetrap is the world’s longest-running play, with in excess of 26 000 performances given since its opening in 1952.

The plot of Black Coffee is a simple one. There is a secret formula for some kind of nuclear reaction, an austere physicist who rules his weary family with an iron fist, and a cast of dubious characters, both foreign and domestic, who may or may not have means, motive and opportunity to steal the science and kill he scientist. Most notable about the book is that its stage genesis is apparent, since most of the action takes place in pretty much the same room. Really, aside from a short (and somewhat out of character) rumination from Poirot as the book opens, in his London apartment, pretty much everything occurs at the scene of the crime. The very room that is the scene of the crime! 

And you know what? It works. 

Aside from the early weirdness, Osborne captures both Christie and Poirot admirably. Captain Hastings is also familiar and well-done, and the mystery unfolds with great style and purpose. The final gotcha scene is particularly well-rendered, and in all, it is a very successful Poirot novel very well told.

I like to read books in publication order, and giving it a 1930 pub date, this one comes right after 1928’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, and is the seventh Poirot novel overall. Next is 1932’s Peril at End House, which I don’t think I have read for at least fifteen years, and can’t quite recall what happens. I’m looking forward to tackling it — though, as it isn’t technically on my TBR pile, the remainder of my Poirot reread (which I am enjoying the hell out of) will have to be in addition to clearing out my many shelves as yet unread.

Oh, how ever will I cope?

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 1: Black Coffee by Agatha Christie and Charles Osborne.
GENRE: Cozy Mystery
PUBLISHED: 1998 (based on a 1930 play)
TIME ON THE TBR: Approx. 2 years.
PURCHASED FROM: Grub Street Bookshop, Fitzroy.
KEEP: Yes! And the Poirot reread continues…

READING THE TBR: 365 Days, 365 Books

Hello. My name is Rachel Hyland, and in 2019, I refuse to allow so very many books to lie unread on my shelves any longer. Instead, I am going to clear one book from my To Be Read pile every damn day, until finally I… well, no, there’ll still be a bunch of them there at the end of a year, but at least I will have made a significant dent in the insanity.

These books encompass pretty much all genres — well, except True Crime. Fuck you, True Crime! — and are all books I definitely want to read. I just… haven’t. And then I buy more books. And that’s not even considering the audiobooks and the ebooks that end up on my assorted devices. Not to mention that I review books (many, many books) for Romantic Intentions Quarterly, as well. 

Nevertheless. Each day, I will read and review at least one book that has been languishing on my groaning TBR pile for far too long. Who am I kidding? It’s a TBR bookshelf. Well, okay, two TBR bookshelves. And a super-cool TBR revolving library stand, too. There are, quite literally, more than a thousand of them to choose from.

Today is a day for making resolutions. And here is mine. Reading. Next year (tomorrow!), I am going to read a book from my stash. And every tomorrow after that, for the whole of 2019.

Here I go…