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Best of the year 2011

I was going to leave this until January, but everyone else is doing them now. And, let’s face it, there’s only a handful of days left until the end of the year and they’ll be filled with various consumerist festivities. So…

Books
As of 15 December, I had read 156 books in 2011, which I suspect will mean a total on 31 December of slightly less than last year’s 178 books. But then I probably wrote more this year than I did in 2010. Of my reading, 4% were anthologies, and 12% non-fiction… which means of the remainder that 28% were books by women writers and 56% by male writers. I still need to work on that. Genre-wise, 44% was science fiction, 16% was mainstream, 8% was fantasy, and 16% were graphic novels.

Of those 156 books, I have picked six which were, for me, the best I read during the twelve months. They are:


Evening’s Empire, David Herter (2002), should come as little surprise as I raved about when I read it back in April. Initially a Crowlesque fantasy, it takes a peculiar turn halfway through which makes it something weird and wonderful all of its own.

Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968), is another work by an author who continues to astonish me with each novel of his I read. This one has the most beautifully-handled non-linear narrative I’ve come across in fiction, not to mention one of the best-drawn female protagonists in science fiction. I honestly don’t know if this book is better than The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe or merely just as excellent. I wrote about it here.

CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, Frédéric Chaubin (2011), suffers under a somewhat forced title, but who cares. Because it contains loads of photographs of amazing Modernist buildings from the former Soviet Union and its satellites. Not all of the buildings still exist, and many of them have weathered the years badly. But there they are, captured in all their glory in this book.

Voices from the Moon, Andrew Chaikin (2009), was published to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, and of all the books published at that time this one is perhaps the best-looking. Chaikin went through the many thousands of photographs take by, and of, the Apollo astronauts, and picked out ones that had rarely been seen before. And then he married those photographs with the words of the astronauts themselves – taken from interviews, transcriptions, etc.

Red Plenty, Francis Spufford (2010), was a book I read under a misapprehension. Though it was shortlisted for the BSFA Award for Non-Fiction, many complained it was partly fictional – inasmuch as it told its story using a cast of real and invented people in a threaded narrative. However, I’d mistakenly understood that Red Plenty not only covered the years of the Soviet Union’s existence but also extrapolated it into an alternate present in which the Soviet system had succeeded. That would the be the “sf” part of the BSFA Award, you see. Not so. But never mind, I still loved it.

Isles of the Forsaken, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2011), I pre-ordered because I’d thought Gilman’s 1998 novel, Halfway Human, very good, and because a write-up of the plot sounded as though it would appeal. And so it did. A fantasy, but not in the traditional epic/heroic mould. I wrote about it here.

Honorable Mentions:
There are a number of these this year, more so than usual. First, Kameron Hurley’s God’s War and Infidel, a very strong debut with some very interesting elements, and some that didn’t quite work for me (see here and here). Eric Brown’s Wellsian The Kings of Eternity is his strongest work for a number of years, and he deserves to be read more than he is. Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years is an excellent anthology that does exactly what it says on the tin and introduced me to several authors I’m determined to read more (see here and here). Solitaire by Kelley Eskridge (see here) and Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (see here) were the best two novels from my challenge to read twelve books during the year by female science fiction writers. Stretto was an excellent end to L Timmel Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle, and Jed Mercurio’s American Adulterer managed to make fascinating a topic in which I have zero interest, John F Kennedy’s presidency. Finally, a pair of rereads are worthy of mentions: The Female Man by Joanna Russ and Icehenge by Kim Stanley Robinson.

Films
By 15 December, I had watched 183 films. That’s including seasons of television series watched on DVD. Twenty-seven of them I reviewed for VideoVista.net and The Zone. Only one I saw at the cinema: Apollo 18. I’m not a huge fan of science fiction film or television, though I will happily watch them. This may well explain my choices for my top six of the year:


Moolaadé, Ousmane Sembène (2004), is Senegalese director Sembène’s ninth feature-length film, and the first one by him I’ve seen. It is set in a small village in Burkina Faso, and revolves around the refusal of three girls to undergo the traditional female genital mutilation. They are protected by the wife of one of the village’s important men, who herself refused to let her own daughter undergo the same disgusting procedure. This leads to a revolt by the village’s womenfolk, but it ends badly.

Mammoth, Lukas Moodysson (2009). I very much liked Moodysson’s earlier films Show Me Love (Fucking Åmål), Together (Tillsammans) and Lilya 4-Ever, but thought the experimental Container was pretty much unwatchable. Mammoth, however, is not only a welcome return to form, it is a superb indictment of the West’s exploitation of the East. Judging by some of the comments the film has generated, I may the only person to see it in that light. Ah well. Gael Garciá Bernal is astonishingly good in the male lead role – and that’s in a cast that is uniformly excellent.

Norwegian Ninja, Thomas Cappelan Malling (2010), is a Norwegian spoof. The title may have been a bit of a giveaway there. It posits an alternate 1980s in which Norwegian traitor Arne Treholt was not a spy for the Soviets but the head of a secret royal force of ninjas. As a spoof of late 1970s / early 1980s action films, Norwegian Ninja is pitch-perfect, but it is its use of real-life footage, and the way it neatly twists real history, that turns it in to a work of genius. I reviewed it for VideoVista here.

Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik (2010), was not a film I expected to appeal to me: a noir-ish thriller set among the hillbillies of the Ozarks. I not only enjoyed it, I thought it very very good indeed. It takes place in a world peopled by some of the scariest people I’ve seen depicted on celluloid. And they’re not scary because they’re psychopaths or sociopaths, they’re scary because they need to be to survive in that culture.

Underground, Emir Kusturica (1995), was recommended to me, and it was a good call. A black comedy following the fortunes of a pair of rogues during WWII in Belgrade and the years after under Tito. One rises high in the post-war government, while the other remains hidden in his cellar, convinced the war is still going.

The Time That Remains, Elia Suleiman (2009), is the most recent film by a favourite director, so its appearance here should not be a surprise. It’s perhaps less comic than Divine Intervention, but neither does go all bizarre and surreal towards the end. A series of autobiographical vignettes, it builds a narrative of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and the lives of the Palestinians under Israeli rule. Some parts of it are a delight.

Honorable Mentions:
No science fiction films, I’m afraid. Instead: Israeli thriller, Ajami, set in the titular district of Jaffa; The Wedding Song, which is set during the Nazi occupation of Tunisia in World War II and follows the friendship of two female friends, one Jewish and one Arabic; the BBC’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing from 1984, starring Cherie Lunghi and Robert Lindsay, and the best of the Bard’s plays I watched during the year; The Secret in their Eyes, a clever thriller from Argentina, which beat Ajami to the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2010; and finally, Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent, which is one of the most unsettling films I’ve ever watched.

Albums
I didn’t think 2011 was shaping up to be a good year for music, but that all changed during the second half of the year. I think that might have happened in previous years too. I bought a reasonable number of new albums and old albums. The best of those are:

Harvest, The Man-Eating Tree (2011), is the band’s second album, and it’s a more commercial and slightly heavier-sounding offering. And Tuomas Tuominen still has one of the best and most distinctive voices in metal. I suspect The Man-Eating Tree are going to be the new Sentenced. Certainly when you think of Finnish metal, it’s The Man-Eating Tree you should be thinking of,  and not Lordi.

The Death of a Rose, Fornost Arnor (2011), is this UK band’s second album and, like their first, was also self-released. Some have said it’s the album Opeth should have made this year. Certainly it borrows the Swedes’ trademark mix of crunching yet intricate death metal and accomplished acoustic parts. It’s very much an album to lose yourself in, and I’m already looking forward to the band’s next offering.

Weaver of Forgotten, Dark Lunacy (2010), was annoyingly expensive as it was also self-released. But in Italy. (And I see now it’s much cheaper. Gah.) It is… epic. There’s no other word for it. It’s melodic death metal, but of a sort to fill vast spaces. I thought Dark Lunacy’s previous album, The Diarist, was excellent, but Weaver of Forgotten is an order of magnitude better.

Brahmavidya : Immortal I, Rudra (2011), is the third of a trilogy of albums, including Brahmavidya : Primordial I and Brahmavidya : Trascendental I. The band are from Singapore, but sing in – I believe – Sanskrit as well as English. It’s three blokes making death metal, but singing about their mythology. Rudra were one of this year’s discoveries, and I now have the T-shirt.

One for Sorrow, Insomnium (2011). Apparently, the only people who don’t like Insomnium are those who’ve never heard them. Each album finds them more polished and technically accomplished than the last, and it continues to astonish me they’re not better known. Insomnium are the dictionary definition of Finnish death/doom metal.

The Human Connection, Chaos Divine (2011), is one of those albums that blows you away with the first track… but then can never quite scale those heights again. Opener ‘One Door’ is a blinding song, and if the rest can’t compare, that doesn’t mean they’re not good. This is a proggier effort than the band’s first album, and it’s the better for it. Chaos Divine is a band you can tell will improve with each new album.

Honorable Mentions:
I’m sorry, I have to do it: Heritage. I’m giving Opeth’s latest album an honourable mention because, though it took numerous listens before it grew on me, it does contains flashes of brilliance. It’s totally prog, of course, with nary a growl to be heard, and that has to be disappointing… but as a warped vision of old school prog, Heritage is worth its mention. However, Of Death by Byfrost, The Light In Which We All Burn by Laethora and Psychogenocide by Nervecell all get mentions because they’re good albums which are very much in keeping with their bands’ sounds. Byfrost I first heard at Bloodstock, and I enjoyed their set so much I wanted the album. Nervecell are from Dubai and, while I was aware of them before, I saw them this year supporting Morbid Angel and they were excellent. Laethora is just Laethora. Finally, Sowberry Hagan by Ultraphallus deserves a special honourable mention for being a fraction away from sheer noise, yet still remaining powerful and heavy and an excellent listen.

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readings & watchings 2011 #3

Yet more culture – or its complete opposite – devoured by Yours Truly in the past four weeks or so. Someone, incidentally, needs to invent a way to upload books directly to the brain. Reading them is too low-bandwidth. I’m never going to be able to get the TBR down to manageable levels if it takes me two to three days to take in a book by scanning and parsing each page serially.

Books
Wormwood, Terry Dowling (1992). I was intrigued by the story Dowling contributed to The New Space Opera 2. While I found it a little too dependent on familiarity with the setting, I did think that setting worthy of further reading. But all I could find reference to was a single collection, Wormwood, published by Australian small press Aphelion, in 1992. It contained seven stories set in the same universe, most of which appeared in Australian sf magazines. After some searching, I tracked down a copy of the book – the signed hardback, as I couldn’t find any copies of the paperback – bought it, and read it. And… The future Earth Dowling has created is indeed fascinating. A mysterious alien race, the Nobodoi, has remade the planet, chopping it up into regions with different environments (some of which are lethal to humans). Several other alien races have also settled Earth, and humanity has found itself no longer ruler of its planet. The stories set in this world are not entirely successful. ‘Housecall’ is quite good, a haunted house story, in which two thieves must break into an alien’s booby-trapped house. ‘A Deadly Edge Their Red Beaks Pass Along’ is similar, and quite effective. Not a bad collection, and I’d certainly read more if Dowling revisited the setting.

Easy Meat, John Harvey (1996). I used to rattle through Harvey’s novels when I was living in the UAE. I’d get them out of the subscription library to which I belonged, and read them the same day. Their chief attraction was that they were set in Nottingham, a city I used to know well. The main character, Charlie Resnick, is a police detective, a lover of jazz and exotic sandwiches, and has ties to the local Polish community. He’s a bit of a glum sort too. In this one, a young offender dies in custody. Resnick is worried the investigation will result in a whitewash, but is taken off the case to investigate a fatal mugging. Then the near-retirement officer who replaces Resnick on the first case is murdered – and it looks like it was by the same people who committed the mugging… They sort of keep you entertained books like this, but only while you’re reading them. As soon as you finish them, they’re gone, forgotten. Resnick doesn’t especially stand out as a character, and the crimes are usually the sort of every day stuff you can read about in the Daily Fail. I think I’ll call it a day on this particular series.

Midnight Fugue, Reginald Hill (2009), is by another crime author whose books I used to read for light relief when I was in the Gulf. I also enjoyed the Dalziel & Pascoe television adaptations when I was back in the UK on leave. But the quality of the books has sadly declined over the years – this one reads as though Hill knocked it out between cappuccinos – so I’d not bothered keeping up with the series. But then my mother lent me Midnight Fugue, so I decided to give it a go. I read it in a single day. It all feels a bit perfunctory. Dalziel, who was always more of a caricature than a character, is a shadow of his former self. The invented town of Wetherton (allegedly based on Wetherby, although I know Wetherby well and have never been able to spot the similarities) could be anywhere in the UK, and the crime which drives the plot comes across more like an intellectual exercise than something involving human beings and death. So, another series I’m going to have give up on. Again.

CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, Frédéric Chaubin (2011), may have a somewhat forced title, and is a pretty huge coffee-table book – 26 x 34 cm – but it’s also full of amazing and wonderful photographs. Over the course of more than a decade, Chaubin travelled around East Europe, and photographed modernist buildings. Not all of them still stand today. Many of them are very strange, but also quite beautiful. You can page through it here. I’m pretty sure CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed is going to make my Best of the Year list.

Dark Space, Marianne de Pierres (2007), the first book of the Sentients of Orion tetraology, was March’s book for my 2011 reading challenge. I wrote about it here.

Spomenik, Jan Kempenaers (2010), is the book of Kempenaers’ photography exhibit about the eponymous objects. Spomenik is Serbo-Croat for “monument”, and that’s what the exhibit was about. Monuments to those lost in World War II built built during the 1960s and 1970s throughout the former Yugoslavia. Many were destroyed when Yugoslavia collapsed, many have been allowed to fall into disrepair, but some still remain in good condition. Spomenik contains photographs of twenty-two of them. They are weird, modernist sculptures, many on a huge scale, baffling and weirdly beautiful.

Pig Tales, Marie Darrieussecq (1996), I scored from bookmooch.com because it was on that list of 1001 books you should read published by the Guardian a couple of years ago. I’ve no idea why, because it’s complete rubbish. The narrator of the story is a dim-witted young woman in Paris who slowly turns into a pig, and back again, several times. The whole thing read like it was made up by a kid. None of the details convinced – I don’t mean the narrator’s transformation, obviously that wasn’t intended to be “convincing” – but the details of her life, first as a shop assistant, then as a prostitute. None of it was even remotely realistic. Then about halfway through the novel some plutocrat seizes control of the French government and ushers in a collapse of French civilisation. The language throughout Pig Tales was no better, and I’m not sure it can be entirely blamed on the translator. The narrator is clearly meant to be unsophisticated, but that doesn’t explain all the horrible clichés Darrieussecq uses. Complete and utter, well, tripe. Avoid.

Engineering Infinity, edited by Jonathan Strahan (2011), I’m working on a review of this SFF Chronicles.

Blindsight, Peter Watts (2003). I’d been told many times by many people that this was a novel I would like. Earlier this year, I finally got round to picking up a copy. And now that I’ve read it… Good, but it may have been oversold to me. Sometime toward the end of this century, the Earth learns it is not alone – but quite what the “Fireflies” were, or what they were for, is anybody’s guess. When an artificial signal is detected from near the edge of the Solar system, a ship is sent to investigate. It finds a Jovian planet, and in close orbit about it, an alien ship. But Blindsight is not your typical first contact novel. The aliens are really very alien. Blindsight is filled with interesting ideas, but as I read it something about it kept on bothering me. It was a while before I figured it out. It read like a sf novel from the mid-1990s. It was the little things – a character who smokes like a chimney, the use of the word “spam” as a euphemism for human beings plugged into machinery, the tone of the story… It also reminded me a little of Williams & Dix’s Heirs of Earth.

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson (2004), is only Robinson’s second novel, twenty-four years after her first, Housekeeping. It also won the Pulitzer Prize. Gilead is framed as an extended letter from a dying reverend in 1950s Iowa to his young son (although he is not intended to be given it until he’s much older). There are some lovely anecdotes, and some interesting – and very personal – history. But. I was never really convinced by the narrator. He’s meant to be a pastor in his sixties or seventies, and yet he seemed a bit too, well, maternal in places. He seemed too sensitive, too considerate, to actually be a man, especially a religious man of the 1950s. Having said that, the writing throughout is beautiful. I might try Robinson’s other two novels.

Ghostwritten, David Mitchell (1999), is Mitchell’s debut and, like his other novels I’ve read, isn’t quite the sum of its parts. It opens in Okinawa, with the first-person narrative of a terrorist hiding out after a gas attack on the Tokyo subway. The terrorist is quite bonkers – completely in the thrall of a cult leader. The next section is set in Tokyo, and the narrator is a young slacker who works in a jazz record shop, and falls in love with a half-Chinese half-Japanese young women visiting relatives. She lives in Hong Hong. Which is where the following section is set. The narrator this time is a bent broker, like Nick Leeson, who comes a cropper when he loses the money he’s laundering for a Russian mobster. And so on… The book is structured as these short, mostly independent sections. There are links between some – and occasional events and characters do cross over. About halfway through, we’re suddenly introduced to an “incorporal”, a bodiless person who inhabits the mind of one of the characters, and can transfer from person to person. The final section features what is obviously an AI, tasked with preventing wars from ever recurring, but having trouble meeting this objective. Those two genre elements are just too odd and disconnected to sit comfortably in what had initially seemed a series of linked stories with an implied story-arc. There is, it has to be said, some really nice writing in Ghostwritten, and it’s a very readable novel. But it just feels like it doesn’t quite add up.

Evening’s Empire, David Herter (2002), was Herter’s second novel, and I bought it when it was published. Why it’s sat on my book-shelves unread since then, I’ve no idea. I thought Herter’s debut, Ceres Storm, excellent. Perhaps it was because it was fantasy, rather than the sf of his debut. Whatever the reason, I shouldn’t have left it so long. Because Evening’s Empire really is very good indeed. Russell Kent is a composer, working on an  opera inspired by Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Needing somewhere quiet and inspiring to work, he returns to the small out-of-the-way Oregon town of Evening. During his last visit there several years before, his wife slipped and fell to her death from a bluff overlooking the sea. Evening’s Empire begins in a very Crowley-esque vein, but somewhere in the middle it takes a strange left-hand turn – strange in a good way. It is not the novel I expected it to be when I started it. It is also beautifully written. A definite contender for my top five best of the year.

Say Goodbye, Lewis Shiner (1999). I’m a big fan of Shiner’s writing, and own all his books. Say Goodbye, subtitled The Laurie Moss Story, is not genre. It is, like Glimpses, a mainstream novel about music. In this case, Laurie Moss, a young hopeful who moves to LA to make it big. Opening in the form of reminiscences by a journalist about his writing the Laurie Moss story, it soon moves into a more traditional narrative. Moss hooks up with some important people, and her career gets an impressive kick-start. But she doesn’t, as the first half of the book implies, make it big. Her band suffers while on tour, and then the record company shafts her. Say Goodbye is a good novel, but it does feel a bit lightweight.

The Quantum Thief, Hannu Rajaniemi (2010). I hadn’t intended to do a full-on review of this, but after thinking about it decided it was worth one. You can find my review on SFF Chronicles here. It’s a book which can probably be studied in more depth than I did, but never mind.

Films
Millennium season 2 (1998). Frank Black is an ex-FBI profiler with a psychic gift: when in the presence of a victim, he can see in his mind what the killer saw. In season one of Millennium, he had returned to Seattle with his wife and young daughter, and begun working for the Millennium Group, consultants who help the police solve crimes. The seasons was basically crime-of-the-week, with a slow-burning story-arc based on the Millennium Group. In season two, the Millennium Group’s history – and the series mythology – begins to dominate. The Millennium are not just a bunch of ex-law enforcement professionals with weird apocalyptic ideas, they’re actually a bizarre cult, descended from the knights templar or something, and charged with protecting an important holy relic (which they had actually lost). I still like Millennium, and Lance Hendrickson successfully carries the series as Frank Black, but all the historical conspiracy stuff, and the schism within the Millennium Group, did start feel a bit silly and over-the-top. We’ll see if the third and final season can rescue it.

Sans Soleil, dir. Chris Marker (1983), is a very strange film. Which is not unexpected. Marker, after all, directed Le Jetée, a film entirely comprised of black-and-white stills with a voice-over (but likely best known these days as the inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys). Sans Soleil also stretches the definition of a “film” inasmuch as it is presented as a series of short linked filmed vignettes from around the world, over which a woman reads a series of letters to the cameraman. Some of the footage is very good, but the lack of narrative, or even drama, makes it a difficult movie to watch to remain focussed on. It’s probably going to need a second sitting before I have it entirely clear in my head. Unfortunately, it was a rental.

Age of the Dragons, dir. Ryan Little (2011), I reviewed for VideoVista here.

Much Ado About Nothing, dir. Stuart Burge (1984), was a surprise. I knew of the play, of course, but nothing of the story. It turned out to be typical Shakespearean fare: star-crossed lovers, mistaken identities, Elizabethan banter, sword-fights… But it was so much better than some of the other Shakespearean plays I’ve seen. The wit was, as usual, a bit heavy-handed in some scenes. But in others, it was very nicely done. Benedick (Robert Lindsay) doesn’t believe in love; neither does the shrewish Beatrice (Cherie Lunghi). So their friends tell each one that the other is madly in love with them, and so trick them into actually being so. Meanwhile, Claudio and Hero are madly in love, but evil Don John (he even has a goatee) plots to scupper it. Wandering around the play are the watch, led by Dogberry (Michael Elphick), who talks in really obvious and heavy-handed malapropisms. Elphick was not especially good in the role either, and seemed perpetually covered in sweat. Happily, Lindsay and Lunghi were excellent, and the banter between the two was done well. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Much Ado About Nothing. I’ve found the other Shakespearean comedies I’ve seen to be a bit obvious and blunt-witted, but this one was a real charmer.

Trafficked, dir. Ciarán O’Connor (2004), I reviewed for VideoVista here.

The Runaways, dir. Floria Sigismondi (2010), is based on a real-life group of the same name, the first successful all-female rock group. It’s where Joan Jett’s career began. As did Lita Ford’s. I saw Lita Ford live back in the late 1980s at Coventry Polytechnic. I don’t remember the gig being especially good. But The Runaways… The cast played their parts well, bit it never really felt like it was based on a true story. Perhaps that was because the story Sigismondi wanted to tell wasn’t the actual story of the band. It was an entertaining film, and the music was quite good. I was actually surprised at how good the Runaways had been as musicians – you usually expect garage bands of that sort to be pretty bad to begin with. The film did wander off on some weird dream-like sequences on occasion, which added very little to the story. But a film worth seeing.

Against All Flags, dir. George Sherman (1952). They don’t make films like this anymore. Which is probably just as well. It’s about as historically accurate as the Pirates of the Caribbean films, but, well, silly. Hollywood heartthrob Errol Flynn plays an officer aboard a British merchant ship en route to India, who goes undercover on pirate haven Madagascar. His task is to spike the island’s guns, as these have prevented the Royal Navy’s previous attempts to clean out the hive of scum and villainy found there. When Flynn and a pair of fellow seamen turn up at the pirate base of Diego-Suarez, not everyone welcomes him with open arms. Anthony Quinn, for one, believes him to be a spy. But Maureen O’Hara, who is a Captain of the Coast, but not a pirate per se – she owns a ship, but mainly looks after her gun and sword shop – believes Flynn to be on the level. And he fancies her. And from there it’s all Hollywood pirate shenanigans, with everywhere proving remarkably clean and the violence unsurprisingly sanitised. Flynn’s Australian accent is quite noticeable, but he acted better than I’d expected. Quinn just chews the scenery, and the rigging, and the everything else in sight. O’Hara’s character is called “Spitfire”, which tells you all you need to know about her characterisation. Even for a Sunday afternoon movie, this is risible stuff.

Ink, dir. Jamin Winans (2009), I reviewed for VideoVista here.

Our Man in Havana, dir. Carol Reed (1959), is based on the Graham Greene novel of the same name, and was adapted by him for the screen. Alec Guinness plays the title character, Wormold, a vacuum salesman in the Cuban capital. Desperate for money to keep his nubile teenage daughter (who looks suspiciously adult) in the style to which he is accustomed, Wormold agrees to act as a paid spy for HMG. Not actually having access to any useful intelligence, he makes stuff up. And one such “coup”, drawings of a secret project hidden in the hills outside Cuba, which he actually made up by sketching vacuum cleaner parts, gets the British secret services in a tizzy. It all comes to a head, of course, and Wormold has to come clean. But not before a few friends and acquaintances have died. As a comedy, it’s a bit grim. Guinness is great as Wormold, a proper thesp, with a lightness of touch that steals the film. Maureen O’Hara plays his no-nonsense assistant, sent out from London to help him manage his (non-existent) ring of agents. A sharp script, some excellent acting, and directed by Carol Reed: a film certainly worth watching.

Lady Godiva, dir. Arthur Lubin (1955), is yet more proof they made crap films as well as good ones fifty years ago. Hollywood has always had a creative approach to history, especially other countries’. Well, they don’t have any of their own to garble, I suppose. In Lady Godiva, Maureen O’Hara plays the title character, a Saxon noble lady who marries Lord Leofric of Coventry (George Nader, who seems to have plasticised hair). He has been imprisoned in her father’s jail – he’s a sheriff somewhere in Lincolnshire – after refusing to marry a Norman woman when told to by King Edward the Confessor. Happily, the king soon comes to appreciate Lady Godiva’s good qualities. Unhappily, neither Leofric, nor his rival Lord Godwin, are especially big fans of the king, who they can plainly see is overly influenced by his Norman advisors. Eventually, a cunning plot is hatched which sees Edward reconciled to his Saxon barons, the Normans out of favour, and Godwin’s son, Harold (played by Rex Reason of This Island Earth fame), as the heir to the throne. Harold, of course, gets in the eye a few years later, and the Normans end up in charge anyway, but never mind. Historically, Godiva’s famous ride was in protest against punitive levels of taxation (I can’t quite imagine Kate Middleton doing the same today in response to Tory policies), but in the film she rides naked through the streets to show Saxon support for King Edward. Or perhaps the opposite. I went to uni in Coventry, incidentally. Not much of the city from the eleventh century has survived, but even so there wasn’t much that looked mediaeval about the Coventry of the film. These days, Lady Godiva is chiefly notable for an uncredited early appearance by Clint Eastwood as “First Saxon”.

Mr Smith Goes to Washington, dir. Frank Capra (1939). I’ve yet to get a handle on Capra’s politics. He seems at times like the archetypal Hollywood liberal, and yet an occasional streak of Randism often seems to surface in his films. Perhaps that’s simply US politics, which is, naturally, foreign to me. Mr Smith Goes to Washington is a case in point. It’s clearly a paean to the venerable tradition of democracy as practiced in the USA, yet it goes about praising the institution in a peculiar way. A senator dies in office, and the state governor must appoint one for the interim. A local plutocrat, who controls the governor, doesn’t mind who providing the candidate rubber-stamps a scheme he has cooked up for a hydro-electric dam (which will profit him, and the state’s other senator, Claude Rains, greatly). They chose James Stewart (the Smith of the title), a popular and woefully naive scout master, as their new senator. Unfortunately, once in Washington Smith stumbles across their scheme and tries to prevent it. But Rains and the plutocrat drum up support against him, and fabricate evidence showing he is corrupt, in an attempt to have him removed from office. Smith responds by “filibustering” – keeping the floor of the Senate as long as he can talk, while his friends hunt for evidence to exonerate him. Which, of course, they do. Smith is clearly an everyman – committed to the ideals which founded the US, firmly against corruption, and yet willing to bend the system to ensure justice prevails – and in this case, justice aligns precisely with his own wishes. Stewart comes across as a little too desperate to right wrongs, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Rains is good as the urbane, experienced senator who is both party to the scam and yet reluctantly involved. I’m not entirely sure why Mr Smith Goes to Washington is considered a classic, and these days it’s more of an historical curiosity than a meaningful melodrama. Nevertheless, my soft spot for Capra’s films remains untarnished.

A Summer’s Tale, dir. Éric Rohmer (1996), is the third of Rohmer’s quartet of films named for the seasons. It is also the best of the ones I’ve seen so far. Gaspard arrives in Breton seaside resort Dinard expecting his girlfriend Lena to arrive a few days later. Unfortunately, she’s not very reliable – or indeed entirely his girlfriend as she doesn’t want to commit fully. Shortly after arriving in Dinard, Gaspard meets Margot, a doctoral student who is working as a waitress in her family’s restaurant over the holiday. The two spend their days together, but merely as friends. As Lena’s arrival is further and further delayed, Gaspard and Margot discuss relationships. Margot introduces Gaspard to Solene, a friend of hers. Solene wants to go out with Gaspard, and, since Lena doesn’t seem to be coming any time soon, Gaspard agrees. And then Lena does appear – and she’s decided she wants to commit to a relationship with Gaspard. Unfortunately, he’s made plans with Solene to visit a nearby island, assuming Lena would not arrive on time. And he’s promised to take Margot if Solene doesn’t want to go… A Summer’s Tale is one of those stories the French do so well, a beautifully judged romantic triangle, played with an astonishingly light touch.

The Space Race (2007) is a compilation of newsreel footage from the 1940s to the 1960s covering assorted events related to space exploration. There’s the two failed Vanguard launches, of course; Telstar; Yuri Gagarin; Alan Shepard meeting JFK; and John Glenn being recovered after splashdown. Some of the footage about the Soviets uses a V-2 launch instead as they, unsurprisingly, had no footage of a Vostok rocket. Also included, to give the flavour of the times, I suppose, are some unrelated news items, such as a bad railway accident in London, which I think was the Lewisham rail crash of 1957.

The Rare Breed, dir. Andrew V McLaglen (1966), is an odd film. I’m not a big fan of Westerns (with the notable exception of Howard Hawk’s Rio Bravo), but I do find James Stewart and Maureen O’Hara very watchable actors. But I had to wonder why either was cast in this film. Notto mention Brian Keith’s presence. Stewart plays ‘Bulldog’ Burnett, so called for his talent at ‘bulldogging’ or bringing down a steer by wrestling its horns. O’Hara is Mrs Price, a recently widowed English lady, who has brought her daughter and a prize Hereford bull to the US. She is convinced the US Longhorn cattle would benefit greatly from being crossbred with her Hereford. She sells the bull to a broker who is more interested in forming an attachment with her. To escape his advances, she agrees to accompany the bull to its new owner in Texas, Brian Keith. Meanwhile, the broker has hired Stewart to take the bull to Texas, but Stewart also agrees to rustle it for another rancher. There are some impressive landscapes on display in The Rare Breed, but little else that can be said about it. Stewart is plainly too old for his role. O’Hara plays an English lady with a marked Irish accent (not implausible, but it does undermine the character a little). And Brian Keith, who plays a rancher who looks like Yosemite Sam, puts on one of the worst Scottish accents I’ve ever heard. The two romantic subplots are also about as convincing as Keith’s accent, as are those scenes filmed on a soundstage. Watch it for the Texan countryside, ignore everything else.


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The laden mantlepiece

I must not buy so many books. I must not buy so many books. I must not buy so many books. I tell myself this every day, but it doesn’t seem to work.

See:

Some mainstream fiction. Strangers and Brothers, CP Snow, the second book of the series of the same name (although the first written). I read the first, Time of Hope, a couple of weeks ago and enjoyed it. Fielding Gray, Simon Raven, the first book of his Alms for Oblivion series, which I was told is similar to Snow’s. The Boat of Fate, an historical novel by Keith Roberts, an excellent sf writer best-known for SF Masterwork Pavane. The Rings Of Saturn, WG Sebald, a writer I admire much. My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time, Liz Jensen – a charity shop find, which I picked up because I enjoyed her The Rapture (my review here). And Underworld, also a charity shop find, because I’ve been meaning to read some Don DeLillo for ages.

Some science fiction: Stained-Glass World, Ken Bulmer, a British sf writer of the 1960s and 1970s. A bit of a hack, by all accounts, but we’ll see. JG Ballard’s The Complete Short Stories: Volume 1, Engineering Infinity, Arslan, and More What If? I’m looking forward to reading. The last one was a charity shop find, the other three were birthday presents.

Some first editions. The Universe of Things is for the Gwyneth Jones collection. Down to the Bone is the last of Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity series. Back of Town Blues is for the DG Compton collection. Heat of Fusion and Other Stories, John M Ford, because he is apparently a writer of excellent sf short fiction.

A bit of a mix. Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels, David Pringle, which is sort of not the companion volume to Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, because the actual real companion volume to that is Fantasy: The 100 Best Books by Michael Moorcock and James Cawthorn (which I also own). Red Plenty, BSFA Award-shortlisted non-fiction/fiction, which many folk have told me I will like (I was going to wait for the paperback, but what the hell). And Cigar-Box Faust and Other Miniatures, a signed and numbered limited edition chapbook of Michael Swanwick short stories.

Three space books. Seven into Space, kindly donated to the Space Books collection by Adam Roberts. The Space Station and Island in the Sky were both bargains from eBay.

Finally, a pair of coffee-table books. Spomenik, Jan Kempenaers, is the book of his photographic exhibition. The title refers to WWII monuments in the former Yugoslavia. Many have been destroyed, or left to fall into ruin, but Kempenaers’ book contains photos of twenty-two of the best-preserved ones. Strange, but quite beautiful, stuff. CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, Frédéric Chaubin, is a ginormous book of photographs of many gloriously modernist buildings from the former USSR. Also strange, but quite beautiful, stuff.