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Moving pictures 2019, #12

More Amazon Prime viewing. The Blu-rays I brought with me are still in their shrinkwrap, sitting on a shelf across the room and mocking me. Currently, my viewing comprises assorted series from Swedish TV, such as Midsomer Murders (it’s worse than I thought), Antiques Road Trip, Murder She Wrote (known here as Mord och inga visor, Murder without evidence) and NCIS: New Orleans (which is even less believable than all the other NCIS franchises put together). On Amazon Prime, I’ve been watching Andromeda, which is a bit like a TV adaptation of a campaign for a space opera role-playing game played by fourteen-year-olds…

Fortunately, I’ve managed to find some halfway decent – and some quite excellent – movies to watch to keep me sane. And, of course, I’ve been reading books… although I’ve no idea why I decided to reread the Wheel of Time just because I have the whole series on my Kindle (courtesy of Worldcon75) and The Eye of the World is so bad it’s doing my head in…

The Eagle Huntress, Otto Bell (2016, Kazakhstan). The Mongolian nomads in the Altai Mountains use eagles to hunt, particularly foxes, as hunting eagles is now considered more of a traditional sport than a survival skill. Aisholpan is thirteen years old, and she wants to be an eagle hunter. But it has always been the preserve of men. Her father is happy to train her because he thinks she has a real gift for it. Together, they capture an eaglet, which she then trains to hunt with her. She enters the annual eagle hunting competition at Ulgii… and wins. But her critics refuse to consider her a real hunter until she has caught a fox in the mountains. Which she then does. It’s a well-travelled narrative – girl wants to follow traditionally male occupation, demonstrates gender barrier is entirely arbitrary, and even excels at it… But it’s a story that bears telling over and over again. Because some men just do not get it. Women can do everything men can do. And when any man says that some thing is not for women, whether it’s hunting with eagles or programming computers or flying jet fighters, then that’s nothing more than sexism. The fact Aisholpan wins the eagle hunting competition – and okay, the judges might have cut her some slack on some of the events because of her age and gender, but her eagle actually broke competition records in other events – only demonstrates that any gender bar to the sport is complete nonsense. Anyway, The Eagle Huntress is beautifully shot, does an excellent job of presenting the people it documents, and tells a heart-warming story that should be better known. Recommended.

The History of Time Travel, Ricky Kennedy (2014, USA). It seems like an obvious conceit, and the most obvious example of it is the Back to the Future movies, but I don’t think time travel has been given the mockumentary treatment before, particularly time travel that keeps on changing its own history. The History of Time Travel opens with a factual account of the discovery of time travel – it only works to the past, not to the future – by a scientist and a wound-down WWII research project sometime during the 1960s. But the invention proves of little use. There’s some discussion of the Grandfather Paradox, and the ethics of interfering in the past… exemplified by the inventor travelling back in time to save his mother from dying when she gave birth to him… And the mockumentary then continues on from a point where two brothers invented time travel in the 1980s… and one of the went back in time to prevent their mother from dying in a car crash… And with each attempt to change the past, a new present is formed, their effects mostly confined to those associated with the inventors but occasionally spreading out further – leading in one timeline to the event depicted on the poster. And even to a time war between the US and USSR. The History of Time Travel is a shoestring affair, but they’ve taken care over making sure the script is consistent and logical, and that does them credit. Some of the “archive footage” is effectively done, even if the acting isn’t brilliant, and the continual rewriting of history as one or the other or both of the brothers goes back in time to save their mother or father actually works quite well. To be honest, I’d sooner see films like The History of Time Travel – made on the cheap, by people who were clearly invested in it and in science fiction – on the Hugo Award shortlist than some multi-zillion dollar semi-fascist Hollywood MCU tripe. But then the Hugo Award’s dramatic presentation categories have always been both a complete waste of time and a trash fire.

I Remember You, Óskar Thór Axelsson (2017, Iceland). This opens like a fairly typical Nordic noir, with a body found in a church, hanged, with crosses carved into her back. The policewoman investigating the case links it to the disappearance of a boy decades earlier. She finds a photo showing him with eight of his classmates, six of whom have since died in mysterious accidents. And all with crosses carved into their backs. The policewoman is being helped a by a doctor, whose own young son disappeared a few years earlier during a game of hide and seek with friends. Meanwhile, a man and two women – one is his pregnant wife, but he’s having an affair with the other – are trying to turn an abandoned building in an abandoned whaling station on a small island into a B&B. Half of the films made on planet Earth… well, if they’re not about sons having father issues, they’re about fathers trying to deal with the loss – permanent or temporary – of their sons. And 99.9999% of the time it’s supremely uninteresting. I Remember You, however, actually folds the disappearance of the doctor’s son into its plot, it’s not just “motivation” or back-story. Because solving the disappearance from decades before eventually leads to the doctor learning what happened to his son. Despite all that, I Remember You is not straight-up Nordic noir, as many of those involved in the story at intervals, and not entirely clearly, see the first missing boy. The supernatural aspect adds to the noir, making the story even more tense and leaving some things unexplained. I Remember You took a while to get started, but it was definitely worth the wait. Recommended.

Kaashmora, Gokul (2016, India). This is not a Bollywood film, but a Tamil-language movie, so Kollywood. I’ve definitely seen Tollywood films (both Bengali and Telugu-language), but I don’t think I’ve seen any Kollywood films before. Anyway, Kaashmora is from Chennai and Wikipedia describes it as a “supernatural action comedy”, which isn’t far off the mark. The title refers to a TV celebrity ghost-hunter, who is actually a complete fake. A young woman wants to study him for her doctoral thesis. The two of them, plus a handful of relatives, all of whom, it transpires, were born under the same star sign, end up in a haunted palace – where centuries before a princess ran away with her lover, a prince of a rival kingdom, but was brought back by the king’s war hero general… who then murders the king, seizes the throne and takes the princess as his wife. But she kills him, but is killed by him. The two of them, plus twelve henchmen, have been haunting the palace ever since. And now Kaashamora, the doctoral student and assorted relatives, all born under the sing, are present ad the general can use them to lift the curse. Kaashmora starts out as a comedy, but the flashback explaining the back-story is a complete CGI action fest, and when all the principals are in the haunted palace, there’s CGI flying around all over the place, and it’s all quite gruesome but also very funny. Perhaps the film is over-long, but then Indian films do run longer than Western ones. I enjoyed it. Worth seeing.

Icebreaker, Nikolay Khomeriki (2017, Russia). Yes, I know, the DVD cover says The Icebreaker, but I’m pretty sure the credits of the version I watched simply called it Icebreaker. But then Russian doesn’t have articles anyway, so it doesn’t make any difference. The film is set in the 1980s, during the last years of the USSR. A Soviet icebreaker in the Antarctic (although I’m pretty sure at least one subtitle mistakenly referred to it as the Arctic) finds itself trapped after a close encounter with a huge iceberg. The captain is demoted, and a replacement sent out by helicopter. But the helicopter breaks down on landing, so now they’re all completely trapped. And the fuel is running out. The Soviet authorities promise a rescue mission, but they’re dragging their feet because someone in the ministry delayed the ship’s departure and that’s what ultimately created the current situation. You wouldn’t think there’d be all that much drama there – and certainly very little action – but Icebreaker manages to find plenty. I’ve no idea where they filmed it, but it looked very convincing. And it has a happy end, which actually comes as something of a surprise. The Russians have been churning out well-made commercial blockbusters for a number of years now – although, to be fair, even some of the older Soviet big budget commercial movies were worth seeing – and it’s a shame their distribution is so patchy outside the Russo-speaking world. But for Amazon Prime, I’d never have seen Icebreaker, or a number of other films like it, and even then I stumbled across it more by accident than by design. Worth seeing.

The Tundra Book, Aleksei Vakhrushev (2011, Russia). I’m not sure why I ended up watching two documentaries set in areas that were once part of the former Soviet Union. It just sort of worked out that way. Unlike The Eagle Huntress, however, The Tundra Book is set on the Chukchi Peninsula, in the far east of Russia and still part of the country. It’s a desolate place, and the most sparsely-inhabited region of Russia. The Tundra Book is about Vukvukai, a native of the region, who is in his seventies and leads an extended family that manages a herd of some fifteen thousand reindeer. And, er, that’s what the film is about. The cinematography is impressive, but the story isn’t very dramatic. Interesting, yes, but not dramatic. It’s a fascinating look at a way of life that’s about as far from my own as it is possible to imagine, but at 105 minutes it’s perhaps a longer than the subject matter needed. But still good.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 939

ETA: I have it on good (Swedish) authority than “Murder without evidence” is a mis-translation of Mord och inga visor, which literally means “murder and no songs”, and is actually a pun on a Swedish expression ord och inga visor, “words and no songs”, which means “a harsh criticism”. Tack, Johan.

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Moving pictures 2019, #11

This is the first post of films watched after my move to Sweden. I brought my Blu-ray player and my Amazon FireStick with me, but unfortunately the television in the hotel apartment I’m renting has no HDMI slot, so I can’t use them. I’ve been watching films on Amazon Prime on my laptop. Which has somewhat limited my ability to write blog posts or, well, fiction. Both of which I planned to do more often when I got here. Ah well. Perhaps when I find somewhere more permanent to live…

The Quatermass Xperiment, Val Guest (1955, UK). I’m pretty sure I saw this many years ago. If so, it was before I started documenting the movies I watched. Certain scenes felt very familiar… but there are number of British films from the same period which are quite similar… so maybe I have seen it before, maybe I haven’t. The Quatermass Xperiment is a film adaptation of a television series, originally broadcast in 1953 by the BBC. A British scientist, played in the film by an American, with no attempt at sounding British, but played by Brits on television, sends three astronauts on an experimental rocket into space. They lose contact… and the rocket later crashes in a field in the country. Only one astronaut has survived – in fact, there’s no trace of the other two. But that one astronaut seems to have caught some sort of space germ, which slowly turns him into a monster and sends him on a murdering spree. The film ends with Quatermass and flunkeys cornering the monster in Westminster Abbey, which has been closed for renovations. I’d like to see the TV series on which this film was based, because the film is a straight up monster movie and though it tries hard to be thoughtful its story is just too B-movie. Meh.

Quatermass II, Val Guest (1957, UK). It doesn’t take a genius like, er, Quatermass, to spot that this movie is a sequel to the one above. And like The Quatermass Xperiment, it was also adapted from a television series from 1955. Quatermass is once again played by American Brian Donlevy (although two different British actors had played the role in the two TV series). This time, small missile-shaped meteorites have been landing in Essex, and nearby is a secret government project researching new sources of food. Except it’s not researching that. Not anymore. As Quatermass soon discovers. The meteorites contain some sort of organism, which takes people, leaving them with a telltale scar, and these alien-inhabited people are using the government project as a bridgehead to take over the Earth. By growing a giant alien inside an oil tank. Or something. Apparently, The Quatermass Xperiment was extremely successful, so makers Hammer Film were keen to capitalise on it. Unfortunately, Quatermass II was outperformed at the box office by another Hammer movie, The Curse of Frankenstein, and so Hammer decided to focus on making horror movies. (They returned to Quatermass in 1967, with Quatermass played by Andrew Keir, a Scot.) Quatermass II is a much better film than its predecessor, although like the earlier film it climaxes with a giant monster. Both are very much films of their time, and while they resemble B-movies they’re generally better thought-through and smarter than US B-movies. But I’d still like to see the original TV series. Incidentally, when searching on Amazon Prime for these films, be careful. There are free versions available and pay-to-play versions. I’ve seen that a few times on Amazon Prime. Streaming, eh?

Mahler, Ken Russell (1974, UK). You’re never entirely sure what you’re going to get when you sit down to watch a Ken Russell film. Some of them are really quite bad, and yet others are absolutely brilliant. Mahler falls somewhere between the two. It looks cheap – despite being set in Mahler’s native Austria, it was clearly filmed in the UK – but there are some impressively-staged scenes. And some outright bonkers ones. It is not, after all, every day that you watch a movie featuring a dream sequence in which a dominatrix in SS uniform whips the protagonist on a mountain-top while he is tied to a giant sword… Robert Powell plays the title role, and the film opens with Mahler returning to Austria on a train, a famous composer and conductor – “I live to compose, I conduct to live,” he tells a reporter. His life story is told in a series of flashbacks – the antisemitism he experienced as a child, his later conversion to Catholicism (for, it is suggested, chiefly professional reasons), the death of his daughter… I know nothing of Mahler’s music and, to be honest, the film has not made me a fan of it. But I am a fan of Russell’s films – well, many of them – and while Mahler apparently, according to Wikipedia, “by 1985 the film had recorded a net loss of £14,000”, I actually liked it a lot. It’s bonkers, but in a good way. Powell is okay, but Georgina Hale as Mahler’s wife is better. There is some lovely photography of the Lake District – okay, it’s supposed to be Austria, but it’s still very nicely shot. I’d been in two minds about Russell’s films about composers, since they’re not people that really interest me, but if the others are like Mahler then I’m quite keen to see them.

Tycoon, Pavel Lungin (2002, Russia). The first film by Lungin I watched was The Island, AKA Остров, which was released on DVD in the UK by Artificial Eye. That was back in 2015. Since then, I’ve watched Tsar (see here), a later film, and now Tycoon, AKA Олигарх, an earlier film. And, to be honest, they don’t much feel like all three were made by the same director. True, those first two are both about faith, although the stories they tell are very different – although Tsar is a lavish historical re-enactment. Tycoon, however, feels like a made-for-TV movie, and it’s somewhat surprising it was allowed to be made, given how critical it is of Russian oligarchs and the government corruption which created, fostered and profited from them. And still does. The film opens with the police seizing the offices of Infocar, the holding company of billionaire oligarch Platon Makovski. On his way home, Makovski is killed by a rocket attack on his car. The film then jumps back to 1985, when four childhood friends attended an economic symposium.. Shortly afterwards, they decide to go into business together, selling jeans they’ve stonewashed. And from there, it’s one business scheme after another, until a Georgian who manages a Lada factory joins then and they become automobile dealers. The film doesn’t really explain how Makovski and his friends became so powerful and rich. The business deals they do on-screen, often put together with the help of underworld contacts, or abetted by the Kremlin, don’t seem the sort to lead to a personal wealth of $5 billion, as mentioned at the start of the film. Through a series of flashbacks, Tycoon shows Makovski’s rise through its flashbacks, while the present-day narrative continues after his death as some of the old guard in the Kremlin move in on the company, with the help of one of the friends. It’s apparently based on a true story, but some of the details are too vague to convince, and the present-day events are a little too byzantine to be realistic. Still worth seeing, however.

Just Another Love Story, Ole Bornedal (2007, Denmark). There are not many films that start with the protagonist lying dead on the street, while he explains that he’s dead. It’s been used plenty of times in written fiction, but I’m fairly sure it’s not all that common in cinema – although I’ve a vague feeling I’ve seen a 1940s noir film that used something similar. Anyway, protagonist Jonas is married with two kids and a life that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. On the road one day with his family, he narrowly avoids an accident – but the woman in the other car was not so lucky and is seriously injured. Jonas goes to see her in the hospital, where he learns she has lost her memory. They won’t let him see her, so he lies and says he is the woman’s boyfriend, Sebastian. But all her family are there in her hospital room, and they’ve never met Sebastian – the woman met him while on holiday in Thailand, and had only just returned to Denmark. They take Jonas at his word. So he begins a double-life: Jonas with his family, Sebastian with the injured woman. But then Sebastian turns up… And it seems he’s being chased by Chinese gangsters because he stole some diamonds from them. Just Another Love Story is a feeble title, but this is a smart modern thriller, with a contemporary twist on a noir-ish story. Worth seeing.

The Dawns Here Are Quiet, Stanislav Rototsky (1972, Russia). During WWII, a detachment of Soviets soldiers who man an anti-aircraft gun in Karelia are spending too much drinking and womanising, and the sergeant in charge complains to his superior officer. So the troop are re-assigned and the sergeant is sent an all-female platoon. Things go well for a while, until early one morning one of the soldiers spots a pair of German paratroopers. So the sergeant picks five of the female soldiers, and they go out to kill the Germans. Except, it turns out there’s a whole platoon of them. But they still have to stopped. And while reinforcements have been sent for, it’s going to be a while be they reach Karelia. The bulk of the film is the cat and mouse game, shot entirely from the Soviet point of view, as the sergeant and five young women try to get themselves into a position where they can ambush the paratroopers, which involves taking a path through a swamp known only to the sergeant, and eventually ends up with a running firefight in which the Soviets are badly out-numbered. For some reason, The Dawns Here Are Quiet has been presented on Amazon Prime as a two-parter, which proved confusing as I hadn’t noticed and the film ended up very abruptly. But it was definitely worth hunting down the second part as this is an excellent film. It was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1972, but lost out to Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and I’m not entirely sure that film is actually better, or not so much better it would not be a difficult decision to choose between the two. Recommended.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 939


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Moving pictures 2019, #10

This is the last post of movies I watched in the UK, which is why it’s only four films instead of the usual six.

Ten, Abbas Kiarostami (2002, Iran). To anyone who has never seen an Iranian film, I say go out and watch one. Now. Iran has one of the best cinematic traditions on the planet, and a number of excellent directors. Not just Kiarostami, but also Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Asghar Fahadi, Jafar Panahi, Majid, Majidi, Babak Payami, Samira Makhmalbaf, Bahman Ghobadi… But if you were going to watch an Iranian film for the first time, I wouldn’t, er, recommend Ten. It’s good. And a good example of Iranian cinematic narrative techniques – especially Kiarostami’s. But it’s also nothing like Western cinema, and some might find that too much of a hurdle. The film is structured around ten scenes which take place in a car, mostly with the camera focused on the person in the front passenger seat. Who is in conversation with the driver, a woman. The passengers include her son, her sister, and various people to whom she is giving lifts. Sometimes the camera focuses on her. The conversations gradually reveal the driver’s life – such as the fact she is divorcing her husband. If I were to suggest a Kiarostami film to someone who had never seen one before, I’d probably pick Close-Up or Through the Olive Trees, or perhaps, because it’s my favourite of his, The Wind Will Carry Us (but be prepared to struggle finding his films in the UK as only some have been released on sell-through or rental). Kiarostami certainly had a singular vision, even among Iranian directors, and I do find faux-documentary narrative films of the sort he often made very appealing. However, the confined nature of Ten means a lot rests on the words and the actors, and I prefer movies that are, well, cinematic, ie, there’s very much a visual narrative to the story. Ten, like black box theatre, more or less dispenses with that. It is, as I said earlier, a good film, and perhaps quite emblematic of Kiarostami’s oeuvre, but it’s not what I’d call entry-level.

Sherman’s March*, Ross McElwee (1986, USA). So McElwee wanted to make about General Sherman’s march through  George and North and South Carolina during the American Civil War, and the impact his army had on the country through which it passed. But McElwee was originally from that area, and when he turns up with his camera, relatives and old friends are more concerned with match-making because his last relationship has just ended. So the documentary makes a half-hearted attempt to discuss the effects of Sherman’s scorched earth policy, but gets quickly, and often, derailed by McElwee’s pursuit of various women, which usually fail, for a variety of reasons. And then McElwee moves onto the next spot on Sherman’s route. And it sort of happens all over again. Surprisingly, it proved quite interesting viewing, perhaps because it’s a documentary. McElwee does also tackle his subject, and on occasion ties it into his own childhood in the area. I hadn’t expected to enjoy Sherman’s March, and some of the films on the 1001 Movies You  Must See Before You Die list have indeed been chores to watch, but I really did like this one. Recommended.

The Housemaid, Si Si (2014, China). This is available on Amazon Prime in the UK, although not apparently in Sweden – and that seems to apply to a whole bunch of Chinese films that had been dumped on Amazon Prime. Which is a shame. Not, I hasten to add, that The Housemaid, AKA Desire Nanny or Sex Babysitter, is the soft porn the poster suggests. It is in fact not unlike Secretary. Which is, I guess, er, borderline. Anyway, a young woman moves to the big city but has trouble finding work She signs up with a domestic agency, and her first job is to clean the house of a minor gangster. He takes a shine to her, and repeatedly asks the agency to send her. At which point, he starts ordering her to wear particular outfits when cleaning house. And it all snowballs from there. A second narrative covers the gangster’s son and his girlfriend, and their plan to steal money his father. The three parts of the film – social drama, sexual shenanigans with the gangster, and the plans of the gangster’s son – don’t sit together especially well, particularly those first two, where you have something that resembles a film by a Sixth Generation director which turns into some sort of light porn Youtube video. Ah well.

Sleeping Dogs*, Stephen Donaldson (1977, New Zealand). Another film from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list but, surprisingly, as indicated above, it’s not a US film. New Zealand cinema is not especially well-known, although considerably better-known after Peter Jackson made the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Of course, there have been a number of films from the country which have international reputation, and Sleeping Dogs must be one of them – although, to be honest, I’d not heard of it before deciding to work my way through the list… Sam Neill, sporting a hairstyle that looks uncannily like a bad wig, is thrown out by his wife and finds his way to the coast, where he rents an abandoned house on a small island. Meanwhile, New Zealand is descending into chaos after the 1973 oil crisis leads to a general strike, civil unrest, the imposition of ever more draconian laws and the formation of a “special police”. Leavers who want a no deal Brexit should take note. A squad of special police turn up one day, bundle Neill into a boat and cart him off to headquarters. He’s thrown into a cellar and left, with no explanation. Some days later, a senior officer, whom Neill knew from school, tells him that a cache of arms, for use by insurgents, had been on found on the island where Neill was living alone. He’s offered the choice of confessing to be a member of the resistance and deportation, or maintaining his innocence, which will lead to his execution. His choice is framed as “upholding democracy or supporting the resistance”, apparently without irony – no democratic society arrests and executes people without due process of law. Neill manages to escape police custody, and goes on the run. He is helped by the resistance, and ends up a handyman at a rural motel. Which is then taken over by a mixed squad of special police and US Army soldiers, led by Warren Oates. The man for whom Neill’s wife left him then appears and proves to be a member of the resistance. He wants Neill to trigger a trap to kill Oates’s men… The film is based on a novel called Smith’s Dream by CK Stead, and it’s tempting to suspect that dream was merely the desire to be left alone. Throughout the film, Neill refuses to choose sides, but is repeatedly dragged into the resistance’s plots. As a result he becomes something a folk hero, although at second-hand. Plot aside, Sleeping Dogs was clearly made with a small budget – despite the appearance of three Royal New Zealand Air Force helicopters and jet fighters – and the acting is pretty bad, even by Neill. But the camera does make good use of the famous New Zealand scenery. I can see why it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – as a New Zealand film. Its story might well be more relevant now than it was in 1977, and, while the film has dated, it’s so obviously a seventies film it comes across pretty much as an historical document. But it still looks noticeably cheap in the more dramatic scenes, and that does weaken it. Nonetheless, worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 939


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Reading diary 2019, #3

After years of resistance, I have finally succumbed – although it was, of course, more a matter of practicality than choice. I have started reading ebooks. I bought two dozen books (a mix of paperback and hardback) with me to Sweden, but the vast bulk of my collection went into storage (85 boxes!). And I’m not really sure when I’ll see them again. There’s an English Bookshop here in Uppsala – it’s well-known across Scandinavia – but books in Sweden are expensive. And until I get my ID card and a permanent address, I can’t buy books online… So: a Kindle. I’ve ended up buying ebook versions of books I already own – such as Shadow Captain and Crimes Against Humanity below – because my copy has gone into storage, but there are also books I’ve wanted to read for a while which are only available on Kindle. So it’s all working out quite well.

MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood (2013, Canada). I bought this with me in my carry-on luggage and I started it on the plane. To be honest, I’m not sure why I bothered reading it. It’s the third book of a trilogy and I didn’t much like the preceding two books, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. Which is not to say that I don’t like Atwood’s fiction – Alias Grace is an excellent novel, and I’ve thought other books by her were very good indeed. But not the MaddAddam trilogy, which reads like really badly-done sf that’s striving for satire but misses every time. The surviving Gardeners from The Year of the Flood have more or less settled down, with the Crakers (a race of genetically-engineered pacifist and dimwitted herbivorous humans created by Crake) and Snowman, who was also part of the project with Oryx and Crake. The two Painballers from the previous book are still at large, and the Gardeners have no desire to fall into their clutches. But MaddAddam is mostly about Toby – and her lover, Zeb, half-brother of Adam, founder of the Gardeners, and his various adventures in the US prior to the release of the virus which killed off most of humanity. And it’s all so very, well, obvious – a dystopian neoliberal US that has been a mainstay of science fiction since cyberpunk. Atwood enlivens it with some jokey branding, but half the time the brands are embarrassingly bad, as if any marketing department on the planet would come up with such crass brands as AnooYoo, and so on. On the other hand, the sections where Toby tells the Crakers slightly mythologised stories about Zeb are quite funny. Which is another reason why I’m not especially keen humorous science fiction for a start, and yet the MaddAddam trilogy doesn’t seem to know whether it’s humorous or serious. It’s impossible to take seriously, which suggests the latter intent; but it’s not comic enough to qualify as the former. Ah well.

Shadow Captain, Alastair Reynolds (2019, UK). This is the sequel to last year’s Revenger, Reynolds’s first attempt at YA fiction. And, to be honest, other than the fact the two protagonists – one of which is the narrator – are teenage girls, it doesn’t much read like YA. The story is set in, I think, the Solar system many many millennia hence. The planets have been broken up into hundreds of thousands of worldlets, many of which have black holes at their cores to provide gravity. There have been successive waves of civilisation in the system, although no one knows what causes them to die off or be re-ignited. There are aliens present, semi-integrated into society, but apparently no FTL, so no real explanation of where they come from. And there are lots of alien artefacts – it is, in fact, the hunt for alien artefacts on uninhabited worldlets, some of which are protected by forcefields which periodically turn off, and which are know as “baubles”, which drives the plot of the trilogy. In Revenger, teenage sisters Adrana and Fura Ness joined the crew of a spaceship hunting for artefacts. They are “bone readers”, which means they can connect telepathically to hardware, still functioning, in giant alien skulls, and which are used by spaceships as a form of FTL communications. By the end of Revenger, Adrana and Fura have beaten dread pirate Bosa Sennen and taken her ships. In Shadow Captain, they need to find a way to let everyone know that Sennen is dead and the two sisters have no plans to follow in her footsteps. Unfortunately, they get involved with a gangster on a minor “wheelworld” while trying to resupply, and end up in no better a situation than when the book began. Along the way, Reynolds introduces a pair of mysteries which are likely to form the plot of the final book of the trilogy – the aforementioned waves of civilisation, and the possibility there may have been many more abortive waves; and the likely existence of some planetary object which swings into occupied space at intervals and wreaks havoc. There’s a distinctive flavour to Revenger and Shadow Captain, a sort of Dickensian steampunk aesthetic, which is appealing – although it does slip in a few places, where some technology exists without anything seemingly underpinning it. And the baubles are pretty damn cool. Reynolds has used something similar before, in Diamond Dogs, and it’s an idea that has always appealed to me (see John Morressy’s Under a Calculating Star and the movie Galaxy of Terror). The third book, currently titled Bone Silence, is due in January next year. I plan to buy a copy.

The Pyramid, William Golding (1967, UK). I’m not sure what to make of Golding. Here’s a writer who’s chiefly known for his debut novel, but went on to write a further fourteen or so books, all of which are generally highly-regarded but nowhere near as popular or well-known as his first novel, Lord of the Flies. Which, to be honest, I read at school, as probably did many UK schoolchildren. But I stumbled across three of his books in a charity shop a couple of years ago and decided to give him a go. And I was extremely impressed by the first one I read, Rites of Passage. And the second (well, third) novel by him I read was The Inheritors, which was odd, and an odd choice of subject, but very good. So I asked my mother to keep an eye open for his books in charity shops, and she found me three more, of which The Pyramid was one. And… it’s not at all what I expected, based on what I’d previously read by him. It’s set in the 1920s in a small town near “Barchester”, although if there are any other references of links to Trollope’s series they’d be lost on me as I’ve never read Trollope. The protagonist of The Pyramid, Oliver, is a young man due shortly to study chemistry at Oxford. Before he leaves, he wants to make out with the nubile receptionist from the doctor’s surgery next-door, who, it is implied, has a “reputation” (it is later revealed she is fifteen). Oliver succeeds – and it’s quite clearly rape, and described as such later, although the narrative seems to brush it off. Oliver returns home a few years later during his time at Oxford, and ends up involved in a local play, where he plays a gypsy violinist (as he plays the piano and violin) and a spear-carrier. But it all goes comically wrong. The final section is set decades later, when Oliver returns home as an old man, and learns the truth about some of inhabitants of the town he knew as a child. I’m not entirely sure what Golding is trying to say with The Pyramid. The various sections are linked by Oliver and place, and some shared characters, but otherwise seem not at all connected. The protagonist is not at all likeable, and his treatment of the teenage girl – and the narrative’s – has not aged well at all. The preoccupation with social class – the title refers to “the crystal pyramid” of social class – reads oddly to a twenty-first century reader, even a British one. To be honest, Waugh writes about class much much better than Golding does here – perhaps because the only intelligent way to write about class is as satire. In all, The Pyramid feels like a minor work, but I’ve more of his books on the TBR and I plan to read them.

The Loved One, Evelyn Waugh (1948, UK). I also asked my mother to keep an eye open for books by Evelyn Waugh – I forget why; I think I’d just watched the TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, fancied reading some of his novels and found a couple in charity shops myself… Anyway, I asked her to look out for them, and the next time we met up, she gave me a carrier bag containing a dozen of them. Which was considerably more than I’d expected. Quite a few of them were tatty Penguin paperbacks from the 1950s, which I didn’t mind as these were books I planned to read and pass on. I bought four of them with me to Sweden, including The Loved One. Which is a thin novel, of no great consequence. It’s set in Hollywood during the 1940s, immediately post-war, I think. The protagonist, Dennis Barlow, is a Brit, who worked for a major studio but was let go. He now works for a pet burial service. Which is a career the rest of the British expat community think is diminishes their standing among the Angelinos. This is especially the opinion of Sir Ambrose, who works at the studio which once employed Barlow. And also lets Sir Ambrose go, by simply giving his job to a relative of a manager (this is why employment laws are a good thing). Meanwhile, Barlow has met Aimee, a beautician at Whispering Glades, an upmarket cemetery that could only ever exist in California. And maybe in Florida. Barlow woos Aimee using poetry by assorted great poets which he claims to be his own verse. But then Aimee learns where Barlow works, and she has as low an opinion of the pet burial service as Sir Ambrose. The Loved One is mildly amusing, and Whispering Glades is certainly a good satirical creation, but the Barlow and Aimee are too much the naifs and the rest of the cast are all pretty much caricatures. Still, even second-tier Waugh is pretty damn good prose.

Crimes Against Humanity, Susan R Matthews (2019, USA). I’ve been a fan of Matthews’s Under Jurisdiction series since reading the first book back in the late 1990s (I reread it and reviewed it for SF Mistressworks a few years ago; see here). There’s been quite a gap in the novels’ publication history. The books were originally published by Avon, who dropped Matthews after the opening trilogy and two standalone novels. She was then picked up by Roc, who published a further two Under Jurisdiction novels before dropping her. The next novel in the series came out from Meisha Merlin, who went bust shortly afterwards. That was in 2006. And it wasn’t until 2016, when Baen started publishing her, starting with two omnibus editions containing the six Under Jurisdiction novels, that we started to see new entries in the series: Blood Enemies (see here), Fleet Insurgent (a collection; see here), and now Crimes Against Humanity. This novel follows on from the preceding ones – and it’s get to be quite a  complicated story arc by this point – with Kosciusko settled in Gonebeyond space, and the nine Benches deciding torture is a Bad Thing so they no longer need their military torturers. One of whom hates Kosciusko – for being slapped down in the past after abusing bond involuntaries, because Kosciusko is so much more skilled than him, and because Kosciusko’s actions have pretty much resulted in him, in all torturers, losing his job… So a wealthy capitalist, with lots of fingers in illegal pies, including in Gonebeyond space, and especially including slavery, uses the torturer in a plot to kidnap Kosciusko. It all comes to a head during a raid against the slavers and the rescue of the unsold slaves they abandoned. The plot involves infecting Kosciusko with a tailored virus. Unfortunately, it spreads to all the Dolgorukij (Kosciusko’s race). The story is told from multiple viewpoints, and Matthews does her usual where she throws the reader straight in at the deep end. The narrative has to bend itself over backwards considerably more these days to make Kosciusko a sympathetic protagonist – I mean, even back in the 1990s a torturer as a lead character was a hard sell, but these days, post-Gitmo, post-rendition, post-Bush, it would be almost impossible… Except maybe not, as there’s a shit ton of crap science fiction out there which normalises shitty US tactics like torture. Crimes Against Humanity plays it heavy on taking responsibility and the inappropriateness of forgiveness for such crimes; but it also comes down hard on slavery. Which makes the novel feel more contemporary in sensibilities and not a novel that should have seen print 20 years ago. I do like these books, and the story’s by no means finished, but I’m not sure if there any new books in the pipeline.

You Must Remember Us…, Leonard Daventry (1980, UK). I latched onto Daventry years ago when trying to put together a list of forgotten British sf authors, and found a copy of his best-known novel, A Man of Double Deed (see here), the first book of the Keyman trilogy, the second and third books of which don’t appear to have been published in paperback in the UK, only in the US, and the hardback editions were published by Robert Hale, copies of whose books are as rare as rocking-horse shit these days (apparently because most of their sales were to libraries). My copy of You Must Remember Us…, Daventry’s last novel, was published by Robert Hale, and I was extremely lucky to find a near-mint condition copy on eBay for around £20 a year or two ago. It was one of the books I brought with me to Sweden. And… it’s not very good. The earth has managed to destroy itself, and a last starship has escaped from the UK. The carefully-selected crew, however, didn’t make it to the launch site in Wales in time, so those aboard are whoever was available at the time. And they’re sort of muddling along, managing to keep everything running, for the ten-year journey to Alpha Centauri (the means propulsion is left vague). En route, they come across a deserted alien spacecraft, and four of them explore it but find nothing except a line of enigmatic symbols. The ship then vanishes. Some time later, members of the crew begin to develop extremely fast-growing, and fatal, tumours. There is only one cure: they have to transplant their brains into robot bodies. This doesn’t go down too well, and only fifteen of the crew make the change. They then sleep for twenty years. And when they wake up, they’re orbiting an Earth-like planet inhabited by a Neolithic humanoid people… who see the robot crew as gods. It’s all very British, and surprisingly old-fashioned for 1980. A Man of Double Deed had a flavour all its own, but You Must Remember Us… feels very ordinary. Brains transplanted into robot bodies is a relatively common sf trope, and has been around for a long time – ‘Helen ‘O’Loy’ from 1938, for example – and even made appearance in the execrable Legends of Dune series by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson. These days, of course, it’s not an actual transplant that’s used, more a downloading of the consciousness – the mind as software – such as in Jennifer Pelland’s very good Machine. Daventry’s novel doesn’t add anything to the trope, and I’m not really surprised it never made it into paperback and has been pretty much forgotten. I’d still like to read the rest of the Keyman trilogy, however.

1001 Book You Must Read Before You Die count: 134


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Moving pictures 2019, #9

This is the last-but-one post about movies I watched in the UK, and I’m typing this in Uppsala. I’d expected to be able to blog more after my move, especially given how bad Swedish TV is – I had to watch Midsomer Murders! twice! – but getting up to speed in a new job is pretty hard work and when I get home, I end up just watching stuff on my laptop from Amazon Prime. Or reading. And I’m spending the weekends exploring the town and learning how to shop in Swedish supermarkets…

The Sea Shall Not Have Them, Lewis Gilbert (1954, UK). I think this was a lazy Sunday watch. Well, a moment of laziness in between packing boxes of books. I found it on Amazon Prime, and it’s a fairly typical film of its type and time – ie, a post-WW2 British film about the plucky British during WW2 – although it by no means paints every character as a paragon. The title is the motto of the Air Sea Rescue Services, a branch of the RAF which was responsible for rescuing the crews of aircraft downed in the seas around the UK. It later became the Search and Rescue Force, before being privatised – by the Tories, of course – in 2015. The Tories once again putting lives at risk in pursuit of profit. Scumbags. But back during WW2, it was still part of the armed forces. The film follows the crew of an ASRS fast motor launch, set to rescue the crew of a  bomber which was forced to ditch in the Channel. On board the bomber is an air commodore with secret Nazi plans detailing the successor to the V-2. So the rescue is urgent. Unfortunately, the launch’s crew are not the plucky exceptional Brits assorted folk these days would have you believe of the Greatest Generation. The newest member of the crew is next to useless and manages to set fire to the kitchen while making a cup of tea, nearly scuppering the boat. The engineer is lazy and claims to have done work he hasn’t done. The bomber crew are no better – Dirk Bogarde’s character stole a jerrycan of petrol he found at the side of the road and is afraid he will be imprisoned for it (and, yes, they’ve already found it in the boot of his car). The motor launch breaks down – thanks to the aforementioned engineer’s laziness – and the bomber crew have no way of reporting their position… but a rescue is eventually managed and all concerned return home to a hero’s welcome. Although pretty formulaic, it’s interesting how the characters are shown to be entirely ordinary and flawed. From the perspective of 70 years later, we can all too easily forget that – especially with WW2 currently being misrepresented by politicians and press for their own ends.

Clash, Mohamed Diab (2016, Egypt). Remember the Arab Spring and how it looked like the world was actually going to change for the better? Maghrebi regimes were going down  in flames, and while some nations descended into civil war, others looked like real change might happen. And perhaps real change  did occur in some cases – although not what the west wanted, and not always a step forward. Egypt, of course, had it bad, when widespread protests led to President Mubarak’s resignation and the seizure of power by the military. A new president was elected, but he included the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in his government and that led to further protests. Clash is set during those protests and takes place entirely in the back of a police Black Maria. A group of people have been arrested for suspected Muslim Brotherhood sympathies, and imprisoned in the back of a police truck. Half of them are entirely innocent and were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The other half are actual members of the Muslim Brotherhood, but it takes a while before they reveal it. Meanwhile, the prisoners witness the violence on the streets through the barred windows of the truck. It’s a cleverly-done film, keeping the story claustrophobic and personal, but positioning what happens in the truck as just one small, and mostly irrelevant, aspect of wider events. Given the impact of the overthrow of Mubarak, it’s no surprise it’s proven a popular subject for Egyptian cinema, and, like the US and its Vietnam War, exploring the ramifications of those events in their culture may well be part of a healing process. Um, does that mean we’ll be inundated with movies about Trump after the US finally gets rid of him? I hope not. Anyway, watch Clash. Recommended.

The Gamekeeper, Ken Loach (1980, UK). Apparently this film has been unavailable for a number of years, until being included in the pictured collection. Which is a shame, as it’s one of his better ones. It’s a lightly-plotted social drama, more of a documentary, than a narrative film, despite being based on a novel by Barry Hines (one of three adaptations of Hines’s novels by Loach, the best-known of which is Kes). The Gamekeeper is pretty much as its title indicates: events in the life of the eponymous man,  who works for one of the aristocracy. Mostly it’s about him dealing with other workers on the estate, and his son’s troubles at school. The final section of the film, the gamekeeper assists at grouse shoot (or it may have been pheasants, I’ve no interest in landed gentry brutally killing animals or birds, and no, it’s not a sport). The peer and his friends show all the condescension and arrogance you’d expect of the aristocracy, especially when the gamekeeper proves a little too loud and crude when beating. Personally, I’d sooner the birds had the guns and shot at the hooray henrys. Everything in the film is in Yorkshire dialect, and given that Hines was from Barnsley and set most of his fiction there… Several reviews online describe the aristocrat as a duke, but I don’t think there are any ducal seats in South Yorkshire, so it’s likely the family in the film are invented. Not that it matters. Loach has produced an important body of work, and if some films are better than others, that’s hardly unexpected. This was one of the good ones.

Antariksham 9000 KMPH, Sankalp Reddy (2018, India). I could describe this as a Telugu Gravity, and that would sort of be true. But it wouldn’t really get across the experience of watching it. And, to be fair, only the last act of Antariksham 9000 KMPH takes place in orbit. It’s also wrapped in a pretty standard Indian cinema romance narrative. Which is not entirely expected in a story about a satellite in a decaying orbit about to cause all manner of orbital destruction… The man responsible for said satellite resigned from the Indian Space Research Organisation after his wife was killed in a car crash. He was driving. He was also on the phone to a technician at mission control, trying to sort out a technical problem with the satellite, when he lost control of his car. Unfortunately, there’s doesn’t appear to have been much of a handover, and the satellite – lost since that incident – has reappeared and is about to cause untold damage in orbit, which would in turn cause everything to come crashing down to Earth, killing millions. And the only man who can prevent this is… the aforementioned engineer who resigned. So they have to persuade him to return to the ISRO fold. And they have to put a crewed mission together to go up into orbit to fix the satellite in situ – which is where it all gets a bit Gravity. Although this is a Telugu-language film, it’s  also an Indian one, so there are a couple of musical numbers but they’re quite restrained. The special effects in the third act are done quite well, but the plot and acting is so OTT it’s hard to tell. This is not a film you can take seriously, despite its subject. Which doesn’t mean it’s not a lot of fun. But if you start watching it expecting another Gravity, you’ll be disappointed – it doesn’t even get into orbit until the third act, for one thing. But it’s free to watch on Amazon Prime, so it’s worth a go if you’ve got that.

Story of a Love Affair, Michelangelo Antonioni (1950, Italy). This was Antonioni’s first feature film, and was apparently based on The Postman Always Ring Twice. A private investigator in Milan is asked to investigate a woman by her wealthy husband. The investigator discovers the wife had before moving to Milan been involved with a man whose fiancée had died after falling down a lift-shaft. And then that man turns up in Milan, and he and the wife end up in an affair, while the investigator and husband dig deeper into the suspicious death of the fiancée. I love Antonioni’s films but I’m not so enamoured of his early work. Perhaps Il Grido (see here) show some of the signature techniques he would later use, but Story of a Love Affair come across more like an unholy cross between Italian Neorealism and US noir. And, to be honest, the French did US noir much better. True, some noir has always had that air of cinema verité, and the Neorealist elements of Story of a Love Affair enhance that aspect… but it’s all very much a drama-turned-thriller, or perhaps the reverse, and though it works well I suspect I found it disappointing because I was expecting a more, well, Antonioni-esque film. Ah well.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 937


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Moving pictures 2019, #8

Only one more of these and I’ll be up to date, but I’ll not be able to get that post done before I leave the UK. Still, I expect I’ll have plenty of time to catch up once I’m living in Sweden…

The Hills Have Eyes*, Wes Craven (1977, USA). I’m not a horror fan, especially modern horror. Too squeamish. I can watch 1970s and earlier horror because the special effects look like special effects. Once they started using CGI, they lost me as a viewer. Having said that, I wouldn’t normally have bothered with The Hills Have Eyes, although I’ve watched a number of Wes Craven movies over the years, except it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. And, like a number of other US movies on that list, I can’t honestly say I understand why it’s there. It made a star of Michael Berryman, but there’s not much about the film that suggests it’s a classic. A dysfunctional family are stranded in the Nevada desert and fall prey to a family of cannibals who live in the hills (it’s never entirely explained how they managed to survive there for two generations, but never mind). The Hills Have Eyes is apparently a cult classic, which I can totally see… but that doesn’t make it either a good film or one you must see before dying. Ah well, at least I’ve crossed it off the list.

Prospect, Zeek Earl (2018, USA). A man and his teenage daughter, desperate for one last big strike, take a chance at prospecting for organic jewels on a world just before all contact with the world is lost. But it all goes horribly wrong – of course – and the father dies and the daughter is forced to ally herself with a smooth-talking criminal in order to escape the world and the brutal tribe of people trapped there. It all started quite well, with an interesting vision of interstellar travel; and then the prospecting in spacesuits in a forest because the air is poisonous, that looked quite good… But somewhere in the first half hour, the writer decided all the characters should talk like rejects from Firefly, and that stupidly mannered artificial way of speaking, like a cowboy who thinks he’s in a Jane Austen novel, got very tiring very quickly. It didn’t help that the story went a bit Mad Max, while looking like the 1980s Doctor Who gravel pit, and its early promise was pretty much pissed away. Worth a punt, but don’t expect much.

Sylvia Scarlett, George Cukor (1935, USA). This is the film that saw Katherine Hepburn labelled as “box office poison” until her career revived with The Philadelphia Story. It’s not entirely clear why contemporary audiences took against Sylvia Scarlett, or Hepburn in it. She’s just as annoying as she is in her other films, and the movie’s conceit of having her masquerade as male for much of its length is handled quite well. Co-star Cary Grant comes across as a bit of an odd fish. Everyone remembers him as the tea-bag-tanned urbane, if not louch, playboy of his later career, but in his earlier films he’s a bit of a galumph and in this one he even tries on a Cockney accent. It’s middling successful, but good enough for a US audience (mind you, Strine would make an acceptable Cockney accent to most Americans; and then there are those US films set in Eire where the cast all have Belfast accents…). Anyway, Hepburn et père flee France ahead of an embezzlement charge, and bump into grifter Grant on the ferry to the UK. And they, well, have sort of adventures around a 1930s Hollywood vision of England, where minor gentry have estates the size of the Isle of Wight and everyone drives on the right. I can see why the film was unsuccessful: it’s not very interesting. A pair of lovable rogues do lovable-roguish things. And then romance blossoms once the obvious subterfuge is seen through. But I don’t think it was so bad it should have blighted Hepburn’s career for over a decade. Meh.

A Moment of Innocence, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (1996, Iran). A US film blogger I regularly read recently went on about Iranian directors doing European cinema and his surprise at such a thing proving both popular and sustainable – not just Makhmalbaf, but also Kiarostami, Farhadi, Panahi, Payami, Ghobadi… although Farhadi is probably the closest to European cinema and has made films in France – indeed, his latest is set entirely in Spain. But then Kiarostami also made movies in Italy and Japan. I’ve been watching Iranian films for over a decade now, and I certainly count it as one of the world’s best cinemas. Makhmalbaf has always been highly regarded in Iranian cinema, but his films have not been as readily available in the UK as those by Kiarostami or Farhadi (and even then it’s a bit hit and miss with Kiarostami). Hopefully, that will change with the UK release last August of Makhmalbaf’s Poetic Trilogy, containing the astonishingly good Gabbeh (and yes, yes, I’ve bought myself a copy to take to Sweden). Perhaps, if we’re lucky, we’ll see Makhmalbaf’s back-catalogue appear in Region B Blu-rays. One of the appealing qualities of Iranian cinema is its willingness to push the boundaries of cinematic narrative. In A Moment of Innocence, a director called Makhmalbaf, who never appears on screen, is casting for a movie about when, as a seventeen year old, he stabbed a policeman at a protest. He tracks down the policeman and auditions him for that role, but then has him involved in the casting process to find an actor to play a younger him during the protest. And so you have Makhmalbaf commenting on his past, while exploring how films are made and how they represent real stories, using real people playing the parts of actors and actors playing the parts of real people. It all feels like a companion piece to Kiarostami’s Close-up (1990), made six years earlier and featuring Makhmalbalf as a major offscreen character – much as he is offscreen in this film. And, well, the reason why I thought this film is really good is the reason why I think much Iranian cinema is good: it makes smart films that flout Hollywood cinema narrative conventions. And they look bloody good too. Everyone should watch Iranian films.

Crumb*, Terry Zwigoff (1994, USA). This is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It is a biopic of US underground comic artist R. Crumb. Starring Crumb, his friends and family, admirers and fans. So its appeal is pretty much wholly linked to the interest a viewer might have in its subject. Which, for me, was pretty much zero. I admit I like some late Sixties west coast US music, and Crumb was briefly linked with it by virtue of drawing an album cover for Big Brother & the Holding Company’s 1968 album Cheap Thrills (ie, Janis Joplin’s band), but I’m mostly ignorant of Crumb’s various works. I much prefer French bandes dessinées to US underground comics, anyway. Which is no doubt why I found a biopic about one of the latter’s leading lights a bit of a bore. And I could see no reason why it should be on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list… although that’s hardly untypical of most of the US films on the list. If the film made a splash at its time of release, it doesn’t now. There are other more important people in comic art who deserve to have films made about them. Those films might even prove more interesting.

The Long Day Closes, Terence Davies (1992, UK). Davies is one of those directors whose films I like in theory but not in practice. If you know what I mean. He makes gorgeously-shot films with an amazing attention to detail, and yet they tell stories that are so mundane and forgettable that you wonder what you watched a day after the movie finished. It doesn’t help that many of his films depict an impoverished northern England during the middle years of last century, and very little has changed since then – or rather, communities, society as a whole, has changed a great deal since then, but the impoverishment has returned, thanks to criminal Tory austerity policies, except there’s no community to help share the burden. So Davies’s films feel like paeans to a world that never existed, even though they patently did exist. And that’s another problem: what exactly is the point of documenting them? I can understand the personal urge to document one’s own past, and though each person’s past is unique there’s often enough commonality to find an audience… But things are as bad now as they were then – and we don’t have the excuse of paying for a global war, or at least paying the US’s bill for their help in defending ourselves from a more powerful enemy during a global war (the US fucked the UK over, much more than Germany did, make no mistake about that. The US calls itself “the Land of the Free” but it doesn’t say “free” at the bottom of the invoice they issue for services needed when invaded by a foreign power… I digress. I am apparently known for it. My last manager complained of it – at least, I think he was complaining…) Anyway, I would recommend any Terence Davies film because they’re worth seeing. I don’t agree with, or even particularly enjoy, most of them, but I admire them and they’re one hundred percent worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 937


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Reading diary 2019, #2

I should do another book haul post but, well, the new books are all in boxes. And who knows when I’ll see them again… Meanwhile I’ve bought myself a Kindle and I’ve loaded it up with ebook versions of some of my recent purchases so I can actually get to read them even though they’re going straight into storage. The following half dozen books, however, were read old school, ie, paper. I’ll be taking a few paperbacks with me, of course, but space and weight is limited.

The Beekeeper of Sinjar, Dunya Mikhail (2018, Iraq). My mother lent me this and I think it was one of her friends who either recommended it or lent it to her. It is, to be honest, not usual reading material for either of us. I don’t think anyone needs to be told that ISIS, AKA Daesh, are nasty pieces of work – especially with Shemima Begum all over the UK news last month. (For the record, she’s a British citizen and has every right to return to the UK, and revoking her citizenship is disgusting, never mind illegal; but that’s the scumbag Tories for you.) The Beekeeper of Sinjar is specifically about the Daesh genocide of the Yazidis, an ethno-religious group from the region, whose monotheistic religion is distinct from the Abrahamic religions. Daesh would slaughter the men and elderly, and sell off the women at slave markets to Daesh members. A number of the Daesh described in the book were either American or Russian. The title refers to a man who still lives in the area, and helps Yazidi women escape their Daesh captors. Sometimes it’s just a matter of paying off the Daesh man holding a woman captive, other times the women have to be spirited away and smuggled across the border. The book is structured as a series of telephone conversations between US-based Mikhail and the beekeeper, during which the beekeeper often tells the stories of the women, and occasionally, men he has rescued. It’s harrowing stuff. And let’s not forget, Daesh is Blair’s and Bush’s legacy. Unfortunately, The Beekeeper of Sinjar suffers by being quite badly written. Partly it’s the nature of conversations – although the poetry excerpts add little – and the book never really gives a clear idea of what the Yazidi are (I had to look them up on Wikipedia to learn they have their own religion, for example). Certainly, the story in The Beekeeper of Sinjar needs to be told, but I think I would have preferred something more like reportage than Mikhail’s attempt to humanise events.

The Final Solution, Michael Chabon (2003, USA). I’m not entirely sure why I continue to read Chabon. I find his particular style of over-egged prose not to my taste, and as it’s as evident in The Final Solution‘s 127 pages as it is his longer works. The story is relatively simple, although it tries for cleverness – as Chabon often does – and while it doesn’t rely on an explanatory essay, like Gentleman of the Road (which, I must admit, I did enjoy; see here), the point of The Final Solution hinges on the reader realising something that’s not in the text – although the book’s title is a bloody great huge signpost. In 1944, a retired detective, who is clearly Sherlock Holmes, although he’s never named as such, is dragged into one last case to find the missing parrot belonging a mute German Jewish boy staying at a nearby vicarage. The bird’s disappearance coincides with the murder of another of the vicarage’s lodgers, and it’s surmised he was trying to steal the parrot – which has a habit of reeling off long strings of numbers in German, which many think are code – but was  himself robbed of the bird. Chabon handle his Holmes quite well, although Holmes’s irascibility often makes him more annoying than sympathetic, and his approach to the mystery make the plot anything but straightforward. Not a bad light read, but Gentleman of the Road was better.

Boneland, Alan Garner (2012, UK). This is third book in a trilogy begun with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, a book I remember from my childhood as a quintessential English fantasy, completed nearly half a century after the second book, The Moon of Gomrath, was published, because Garner had grown to dislike his characters. Boneland is also not a children’s book. The protagonist is Colin, the boy from The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, but he has forgotten all the events of that book – in fact, he can’t remember anything that happened to him before the age of thirteen. He’s now a radio astronomer, working at Jodrell Bank, and living in a hut in a nearby wood. He’s hugely intelligent, but has problems socialising. He visits a psychotherapist, and she more or less teases him into being sociable with him. It’s a relationship that feels like to belongs in a genre novel from fifty years ago – and not a genre novel like The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. There’s something of the fell of a mouthpiece character to her – certainly, she seems to carry more weight in the story than her role would indicate. Colin’s story is crosscut with that of a shaman living in the same area  thousands of years previously. Both are protecting something, although neither seem entirely sure what. Boneland is not an easy read. Even by the end, it’s not entirely clear what role each of the main trio of characters play. But the writing is really good – Garner is a master at writing about landscape – (but it’s also very talky) and though it’s only a thin novel of 149 pages, there’s a great deal in it. It probably needs a reread.

Without a Summer, Mary Robinette Kowal (2013, USA). This is the third book in Kowal’s Regency fantasy series, and while – being a huge fan of Georgette Heyer and having read a number of US Regency romances – I had thought it’d take some convincing for me to accept a US-written Regency-set novel, and a genre one to boot, but I have to admit Kowal has done an excellent job on these. She has the dialogue down to a tee, and the prose is not far behind. She manages the sensibilities well enough that a British reader can find no cause to complain, and she incorporates real world history in such a way it adds to the plot. (Although I read a couple by US writer Fiona Hall, a pseudonym of Ellen Pall, back in the 1990s that did something similar and weren’t bad.) Anyway, 1816 – not 1916, as the backcover blurb claims – did indeed suffer climate abnormalities, due to the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 (not to be confused with Krakatoa, East of Java, which is actually west of Java, and happened in 1883). The extended winter has meant the coldmongers – who use magic to chill things, and are all children, much like sweeps, because of the perils of their occupation – can find no work, and are being blamed for the unseasonal weather. It turns out the coldmongers are planning a march to protest their poor lot, but an unscrupulous peer intends to escalate it into a full-blown rebellion so he can unseat the current prime minister (I think; I can’t check as the book has gone into storage). Protagonist Jane, and her husband David, get dragged into the plot due to a family connection and their sympathies for the coldmongers. It ends with the pair of them held in the Tower of London for treason but, of course, they can hardly be hanged as there are two books following this one. That’s probably Without a Summer‘s chief fault – the jeopardy is meaningless, because the two leads are sure to be found innocent and restored to their former position. Still, a fun read, and I plan to get the sequels.

Mission Child, Maureen F McHugh (1998, USA). I’m not entirely sure what to make of this novel. It had neither a plot nor did it need to be science fiction. And yet it was good. Janna is a teenage girl at an “appropriate technology mission” in the far north. Although the local culture resembles Inuit, the people of the region seem to be descended from northern Europeans. A local tribe wipes out the mission, and only a handful of people escape, including Janna and her husband. They trek to to another tribe, with whom they share kinship, but are never made entirely welcome. Then the tribe that attacked the mission attacks this other tribe, and again Janna and her husband escape. But he dies during the escape, and Janna makes it alone to a coastal city, where she is put in a refugee camp. She is mistaken for a man and chooses to impersonate that gender for reasons of safety, although later she decides she is transgender. Janna, now Jan, moves to another city and links up with another tribal person who’s a bit of wideboy, full of semi-legal schemes and deals. Jan gets a job as a technician, brings over a shaman from the refugee camp, and ends up as his helper when the wideboy is murdered after dealing in something high tech he stumbled across. Jan eventually falls out with the shaman and sets off travelling. He ends up on a tropical islands, whose inhabitants are descended from a mix of Indian and Chinese settlers, where he hires out as a bodyguard. But his employer is killed in a raid (this part of the book was originally published as a short story, I believe), and so Jan takes his employer’s daughter to her grandmother on another island, and ends up settling down there. He ends up helping offworlder medics when a plague strikes the islands as he is immune to the disease thanks to a medical implant he was  given back in the first chapter. For all that the novel is about the impact of high tech offworlders on the cultures of Jan’s world, there’s no good reason I could see why the novel needed to be set on another world, or even sf. Certainly it gave McHugh free rein in envisaging cultures to make her various points, but it does all feel a bit, well, arbitrary. Which is not to say Mission Child is a bad novel. Far from it. McHugh was definitely one of US science  fiction’s more interesting writers during the 1990s (she has not published anything in long-form since 2001), and I should probably give her short fiction ago (there are two collections to date, both published this century). Mission Child is a bit of a puzzler: a book that is clearly genre, but doesn’t really need to be, but works so well as genre it seems churlish to complain it didn’t have to be genre.

Brideshead Revisited*, Evelyn Waugh (1945, UK). There are many who consider this the finest novel written in English literature. I can’t agree, although it is very good. But I’m not even sure it’s Waugh’s best novel. I thought Sword of Honour better, to be honest. But then, Brideshead Revisited is not a satire, and even Waugh admits he over-wrote it in places. Which is not to say the prose is not good, because even over-written Waugh is fucking classy prose, and way more impressive and readable than, say, Chabon, who I also find over-writes. But Brideshead Revisited suffers from an odd structure, which the television series simplified (and I saw the TV series long before I read the novel), and an extended chronology that covers far more time than there are chapters. It opens with Charles Ryder in uniform during WW2 finding himself back at Brideshead, the seat of the Flyte family, old Catholic aristocracy. Back in his university days, Ryder had made friends with Sebastian Flyte, the youngest son. He had become a friend of the family, but fell out with them when they tried to control Sebastian’s drinking with a strategy he felt would make things worse. (It did.) Years later, married and with children, he bumps into Sebastian’s sister, Julia, and begins an affair with her. The two decide to marry once their individual divorces go through, but the estranged father returns to the family seat to die and everything changes. The framing narrative – Ryder in WW2 – provides only a prologue and an epilogue, and the title too, of course – but the way Ryder lives his life throughout the 1920s and 1930s but the narrative only deals with his interactions with the Flyte family… not to mention the faint smell of fawnication over the aristocracy that pervades the novel, and the fascination with Catholicism (which does, to be fair, result in one of the novels’s best comic scenes), makes it all a less likeable read than it should be. That it succeeds is totally down to Waugh’s prose, even if it is more florid than usual (although I read the later edition, in which Waugh toned it down somewhat). Some of the characters are close to caricatures – especially Ryder’s father, Anthony Blanche and Kurt – but Waugh handles his female characters surprisingly well. Brideshead Revisited is a definitely a book worth reading, but if you had to read a single Waugh novel I wouldn’t recommend it as the one to read. Having said that, I now want to watch the TV series all over again. And I’d like to see the 2008 film adaptation too.

1001 Books you Must Read Before You Die count: 134