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Five of four: the Apollo Quartet

I mentioned a few weeks ago I was planning to write a pendant to the Apollo Quartet and publish it before the end of the year. It was prompted by a silly idea: making the Apollo Quartet eligible for the Best Series Hugo Award, due to be trialled in 2017 at Worldcon75. But to qualify as a series, the total wordcount must be over 250,000. Which pretty much rules out the Apollo Quartet. But… inspired by a recent read of Agustín Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla Dream, the fiction of Paul Park, a story idea I’d always planned to use about Soyuz 21, the films of James Benning, and a phrase I’ve used time and again to describe my fiction, “19 turns”, I went ahead and wrote something anyway.

It’s titled Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum and it will be published this week. For free.

apollo-book-5-front-cover

It’s about 7,000 words long, and includes an introduction by Adam Roberts, author of The Thing Itself (among many other fine works of science fiction and science fiction scholarship). I’ll be making a zip file available here, and on the Whippleshield Books blog, which contains .mobi, .epub and .pdf editions. There will also be a paperback edition, limited to 25 signed and numbered copies, available in the New Year. I’ll put up a pre-order page for that soon.

To celebrate the release of Coda: A Visit to the National and Air Museum, I’ve dropped the price on all Whippleshield Books, both Kindle and paperback. To wit:

aq1_2nd_edn_cover Adrift on the Sea of Rains Kindle
£1.99
Paperback
£3.99
aq2_2nd_edn_cover The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself Kindle
£1.99
Paperback
£3.99
aq3_2nd_edn_cover Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above Kindle
£1.99
Paperback
£3.99
aq4_front_cover All That Outer Space Allows Kindle
£1.99
Paperback
£4.99
dotsa-ebook-cover-01-small Dreams of the Space Age Kindle
£1.99
Paperback
£3.49
aphrodite-terra-front-cover-01-copy Aphrodite Terra Kindle
£1.99
Paperback
£3.49

[prices in the US and other countries are equivalent to UK prices]

Go on, grab a bargain.

Incidentally, there are still signed and numbered hardback copies of The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, All That Outer Space Allows and Dreams of the Space Age for sale on the Whippleshield Books website. I’ve also put up some first editions of various books for sale on the site – see here – and will be putting up more as I slim down my book collection.

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Reading diary, #38

The bulk of my reading is still science fiction – 38% of my reading, in fact, with mainstream next highest at 25% – although that sf percentage has steadily declined in recent years. In fact, it seems these day the only sf I read are new books by sf writers I’ve been reading for decades, or somewhat older sf novels for review on SF Mistressworks. This is hardly surprising. Literary fiction delivers more of what I look for nowadays in fiction, and the current fashion in science fiction is not to my taste at all. In other words, I’d sooner watch, say, a Brazilian Cinema Novo movie than the latest MCU blockbuster. I suspect my own writing reflects that. But if diversity is a big thing in genre right now – and not before time, I admit – then it seems foolish to apply it only within the genre. Read more diversely, by all means; but read more diversely in non-genre fiction as well – if not more so, given there’s a much wider selection of diverse things to read outside science fiction and fantasy. The following books are part of my ongoing journey in doing just that…

rites_of_passageRites of Passage, William Golding (1980). Back at school, I read Golding’s Lord of the Flies – at least I’m pretty sure I did; I can distinctly remember the class reading Cider with Rosie and The Cruel Sea, but my memories of reading Lord of the Flies are somewhat vague – but that was all I knew of Golding. And then a couple of months ago, a local charity shop had four of his paperbacks in stock – I’m not sure who donated them, since they were in excellent condition and had even been protected by sticky-back transparent plastic. I bought two – Rites of Passage and The Inheritors – but on a later trip, only one was left, The Spire, and I now can’t remember what the fourth title was. At the time I wasn’t especially bothered, but having now read Rites of Passage and discovered how bloody good it is… Rites of Passage is the first book of the To the Ends of the Earth trilogy, and was apparently adapted for television, with Blunderbuss Cucumbersnatch in the lead role, although I don’t recall seeing it. The novel is presented as the journal of Edmund Talbot, a minor member of the aristocracy, who has taken ship to Australia in the early 1800s to take up a position in the governor’s office in New South Wales. Also onboard the ship – a converted man-of-war – is a member of the clergy, a somewhat obsequious young parson called Colley. The trip does not start well. Both Talbot and Colley earn the ire of the captain by disobeying his standing orders and approaching officers on watch, and the captain himself, on the poop deck. Talbot is, eventually, forgiven; Colley is not. In fact, Colley becomes the unwitting butt of the crew’s vulgar and insulting “ceremony” for crossing the equator. But he forgives them and persuades the captain, who is embarrassed at Colley’s treatment, to allow him to perform the offices of vicar for the crew. But it goes badly wrong, and Colley dies. After Colley’s death, Talbot comes into possession of the parson’s journal, and realises what he had missed, and how remiss he had been. I had no idea what to expect when I started Rites of Passage, but found it to be an astonishingly good novel. Golding’s control of voice is second to none, his evocation of the period is supremely convincing, and he does not beat the reader about the head with the plot or its meaning. This is what proper fiction is like. I now want to read the other two books of the trilogy – Close Quarters and Fire Down Belowand see the TV adaptation. Oh, and I want to read more Golding. Fortunately, I have another two books of his on the TBR…

appointmentThe Appointment, Herta Müller (1997). A conversation on Twitter late one night after I had imbibed a portion or two of wine turned to laureates of the Nobel Prize for Literature (writers, not fucking folk singers), and female laureates in particular, and, well, before I knew it, I’d gone and bought a couple books by female Nobel laureates on the web site of a very large online retailer. The first was this, The Appointment by Herta Müller, a German writer who, despite her name is, er, actually Romanian. Her family belonged to the German-speaking minority in Romania, but in 1987 she was given permission to leave and settle in Germany after many years of trying. Her most successful novel to date has been 2009’s The Hunger Angel, and that same year she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Until prompted to look her up by the aforementioned Twitter conversation, I had not even heard of Müller or her fiction. But I bought The Appointment, and read it on a trip to, and from, Leeds one Saturday. The Appointment was published in Germany – she is, despite her origin, probably best considered a German writer – but the novel is set in Romania, as indeed is apparently much of her fiction. The title refers to the meeting the narrator has with Albu, a major in the Romanian secret police. The narrator used to work in a garment factory, whose products were mostly destined for export – and in a shipment of trousers destined for Italy, she hid a series of notes, asking to be rescued, through marriage, by an Italian man. But the notes were found and she was reported to management. Unfortunately, she had a bad relationship with her manager, and when a later series of notes were found, critical of the regime, she was blamed and sacked. And forced to attend interrogation sessions with Major Albu. It’s grim stuff. I’ve visited Romania – it’s a lovely country, full of lovely people – but the Ceaucescu regime was brutal and Müller pulls no punches in depicting how it impacted the lives of ordinary people. I’m in two minds whether to read more Müller – she writes in a style I like, present tense and slightly distant, and while I’m not especially keen on first-person narratives it works extremely well here; but the story is punishingly hard to read. Having said that, writing about the book for this blog post is sort of persuading me to try something else by her…

wreath_of_rosesA Wreath of Roses, Elizabeth Taylor (1949). I first came across Taylor via François Ozon’s adaptation of her novel Angel, starring Romola Garai, which I reviewed for Videovista (see here) and liked. Prior to that, I’d not known there was a writer who shared a name with the famous actress. I later stumbled across a copy of Taylor’s Blaming, read it and enjoyed it… and so she became a name to look out for in charity shops. Which is where I found this copy of A Wreath of Roses. Camilla and Liz are visiting Liz’s ex-governess, Frances, for the summer, something they have done for many years. Liz is now married to a vicar and has a small baby, Camilla is a school secretary at a private girl’s school, and Frances has been a painter since giving up her profession many years before. Something about this particular summer is not as idyllic as previous ones – perhaps it’s the presence of Liz’s baby, or that the years are beginning to weigh on Frances, or that Camilla finds herself unaccountably attracted to a man she met on the train who is now staying in a local inn… This is a very English novel, depicting a post-war south England which seems chiefly characterised by its landscape, flora and fauna than by the depredations of the recent war. All three of the women are flawed, and it’s their fears which essentially drive the story. There’s a bit of condescension to a working-class woman who cleans for Frances, and a film director who collects her paintings doesn’t seem entirely convincing when he appears. But there’s a pleasing manneredness to Taylor’s prose, and while I prefer Olivia Manning’s tales of expats, the two writers are enough alike that I’ll continue to read Taylor’s novels when I find them. Happily, all of her novels are still in print, and there is even a collection of her Complete Short Stories available.

other_sideThe Other Side of Silence, Philip Kerr (2016).  I’ve been a fan of Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels for many years, but the more books appear in the series the more worried I am that Gunther has overstayed his welcome. The Other Side of Silence is the eleventh book in what was originally a trilogy. And while I don’t think the books have seen a diminution in quality, I’m starting to wonder just how many events of the twentieth century Gunther is going to find himself involved in. (I had a similar problem with Allan Mallinson’s Matthew Hervey series, in which the protagonist seemed to be involved in every major military conflict between 1812 and, to date, 1830…) However, Kerr has managed to avoid this problem so far by a) doing his research, so none of it feels forced or overdone, and b) picking little-known incidents from the years following World War II. Having said that, I’d still like to see a breakdown of Bernie Gunther’s career by year, because it’s beginning to feel a little packed. In The Other Side of Silence, sixty-year-old Gunther is a concierge in a posh hotel in Nice in 1956. When a face from his past – a Gestapo officer with a penchant for blackmail – appears, things rapidly go downhill. Gunther finds himself acting as a middleman for W Somerset Maugham in a classic queer blackmail sting, only for it to turn into a convoluted plot to catch Soviet moles in the British intelligence services. Except perhaps it isn’t. Kerr slots Gunther’s story neatly into real history, and he doesn’t belabour the point of the novel (knowledge of a certain book which caused a huge fuss in the UK in the 1980s is useful in figuring out what’s really going on). The Gunther novels can be read in any order, although they usually include a reference to events in one or more of the preceding volumes – but then they’re usually structured with twin narratives, one set in the novel’s present-day (1956, in this case), and one set in Gunther’s past. Worth reading.

war_endThe War of the End of the World*, Mario Vargas Llosa (1981). I picked this book several years ago for a world fiction reading challenge, but never got around to buying it, never mind reading it. But I eventually purchased a copy last year, and it sat on my shelves… until I decided it was a good book to take on my trip to Iceland since I’d have several uninterrupted hours of reading while travelling. In the event, I didn’t read as much of it as I’d expected to, and it’s taken me a couple of weeks since my return to finish it off. The novel is set in the state of Bahia, in the north-east of Brazil, a poor state characterised chiefly by desert, and not the Amazonian forest popular wisdom insists Brazil is covered by, in the 1890s, shortly after Brazil overthrew its monarchy and declared a republic. (The author, by the way, is Peruvian.) A messianic preacher, called the Counselor, appears in the povetry-stricken villages of Bahia and builds up a following. They occupy some land belonging to the area’s most powerful “colonel” (ie, landowner), the Baron de Canabrava, Canudos, and create a utopian village opposed  to the republic. Which promptly responds by sending elements of the army to wipe out the Counselor and his followers. And they fail each time. Reading the book, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Glauber Rocha’s excellent 1964 film, Black God White Devil, which covers a similar subject, albeit in the 1940s, but is also set in Bahia. The War of the End of the World is based on real history – the War of Canudos 1896-1897 – which makes me wonder if the same event didn’t inspire Rocha. Vargas Llosa handles his large cast with skill, using a variety of narrative techniques, and even tenses, to tell each individual’s story. It’s engrossing stuff, and it’s only the sheer size of the novel – 728 pages! – and a need to concentrate that has led to me taking to so long to read it. I might try something else by Vargas Llosa some time. Recommended.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 128


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Moving pictures, #57

Managed to tick a few off the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list this time.

down_by_lawDown by Law*, Jim Jarmusch (1986, USA). I don’t get Jarmusch. I don’t get why his films are so highly regarded. A bit like Hartley, then. Both are US independent directors with substantial careers, and I have no idea why anything they’ve made appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Having said that, I can see why Down by Law might appeal to some. It stars Tom Waits, John Lurie and Roberto Benigni as three hapless convicts, all of whom have been imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. They manage to escape, andmake their way through a swamp, before stumbling across an isolated diner run by a young Italian woman. The film runs on the dynamics between the three leads, and it is, I admit, well-handled. The black-and-white photography also looks pretty good, and the soundtrack isn’t bad either. But the story is just a bit, well, tired. Three semi-lowlifes thrown together into a cell (well, Lurie’s character is a pimp, but the other two are a disc jockey and a tourist), and the rest of the story rests on the setting, New Orleans. It’s entertaining enough, but I’m not convinced it belongs on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

red_sorghumRed Sorghum*, Zhang Yimou (1987, China). Jiu’er is given in marriage to a much older, and leprous, man who owns a sorghum farm and distillery. During the trip to the distillery a bandit attacks the wedding party, but is fought off by one of the sedan chair carriers. Later, on a visit to her parents, the man who killed the bandit abducts and rapes Jiu’er. On her arrival at the distillery, she discovers her husband has died under mysterious circumstances. She takes over the failing business and tries to make a go of it. But when her rapist re-appears, tries to claim her but is rebuffed, he responds by peeing in the jars of liquor. It turns out this actually improves the taste of the liquor, and the business flourishes. I’m not making this up. Years later, after Jiu’er has given birth to a son, the Japanese invade China, and eventually arrive in the region. They take the distillery workers prisoner, and force one of them to flay another alive. When he kills the prisoner instead, they get another distillery worker to skin him. The workers then set an ambush for the Japanese soldiers but it goes wrong. The story is narrated by Jiu’er’s grandson, who frames it as the history of his grandmother. I’m not sure the narration adds anything to the film, because it works pretty well without it. It’s beautifully shot, and looks absolutely gorgeous – something the West seemed to discover big time about Chinese historical and wu xia films after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Red Sorghum won a shedload of awards at film festivals around the world, although that year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film featured entries from Denmark, France, Spain, Italy and Norway – and was won by Denmark’s Babette’s Feast, which is, admittedly, excellent. In fact, a Chinese film wasn’t nominated until 1990, and that was also by Zhang Yimou. But, anyway, Red Sorghum, a good film, and it definitely belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

the_deadThe Dead*, John Huston (1987, UK). I couldn’t find a copy of this to rent anywhere, nor were there any for sale on Amazon. So I ended up buying one on eBay (admittedly for much cheapness), but I now see a seller on Amazon has apparently found a load somewhere… although, to be honest, I wasn’t all that taken with it. Huston was eighty when he directed this film, mostly from a wheelchair, and was on oxygen for much of the time. Certainly, The Dead is not your usual Huston film, although his age at the time is completely irrelevant. The Dead is based on a short story by James Joyce, and while I’ve not read the source text, the film at least possesses the virtues of beginning, middle and end. But, for all that, I wasn’t especially taken with it. It is set in Dublin in 1904 at a party on the Feast of the Epiphany hosted by three unmarried sisters. The great and good of their social circle turn up, eat, drink, dance, listen to recitals and genereally do the sort of things people did at posh parties in Ireland at that time. The story apparently focuses on the memories of Anjelica Huston’s character of an ex-lover, when quizzed by her husband on her sombre mood, but the film seems mostly interested in exploring the social dynamics of the people at the party. There’s no doubt it’s a well-made film, and there’s an economy of technique which evidences a long and illustrious career in cinema… but it’s a film that, for me, seems to mostly appeal to those who like the type of film it is – whether that’s drawing-room dramas or Jocycean adaptations. Not for me, I’m afraid.

sergeant_yorkSergeant York*, Howard Hawks (1941, USA). The only copy of this I’d found was on Amazon Prime, but it wasn’t one of its free movies. I had to pay £3.49 to see it – for a “48 hour rental” – which was a bit steep, I thought. I have since learnt that new Hollywood blockbusters cost up to £9.99 to view by streaming. Oof. I get 12 rental DVDs a month for that. Anyway, Sergeant York is based on a true story. A Tennessee hillbilly volunteers to fight in WWI (not the 1917-1918 War, which is a really insulting way of referring to it), and becomes a war hero when he captures 132 Germans. I have a lot of time for the Silver Fox, he made some great films. But this is not one of them – despite being the only one for which Hawks was ever nominated for the best director Oscar. Gary Cooper is too old for the title role, and the scenes set on the Front clearly show Californian hills in the background. But. The scenes set in Tennesse are all studio sets, and they’re really fake and strange and quite weirdly beautiful. It’s all deeply unconvincing – but where that works against the film in the scenes set during WWI, it actually improves the scenes set in the valleys of Tennessee. There’s one particular scene where Cooper is trying to plough a patch of stony ground when the preacher appears and lectures him, pointing to a distant tree in illustration of the point he is making. And it’s like Hawks used tilt-shift on a bonsai tree, it looks so strange and unwordly and quite peculiarly lovely. Sadly, the story is hampered by an over-reliance on sterotypes, Cooper’s miscasting in the title role, and a failure to convince in either of the two chief worlds it presents. It was entertaining, and I’m really taken by some of the cinematography, but, to be honest, Hawks made better films, and the success of this one when it was released feels mostly a consequence of pro-war propaganda.

chrysanthemumsThe Story of the Last Chrysanthemums*, Kenji Mizoguchi (1939, Japan). Mizoguchi is one of the big Japanese film names, like Ozu and Kurosawa, and while I’ve seen some of his films I’ve never really managed to work out what makes him distinctive. Admittedly, I’ve never really cottoned to Japanese historical films, and though I now find them more enjoyable than I once did, I’ve yet to figure out why, say, I enjoyed Floating Weeds (Ozu) but not Sansho Dayu (Mizoguchi). Of the four films I’ve now seen by Mizoguchi – and I suspect at some point I’ll watch more, whether or not they’re on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – the one I liked best was Gion Bayashi, which I didn’t actually rent but came with Sansho Dayu as part of a double-DVD set. But The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums… The copy I saw, the Artificial Eye edition, was not an especially good transfer – no doubt due to the lack of a good print to transfer. The story concerns a man, the son of a famous Kabuki actor, who fails to meet his father’s expectations. After becoming involved with a wet nurse at his father’s house, the nurse is dismissed and the son leaves to make his own fortune elesewhere. The son tracks down the wet nurse, and the two live as husband and wife. But times are hard, and he turns nasty. Throughout, the son is presented with a stark choice several times: his wife or his career. When he chooses his wife, he turns bitter; when he chooses his career, his wife dies. It’s hardly a subtle dilemma, and though Mizoguchi wraps it all up in the traditions of Kabuki in the 1930s, this is not a film that treats its characters nicely or seeks to convince the viewer that people are intrinsically nice. It was interesting enough, although I’m doubtful as to the reason for its presence on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list; but then I much prefer Ozu.

criminal_loversCriminal Lovers, François Ozon (1999, France). I don’t think there’s another director whose films are, for me, so widely variable in quality. Some of Ozon’s movies are bona fide classics, some are totally forgettable; but most are somewhere in between. Having thought about it, while considering what to write about Criminal Lovers, I’ve come to the conclusion that Ozon is most interesting when he’s not trying not be someone else. And in Criminal Lovers, I think, he was trying to be Lars von Trier. A young woman and a young man at a Lycée murder another pupil (an Arab), after the woman claims to her boyfriend she had been raped. They go on a crime spree, before eventually finding a wood some distance from their town in which to bury their victim’s body. But they get lost in the woods while returning to their car after burying the body, and stumble across the home of a poacher. He takes them prisoner, uses the young man for sex, and threatens to eat the pair of them. This is not a cheerful movie. If it fails, it’s because the villain never seems really menacing enough, the two leads never quite charismatic enough, and the cinematography nowhere near  as lovely as that of von Trier’s Antichrist. It feels, in other words, like a second-string work from a director who has produced much better. To be fair, it’s an early work, and so I suppose it’s unfair to compare it with later films, but even so comparisons are inevitable. One for Ozon fans, I suspect.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 817


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Moving pictures, #56

A right proper mix this time around. I have recently simplified my lists on LoveFilm. Previously, I was running three lists – one for Hollywood blockbusters, one for classic movies, and one for world cinema. I’ve now combined them into one for English-language films and one for non-Anglophone movies. I am not in the slightest bit desperate to see the latest films released by Hollywood as soon as I can and am happy to wait before eventually watching them. Besides, there’s always Amazon Prime if I want to watch crap US films…

ray_1Charulata, Satyajit Ray (1964, India). This is the second film in the Satyajit Ray collection I bought, but unlike the first it is an historical piece. The title is the name of a young woman in 1870s Kolkata, whose husband asks a friend to keep her company. It’s based on a novella by Rabindranath Tagore. Her husband is rich and publishes a newspaper called The Sentinel. Determined not to be a member of the “idle rich”, he involves himself in every aspect of running his newspaper. To keep his wife company, he invites his cousin to stay. The cousin, Amal, is a bit of a waster but claims to be a writer, and Bhupati hopes Amal will help Charu with her stated intention to write. But the two’s relationship soon moves beyond mentor and pupil – especially after the pupil demonstrates more talent than the master. The film takes place almost entirely within the large house occupied by Bhupati and Charu, and even features a couple of musical numbers. There’s a scene set on s beach which features some nice photography, although Ray is not above using clichés (a camera moving from the foot of a table up to its surface to reveal a letter, for example). Madhabi Mukherjee totally shines in the title role, outdoing many a Hollywood star. It’s an odd film in that it feels complete ahistorical, despite its carefully presented period – not just the set dressing and costumes, but also several mentions that India is still governed by Britain. It’s the first film I’ve seen that has persuaded me Ray is as good as Ghatak, although they each had a very different approach to cinema. For most of its length,  Charulata feels like a cross between a light social comedy and drawing-room farce, with a strong thread of rom com and social drama, but there’s an astonishing daydream sequence in the middle, in which Charu has a blinding moment of inspiration and writes a story which is then published in a magazine. Good stuff.

herzogStroszek, Werner Herzog (1977, Germany). Herzog had stumbled across Bruno S and cast him in the lead in The Enigma of Kaspar Hausar, but was so taken with the busker, that he wrote this film specifially with Bruno S in mind as the title character. Of course, there are other of Herzog’s interests paraded before the camera, such as a livestock auctioneer, as in How Much Wood Would A Woodchuck Chuck, auctioning off the title character’s possessions toward the end of the film. Stroszek is a Berlin street performer who has fled Germany with his girlfriend after running afoul of gangsters, They decide to settle in “Railroad Flats”, a dead-end town in middle America. Things initially go well, but their natures will out and the pair end up badly in debt. she does a runner and he turns to drink. A friend persuades him to help in a bank robbery. It goes badly wrong. It’s hard to know what to make of Stroszek. It is, on the surface, a straightforward drama about a hard-luck protagonist. But, on the one had, it’s so clearly tailored to Bruno S that it wouldn’t work without him; but on the other hand, some of the elements of the plot simply don’t ring true as something Bruno S would do. But then Herzog was always more about the philosophy than he was such bourgeois ideas as narrative, plot and structure. Stroszek is not a film about a man who makes a fresh start only to see it turn to shit, it’s about an implacable universe and the way stories too often manipulate that indifference in order to provide the ending the audience desires. Most movies are commercial constructs and so formalising their design – creating a “formula” – helps the industry maximise their effectiveness. But there’s no truth in that, and art is about truth. Hollywood delivers product, Herzog can never be accused of doing the same. He has built a career out of presenting naivety, but doing it in such a way that it not only entertains but also reveals truth. Stroszek is big on naivety – it’s Bruno S’s biggest selling-point – but low on truth. And while the film is entertaining, I can’t help thinking Herzog’s instincts led him astray. There is nothing new in Stroszek, and the film suffers as a result.

loreleiThe Lorelei, Mol Smith (2016, UK). I found this on Amazon Prime, and was sufficiently misled by the description to watch it. The Lorelei is a British independent film, which means it has production values on a par with a double-glazing advert. A young woman hires a private investigator to investigate the death of her step-father in Oxford under mysterious circumstances. He involves his house-mate, a student who moonlights as an escort. The police then become involved when some of the escorts run by the same woman who runs the student are found dead in mysterious circumstances. We’re meant to believe the deaths are the work of a lorelei, a creature living in the Isis who takes the form of a young woman. Who pours water into their mouth from her own mouth and so drowns them. But The Lorelei is not framed as a horror film, but as a mystery. And as a mystery it fails because it can’t keep its central idea secret until the third act. There’s one twist in the story, but it’s a weak one – because it doesn’t really matter, the story has focused so much on other things that the mystery it resolves is secondary. I’ve no idea why I bothered watching this all the way to the end, it was pretty bad.

onceOnce, John Carney (2007, Ireland). This is not my usual viewing, as you no doubt have realised, but Once is on one of the other 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die lists and it was free to watch on Amazon Prime and it was a Sunday afternoon, so… Sadly, Once has a more interesting genesis than it does a plot. A busker in Dublin becomes friends with a young Czech woman, the two perform together, eventually record a demo of his songs, before returning to their separate loves. Initially, Cillian Murphy was going to play the lead role, but he pulled out and the part was taken by Glen Hansard, who had written the songs, and who is probably best-known for playing Outspan in The Commitments. The initial financing for the film pretty much collapsed, and it was eventually made on the cheap for $150,000, only to earn considerably more than that at the box office. That I find heartening. The story itself is packed full of clichés from start to finish, but happily is carried by the charm of its cast and the verisimilitude of its musical performances. It’s not precisely a feelgood movie, although it definitely heads in that direction – but no one is going to walk away from seeing it depressed. I can’t call myself a fan, but I sort of enjoyed it.

black_catThe Black Cat*, Edward G Ulmer (1934, USA). I’ve noticed that some film critics seem to revere monster movies out of all proportion to their quality. They even talk of a “Golden Age”. I’m not sure that The Black Cat fits in that period, but it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so clearly the makers of the list held it in’some regard. I have no idea why. A young married couple are travelling through Hungary when their train breaks down. They have made the acqauntaince of Béla Lugosi, who is returning to the area after many years away (most of which were spent in a POW camp). There’s a bus accident, and they all end up at the home of Boris Karloff, a renowned Austrian architect, whose house in built on the ruins of a castle whose garrison he betrayed during the war. Lugosi was at that garrison and he’s out for vengeance. Karloff also collects the corpses of young women, er, because. One of which is Lugosi’s wife. There’s also Lugosi’s daughter, who is being kept by Karloff. And it’s all to do with some secret Satanic cult which Karloff leads. The sets aren’t bad, although Lang did much better, and the film generally looks quite good for a movie of its period and genre. But Lugosi is absolutely terrible, he gurns and grimaces like a prime hock of ham. The Black Cat is one of those films whose presence on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I find completely baffling.

luciaLucía*, Humberto Solás (1968, Cuba). I watched this film purely because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list. I knew nothing about it before putting it into the DVD player. But having now seen it… I’m reminded of my response to Black God White Devil. I watched it… and then went and bought all three films available on DVD by Glauber Rocha. Coincidentally, also released by Mr Bongo. And also piss-poor transfers. While I didn’t dash out and buy all of Solás’s films after seeing Lucía, I did buy myself a copy of Lucía. Because it’s a film that is just so good. Which came as a surprise to me as, much like the Rocha one, I had not expecting to find myself so taken by it. It tells the story of three women called Lucía, in 1895, 1933 and 196-. The first is an historical conflict piece, the second a doomed romance, and the third more of a cinema verité movie. Lucía in 1895 elopes with a dashing young man, only to learn she has been used to discover the location of the nationalists’ headquarters. It’s all completely over-the-top, but in a gloriously historical way. Lucía 1933 is a more sedate affair, in which the eponymous young woman leaves her middle-class family to live with a young revolutionary, and ends up working in a cigar factory. The section marks a cusp between the first and last sections, and contrasts the two social classes. The final section shows Lucía living in a hearty communist utopia, which is couched in terms of her relationship with her new husband. It’s handled with a light, even comedic, touch, and the cast are uniformly good – in fact they are in all three sections. Something about Lucía immediately appealed to me, so I went and bought myself a copy. I shall no doubt now discover there’s a much better, and correspondingly expensive, transfer of the film available from Criterion… Recommended.

1001 Movies you Must See Before you Die count: 812


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Weekend in Iceland

The last weekend in October has just seen the first ever Icelandic science fiction convention, Icecon 2016, take place in Reykjavík. As soon as I heard it was happening, I signed up – for a number of reasons: I’d never visited Reykjavík but wanted to; I know a few people in Icelandic fandom; and, in recent years, I’ve attended several Nordic conventions. And, of course, I’m more than happy to support Icelandic fandom’s first ever convention.

I flew from Manchester to Keflavík (the plane was named “Eyafjallajökull”, which I hoped wasn’t an omen). The flight was uneventful – except for some turbulence – but as the Boeing 757 finally reached land, I looked out the window, saw a snowy landscape like that of some Jovian moon, and thought, shit, I’ve brought the wrong clothing. Fortunately, as the plane flew further north and closer to the airport, the snow disappeared and the land began to resemble what I had expected: wet, scrubby and windy. Keflavík airport proved surprisingly large. Iceland has a population of around 330,000, but the airport is comparable to that of the capital cities of nations ten to twenty times the population. Since Johan Anglemark was arriving thirty minutes after my flight, I’d arranged to meet up with him at the airport. So I waited… only to receive a text from him that he’d probably miss the next bus to Reykjavík – which would mean a further hour’s wait. I went and caught the bus – actually a coach – only for Johan to appear five minutes later.

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To get from Keflavík to Reykjavík, a distance of 50 km, you can either take a taxi, which would cost around £100, or catch a coach, such as Flybus, which costs around £36 for a return. The coach takes you to the BSÍ, where you transfer to a minibus, and that takes you direct to your hotel. Which, in my case, was the Apotek Hotel, located 250 m from the con venue, Iðnó theatre. (Those members of Icecon who had flown into Iceland were scattered in hotels and apartments around Reykjavík, as the con had not arranged any deals with hotels.) The con did not start until 8 pm, when the attendees were gathering in Klaustur bar, the con’s designated bar, in the block next to Iðnó and some 200 metres from my hotel. So I ate in the restaurant attached to the Apotek Hotel – except, it would be more accurate to say the hotel was attached to the restaurant, as it was an actual restaurant. The menu featured puffin and minke whale, but I avoided those and had salmon. The meal, plus a small beer, cost me around £44. Iceland is expensive.

Given this was the first Icecon, meeting up at the bar was an excellent way to start the convention. We were actually sharing it with a book group, who were discussing The Girl with all the Gifts, so some people sat in on that (I’ve neither read the book nor seen the film). Registration was also onhand in the bar – which was important, as con membes could buy drinks at happy hour prices (a mere 800 ISK, £5.85, for 500 ml of Viking pilsner beer). It was an excellent night. The two guest of honour, Karin Tidbeck and Elizabeth Bear, were present, as were con members from Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, the UK, the US and Ireland. And probably further afield.

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Icecon 2016 began in earnest the next day. The first programme item was at 10 am, an introduction to fandom. The Iðnó is a theatre, and is used for a variety of functions. There is a stage at one end, a foyer at the other, and off that a small room containing a bar for serving hot and cold drinks, and another small room with three tables. Upstairs, one room was being used as the dealers room. The conventiob took place entirely within Iðnó’s main room, which had been left with the chairs arranged around small tables. On the stage, there was an armchair for the moderator, two sofas for the panellists, and a small coffee table for carafes of water. The layout gave the con an informal atmosphere, which worked really well.

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I didn’t catch every programme item on the Saturday, but I did see Johan Jönsson interview Karin Tidbeck (which was good), and a panel on “The multimedia of science fiction: adaptation, borrowings and rewriting” (which was, to be honest, a bit waffley). I spent some time in the small room with the three tables, chatting to people, and I wandered outside to take a couple of photographs on my phone. At 6 pm, I joined a group of Nordic fans – mostly Swedes, but also Norwegian, Icelandic and Finnish – on a hunt for a meal. A restaurant called Snaps had been recommended to me on Twitter, so we went looking for it. But there were nine of us in the group, and this was too many to seat in Snaps. And in the next restaurant we found. And the next. We ended up in an Italian place, called, imaginatively, Italia, where they put five two-seater tables together for us. The food was good (not as posh as that in the Apotek Bar and Restaurant, but not as expensive either). The restaurant was good about gluten-free, as one of the party had a gluten allergy, but less so about dairy. (One consequence of being lactose-intolerant is I’m now learning the words for cheese, butter and milk in different languages – in Icelandic, it’s ostur, smör and mjólk.)

Back at Iðnó, the costume ball had begun. It was essentially a con disco, but people had been encouraged to turn up in fancy dress. And quite a few had. Some had put more effort into it than others. I, er, made no effort. I stayed until about midnight. The music was loud, and so shouting over it proved tiring – although I did have a good time.

On the Sunday, the programme didn’t start until 1 pm. (There was a hangover lunch in Iðnó at noon, but I didn’t sign up for it.) So I used the time to explore the city. Both Iðnó and my hotel are in the touristy bit of Reykjavík, between the lagoon and the old harbour. It was wet and windy, and not much different to UK weather during November or March. During my wander, I spotted a huge shop that sold Icelandic tat for tourists and the Listasafn Reykjavíkur, Reykjavík Art Museum… but the latter was closed. Back at my hotel, I spotted a brochure in the foyer for the Volcano House, and the opening times indicated it would be open. So I headed for it – it was just up the road from the Art Museum. The Volcano House has a small exhibit of volcanic rocks, but it also offers a 60-minute documentary on two of Iceland’s most famous volcanic eruptions: Eldfell on Heimaey in the Westman Isles in 1973, and Eyjafjallajökull in 2010. Fascinating stuff. And I can now almost say Eyjafjallajökull. On my way back to the hotel, I swung by the Art Museum, and saw that it was open. Whenever I visit my sister and her family in Denmark, we usually go to an art museum, so I’ve found myself becoming interested in them. The Listasafn Reykjavíkur was… Um, well. The biggest exhibit was for Icelandic pop artist Erró, but I was not impressed. Neither did I think much to the Yoko Ono exhibition. One of the galleries contained “Some New Works” by Örn Alexander Ámundson, which I thought very clever, and reminded me of the tricks with narrative structure I enjoy reading and writing. The highlight of the museum, however, was “The Enclave”, a six-channel video installation by Richard Mosse, shot in the Democratic Republic of Congo on infra-red satellite photography film which transform shades of green into shades of pink… Sadly, there was nothing by Mosse available in the gift shop.

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Back at Iðnó, I caught the programme item on “Inclusive futures: diversity in speculative fiction and publishing”, which was good, before I climbed onto the stage myself for “Climate change, nationalism, famine: addressing contemporary problems in scifi and fantasy”, with moderator Hildur Knútsdóttir and panellists Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf, Kristján Atli and Scott Lynch. You know that thing where you have several important points to make on a topic, but once you’re up on stage your mind goes completely blank? It was a bit like that; although I was told afterwards that the panel went well. I was also told that once Brexit had been mentioned I turned into a stereotypical Brit (Remainer, of course).

The programme item following the above was the last of the convention, “Carving a path to the future: Icelandic sci-fi and fantasy writers”, which was informative, and it sometimes comes as a surprise – although it shouldn’t – quite how different the road to publication in genre is in countries other than the UK and US. Once the panel had finished, the con organisers all appeared on stage, and admitted they were hugely gratified at the turnout. Just over one hundred people had joined the convention, and nearly half of them had been from outside Iceland. Oh, and did I mention that the first lady of Iceland, the Icelandic president’s wife, dropped by Iðnó on the Saturday afternoon to see how the con was going? Not many conventions can say that. And all this was despite the fact a general election had been called and was taking place over the same weekend. (Two of the moderators for the con’s panel items were standing for parliament.)

The con finished back where it had started, with a dead dog party in Klaustur Bar. I lasted until midnight… but then I did have to get up at 4 am to catch a Flybus to the airport for a 8 am flight back to Manchester.

I thought Icecon 2016 was very successful – and so too, I hope, did the organisers (to their surprise, they admitted). The next one is scheduled for 2018, and I certainly plan to attend. I thoroughly enjoyed my stay in Reykjavík and would welcome the opportunity to explore the city, and the country, further. Despite the expense. The convention ran very smoothly, and the venue worked so much better than expected – seriously, other cons should adopt the chairs around tables layout, rather than row upon row of chairs; the sofa thing also works a lot better than having the panellists behind a table (fun with dodgy microphones notwithstanding). It was an excellent convention, and a definite highlight of 2016.

I’ve now atteneded conventions in Sweden, Finland and Iceland. Next year, of course, the Worldcon is in Helsinki. But I’d still like to do a con in Norway and Denmark. Perhaps next year…