It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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Reading diary 2020, #13

I remember once upon a time I used to read good books. Something seems to have gone wrong. The Chandler wasn’t bad, and the Cho managed a fair fist of its setting, but the rest were pretty bad. True, my expectations were not high for the Jordan – I’d thought it terrible the first time I read it twenty years ago… although it did seem to be much worse than I remembered it. The Farmer – also a reread, although I’ve no memory of reading it before – was also shit.

Spook Street, Mick Herron (2017, UK). As a writer, you often wonder if it’s possible to tell a story using completely unlikeable characters. But then you grow up and realise no one is interested in a story involving characters who repel them. Unless you’re Mick Herron. In this installment, a suicide bomber kills a bunch of teens in a shopping mall and then one of the Slough House agents is murdered, and the dead agent’s grandfather, the “Old Bastard”, an ex-MI5 bigwig, goes missing… and it’s all to do with a rogue CIA agent who set up a secret school in France to raise kids as terrorists and everyone is surprised when they behave like terrorists… The Slough House books do not score well on plausibility when it comes to their plots, but this one is even less believable than the ones preceding it. Herron seems keen to depict MI5 as a bunch of criminals – although he lavishes real contempt on Tory politicians – but his so-called heroes are all unlikeable incompetents. Sigh. The first book in the series is possibly worth a go, but the sequels are entirely missable.

The Man Who Fell to Earth, Walter Tevis (1963, USA). This is one of those rare cases where I’ve seen the film – several times – before I read the book. And the film isn’t exactly a faithful adaptation. It covers the main points, but the movie is very much about its visuals and the book is just a bog-standard early 1960s sf novel that’s actually set in the early 1960s. Which at least means mean wearing hats is plausible. The title character is Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien from Anthea – implied to be Mars – who has infiltrated Earth – ie, the US – in order to save his home world. He introduces technological innovations from his planet and so makes a vast fortune, which he uses to build a spaceship. But the government are suspicious and  eventually arrest him. The CIA eventually uncover his secret, but they keep it from the FBI, who bungle their investigation and blind Newton. The point of the book is that Newton is discovered. And despite a long list of technological innovations introduced by Newton, the government still manages to fuck things up. I’m surprised this was considered a shocking perspective in 1963, especially in the US, a nation famous for its distrust of its government (to be fair, for good reason). But the idea of an alien not being an actual evil invader seems to have struck US sf fans as something, well, entirely novel. Seriously? That says more about US sf than it does this book. Which is otherwise ordinary, and you would be better off  watching the film as it’s more rewarding.

Lord of Chaos, Robert Jordan (1994, USA). I’d say this is where the rot sets in, but given the how the series was put together, I don’t think that’s entirely fair. This is, after all, the sixth novel of a series that was intended to be ten volumes long, but that length wasn’t decided until after the second volume… You can just imagine how the conversation went – RJ: it’s three books. Pub: make it one. Pub: it’s going really well, how does ten books sound? RJ (Ker-ching!): Shit shit fuck fuck fuck. RJ (later): this ten book thing is not working out, can we make it a few more? Pub (ker-ching!): no problemo. It doesn’t help that the title of this book is a title assigned to series hero Rand Al’Thor that has never been mentioned before. Because, of course, why would it? Jordan only invented it when he set out to write this installment. Meanwhile we have the rest of the cast doing exactly what they did at the end of the last book. With added recaps. Lots of fucking recaps. If, perhaps, we had not read the preceding five books… we don’t need to!  Because Jordan explains what happened in them in this book. Several times. Just to make sure. I seem to remember from my prior read back in the late 1990s that book seven was where things started to go downhill, but I’d thought book six, Lord of Chaos, was one of the last good ones. Only, it turns out it’s the first of the bad ones. Although, to be fair, that term is relative. I have this desire to complete the Wheel of Time, and there’s no way I’m going to do that based on my readings of the books from the 1990s. So I have to reread them. Easier said than done, sadly.

Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho (2015, Malaysia). I should have been on this like, well, like really quickly, since it is after all a fantasy set in Regency England and I’m a big fan of Georgette Heyer (and, more recently, Alice Chetwynd Ley). But I am not, to be fair, a fan of Regency fantasy. It’s not a large genre – unless you include timeslip romances – and most examples I’ve read have not been especially good, mostly because they’ve been by US authors who haven’t quite understood Regency England (at least not to the extent it convinces an experienced Heyer reader), and while I have mostly positive memories of Sorcery & Cecelia, that was a) pretty much the first Regency fantasy, b) an epistolary novel, and c) I read it a long time ago and would reread it except it’s now in storage. Anyway. Zen Cho is not English, but has lived and worked in the UK for a number of years and is to all intents and purposes an English author. If Sorcerer to the Crown falls over sometimes in terms of its Regency prose, that’s a failure of craft – Cho knows the period inside-out, that much is clear – and Regency diction can be a little convoluted at the bets of times. Having said that, not everything in the plot actually adds up. Britain’s magic has been decreasing, and the witches of Bandar Jaik are partly responsible, but the decrease predates their involvement and is never explained. But Sorcerer to the Crown is more concerned about the race of its title character, the emancipated son of slaves, who takes the title of the, er, title under mysterious circumstances, and his colour of course makes him a number of enemies as well. I wanted to like this book, and I did like it – but I have caveats: the plotting needed to be more rigorous, some of it doesn’t quite add up, and the Regency prose slips on occasion. Heyer, this is not; but then its sensibilities are twenty-first-century and that’s definitely a plus over Heyer. I understand a sequel appeared last year. I would definitely read it. Oh, and apparently there are two sequels to Sorcery & Cecelia, which I didn’t know.

The Long Good-bye, Raymond Chandler (1954). I was introduced to Chandler through my father, who had a collection of his books in Penguin paperbacks from the 1960s. Chandler has always been there for me as an early writer of crime fiction, certainly more so than Dorothy L Sayers or Nicholas Blake or Margery Allingham. So my knowledge of early crime fiction is more California noir than aristocratic sleuths. The Long Good-bye is a well-known title by Chandler, as well as a movie set in the 1970s starring Elliott Gould. I like Chandler’s fiction. I think he’s over-rated – or rather, I think his influence on the genre is greater than he deserved. But I do like his books. One of the things I like is his certitude. Chandler was certain about everything he wrote and how he wrote it. I’m amused by the fact he despised Philo Vance of SS Van Dine’s hugely successful novels, and can only imagine his ire was stoked by Vance, and by extension Van Dine, clearly being gay. Marlowe was, of course, famously a womaniser, and all of Chandler’s novels are predicated on Chandler’s relationship with a woman. Which is not, surprisingly, how The Long Good-bye opens. Marlowe makes friends with a man, and helps the man escape justice when he brutally murders his wife. But then the murderer is murdered in Mexico… Marlowe never believed he was guilty, and never believed the account of his suicide was legit. Throw in a California millionaire (billionaire now), a literary writer who found success as a writer of historical best-sellers but despises himself and has hit the bottle big time, and the writer’s manipulative wife… This is classic Chandler, but it’s also a book that doesn’t go where you expect it to. If you have to read a Chandler novel, it’s a good one to choose; on the other hand, I don’t think it’s especially typical of the Marlowe novels. You might as well read a couple of them. You won’t regret it.

The Day of Timestop, Philip José Farmer (1960, USA). I had it in my mind Farmer was one of those off-beat sf authors of the 1960s and 1970s who never scored big but produced interesting work nonetheless. We’ve all heard of Riverworld, and despite a reread a few years ago of To Your Scattered Bodies Go not exactly impressing, the concept seems to be “high” enough to keep interest in Farmer’s works alive. Sadly, his reputation doesn’t seem to stand up to scrutiny. I’d previously read The Day of Timestop under the title A Woman a Day, because it was also republished by Beacon Books under that title, and I have the Beacon Books edition. Which I have not actually read yet – and, of course, it’s currently in storage. So, anyway, I bought the SF Gateway edition as it was cheap and I was still robbed because this book is really bad. More than a thousand years in the future, after much of humanity was wiped out, the world has split into three main blocs – the religious Haijac Union, the Israeli Republics – because a US author has to promote Israel, even if he’s not Jewish – and I forget what the third one was. Oh, and Marcher, a neutral state in west Europe. The story takes place in the Haijac Union, specifically in Paris, where a Marcher agent has infiltrated the Haijac Union to the highest level – he’s a lamech-man, ie, beyond reproach, beyond suspicion, incorruptible, so pretty much how Tories see themselves despite all evidence to the contrary, you know, like letting kids starve over Christmas – but then Tories are scum – and while Farmer sets up his  world with economy, it makes zero sense, and the plot which follows on from it makes even less. There’s a woman who’s an alien because she has some sort of organic battery wired to her vagina (really!), but then it turns out she’s not an alien. And there are some Bantu who have been literally whitewashed – “depigmentized” (really!) – and they’re some weird sort of hippy Christians, and the initials “JC” seem to refer to half a dozen messiahs – and the title actually refers to one of them, who is supposed to return from his time-travelling on the “Day of Timestop” to trigger Rapture for everyone in the Haijac Union. Everything in this book is wrong – the ideas are complete nonsense, the sensibilities are all over the place and not in a good way, the prose is functional at best, and if the story doesn’t go where you expect it to that’s because Farmer probably didn’t know himself where he was going. A book to avoid.


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Movie roundup 2020, #18

This post’s box-set bingeing has been Morden i Sandhamn, a murder-mystery series set in the Stockholm archipelago, mostly in the village of Sandhamn on an island some 60 km due east of central Stockholm. It’s all a bit chocolate box and heavy with the clichés – they even did that one where a person drowns, and the person giving them CPR gives up, and then gets angry and thumps them on the chest… and brings them back to life – but it’s entertaining enough and a good way to improve my Swedish. Also Miss Truth, a Chinese series set in Tang Dynasty Suzhou, about a young woman who is a forensic examiner and helps an assistant minister in the Ministry of Penalties solve puzzling murders, and who also happens to be affianced to an assassin. It’s got it all: sword-fights and kung fu, cleverly worked out solutions to the murders, colourful costumes, a good-looking cast, and good production values. The subtitles can be a little… creative, however. And, finally, Unforgettable, a US series about a cop with hyperthymesia, who uses her photographic memory to solve murders for the NYPD. It’s entertaining enough, and the gimmick is well-used, but the lead character is just a little bit too good to be plausible. And, unfortunately, they introduced a “kooky” computer forensics technician in episode 11 – going for an Abby Sciuto – and she’s really annoying (she also talks complete bollocks).

I did try watching Mutant X as well, but it was fucking terrible, a knock-off X-Men that still managed to feel more like one of those bad straight-to-VHS sf movies from the late 1980s. Best avoided.

X: The Unknown, Leslie Norman (1956, UK). This is one of the films that helped established Hammer Films as a maker of horror and science fiction movies, and it’s pretty much an exemplar of the sf films they made. A platoon of soldiers are training  to use Geiger counters, in case of nuclear war, in a gravel pit of course, when they discover evidence of a radioactive creature beneath the earth. And, er, that’s pretty much the plot. Radioactive blob from underground wreaks havoc. Hammer Films didn’t get complicated – it was one of their strengths. The US lead here is Dean Jagger, because all UK films of course had to have US leads in order to appeal to the parochial US market. X: The Unknown doesn’t do anything a number of similar films, including later Hammer Films, haven’t done, but one of the advantages of the brand was you always knew pretty much what you were getting. Which was mid-twentieth-century British budget horror. And that was actually a good thing.

Who Killed Captain Alex?, Nabwana IGG (2010, Uganda). My first Ugandan film. And it was reportedly made on a budget of under $200. Unfortunately, the director – who edited the film, and added the special effects, on his cobbled-together desktop PC – wiped his hard-disk to make room for his second feature film. But then a power surge wiped that, so he had to start over again from scratch. Fortunately, DVD copies of Who Killed Captain Alex? survived. Unfortunately, they were “VJ copies”, apparently a thing in Ugandan cinema – films are accompanied by a “video jockey” or “video joker” voiceover, who comments and jokes about what’s happening on screen. Who Killed Captain Alex? is a pretty ordinary overly-violent and overly-cheap thriller about a clash between local police and the Tiger Mafia. The acting is terrible, the special effects are cheap and obvious, but the fight choreography is surprisingly good. There’s also a good musical interlude. Given the budget, and the complete absence of film-making experience in Wakaliga, a suburb of Kampala, Who Killed Captain Alex? is surprisingly watchable. Nabwana IGG apparently went on to make a couple of other films and I’d actually like to see them.

Where’s that Fire?, Marcel Varnel (1940, UK). Will Hay was a big comedy star in the UK from the 1920s through to the 1940s, and inspired a number of comedians I remember from my childhood years. But until watching Where’s that Fire? I don’t actually recall watching a Will Hay movie. It’s not a lack that’s ever bothered me, and after watching this film I don’t think it’s a lack I should ever be bothered about. Which is not to say it’s a bad film. It’s funny. The slapstick is cleverly done, and some of the set-pieces are hilarious. But it posits a village fire brigade with a horse-drawn appliance at a time – WWII, basically – when everywhere else had motorised decades before – see Humphrey Jennings, for example. It feels likes it’s trying too hard for comic effect. I would have preferred a film that was more of its time and not one that tried to pretend everywhere outside London was two decades behind.

The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell, Otto Preminger (1955, USA). Yes, that Billy Mitchell. The one who’s referred to as “the father of the US Air Force”. And even had a bomber, the B-25, named after him during WWII. Apparently, he wasn’t so well-regarded initially. After WWI, which the US entered late, as usual, and claimed all the credit, as usual, Mitchell was vocal in his desire for a US air force. Unfortunately, his superiors were not so convinced. They set him a test – to sink a battleship with bombs – and he cheated because their conditions made it impossible for him to succeed. So they demoted him, and he spent years on a letter writing campaign. Mitchell is a fascinating subject. Unfortunately, this is not a fascinating film. Gary Cooper plays Mitchell like a teenager, which is really weird, and Preminger’s direction is unobtrusive at best. I suspect Preminger made it because Mitchell continued to be a controversial figure even in the 1950s, but this is far from his best work. An uninspiring biopic.

The Diamond Mercenaries, Val Guest (1976, Ireland). This is one of those films that seems to have been made strictly as a cash investment, and if it returned anything more than a small a profit I’d be very surprised. A handful of big names can’t disguise the cheapness of the film, or the parochial nature of its story. A group of men plan to rob a profitable diamond mine in South Africa – actually, they plan to smuggle out the diamonds collected by a plant inside the mine. They’re up against security chief Telly Savalas. Peter Fonda, a security guard, is persuaded to infiltrate the robbers, but things are not what they seem. An entertaining thriller, with amusingly low production values, that thirty years ago would have been shown on a Sunday afternoon on some cable channel no one watched. And, er, still would be now.

Airplane!, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker & Jerry Zucker (1980, USA). I probably don’t need to describe the plot of this film. Not that it really has one. I’d seen it before – several times – of course, but before I started recording my film-watching. A lot of it is, surprisingly, still funny. It’s aged a good deal better than I’d have expected. I mean, yes, it’s explicitly a spoof of 1970s disaster movies, and in terms of pastiching those it certainly hits its targets, and it’s still very much a late 1970s/early 1980s film, with all that period’s sensibilities, but it’s light on the sorts of those sensibilities and still entertaining viewing in 2020. Which surprised me. Not a great film, and not one that belongs on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, but good fun with a few beers on a weekend night.

Love and Other Cults, Eiji Uchida (2017, Japan). A young Japanese woman is left at a weird religious cult by her mother, but then the leader of the cult is arrested, and she floats from family to family looking for somewhere to belong and for an identity. The film is nominally told from the point of view of a schoolboy, something of an outsider himself, who meets Ai at school, and then bumps into her at various points during her life. Ai’s life goes from cult member to dutiful schoolgirl to school drop-out to Japanese counter-culture and, to be honest, I have no idea what this movie was trying to say. I enjoyed it, but it felt like it was making a point that completely opaque. The director is not a name I know, and his other films are also unknown to me.


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Movie roundup 2020, #17

Once again, I’ve been mostly binge watching TV series the last few weeks. This time it was Wire in the Blood, a UK crime series based on characters created by Val McDermid. I read a couple of her books many years ago, and thought them quite good. I also saw her interview Sara Paretsky (a favourite author) at a Harrogate Crime Festival programme item – my mother bought tickets for myself and her as my birthday present that year. It was an excellent present. Anyway, Wire in the Blood is okay, but seriously jumps the shark in the fifth season. I also watched Murder Call, an Australian police procedural from the 1990s built around detective Tessa Vance, who solves murders by putting together all of the clues subcobscuously three-quarters of the way through each episode. It was easy viewing.

I also watched Raised by Wolves, the new high-profile science fiction TV series partly produced (and directed) by Ridley Scott, and… It looks good – but that means only that a lot of money has been thrown at it. In terms of world-building and story… Oh dear. Nasty atheists versus nice Mithracists (who bizarrely quote the Bible). Pro-religious bollocks. I shall probably writing about it in more detail in another post.

Meanwhile, some movies…

No Man’s Woman, Franklin Adreon (1955, USA). Minor US noir in which the owner of a small gallery whose profitable, if not entirely ethical (or indeed legal), business is about to end, and so sets out to destroy the lives of all those around her. So, of course, someone murders her. Everyone has a motive, and none of the alibis stand up to scrutiny. But the detective figures it out, and it’s the nasty one wot dunnit. As I said, minor US noir. Interesting that it’s a female-led film – it passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours – but the central character is a bit of a misogynistic stereotype.

Plot of Fear, Paolo Cavara (1976, Italy). One of those films that straddles the line between giallo and poliziottesco, which is why I end up lumping the two genres into one. A serial killer leaves illustrations from a kids’ book at the scenes of his crimes – which somehow justifies an erotic animated sequence mid-film. The victims are all members of a high society sex club, but the biggest mystery here is why anyone would care why such people are being murdered. Meanwhile, the detective in charge has sex a lot – with his girlfriend and with one of the witnesses – but doesn’t seem to make much headway in solving the crimes. Tom Skerrit makes a bizarre dubbed cameo as a senior police officer. I do like me some giallo, but it’s not a genre that’s known for its quality. I guess that makes it more of a guilty pleasure. Even so, there are occasions when you still feel like you’ve been had…

Island of Fire, Kevin Chu (1990, China). I watched this because it’s a Jackie Chan film, but it isn’t really. He plays a minor character. I’m not sure what the title refers to – the film is set in a prison, mostly, but the prison is not on an island. Or on fire. Anyway. There’s this sort of gang leader in the prison, played by Tony Leung Ka-fai (who had helped Chan in a dispute on another film and so Chan repaid him by appearing in this movies(, but he finds himself up against the warden, who has this neat little scheme going. The warden sentences inmates to death, but fakes their executions and employs them as assassins. Chinese prison wardens obviously have more power than Western ones. It’s the sort of premise that would make only sense in a Hong Kong movie. Sammo Hung plays an inmate who repeatedly tries to escape, and fails, often comically. There’s lots more going on, of course – corrupt cops, gangsters, gladiatorial fights inside the prison, etc. The film has its moments, but its link to Chan has been oversold.

Invasion, Fyodor Bondarchuk (2020, Russia). Although not marketed as such, the full title, Attraction 2: Invasion, makes it clears this is the sequel to Attraction, and the opening credits retell that earlier film’s story in an animated sequence… Even so, there’s a lot in Invasion that references Attraction, and I should probably have rewatched the first film before watching its sequel. Basically, in Attraction, an alien scoutship crashed in Moscow, and a young woman and its pilot fell in love (while the military was fighting off alien robots around them). The young woman – whose father was the general in charge of Russia’s defence against the aliens – apparently now has near-magical powers. The scoutship was from a much bigger spaceship, which has now been taken over by an EVEN MOAR BIGGA alien spaceship, and the Earth – well, Russia (but hey, makes a change from the US being the whole planet)- is under attack, and the young woman and the scoutship pilot have to find a way to call off the attack… Invasion looks good but is somewhat short on narrative logic. I suspect that’s mostly down to the fact it feels like an episode in a franchise that’s been thoroughly explored in other installments, which, other than the first film is, as far as I know, not the case.

The Magnificent Cuckold, Antonio Pietrangeli (1964, Italy). This is an Italian adaptation of a Belgian play, and while it seems like a good fit for Italian drama, it does play in parts like a transplanted story. Happily, it looks very chic, that sort of Sixties style that came so effortlessly to the Italians and which the Nouvelle Vague tried to hard to emulate, with mixed success. (Happily, the Nouvelle Vague directors were equally interested in US noir, and were much more successful in appropriating that.) A successful business man with a beautiful wife has a one-off fling and, as a result, begins to suspect his wife of being unfaithful. And he interprets everything she says and does in that light. She is, of course, entirely faithful. But his treatment of her results in her having an affair… This is a 1960s Italian movie, so along with the stylishness you have some pretty heavy everyday sexism, signalled pretty early in a scene in which the husband invites another man to ogle his wife’s legs. There are better films, by better directors, from Italy during the decade, and while this one looks good, it’s pretty disposable.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug and The Battle of the Five Armies, Peter Jackson (2012 – 2014, New Zealand). The Lord of the Rings films became a sort of family ritual. Back in 2001, we wanted to go see a film as a family on Christmas Eve. The Fellowship of the Ring had just been released, with a massive marketing campaign, and while myself and my UK-resident sister had read Tolkien, neither of my parents had. But they were willing to watch the film. The next year, The Two Towers was released at Christmas. And we went to watch it in the cinema. The year after that, it was The Return of the King. And so it became a tradition to watch a tentpole Christmas release at the cinema the day before Christmas. It wasn’t always genre – it depended on what was available. We saw The Golden Compass and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but also Avatar and Australia. Later, when we started celebrating Christmas in Denmark, we still went to the cinema – for the most recent Star Wars trilogy, the remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which, even though I’m in danger of being deported for saying it, I still like more than the original Swedish version), and, er, Aquaman. Which is a somewhat long-winded way of saying I made no effort to watch the Hobbit films and, until all three appeared on Amazon Prime, was not especially bothered about missing them. In hindsight, I made the right call. The problem is the films expand so much on the book, they might as well be a different story. True, Tolkien spent decades working on his legendarium, and seeing more of it up there on the screen might well appeal to Tolkien fans… Middle-Earth is a major artistic achievement, but I’m not convinced it’s well-served by this film trilogy. It doesn’t help that parts of it come across more like a videogame than a film narrative, or that the physics of the final battle – which makes up around, er, three-quarters of the third film – is just wrong all the time. Gandalf is a powerful wizard, so why does he only fight usibg his staff? Zap the fuckers with a fireball, FFS. Orcs swing massive heavy weapons that seem to do little damage, but are felled by one blow from a puny human. It’s bobbins. It’s Hollywood’s sliding scale of power for dramatic effect, as seen in every superhero movie. Objects in the mirror may be nearer than they appear, as the saying has it, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually physically bigger than they appear. Except in fantasy and superhero films…

Killing Cars, Michael Verhoeven (1986, Germany). This is a serious contender for the most 1980s film ever. It opens with Jürgen Prochnow in shades and a white suit, driving a Porsche, being challenged to a street race by a blonde in a Jaguar. He wins the race, drives to a bar, enters the bar, which falls silent when he walks in, crosses to a table, sits down and… starts playing backgammon. Prochnow is the designer of the “worldcar”, an electric-powered speedster, so sort of like Tesla, but corporate shenanigans means the project is likely to be cancelled. Nextdoor to the factory, an anarchist commune has taken over an abandoned building, but the car company wants them out so it can flatten the building and expand. Verhoeven – no relation to the Dutch director – was big on social commentary, and he squeezes it into Killing Cars, for all that the movie is supposed to be a semi-sf corporate thriller. It’s mildly interesting, it’s just that it’s all so very eighties.

Heckle, Robbie Moffatt (2013, UK). A popular comedian – ie, he appeared on a few comedy shows – has pissed off his agent and found himself playing a small pub in Selby. Which is in North Yorkshire. But, weirdly, a few of the cast of this film had Lancashire accents, and one was doing a bad job of hiding a Scouse accent… Anyway, the comedian dies on stage and is heckled by a local woman, who works at a supermarket – actually a Premier Store, which I thought were mostly found at petrol stations, but this is deepest darkest Yorkshire, so who knows. So the woman gets up on stage and does an off-the-cuff routine that impresses the comedian enough he offers to help her apply for the local heat of a national stand-up comedy competition. This is a resolutely local low-budget film, with a no-name cast, and I was surprised to find myself enjoying it. The script relies a little too much on cliché, and the acting wasn’t always one hundred percent, but the characters were relatable and the story worked. I liked it. More than I’d expected to.

Dr M, Claude Chabrol (1990, Germany). I’ve never been a big fan of Chabrol’s film but I may have to rethink that. A Story of Women I rated very highly, and if his others films weren’t always especially good they were at least somewhat out of the ordinary. And out of the ordinary certainly appeals to me. Dr M is a remake of the Fritz Lang film Dr Mabuse the Gambler from 1922, but it doesn’t use its plot. It’s set in the near future – although US critics complained the Berlin Wall still exists in the film, and while the Wall did indeed fall in 1990, albeit not until after the film was made, if Americans assumed the Wall would fall in any future they could imagine that says more about their narrow-mindedness than it does German, or European, history. Imagine thinking the Berlin Wall would not exist in the future, but not predicting 9/11… Anyway, Alan Bates plays the title character, a media mogul. There have been a spate of inexplicable suicides across Berlin and the police are baffled. The detective in charge is convinced Jennifer Beals – whose face is plastered across the city as part of a campaign for a holiday resort called, a thumpingly obvious reference, Thanatos – is involved and, lo and behold, the two of them end up in a realtionship. And in Thanatos. There’s a fascinating aesthetic on display here, very much a future we used to have, and the film’s intellectual payload is a great deal heavier than is common… but the movie never quite gels, and in the latter stages starts to fall to pieces before your very eyes. A noble failure, I think, although it was apparently several years in the making.


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Reading diary 2020, #12

Bit of a cheat this post, as two of the books are graphic novels – well, bandes dessinées. But both are from series I’ve been following. Also here is the third book of Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb series, which I am no longer enjoying but I bought six of the damn things so I’ll work my way through them, FFS. Who knows, they might improve. Tremain I used to read when I lived in the UAE, and I decided to start reading her again a couple of years ago. Tom Toner I’ve met several times at conventions – we’ve even been on a few panels together – but I’d never read any of his fiction, and last year his debut novel was only 99p on Kindle. Whitely has been getting a lot of critical acclaim in the UK the last few years. Her career is almost textbook… for the 1990s. A decade of short stories in genre magazines, then some novellas and novels from small presses… Next step, a major imprint. While I don’t particularly like the type of genre fiction she writes, there’s no denying she has strong writing chops, and it’s heartening to see writers can still achieve success by actually following an actual career path and not being held up as the Next Best Thing because they happen to be on-message with the fad du jour.

Real Tigers, Mick Herron (2016, UK). While the first book in this series, Slow Horses, was a good, if somewhat off-beat, spy thriller, and the second, Dead Lions, occasionally came close to jumping the shark, Real Tigers hurdles that fish with abandon. Lamb’s PA, Catherine Standish, a recovering alcoholic, once used as a smokescreen by MI5’s biggest traitor, has been kidnapped. And it’s all because the kidnappers want access to MI5’s “grey files”, where all the nutjob stuff – UFOs, lizard Royals, Brexit’s benefits, QAnon – is recorded, and also where the current head of MI5 hid some compromising material. All this leads to a 007-like raid on an underground archive and a pitched battle between a security company’s wannabe mercenaries, actual ex-SAS kidnappers, and Jackson Lamb’s bully boys (ex-members of that MI5 department that kicks in doors, you know, just like Special Branch, except it never gets mentioned in the news because, well, Special Branch usually does it). The Herron books score well on characterisation, unfortunately all of the characters are unlikeable shits. And as the books progress, and those characters display yet more exceptional skills, then the fact they’ve been sent into the outer darkness, AKA Slough House, seems increasingly unlikely. Herron also has a really annoying writing tic, in which the prose steps back and does this hyper-observant, and yet snide, omniscient POV which speculates on what the purported observer might see. It’s over-used. I’m hoping the next book, Spook Street, will be better than this one.

The Gustav Sonata, Rose Tremain (2016, UK). I read several books by Tremain when I lived in Abu Dhabi, and might even have read one or two before I moved there, and found her an excellent prose stylist, perhaps more interesting at short story length than novel length. A couple of years ago, I decided to reconnect with her oeuvre. That went quite well. So it’s fortunate I didn’t pick The Gustav Sonata at that time. It’s not that it’s a bad book – on the contrary, it’s a good one. But when I look at all the admiring reviews of The Gustav Sonata, all I see is reviewers finding something in the novel that doesn’t, well, exist. The title refers to a boy who grows up in a small unimportant town in post-war Switzerland. His mother has never emotionally bonded with him, and his father lost his prestigious position as assistant police chief after helping Jews fleeing the Nazis. Gustav makes friends with a delicate and musically-talented Jewish boy whose family have recently moved to the town, an affluent family in direct contrast to the straitened circumstances now experienced by Gustav’s family. Gustav tries to provided emotional support to Anton during his piano competitions, but nerves get the better of Anton. The story then jumps back to the early years of Gustav’s parents, but since we never learn who shops his father to the authorities, there seems little point. And finally, the book leaps ahead to Gustav’s and Anton’s forties. Gustav runs a well-regarded small hotel in the town, and still burns a torch for Anton. Who is now a music teacher at a prestigious local school and has obviously never thought about Gustav in that way. Anton is offered the chance to record some piano sonatas – and in a recording studio his nervousness before audiences is irrelevant. And that’s pretty much it. Several interconnected relationships, some of which are left unrequited, some of which are temporary, but all of which have some small impact on those involved. It all felt a bit, well, inconsequential. I will admit that classical music, of whatever kind, as a motif in fiction leaves me completely cold. I know nothing about it and it does not appeal to me. And yet vast swathes of literary fiction seem to treat is as the only genre of music in existence. Where’s the literary fiction about death metal? prog? bubblegum pop? It’s either classical music or, if the author is being really edgy, punk. Disappointment.

Orbital 8: Contacts, Serge Pellé & Sylvain Runberg (2019, France). This is the second book of the fourth story featuring the mixed human-Sandjarr law enforcement/troubleshooter team of Caleb and Mezoke. The Neuronomes, alien living spaceships, have been launching suicide attacks on Confederation population centres. It’s up to Mezoke and Caleb, now renegades, to uncover why… and it’s all to do with something that’s attacking the original home world of the race which turned themselves into the Neuronomes millennia previously. I like this series, chiefly because it looks good and the world-building is interesting; but the plotting leaves a little to be desired. It’s not that it’s bad, just that it’s so frantic, with a couple of panels of exposition followed by several pages of chase scenes. It makes for somewhat uneven pacing. I have no idea how many more books there’ll be in this series, but given Mezoke is lost at the end of this volume, I’m guessing at least two more…

Streets of Paris, Streets of Murder Volume 1, Jacques Tardi & Jean-Patrick Manchette (2020, France). While Tardi has produced a number of original bandes dessinées, he has also adapted several stories and novels by French thriller writer Jean-Patrick Manchette. He has even tried adapting a couple, but given up after a few pages. This is the first volume of two which publish those complete and incomplete adaptations. The two completes here are ‘West Coast Blues’ (which was also published as a separate volume in 2009 by Fantagraphics, and which I own) and ‘Griffu’. Both are French noir, which is to say American noir but with added existentialism. In ‘Griffu’, a private detective finds himself embroiled in a plot with developers and gangsters. There’s not much in the way of wisecracks, but everything else is there. It’s surprisingly brutal. ‘West Coast Blues’ is equally brutal. An executive finds himself the target of two hitmen through being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He manages to kill one, more by accident than design, then runs away from his family and hides out for months in the French Alps, before being tracked down by the surviving hitman. I’ve been picking up these Tardi volumes published by Fantagraphics as they appear, and they’re definitely worth collecting.

The Promise of the Child, Tom Toner (2015, UK). Titles are important when it comes to books, especially genre books, and I’m really not convinced The Promise of the Child works as a title for a space opera novel. The only clue here to the book’s contents – other than the fact it’s published by a genre imprint – is the cover art, which is sort of vaguely Banksian and does far more to position the novel than its title. And The Promise of the Child is indeed Banksian space opera… mashed up with Warhammer 40k. I’m still unsure what to make of it. There are three types of novel – single narrative, multiple narrative in which the relationship between the narratives is clear, and multiple narrative in which the relationship between the narratives is not clear. (There are more than three types of novel, of course.) In the distant future of The Promise of the Child – the 140th century – a few hundred thousand achieved immortality in the twenty-first century, and those that have survived the following twelve thousand years are now known as the Amaranthine. They rule several star systems and live in hollowed-out planets known as Vaulted Lands. There are also a confusing number of human derivatives, some of which serve the Amarathine, some of which are allied with the Amaranthine, and some of which are independent and somewhat hostile to the Amaranthine. The oldest living human is made emperor of the Amaranthine, but the current incumbent has descended into senility. The appearance of a mysterious figure who claims to be older than anyone else alive – and many of the oldest Amaranthine seem to sort of remember him – has upset the current succession. As has the invention of the Shell, or Soul Engine, a mysterious device which appears to bring people back from the dead. Several narratives run alongside each other, with no seeming connection between them, until the final set-piece, a giant battle. There’s a lot here that doesn’t quite add up – a plot that features too many reverses to easily follow, one narrative that goes from bucolic romance to racist violence without any grounding in the world-building, and an opening act of destruction that is never really justified by the story. I will say I didn’t see the final reveal coming at all, and it was an excellent twist, and clearly sets up the rest of the trilogy. And I did like the prose, which was much better than is typical of space opera… But I couldn’t get on with the Warhammer 40k aesthetics, the steampunk magic technology, and the massively high body-count. I doubt I will read the sequels.

Skein Island, Aliya Whitely (2019, UK). Whitely is clearly a singular talent, and I’m happy her star is currently in the ascendant – not just because she is a female UK genre writer, a group that can never be too big, but also because she seems to have followed a fairly traditional career path. Short stories published in UK small press magazines. Then pro mags. Then books published by small presses. And now the big league. Except not really – Skein Island was published by Titan Books, but her next book, Greensmith, is due from a small press. Whitely certainly has writing chops, and I am all for writers who are known for their writing rather than their world-building. But the latter is not something Whitely will ever be praised for because she writes a sort of unsettling soft fantasy that relies on subtle changes to the real world. It doesn’t always work for me. I am, by temperament, a hard sf reader, and I value rigour in stories. Whitely does write rigorous stories but that rigour follows her own rules – and when those rules are revealed in the text, it works; and when they’re not, I find it less successful. Skein Island falls into the former category. The Fates – or rather, the single mythical figure on which they were based, called Moira – has been imprisoned, as a statue, and so controlled. Water filtered through her is given away in pubs as part of a game involving cubes of four colours – red , blue, green and yellow. Which refer to hero, sidekick, sage and villain. The four roles men play out in that pub game. But only when Moira is safely imprisoned. Once she is released, as she is, men start following their archetypal roles. It’s not an entirely convincing scenario, but Whitely gives it a viable history and is rigorous in its effects on society. Whitely is definitely a name to watch, and this novel made it clear why.