Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark

As stupid wars go, the First World War takes some beating.  Nobody could really claim victory - it was the beginning of the end for the British Empire, France never recovered as a military force, Austro Hungary vanished off the map and Russia was taken over by murderous freaks - a fate which befell Germany not long after.  This cracking history looks at all the players in the run up to 1914 and asks - what the hell was wrong with them?

Not the biggest player, but the one which fired the starting gun.  To generalise - a bunch of crazy bastards.  One top soldier for years kept a souvenir of an earlier coup against the Serbian royal family - the Queen's breast, hacked off after her murder.  Nice.  These were the kind of people in important roles in Belgrade, and were heavily implicated in the murder of Franz Ferdinand.  Serbia's refusal to help Austra Hungary get to the bottom of the assasination of the heir to the Hapsburg throne led directly to war.  And just a reminder - Britain was on Serbia's side.

A strange, unwieldy construct with two prime ministers and governments, but one head of state.  Serbia was a real thorn in their side, although the best bet for good relations between them would've been Franz Ferdinand becoming Emperor.  This book argues that they had genuine beef with Serbia over the assassination, and perhaps if they'd struck quickly the conflict would've been contained.  Instead those few weeks gave everyone else time to get stick their oar in, with disastrous results.

Serbia's ally, and the reason it started getting out of hand.  There's this idea of Pan-slavism - a historic brotherhood between the Balkans and the Russians, but the alliance may have had more to do with Russia trying to muscle in on the peninsula as the Ottoman Empire retreated.  They wanted control of Bosphorous as a way to get their warships into the Mediterranean.  There was also a deep dread of Germany in Russia, and an escalation of hostilities was the perfect way to get them out of the picture.

Often painted as the villain of the piece, but comes out quite well in this account.  Dragged into things through an alliance with Austro Hungary.  Not helped by Kaiser Wilhem, who seems to have been a total buffoon.  Senior politicians appear to have spent much of their time keeping this dingbat away from any important decision making.  They had to act quickly when it appeared that Russia and France were using this Balkan crisis as an excuse to gang up on them.

Led at this time by the apparently bonkers Raymond Poincare, who really wanted to smash Germany.  For some time before this France had had a crisis of confidence in military affairs because of the Dreyfus Affair.  At this point the pendulum was swinging the other way, things were a lot more gung-ho, and the time seemed ripe for France to have its revenge for the Franco-Prussian War.  There's a fantastic section in the book when President Poincare visits Russia with his rather naive prime minister Rene Viviani, who becomes increasingly sick and neurotic as he realises that everyone around him is rushing headfirst into war.  One of the few people in this book with a a bit of common sense.

Of all the sleepwalkers, Britain was the most....sleepwalky?  Continental matters weren't really on the agenda at this time - Ireland (surprise surprise) was the big issue of the day.  Things were mishandled by the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, who appears to have been too clever for his own good.  He preferred subtle understandings to cast-iron guarantees, which meant none of the other countries really knew where they stood with him.  He led the Germans to believe that Britain would stay out of things, apparently forgetting that they had a treaty to defend Belgium's neutrality.  Sir Edward then went full tilt into war mode, backed enthusiastically by (surprise surprise again) Winston Churchill.

So, no big villain in this account - just a lot of idiots and nutcases.  And, I suppose, short memories.  This happened after a long period of peace in Europe, and people really seem to forget what war is like.  It reminded me of the run up to the first Iraq War: the excitement about having a proper war again for the first time in years, and the conviction that this time it would all go to plan, and we'd all be home for Christmas.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Solo by William Boyd

At last!  Some proper Bond, and a massive improvement on this guff.  Instead of a pastiche of cliches from the movies, this feels like a smart update of Fleming's books.

It's the late 60s and Bond is sent to a famine and civil war stricken African country to kill a general, and things get complicated.  Like the orginal books, much of the fun here is in the travelling from place to place and soaking up the atmosphere.  A lot of Boyd's other books are apparently set in Africa, and it's clearly a continent he knows well.

The other elements of a great Bond book are also in place - the action's well told and sometimes bone-crunchingly brutal, there are interesting, beautiful and maybe not totally trustworthy women, and there's a villain with a disfigurement - here, it's a Rhodesian mercenary with a wonky face.

As there should be, there's lots of eating and drinking too, but mostly drinking.  Whisky, African beer, dry martinis and emergency African martinis (ice, lime juice, lots of gin)  Boyd's martini recipe is even drier than Fleming's, which was six to one vodka to vermouth.   The one here recalls Noel Coward's advice to wave the shaker in the general direction of France before pouring.  There's also a salad dressing recipe with a hell of a lot of vinegar.

Bond himself comes across as fairly likeable.  He's entering his silver fox phase, and it feels like he's mellowed with age.  A ladies man, but not a misogynist, an agent of post-colonialism, but not a reactionary great white hope saving Africa from itself.  His mind wanders back to his commando days during WWII.  Even his relationship with M has a touch of bittersweet sentimentality.

The plot of the book mirrors this autumnal theme.  We never quite get the whole story (unless I missed something - always very possible) but the suggestion is that the world of espionage is moving on from 007 to something a bit more sinister.  This aspect isn't overplayed, but does give a nice extra tinge of melancholy to the ending, which for once explains why Bond doesn't stay with the woman he's been getting on so famously with.

Extra shout out to the audiobook version - Dominic West bringing his best Eton rather than Baltimore tones to proceedings.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Croning by Laird Barron

Modern cosmic horror from the unlikely sounding Laird Barron.  Aside from the clearly invented name, he's meant to be a one eyed champion dog sledder from Alaska.  It's all too perfect. Is he really the ghost of HP Lovecraft?

The Croning is genuinely unsettling - more so than any book I've read in years.  It concerns the elderly Don Miller looking back on decades of happy marriage with his beloved wife Michelle.  Except he's scared of the dark, he has worrying gaps in his memory, and deep down he knows something is terribly wrong.

What really works is how the reader is always one step ahead of Don.  We know before he does that there's something very sinister going on, even if we don't know exactly what.  And his growing unease and paranoia could just be the onset of dementia.  But you know it isn't.

This is Lovecraft where you actually start to care about the characters.  The small details of domestic life rub up nicely against the vast and unspeakable horror behind the curtain.  And despite it all, there are quite a few laughs to be had, even if they're mostly of the blackest hue.


Okay, I've missed a few books out of late, and I fear they'll have to fall by the wayside.  I'll give special mention to The Kindness of Women, JG Ballard's follow up to Empire of the Sun.  Not really a memoir, because much of it appears to be made up, but it does suggest that Crash is more autobiographical than you'd think was possible.  Electric Eden by Rob Young is also well worth a read - a very entertaining and comprehensive history of British folk music.  Makes me want to pull on an itchy jumper and put one finger in my ear.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Supergods by Grant Morrison

A history of comic book heroes by one of the most important figures in the industry over the past few decades.  Grant Morrison (bald, Scottish, good looking - snap) isn't a writer I know very well, apart from Arkham Asylum which I found totally impenetrable as a teenager, but he's a man who knows and loves his superheroes.  He's also a great writer, making this a blast to read - a lot more entertaining than the history of Marvel I read recently.

Highlights include his textual analysis of the very first Action Comics cover featuring the first appearance of Superman, and a hilarious rundown of the very early Batman B-movies (“Seven actors have played Batman on the big screen, and if you can name all seven without reading any further, your youth has been wasted.”)  He also gives a very personal but pretty comprehensive account of how superheroes and comics have developed over the years, and he argues convincingly about their vital place in our cultural lives - giving us something to aim towards.

Some of it didn't really work for me, and I won't be alone.  I'm sure his druggy trip in Kathmandu was life-changing for him, but no-one wants to hear that stuff - especially not at such length.  Much of his work does seem to hinge on this kind of thing - he's one of these Chaos Magic guys, and despite his rivalry with Alan Moore it seems like they're both in to the same kind of nonsense.  I'm sure they'd both hate that...

As the long hiatus in blogging would suggest, I finished this a couple of months back, so apologies for not remembering much else of use.  It's a really good read, very good on superheroes, bit too much mumbo jumbo for my tastes.  I'll try and rattle out a few more half remembered books soon until I'm up to speed. 

P.S. I've posted a picture of the US edition with this review.  The British one I read had a cover so bad it made me gag a little every time I picked it up.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

An engrossing and heartbreaking book.  It's in the SF Masterworks series, but it doesn't feel like science fiction.

I already knew the plot when I went in (and, of course, I'd seen Lawnmower Man) but if anything the knowledge of how it would end made it all the more powerful.  Things unfold as they should, and there's no cheap twists.

It's a series of journal entries by Charlie, a mentally disabled man living in the US in the 60s.  He's encouraged to write down his thoughts by a team of scientists who're experimenting on his brain to make him smarter.  It starts off with childlike spelling and a limited understanding of what's going on around him.  As the process starts to work, you notice the spelling and thought processes start to improve even before Charlie does.

Eventually he becomes the smartest guy in the book - smart enough to realise the experiment is doomed and he'll end up just as he started.  Mercifully for Charlie - and the reader - the decline is more rapid.  In the meantime he gets laid, falls in love, realises that his friends have been mocking him all his life and becomes a right royal pain in the arse as he learns that mo' intelligence means mo' problems.

There are a few pitfalls this book manages to avoid.  Low IQ Charlie is a good hearted soul, but it doesn't paint him as a Noble Savage, who's worse off for having glimpsed over the horizon.  He's convincingly portrayed throughout as his intelligence ebbs and wanes.  He does learn that people aren't as nice as he always thought, but there aren't any villains here.  Also, he doesn't become an insane evil genius like in the Lawnmower Man.

I polished this off in under a day.  I can see why it's a popular book to make kids read in school, which is kind of a pity.  And yeah, I choked up at the end.  Doubly embarrasing because I was on a plane sitting next to a stranger.  Blub.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Death's Head: Volume 2

When I was about ten or eleven, Death's Head was about as cool as it got.  He started off life as a robotic bounty hun.....wait, no - freelance peacekeeping operative - in the wonderful Transformers comic of the time.  Before Michael Bay ruined everything.  He wasn't a Transformer himself and so was gloriously amoral in the manichean world of Autobots and Decepticons.  He had a shiny metal tusked skull for a face, an array of medieval weapons instead of a right hand, and a bizarre speech pattern possibly modelled on the Australian interrogative intonation, yes?  Death's Head was a total badass and I loved him.

Perhaps predictably this collection is a big disappointment.  And I can't really blame the rose tinted spectacles of nostalgia, because Death's Head still rocks hard when portrayed by his Transformers co-creators Geoff Senior and Simon Furman.  But in too many of the stories here, he's been shoehorned in as a unwelcome and pointless special guest.  I rather liked his first non-Transformers appearance, which was with Doctor Who.  He's a Marvel UK creation, so it keeps the British thing going, plus it's such an unlikely combination it kind of works.  But She Hulk?  The Fantastic Four?  Iron Man of 2020?  You can feel a once beloved antihero become increasingly pointless as this volume progresses.  It's also a sad reflection on the state of Marvel in the 90s.  These comics for the most part are pretty damn shoddy.

Obviously, he's been killed off and brought back several times, but no-one really cares any more.  Back in the day this robot was a legend.  He killed Shockwave for heaven's sake - possibly the single coolest Transformer ever.  In his defence he was being mind controlled at the time, which meant he wasn't even paid.  Bad for business, yes?

Here's an amusing rundown of his various adventures for the very geekiest among you

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

More humourism from this guy.  This collection's largely about the absurdities of domestic life, kicking cigarettes in Japan , buying a skeleton and annoying airplane passengers.

It's another top notch series of essays which are funny, perceptive and best when the author reads to a live audience so you really appreciate his sense of comic timing.  There just wouldn't seem much point reading this on paper.  It's been a few weeks since I've finished this, but I remember a good essay about his pet spider, another one about putting album covers over the windows to keep songbirds away and a great story about a nasty old woman he somehow befriends.  Coming through many of the pieces though is the clear and very sweet adoration he has for his boyfriend Hugh.  They way he tells it, Hugh could do a lot better.....

Anyway, not much else to say.  I guess if you like this sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing you'll like.  This must be why critics look down on comedy.  I did have a look on google to see if I could jog my memory, but instead I found this review -

"Well it is descriptional tail of False and total obscure Faults and fancy's of a psycotic gay man of the world. It despicates a abscure seen of the Gay population that is quite obtrusive to the adverage viewer."

Now, if understand correctly, this is just unfair.  Me Talk Pretty One Day is much more focused on Sedaris' sexuality. If anything, this collection shows just how domesticated and sexually unadventurous he is.  Definitely a one guy gay guy.  Unless this very fact is the "abscure seen" referred to.  The description of him as a "psycotic gay man of the world" is admittedly a little more accurate, especially if you're an annoying air passenger.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries

With his faux innocence and deadpan reactions to his often deeply weird subject matter, it's hard not to think of Jon Ronson as the Louis Theroux of the written word.  A comparison which is brought up in this collection of essays by pop pervert Jonathan King, who probably wishes Theroux had done a programme on him instead, just so he'd have been back on telly...

The man who brought us Paloma Blanca is just one of a dizzying array of freaks and (a few) normal people Ronson meets in this book.  It starts strongly with a look at the cult-like phenonenon of Deal or No Deal.  His interactions with Noel Edmonds and the contestants are hilarious - especially one man compared by Noel to a "funeral director" who becomes desperate to show the host that he really is positive and happy, and so deserving of the blessings of the cosmos.  They're all deeply paranoid that "the banker" is keeping a close watch on them all.  The truth is predictable, but still faintly sinister.

There's a priceless interview with the Insane Clown Posse, who managed to keep the fact they were secret evangelical Christians from their fans for years.  It seems they managed this by being complete idiots.  And no, they still don't know how magnets work.  He visits an alien abduction convention with none other than Robbie Williams, who seems relatively sane in this company.  And there's a fascinating look through the archives of Stanley Kubrick, whose attention to detail was even more bonkers than I'd ever thought.

I also loved the seminar retreat with Paul McKenna and his mentor, the crazy father of neurolinguistic programming Richard Bandler, who comes across as pretty scary and genuinely unhinged.  Despite that, Ronson says the NPL McKenna did on him actually worked - something of a first in the long line of cults and pseudosciences he's spent years looking into.  More typical is the deeply unpleasant and cynical "psychic" Sylvia Browne, who's made a fortune making up stories for parents whose children have been abducted, and who appears to hand out good or bad news from beyond the veil depending on her mercurial mood swings.  Nasty piece of work.

I really rate Ronson as a journalist.  He's got an eye for the bizarre story no-one else has spotted, he's not afraid to do the legwork and the truth really does seem to be more important than the story.  Yes, he can stitch up his subjects, but (as with Theroux) he merely gives them enough rope to hang themselves.  Also, he's very likeable.  He reads the audiobook himself, and on more than one occassion clearly has to stop himself laughing.  Most of all, there's his sense of humanity.  Ronson's always looking for the good in people, and he's certainly not judgemental, but even in his choice of subject matter it's obvious that, under that diffident Welsh Mr Muscle demeanour, there's a keen sense of right and wrong.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

An all time favourite of mine, and just as enjoyable and immersive on what I think is my fourth time round the block (a book on tape this time, narrated wonderfully by Simon Prebble.)

It's set in the early nineteenth century in a similar England to the one history remembers - Wellington fighting Napoleon, George III tormented by madness, Lord Byron being insufferable.  It's the history in the book which is very different, detailing a past tied up with magic, magicians and faeries.  At the start of the novel magic has been gone from England for several hundred years, but one man - Mr Norrell - intends to bring it back.

Neither of the eponymous heroes are particularly heroic, but Gilbert Norrell is a real piece of work.  He's paranoid, selfish, vindictive, pompous, deathly dull, bordering on autistic and a tremendously poor judge of character.  And yet he's an amazingly realised and even likeable character.  His pupil, friend and rival Strange is much more in the romantic mold, but even he's a pain in the neck at times.  Their relationship is difficult, exhilarating and surprisingly touching.

But even more so than the characters, it's the world building which is the biggest triumph here.  The best part of 200 footnotes scattered throughout the book teach us - nugget by nugget - about the magicians of the past, the untrustworthiness of faeries, different forms of spells and - most enigmatic and fascinating of all - the Raven King John Uskglass who ruled the North of England for hundreds of years.  By the end it's like the reader has taken a course in magical history - you know your Martin Pale from your Ralph Stokesey and the relative usefulness of Belasis compared to Lanchester's Language of Birds.  It feels like there's a whole world in here.

I love Clarke's writing as well, with a beautiful sense of irony, wit, humanity and clarity.  It's a joy to read.  All the supporting characters are drawn so convincingly too - from Norrell's loyal, capable but sinister servant Childermass, to the deeply unpleasant Drawlight and Lascelles.  Best of all is the real villain of the piece, whose name we never learn.  Norrell tells Strange at one point (probably quoting from one of the books he guards so jealously) that faeries and men both have reason and magic in them.  Faeries are very strong in magic, but in human terms they're practically insane.  The Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair is a terrifying example of this.  And yet, in his kind and generous treatment of the black servant Stephen (unwanted as it may be) it comments on the insanity and cruelty of English society at the time.

As you can see - I can talk all day about this amazing book.  It's everything a fantasy novel should be.  Somehow, and I don't know how, the magic seems real.  It's a decade old now, and Clarke has published some short stories set in the same world (The Ladies of Grace Adieu) which are well worth a read, even if they sometimes feel like a collection of footnotes which didn't make the final cut of this book.  We are promised a sequel, but it's going to be a tough act to follow.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

The Colour out of Space by HP Lovecraft

A very good place to start with HP Lovecraft this.  Quite often with this cultiest of authors, unspeakable horror comes with unpronounceable names and a mythos you need non-Euclidean geometry to work out.  This is pretty straight up for Howard Phillips, but no less effective for that.

It's set on a blasted heath - the classic gothic horror setting.  But it's being flooded with a new reservoir.  The narrator's an engineer who tries to find out why the locals shun it; why the plants don't grow and why the water's tainted.  He soon learns it started with a meteorite a few decades back.  Weirdness, madness, and - yes - unspeakable horror ensue.

So it's right on the cusp of traditional horror and science fiction.  There's something threatening and unfathomable, but instead of townspeople cowering from werewolves, it's scientists expressing bafflement as to why the substance in the meteorite doesn't cool down, and why it shines with a colour never seen before.  Fair enough, Lovecraft's misinterpreted the idea that there are colours on the spectrum we can't see, but it's a modern scientific concept which has clearly rattled him and which he uses with skill.  I also love the allusion to pollution - what kind of chemicals has the industrial revolution put in the soil?  Do scientists have any idea how we're changing our environment?  Very modern fears from the best part of a century ago.

There's not much in the way of characterisation (it's little more than a long short story) but the mood is - as you'd expect from Lovecrcaft - perfectly judged.  It's also really well paced, with a nice big climax.  And the creepiest part to me is the engineer going ahead with the reservoir, so the cursed place will be lost, but vowing never to drink from the water himself.  Classy move.

This is one movie I think the HP Lovecraft Historical Society could definitely have a stab at.  Do it in black and white, but handpaint the colour from space.  A nice eerie greeny red would work I think.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Pandora's Star by Peter F Hamilton

I should have known...I try and start F Hamilton's Commonwealth saga from the start, only to find out there's yet another book set hundreds of years earlier called Misspent Youth.  At least unlike the Void trilogy I could mostly figure out what was going on, or perhaps that's just getting to know the universe better.  Even if it has been ass-backwards.

There's a great opening scene - the first manned mission to Mars.  They land with suitable pomp and circumstance, only to be greeted by Nigel Sheldon and Ozzie Isaacs., who've just mastered wormhole technology.  In the later books set thousands of years later these two crop up again and they've effectively become gods, so it's nice to see how it all starts.  Well, kind of...

The main bulk of the book is set some time after this - dozens of planets at least have been colonised and there's been some contact with alien life.  The most important seem to be the Silfen, who are basically fairies.  There are silfen paths which you can walk along and get from one world to another.  Nobody knows how and the Silfen don't make a lot of sense.  Great use of folklore in a science fiction setting, and it works well.

This book really benefits from a strong, forward driven plot.  A new kind of spaceship (using wormhole technology) is sent to a star which an astronomer's found has been contained by a Dyson Sphere in an instant.  How and why are the big questions.  In the other plotline, there's a bunch of terrorists who think an alien entity called the Starflyer has been infiltrating human society, and they think this alien's the driving force behind the mission.  You've also got superspacedetective Paula Myo (also from The Demon Trap) investigating all this.  There are plenty more strands of course, but it felt a little easier to digest than in the Void books.

It's also got the best aspects of F Hamilton's books - great action scenes, interesting female characters and a real feel for how societies work in the future.  If you want a book to start with from this guy, though, I'd recommend The Great North Road.  It's got a lot of the same ideas as the Commonwealth books - wormholes, longevity etc - but in a more manageable form.  This is pretty damn good though - looking forward to the follow up Judas Unchained.

Once again, I had planned to take an SF comfort break, but bad news from both Iain Banks and Iain M Banks has compelled me to start reading what will now be the last Culture book.  Where's that singularity when you need it?

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe

I suspect comics are something like laws and sausages - perhaps it's best not to know how they're made.  This is a largely unedifying tale of the shysters, egomaniacs, cold-eyed capitalists and (oh so many) bitter, bitter comic book writers who created what I consider the richest and greatest mythology of modern times.
Quick - who was the first Marvel superhero?  Wrong.  It was the Human Torch back in 1939.  And not Johnny Storm either - this was an android who started off as Frankenstein experiment gone wrong, but quickly turned his powers to good.  He was followed by the anti-hero Namor the Sub-Mariner, then Captain America, co-created by comics book legend Jack Kirby.

A few years later, and it all seemed finished.  In the 50s nobody wanted to read about superheroes any more - at least not Marvel ones.  We could all be reading pirate comics today if it wasn't for Fantastic Four #1 in 1961, created by Jack Kirby and Marvel's Editor in Chief Stan Lee.  It was a pretty shoddy comic, all told, but it was exciting, brightly coloured, modern, and, well, fantastic.  More than that - it was unexpectedly realistic, with convincing and nuanced relationships between the characters.  In the next year or two the Hulk, Spiderman, Iron Man the X-Men and pretty much all the top superheroes were in place.  Even Captain America was taken off ice.

Since I've brought up Lee and Kirby, time to address one of the biggest issues in Marvel's history - the ferocious feuds.  A hell of a lot of energy seems to have been spent over the decades arguing about who really created which character.  I suppose it's a good topic for people with a lot of free time on their hands to obssess about, because of course there's no right or wrong answer.  These characters started as a collaboration, and have remained so ever since.  And you can blame the stereotypical comic book nerd for perpetuating these flame wars, but people like Kirby and Steve Ditko are the worst of all.  Not that there aren't real issues over rights and credits - but who invented Spiderman?  A whole bunch of people!

But what about Stan Lee himself?  His incessant self-promotion rubs a lot of people up the wrong way, but he at least acknowledged his co-creators.  And you can tell he does love these characters.  But he doesn't seem to have been much of a businessman, and may have set Marvel's movie career back years.  He spent a long time in Hollywood in the 60s trying to get an Ant-Man film off the ground.  Of all the superheroes - Ant-Man?

Superheroes took a slump again in the 70s, with the biggest success being Howard the Duck, who was something of a phenonon at the time, until George Lucas thankfully put a stop to it.  The 80s saw a bit of a resurgance, thanks in part to the birth of the Saga! - huge crossovers involving many different comics - it meant fans did buy different series to keep up with the whole story, but at a risk of alienating potential new readers.  It also meant continuity became a big headache because all the characters' actions and backstories became intertwined.  Writers had to consult a team of specialists
who kept detailed charts on every superhero.  The fantastical nature of the word makes it easier to explain away some inconstitencies, but at the price of confusion and complexity.  At one point, an editor threatened to quit unless all clones of Peter Parker except one were removed from the timeline.  I think they kept one or two back - just in case...

In the 90s greed got the better of Marvel.  Shiny covered "special editions" started off as a big success, but the market soon collapsed, and it wasn't helped by a lowest-common denominator approach by bosses, and the loss of big names like Todd McFarlane.  In 1996, Marvel filed for bankruptcy.  They managed to bounce back soon after, but it was movies rather than comics which saved them - starting with X-Men in 2000.  The success came as a surprise to the X-Men comic book writers, who had a completely different set of characters and storylines going at the time, and failed to attract new readers on the back of the film.

This has lead to a growth in recent years of the Ultimate series - a retelling from scratch of many of the big names, with an eye to movie audiences, rather than comic book characters.  They even portrayed Nick Fury as a Samuel L Jackson clone, years before he actually got the part.  At the end of last year, Marvel was named the most profitable movie franchise of all time, grossing more than $5 billion dollars in total.  You can't underestimate the importance of better CGI in this - but is it inconceivable to have had a groundbreaking Marvel movie before then?  A Star Wars of superhero movies? Perhaps it would.  Anyway, movies are in charge now - the comics themselves are an afterthought.

Despite the stupidity and meanness of many of the people involved, this book is definitely worth a read - well researched, even handed and intelligently written.  I got it as a book on tape though, which may have been a mistake.  Just too many people to try and keep track of.   Maybe a comic version would be a good idea?

Thursday, 7 March 2013

The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock by Donald Spoto

Not that we get a choice of course, but how many of us would be willing to swap being a decent person for being a great artist?  I'd rate Hitchcock as one of the best moviemakers of all time (better than John Carpenter even?  Tough one....) but as a human being he really was one sick puppy.

This is a big book, with a hell of a lot detail about moviemaking.  Essential for fans of cinema I reckon.  But it's Hitchcock's twisted relationships with women which I found particularly fascinating.  He got married fairly young to Alma Reville -  who was shaping up to be a talented filmmaker in her own right.  They never divorced, were married for more than fifty years, and apparently never cheated on each other. But much of Hitchcock's life was spent obsessing about, and eventually tormenting, beautiful women.

 Madeleine Carrol in The 39 Steps I suppose set the mold for the stereotypical Hitchcock blonde, but it seems to have been Ingrid Bergman who really knocked him for six.  Though the director was clearly smitten, Bergman was a pretty tough cookie and their relationship was always strong.  Grace Kelly, similarly, could handle his attentions.  But when she ran off to become a princess, Hitchcock went a bit off the rails.

He signed up Vera Miles to a five year exclusive contract as Kelly's replacement, but she betrayed him by getting pregnant (an escape route taken by a suspicious number of his leading ladies.)  He didn't have a lot of luck with Eve Marie Saint or Kim Novak after that, and the author here argues that Psycho was sort of a nervous breakdown on film - a furious manifestation of his frustration with these beautiful, untrustworthy women.  Tellingly, Vera Miles is given a second string role and made over like a spinster in that movie.

Then Hitchock tries his most ambitious gambit yet - and falls harder than ever.  Alma notices a girl on an advert and Hitchock decides to make her his new star from scratch.  This was Tippi Hedren, whom he again signed up to an exclusive contract, before personally coaching her, torturing her with live seagulls for days on end on The Birds, then tormenting her psychologically in the unsettling flop Marnie.  After that her career was pretty much over, but Hitchcock also seems to have been damaged beyond repair too.  Frenzy's really the only one worth watching after that, featuring his most brutal violence against women.

As well as this side of him, the author also gives an account of Hitchock's cruel practical jokes - including manipulating a crewmember on an early British film to stay handcuffed to the set all night, before slipping him a bunch of laxatives.  He was also incredibly mean to his collaborators - not just with the credit, which he generally wanted all to himself, but with money.  He was earning millions, yet paid key scriptwriters next to nothing.

And yet, this really isn't a hatchet job on the man.  Hitchcock's love of film and command of the medium shine through.  He was incredibly private and rarely showed any emotion, but his damaged psyche seems to have been projected straight onto the screen.  What more can we ask from an artist?  His demons have become timeless.

Friday, 1 March 2013

A Fire in the Sun by George Alec Effinger

The follow up to When Gravity Fails which means more drugs, more plug-in personalities, more baffling noir plotlines and more struggling with the Islamic faith.  And if anything, this is even better than the first book.

Slight SPOILER for When Gravity Fails, but in this our hero Marid has not only got himself wired (and, of course, got addicted to the daddies and moddies) but he's also a reluctant gangster, a reluctant business owner and an even more reluctant policeman.  None of which make him very popular among his group of friends.

He's now effectively the right hand man of the gangland methuselah Friedlander Bey.  Their relationship is very interesting - Marid fears and hates Papa Bey, but there's a real love there too.  He stays at Papa's house and has a Christian slave to banter with. That's another interesting relationship, as the slave is really his minder.  This is a common theme in this book - the more power which Marid seems to aquire over people just ends up trapping him more, and leaving him more isolated.

Marid also has a less than tearful re-union with his mother.  He can't stand her because she's an ageing whore, but he knows as a good muslim he should honour her.  And he's guilty because she's just the kind of woman (or man) he spends most of his time with anyway.  Should you hold your mother to a higher standard than you hold yourself?  This kind of soul-searching is where this book excels - this is a real journey for Marid, and it's always convincing.

The plot.....yes, I do vaguely remember a plot.  There was certainly a good baddie - an even worse version of Bey, who makes his henchmen plug in his own personality so he can have sex with himself.  Creepy.  I didn't really follow it all to be honest, but I have to read Chandler books a few times to figure out the plot as well.  Doesn't mean I'm not having fun reading them.

There's one more full book in this series (The Exile Kiss - got it on my kindle already) then a few chapters left over when Effinger died.  It's so refreshing to have a series of sci-fi books where the main character is the most fascinating aspect.  The name Marid means sickness by the way - his mother named him that so disease would be fooled and leave him alone.  I'm not sure how, but that seems to sum him up nicely.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

The problem with reading a Great Classic these days is trying to say something interesting about it afterwards.  I've read it before, but at least I never had to do it at school (who can ever re-read a book they've been forced to study as a teenager?)

So I suppose it's best to just press on as normal, tell you what it's about and what I did and didn't like.  The narrator's called Nick, who's trying to make his way in the New York business world in the 20s.  He rents a place somewhere on Long Island (I think - it's called West or East Egg) next to a millionaire called Jay Gatsby.  You don't meet him at first, but you do meet Nick's cousin Daisy, who's married to a rich buffoon called Tom.  He's especially unpleasant, dressing up his instinctive racism with pseudoscience, but Daisy's not a hell of a lot more likeable.  I much preferred another woman Nick meets at Tom and Daisy's - Jordan Baker, a cheating golf pro flapper who sounds like a lot of fun.

The book really kicks in when you meet Gatsby himself.  He's pretty unassuming, but holds huge parties every night at his mansion for the elite of New York.  Everybody assumes he's some sort of gangster, but the most dangerous weapon you see him use is his smile.  He's a sort of charming, melancholy ghost.  I don't suppose it's much of a SPOILER to say his only goal is to win back his ex-girlfriend Daisy, who lives across the bay.  It's a great image - a lonely man at the centre of a whirl of endless parties, who's simply trying to get a girl to notice him.  Less romantic saps than me may consider him a complete idiot.

The other character I really liked was Nick himself.  He reminds me of a Brett Easton Ellis narrator in his numb, semi-detached approach to everything, but at least he tries to do the right thing at the end when tragedy inevitably strikes.  The plot, though, was the weakest aspect for me.  I liked the set-up and I liked the ending, but the way it got there was clunky as hell - totally reliant on accident and co-incidence.

It's also worth mentioning the writing - there's some great imagery and turns of phrase which make you sit back and ponder before moving on.  Despite that it's an easy read, and fairly short.  Suppose that's why they make kids read it.

I haven't seen any movie version of this, but Robert Redford I could totally buy as Gatsby - he's got an air of sadness and a million dollar smile.  De Caprio in the new version though?  Well, he's usually pretty good in everything.  The new Luhrman movie looks from the trailer like it really goes to town on Gatsby's parties, which I suspect is the right approach.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Use of Weapons by Iain M Banks

I'm still trying to figure out of this is even better than Player of Games...

It's certainly very different - a lot more complicated structurally, and more of a character study than the straight up classic plot of the other novel.  The main character's Zakalwe, a mercenary working for the Culture's Special Circumstances division.  This means he gets his hands dirty changing the history of lesser civilisations while the Culture can stay squeaky clean.  Two things become quickly apparent - Zakalwe's a military genius, and a sick, sick puppy.  He's terrified of chairs, for one thing.  And he has a recurrent vision of a boat, but he won't let himself think about that either.  A great portrayal of a very damaged individual.

There are two strands to this book followed in alternate chapters.  One details him being brought out of semi-retirement by his handler Sma for a new mission; the other works backwards through Zakalwe's life until you learn what the hell's wrong with him.  You get little snapshots of his life - falling in love, discovering the Culture for the first time, going on a drug-fuelled dream-quest, bleeding to death on a desolate island, being decapitated by natives etc.  Very episodic, of course, but it works very well at telling you more about this guy's warped psychology as you follow him through the more straightforward "present day" plotline.  But all the time you're being drawn back into Zakalwe's past, and the demons you know lurk there.  Nice little red herrings along the way, and the denoument doesn't disappoint.

For much of this book, it has a pleasing John Le Carre/Graham Greene feel to it.  Secret agents, exotic locales, moral ambiguity, and damaged heroes who know they're not always fighting for the right side.  My one - small - criticism is that the "present day" plotline looses a little steam and direction towards the end, although it soon picks up again.  The rest of the pretty small cast of characters are also fun - Diziet Sma: a woman very comfortable with her sexuality, if not with the violence sometimes necessary in her line of work.  And the requisite drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw, who's typically sarky, badass and enjoyable.

This is the perfect Iain M Banks book to read after Player of Games I reckon - a sneak peek at the ugliness behind the utopian veil of the Culture.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

The Great North Road by Peter F Hamilton

Okay this is the point I really get into Peter F Hamilton.  It's another whopper - well over a thousand pages if you're unwise enough to read a print copy - but this time it's a standalone novel.  No encyclopedic backstory I'm missing out on, and a proper, satisfying ending, instead of a rushed set up for part two.

Even better - it's largely set in Newcastle 2142.  And you'll be glad to know the clubbers are still wearing t-shirts and miniskirts, despite climate change turning the winters sub-arctic.  This half of the story's a very nicely done police procedural, not unlike The Demon Trap.  A member of the ultra-powerful North family's been murdered but no-one knows exactly who.  That's the problem with clones - they tend to be a bit samey.  The second problem with the investigation is it appears to be the same killer of another North clone twenty years ago and eight and a half life years away.   And they already caught that killer - a young woman called Angela who's been rotting in prison for the past two decades, with some unconvincing story about an alien killing machine.

Now that's giving very little away, because there's so much great stuff going on in this book.  The female badass is a very well worn sci-fi trope, but the character of Angela Tramelo is in a different league to most, both as a woman and a heroine.  I also loved the police stuff in Newcastle - well drawn officers using advanced but limited technology to solve an almost impossible case, while also dealing with office politics and their personal lives.

Then you've got the second major setting - the jungle planet of St Libra in the Sirius system, which is connected via the North family wormhole to Newcastle.  A military expedition is sent there and, of course, things go wrong, but in a really unexpected and interesting way.

The North family are also brilliant.  Three branches of the clan - one based in Newcastle, the other on St Libra and the third doing god knows what in a space station off Jupiter.

And finally you've got the Xanth - some mysterious out of control and unstoppable hyperspace nanovirus which everyone's terrified of.

Amazingly Peter F pulls it all together and pulls it off.  Maybe not everyone will like the ending, but it's proper science fiction and I loved it.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Invisible by Paul Auster

This is going to be tough one to review, as I'm loath to give anything away.  I found a hardback copy in a second-hand bookshop with no dustjacket, so I went in knowing absolutely nothing.  Except that someone might turn invisible.  This never happens.  Spoiler.

I will say that it's really worth reading.  It has a lot of fun playing with different viewpoints, writing conventions, voices, unreliable narrators and the nature of memoir and fiction.  At root, it's all about storytelling really.  And evil.  And love.  All the good stuff.

I used to be well into my Auster in my teens.  I was hooked after reading Leviathan, about an ambigous academic turned Unabomber.  I can't remember if that was before or after watching the great movie version of The Music of Chance, where James Spader and Mandy Patinkin lose a game of poker and have to build a wall.  I especially loved Moon Palace, but all I can remember of that is that the protagonist at one point uses hundreds of books as his furniture.  And his New York Trilogy was a pretty big deal back in the day - three stories deconstructing detective fiction.  Not sure if I ever finished that.  Wasn't as keen on Mr Vertigo though, which had someone learning to levitate.  That's probably the reason I though someone might turn invisible in this one.  He's a great writer though - I'd say if you like Haruki Murakami you should give him a shot.

Alright, that's just a short review but now - finally - this brings me up to date with my reading.  Heading to Florida tomorrow. As well as Banks' Use of Weapons I've got the third Marid Audran novel (currently listening to the second and it's even better than "When Gravity Fails"), the last third of Peter F Hamilton's new one (which is fantastic), the complete GK Chesterton, so I can gorge on some Father Brown, Plutarch's Lives in case I get another hankering for the fall of the Roman Republic (unfortunately he talks about boring Greeks as well), a paperback thriller called The Terror of Living by someone with the unlikely name of Urban Waite (one pound in Asda!), and Orson Scott Card's book on writing science fiction.  Oh, and I'll have two new Audible credits in a couple of days.  Tempted to download a Hitchcock book after watching Toby Jones in The Girl over Christmas.  I'm fairly confident all my bases will be covered for the next fortnight.  I ran out of books on holiday once. Never again.

The Player of Games by Iain M Banks

If you want to start getting Cultured, this is where you should start.  Unlike many of the others in the series, this has one hero, one clearly defined goal and one fantastic ending.

Our hero is Gurgeh - the Culture's top game player, who's grown bored with life on his Orbital.  There are no more games to conquer.  Through a bad misjudgement, he's pressured into joining Special Circumstances (the Culture's Secret Service) to travel to the newly discovered Empire of Azad in the Small Magallenic Cloud.  His mission is to play the most complicated game ever devised, in which the winner becomes Emperor.

I love this clear cut plot, and it's handled so well.  Gurgeh's journey from disaffected genius to reluctant diplomat and beyond is always convincing, especially when he realises the true stakes at play in Azad - which is the name of the game, as well as the Empire.  Even the game itself is explained in a great way - you get a feel for the different boards (which are the size of rooms) and the different strategies and tactics, but of course the game itself is always a mystery.  It's almost like a kung-fu movie, with a varied series of opponents the hero has to defeat.  And of course there are plenty of dirty tricks, distractions and genuinely shocking revelations along the way.

One of the great delights in many of the Culture books are the drones.  They're small floating robots who have full AI and personalities, and are considered as much members of the Culture as the meatbags, if not more so.  They're usually great fun, and two in particular shine in this book - the abrasive and sinister Mawhrin Skel, who's a friend of Gurgeh's on the Orbital, and the naive and prissy Flere-Imsaho, who accompanies Gurgeh to Azad, but seems more interested in birdwatching than the mission in hand.

This has been my favourite of the Culture books since I've been re-reading them - it's just a classic story told well without ten different plots going on at once.  Use of Weapons I remember struggling with years back, but it is highly regarded.  I'm off on holiday tomorrow with it packed on to my kindle, so I may be ready to give it another whirl.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Backstory by David Mitchell

I never know what to write about comedy books - or at least books by comedians.  Is it funny?  Yes - David Mitchell's a funny guy.  In fact, I'd rate Peep Show as the best British sitcom in the past ten years (if you include the US, it would be It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.)  So instead of a review, here are some David Mitchell facts I learned from his memoirs.

- He's never read a book by the other David Mitchell who wrote Cloud Atlas, because he's worried people will see him read it on the tube and think he's reading his own book.

- David Milliband once recognised him in a park and said hello, but confusingly mistook him for the other David Mitchell.

- He once slept with a hot groupie while president of the Cambridge Footlights.  And felt terrible about it.

- He drinks more than you'd expect, and taps fags off people when he's drunk.

- He hates Chinese food.

- He thinks the worst person to bump into on holiday would be Michael Palin.  And he likes Michael Palin.

- He actually enjoys going on those comedy panel shows where everyone shouts and the audience laughs loudly.  Awful.

- Robert Webb is straight!  Well, I was surprised.

- He claims Bruce Forsyth has a method for changing trousers in club toilets without dragging them on the urine sodden floor.  It starts by taking the end of one trouser leg between your teeth, but the rest is never explained.

- He's clearly very much in love with Victoria Coren and is quite aware he's batting above his average.

- The audiobook's great because it's read by David Mitchell.  Anyone else would probably be a bit weird.

- The beard's not working.  I didn't learn that from the book - just the picture on the cover.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Surface Detail by Iain M Banks

Banks has got his M hat on again, and he seems to be churning out the Culture novels again at a steady rate.  Good news for all sci-fi fans.

The main theme here is punishment. Not that this is ever an issue in the Culture, where it's an almost impossible concept.  But for some other civilisations in the galaxy it's a very big deal - so big that digital hells have been created.  The trope of uploading your personality at the end of your biological life (or before) is very common in SF these days, but the idea of this being used as eternal punishment in the afterlife is new, disturbing and interesting.  It's certainly a dig at religion, given Banks' strident secularity, but when faith is replaced by technology - is it still a religion?  One character from the pro-Hell side does say it would be the ultimate sacrilege to take eternal damnation out of the hands of God.  He's lying of course, but surely he's right?  Lots to think about.

Punishment also comes to the fore in the main plot line in the book - a slave girl who's murdered by her owner, the richest man in a society a few steps down from the Culture (though still well advanced of us) and who somehow reappears in virtual form on a Culture ship many light years away.  Her revenge is what drives much of the book, and it's possibly the most successful part.  This is largely became the tycoon Veppers is such a colossal bastard you can't wait for his murder victim to get even, despite the Culture's best efforts.  Banks does seem to love these kind of characters, and Veppers does stay just on the right side of panto villain.

The other stand-out character here is a machine - again not a surprise from Banks.  This is the Special Circumstances ship Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints which does exactly what it says on the tin, or whatever Culture ships are made of.  Lots of fun and very badass.

I did find the book as a whole a bit sprawling and confusing though.  Too many storylines going on for my taste, and I never did quite figure out what was going on towards the end.  Still definitely worth a read, but not what I'd recommend for a first time Culture reader.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Newton and the Counterfeiter by Thomas Levenson

Who would have thought Isaac Newton - natural philosopher, theologian, would-be alchemist - would also have been a detective?  And arguably one of England's very first.

In the late 17th century the Royal Mint was a facing a crisis.  Strange to think now, but back then coins were actually worth their weight in gold.  Or, more often, silver.  This became a big problem when the price of silver started becoming more valuable on the continent.  Economists may be able to help me out, but I think this is because more gold was coming in to Spain and the rest of mainland Europe from South America, so silver could buy more gold across the channel.  This meant there was an actual shortage of silver to make coins, as well as the widespread clipping of coins and the equally widespread practise of counterfeiting.  In fact, one in five coins in circulation at this time was estimated to be fake.  None of this made King William happy, as he was running out of money to wage war against Louis XIV.

Newton was brought in as an all round braniac to sort things out, which he did admirably.  He figured out how deep in trouble were, and set about minting as many new coins as possible.  These had a milled edge, so they couldn't be clipped easily, and they were harder to counterfeit.  He also carried out possibly the world's first time and motion survey at the Mint - finding how fast the coins could be churned out before mistakes and accidents happened.  This not only increased production greatly, it cut the number of injuries to the workers.

But Newton didn't stop there - he also went after the counterfeiters by building up a network of spies and stool pigeons.  He frequented the seedy taverns himself to find out what was going on in the criminal underworld.  Not that all the counterfeiters were to be found in such lowly establishments - William Chaloner was the most brazen of the lot, and actually gave evidence to a House of Commons committee about how he was the man to sort out the problems at the mint.  He was pushing for a top position there himself, despite being the biggest faker of coins in London, and he was almost successful.  I won't give the rest of it away, but suffice it to say Isaac Newton knew how to hold a grudge, and he was man you messed with at your peril.

There's a lot of good research in this book - in large part because a "true crime" book about Chaloner was published shortly after his execution (spoiler.)  But I was especially interested in this topic because it's the background to much of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Trilogy, especially the final part System of the World.  This is where the modern world starts to take shape, with international markets, industrialisation and the seeds of modern banking.  And at the centre you've got the world's greatest scientist turned crimefighter!  Cracking stuff.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger

This is the best drug-fuelled Arabic cyperpunk noir I've read in some time.  It's set a couple of centuries down the line and the Western world has effectively collapsed, leaving the Islamic world in ascendence.  Our hero is a lowlife fixer and drug addict called Marid who lives, works and parties in the seedy Budayeen quarter of an unnamed city somewhere on the Levant with his transexual prostitute girlfriend.  He is, of course, a knight in tarnished armour.  A shop-soiled Suleyman.

There's no space travel and machine intelligence going on here, but there is a lot of nice cyberpunk tropes.  Most people can download software into their brains - either "daddies" which give you certain skills while they're plugged in, or "moddies" which make you think you're someone else - historical figures, movie characters, porn stars. Marid doesn't hold with any of that, preferring to keep his mind clear with a mixture of uppers, downers, hallucinogens and booze.

The plot concerns a missing girl, a crimeboss with a offer which can't be refused and a murderer who's taken on the personality of James Bond, as well as some even less salubrious killers.  It's nicely complicated and has a really great ending - setting it up well for some follow ups.  A Fire in the Sun is next up, so I'll keep an eye out.

What's very interesting is its portrayal of the Islamic world.  This was written in 1987 when fundamentalism and Islamism wasn't really the stereotype.  For the Western reader in 2013, these Muslims are way too much into their booze, drugs and trannies.  Strange how the perception of an entire culture changes in just a few years.  I thought the religious and cultural aspects were handled especially well though, from the elaborate etiquette, to Marid's temporary rediscovery of his faith.  It's always a big part of the book, but it never feels like a gimmick.

The title by the way is a lyric from Bob Dylan's "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues."   At no point does gravity actually fail.  It's not that kind of sci-fi.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Something of a highbrown hit this one. The sequel to Wolf Hall and another Booker winner, which has to be a first.  Certainly well deserved, as this was even more fun and dark than the first one.

It picks up right where the last one finishes - Thomas Cromwell with Henry VIII at Wolf Hall itself.  He's only been married to Anne Boleyn for a few years, but the shy Jane Seymour catches the King's eye and the wheels are in motion for more machinations, justifications and ultimately bloodshed.  It ends with the execution of Boleyn and her supposed lovers.  Spoiler - though you should have paid more attention in History.

Talking of sequels, what it put me most in mind of was the Godfather part 2.  Cromwell's a pretty stand up guy in Wolf Hall.  Ruthless certainly, and he does organise the death of Thomas More, but in Mantel's telling he really was asking for it.  In this Cromwell's a lot more ambiguous to say the least.  For a start, there just isn't the same plausible rationalisation for working against the new Queen just a few years into their marriage.  She's young and healthy - give the girl a chance to pop out a boy, at least!

Cromwell's own motives start to become more suspect, too.  He's still serving his King throughout, but the gradual revelation of why he's chosen certain people to target is thrilling and chilling.  Don't mess with Cromwell!

I enjoyed this a lot more than Wolf Hall, which sometimes got a bit confusing and bogged down at times.  This seemed a lot more straightforward and entertaining.  Fingers crossed the third in the series doesn't go all Andy Garcia.