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Reading diary, #14

In an effort to increase my reading, I’ve decided to spend an hour reading without distractions as soon as I get home from work. Previously, I’d either be straight onto the computer, making dinner, or watching telly. I’m still chipping slowly away at the TBR, but there are so many books on it I want to read. I’d also like to tackle some weightier books, without spending a whole month on a single novel. I’ve averaged around 150 books a year for the past five or six years, but that’s been steadily dropping from a high of around 220 back in the late 1990s. But that was when I was in Abu Dhabi, where the telly was shit and I had no internet connection at home…

malechildA Male Child, Paul Scott (1956). Scott’s Raj Quartet is an astonishing set of novels and, for good reason, considered a classic of postwar British literature. I loved and admired it so much, I started collecting Scott’s other novels – not an easy task as only the Raj Quartet, and its sequel, Staying On, remain in print. But I managed it. And… The Raj Quartet is definitely a high-water mark in his writing career. Which is not to say his other books are bad. They’re just… not as interesting. I can see how for their time they might be a little out-of-the-ordinary, but from the twenty-first century I suspect the differences are too slight to stand out. A Male Child is set in 1947, just after the war has finished. The narrator, Ian Canning, has returned to the UK after service in India. During the war, he caught a tropical disease and has suffered from ill health ever since. He doesn’t have much of a career – he was a publisher’s reader before the war, and he tries to pick this up again. Then he bumps into Alan Hurst, a fellow officer and friend from India, who suggests the narrator writes a biography of HUrst’s aunt, a popular writer during the 1910s and 1920s. To this end, he suggests Canning comes to live with him and his mother – given Canning’s flat was sublet to a friend while he was in India and said friend is reluctant to vacate, it seems a good idea. He’s given the bedroom of Hurst’s younger brother, killed during the War, and idolised by their mother, in a large house that once belonged to the family but has now been broken up into flats. The plot is basically Canning trying to come to terms with civilian life and his illness, while caught up in a somewhat uncomfortable family situation. It’s a nice, well-observed piece of prose, with some lovely writing. But there’s little in it to stand out.

divingDiving for Science, Edward H Shenton (1972). The subtitle to this book does a pretty good job of describing its contents: “The Story of the Deep Submersible”. It’s a potted history, and a rough guide to the workings, of research submersibles, chiefly those which descend to around 2,000 feet or deeper. Some of the more interesting incidents in which submersibles have been involved – Trieste’s descent to Challenger Deep, the sinking and recovery of DSV Alvin, the hunt for the USS Thresher, the recovery of a lost USAF atom bomb off the coast of Spain, the Ben Franklin two-thousand mile underwater journey – are mentioned, but in no great detail. There’s a chapter on how submersibles function, and another on their legal certification. An appendix lists details for every submersible built up to that point. The book does point out that by 1970, their use was beginning to wane, and many had been mothballed – chiefly because they’re expensive to build and run, and cheaper options were available. These days, of course, ROVs and AUVs are more often used than actual submersibles and, except for James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenger and four bathyscaphes built and operated by China (there’s very little info about these online), the handful of deep-diving submersibles currently operating are generally limited to 20,000 feet (6,000 metres). Despite being more than forty years old, this is still a useful book.

dreamshipsDreamships, Melissa Scott (1992). I’ve always suspected that if I’d come across Scott’s novels in the 1980s I’d have probably started following her career. Admittedly, this is only the third novel by her I’ve read, but I did really like the previous two, Shadow Man and The Kindly Ones. But Scott’s books were not easy to find in the UK back then – only her Silence Leigh trilogy and The Kindly Ones appear to have been published here. Having said all that, Dreamships was a little disappointing. Anyway, a review of it will be appearing soon on SF Mistressworks.

exploring_deepExploring the Deep Frontier, Sylvia A Earle & Al Giddings (1980). I don’t normally bother to mention coffee table books, especially ones published by National Geographic (not that I own many of them, in fact I think this is the only one). But Exploring the Deep Frontier is a pretty good run-through of underwater exploration – the history and the state-of-the-art as of 1980 – and, unsurprisingly, contains a number of especially nice photographs. That’s Earle there on the cover in a JIM suit. She also leads an all-female team in the Tekton underwater habitat, rides in a submersible, and dives in various places around the world. She provides the text of the book, which switches between her own first-person experiences, and a quick history of underwater exploration. Giddings is the photographer. A pretty book. It’s just a shame my copy is so tatty (an eBay purchase, natch), but given it’s 36 years old I suppose that’s understandable. It’s also sadly disappointing that Exploring the Deep Frontier is subtitled “The Adventure of Man in the Sea” when the author is a woman and the bulk of the text covers her adventures.

wolvesWolves, Simon Ings (2014). I missed reading this earlier in the year even though it was shortisted for the BSFA Award. (It lost out to the disappointing Ancillary Sword.) I’d actually read five of the eight shortlisted books, but had I read Wolves when I filled in my ballot I might well have made it my first choice. I’m surprised it didn’t make it the Clarke. Anyway, the narrator works for a start-up which is developing Augmented Reality – a combination of Google Glasses, Heads-Up Displays and VR – which is bought out by a media mogul. Much of the novel, however, covers the narrator’s past, when he grew up in a hotel used chiefly as a hospice for blinded soldiers, who were fitted with a form of seeing-eye technology by his inventor father. His mother suffered from mental health problems, and would often disappear often to some Greenham Common-type protest camp for weeks at a time. One day, he finds her body in the boot of his father’s car. She has committed suicide. Too scared to tell his father, he disposes of the body himself. It is never found. The mystery of her “disappearance” is one of the narrative threads in Wolves. Another describes the slow collapse of country (I may be misremembering, but I don’t think its setting is categorically stated). And then there’s the identity of the mogul, who proves to be one of his father’s patients all those years ago. The plot is perhaps a little confused in places, but the writing is excellent, the dark surreal tone extremely well done, and, like Marcel Theroux’s Strange Bodies, I’m surprised this book didn’t generate more of a fuss when it was published. But then, like Theroux’s novel, it’s not the sort of book that fits in with the genre’s current narrative…

steersmanThe Lost Steersman, Rosemary Kirstein (2003). I stumbled across the first book of this series, The Steerswoman, in a charity shop several years ago and bought it because I vaguely recalled someone telling me it was good. I really liked it – and said so in my review on SF Mistressworks (here). I liked the sequel, The Outskirter’s Secret, even more (see here). So it’s fair to say I had high expectations of The Lost Steersman. And… it sort of almost nearly met them. Rowan is now in the port town of Alemeth after leaving the Outskirts. There’s a Steerswomen’s Annex there, so she hopes to consult its thousands of volumes for more clues about Routine Bioform Clearance, the spell which opens up new lands to the east and so allowing for human expansion, but which appears to have stopped and is being misused by the evil wizard Slado. But the Alemeth steerswoman has died and has left the Annex in a right state, so Rowan has to get it all sorted out. And then demons, creatures from the Outskirts, begin to attack the town… Although couched in the language of fantasy, this is clearly science fiction, and Kirstein cleverly reveals more of the ecology of the world as Rowan investigates. Unfortunately, the first half of the novel is slow and a bit dull, and things only begin to get really interesting when Rowan sails south looking for Slado’s hidden fortress. She doesn’t find it – but what she does find tells the reader more about the world than it tells Rowan. They’re good books, these. The paperbacks are long out of print, but they’re still available as ebooks. Worth getting.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 116

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Moving pictures, #28

More films. Just the one from the US, so a reasonable spread. And a few more from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, of course.

pressurePressure, Ron Scalpello (2015, UK). There are many deep sea films, but few of them are about saturation diving. And most of them are complete bollocks anyway. I watched Pioneer this time last year but that was more of land-based thriller than a diving film, although saturation diving did feature heavily in it (see here). But Pressure is very much a diving film. It’s set almost entirely in a diving bell 650 feet (that’s about 20 atmospheres) below the surface of the sea off the coast of Ethiopia. A severe storm strikes and sinks their support ship. So they’re stuck on the sea bed, with no way to decompress and only a limited supply of heliox. Rescue is almost undoubtedly on its way, but the storm may delay it and there’s no telling when it will arrive. Pressure gets most of the details right – it certainly looks like it’s using the right technology – although for obvious reasons it ignores the helium squeak. And toward the end it all gets a bit silly – one diver seems to explode while trying for the surface, but the same fate does not befall hero Danny Huston, even though he doesn’t apparently make any decompression stops en route. (And at that depth, decompression would be measured in days or weeks.) Still, it was good to see a film based on a topic that interests me, and I’ll take what it gets right and overlook what it gets wrong.

cleoCleo from 5 to 7*, Agnès Varda (1962, France). I am ambivalent about the Nouvelle Vague. Some of its films I love, some I simply don’t see the point of. I thought this might fall into the latter, given that it covers the titular hours of the, er, titular character, as she waits for the results of a medical test which she thinks will tell her she has cancer. The film opens, in colour, with Cleo at a tarot reading, but changes to black and white as she leaves and goes about the rest of the day. But, completely unexpectedly, I found myself really loving this film. It helps that Cleo, played by Corinne Marchant, is a likeable protagonist and centres the film; but more than that, there’s the final third in which Cleo meets soldier Antoine in a park and the two talk and mildly flirt – it works really well. The dialogue feels natural, though it covers topics totally in keeping with the film’s themes, and the two have a natural chemistry on screen that plays. It’s hard not to compare it to a pair of Godard films, both black and white – Masculin féminin and Une femme mariée (see here and here) – both of which chiefly comprise women and men in conversation (Godard, incidentally, appears in Cleo from 5 to 7, in a silent film-within-a-film shown to Cleo during the two hours). Neither, however, compares well to this film, which manages to make those conversations not sound like the pretentious twaddle you’d expect of Rive Gauche students but like the natural conversational topics two might people might accidentally fall into. I rather fancy getting a copy of this on DVD or Blu-ray…

shepitkoThe Ascent*, Larisa Shepitko (1976, Russia). Another director completely unknown to me, and one of her films is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – but none are available for rental in the UK, so I ended up buying a Criterion Collection DVD containing two of her films, and… The Ascent is set during the Great Patriotic War (WWII to me and thee) during the German invasion of Russia. It is, of course, cold and the ground is heavy with snow. A pair of Russian soldiers are sent to fetch food from a sympathetic farmer, but are captured by Germans. They are interrogated, and one agrees to join the local police – ie, become a collaborator. The film has a stark simplicity, helped by the snowy landscape, that plays to the story’s strengths; and while there’s not that much that’s subtle about the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the film’s verisimilitude gives its story a moral authority it might otherwise lack. To be honest, there’s not much about The Ascent that makes it stands out. It’s well-filmed, it treats its subject well, and it makes its points cleverly and with subtlety. It’s a good film, but I’m borderline on whether it belongs on 1001 Movies You Must SeeBefore You Die list, possibly because I suspect Shepitko made more interesting films or because “good” should not be sufficient reason for inclusion. Worth seeing, nonetheless.

warbirdsWarbirds, Kevin Gendreau (2008, USA). I knew this was trash just from the packaging alone, but it mentioned WASP (Women’s Airforce Service Pilots), the US equivalent to the UK’s ATA (which was not actually a female-only organisation but just comprised mostly women pilots), so I thought it worth a go. That was a mistake. The WASP crew of a B-29 are ordered to deliver their aircraft, with important passengers, to an island in the Pacific, but they are shot down en route. If the WASPs are anything like the ATA, then the aircraft they flew had no guns fitted, and generally a single pilot was sufficient for the trip. Anyway, the WASPs and secret Army brass end up stuck on an island occupied by the Japanese – except the Japanese have almost all been killed by… giant pterodactyls. Yes, it’s that silly. I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that this film had been made by the Global Asylum, but apparently not.

leni_riefenstahlOlympia, 2 Fest der Schönheit*, Leni Reifenstahl (1938, Germany). I watched this first half of this a few weeks ago, and though it covers the same subject – the 1936 Berlin Olympics – I suspect it was split into two films simply due to reasons of length. Like the first film, Fest der Volker (see here), it shows the various events. But it actually opens with some lovely shots of nature, followed by some naked men cavorting about – which would be less of a problem if you weren’t conscious of the fact the men in question were Nazis – before eventually returning to the Olympic Games. A variety of events are shown, including sailing, equestrian things and sprinting, but it’s the decathlon which proves the most interesting. There are fewer shots of the crowds, and none of Hitler, but many more of the athletes. The focus seems to be on the winners rather than the Germans, so even though it’s Americans who dominate the decathlon, we get to see them as they win each event. There’s a very real sense that what you’re seeing old, a true ddocument of the state of athletics in 1936, and so it’s easy to forget the political baggage. I happen to think that baggage is important, but neither should it detract from Riefenstahl’s achievement. Whether this holds true for her other movies remains to be seen.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 645


Epic space opera, book two…

The second book of An Age of Discord, my space opera trilogy is now available as an ebook. It’s titled A Conflict of Orders, and follows directly on from A Prospect of War. It can be purchased from Amazon UK and Amazon US (and all the other Amazons too, of course), or the signed limited hardback can be pre-ordered here from Tickety Boo Press’s website. The hardback will be published on 30 October, but you get to download a free book edition in a file format of your choice while you’re waiting for it to appear.

The blurb for A Conflict of Orders goes like this:

Casimir Ormuz and the Admiral, at the head of the biggest fleet the Empire has seen since its founding, are on their way to Geneza to meet the forces of the Serpent.

On Shuto, capital world of the Empire, the Serpent has begun his siege of the Imperial Palace.

Ormuz and the Admiral must win their battle on Geneza, and then travel to Shuto to save the Emperor, to save the Empire. But winning the fight and lifting the siege are only the beginning. Still complicating matters is the millennia-long conspiracy which seems to be driving the Serpent’s rebellion.

So who is the real villain?

And when it all ends, who will be sitting on the Imperial Throne?


We went for a green theme for the cover of this book – each of the three will be distinguished by colour – and included a sword in the title to make clear that this space opera is not military sf, nor indeed your usual type of space opera.

The third book, A Want of Reason, is going to take a while longer to appear. Publication is scheduled for March 2016, but if I can get it all done and dusted early enough then it might be a little before then – but not by that much, I suspect. Hopefully it will be worth the wait.

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Space Trekkin’

I know, I know, this blog is turning into one long series of posts promoting my books and stories, or posts about the DVDs I’ve watched. I need to write more about actual literature (genre or otherwise), about writing, about the stuff that interests me, and not just the cheap content I’m throwing up to prevent mildew from over-running everything… All of which is a somewhat roundabout way of saying – sorry! – that here comes Yet Another Promotional Post. YAPP. That’s what we’re going to call it round here from now on. Hey you, shut your YAPPing! It has a nice ring to it. Anyway, onward…

Tickety Boo Press, purveyors of the finest space opera known to humanity, have chosen to make their excellent wares yet more affordable, and have released a bundle of… not one! (obviously it wouldn’t be a “bundle” if it had only one book in it…), not two!, not even three! but four! count them, four! books in Space Trek! Technically speaking, it’s closer to 3.5, as it’s three novels and one novella. But no matter. The contents include Abendau’s Heir by Jo Zebedee, The Last War by Alex Davis, A Prospect of War by myself, and ‘Monochrome’ by Stephen Palmer. A veritable shit-ton of words for only £5.99, and excellent reading each and every one of them. Get it now while it’s hot! No, seriously, every copy has been heated to approximately 451° Fahrenheit… so it’s a good job this is one of those electronic book thingummies.

Anyway… BUY IT. NOW.


The omnibus – cunningly subtitled “volume one”, I see, promising yet more goodies to come – is available on Kindle from Amazon UK and Amazon US (and every other national instantiation of the Huge South American River, of course).

Normal services will be resumed soonish. I have several projects on the go at the moment, so my creative energies have been, and will be, directed at them, rather than at the latest person who is wrong on the internet. But who knows what strange written artefacts will appear here over the next few months. Not me, that’s for sure.

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Moving pictures, #27

Almost caught up with these. Although no doubt I’ll go and watch another half a dozen films one afternoon and end up behind again. Sigh. (Um, have just noticed: after my last Moving pictures post contained no US films, this one is entirely movies from the USA. Ah well. Must do better.)

deseretDeseret*, James Benning (1995, USA). Ever watched a film and loved it so much you go online and buy every other film by that director you can find? I knew nothing about Benning, only that Deseret was on the 1001 Movies You Must Watch Before You Die list. I didn’t even know what the title meant. I couldn’t find a rental copy, so I ended up buying the film on DVD. And then I watched it one evening. The title actually refers to the name of a provisional state, proposed in 1849 by Mormon settlers but never accepted by the US government. Deseret-the-film is about Utah, which is one of the states in what would have been Deseret-the-territory. While a static 16mm camera records the Utah landscape, and later urban areas, in shots of no more than two or three minutes duration, a voice reads out stories about the state from the New York Times, starting in 1851 and through each year to 1994. Initially shot in black and white, when the voice-over reaches the 1990s the film becomes colour. The images show the changes wrought on the state by the presence of humanity; and some of the newspaper stories are quite critical of the people in Utah (although apparently the Mormon Church are happy with the film). I loved the use of imagery and voice-over, I found it mesmerising. It reminded me of Sokurov’s elegy films. I loved it so much I looked online, discovered the Österreiches Filmmuseum in Vienna has to date released five DVDS by Benning, including this one, featuring eleven of his films. So I bought the other four DVDs:  American Dreams (lost and found) / Landscape Suicide, casting a glance / RR, California Trilogy and natural history / Ruhr.

bigskyThe Big Sky, Howard Hawks (1952, USA). This film is not actually on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I’ve been using, but it’s on the amalgamated list – meaning it either got added after 2013, or dropped in favour of a more recent film. But it’s a Howard Hawks film, which is why I rented it. Unfortunately, the copy I saw proved to be a terrible transfer, pretty much a VHS quality picture. It’s set in 1832, Kirk Douglas is a hunter who has run in with another hunter, the two become friends and travel together to New Orleans, where they sign up on a trip to travel 2000 miles up the Missouri River to trade with Blackfoot Indians. And they can do this because they have with them a Blackfoot princess rescued years before from an enemy nation. This is US history as told by whites for whites. The Native Americans are treated sympathetically – more so than you would expect for a Hollywood film – but this is still manifest destiny in action, the continent for its conquerors, etc. Douglas is at his smirking best, the nasty fur trading company is nasty, Arthur Hunnicutt does a good line in drunk hunters who have done it all and actually know quite a bit… A film worth seeing once but not a great film, and probably not really good enough to make any instantiation of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

swingtimeSwing Time*, George Stevens (1936, USA). You can’t go wrong with Fred and Ginger. They are, in fact, perfect for a Sunday afternoon. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a Sunday afternoon when I bunged this disc in the player, but a Sunday afternoon film was what I was expecting. And so it seemed to be. Fred misses his wedding because the rest of his dance troupe conspire to delay him as his marriage would lead to the troupe disbanding. When Fred does make it, after the wedding has been called off, he promises his angry father-in-law-to-be that he will return to wed his fiancée when he has earned $25,000. So he heads off to New York, bumps into Ginger but gets off on the wrong foot with her, follows her to the dance studio where she works as a teacher, buys a lesson with her so he can apologise, but when he fumbles his dancing she is fired by the studio’s oleaginous owner, so Fred demonstrates she really has taught him astonishingly well in such a short lesson… leading to a quite brilliant Fred and Ginger dance routine… And from that point on, the film couldn’t put a foot wrong. Okay, so it went a bit all formula, but it had built up such a bank of charm it would have had to really fuck up to lose it. Fred and Ginger audition for a club to put on a dance routine, but there are obstacles to overcome, not least Fred’s love of gambling… But it all works out in the end, as it must. A fun film.

deseretFour Corners, James Benning (1997, USA). This is the second film on the DVD mentioned above (see cover art to the left). It follows a similar pattern to Deseret, although it’s not quite as successful. The film is based on the works of four artists – Claude Monet, Moses Tolliver,Native American wall-painter “Yukawa” and Jasper Johns – and opens each of its four sections with on-screen text about the artist’s life. It then shows a series of 16mm shots of landscape from one of the four states which make up the four corners region: Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Mostly the voice-over focuses on the Native Americans who once lived in the region, the discovery and subsequent exploitation of their artefacts by local families, and the eventual disposition of the sites. Shots are often longer than in Deseret, which can test your patience, but the voice-over is always interesting. According to the DVD booklet, “I wanted to be entirely democratic, and so each section is exactly the same as all the others, down to the number of letters in the text biographies of the artists [total 1,214] and the number of words [1,186] in the voice-over stories”. I can’t wait to watch the other Benning films.

hitchcock1The Trouble with Harry, Alfred Hitchcock (1955, USA). A couple of months ago, Amazon had a “Prime Day” and offered a bunch of bargains to Prime members. On offer were Blu-ray editions of two Alfred Hitchcock collections for £15 each. I already had them on DVD – in fact, they were among the first DVDs I ever bought, back in the 1990s – but I fancied upgrading. And so I’ve been rewatching them on Blu-ray at irregular intervals. I’ve always rated Hitchcock as one of the most consistently entertaining of directors, a master craftsman who made a lot of excellent movies, including a couple of stone cold classics. This one, sadly, is neither. But what I had forgotten about The Trouble with Harry is the gorgeous Technicolor. It’s shot in New England in autumn, just like a favourite film of mine, and it looks beautiful on the screen. Unfortunately, the story is thumpingly light-hearted – Hitchcock’s only outright comedy, apparently – and the male lead, John Forsyth, can’t manage the lightness of touch required by the script. As I’ve rewatched these Hitchcock films I’ve found myself re-evaluating them. He was remarkable in how little footage he discarded  – in other words, he shot precisely as much footage as he needed and no more, and planned each shot so thoroughly retakes and reshots were unnecessary. And his films are brilliantly framed – even when it doesn’t go right, he still stuck to his plan (in this film, the trees were apparently embarrassingly free of leaves when the crew arrived to shoot, so Hitchcock had leaves glued to them – er, the trees, that is). But some of the stories he chose to film are, frankly, not very interesting. This one is a case in point – it’s like he tried for a screwball comedy but instead shot it as a melodrama. The end result is identifiable as neither. Another male lead might have been able to pull it off, especially given that the supporting cast are so good, but I doubt it – Hitchcock’s hand lays a bit too heavy on the movie. Still, it is, as I said, a beautiful-looking film.

m_verdouxMonsieur Verdoux*, Charles Chaplin (1947, USA). Chaplin plays the title role, a bank clerk turned bigamist and serial killer of wealthy middle-aged women. I’m not sure where the humour comes from in this, although there are a number of nice slapstick routines – a fall out of a window, for example, surprised a laugh out of me – and Chaplin does play his role well. But. But. It all feels a bit like a traveller from a different era. I can see the film working as a silent movie in the 1920s, but by the late 1940s it’s inability to decide if it’s a drawing-room farce, a slapstick comedy, or just plain black humour results in far too many shifts in tone. And Martha Raye’s character is just plain weird. I’m glad I went to the trouble of seeing it, but I’ll not be dashing out to buy all of Chaplin’s DVDs…

project_almanacProject Almanac, Dean Israelite (2014, USA). Is it possible to put a new spin on the time travel story? And no, doing it as found footage doesn’t count. In fact, that’s a strike against it. Because found footage needs to be part of the story, not just a gimmick for telling it, and it’s been so over-done now it’s lost all currency. But never mind, because at least Dean Isrealite thinks it’s a smart way to tell his story. Which in this case involves a high schooler whose deceased father turns out to have built a time machine – or very nearly one. But inventor son completes it, and he and his friends start travelling back in time, initially for shits and giggles, then kicks and Groundhog Day style romance, then personal gain, then to fix the dreaded Hollywood father-son issue. Twenty years ago, perhaps, this would have been an interesting film, but time is a friend to no one (oh the irony), and instead we have something not quite original enough, nor derivative enough, to be interesting, which pretends to scientific credibility while making a sixteen-inch pizza with all the trimmings of its pseudo-science, and whose central scene is set back-stage at a Lollapalooza festival as if the film-makers don’t want anyone the slightest bit confused about their audience demographic. This is a film whose window of relevancy is about five seconds long, and even shorter for anyone not in their early twenties, and whoops one year later it’s gone. Shame, as it had its moments.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 643

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Moving pictures, #26

I need to get my cable telly sorted out. I have a nice large flatscreen TV set, but no HD channels – so everything looks blobby, and even with my piss-poor eyesight it’s off-putting. As a result, I’ve been mostly watching DVDs and Blu-rays. Sometimes as many as three or four a day on the weekends. Such as the following:

36th_shaolinThe 36th Chamber of Shaolin*, Chia-Liang Liu (1978, Hong Kong). Most movies are, of course, commercial endeavours. That’s why we have the concept of “box office”. The amount of money a film makes is taken as an indicator of its success – and, by foolish people, of its quality. And yet, commercially successful works can prove to be lasting art, even if not designed to be. Of course, there are directors – and this applies to all creatives – who can convince themselves their crass banal commercial output is real art, but their films usually go straight to DVD. Which is a long-winded way of saying that a Shaolin kung fu film is an unlikely entry to find on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, given that it was likely banged out quickly to capitalise on a particular movie craze. (We are after all talking about a film produced by a company who made 1000 films between 1958 and 1997.) And yet, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is not only considered a classic of the kung fu genre but, by virtue of being on the list, a classic of cinema – perhaps because it’s so exemplary of its genre. A young man decides to seek vengeance after his friends and family are killed by Manchu soldiers, so he enrolls in a Shaolin temple and works his way up the 35 levels of kung fu. I had expected this to be a bit dull – I’m not a fan of martial arts films – perhaps a bit like A Touch Of Zen; but it actually proved a lot of fun. Perhaps it’s the structure, the young man working his way up each of the 35 levels, often failing comically at first on each level. Worth seeing.

decline_americanThe Decline Of The American Empire*, Denys Arcand (1986, Canada). Four couples arrange a dinner party. The men make the food at one of the homes while the women visit the gym. They talk. You know when people joke that literary fiction is all about white middle class people and their disintegrating marriages? This is the cinematic equivalent. And it’s very dull. I’ve no idea why it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, it doesn’t do anything interesting or innovative, and while it has the odd moment of wit (and what film doesn’t? Um, best not answer that…) it offers no new insights – on a topic that is probably the most documented in Western literature and cinema, the white middle class marriage. Not worth seeing.

floating_weedsFloating Weeds*, Yasujiru Ozu (1959, Japan). The only other Ozu I’ve seen is Tokyo Story and that was back in 2009. I’m aware of his stature in Japanese cinema, but while I’ve watched a number of classic Japanese films I’ve not made any real effort to explore the country’s cinematic history. I know people who rate Ozu very highly, but on the strength of that previous film I wasn’t entirely sure why. Floating Weeds, on the other hand… It’s good; actually, it’s very good. It’s a little problematic – the central male character is violent towards women on several occasions, and it’s very unpleasant to watch. But the cinematography is wonderful to look at, and the relationships between the characters are handled with intelligence and nuance. Having said that, the pacing is somewhat on the leisurely side and the plot is perhaps overly stuffed. The film is set in 1958 at a seaside town. A travelling theatre troupe arrives, and it turns out the troupe’s star is the father of the young man who works in the post office and whose mother runs a local tea shop/bar. The lead actress of the troupe, who is in a relationship with the star, is afraid she’s losing him, so she pays another actress to seduce the son… Then it transpires the troupe is out of money and will have to disband, and certain relationships all start to implode quite messily. I think I might watch some more Ozu after seeing this one – and not just that one film of his on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I’ve yet to see…

cityofgodCity of God*, Fernando Meireilles & Kátia Lund (2002, Brazil). A charity shop find. The film is set in the Rio de Janeiro favela of the title, and is apparently based on real events. The film’s narrator is on the edge of violence between rival drug dealers in City of God, and the movie is presented as a series of stories told by him about the various major players, and often jumps back and forth chronologically – in fact, the film opens with the scene which starts the final sequence of the plot. The bulk of the cast were apparently non-professionals, trained up by the directors, as they felt that would give the film a more authentic feel. And it does. I’m guessing the casual violence is also authentic – and it’s horrible and disturbing to watch, such as, for example when there are things like a young boy walking into a brothel and shooting everyone he sees. That young boy, named as “Little Dice” in the subtitles, grows up to be one of the two main drug dealers in the favela, and he only leaves his rival alone because his best friend, Benny, is friends with him. But when Benny is shot and killed, all-out war erupts. And it’s war with young men and boys as the fighters, using all manner of firearms. City of God is one of those films which makes you wonder why governments around the world insist on criminalising drugs. It’s almost as if they didn’t want to win the “War on Drugs”… The film span off a television series, City Of Men, which was itself adapted for cinema. The non-professional cast, incidentally, couldn’t return to their old lives in the favelas after filming, and so were given help to improve their situation. Which is about the only heart-warming thing about the whole film.

woman_dunesWoman of The Dunes*, Hiroshi Teshigahara (1964, Japan). Teshigahara is a director new to me, as is Kobo Abe, the author from whose novel this film was adapted (and it’s not the only Abe novel Teshigahara adapted). But on the strength of Woman of The Dunes I’ll definitely be trying more Teshigahara movies and perhaps even having a go at reading one of Abe’s novels. In this film, a high school teacher on holiday is indulging in his hobby, collecting and categorising seaside insects. He falls asleep in the sun and misses the last bus home, but some men from the nearby village offer him a bed for the night. This proves to be in a house in a pit in the sand dunes, a pit that can only be accessed by rope ladder. And the following morning, he learns he is to be kept a prisoner there with the house’s occupant, a young woman. The pair are, in effect, sacrifices to the sand. As long as they remain in the house in the pit, shovelling at the sand, it won’t engulf the village – and it’s implied there are other pits too. The teacher, of course, tries to escape, but none of his attempts succeed. Eventually he resigns himself to his situation, and the film ends with a shot of a missing persons report dated seven years later. Good film, definitely worth seeing.

firemansballThe Fireman’s Ball*, Miloš Forman (1967, Czech Republic). Forman and screenwriters Ican Passer and Jarosalv Papoušek visited the town of Vrchlabí in order to work on the script of their new film, and while there attended a real fireman’s ball and were so amused by its piss-poor organisation that they decided to base a film on it. There’s a sort of black humour common to East and Central Europe – I’ve seen it mostly in Polish films, probably because I’ve seen more films of the region from that country – and The Fireman’s Ball is a beautifully-judged example. It’s not just the constant bickering and fatalism, but the way things always play out for the worse. The firemen have arranged a raffle for the ball, but as the film progresses the prizes go missing one by one. They arrange an impromptu beauty contest so the winner can present a gift to the retired chairman of the fire brigade, but the contestants all refuse to participate when called up onto the stage. An old man’s house bursts into flames, but all the firemen manage to rescue his some of his furniture. The film’s start was somewhat unprepossessing, so I wasn’t expecting much. But once the ball was in full swing, it definitely picked up and I really enjoyed it.

war_gameThe War Game*, Peter Watkins (1965, UK). From the perspective of twenty-five years later, the Cold War may seem like a weird period of global insanity, but it certainly felt very real at the time. US/USSR posturing inspired countless plots for books and films and television, and while the threat of World War III never seemed all that likely – the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, for example, and the West responded by, er, boycotting the Moscow Olympics – the consequences of nuclear armageddon were all too often publicised. In films such as The War Game, Threads and The Day After. The third of those is pretty terrible, a piece of meretricious and melodramatic US tosh, marketed on its supposed accuracy but more closely resembling a soap opera. Threads is especially effective, although its low budget does tell against it. And it might well be said the same is true of The War Game. Unlike the other two, The War Game is framed as a documentary describing life after a nuclear strike on the UK. And it’s very effective. So much so, in fact, that the BBC refused to broadcast despite commissioning it and it wasn’t shown on British television until 1985 – despite winning the Oscar for best documentary in 1966. After watching this, I decided to buy a copy, but the BFI one shown is deleted. So I ended up buying a collection of Watkins films released in France. So that should make for some cheerful viewing… Definitely worth seeing, nonetheless.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 640

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The rain in Spain falls mainly on the Moon

Next month sees the publication in Spain of the second volume in the Nova Fantástica series of anthologies edited by Mariano Villarreal. This volume is titled A la deriva en el Mar de las Lluvias y otros relatos, and the linguistically talented among you will have spotted that the title translates as Adrift on the Sea of Rains and Other Stories. My novella, translated by Diego de los Santos, is only one among several award winners and nominees in a star-studded table of contents. Just looking at it makes me come over all unnecessary:

1 ‘La señora astronauta de Marte’ (The Lady Astronaut of Mars), Mary Robinette Kowal
2 ‘Algoritmos para el amor’ (The Algorithms for Love), Ken Liu
3 ‘Frigonovia’ (Bridesicle), Will McIntosh
4 ‘Regreso a casa’ (The Homecoming), Mike Resnick
5 ‘La verdad de los hechos, la verdad del corazón’ (The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling), Ted Chiang
6 ‘Si fueras un dinosario, amor mío’ (If You Were a Dinosaur, my love), Rachel Swirsky
7 ‘La Amaryllis’ (Amaryllis), Carrie Vaughn
8 ‘A la deriva en el mar de las Lluvias’ (Adrift on the Sea of Rains), Ian Sales


More details (in Spanish) can be found here, and the anthology can be pre-ordered on Amazon (Spain here and US here). Of course, Adrift on the Sea of Rains is still available in English – as are the other three books of the Apollo Quartet: The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above and All That Outer Space Allows (the titles link to Amazon, but you can also buy them from the Whippleshield Books website here).


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