Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Five times five stars

Not wanting to plunge into the intercalary days with a snotty review headlining the blog (see how superstitious I am for a rationalist?) I am reposting my Goodreads 5-star reviews for the year. Have a happy Christmas, Yule, or whatever, and I'll see you on the other side.

Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon

I never quite know if I'm using the term antihero correctly, but I offer Frank Friedmaier for your consideration. Frank is 19 years old, but he's gone far beyond the moral event horizon where a character like Pinkie Brown, damaged angel that he is, still hovers. We're only a few pages in before Frank has committed a spur-of-the-moment murder for motives that not even he knows. He has no pity, especially not for himself, and doesn't even attempt to turn on the charm that makes us root for an utter devil like Humbert Humbert. Most people he knows are afraid of him, and even the few who love him don't really like him much (with one possible exception, but no spoilers here). According to save-the-cat writing doctrine we should have no interest in Frank's future, just as he has no interest in it, but in fact he's fascinating - like a young John Lennon on the loose in his Berlin days, with only slightly fewer scruples.

The writing style is true hardboiled: spare but brilliantly evocative. The atmosphere of the setting (which I took to be Nazi-occupied France, but might be Allied-occupied Germany) is corrosive, bleak, and relentless. Brandon Robshaw's review in The Independent concluded: "Simenon ought to be spoken of in the same breath as Camus, Beckett and Kafka." On the strength of this, I agree.

Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

How did it take me so long to discover Capote? I'm going to blame the movie. The novella is an unrecognisably different animal - a snapshot of an intriguing character told in prose that ought to be sold at Tiffany's alongside the diamonds.

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

It took me more than 30 years to read this book. After originally abandoning it a few chapters in, I nearly gave up at the same point. There's a whole world and a lot of characters to introduce, and Peake wasn't writing for an audience of TV-weaned YA goldfish. He takes his time but suddenly it pays off. You really know these characters because he has put care into making them individuals. His prose is beautiful and he has the most vivid visual imagination of any author I've come across.

It is, in short, a masterpiece. Normally I reserve 5 stars for books that I feel affect me profoundly and permanently - that "change my life", as all great art should on some level. I regret not coming to Gormenghast a lot sooner. If I'd read it 32 years ago it would have stretched me to create more interesting fantasy worlds in my own books.

Death is a Lonely Business by Ray Bradbury

A magic realist whodunit in which the young Bradbury is himself the protagonist. Only, being Bradbury, it's never as simple as that. The murderer seems to be more existential than physical, the familiar landscape of LA suddenly far more fantastical than Mordor. The one flaw is that Bradbury, as a writer who notoriously disdained plotting, allows an important character to slip out of the story while two others, introduced later and in whom we are consequently less invested, become more prominent than they really should. But imagine it as a sixtysomething author getting up and just improvising a prose-poem of dread, beauty, loneliness and the desire to connect with others and you can't help but applaud.

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler

They say write what you know, and after six years in the Communist Party and being a prisoner of Franco, Koestler knew all about the horrific absurdities of logic bent to serve fanaticism. This is one of the most powerful novels I've ever read, taking you through the whole spectrum of human emotion, politics and philosophy, but that's not the only reason for the full five stars. It's full of the little inventive touches of a master artist, and the lean writing style (my translation was by Daphne Hardy) gives it all extra impact.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

I don't want the blog to turn into serial excoriations of the latest bit of entertainment to waste my time. Honestly, I'd far rather read and watch good things (The Shadow Hero, Dirty Snow or Elementary, if you want recent examples) but, having sat through the whole of Agents of SHIELD season one, I feel I owe it to the world to say something.

The great thing about The Winter Soldier is that when you get Fury or other SHIELD agents spouting their ends-justify-the-means doctrine, Cap is there to reground it all with a real moral code - the point of that whole narrative of the movie being, not that a lot of Hydra agents have been pretending to be SHIELD agents, but that SHIELD is Hydra. In the war on terror they have virtually become the same thing.

The TV show, on the other hand, depicts the breakdown of any line between the good and bad guys without apparent irony. On the surface it's about a few stern-parent characters left in charge of a lot of flirty, high-schooly young folks who ought to be partying the night away at the Bronze but instead have been given a plane and as much rope as they like. Agents on both sides are willing, indeed eager, to use or condone torture and killing in cold blood, but Coulson can't provide any counterbalance because he isn't driven by Cap's unalloyed morality. He's your typical self-righteous maverick-with-a-badge who is happy to (ab)use his position of power as he sees fit. It's the kind of show the infantry in Starship Troopers probably watch between battles.

The writing is a curate's egg of the usual Whedonisms (in this case Jed, not Joss). The early episodes have some great unexpected twists such as Coulson's use of the truth serum, but those are quickly forgotten as the story gets bogged down in talk, plans and McGuffins. As the plot spirals in ever-decreasing circles, there's a sense that the writers are barely an episode ahead of their desperate reveals and reversals. By the time we get to the betrayals, which are all easily seen coming, it's starting to feel like Dollhouse season 2 (*Sideshow Bob shudder*)

The plot has become such a mechanical tyrant by the last few episodes that a told relationship like Coulson's and May's is privileged over a shown relationship like Garrett's and Ward's - as if by now the writers had lost any ability to respond organically but were simply sticking to whatever story outline they came up with months earlier. And there is the usual Whedon inability to see a bad guy as anything other than a parrot squawking crazy plans. It's as if, when any character reveals themselves as a Hydra plant, they grow a metaphorical moustache to twirl while gloating. Maybe in a very different show this might have turned into an interesting conflict of ideologies. But no, this is a story in which you are just supposed to root for the people you're told are friends and boo the ones you're told it's okay to despise. The finale is a particularly damp squib, very reminiscent of the Dollhouse finale in fact, and it's not improved for having saved up enough budget to pay for Samuel L Jackson and his gag writer.

Ah yes, gags. In Buffy they served the story. Here, if a funny line occurs to the writers, they use it. Whether it's something that character would actually say, or if it breaks the tension of the story, makes no difference. If only they'd gone the whole hog and remade Get Smart with Maxwell as a SHIELD agent. That might have actually been funnier and more engaging.

When you consider the quality of other shows in the Feds-tackle-weird-shit genre - Fringe and The X-Files especially - Agents of SHIELD looks particularly lame. Its only excuse for existence is to keep the Marvel torch burning between the movies, and great as those movies have been for the most part, so far DC are winning the TV battle by a mile.

Friday, 12 December 2014

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane

There’s a line near the start of Sunset Boulevard. Nancy Olson dismisses William Holden’s screenplay with the words, “It’s from hunger.” This is something every writer recognizes: what you get when the Muse didn’t show up and you had to fabricate something to fill the blank page. The hunger doesn’t have to be for a rare steak or a new pair of shoes.

I often get this feeling from Neil Gaiman’s prose. The Muse he’s got chained up in his basement is the one for comics, not novels. The Sandman books would be the very first thing to go into my desert island trunk. His novels wouldn’t make it there even if I arranged for excess baggage.

This one, I thought would be different. An adult reminiscence of growing up in the 1960s in semi-rural England, feeding your imagination with Smash! comics and books of mythology, creating rituals to appease the monsters in the wardrobe, and recognizing that a numinous other world ran just below the skin of reality we can see. That’s right where I live, folks. The title The Ocean at the End of the Lane holds the same promise as the opening bars of “The Friends of Mr Cairo”: slough off that mundane skin and fantasy will fill your life.

I’m sure you can hear the “but”. I don’t want to give the impression there is nothing good about the book. Parts of it are excellent. The trouble is, with that title, you’re geared up to expect real wonder. I’ve been that seven-year-old kid and I can tell you something: it’s way more magical than this.

It starts promisingly, with death. The description of the opal miner’s arrival (running over a kitten) and later finding him gassed in the car, that’s all marvellous. But you can feel the moment that the author’s inspiration deflates and he allows his intellect to take over. We’re introduced to the Hempstocks, the family who live down the lane, and it is immediately obvious they are the triple goddess – the maiden, the woman and the crone – who will function as Mary Sui Generis throughout. Where these three might have been mysterious and ambiguous (think what Alan Garner might have done with them) they instead pontificate in so desperate and on-the-nose a fashion that you begin to suspect Mr Gaiman thinks his readers might be a little on the remedial side.

Given a little more foreplay, the magic might yet have seduced us, but suddenly we’re thrust into a level of a videogame, gallivanting off on a inter-dimensional adventure on which the narrator is invited along for a throwaway reason that I don’t suppose the author even expects us to find credible. Please hang your disbelief at the door when you come in, it will help. A 10 hit dice monster is defeated, and pretty effortlessly at that, but in a way we can see is going to lead to trouble.

Back in the real world, the book starts firing on all cylinders again as the author starts cutting into a richer vein of inspiration. The narrator has to dig something out of his foot with a penknife (do little girls do that kind of thing?) but he doesn’t get all of it and now – like the Morrigan, like an evil Mary Poppins – the book’s villain shows up. Ursula Monkton, she calls herself, and my, she is breathtakingly nasty. She fucks the father, effectively replaces the mother in a Grimm transfiguration, enlists the sister as ally, and torments the narrator himself in a dozen petty, controlling ways. The dreadful high point of this part of the story has the father dunking his fully clothed son in an ice-cold bath while Ursula gloats from the doorway. His isolation is complete.

If it had gone on like that it would have been a masterpiece. Instead, one of those pesky nice goddesses waltzes in and deals with Ursula, snap, just like that. Did we ever doubt it? Not for a moment when young Miss Lettie Hempstock started spouting things like, “Ol’ varmints like you ent goin’ to take my friend.” Hokey and homey play well with the undemanding crowd who lap up this kind of fantasy.

In an interview at the back of the book, Mr Gaiman reveals that he wrote the book without planning. It began as a short story and just grow’d. And Alexander’s feet were carried clear of the ground by minions who thought he was a god, but authors who attain the same peak of all-conquering celebrity would do better to ignore those fawning editors and fans and remember that stories that are cobbled together on the fly are never going to be satisfying. (Unless, perhaps, the author is a genius. Outside of the medium of comics, Gaiman is not that.)

I kept thinking of two other books as I read this. Michael Frayn’s Spies is surely the antecedent for the novel’s voice, though Frayn carries off the older man retelling his childhood without the clangour of portentous faux-simplicity that keeps creeping into Mr Gaiman’s prose. And from the moment the narrator and the youngest yokel-goddess who befriends him set foot in the otherworld, I was put in mind of Robert Holdstock. But maybe you can only step once into Mythago Wood; in this case the terrain was more Dungeons and Dragons than rich, loamy awe.

I’m not sure why I find Mr Gaiman’s writing so brilliant and effective in comics and so jarring in prose. There is too much telling, too much coaxing. He backs away from darkness and wonder in favour of comfort and special effects. He will turn up the heat just as he would in a comic, but here he suddenly turns it down again. Is that because of an awareness that children might read the story? But children can be frightened witless without any lasting damage. Or is it simply because he was composing this story piecemeal, and sometimes the taps of the Hippocrene were flowing and sometimes not? I don’t know. It’s frustrating, because if this had been merely the first draft then something brilliant might have hatched from it. Instead we got a curate’s egg.

Back to the story. So now the author has dispensed with the antagonist who made it all personal and close to the family. But we’re only three-quarters of the way through the book. Whoops. Planning might have solved that, or even a rewrite, but this is all being improvised. Sometimes that can give you a direct channel to the unconscious and the goddess will sing (though hopefully not like a Sussex farm girl) but at other times your conscious mind just has to whip out the Meccano and build the best tracks it can in the time available.

In this case, delectably horrid Ursula is replaced by the game’s next boss: a bunch of other-planar vultures borrowed from Moorcock. As these critters are impersonal – they want to eat the narrator, but it’s just business – the story is losing altitude so fast by now that you begin to wonder if the author has bailed out. You sense him willing you to agree that he’s ratcheted up the tension: “Don’t you see? An ED-209 is much more dangerous than Long John Silver.” Even if power level alone was enough to create an interesting adversary, with the Fates themselves just over the field we know there is no threat (something we had actually forgotten while Ursula was briefly on stage) but a last-ditch attempt to make us pretend we don’t know that is made by having the oldest and most powerful of the Fates curled up in Odinsleep, that doze ex machina that we know from Thor comics will last as long as it needs to last.

“We can’t stop ‘em,” gasps plucky little almost-omnipotent Lettie. “Only Granny could an’ she’s asleep for maybe a hunnerd years.” In your dreams, Lettie. To nobody’s surprise, Granny wakes up and deals with it all as neatly as the Cat in the Hat’s clean-up machine. Is there a cost? Well, sort of. Lettie dies. Only she doesn’t really die. She’ll be back, we’re assured. Give it a decade or four; a good kip will knit up her ravell’d sleeve. The only hope is that we don’t have to read about it.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

What's in your stocking?

A friend of mine once read the first volume of the Mirabilis Winter book on the night-train out of Moscow when snow threatened to stop him getting home for Christmas. That’s the kind of experience it’s hard to replicate in reality, but (assuming you already have the paperback editions of Winter volumes 1 and 2) here are some stories that have the power to whisk you away on an unforgettable imaginative ride.


The Grand Budapest Hotel
I’ve enjoyed Wes Anderson’s other movies, but you have to be in sync with the worldview he’s creating and this is the first time the whole thing really gelled for me. Ralph Fiennes’s performance is spot on, the story is a romp but gets serious when it matters, and it’s all inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig, author of Letter From An Unknown Woman, with a hint of Michael Bentine.

Ah, now this is what movies ought to be. None of that dramatic need meets inciting incident BS – at least, not in the can’t-be-arsed, cookie-cutter form we’ve got used to seeing it. I wish they hadn’t deleted the “closing door” track, as it shows the band manage to do something more than just muck about while they’re supposed to be recording an album. But that scene is on the DVD and in any case the movie is a minor masterpiece even without it.

Edge of Tomorrow
Tom Cruise comes in for a lot of stick but he’s championed some solid SF movies with a vein of Dickian paranoia. Oblivion was wonderfully bleak and avoided the mystical hand-waviness that has infected SF since they Hogwartized Doctor Who. This one (also known as Live Die Repeat) has a good mind-bending concept, an initially unlikable hero, a relationship handled without Hollywood shmaltz, and a denouement worthy of Total Recall.

Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier
Cap was my least favourite Marvel hero as a kid, but I’m warming to him in the movies, maybe because, in an era when even Superman is a brooding mo-fo who thinks the end justifies the means, it’s good to have one hero whose moral code shines like a beacon. Chris Evans plays the part brilliantly and for once I didn’t even mind the Black Widow. And so many marvellous moments for my inner 10-year-old: the raid on Batroc’s ship, the creepy confrontation with Dr Zola, the introduction of the Falcon, the punch-up in the elevator that was pure Kirby. Bucky should’ve stayed dead, though; once easy resurrection creeps in, where else have stories got to go?


A curious experiment, this: not actually a sequel or prequel to the movie but with so many nods to and lifts from the original that it’s almost the parallel universe version. I liked the development of the theme (“man is a wolf to man” vs “no man is an island”) but it’s let down by the ending, which (a) has a character acting in a way that only makes sense if he’s seen the future, (b) suddenly absents our viewpoint character from the resolution, and (c) establishes that decency cannot overcome selfishness after all – the opposite message to the Coen brothers’ movie.

True Detective
Stylish modern noir. Matthew McConaughey plays Rust Cohle, a detective who’s spent so long in deep cover that he no longer quite believes in individual identity. He and Marty Hart are a modern Holmes and Watson. I found the last episode a bit disappointing – the degenerate scion of the gentry makes it pure Gothic, but all the build-up had hinted at something more interesting. The second season rightly resets with an all-new bunch of characters. (Wonder if The King in Yellow will feature? Colin Farrell is in it, so I hope there's midgets.)

Elementary season 2
Talking of Holmes and Watson, I’d expected to loathe a show in which the pair are based in New York and Watson’s a woman. In fact it’s the best classic drama writing on television today, with faultless performances by Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu, along with Rhys Ifans as Mycroft and Sean Pertwee as Lestrade. The plot twists hang together, the relationships are always developed from truth rather than merely for sensation, and the authentic strain of weirdness running through the pre-Reichenbach Holmes stories is more genuinely represented here than in the ADHD TV that is the BBC’s Sherlock. (And, oh my gosh, they actually resisted the temptation to make Joan Watson, as an Asian woman, a master of kung fu. Is this a first for television? You'd certainly never get that in a Joss Whedon show!)


The Shadow Hero

I need to do a proper review of this. For now, suffice it to say it is a pitch-perfect blend of humour, romance, action and serious themes in a charmingly evoked ‘30s Chinatown setting where you’ll meet characters bursting with life.