Tuesday, 16 October 2012

A Violent Professional by Kier-La Janisse

The definitive book on the films of Italian screen icon Luciano Rossi.  And yes "icon" is definitely pushing it.  He's more like the Kurtwood Smith of Spaghetti Westerns; the JT Walsh of Poliziotteschi; or the Harry Dean Stanton of Giallo.  Him out of thingy, except in crazy Italian genre films.

In fact, Rossi's so unknown the author can't even find out if he's alive at first.  No-one in the industry seems to know what happens to him.  When she finally does track him down to the town he grew up in, it turns out he died a few months earlier.  His last known movie is 1987's Long Live the Lady, and the author can't even tell which one is Rossi.  Sad, but also surprising, considering his unusual appearance.  Blond, progressively hunchbacked and generally creepy.  But he's not without his admirers, not least Janisse herself, who awards each of his movies stars for how good he is in them, and hearts for how cute he looks.

So, this is a love letter to a small time actor in cheap Italian b-movies - how cool and romantic is that?  And it's beautifully put together, with tonnes of amazing stills and posters.  It's also a revealing look at the film industry there in the 60s, 70s and 80s.  From sword and sandals to spy thrillers; from westerns to horror films and from crime movies to Nazi films (some genres were more peculiar to Italy than others.)  Janisse has a love of this kind of trash, as do I, and her movie reviews are always interesting and funny.  And it's given me a long list of movies I really want to see.

Just a short review this, so I'll end with some of my favourite movie titles of Rossi's films:  Get the Coffin Ready; Run, Man, Run; Django the Bastard; Five into Hell; Heads I Kill....Tails You're Dead; Death Walks in High Heels (giallo); So Naked, So Dead (well done if you guessed giallo again); Free Hand for a Tough Cop; SS Experiment Camp (nazi movie); Red Nights of the Gestapo (yes! Also nazi.)

Good luck getting any of those on Blu Ray.  And thanks to the Frightfest people for giving this book out free last year - much better than a free book about a forgotten actor in a lot of probably godawful foreign movies has any right to be.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Red Plenty by Francis Spufford

Okay, the "golden age" of Soviet Russia might be pushing it.  But, coming off the back of Stalin, the Khrushchev era was pretty rosy in comparison.  This book's about the new hopes and dreams people had at that time in Russia, and what went wrong.

First off, it's not really a history - it's mostly a collection of short stories, featuring both fictional and real characters.  

You get Khrushchev's thoughts as he visits New York, filled with confidence about a fair and honest competition between socialism and capitalism.  Young, confused party workers visiting the American Exhibition in Moscow.  Starry eyed idealists in a Siberian academy-town who finally think they've got a model for a command economy which actually works.  Black marketeers who walk a profitable but dangerous line between the command economy and the real economy.  Factory owners who wreck their own machines because of the twisted logic of communism.  And factory workers being massacred when everyone's best laid plans have unintended consequences.

I enjoyed all short stories, and some have a real touch of magic.  Some of the economics stuff tends to the abstruse, but the passion of those involved is infectious.  It's a great look into a Soviet Union we never really see.  What's interesting especially is what isn't covered in much detail - the space race;  Khrushchev's "Secret Speech" denouncing Stalin.  That's more for the West - the Russians had different priorities at the time.

In between the stories are small sections of more straightforward history - again, from an engaging and unusual viewpoint - and tiny snippets of Russian fairytales, which seem central to the book:  impossible tasks, capricious kings, and wishes which turn into nightmares.

There's a lot of hope in this book, but with massive lorry loads of melancholy.  Was it doomed to failure?  I reckon so.  Even if you had the perfect system, with banks of quantum computers calculating everyone's needs and abilities, it still needs the iron fist.  You can't risk the people messing up your perfect system.

I'm pretty sure I had more to say on this book, but I must've finished it a month ago so it's starting to fade.  A big recommendation though if you're into communists, Russians and beautiful short stories.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds

Another big science fiction trilogy in the bag!  This is the conclusion to Revelation Space and Redemption Ark, and it's a bit of a funny end.  It's fantastic, certainly, but curiously not entirely satisfying.

Here are the good bits - the main protaganists change again in this one, and I'm glad to say the focus is now on the two most interesting characters.  Scorpio, the hyperpig bandit turned good, and the mysterious and ancient Captain John Brannigan/Nostalgia for Infinity.  This is a masterstroke by Reynolds.  All sci-fi books should have enigmatic and depressed spaceships and borderline psychotic farm animals front and centre.

Scorpio's a great lead because he's your Han Solo Mal Reynolds straightforward gung ho type, which is always fun when done right.  Plus, he seems a lot more human, ironically, than people like Sylveste or Clavain.  Getting the know the Captain is even more enjoyable.  There's one sequence when he morphs through his own history - from an astronaut on Mars which we would recognise, through increasingly bizarre sections of his history.  You begin to appreciate the depth of the world that's been put together by the author, and understand Brannigan's growing disconnectedness with the rest of humanity.  Both characters have really good arcs in this book, and one particular bit at the end actually had me punching the air in joy.

I also loved the new setting for much of this book - an obscure moon which is dominated by a strange religion.  There are massive mobile cathedrals which creep around the world, so as always to keep the gas giant they're circling in sight.  It's very gothic and steampunky with lots of intruige and world exploring.  Quite different to the rest of the series, but it complements it well, although I suspect this may have been intended as a plot for an entirely different novel.

There are a few niggles throughout the book -  a superhuman baby who's only really there to move the plot along.  Pretty clunky I thought. And I was a little confused by one character arc - someone who's being set up as a new leader for the future.  It's handled really well, but just seems to fizzle out.  But it's the ending which doesn't sit right with me.  It's one of those when you realise you're 97% through the book (you can be more exact about these things on the kindle) but there's simply no way everything's going to tied together satisfactorily.  Instead the author throws a whole bunch of new things at us and takes a sideways step.  It's certainly clever, but I can't be the only one who felt just a little shortchanged.  Anyway, can't grumble too much.  A brilliant, exciting and thought provoking end to the trilogy.

Right, I've been busy and my internet was down for a bit, so I have three other books I've already finished which I need to get reviews done of soon before they disappear into the aether - a strange quasi-history of the golden age of Soviet Russia, a book on an unknown legend of Italian cinema and a brutal hatchet job on a widely admired political figure.