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Reading diary, #9

Yet more books read, and this time they seem to be mostly genre. Including a – kof kof – fantasy novel. And even a horror novel. If I keep this up I’ll have to give back my science fiction curmudgeon badge.

thousand_emperorsThe Thousand Emperors, Gary Gibson (2012). This is a sequel to 2011’s Final Days, in which humanity has spread out across a number of exoplanets after losing the Earth to an artefact brought back through the wormhole network they had been exploring. But all that – an alien network of wormhole tunnels created billions of years earlier by an unknown race (an idea last seen in Williams & Dix’s Geodesica: Ascent and Geodesica: Descent a decade ago, not to mention Alastair Reynolds’ The Six Directions of Space from 2009) is pretty much just background in Gibson’s novel. It’s more about one of the two human interstellar polities which has formed in the wake of Final Days‘ events. The Tian Di was founded in revolution, and the revolutionary council grew until it numbered one thousand – hence the title – but now power is pretty much concentrated in the hands of Father Chang, the council leader (after a coup a century or two previously), and the council members are just a hugely powerful elite, sort of a cross between the One Percent and Saudi princes. They even have their own secret planet, where they maintain luxurious estates untainted by proximity to the unwashed masses. When a council member is murdered on that secret world, Luc Gabion is asked to investigate, and though he’s pretty sure he’s not supposed to solve the crime, he does learn a lot more about politics inside the council – which at that point is concerned chiefly with the Tian Di’s possible response to diplomatic approaches from the other human polity, the Coalition, after more than a century of isolation – and it all ties into a move to make the Tian Di even more repressive a regime than it currently is. This is heartland sf, full of well-polished tropes deployed with assurance. If it all feels a bit disposable, it’s not because it’s not done well but perhaps because it’s done a bit too well: familiar ideas given an interesting spin, prejudices given a little tweak just so readers are reminded they have them, and a plot which gallops forward at a pace that discourages too much close scrutiny.

breedBreed, KT Davies (2014). I was fortunate enough to win two of Davies’s novels – this and The Red Knight – at the last York pub meet, at which Davies read from Breed. The novel is a fairly standard fantasy – while certainly not epic, its setting is plainly of that subgenre – but enlivened by an assured comedic touch, some nice pieces of invention, and a clever use of first person that doesn’t reveal the gender of the narrator. The book opens with a prologue – argh – it could just have easily been the first chapter – in which the narrator escapes imprisonment in an ancient demon’s castle but comes a cropper on learning they had been tricked. Back home in Appleton, where Breed’s mother runs one of the local criminal gangs, Breed is sentenced to five years of bonded servitude for a one-handed wizard after getting caught up in a riot following Breed’s attempt to assassinate the leader of a rival gang. The wizard wants to head for the capital, which is fine as that’s where Breed needs to go in order to fulfil their bargain with the demon of the prologue. Adventures ensue. The characters are all venal, the world is dirty and grim and has never really recovered from a catacylsmic war centuries before, and Breed is an amusingly foul-mouthed narrator. The plot may run on well-polished rails but it does so like clockwork, sort of like a toy train then… but Breed is never less than a fun read, and if grim-but-funny – grimlight? – fantasy is your thing you could do a lot worse than this.

run_like_crazy_tardi_manchette_fantagraphics_coverRun Like Crazy Run Like Hell, Jacques Tardi (2015). Tardi’s bande dessinée are more often mainstream thrillers than genre, and it makes for a pleasant change from your typical Anglophone graphic novel. A young woman from an institution is hired by a wealthy and philanthropic industrialist to be the nanny for his nephew. The industrialist inherited the wealth, and care of the boy, when his brother and sister-in-law died in a car crash. Shortly after taking up her duties, while the uncle is away on business, the boy and nanny are kidnapped by a dyspeptic hitman and his dim henchmen. But the two manage to escape, and head across France to the eccentric retreat of the industrialist, where they hope to find sanctuary. En route, the nanny proves more than a match for the henchmen, and then the hitman. This is a pretty gruesome story, and Tardi’s art doesn’t shrink from the gore. It’s not the cartoon violence you’d seen in some superhero comic, but more like that of an 18-certificate brutal thriller. Good, though. I shall continue to buy these for as long as Tardi and Fantagraphics churn them out.

theladyofsituationsThe Lady of Situations, Stephen Dedman (1999). I forget where I first came across mention of Dedman, but back in 2002 I read his 1999 novel Foreign Bodies, and thought it pretty good. But quality Australian genre fiction, especially that published by small presses, is not easy to get hold of in the UK, and I seem to recall buying The Lady of Situations when I bought Justina Robson’s collection Heliotrope from Ticonderoga Press (who are definitely worth checking out as they publish some excellent books). Anyway, provenance aside, this is a strong collection. Several of the stories concern a man who has been befriended by vampires, particularly one that looks like a young girl. I’m no fan of vampire stories, but these are handled well – especially the one about Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell. ‘Transit’ is probably the most sfnal story, a young love tale set on a world of hermaphrodites during the visit of some Muslims en route to Earth on Hajj. ‘Amendment’ is fun, an alternate history set at a sf con where Charles Manson turns up to get a book signed by GoH Heinlein. ‘Founding Fathers’ is a nasty story, about a world settled by a small colony of white supremacists, and a visit by a mission from Earth causes a couple of murders and reveals the horrible secret at the heart of the colony. There are a couple of slight pieces here, but the rest more than make up for them. Recommended.

The Zanzibar Cat, Joanna Russ (1983) was Russ’s first collection, published first by Arkham House and then by, of all publishers, Baen. A more variable collection than I’d been expecting, perhaps because it contained so many of her early stories. I reviewed it for SF Mistressworks here.

notimeonoursideNo Time on Our Side, Roger Chapman (1975). In 1973, some 240 km south of Ireland, while engaged in burying an undersea cable to prevent it being caught by trawlers’ nets, the submersible Pisces III sank in 500 metres of water. The crew of two had just completed their shift, but when surfacing in rough seas, the hatch on the rear pressure sphere (which contained machinery and supplies) broke open and filled the sphere with water. The submersible promptly sank tail-first and ended up stuck vertically in the ocean bottom (just like in the cover art). A full-scale rescue operation began. But first they had to find Pisces III. Chapman was one of the two crew, and No Time on Our Side is a blow-by-blow account of the three days he spent trapped in the submersible. Thanks to the dwindling air supply and increasing carbon dioxide, he was not wholly compos mentis for much of the period, so portions of the book skip over a lot of the hours spent on the bottom. Everything seems a bit slapdash to modern eyes – the submersible crew barely managed a couple of hours sleep each night due to things repeatedly failing and needing fixing before each dive – but once disaster strikes, the response is quick and widespread (and, it seems, happily inconsiderate of cost… which I suspect is not something that would happen in today’s neoliberal uber-capitalist global economy; progress, eh).

luminousLuminous, Greg Egan (1998). Egan is one of those authors whose fiction I’m repeatedly told I’d like, but everything by him I’ve read in the past has left me a little bit cold – which is one novel, and a handful of stories in Interzone over the years. Nevertheless, if I see one of his books going cheap in a charity shop, I buy it. And even now, when perhaps my taste in fiction is somewhat more discriminating and I look for different things in the fiction I read than I did twenty or thirty years ago… Egan’s fiction still leaves me mostly cold. There were a couple of good stories in this collection – I especially liked ‘Silver Fire’, about a epidemic in the US; and ‘Our Lady of Chernobyl’ had some narrative impetus to it, even if the central conceit was weak – but many still felt cold to me, peopled by little more than walking, talking ideas. And ‘The Planck Dive’ is just a really dull physics lectures with a bunch of character interactions to provide something for the reader to connect with. Interestingly, although most of the stories in Luminous were written in the mid-1990s, they’re chiefly set in this decade, the second of the twenty-first century. Egan got one or two things right, but he also got a lot wrong – and yet he still manages to catch the flavour of now better than many other sf authors of the time who wrote stories set in the early twenty-first century. I’ll still keep my eye open for Egan books in charity shops, but I doubt I’ll ever be able to call myself a fan.

the_threeThe Three, Sarah Lotz (2014). I took this with me to Finland – did I mention I went to Archipelacon in the Åland Islands in Finland, and it was excellent? – anyway, I took The Three with me to read during the convention. I had no intention of reading it during the journey – for that I had DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow – but I started it shortly after I arrived in Mariehamn, and had finished it by the Sunday so I left it on a table for someone else to, er, enjoy. The central premise is, well, pretty much the same as James Herbert’s The Survivor (an awful book, but actually quite a good film). Four planes crash within minutes of each other around the world – in Japan, the US, the English Channel, and South Africa – and a child is the only survivor in three of the crashes. No one survives the fourth. An enigmatic phone call by an American passenger on the plane in Japan, shortly before she succumbs to her injuries, prompts a US evangelist to declare the three children the, er, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Um, yes. He claims there’s a child who survived the fourth crash, and various hints suggest this may be true, but… Why? Why base the plot on the Four Horseman but only have three of them? It makes no sense. The kids are certainly not ordinary and who, or what, they are is never categorically stated. The novel is also presented as found documents, the research materials of a journalist writing a book on the whole affair. Lotz handles her voices impressively well, and for commercial fiction this is a well put-together piece of work. But the premise is weak and over-stays its welcome by a couple of hundred pages. Oh, and definitely don’t read this book when travelling by air…


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Books everywhere

At least these book haul posts are now less frequent, and feature fewer books, than they did in previous years. Even so, I really need another big clearout – I can even reach some of my bookshelves because of all the books stacked in front of them. Buying new bookcases won’t help as I already have bookcases on every wall – most of which are double-stacked. If I could read faster, I could probably get rid of quite a few books…

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Some graphic novels. Run Like Crazy Run Like Hell is the latest Tardi, a slick and quite sick thriller. The Nemo trilogy – Heart of Ice, The Roses of Berlin and River of Ghosts – is a spin-off from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and the Nemo here is the daughter of Verne’s original. I wrote about the trilogy here.

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A mixed bag. Soviet Ghosts is lovely photographs of abandoned buildings in what was the USSR. Notes for a Myth is a 1968 poetry collectionm by Terence Tiller. I now have all of his books. And Home, Marilynne Robinson’s third novel, is a signed first edition.

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A pair of charity shop finds: a collection by Sarah Hall, The Beautiful Indifference; and The Teleportation Accident, a book Lavie Tidhar has raved about for a while now.

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Three more Penguins for the DH Lawrence collection: The White Peacock, his first novel; Selected Essays; and a travel book, Sea and Sardinia. I now have 21 of these white Penguin paperbacks, from a total of, I think, 27.

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And finally, another two books for the deep sea collection. No Time on Our Side details the three-day rescue of the two crew – the author was one – of the submersible Pisces III, which sank in 500 m of water 250 km south of the Irish coast. The Danger Game is the autobiography of a diver for the North Sea oil industry.


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Moving pictures, #17

Six months into the year and I’m on my seventeenth film post already. And it’s not like I include every film I watch here – I don’t, for instance, bother writing about films I’ve seen before, or crappy ones on Movies24 that I find myself watching on a Sunday afternoon after my brain has given up the ghost… Anyway, as usual asterisked films are from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (or at least the version of the list I’m using).

flight_from_ashiyaFlight from Ashiya, Michael Anderson (1964, USA). Richard Widmark is a tough-talking USAF Rescue Service pilot stationed in Japan. Yul Brynner is his Japanese sergeant and medic, and George Chakiris is a pilot lieutenant with confidence issues. A Japanese ship goes down in a fierce storm, and two Rescue Service Grumman HU-16 Albatross seaplanes are sent to rescue them. As they fly to the site of the sinking, and begin searching for survivors, flashbacks cover important events in the past of each of the three main characters. It’s melodramatic, but surprisingly dull, stuff. Suzy Parker has a not-much-more-than-walk-on part as Brynner’s latest flame, and the aerial sequences aren’t too bad; but other than that, this isn’t even the sort of film you’d stop to watch if you were channel-hopping on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Disappointing.

royalspaceforceRoyal Space Force: Wings of Honnêamise, Hiroyuki Yamaga (1987, Japan). I know only a little about anime, and have seen only a dozen or so of the best-known ones and, of course, pretty much all of the Studio Ghibli movies… but I’m open to learning more. So when David Tallerman recommended a handful of titles I should add to my rental list, I picked two of them and this was the first that arrived. And… while the world-building in Wings of Honnêamise was cleverly done it wasn’t enough to offset that style of overly-broad humour and the characters mugging all the time common to much anime that I find really hard to take. The launch sequence at the end, however, where Honnêamise’s first crewed rocket makes it into space while an air and ground battles rages around the launch pad is actually really good. I’m not sure if it’s worth sitting through near enough 100 minutes of the film to get to that point, but even now, weeks after watching the movie, that sequence sticks in my memory. Perversely, thinking about it for this post is sort of making me want to have another go at watching the film. Apparently, a sequel titled Aoki Uru (Uru in Blue) is finally in preproduction, after a number of aborted previous attempts, with a proposed launch date of 2018.

continuumContinuum, Richie Mehta (2013, Canada). AKA I’ll Follow You Down. Physics professor Rufus Sewell says goodbye to wife Gillian Anderson and son (who, twelve years later, grows up to be Haley Joel Osment) and heads for a scientific conference in Princeton, but never returns. It turns out he’s actually invented a time machine, and he uses it to travel back to the 1940s in order to meet Albert Einstein. But he is mugged and killed before he can return. Fortunately, Osment is a genius and he manages to figure out his dad’s arcane physics and so build a replica of his time machine. Which he then uses to go back in time to save Sewell. It’s hardly the most original plot in media science fiction – at least half a dozen sf television series have used it more than once throughout their runs – and it’s all played very low-key… But Osment is too much a genius to be really plausible – and that’s after you’ve swallowed Sewell inventing a time machine. Meh.

adams_ribAdam’s Rib*, George Cukor (1949, USA). Much as I enjoy screwball comedies, I’ve never really seen Spencer Tracy as a screwball romantic lead. He never quite seemed light enough on his feet, if you know what I mean. But here he is with Katherine Hepburn, as a married couple who are also lawyers who end up opposing each other in court. She’s defending a woman who took a potshot at her philandering husband, he’s the prosecuting attorney. The result is a battle of legal wits and domestic rivalry in the court room. To be fair, I thought Tracy and Hepburn were better in Desk Set – while the film was not especially witty, it was in Technicolor – Technicolor! – and there was a giant 1950s computer in it. It was also a bit, well, sweeter. (And Tracy played a good curmudgeon.) Anyway, I’ve seen Adam’s Rib, so meh.

theislandThe Island, Pavel Lungin (2006, Russia). Amazon insisted on recommending this film to me – repeatedly – because I’d bought, or searched for, films by Aleksandr Sokurov. I checked it out on Wikipedia, and it looked like it might appeal… so I bought a copy. And it did appeal. During WWII, Germans board a Russian coal barge and force the crewman to shoot his captain. The Germans then mine the barge. The crewman survives and is wracked with remorse for killing his captain. The film jumps ahead thirty years. The crewman, Anatoly, is a monk on the tiny island on which he washed ashore. He is also something of a Holy Fool, and tells people things which then come true. He looks after the monastery’s boiler, is perpetually filthy, and talks back to the monastery’s abbot. But one day an admiral brings his daughter to be exorcised by Brother Anatoly… Some films take you by surprise not simply because of the way they’ve been shot – and The Island is indeed beautifully shot – but because of their story and what they say. And The Island certainly did that. I was initially expecting something like one of Béla Tarr’s movies – I seem to recall the phrase “slow cinema” being used in reference to Lungin – but The Island soon became something very different. I now want to watch more films by Lungin. But, since he’s Russian, very few of them have been released in the UK – only this one, in fact. Gah.

paddngtonPaddington, Paul King (2014, UK). This was pretty successful last year, so I thought it might be worth a go. I should have known better. Yes, I remember the Paddington Bear cartoon from my childhood, but this was some bizarre story that didn’t seem to know in which decade it was set. An explorer in “deepest, darkest Peru” finds some talking bears, and years later the child bear heads to London to find the family of the hunter. Though the film was sent in the present day, it only made sense – talking bears notwithstanding – if it was sent in the 1940s. And everything in the plot was structured as if the story were set in the 1940s. It made for a weird disconnect between plot and visuals, and even the modicum of wit couldn’t rescue the movie from total crapness. And comedy cross-dressing? When was the last time a movie featured that? Whatever happened to the British film industry? All it seems capable of turning out these days are mockney gangster movies, execrable upper middle class rom coms, and appalling comedies. Those “quota quickies” they banged out during WWII? Most of those are better than this shit.

hudHud*, Martin Ritt (1963, USA). Paul Newman plays the ruthless and self-centred son of a rancher, and he’s more concerned with making money than anything as profit-jeoparding as principles (such as, for example, not drilling for oil on the land). So Hud sleeps around, gets into fights, argues with his dad, patronises his younger brother, and generally presents as one of those arsehole characters Hollywood likes to build films around because they’re good for winning awards. (Hud, incidentally, was nominated for seven Oscars, but only won for best actress, best supporting actor and best cinematography.) Working my way through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list has introduced me to films, and directors, I might not otherwise have seen and which I have greatly appreciated and admired. But it has also resulted in me watching a great deal of middle-brow Hollywood output that I would otherwise have quite happily not bothered seeing. Hud is one such movie. Oh, the scene where they massacre the cattle because it has foot and mouth disease is affecting, but centring the film on an unlikeable prick doesn’t to me feel like it adds anything useful or interesting. I’m sixty percent of the way through the list now, and I suspect of those I’ve seen I’d only consider around a quarter truly belonged there.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 601


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Åwesome

When I learned the 2015 Eastercon would be in Heathrow, I knew I’d be giving it a miss. And when I discovered its guests of honour were urban fantasy writers, then I had even less reason to attend. At Fantastika, Swecon 2013, in Stockholm, I’d heard about Åcon, a small con which takes place in Mariehamn in the Åland Islands, an archipelago between Finland and Sweden (it’s a self-governing part of Finland, although the natives speak Swedish). I quite fancied attending Åcon – I’d found Nordic fandom hugely friendly at Fantastika, and Mariehamn looked like a nice place to visit – but plans to do so in 2015 came to nothing… But that was okay because then Archipelacon was announced. An Eastercon-sized convention. In Mariehamn.

So that would be my alternative to the Heathrow Eastercon.

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As the  date of the convention approached, I started to worry about travelling to Åland – the Finnish fans catch a ferry from Turku, and the Swedish fans from Stockholm. I didn’t fancy finding my way from Helsinki to Turku and onto the ferry in a country I’d never visited before. But then I found out Mariehamn had an airport… and I could fly there from Helsinki Airport. Sorted. I booked my flights, my hotel room, and my days off from work.

As journeys go, it wasn’t too bad. I had to spend five hours in Helsinki Airport waiting for my connection, but it’s a nice airport so it was no real hardship. And at the gate to the flight to Mariehamn I ran into some friendly faces, Icelandic writer Emil Hjörvar Petersen and his girlfriend Kristin. We were staying in the same hotel too, the Park Alandia. So on reaching Mariehamn, we shared a taxi from the airport. And met up later for food and drinks in the hotel bar… where I discovered all food in Finland is either gluten-free, lactose-free or both. (I was told a lot of Finns are lactose-intolerant, but most food is actually only “low lactose”. However, I had no problem finding lactose-free food during my stay – and even in Helsinki Airport half of the sandwiches in the café were labelled lactose-free.)

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The following morning, I went for a wander in the centre of Mariehamn. Which didn’t take long. It may be small, but it’s very pleasant. I found the convention venue, the Alandica conference centre, quite easily, but when I turned up they were still getting things ready. I returned later, bumped into some friends, and so Archipelacon began in earnest…

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Much as I’d like to mention everyone I spoke to during the con, I’m likely to miss someone off so if I have done, apologies. But here goes anyway: Tobias, Ian, Cristina, Edward, Farah, Johan, Linnéa, Johan, Kimmo, Rollo, Kristina, Alexander, Emil, Kristin, Jukka, Juha, Elio, Linda, Gary, Niall, Liz, Nic, Jukka, Polar bear, Loponen, Jerry, Juha, Christina, Doug, Dave, Gaie, Minnow, Alexander, Eugene, Cheryl, Karin, Mia… and no doubt there’s someone I’ve forgotten. I met people from a dozen nations, and hung out with people I knew from Fantastika, UK fandom, online fandom, not to mention lots of very friendly people I’d never met before. Archipelacon is also the only time I’ve had a convention-goer introduce themselves to me in a non-convention venue. I’d nipped back to the Park Alandia Hotel bar for some food on the Thursday night, and the person next to me spotted my membership badge and introduced himself and his wife – they were, of course, also members. We were then joined by a fourth person who had spotted our badges. I don’t recall anything like that ever happening at a UK con.

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The programme was very good, although I didn’t attend as much as I’d planned (but certainly more than I typically do). I was on only one programme item, “Why SF Writers Should Rule the World — or Should They?”, with Kristina Hård, Kimmo Lehtonen and Farah Mendlesohn. Obviously, we all said they shouldn’t. Then we sort of talked around the subject, prompted at intervals by Kristina. The audience seemed to enjoy it.

There was also a strong academic track – and a lot more academics present than is the case at Eastercons. In fact, sitting outside on the Alandica deck at one point I found I was the only non-academic in the group at the table. On the Friday night, there was a big party around the pool of the Hotel Arkipelag (the main con hotel). The Arkipelag also has the only nightclub in Mariehamn – so when we moved indoors later, it was very busy. The nightlife in Mariehamn is… odd. It all felt a bit nineties. At the Saturday night pool party, I left around midnight, and took a wrong turn leaving the hotel… and found myself at the nightclub entrance, where bouncers held back Mariehamn twentysomethings queuing behind a rope. And when I got to the Park Alandia Hotel and entered through the bar, I noticed that everyone there was over the age of forty-five. I was later told the nightlife in the town revolves around the hotels, but wandering about town on the Sunday I found a couple of small bars. Outside one were three men who looked like they’d just stepped out of an Aki Kaurismäki film. Except they were speaking Swedish, of course.

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The Alandica was a superb venue. The central space was big and airy, with plenty of seating. The two auditoriums were excellent. There was food available throughout the day – much of which was lactose-free. And the bar sold bottles of the local beer, Stallhagen – which is what I drank for most of the weekend. It’s very nice. Sunset each day was around 11:30 to midnight. Which meant it was always later than you thought. The weather was sunny and hot – you don’t expect to get suburned in Finland, but I did.

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I’d promised myself I wouldn’t buy any books at the con, but I’d said the same at Fantastika and still left with a dozen or so. Thanks to Alvarfonden. This is a fan-run fund which sells secondhand US and UK paperbacks cheap – at Archiepelacon for between €1 and €2. So I ended up coming back with half a dozen or so, mostly for SF Mistressworks: The Clewiston Test, Kate Wilhelm; Outer Space Stories, AL Furman; Strange Bedfellows, Thomas N Scortia; The Tomorrow People, Judith Merril; Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue, Rosel George Brown; Godsfire, Cynthia Felice; A Woman A Day, Philip José Farmer; and A Voice Out of Ramah, Lee Killough. I read the last during my flight home, so a review of it will be going up on SF Mistressworks this coming Wednesday.

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The only bad thing to happen during the weekend was entirely my own fault. On the Sunday afternoon, I received a telephone call from my hotel. “You must check out now.” “I’m booked through until tomorrow.” “No, you’re not.” I wasn’t. Gah. I’d booked a room from Wednesday to Sunday, meaning including Sunday night. But the hotel took that to mean checking out on Sunday. And I never noticed I’d only booked four nights instead of five (possibly because Archipelacon started on a Thursday rather than a Friday, and that threw me). Tobias offered the spare bed in his room – he was in the same hotel – but the hotel managed to find me a free room. Except it had no shower. Which meant using the one down in the saunas. I took that room because I’d be up at seven am to catch my flight, and thought it unfair to Tobias. But skulking naked around the hotel sauna was not an experience to be repeated.

It seems likely Archipelacon was a one-off, but I think pretty much everyone who attended would like it to be repeated. The Alandica was an excellent venue, Mariehamn (nightlife notwithstanding) was a lovely little town, and everyone seemed to have a really good time. I know I did. It was the best con, in fact, I’ve been to for a long time. I certainly plan to visit Finland again – perhaps an Åcon, or maybe a Finncon (next year it’s in Tampere, I believe). And, of course, there’s always Sweden – Fantastika is back at the Dieselverkstaden in Stockholm in 2016. There was even talk of running small con in Reykjavik. I’d definitely go to that.

ETA: Archipelacon has posted all the photos by official con photographer Henry Söderlund. You can find them here.


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Reading diary, #8

Time once again to catch up on my recent reading. Which seems to have been all over the shop recently. I try to plan my reading but it never works. I mean, I sometimes decide not to read a book as planned just because it’s a hardback and would be a faff carrying in my bag to and from work. So I end up choosing a paperback I hadn’t planned to read instead. Other times, I fancy something a bit fluffier and less worthy than my original choice… Which does make me wonder why I bother to plan my reading in the first place.

ps-showcase-11-stardust-hc-by-nina-allan-1749-pStardust: The Ruby Castle Stories, Nina Allan (2013). This collection of short stories are linked by mention of the eponymous, well, not character, she’s an element in the background of each, a cult actress who appeared in films the protagonists of the stories remember watching. And, to be honest, not every mention feels like it’s original to the story, or an organic part of it. Indeed, ‘The Lammas Worm’ was originally published in Tartarus Press’s Strange Tales, Volume III, the only story in the collection to see prior publication, and I have to wonder if the mention of Ruby Castle in it wasn’t added so it would fit in Stardust. None of which is to say that hese are bad stories. Allan is a good writer, and if she doesn’t always play to her strengths, the end result is at least interesting in some fashion. The six stories and single poem in Stardust are mostly slipstream, and are set in contemporary Britain, Victorian Germany and Russia. But it’s not quite the Britain, Germany or Russia we know. In some respects, Allan’s slight twisting of the real world works well, but it’s a technique that seems to fail as often as it succeeds – the Russia of the title story, for example, is not at all convincing. Where Allan succeeds best is in dropping some small detail or plot-point which signals this is a reality at an angle to our own. Sometimes it’s in the first line: “In my country July the tenth 2029 is remembered by everyone as the date of the Anastasia space disaster”. In other stories, it’s a slow accumulation of tiny details. Add to this a tendency for her stories to shoot off in unexpected directions, and it’s clear Allan is creating an interesting body of work. Her prose is never less than polished and if, often as not, the story seems to leak around the edges… sometimes that adds to the general effect of the piece. I still have Allan’s The Silver Wind and A Thread of Truth to read – I bought three of her collections at the last Fantasycon – and I’m looking forward to tackling them.

lastbastleThe Last Castle / Nightwings, Jack Vance / Robert Silverberg (1966 / 1968). This is #15 in the Tor double series from 1988 to 1991, although both novellas originally saw print in the late 1960s. I’m pretty sure I’ve read them many years before, either in a collection or Ace double (which is how the Vance was originally published). Silverberg also expanded ‘Nightwings’ to novel-length, and I may have read that too. I can’t remember – and, to be honest, I can’t recall much of ‘Nightwings’ only a couple of weeks after reading it. Vance’s ‘The Last Castle’ is at least more memorable. It’s set during the twilight years of Earth, after humans from another world decide to recolonise it, and they now live a life of ease in castles, waited upon by alien creatures called ”. Who promptly decide to kill all the humans. Only one man takes the threat seriously enough to attempt to fight back. It’s typical Vance in all respects, and as fair an introduction to his oeuvre as any. There are, sadly, only two female characters named in the entire novella, and they’re wives and sex partners. Even for 1966, that’s piss-poor. Silverberg’s novella actually features a female protagonist – she’s the “nightwings” of the title, a member of a race adapted from human stock for flying. She travels to Rome in some distant future in the company of the narrator, a Watcher, and a mysterious man who seems somewhat too well-educated to be the non-guild itinerant he claims. A Watcher, incidentally, is a member of a guild dedicated to scanning the galaxy with some sort of equipment built into a small cart – it’s all very vague and handwavey – in order to spot the first signs of a long-threatened invasion. Which, of course, happens during the story – well, there’d be even less of a plot if it hadn’t occurred. ‘Nightwings’ won the Hugo, and was nominated for the Nebula, in 1969, but I thought it pretty slight. It trades entirely on atmosphere, despite the fact little of the background makes sense, and the ending is visible from several kilometres away. Meh.

manycolouredThe Many-Coloured Land, Julian May (1981). I first read this shortly after it first appeared in the UK, back in the early 1980s. I remember liking it a great deal – and I know a number of people count the Saga of the Exiles among their favourites… But it’s never wise to reread books you remember fondly from your teens, they almost never survive unscathed. As this one didn’t. I may reread the other books in the series at some point, but it’ll only be to review them for SF Mistressworks – as I did with this one here.

adam-robotsAdam Robots, Adam Roberts (2013). Or is it the other way round? Never mind. As it says quite prominently on the cover, this is a collection of short stories, a number of which are original to the book (although the page which gives original publication details seems to be missing a couple). I’d thought I’d read quite a few of Roberts’s stories, but many of the ones in here were new to me. Except, I have read at least three of the anthologies in which a story in this collection originally appeared… One of these I liked, despite the thump-worthy pun in the last line. Another struck me as a neat idea stretched just a tad too far. And the third… seems as memorable after this second read as it was after the first. The stories in Adam Robots are never less than very readable, and Roberts can indeed turn a lovely phrase, and often does, but there’s also a sense that some of the pieces are lacking in… thickening. Perhaps it’s the sf story as Gedankenexperiment, an exploration of premise but not necessarily a thoroughly rigorous examination of it – which, on occasion, does make the story feel as though it exists only as a vessel to hold a premise rather than as an armature for a narrative. In the shorter pieces, of course, this is not an issue – the space is limited. Having said that, the saving grace of many of these stories is that Roberts carefully positions them as stories – it’s literary device deployment rather than immersion. The end result is a collection that is both enjoyable and impressive – and definitely good value for money as it contains twenty-four stories. I do have one peeve, however: the title ‘Review: Thomas Hodgkin, Denis Bayle: a Life (Red Rocket Books 2003), 321pp, £20. ISBN: 724381129524′. That ISBN is 12-digit. There are only 10-digit and 13-digit ISBNs. And if missing a digit was done to prevent accidentally giving the ISBN of a real book… well, the last number is a checksum. Just make it fail the checksum and it can’t be a real book.

snailSnail, Richard Miller (1984). The word to describe this novel is, I believe, ‘Vonnegutian”. The writer was clearly trying to be Vonnegutian – so much so Kilgore Trout appears several times as a character, although for reasons never explained he’s named Kilgore Traut, and that spelling is claimed to be correct. The narrator of Snail is a senior Wehrmacht officer, who falls foul of Hitler because he marries a call girl, and so promptly sits out most of the war. Back in WWI in the German trenches, he met and fought alongside the Wandering Jew. Who later gave him an immortality elixir to give to Hitler. Which the narrator does, turning Hitler into an immortal nine-year-old. He also takes some himself, and becomes an immortal sixteen-year-old. The rest of the novel follows him through the twentieth century, although it’s mostly concerned with his encounters with Pallas Athena, the Wandering Jew, and an organisation called Macho-Burger Incorporated, which seems to be using fastfood to chemically induce gender essentialism. I don’t honestly know why I bought this book, or why I read it. Although published in the 1980s, it feels like it belongs to an earlier decade, and its wit is far from sharp – I mean, Pussy-Cola and Cocka-Cola? There’s all sorts of stuff in here, most of it pretty juvenile and played more for comic effort without actually interrogating it. Best avoided.

nemo1Nemo 1: Heart of Ice, 2: The Roses of Berlin, 3: River of Ghosts, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (2013 – 2015). Although set in the world of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, these are a spin-off, and feature not the original Nemo, but his daughter, Janni Dakkar, who is now the captain of the Nautilus. In Heart of Ice, she makes an enemy of Ayesha, who is determined to get her revenge and so, bankrolled by Charles Foster Kane, sends a trio of penny dreadful inventor-heroes after Nemo… Who is following a trail left by her father to Antactica, where she finds a city straight out of Lovecraft. It all comes to a bad end for the villains. The second book takes place in a Berlin transformed by the science of Rotwang – including an army of Maria robots. But when Nemo’s daughter, and her boyfriend Robur, are killed when their airship is destroyed by Berlin’s forces, Nemo attacks Berlin’s “Moloch Machine”. And in the third book, Nemo chases after Ayesha to South America and Maple White Land, a mesa where dinosaurs roam, only to find an army of bikini-clad fembots guarding a cadre of young Hitler clones… And that’s pretty much the appeal of this trilogy: you’re playing spot the references all the time. While some are blindingly obscure – those penny dreadful characters, for example – others are all too obvious. I know Moore has played around in the Cthulhu mythos before, but seriously, who still thinks a Lovecraft mashup is clever?

schoolforloveSchool For Love, Olivia Manning (1951). Felix Lattimer is left orphaned in Baghdad when his mother dies of typhoid, and since it’s during WWII he can’t be sent back to Britain and the care of relatives. There is, however, a relative much closer – in Jerusalem. Mrs Bohun. So Felix is sent there. Mrs Bohun really is a piece of work – the blurb describes her as “one of the most reoubtable (and ridiculous) of comic horrors in English fiction”, and it’s true. The actual plot – Felix interacts with the other residents of Mrs Bohun’s house, is too immature to see what is really going on, and, well, things happen – is more or less incidental. The old working class man in the attice ends up in hospital, and his room is let to a young and pregnant widow. Mrs Bohun’s attitude changes to the first, and then the other, but it’s all in character. Manning is a good writer and worth reading, but this is a slight piece. Its setting is interesting, and that setting is handled reasonably sensitively, albeit with the patrician sensibilities of a British expat from the first half of the twentieth century. While Mrs Bohun appears quite horrific in some respects to modern sensibilities, I suspect time has sharpened that edge. Manning doesn’t deserve to be forgotten – she was an excellent writer during her day and her books are still worth reading today.


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Best of the half year, 2015

It’s that time of the year again, time to look back at the books I’ve read, the films I’ve watched, and the albums I’ve listened to, and decide which five earn a place on the much-coveted best of the half-year lists. To put these lists into perspective, I have – by 20 June – bought twelve albums (all from bandcamp), watched 234 films (which does include a number of rewatches), and read 74 books (which includes half a dozen previously read books). I’ve also been documenting my reading in a series of Reading diary posts (currently at #7, with #8 to be posted shortly), and my film-watching in a series of Moving pictures posts (fifteen so far this year).

So far, 2014 has felt like quite a good year. To date I’ve read 74 books, which is a slight dip from this time last year but up on the year before. And in both years I comfortably managed to read 150 books (which is just as well as I’ve entered 150 books for my GoodReads 2015 Book Challenge). On the film front, I have as usual failed to make it to the cinema even once, so most of my movie-watching has been on DVD – and I’ve started buying Blu-rays more often now too. Most of those DVDs were rentals, which has helped so far knock sixty titles of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, not all of which, incidentally, I’m convinced belonged on the list. I’ve also spent the year so far tracking down copies of films on DVD by my favourite directors, especially Aleksandr Sokurov. I now own all but one of his DVDs, but since the only copies of it I’ve found are priced around £200 to £250 I might have to use – kof kof – “alternative” sources. Anyway, I’ve been watching a lot of films – 238 to date. Some of them I’ve watched more than once. Finally, music… which has not been as successful this year as books or films. I’ve spent most of my time listening to groups on bandcamp, and have consequently discovered a number of excellent bands – in fact, all of the ones mentioned in this post were purchased there. I’ve only been to two gigs this year – one was Sólstafir, who were excellent; the second was half a dozen bands at a gig sponsored by Femetalism. None of my favourite bands have released new albums so far this year, although one or two have releases planned later in the year.

Anyway, here are the lists, with the usual honourable mentions as well.

books
whatdoctororderedspread0What the Doctor Ordered, Michael Blumlein (2013). Blumlein has been a favourite writer for many years, but his short fiction has always been more impressive than his novels. And this new collection – only his second since 1990’s The Brains of Rats – amply demonstrates why Blumlein is such a brilliant short story writer. A much undersung writer who deserves to be better known. Incidentally, Centipede Press have done a lovely job with the book.

grasshopperschildThe Grasshopper’s Child, Gwyneth Jones (2014). A new novel from a favourite author. It’s actually a YA novel set in the universe of the not-YA Bold as Love quintet. There is a fierce intelligence to Jones’s books which shines through her prose, and it’s one of the reasons I consider her the UK’s best science fiction writer currently being published – except she isn’t these days, as The Grasshopper’s Child was self-published. Seriously, that shouldn’t be happening.

raj4A Division Of The Spoils, Paul Scott (1975). The final book of the Raj Quartet, and what a piece of work the quartet is. Scott is superb at handling voices, and in Barbie Batchelor has created one of fiction’s great characters – although this book belongs more to Guy Perron, a gentleman NCO keen to return to the UK now the war is over, but who comes into the orbit of the Layton family (who have been a constant presence running through all four books). I’m already looking forward to rereading the quartet.

the_leopardgThe Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958). I watched the film of this and that persuaded me to read the book. And I’m glad I did. There are Lawrentian elements to it, although a story which valorises the aristocracy and (mostly) presents the lower classes as venal in order to demonstrate the coming of a new world order… would not be my first choice of reading. But Tomasi di Lampedusa manages to give his fading nobles an air of tragedy as their time passes, even if the Salina family’s paternalism feels like a relic of a much earlier age.

darkoribtDark Orbit, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2015). Another favourite author. This novel is set in the same universe as Gilman’s excellent novellas ‘The Ice Owl’ and ‘Arkfall’, and while some elements of the novel are not entirely successful, it does make use of some heavy concepts and it handles them really well. A science fiction novel that makes you think – and we really could do with more of them these days.

Honourable mentions. A pair of polished collections – The Lady of Situations, Stephen Dedman (1999), and Adam Robots, Adam Roberts (2013), not every story in them worked, but the good ones were very good indeed. Strange Bodies, Marcel Theroux (2013), which surprisingly seems to have been missed by much of sf fandom, which is a shame. A Man Lies Dreaming, Lavie Tidhar (2014), a pulp detective tale with a failed Hitler as the hero shouldn’t work, but this blackly comic take on it definitely does. Touch, Claire North (2015), is perhaps not as successful as last year’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, as its fascinating premise is married to a weak plot; but never mind.

As usual, I’ve been collecting stats on my reading. And it breaks down as follows…

decade2015

I hadn’t realised I’d read so many recent books, and I’ve no idea why the 1980s is the next most popular decade – perhaps it’s due to the books I picked to review for SF Mistressworks. The one nineteenth century book was HG Wells, the two 1920s ones were DH Lawrence.

gender2015

I alternate genders when choosing fiction books to read, but I seem to have slipped up somewhere, and women writers currently outnumber men in my reading.

genre2015

It never feels like I read a lot of science fiction, but at almost half of my reading I guess I must be doing so. Mainstream is the next highest genre, but only twenty percent. To be fair, it seems the mainstream books are often more memorable than the genre ones. But at least the numbers explain the good showing by genre in my top five and honourable mentions.

films
playtimePlaytime, Jacques Tati (1967, France). I’d never actually seen a Tati film until I rented Les Vacances de M Hulot last August. I enjoyed it, but something I read somewhere persuaded me to add his Playtime to my rental list. And I watched it for the first time early this year. And loved it so much, I bought a Blu-ray of it. And then I spotted that a Tati Blu-ray collection was on offer on Amazon, so I bought that too. But none of Tati’s other films blew me away as much as Playtime, although Mon Oncle comes a close second (and so makes my honourable mentions below).

elegy_voyageElegy of a Voyage, Aleksandr Sokurov (2001, Russia). I’ve watched this three times since I bought it, as part of my 2015 love affair with Sokurov’s films. As the title suggests, the film is a meditation on travel, and art, with Sokurov in voiceover describing a journey he takes which ends up at a museum in, I think, a German city. Elegy of a Voyage is everything that Sokurov does so well, that makes a film a Sokurov film. Not to mention the somewhat idiosyncratic artistic choices Sokurov makes, such as using a 4:3 aspect ratio, distorting the image so it almost resembles a painting, and the use of colour filters to further distance the viewer from the picture. The beauty of Sokurov’s films is not that they bear repeated viewings, but that they require it.

dayofwrathDay Of Wrath, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1943, Denmark). This year I also became a fan of Dreyer’s films – his Gertrud had been a favourite for a couple of years – but in 2015 I bought DVDs of all his available movies. And worked my way through them. The silent films are astonishingly modern – especially The Passion of Joan of Arc – but I do prefer the later films, and after Gertrud, Day Of Wrath is I think his next best – and like Gertrud, it’s about women and women’s roles in society, but this time set in 1623 and describing how a young woman saves her mother from a charge of witchcraft by marrying the local pastor. And then it all goes horribly wrong.

jodosduneJodorowsky’s Dune, Frank Pavich (2013, USA). One of the reasons I bought a Blu-ray player capable of playing multi-region Blu-rays was because I wanted to see this film – to date it has not been released in the UK. Jodorowsky’s Dune is a documentary about the unmade film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel, which only exists in concept art by Chris Foss, Moebius and HR Giger… and a complete storyboard “bible” which Jodorowsky’s producers sent to a number of US studios. A fascinating look at what could have been a fascinating film.

sokurov_earlyStone, Aleksandr Sokurov (1992, Russia). A young man looks after the house Chekhov once lived in, and then one night a man who might be Chekhov mysteriously appears… Filmed in black and white, elliptical and, in the second half, featuring Sokurov’s trademark timelapse photography of a snowy landscape. While Elegy of a Voyage is a documentary, this is fiction, but deeply allusive fiction – which is why I woke up the morning after watching this and discovered I’d gone and ordered a pair of Chekhov books from Amazon…

Honourable mentions. Fear Eats The Soul, Effi Briest and The Marriage of Maria Braun, all by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1974, 1974 and 1979, Germany), and all from a DVD box set I received for Christmas, these were I felt the best three. The Big Red One, Samuel Fuller (1980, USA), I’m not a big fan of WWII films but this is a good one, and even manages to rise above what is obviously a smaller budget than most such films get. Mon Oncle, Jacques Tati (1958, France), more modernist low-key humour, which may not be as cinematically beautiful as Playtime, but comes a close second. James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge, John Bruno, Ray Quint & Andrew White (2014, USA), another Blu-ray not available in the UK which motivated my purchase of a multi-region Blu-ray player, this documentary covers Cameron’s descent to Challenger Deep in 2012. Two or Three Things I Know About Her, Jean-Luc Godard (1967, France), although not a Godard fan I do love some of his films, such as this one, a study of a bored housewife who works on the side as a prostitute; I’ve already bunged the Criterion DVD on my wishlist. Whispering Pages and Spiritual Voices, Aleksandr Sokurov (1994 and 1995, Russia), a completely opaque drama and a deeply philosophical documentary (about Russian soldiers), yet more evidence of my admiration for Sokurov’s works. Moscow does not Believe in Tears, Vladimir Menshov (1980, USSR), an odd drama about three women in Moscow in the 1950s and the 1970s, which makes a pleasing antidote to US “evil empire” propaganda. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Aditya Chopra (1995, India), a superior Bollywood film about UK-based NRIs and arranged marriages, with amusingly broad comedy, well-staged musical numbers and a pair of likeable leads. The Man from London, Béla Tarr (2007, Hungary), my first Tarr and probably the most plot-full of his films, and while I’m still not quite plugged into his brand of slow cinema, it’s definitely the sort of cinema that appeals to me.

As with books, I’ve been collecting stats on the films I’ve watched…

filmnation

I still seem to be watching mostly American films, but that’s likely because so many on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list are American – or, at the very least, the US ones are easier to find (ie, readily available for rental). The good showing for Russia is, of course, Sokurov – several of his films I’ve watched two or three times already this year.

films decade

A reasonable spread across the decades, although I would have expected the fifties and sixties to do better than the seventies, as I much prefer films from those earlier two decades. The first decade of this millennium doesn’t seem to have done very well either, which is odd.

albums
ghostwoodGhostwood, Navigator (2013). A US prog rock band I stumbled across on Bandcamp, and then began listening to repeatedly. In parts they remind me of Australia’s Chaos Divine, and though they describe themselves as “for fans of: Porcupine Tree”, I think I prefer this album to those by Steven Wilson’s band. There are a few bits of electronica in there somewhere, but also plenty of heavy riffing- the title tracks boasts especially good riffage. And very catchy melodies. Good stuff.

sidereusSidereus Nuncius, Apocynthion (2013). A Spanish death metal band with a death metal / post-metal sound not unlike NahemaH’s – who were also from Spain, but have sadly disbanded after only three albums. I hope Apocynthion stay together and produce many more albums. The opening track with its insistent drumbeat is especially good.

secretyouthSecret Youth, Callisto (2015). I bought a Callisto album several years ago, and though I enjoyed their brand of heavy post-metal I never bothered with any of their subsequent albums. But then Zero Tolerance magazine streamed this, their latest, I gave it a listen, discovered it was very different to their earlier album… and liked it so much I bought it. It’s still post-metal, but the growls have been mostly replaced by clean vocals, and in places there’s almost an early Anathema-ish sound to it.

worstcaseWorst Case Scenario, Synesthesia (2015). This was very much a lucky discovery and while at first they reminded me quite heavily of The Old Dead Tree – who, like Synesthesia, are also from France – repeated listens proved they definitely had their own thing going. Like The Old Dead Tree, they drift between death and goth metal, but they also throw quite a bit of prog into it, and it’s a mix that works well, even if in places they sound a bit Muse-ish.

ottaÓtta, Sólstafir (2014). These Icelanders were excellent live, so I bought their last two albums (the only ones available on Bandcamp), and it’s hard to say which is the better of the two. There are a couple of cracking tracks on 2011’s Svartir Sandar, but I decided Ótta was just a little bit the better of the two, if only for the banjo-accompanied title track.

Honourable mentions. Doliu, Clouds (2014), a UK doom band, and the track ‘if these walls could speak’ is absolutely brilliant. Entransient, Entransient (2015), a US prog metal band with a bit of post-rock thrown in for good measure. Good stuff. The Malkuth Grimoire, Alkaloid (2015), a German progressive death metal supergroup, containing (ex-)members of Necrophagist, Obscura, Spawn of Possession, Aborted, Dark Fortress, God Dethroned, Blotted Science and Noneuclid, this is quality stuff, in the same area as Barren Earth but a very Germanic version. Svartir Sandar, Sólstafir (2011), see above. Half Blood, Horseback (2012), as the album’s Bandcamp page puts it, “shifts from Americana twang to fiercely evil buzzing guitars to hypnotically meditative kraut-drone”, which is as good a description as any; file alongside Ultraphallus.


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Moving pictures, #16

It seemed like a good idea to document the films I watched throughout the year, especially since I was working my way through a 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. What I hadn’t considered was how many movies I’d watch. And so have to document. Ah well. Here are more. Ones from the list indicated with an asterisk as usual.

mansfaveMan’s Favorite Sport?, Howard Hawks (1964, USA). I like Rock Hudson films, I like Technicolor films, I like screwball comedies. Throw in Howard Hawks as director, and Man’s Favorite Sport? ought to be a sure-fire winner. Sadly, it isn’t. Chiefly because it was written as a Cary Grant / Katherine Hepburn vehicle, but ended up with Rock Hudson and Paula Prentiss. While both are very good in their roles, Hudson isn’t Grant and has always performed better in Hudson roles. But, by god, the Technicolor certainly makes a picture of this moving, er, picture. The comedy has its moments, the chemistry on screen does create sparks, and Hudson does his best delivering the Grant one liners… but Man’s Favorite Sport? is mostly a lovely-looking film. Hudson plays a fishing expert at Abercrombie & Fitch, who has secretly never fished in his life. And then a fishing resort – represented by Prentiss – persuades his boss to enter him in a competition for publicity purposes. When Hudson comes clean, Prentiss and resort owner’s daughter Maria Perschy have to, er, teach a man to fish. A good piece of early sixties rom com, starring a master of the form and a rising comedic actress. For all its flaws, it’s still bags of fun.

banquetThe Banquet, Xiaogang Feng (2006, China). This was apparently based on Hamlet, although you’d have to be pretty forgiving to acknowledge it. Set in China during the tenth century, a crown prince has exiled himself to a remote theatre after his father married the noblewoman the prince was in love with. But then the emperor is killed by his brother, and assassins are sent to kill the prince. They fail, but he makes his way to the imperial court anyway, where things all get a bit complicated. Like a lot of wu xia movies, The Banquet is a pretty lush production, and the story covers pretty much all the bases – there are epic sword fights, gruesome deaths, love-making with lots of gauzy veils, complicated court politics, sumptuous sets and costumes… and an ending that comes completely out of left-field. One of the better wu xia films I’ve seen recently.

the_man_in_grey_uk_dvdThe Man In Grey*, Leslie Arliss (1943, UK). Stewart Grainger and Phyllis Calvert meet up at an auction room during WWII (he’s a RAF officer, she’s a WREN), and in the process of chatting her up inadvertently bids on a box of trinkets that are all that’s left of the Rohan aristocratic family. He admits to a connection to the Rohans and is far from complimentary; she admits the last male Rohan was her brother. The film then flashes back to the Regency period, and now Phyllis Calvert is an heiress at a posh school in Bath. After leaving school, she’s introduced to the ton, where the eponymous noble, James Mason, asks for her hand in marriage – mostly for appearance’s sake. Later, she bumps into an incorrigible rake, Grainger again, and is smitten by his charms. Grainger is an actor in a company with a woman Calvert was friendly with back in her school at Bath, and she invites the woman, Margaret Lockwood, now down on her luck, into her household. So you have a situation where Mason is having an affair with Lockwood, while Calvert is secretly in love with Grainger. It’s all a bit ploddingly predictable, if you know the form, and Mason’s presence, and the year of release, suggest it’s a “quota quickie” (Mason was a Quaker and refused to fight during WWII), none of which stands against it as some of those quota quickies were actually pretty good. This one is clearly held in such high regard it made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, although to be honest I couldn’t see why. A watchable bit of Regency hokum, with an unneccessary contemporary (as of 1943) framing narrative, and a good turn by its leads… But it’s hard to see it as a classic.

networkNetwork*, Sidney Lumet (1976, USA). I’d assumed I’d seen this at some point in the past – the film is near enough forty years old, and it seems reasonable to assume it was on television several times during the 1980s – but if so, I’d completely forgotten everything about it… as I discovered when I started watching it. The other thing that readily became apparent was that its satire had completely lost its teeth. A corrupt and manipulative media? Driven by profit? That’s not satire, that’s reality. Turning Peter “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” Finch’s nervous-breakdown news anchor into a prophet of the modern age is a bit, well, that horse has long bolted. And it was probably leaping a fence near the horizon when this film was released. Even casting Faye Dunaway as the ratings-hungry TV executive willing to do anything for the network just plays into your standard sexist arguments about women in the workplace. Some films belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list; some don’t. This is one of the latter. Um, maybe I should put together my own list…

2or3things2 or 3 Things I Know About Her*, Jean-Luc Godard (1967, France). I have mixed feelings about Godard’s films. Most I’ve found a bit dull, but I absolutely adored Le Mépris. And while he’s never been afraid to experiment with the form – something I admire in directors – he was also hugely prolific. So after the disappointing Masculin Féminin (see here), I wasn’t expecting much of 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. But I actually thought it really good. My second favourite Godard, so far. And I liked it enough to want to watch more of his films. 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her is basically a film study of Marina Vlady, who plays a bourgeois mother who also has sex for money. It follows her as she does housewife things interspersed with meetings with clients. Occasionally, she, and other members of the cast, break the fourth wall. There are also shots of building works in Paris, and some nice concrete architecture. Apparently, this was one of three films Godard made in 1967 – he’d shoot 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her in the morning and Made in USA in the afternoon. Like I said, some films belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, some don’t. This is one of  the former. I think I’ll get myself a copy of this film, on Blu-ray if I can.

joanofarcThe Passion of Joan of Arc*, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1928, France). Another director I seem to have fastened on to it is Carl Theodor Dreyer, and it’s certainly true Gertrud is a favourite film and I hold Day Of Wrath in high regard… It could be argued that The Passion of Joan of Arc is his most famous film, despite being silent and originally released in 1928. But even though nearly ninety years old it’s an astonishingly… modern film, with its reliance on close-ups and the quite brutal way it depicts Joan of Arc’s burning at the stake. In fact, even the look and feel of the film is weirdly modern. Watching the movie, it’s hard to believe it was made in 1928. Happily, eureka! have done a bang-up job on releasing it on DVD (and Blu-ray). The slipcase not only includes the disc but also a thick booklet on the film. And so it should: The Passion of Joan of Arc is an important film, and should be treated as such. It’s just a shame many other important films are not treated as well.

fatherlandFatherland, Christopher Menaul (1994, USA). Apparently Mike Nichols spent $1 million on the film rights for Robert Harris’s novel but couldn’t interest any studios in the project. So HBO made it as a TV movie instead. And although it netted Miranda Richardson a Golden Globe, it’s actually not very good. Hitler victorious is likely the most popular form of alternate history, but Harris gave his version an interesting spin – setting his story twenty years later, as celebrations for Hitler’s 75th birthday are ramping up throughout Germania, and which will culminate in an historic meeting between the Führer and US President Joe Kennedy Senior. Unfortunately, the death of a party figure starts SS Major March on an investigation which threatens to uncover the Reich’s biggest secret (hint: it’s not a secret in the real world). Rutger Hauer, a Dutchman, plays March, a German; while Miranda Richardson, a Brit, plays Charlie McGuire, an American reporter in Berlin for the festivities who gets dragged into the affair. The film was apparently made in Prague, which doesn’t stand in for Berlin especially well, and the production can’t seem to decide if it should present Germania as a German-speaking nation or, as is often the case in English-language productions, have everyone speak English so subtitles are not needed. So it does a bit of both. The plot is also thuddingly predictable, whether you know the source text or not; and Hauer is a bit too laconic to convince as a SS officer. Disappointing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 599

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