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2014, best of the half-year

We’re halfway through 2014, which is a year, I believe, of no prior literary, cinematic or even science-fictional significance. No matter, I have certainly consumed some significant literature, cinema and music for the first time during 2014, or at least during this first half of the twelve-month. As usual, there’s a top five and a paragraph of honourable mentions for each.

Et voilà!

BOOKS
1 Life After Life, Kate Atkinson (2013) I nominated this for the Hugo, but since it features no spaceships or dragons it was always going to be a long shot. And, what a surprise, it didn’t get a look-in. I’d never read Atkinson before – my only exposure to her work was the BBC Jackson Brody adaptations with Jason Isaacs – so I was surprised at just how effortlessly good this book was.

2 Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance, Paul Park (2013) I also put this novella on my ballot, and it too never made the shortlist. The title refers to a painting, painted by one of Park’s relatives, which may or may not show an encounter with extraterrestrials. This is an astonishingly clever piece of meta-fiction, in which Park explores his own family tree and fiction, and creates something strange and interesting. And beautifully written too.

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3 The Machine, James Smythe (2013) And a third book I read for the Hugo. And also nominated. And – yup, you guessed it – it didn’t appear on the shortlist either. Ah well, my first – and last – attempt at involving myself in the Hugo awards… I won’t make that mistake again. The Machine, however, did make it onto the Clarke Award shortlist, and was even considered by many the favourite to win. A Ballardian near-future with some sharp prose.

4 Busy About the Tree of Life, Pamela Zoline (1988) I read this for SF Mistressworks, but my review has yet to appear there. Zoline is best-known for her 1967 short story ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’, and she didn’t write much else – a further four stories, in fact. All are collected here. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the strongest sf collections around. It really should be back in print.

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5 Europe in Autumn, Dave Hutchinson (2014) This is a surprise – a book in my best of the year in its actual year of publication. I’m pretty sure that’s a first for me. Europe in Autumn is a pleasingly cosmopolitan near-future thriller that takes an interesting twist reminiscent of Ken MacLeod’s novels… but very different all the same. Sure to be on some shortlists next year.

Honourable mentions: Two books from my Hugo reading made it onto my top five – even if they didn’t make the award shortlist (as if) – and I’m going to give another one a mention here: Anne Carson’s Red Doc> (2013), a narrative poem which managed more art in its 176pp than all fourteen volumes of The Wheel of Time; also very good was Olivia Manning’s last novel, The Rain Forest (1974), a somewhat Lowry-esque farce set on a small island in the Indian Ocean; from reading for SF Mistressworks, Joanna Russ’s collection Extra(ordinary) People (1984, my review here), her novel We Who are About To… (1977, my review here) and Josephine Saxton’s Queen of the States (1986, my review here); and finally Laurent Binet’s HHhH (2013), which offers a fascinating perspective on literature, history and writing about history as fiction.

Two women and three men in the top five, and five women and one man in the honourable mentions. I have made an effort in 2014 so far to maintain gender parity in my fiction reading – and, as can be seen, it does make a difference. On the other hand, there seems to be more genre fiction in my picks this year than is normally the case – over half were published explicitly as genre, and a further three published as mainstream but make use of genre conceits. Which makes a top five that is entirely genre – which I think is a first for me for a good many years.

FILMS
1 Beau Travail, Claire Denis (1999, France) Beautifully photographed – and if that seems common to my choices, cinema is a visual medium – but also sharply observed. However, what knocks this film from merely good to excellent is the final scene – and if you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I mean.

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2 Under The Skin, Jonathan Glazer (2014, UK) Scarlett Johansson guerilla-filming in Glasgow, playing the part of an alien harvesting men for some unexplained reason (in the film, that is; in the book it’s for meat). It’s the film’s refusal to annotate or explain that makes it.

3 Blow-Up, Michelangelo Antonioni (1966, UK) After you’ve finished marvelling how young both David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave look in this film, you begin to realise how beautifully each shot is framed. It’s perhaps not as painterly a film as Antonioni’s stunning Red Desert, and perhaps its plot boasts too many echoes of that of L’Avventura… but this is excellent stuff.

4 Call Girl, Mikael Marcimain (2012, Sweden) A political thriller based on a real scandal during the 1970s, known as the Bordelhärvan scandal, involving senior politicians and under-age prostitutes. Filmed with that sort of stark Scandinavian realism that is its own commentary.

5 The Burmese Harp, Kon Ichikawa (1956, Japan) A Japanese soldier in Burma just after WWII chooses to stay in the country as a travelling Buddhist monk, with the intention of providing a proper burial for all the soldiers killed during the fighting and whose bodies have been left to rot. What really makes this film, however, is that the rest of his company use choral singing to maintain their morale, and throughout the film they put on impromptu performances.

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Honourable mentions: Upstream Colour Shane Carruth (2013, USA), is an elliptical, often beautiful, film and the complete antithesis to Hollywood mind-candy; Kin-Dza-Dza!, Georgiy Daneliya (1986, Russia), is completely bonkers but somehow manages to make its more ludicrous aspects seem completely normal in its world; Head-on Fatih Akın (2004, Germany), an intense drama about a Turkish-German couple and a marriage of convenience; Man of Iron, Andrzej Wajda (1981, Poland), is based on the strikes in the Gdańsk Shipyard during the 1970s, and mixes real fact and fiction – Lech Wałęsa appears himself and is also played by an actor; The Best of Everything, Jean Negulesco (1959, USA), its first half is the sort of well-photographed 1950s melodrama that really appeals to me, but it’s a shame about the film’s second half; Like Someone in Love Abbas Kiarostami (2012, France), displays Kiarostami’s typically elliptical approach to story-telling which, coupled with its realness, makes for beautiful cinema; and finally, a pair of films by Piotr Szulkin: Ga, Ga. Chwała Bohaterom (1986, Poland), the blackest of comedies, takes a hero astronaut and subjects him to a litany of inexplicable indignities; and Wojna Swiatów – Następne Stulecie (1981, Poland), even blacker and more cynical, in which a popular TV presenter becomes first a tool of the oppressors, then a rebel, but will be remembered ever after as a collaborator.

And once again I have failed to pick a single Hollywood film – well, okay, the Negulesco is a Hollywood film, but it’s also 55 years old. So perhaps I should have said a recent Hollywood film. This doesn’t mean I haven’t watched any, just that none of them were any good.

ALBUMS
1 Shadows Of The Dying Sun, Insomnium (2014) A new album by Insomnium on this list is hardly a surprise, but this band really is bloody good. As I’ve said before, if you look up “Finnish death/doom metal” in the dictionary, all it says is “Insomnium”.

2 Valonielu, Oranssi Pazuzu (2013) I actually purchased this in 2013, but too late to make that year’s best of. It’s… well, it’s a recipe that doesn’t deserve to work, but actually does so brilliantly – space rock plus black metal. Weird and intense and very very strange. It should come as no surprise to learn the band are from Finland.

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3 From a Whisper, Oak Pantheon (2012) A US band that plays a similar black/folk/atmospheric metal as Agalloch, but seems a little more… metal in places. This is their first full-length album after a debut EP, and I’m looking forward to whatever they produce next.

4 The Frail Tide, Be’lakor (2007) This Australian band’s latest album made last year’s Top 5, so why not their debut this year? Their complex melodic death is enlivened with some nice acoustic passages in this. Excellent stuff.

5 Earth Diver, Cormorant (2014) Another self-release by a band that refuses to be pigeon-holed and quite happily shifts through a number of metal genres during each epic track. And they do write epic tracks.

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Honourable mentions: 25th Anniversary of Emptiness, Demilich (2014) is a compilation of unreleased and rerecorded material from classic Finnish vocal fry register death metal band, an important document; Stone’s Reach, Be’lakor (2007), the band’s sophomore release and every bit as good as their other two, but their debut’s acoustic sections gave it the edge; The Void, Oak Pantheon (2011), is the band’s debut EP and an excellent harbinger of their later material; Restoration, Amiensus (2013), any band that manages to mix Agalloch and Woods of Ypres gets my vote; Older than History, Master of Persia (2011), Iranian death metal which makes good use of Iranian music traditions to produce something excellent.


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2014 reading diary, #1

This year, I’m going to try and be a little more disciplined about writing up what I’ve read. So I’ve decided to title the series of posts a “reading diary” and I hope to put one up every month or so. As usual, however, the choice of books will be somewhat eclectic – a mix of genre and literary fiction and, er, other stuff – and I’ll also mention any non-fiction I’ve read for research. You’ll notice that the fiction alternates between male and female writers. That was one of my New Year’s Resolutions, and so far I’ve managed to stick to it.

lachlan-fenrir7Fenrir, MD Lachlan (2011). I really liked Lachlan’s debut, Wolfsangel, to which Fenrir is a sequel, so I had pretty high hopes for this. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite meet them. The plot – deliberately – echoes that of Wolfsangel, but this time takes place in the late ninth century, and in France. Three characters unknowingly act out the romantic triangle from the earlier book, which apparently echoes some Norse god romantic triangle and will bring about Odin’s return to Earth. Fenrir opens with the Siege of Paris (885 – 886), and ends 532 pages later in Aldeigjuborg, a Viking-ruled Russian kingdom near what is now St Petersburg. The first member of the triangle is Aelis, the sister of the ruler of Paris, who manages to escape the siege and then has to evade capture by the marauding Vikings. The other two members are male – Jehan, a crippled monk, and Raven, a Viking shaman. The ruler of Aldeigjuborg wants Aelis for his wife, and has sent a trader, Leshii, and a wolfman, Chakhlyk, to fetch her. She doesn’t want to go, of course. And Raven is after her for his own – and his sister’s – nefarious purposes. And when the wolf is awakened in Jehan, by Norse magic, then he becomes fit and able, and he gets involved too. I said when I read Wolfsangel that werewolves and Vikings were not really my thing, but that novel did something very interesting with them – and Fenrir continues in that vein, but unfortunately it’s a bit too long for its story. The first half dragged badly in parts. It also didn’t help that “dirham” was incorrectly spelled as “dihram” throughout, or that one character’s name went from Swava to Suava and back again. Having said that, some of the set-pieces are really good, and I’ve every intention of continuing with the series.

minaretMinaret, Leila Aboulela (2005). The narrator is the daughter of a well-to-do Sudanese businessman – or rather, he was well-to-do. He prospered under the country’s old regime, and he and his family were almost aristocracy. But when that government was overthrown, he was arrested and executed as a symbol of its corruption. So now the narrator, Najwa, is in London, and working as a nanny since all the family’s riches (justly earned or not) have been seized. The woman she works for is a young Arab who grew up in the Gulf states, is married to an Egyptian currently working in Oman, and is studying for a PhD at a London university. She’s not especially religious. Her younger brother, also a student, however, is religious. And Najwa, who has discovered religion since coming to London, is drawn to him. But it’s not a match the family condone. Minaret is more about Najwa, how she became the woman she is, than it is about her burgeoning relationship with her employer’s brother. The writing is very good throughout – Aboulela writes in English – and Najwa is a beautfully-drawn character. I thought this a much better book than Aboulela’s earlier The Translator.

squarescityThe Squares of the City, John Brunner (1965). An Australian traffic analyst is invited to a South American model city clearly patterned on Brasilia (although the invented country in which it is located is Spanish-speaking) because the visionary president of the nation believes traffic analysis will cure his lovely city of its unsightly slums. From the moment of his arrival, the narrator is in over his head, as it turns out there are two main political factions in the city and he’s being used as a tool by one of them. Though he repeatedly says he can provide short-term solutions to the slums, but in the long term proper housing and education is the only way to really fix the problem, the city authorities want a quick result. And then people start to get killed. I liked that Brunner had based his invented city of Vados on Brasilia, and it seemed to me he sort of captured a similar architectural flavour. The characters also seemed to suit the setting, although the narrator drifted a little too close to Overcompetent Man at times. However, The Squares of the City is apparently notable because the plot is based on a famous chess match, with each of the characters representing various pieces. To be honest, not knowing this in no way changes how you read the story, nor does knowing it actually help you parse the plot. It’s a gimmick that means nothing to the reader, and I’m surprised Brunner even bothered mentioning it. Yes, it turns out the two chief movers and shakers in Vados – the president and the leader of the opposition – have been playing a chess game with people, and that’s why there have been deaths, but it seems too abstracted to make any real difference. I think that makes the novel more of a curiosity than anything else.

Journey, Marta Randall (1978). See my review on SF Mistressworks here.

violent-century-lavie-tidharThe Violent Century, Lavie Tidhar (2013). This novel landed in October last year with quite a thud. In fact, only last weekend a friend mentioned he was thinking of reading the book because it had received so many positive notices. Which is, I suppose, as good a reason to read a book as any. The Violent Century covers, well, not even a century really – it opens in the 1920s, but the present of the story is labelled only “the present”, although clues suggest it is near the turn of the millennium, if not just after. Back in the early part of the twentieth century, Dr Vomacht inadvertently released a probability wave which changed a small proportion of the world’s population, effectively giving them superpowers. In Britain, these superpowered people were recruited as spies and undercover agents, and spent much of WWII trying to track down Vomacht, or eliminate Germany “Übermenschen”. The book’s two protagonist are Fogg and Oblivion, a pair of British agents, and the novel covers their escapades during WWII and the Cold War, as told in flashback from the present-day. Fogg has been brought out of retirement because something has happened, and the flashbacks lead up to the explanation of that. The structure works well, although there’s a niggling sense at times that some information is left unsaid when it needn’t be because the requisite flashback has yet to take place. And speaking of niggling, The Violent Century reminded me of something else but I could never quite put my finger on it. It borrows heavily from comicbook mythologies, of course; and there’s a pulpish flavour to its alternate history… but there was something in the mix that was quite heavily reminiscent of… something. I also thought the ending was a bit weak. A strong novel, yes; but not, I think, one I’ll be putting on my Hugo ballot.

Fireflood and Other Stories, Vonda N McIntyre (1979). A review of this will be posted up on SF Mistressworks in a couple of weeks.

Europe in Autumn, Dave Hutchinson (2014). I reviewed this for Vector.

breakdownBreakdown, Sara Paretsky (2012). I’ve been a fan of Paretsky’s VI Warshawski novels since first stumbling across them in the UAE in the early 1990s. In recent years, the politics have been much more in your face – not necessarily a bad thing, though it does sometimes over-balance the story. Breakdown is a case in point. It opens with Warshawski stumbling across a recently-murdered man in a cemetery while trying to track down a group of missing teenage girls who have gone there to practice a ritual tied into their love of an urban fantasy series of books (plainly based on Twilight). The plot spirals out from there to feature the right-wing media, particularly the sort of moronic far right television pundit who presently seems bafflingly popular in the US at the moment. There’s also an ultra-rich Jewish industrialist, possibly with a shady past, who is the chief target of the  TV pundit’s attacks, and even a pair of senators battling for the local seat – a liberal, backed by the industrialist; and a Tea Party-type loon, backed by the right-wing media. If Paretsky’s novels are overly target-rich from a liberal perspective, Warshawski is turning increasingly quixotic with each subsequent book. Parestsky chooses big themes, but gives Warshawski small victories; it’s a strategy guaranteed to leave you angry when you finish the book. And no matter how righteous that anger, Warshawski’s – and by extension, the reader’s – inability to change things makes you wonder what the point of it all is. But I like Warshawski as a character, I like that Paretsky wears her politics on her sleeve (and I mostly agree with them), and so I’ll continue to read these books.

Evening-empireEvening’s Empires, Paul McAuley (2013). I read this because it has been shortlisted for the BSFA Award this year, even though it’s the fourth book in a loose series – preceded by The Quiet War, Gardens of the Sun and In the Mouth of the Whale, and only the first of which I’ve read (and I didn’t really like it; see here). Evening’s Empires can be read as a standalone, but it also makes numerous references to the events in those earlier novels. All the same, I didn’t find that an obstacle, though it did leave me curious about the earlier two books. But. I’d not really taken to The Quiet War, and I suppose I’d not really expected to take to Evening’s Empires, although something about its blurb did suggest I might be mistaken. Perversely, I found myself underwhelmed by the novel thanks to something I’d not even considered… Evening’s Empires opens with Gajananvihari Pilot marooned on a tiny asteroid on the outer edges of the Belt. The asteroid had once been inhabited – most recently by an ascetic – so there is enough infrastructure present for Hari to survive. He’s been marooned because dacoits captured his father’s ship but he managed to escape. The hijackers were after the fruits of Dr Gagarian’s research into the Bright Moment, a single vision granted to every member of humanity at precisely the same moment when Sri Hong-Owen “vastened” and melded with the alien intelligence present in Fomalhaut’s gas giant (which is apparently what happened during In the Mouth of the Whale). When a pair of dacoits come to capture Hari – and Dr Gagarian’s head, with which he has absconded – he kills them and uses their scooter to escape… and promptly follows a series of clues around the Asteroid Belt, and out to Saturn, in order to have his revenge on the hijackers and discover why Dr Gagarian’s research was so important to them. McAuley describes a Solar System in decline – the places Hari visits are long past their glory days. There have been system-wide wars, empires have risen and fallen, and in many cases, those that are left are just living in, or have re-purposed, the ruins of earlier centuries. Which means that while Evening’s Empires is very much hard sf, it mostly reads like space opera. McAuley has also filled his story with in-jokes. Each of the sections, for example, is named for a sf classic of the past. And part of the plot’s climax takes place at the Memory Whole, an Earth-orbiting asteroid which hosts a virtual environment for avatars of early uploaded post-humans. One of these avatars is quite cutting to Hari about humanity’s predilection for living in the fantasies of earlier ages. Given that the Memory Hole is a real-life UK-based fanzine collection, I can’t decide if McAuley is taking the piss or writing a savage indictment of science fiction…

therainforestThe Rain Forest, Olivia Manning (1974). I loved Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy when I read them several years ago, so I always keep an eye open for books by her when I visit charity shops. Which is where I found this copy of The Rain Forest. It’s her last novel, and set on the invented Indian Ocean island of Al-Bustan (clearly based on Mauritius; there are several mentions of the dodo). Hugh and Kristy Foster have moved temporarily to Al-Bustan so Hugh can take up a position in the local British administration of the island. He’s actually a screenwriter – and Kristy is a successful novelist – but the industry has collapsed in the UK and left him out of work and out of cash. The couple are put up in the Daisy Pension, a boarding-house populated by a cast of minor grotesques. They make friends with the owner’s profligate son, who is shunned by the pension’s guests, and through him meet some of the island’s colourful inhabitants. Although published in the early 1970s, and clearly meant to be set around that time – there’s mention of fashion designers Pucci and Gamba; a helicopter is the chief means of reaching the island – everything felt like it was a couple of decades older. There’s a feel of 1940s Raj to it all – I mean, I was an expat in the Gulf states in the 1970s, and while I was only a child then, I don’t remember it being how Manning describes it on Al-Bustan. Having said that, Al-Bustan is a small island with a native population descended from waves of earlier immigrants from Africa and the Arabian peninsula, so the situation hardly maps onto that, say, of the Trucial States as was. The plot of The Rain Forest bumbles along, there’s a feeling that in the hands of a male writer the story would have been more comic, played for laughs, though to be honest I prefer Manning’s approach. It’s not entirely clear what role the titular woodland plays, and certainly some of the events described in the novel don’t quite gel with it – the Fosters’ treatment by the other residents of the pension, the small war they fight with the new owner after the original owner dies, Kristy’s pregnancy, even the trip Hugh takes to the rain forest in the final section. The cast are mostly unlikeable, except for the Fosters, and what little pathos is present seemed to fall flat more often than not. The Rain Forest is nowhere near as good as those two earlier trilogies – though I do have to wonder if it’s as autobiographical as they were (after all, Kristy is a successful novelist) – but all the same, I’ll continue to keep an eye out for Manning’s novels.


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Biblioholics not-so-anonymous

Some people go “ooh shiny”, others go “ooh book”. Clearly, I belong to the latter category. And just to make matters worse, I even make books myself. As Whippleshield Books, I add to the great mass of books that exists in the world today – and the somewhat smaller mass of books that exists in my house. Only two so far, but a third later this year and at least two next year. Meanwhile, I continue to buy books by other people because books. Like these ones:

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A trio of hardbacks: The Palace is DG Compton’s one and only (as far as I’m aware) mainstream novel, and very hard to find. I don’t think it even made it into paperback. I found this copy on abebooks.co.uk, it was not cheap. A Glastonbury Romance was a charity shop find; it’s ex-library and a bit tatty, but never mind. The Spiral Ascent is… Well, you see, it goes like this: I had a copy of the first book of the trilogy, In the Thirties, in its original Penguin paperback edition. I wanted books 2 and 3 to match… but I couldn’t find them. So I decided to get the omnibus edition instead – and I found this signed edition on abebooks.co.uk. The cover is a faded but still. Signed. Incidentally, you can download the entire trilogy in PDF format from here, but still… books. You can also get some lovely small press books by Upward from Enitharmon Press here.

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Last year, I bought a copy of The Quiet War on eBay because the seller said it was the hardback edition. It wasn’t, it was a trade paperback. I complained and received a partial refund. Earlier this year, I read the book… and I had problems with it. And then this month, I found this hardback copy of it in a local charity shop. So of course I bought it. Bargain. We See A Different Frontier is a collection of postcolonial genre stories. Swords of Good Men I have to review for Interzone. Fantasy, meh; but… Vikings. Set it in Space and Shovel Coal into it is the second anthology by the Sheffield Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Group, and the introduction is by Yours Truly.

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Three Women’s Press sf books for the collection – I now have two dozen of them – sent to me by The Space Merchants in exchange for a copy of Night and the Enemy, a graphic novel by Harlan Ellison and Ken Steacy I no longer wanted. Expect to see these three books reviewed on SF Mistressworks at some point.

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Three paperbacks by two dead white males. I’ve read the first book of Snow’s Strangers and Brothers and I plan to read the entire series. The Conscience of the Rich and The Light and the Dark are books three and four respectively (by internal chronology, not year of publication). Of course, I will only buy matching editions – the 1960s Penguin paperback editions. A local charity shop had a bunch of 1970s Norman Mailer paperbacks in – just look at that cover – and I picked out Barbary Shore. I may go back and buy the others, if they’re still there.

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Three charity shop finds. Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries has been longlisted for the Booker and looks very interesting, so I was quite chuffed to stumble on a copy of her first novel, The Rehearsal… which David Hebblethwaite tells me is the best book he’s read in the past five years. You don’t expect to find Naguib Mahfouz novels published by the American University in Cairo Press in Yorkshire charity shops, but I found one. I read Mahfouz whenever I stumble across copies of his books. I still have his Cairo trilogy – in Arabic, of course – to read… Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy – also adapted for television as Fortunes Of War – are brilliant, so she’s a name I certainly look out for during my frequent trawls through books in the local charity shops. The Rain Forest was her last novel.


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Recenter Reading Roundup

I think I’m going to start doing this sort of thing regularly – a fortnightly run-down on the books I’ve read and the films I’ve watched. It’s sort of the blog equivalent of reality television, without having to resort to pimpage or thieving content from elsewhere.

Books:
Stickleback, Ian Edginton & D’Israeli (2007), first appeared in the comic 2000AD. The title character is a Victorian crime lord, initially presented as a mystery to be investigated by half-Turkish Scotland Yard detective Inspector Valentine Bey. But it’s all a plot because Stickleback is trying to defeat the City Fathers, a druidic brotherhood which has secretly controlled London since the Dark Ages. In the second story in this volume, Stickleback is the hero – well, antihero – as he prevents some eldritch horrors from taking over the earth after they’ve stolen the last dragon’s egg. Some mysteries are left unexplained – Stickleback’s real identity, for example. Excellent stuff.

Rocketman, Nancy Conrad (2005). See here.

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell (2004), I liked less than I had expected to. It was shortlisted for the Booker, Nebula and Arthur C Clarke Awards, and won the British Book Awards Literary Fiction Award, so I had high hopes of it. Unfortunately, I thought the sf elements were clumsily done – a post-apocalypse story written in debased English… yawn. And the transcript of an interview with an uplifted clone in a corporate near-future Korea – hardly a ground-breaking idea – which is spoiled because the clone actually speaks in purple prose. Having said that, the book’s structure of six nested stories was a neat idea, and the writing was generally very good. Unfortunately, the whole didn’t quite add up to the sum of the parts, and the links between the stories often came across as forced. A noble failure, I think.

On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan (2007), I was unsure about reading. I hadn’t really enjoyed his previous book, Saturday, so I wasn’t going to shell out money for his latest. But I managed to blag a copy of On Chesil Beach for nothing on bookmoch.com. And I’m glad I got it for nothing. It’s typical McEwan – well-written (and excellent in parts) – but his formula has long since lost its shine: ie, a leisurely build-up to a decision, the wrong choice is made, and the rest of the book shows the consequences of that choice. A new plot would be nice.

The Tar-Aiym Krang, Alan Dean Foster (1972). See here.

The Levant Trilogy, Olivia Manning (1977 – 1980), is, I think, better than The Balkan Trilogy. Admittedly, I’m interested in the period it covers – World War II in Egypt – because of the Salamander and Personal Landscape groups, two groups of poets and writers active during that time, which included Manning herself, Lawrence Durrell, Terence Tiller, Bernard Spencer, John Jarmain and Keith Douglas, among others. In this book, Guy Pringle remains mostly unsympathetic and Harriet Pringle still incapable of recognising what the people around her are really like. Sadly, the television adaptation Fortunes Of War didn’t handle this half of the story as well as it did The Balkan Trilogy – too much was missed out. The fact that the books are better should come as no real surprise. And this might well be one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll (1865), is a book I’d never actually read as a child, although I’d picked up the story through cultural osmosis. Unfortunately, it seems to be a book you should read as a child. As an adult, I found it patronising and simplistic. Ah well. At least I can cross it off the Guardian’s 1000 Must-Read books list.

The History Man, Malcolm Bradbury (1975), is another of the books on the Guardian’s 1000 Must-Read books. Which is why I mooched a copy and read it. It took me two goes to start, and the second time I was on a coach heading for London, so I couldn’t really put it down and pick up another book… And I’m glad I forced myself to read it. It takes a while to get going, but once you’ve clicked into the narrative, it’s an excellent read. The committee meeting alone is worth the price of admission. Now I want to see the 1980 BBC television adaptation…

The Custodians, Richard Cowper (1976), is a collection of four short stories by the author of the excellent White Bird of Kinship trilogy. In fact, The Custodians includes the prequel short story, ‘Pipers at the Gates of Dawn’, for that trilogy. The other three stories are very much of their time and place – very considered British science fiction of the 1970s, with some good writing, some creaky ideas, and a mostly slow narrative pace.

Films:
Show Me Love, Together, Lilja 4-Ever and A Hole in my Heart, dir. Lukas Moodysson (1998 – 2004), are all in the Lukas Moodysson Presents DVD boxed set which I bought when it was on sale. Show Me Love, a sort of Swedish Skins – misbehaving teenagers – in which the most popular girl in the year first victimises the class lesbian then falls in love with her, is good. Together – battered wife takes her kids to join her brother in his leftie peacenik vegetarian commune – is less gripping, although a more gently affectionate film. Lilja 4-Ever is the best of the four – fifteen year-old Lilja is left behind in Russia when her mother emigrates to the US. Abandoned and in desperate need of cash, she becomes a prostitute… and finds herself a new boyfriend who promises to take her to live in Sweden. When she gets there, she’s kept locked up in a flat, and escorted by a brutal minder to have sex with other men. Oksana Akinshina is superb as Lilja, and Artyom Bogucharsky is very good as her friend Volodya. A hard film to watch. A Hole in my Heart is also difficult to watch, but for different reasons. It takes place entirely in a single apartment, in which a man is making amateur porn films while his teenage son hides in his bedroom and listens to music. It’s one of those films where the director’s intentions are clear, but he’s not been entirely successful in presenting them.

City Lights, dir, Charlie Chaplin (1931), should be familiar to everyone. Chaplin’s cheeky tramp saves the life of a rich businessman, who rewards him by showing him the high life. But he does so when he’s drunk. When he sobers up, he forgets who Chaplin is. It might be eighty years old, but it’s still very funny.

Walk On Water, dir. Eytan Fox (2004), proved a surprise. A Mossad agent returns to Israel after assassinating a Hamas leader to discover his wife has committed suicide. His boss gives him an “easy” assignment while he comes to terms with his loss: he is to act as guide to a German who is visiting his kibbutzim sister. Their grandfather is a Nazi war criminal who was in South America but has recently disappeared. The Mossad agent is tasked with discovering if they know the grandfather’s location. The story doesn’t quite progress the way it seems as though it might, but never mind. A good film. And apparently inspired by a true story.

Serenity, dir. Joss Whedon (2005), was a rewatch. I was never in to Buffy, and I thought Firefly was too much “Cowboys in space” – not to mention ripping off the Traveller role-playing game – to really appeal. Even on re-watch, Serenity seems too dependent on Firefly, and while its story does explain some things about Firefly‘s universe, it still feels too much like a sequence of set scenes. Oh, and the bit where River kills all the Reavers is just silly.

Smilla’s Sense of Snow, dir, Bille August (1997), was another rewatch. One of these days I’ll have to reread the novel by Peter Høeg on which it was based. Julia Ormond manages to make the prickly Smilla a sympathetic protagonist, but the opening mystery surrounding the young boy’s fatal fall from the roof of the apartment block feels mishandled – as if something else were driving the plot, and it was just being carried along for the ride. I still like the film, though.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008) – the only thing I can say about this is, “Oh dear”. George Lucas must have decided that since his fanbase is greying, he needs to drag in the kiddies. Which explains some of the gloriously ill-considered mis-steps in this mess of a film. Anakin Skywalker is given a wise-cracking teenage girl as a sidekick, who manages to spend the entire film irritating the audience. The plot doesn’t make sense – rescue the (disgustingly cute) baby son of Jabba the Hutt, because the Republic needs access to the Hutt’s trade routes. Eh? A minor gangster on a backwater world suddenly controls half the galaxy? And so the Republic decides to send a single Jedi, plus teenage girl, to effect a rescue? It’s not so much that Lucas jumps the shark in this, as if he’s running the 400 metres hurdles over sharks. Definitely a film to avoid.

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