Apologies for the delay since the last one of these. I’ve posted a number of reviews of individual books to this blog over the past few weeks, but they haven’t been all I’ve read during that time. Here’s all of them – with the links to the aforementioned reviews where appropriate, of course. And there’s also all those DVDs I’ve watched since my last readings & watchings post…
Terminal World, Alastair Reynolds (2010). I’m working on a review of this for SFF Chronicles. I promise to post it up there soon. Suffice it to say, my feelings about this novel probably echo those of most of Reynolds’ fans.
Corpsing, Toby Litt (2000), is, as you can no doubt tell from the title, Litt’s third book. (Each of his books is titled alphabetically, although they are not a series or linked in any way.) I first came across Litt’s name when his tenth book, Journey into Space, a science fiction novel set aboard a generation starship, was reviewed in Interzone. I found a copy of that book (see here), enjoyed it, and so decided to read more by the author. Corpsing is a mystery novel, of sorts. The first-person narrator, Conrad, meets his ex-girlfriend, an up-and-coming actress, for a meal in a posh restaurant. During the main course, a hitman enters, kills the ex-girlfriend and mortally wounds Conrad. When he comes out of the resulting coma, he determines to discover who ordered the hit on his ex-girlfriend, and why. The solution to the mystery is not entirely what he expected. While the resolution is a little disappointing, the journey to it is very good. Conrad is an engaging narrator, there’s some perceptive writing in the book, and it’s also funny in parts and clever in others. I shall certainly be reading more by Litt.
Thousandth Night / Minla’s Flowers, Alastair Reynolds (2009), is a signed limited back-to-back double of a pair of Reynolds’ novellas from Subterranean Press. I’d read ‘Minla’s Flowers’ in The New Space Opera, but ‘Thousandth Night’ was new to me as it first appeared in a SF Book Club anthology One Million A.D. I have, however, read House of Suns, which is a novel-length sequel-of-sorts to ‘Thousandth Night’. The title refers to a year-long reunion of the Gentian Line, immortal clones descended from a single woman, albeit engineered to be individual, who travel the galaxy alone for 10,000 years doing touristy-type things. At the reunion, each member of the line creates a dream of what they have experienced during their travels, each of which is played to the clones each night. The narrator, Campion, however, notices some discrepancies in the dream, or “threading”, of one the other clones. With the help of Purslane, a female clone, he investigates… and uncovers a dastardly plot which could impact both the Gentian Line and the entire galaxy. The central conceit is pretty cool, and there is some impressive sf imagery in the story – the flying whales surely could have been inspired by the album art from Gojiro’s From Mars to Sirius (but then Reynolds has written a story name-checking Elton John, so perhaps not…). The characters in ‘Thousandth Night’ are better differentiated than they are in House of Suns, where they did tend to blur together. However, I was amused by the line: “It’s like trying to play chequers on a chess board” (p 33). For a start, we call it “draughts” in the UK; it’s called “checkers”, and spelled that way, in the US. And you do play it on a chessboard. I couldn’t actually work out if Reynolds was having a joke, or a brainfart.
Bold as Love (2001), Castles Made of Sand (2002), Midnight Lamp (2003), Band of Gypsys (2005) and Rainbow Bridge (2006), Gwyneth Jones. The Bold as Love Cycle was the first quintet of my summer reading project (see here). I’m working on a piece about the five books, which I’ll post here when it’s finished. I hope to have it done before the end of the month.
The Stainless Steel Rat, Kelvin Gosnell and Carols Ezquerra (1979 – 1985). This is an omnibus edition of the comic adaptation of Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat novels which first appeared in 2000AD. I may no longer be a big fan of the books (see here), but I do have fond memories of the comic strip and didn’t think it could be any worse than the novels. And, well, I’m not so sure… Ezquerra’s art is always distinctive, and mostly very good; although it does seem a bit slapdash in some of the later stories. However, important chunks of the plots seem to be missing. In the first strip, an adaptation of The Stainless Steel Rat, Jim DiGriz refers to the villain as Pepe Nero, despite him never having been named previously. The same thing happens in ‘The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World’ – there’s a leap from “someone messing about with the distant past” to “plot by Him to destroy the universe”. We know DiGriz and family, but the villains need to be introduced too. As does the plot. Ah well. Now, if 2000AD will only publish an omnibus of their take on Dan Dare…
Disgrace, JM Coetzee (1999), won the Booker Prize in 1999 and is the first book by Coetzee I’ve read. A university professor in Cape Town has an affair with a student which sours. A complaint is raised against him. Rather than defend himself, the professor stands on principle and is subsequently fired. So he goes to visit his daughter, a lesbian farmer in the East Cape region. But several weeks after his arrival, the farm is attacked by three bandits, who rape the daughter. She refuses to acknowledge this, and he finds himself helpless in the face of her refusal. It’s easy to cast the relationship as a metaphor for South Africa, but I’m not sure Coetzee’s unadorned prose works in the story’s favour – it’s good, but feels a bit too stark to really appeal. I may try more by the author, but I shan’t make a point of seeking out his books.
The Guardians 1: The Krilov Continuum, JMH (James) Lovegrove (1998), was , the author freely admits, work-for-hire. Orbit came up with the concept, and did a cross-promotional deal with the Sci-Fi Channel. Lovegrove was interested in the topic, so was keen to work on the project. It’s alt history UFO mythology type stuff, with the Tunguska explosion caused by the crash of a craft powered by anti-gravity. It was invented by a Russian scientist, Krilov, although he unknowingly had help from an extra-dimensional race… because it seems there is a war being fought on Earth between two groups from that race, and the chief weapon is Progress. One side – the good guys – want to keep progress at a level where the human race neither destroys itself, nor attacks the extra-dimensional race – as happened in Atlantis eons before. The bad guys, however, like to mess things up by introducing alien technology here and there. A bit of a potboiler, to tell the truth. Lovegrove has written much better. The Sci-Fi Channel apparently failed to keep up their end of the deal and sales were so poor the series was cancelled after two books. I’m not sure I can be bothered to track down the sequel.
Little Birds, Anaïs Nin (1979). I suspect I came across mention of Nin through her link with Lawrence Durrell, and so when I stumbled across this thin collection of her short fiction – well, erotica – in a charity shop, I bought it. And… Sorry, not impressed. Some of the stories skated dangerously close to paedophilia and rape, and very few of them actually struck me as erotic. They were apparently written in the 1940s – although Nin did not allow them to be published until the late 1970s – so clearly they did things very differently back in those days…
The Dream of Scipio, Iain Pears (2002), was another one I picked up in a charity shop. But I did so because I’d read and enjoyed Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost back in 1998. A fifth-century bishop, a fifteenth-century poet, and a WWII academic, all in Provence, each studying the earlier person, and each in some sort of relationship with a Jewish woman, in interlinked stories which are part history lesson, part discussions of philosophy and religion, and part love story. Admittedly, much of the philosophy was lost on me – the title is shared with a treatise by Cicero, and it’s referenced many times during the story. But the historical periods were handled well, the characters were interesting, and although the book was slow to start, I did like it a lot. It not as good as An Instance of the Fingerpost, but I’ll certainly be reading more by Pears.
Under The Sand, dir. François Ozon (2000). I like Ozon’s films, but this one dragged a bit. Charlotte Rampling and her husband go on holiday to their seaside chalet. They head down to the beach, she settles down with a book, and he goes for a swim. And doesn’t come back. She calls the life guards, but there’s no sign of him. Eventually, they decide he must have drowned. She heads back to Paris and tries to get on with her life. But she refuses to admit that her husband is dead. Even when the police ask her to identify a body washed up on the beach, she claims it is not her husband’s though it plainly is. Meanwhile, her friends try to match-make, and she enters into a relationship with another man. Throughout this time, at home she hallucinates that her husband is alive and well. She tells him what she’s been up to, including the man she is seeing… I like the idea at the core of the story, but I suspect it’s not strong enough for a 94-minute film.
The Merry Wives of Windsor, dir. David Hugh Jones (1982), is another of the BBC’s adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, this one starring Richard Griffiths as Falstaff, and Prunella Scales as one of the eponymous wives. Not one of the Bard’s better ones, I thought; more like an Elizabethan Carry On film than anything else. Some of the jokes I’m sure I’ve seen in other plays, and the characters were just broad stereotypes. Griffiths didn’t seem quite big enough a presence as Falstaff, and the ending was completely bonkers. Falstaff tries to get it on with two of the wives, but they reject his advances. One of the husbands mistakenly believes Falstaff has succeeded and so pretends to be a secret admirer of his own wife needing Falstaff’s help to enter into an affair with her. It’s the usual mistaken/hidden identity Shakespearean thing. Oh, and there’s a daughter who loves one person, but her father wants her to marry someone else, and her mother wants her to marry yet another man. Once everything is sorted out, the good burghers of Windsor decide to have their revenge on the fat letcher, and trick him into meeting in a nearby wood at midnight. Where they’ve arranged for the local kids to dress up as fairies and sing and dance about him. And, of course, Falstaff thinks they’re real fairies…
All That Heaven Allows, dir. Douglas Sirk (1955), was a rewatch, and remains a favourite film. It is almost note-perfect throughout. Jane Wyman plays an upper-middle class widow with two grown-up children. Rock Hudson is the man who comes round to trim her trees. They get talking, and subsequently fall in love. But all Wyman’s friends, and her two kids, frown on her relationship with the bohemian gardener. All That Heaven Allows is a very autumnal film, and is beautifully photographed. Like all of Sirk’s films, there’s much more going on that the melodramatic story suggests – here, it’s a biting critique of US society of the time. A film I will certainly watch again and again.
Planet 51, dir. Jorge Blanco, Javier and Marcos Martínez (2009), is one of a spate of recent genre-ish animated films, aimed at kids, but including something for adults. This one is a reverse of all those 1950s alien invasion B-movies – it’s the humans who invade. Well, human. A lone astronaut lands on the eponymous world, whose alien inhabitants bizarrely resemble those of a 1950s USA. There are some amusing little jokes – a pet which resembles an alien from the Alien franchise, for example – but like all films of this ilk, the clever visuals can’t disguise a story straight from the pro-family values conservative school of Hollywood script-writing.
While the City Sleeps, dir. Fritz Lang (1956), I reviewed for VideoVista here. A good noir-ish film, although Dana Andrews appears a bit too louche to convince as the sharp investigate reporter protagonist.
Pandorum, dir. Christian Alvart (2009), I’d been meaning to get hold of for a while, but after seeing a few ambivalent reviews I decided not to shell out for the DVD. So I rented it instead. And I’m glad I did. Because it’s rubbish. Man wakes on giant spaceship. He’s all alone. Except for the zombie-like creatures. And the few survivors of, well, of something, who have managed to eke out a living. Nothing in this story made any sense whatsoever. Cargo did it so much better. Avoid.
Fish Tank, dir. Andrea Arnold (2009), is the second feature-length film by the director of Red Road, which I saw on DVD back in 2007. Teenage Mia lives on a sink estate but dreams of making it as a dancer. She practices daily in an abandoned flat. Her drunken young mother is in a relationship with a security guard at the local DIY superstore (played by Michael Fassbender). This is not one of those films with a well-defined beginning, middle and end, but it’s all the better for it. The cast are mostly excellent, particularly Fassbender and Katie Jarvis as Mia. Not an easy film to watch, but definitely worth seeing.
Blood Diamond, dir. Edward Zwick (2006), I liked more than I thought I would. Hollywood takes on the blood diamond trade, starring Leonardo DiCaprio – nothing there to signal it would be a good film, I’d have thought. But it proved to be a reasonably even-handed take on its subject, and DiCaprio, who seems to be getting better as he gets older, was good in the main role. The obligatory female role, played by Jennifer Connolly, struck me as a bit unnecessary, but Djimon Hounsou, as the man kidnapped by rebels to work in the diamond mine, played a good part.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: The Complete BBC Series (1979). I recently watched an episode of Spooks. I’d never bothered watching it before. Now I understand why. Spooks is the direct opposite of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the BBC’s adaptation of John Le Carré’s novel. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is slow and requires much thought to follow; Spooks is fast-paced and completely stupid. Admittedly, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy does take a couple of episodes to get going, and you might initially wonder why you’re bothering as nothing actually appears to be happening. It doesn’t help that the characters seem to have been written by a public schoolboy. But having recently read Smiley’s People (see here), I think I’m happy to have seen the television series of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy rather than read the book. I intend, of course, to rent Smiley’s People too. That should prove a more interesting viewing experience as I’ll be able to compare it to the book.
Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, dir. Phil Lord and Chris Miller (2009). Another quirky genre-ish animated family film. This time it’s about male bonding and family ties and, like Planet 51, the inventive visuals can’t disguise that humdrum story and its middle-class moralising. It is, apparently, based on a series of children’s books, which probably explains why it exists as a movie. I can’t see Hollywood ever coming up with something as plain weird as Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs‘s central premise – food raining from the sky – unless the concept had proven itself in another media and there was perceived ready market for it.
The Big Clock, dir. John Farrow (1948), I reviewed for VideoVista here. For some reason, this film reminded me of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, but I’m not entirely sure why. Rand’s book is risible, but this film is quite watchable.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, dir. Hayao Miyazaki (1984), was Studio Ghibli’s first feature-length film, although it was apparently released before the studio was founded. However, it certainly looks like a Ghibli film. It’s set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, which a voiceover by the title character tries to explain, but the explanation doesn’t really make sense, But that’s okay, because it’s the Ghibli visuals which are the film’s main draw. Sometimes the animation seemed a bit jerky, and the story didn’t always add up, but the film was better-paced than many anime films I’ve seen and it had a distinct story-arc from start to finish. Not a bad film – I enjoyed it, although I’ll not be dashing out to buy my own copy.
The Hurt Locker, dir. Kathryn Bigelow. (2008). Cor, guess what. US soldiers are trigger-happy idiots. But that’s okay, because war is dehumanising. Hollywood films about war seem to either cast American soldiers as noble heroes or murdering incompetent dolts. The Hurt Locker falls into the second category. A member of a US Army bomb disposal squad in Baghdad takes insane risks because war has made him that way. What this is meant to illustrate is anybody’s guess. Certainly the film does demonstrate that the Iraqi people are considered to be little more than an amorphous faceless enemy, that the US shouldn’t go round invading sovereign nations, and that the reputation of the US armed forces for effectiveness is ill-deserved. I’m surprised this film won so many awards – six Oscars, six BAFTAs, and a host of others. Perhaps that’s because it’s a war film that doesn’t glorify war – which is nothing knew, I admit – but it does it in reference to the invasion of Iraq (rather than Vietnam). I’m not overly fond of morons-with-guns films, military or otherwise, and even less fond of ones that don’t even bother to treat the victims of said morons as human beings.