Sunday, 26 July 2015

The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch

For decades I've had a set of novels on my bookshelf by Iris Murdoch, purchased largely because of their gorgeous, sexy Harri Peccinotti covers. They've been standing there unread ever since I once tried, many years ago, to read one and found my brain bouncing off its boring, incomprehensible surface.

I wish I could remember what the title of that culprit was, and pick it up again. Because I've given Iris Murdoch another chance and discovered that she is an outstanding, and often astounding, novelist. 

This time the book I chose was The Black Prince. The title is both a reference to Hamlet and to a dark god of sex and love — a sinister Eros who drives the hero. If that sounds heavy, it isn't. The book is amazingly good, and a lot of fun.

Not that it's entirely without its boring or incomprehensible moments. It tells the story of Bradley Pearson, a rather repressed and fussy middle aged bachelor writer. Here is the grumpy old bugger's description of birds singing in the garden: "The feathered songsters were still pouring forth their nonsense." He's not exactly a life-affirming type.

(He also has a maddening habit of putting "quotation marks" around "words" where they are "absolutely" not "needed". Until it begins to feel like a Krazy Kat comic. I thought Iris Murdoch was using this as a means of indicating what a jerk her protagonist was... until I reached some portions of the book which are ostensibly written by other characters. And "they" have exactly the "same" annoying "habit"...)

But Bradley's dusty existence suddenly and unexpectedly explodes with passion. If the novel has a flaw, it's that this splendid main narrative is occasionally interrupted by commentary from Bradley. And because he's a boring, pompous bastard these bits — mercifully brief — are also boring and pompous. They culminate in an incredibly tedious and pretentious meditation on the nature of art. I couldn't tell whether Iris Murdoch was being tongue in cheek about this, or deadly serious. God forbid the latter. Either way, it's dullsville, baby.

Yet this a minor moan. Having slogged through these interruptions — just a few pages, each, thank the lord — you will find yourself immersed in a riveting narrative which begins with an old friend turning up on Bradley's doorstep and confessing that's he's murdered his wife. From there the story develops swiftly in many very unexpected ways, eventually turning into the greatest novel of rapture in English since Nabokov's Lolita.It is both hilarious and intoxicating. And Murdoch's dialogue — the odd fake Americanism aside ("dough" for money) — is very good.

On top of all that it morphs into, if not a thriller, then at least a gripping noirish and doomed tale of crime worthy of Cornell Woolrich or Jim Thompson. It also features such a hellish portrait of marriage (CF Gone Girl) that it comes as a shock to remember that Murdoch was herself so happily married.

If only some editor had done us a favour and removed those bloody quotation marks...

(Image credits:The slightly dodgy picture of the Penguin with Peccinotti's ravishing photo of the blue girl was taken by me with my phone camera, because there is virtually no image of this edition to be found anywhere on the internet. So I hope you bloody well appreciate it. The only other one I could find anywhere was the selfie by Sonya Davda at her excellent book tip. The covers of other editions are from Good Reads.)

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Savages by Don Winslow

Readers of a certain age may want to respond to the name Don Winslow with the words "Of the Navy". Well, this is a very different Don Winslow, a new American crime novelist who is making waves (no nautical pun intended). I'd been reading about him, and then I saw Oliver Stone's — flawed but impressive — movie of Savages. 

What really got me interested, though, was reading a novella entitled Extreme by Winslow which was serialised in a magazine (all right, it was Playboy). It was very impressive. Terse, enthralling, blackly humorous. And I didn't even mind Winslow's trademark minimalist style in which a paragraph — or page, or chapter — can consist of a single sentence. Or even a single word. 

Normally that sort of thing drives me nuts. I seem to recall James Ellroy's Cold Six Thousand was written in a similar manner and I found it too distracting to read (and I like Ellroy). 

But somehow Winslow pulls it off. (On the back cover Stephen King says, "Winslow's stripped-down prose is a revelation." And he's not wrong.)

So, when I saw a copy of the original novel of Savages in a shop (okay, it was Pound Land), I jumped at the chance to read it. And it really delivered the goods. It's the tale of a trio of California hipsters (two guys, called Ben and Chon, and their shared girlfriend O — for Ophelia) who move into the marijuana business big time and fall foul of the Mexican cartels. (The characters are notably convincing and well motivated throughout.) Winslow tells this story in a manner which is both briskly sardonic and utterly terrifying.

Here is a video calling card sent by a cartel to show what happens to people who don't cooperate: "the trunks of the decapitated bodies hang neatly from hooks, as if the heads had placed them in a locker room before going to work." So our heroes "can take De Deal or De Capitation."

Winslow's prose is marvellously compact and darkly comic. When O's mother is poised to report her daugher missing, Ben and Chon fear she's about to "go milk carton." And the female head of the Baja Cartel is impertinently referred to by O as "the Pink Power Ranger." 
 
The dialogue, too, is first rate. Afer Chon is wounded he's about to be injected with pain killers by a shady physician. Chon asks for a beer. "Morphine and beer?" says Ben. "It's not just for breakfast any more," chirps the doctor.

(The story includes a fascinating account of how the US government actively encouraged the opium poppy growers in the mountainous Sinaloa region of western Mexico during World War Two — the opium was essential for making morphine, needed in massive quantities for wounded troops. And how this came back to bite them in the ass after the war.) 

There is also Thomas McGuane-tinged social commentary here: "Republicans — they cry on TV these days like a twelve year old girl who didn't get invited to a birthday party."

And the book presents a witty, deeply jaundiced view of the world: "Whatever happened to morality?" asks Ben. "Same thing that happened to CDs," says Chon.

It also has, for a crime thriller, something startlingly profound to say about the depersonalisation caused by violence — "It's all fun and games until someone loses an I."

A great book. There's some sloppy editing, though: throughout the novel confusion reigns over whether its five or seven decapitated dope dealers the cartel made an example of. 

It also sees the triumph of the abbreviation and the acronym — DW is aware of this, and amusing about it. Yet it's still a little annoying at the big climax for the reader to have to pause and decode "AR" into assault rifle. 

But I have to have something to complain about... Don't mind me. This is a dark classic of a crime thriller told in a distinctive voice and I am keenly looking forward to the next book I read by Don Winslow.

(Image credits: The covers — a handsome bunch — are all from our good friends at Good Reads. The Don Winslow of the Navy lobby card is from the blog Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.)

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road by Miller, McCarthy & Lathouris

The (eponymous) first Mad Max movie was a violent, vigorous, low-budget action thriller depicting an Australian apocalypse from a petrol-head perspective. 

The second Mad Max (a.k.a. The Road Warrior) was a masterpiece of cinema, mind-blowingly good. The third (Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) was... well, just sort of underpowered and odd.

So I awaited this 21st Century reboot of the franchise with trepidation. But, my word, it is just wonderful. What a fantastic film. It almost eclipses The Road Warrior. 

I say almost because, although Fury Road outclasses the best of the earlier Mad Max movies in its action sequences, visual style, breathtaking design, and development of secondary characters, it does rather short-change us on the characterisation of Max himself. 

Poor Tom Hardy (replacing the now somewhat-too-deliciously-mature Mel Gibson in the role) spends half the movie with a metal gag on his mouth.

But it is entirely misleading of me to start by grousing. I loved this film and recommend it to you in the most emphatic terms. 

It follows the other movies in presenting a post-apocalypse scenario where cars and fuel (gasoline is pronounced "guzzle-leen" in a cuttingly apt Freudian pun) rule in the despoiled and exhausted world. 

No sooner has the movie started than Max is captured, his beloved car taken from him, and he's made a slave by the evil and grossly deformed Immortan (sic) Joe (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne). Actually, I say "slave", in fact they want Max for his blood; Max is a universal donor. A nice touch by writer-director George Miller, who used to be a doctor.

Joe rules a kingdom of brainwashed drones — the Lost Boys — most of whom are dying of radiation poisoning ("Half Lifes"). They have a warrior culture where they believe they go to Valhalla if they die, so they willingly throw their lives away for Joe. The excellent British actor Nicholas Hoult plays one of these doomed warriors, Nux.

All is not well in Joe's empire, though. His lieutenant Imperator Furiosa (played by the gorgeous Charlize Theron — never better) is brewing mutiny. She escapes in one hell of a truck with Joe's harem — his breeding stock of lovely wives. 

Cue a furious chase in which Nux is determined to win his lord's approval by getting them back. He is dying, so he takes Max with him, strapped to his vehicle as a living blood bag, connected to Nux with a transfusion line.

(There's a cherishable moment when Max sees his stolen car in the chase pack. "First my blood, now my car," he grumbles. "What next?")

The movie has to be seen to be believed. Shot in the deserts of Namibia it features the most amazing convoy of chase vehicles (including modified vintage hot rods) ever captured on film. 

This is where Brendan McCarthy comes in. A comic-art genius whose work entranced me when he was drawing for 2000 AD, McCarthy soon moved into film design. On Fury Road, his contribution was so crucial he was promoted to co-screenwriter along with Miller and NIck Lathouris (who was an actor in the first Max movie). I see McCarthy's handiwork particularly in the vintage hot rods, and Joe's macabre visage.

This film is sort of colour coded — red for the desert chase and a hellish lightning-shattered sandstorm ("What a lovely day!" exclaims the awe-struck, death-intoxicated Nux). Blue for an evocative extended night sequence. 

And a journey through a polluted, swampy  wasteland with strange figures on stilts is reminiscent of Terry Gilliam at his best. Not to mention Hieronymus Bosch.

The whole thing is a visual knockout and breathtaking. Miller's kinetic mastery of the action film puts him high in the pantheon of great film makers. Tom Hardy, when he is finally freed to speak, turns in a fine performance.

But special mention must go to the gang of old lady bikers who turn up, led by the Keeper of the Seeds (Melissa Jaffer).  They're just wonderful (and they apparently did their own stunts). 

I'm getting goose bumps just writing about this movie. I saw it three times and wish I'd seen it more.

Not to be missed.

(Image credits: Delightfully rich pickings for posters at Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 5 July 2015

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin

I was prompted to read this science fiction classic by the appearance of a recent Radio 4 adaptation. And I'm very glad I did because, although I was convinced I'd read the book years ago, it turns out  that every word of it was new to me.

It tells the story of a human emissary to an alien world, sent there alone so as not to pose a threat, to invite the inhabitants of the planet — called Winter, for reasons that will become obvious — to join an intergalactic federation of worlds, called the Ekumen. 

The people of Winter are people — they're humans, with one significant difference. They're gender neutral, except once a month when they go into heat (called "kemmer") and become male or female, and mate with another of their species who is also in kemmer. If a female is impregnated, she remains a woman until the child is weaned, then it's back to the old gender lottery.

At the time it was published, The Left Hand of Darkness was compared to Dune — another winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards (science fiction's two top honours). But in many ways it is the opposite of Dune. It is set on a frozen world in the grip of an ice age, rather than one which is all baking desert. 

And whereas Dune is an adventure epic featuring vast battles, this is more of an internal story, concerned with psychology and character over action. 
 
But both are tales of survival, featuring long arduous treks. And both have an interesting take on psychic powers.

Ursula LeGuin is a writer of distinction.The book begins in a "dark storm-beaten city of stone" where a royal parade features the "preposterous disconsolate bellow" of alien musical instruments. LeGuin is particularly good at describing nature — the "quiet and pale darkness of snowfall" or the "windy autumn dark" or a "warm stormy summer dusk."
 
Winter is a world conditioned by its climate, and the clich├ęs of the people reflect that: "a lot of snow out of one cloud"; "the glaciers didn't freeze over night." In this strange and convincingly evoked world our hero must contend with treachery and court intrigue. 

LeGuin writes about this amusingly. The king's adviser stares at the envoy "for some while as though establishing lunacy." And in this nation "assassination is a lively institution."

The envoy's mission goes horribly wrong and turns into a hellish ordeal which he escapes, only to face an almost impossible journey through a frozen wilderness of glaciers and volcanic activity. 

Even here, or perhaps here most of all, the beauty of LeGuin's writing is alive:  "sunlight and blue shadows lay vivid on the snow." And a volcano is in eruption: "Worms of fire crawl down its black sides, seen when wind clears off the roil and seethe of ash-cloud and smoke-cloud and white steam."

Perhaps the most striking, and psychologically acute, moment comes when the envoy is finally reunited with fellow members of his team. After his years on Winter, these normal humans look utterly alien to him...

And, incidentally, in case you were wondering, the left hand of darkness is light — hence the yin-yang symbol drawn by the hero to his friend in the story, and also by LeGuin herself in the signed copy shown here (and now nestling on my bookshelf).

(Image credits: The copy I bought, the Ace Science Fiction Special first edition with the lovely Leo & Diane Dillon cover painting is from eBay, the gorgeous original painting is from a Tor blog and the variant editions, in German and Finnish and the original US hardcover are all from Good Reads.)

Sunday, 28 June 2015

The Roots of Coincidence by Arthur Koestler

I was working in my kitchen the other day, and thinking about politics. As I do. The radio was playing in the background. I was reflecting on a certain politician and thinking that he was right wing. And, at that exact moment, on the radio, they were talking about cavalry maneouvres at Waterloo and uttered the words "on the right wing."

What do we make of this? Well, nothing. It's just a coincidence, nothing more. But one doesn't have to experience too much of this kind of stuff to begin to be intrigued by synchronicity, strange happenings and parapsychology.

I will admit I'm mildly fascinated by this whole subject (telepathy, ESP, precognition, etc. etc), or at least I would be if it wasn't such an ocean of hokum. I'd love to read more about it, but most of the books available are by cynical crystal-selling charlatans or gullible crystal-buying chumps.

What I want is a proper, scientific, sceptical, hard-headed account of the subject. The trouble is, most scientists would run a mile (sorry, 1.609344 kilometres) from anything that smacks of parapsychology or the paranormal. There is a terrible danger of ruining their careers by even being associated with such stuff.

Fortunately, the great writer and scholar of science Arthur Koestler was fascinated by the subject and wasn't afraid to delve into it. His slim volume The Roots of Coincidence makes for engrossing reading. It's witty, intelligent, compelling and generally very accessible.

But there remains a problem even with a book as good as Koestler's. Material about the paranormal falls into two categories, subjective personal anecdotes and carefully controlled scientific experiments.

The personal anecdotes are often absolutely rivetting... but ultimately completely unverifiable. Even if a whole bunch of people swear something happened, it still really only amounts to hearsay. 

Whereas on the other hand the carefully controlled experiments are utterly reliable... and as dull as ditchwater. They consist of, for example, thousands of repeated attempts to guess which randomly generated number or symbol will pop up next. With the results then subjected to careful statistical analysis. Professor J.B Rhine at Duke University was the poster boy for this kind of research.

And what does the careful statistical analysis tell us? Well, according to the statistics, ESP exists. Beyond question. There is no way the results of innumerable experiments could have been achieved by chance. But although the facts may be irrefutable, no respectable scientist can stomach this sort of thing... Warren Weaver said "I end by concluding that I cannot explain away Rhine's evidence, and that I also cannot accept his interpretation." 

Another study was conducted by Professor William McBain at the University of Hawaii. Reporting about it in New Scientist in 1970, the rigorous and sceptical magazine concluded "chance guessing alone is not enough to explain the results."

And what has happened in the ensuing 45 years? Well, when Koestler died in 1983 he left his personal fortune to endow a unit dedicated to parapsychology research. They started operating in 1985. One of the founding members was Caroline Watt, who was interviewed by New Scientist in their 25 April 2015 issue, in an article asking, "What has 30 years of research uncovered?"

The answer is, not a lot. Watt herself seems quite dismissive of the whole question of the paranormal. The only glimmer of interest in her interview concerns some ESP experiments using the Ganzfeld method. Again, the results are statistically significant. But Caroline Watt says, "I'm not persuaded that this provides conclusive evidence for ESP. I am in the camp that thinks there is an anomaly, but I am not sure how to interpret it."

That sound you hear is the planchette rattling around in the box containing your ouija board, as the shade of Arthur Koestler tries to spell out some choice four letter words...

(Image credits: Thank you, Good Reads for the book covers. The New Scientist magazine cover is from Mag Stack. The Ganzfeld image is from Before It's News.)

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Survivor by Philip Shelby

Last week I wrote about Spooks: the Greater Good, an espionage thriller set in London. It's by no means a bad film, and at times highly effective. However, it so happened that as I continued my multiplex movie-going binge that day the next film in my sights was Survivor. 

I really didn't know anything about it (I told you it was a binge) except that it had a poster featuring Pierce Brosnan holding a gun with a silencer on it (suppressor, actually, but let's not get technical here). 

And that was good enough for me.

Well, it turned out that Survivor was also an espionage thriller set in London. And in retrospect Spooks began to look a lot less effective. In fact, Survivor blew it out of the water. In just about every possible way.

Perhaps most importantly, Survivor featured a protagonist I cared about deeply, whereas Spooks merely had a cannily cast star in the form of Kit Harrington, bringing with him residual audience sympathy from Game of Thrones. 

But Survivor is built around Mila Jovovich, a beautiful and affecting actress who has been wasted in the last decade or so in a fairly low-rent zombie franchise (Resident Evil... the sixth instalment, promisingly subtitled The Final Chapter, is in preproduction). Before that she was best known for her unforgettably skimpily costumed debut in The Fifth Element.

Jovovich is wonderful in Survivor as Kate Abbott, an ordinary woman caught up in murderous intrigue — a classic Hitchcock situation. She is soon plunged into a double chase — with both the bad guys and the cops after her — another classic Hitchcock situation. In fact, in Kate's case it is a triple chase, with the bad guys, the London cops and her own security service after her.

Kate works in the visa section at the US Embassy in London and the research which writer Philip Shelby has obviously conducted about embassy procedure is one of the great strengths of this movie. Shelby has done a terrific job, crafting an absolutely engrossing nail-biter of a thriller. As far as I can tell, this is his first script. It sure as hell won't be his last.

The film is directed by James McTeigue, who does a fine job of using the splendid London locations, beautifully shot by cinematographer Danny Ruhlmann (who previously worked with McTeigue on the Edgar Allan Poe movie The Raven). 

It is also features a very impressive Pierce Brosnan — almost unrecognisable with a distinguished head of grey hair — as an implacable and meticulous hitman.

Survivor begins strongly, never lets the viewer go, and develops into the most audacious tale of a planned atrocity since Thomas Harris's Black Sunday. Along the way it gets a little far fetched, though never remotely as far fetched as Spooks. It's a terrific movie which has made little impact at the box office and seems undeservedly destined for obscurity. Let's not let that happen.

(Images: all posters are from the reliable Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Spooks by Brackley and Vincent

Spooks was a British TV series created by David Wolstencroft, a spy thriller about the UK's internal intelligence service MI5. It ran for a record breaking ten seasons and was widely popular, though it never did much for me. I watched some of the early episodes, but gave up on it when Tom, played by Matthew Macfadyen suddenly and arbitrarily walked into the sea. I kept expecting him to walk back out again. When he didn't, I stopped watching Spooks.

Tom's watery disappearance wasn't the show's only problem. It really pissed me off that Spooks didn't have any on-screen titles. That meant that none of the cast or crew or — most importantly for me, none of the writers — ever received any credit. There was some bullshit notion that this lack of titles made the super-secret spy drama more convincingly super-secret. Or something. And there was the even more bullshit notion that anyone interested could look up the credits online. Freelancers working in television have a tough enough time without some creative geniuses dreaming up ways of stealing their credits from them.

The series was also, if memory serves, addicted to really dumb right-wing conspiracy theory plots. Which has a bearing on the new movie, spun off from the series, with the cumbersome title Spooks: The Greater Good.

First the good news. Spooks the movie is a very proficient spy thriller making wonderful use of its London locations. Director Bharat Nalluri (who also made The Crow: Salvation) and his editor Jamie Pearson do a great job on all the highly effective action and suspense sequences. And cinematographer Hubert Taczanowski (last seen working on The Face of an Angel — a film I disliked intensely, but certainly not for its cinematography) deserves special mention for his magnificent work here.

The cast is excellent, too, including faces from the original TV series (such as Peter Firth) with the canny addition of Kit Harington, one of the BSDBs (brooding stubbled dream-boats) from Game of Thrones as the lead.

The script by Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent, both of whom worked on the original series, is also well crafted, efficiently deploying plot elements, and even coming up with a twist ending which I didn't see coming. 

But there is a gaping hole in the movie. The whole story is driven by the notion that some Shadowy Conspiracy is afoot. Our hero Harry Pearce (Firth) can't come in from the cold because the Shadowy Conspirators will murder him and triumph in their Shadowy Conspiracy. And what is the conspiracy? The "Americans" want to discredit MI5 so they can "absorb it". What does this mean? It doesn't mean anything. The USA couldn't take over the British intelligence service without first taking over Britain.

So it's a non-threat. Worse than that, it's a purely abstract non-threat. It only exists in the movie in about three lines of dialogue. We never see it made real in the form of characters or story situations. You can't hang an entire movie on such a slender, indeed non-existent thread. This is a big problem for Spooks: the Greater Good. If you're going to have such a grim, serious, pretentious attitude you need to justify it. (I also don't think the physics of the suicide vest detonating against the bullet proof glass would have anything resembling the desired effect in the real world.)

But the bigger problem is that within an hour or so of seeing Spooks: the Greater Good I was sitting in another screen at the multiplex seeing another, vastly superior spy thriller making even more wonderful use of its London locations. It was called Survivor, it made Spooks pale by comparison, and I will tell you about it next week.

(Image credits: the movie posters are from Imp Awards. The TV show DVD cover is from Amazon.)