Sunday 29 June 2014

Bloodline by Felix Francis

I'm generally opposed to writers who make a career out of exploiting the name of more famous writers (and famous writers who get unknown authors to pen their books for them — James Patterson, stand up please). 

But when a nice lady called Judi Heath mistakenly bought a Felix Francis novel thinking it was one by his father, Dick Francis (Dick's name is huge and prominent on the cover, Felix's less so) and she offered it to me to read when she was finished — I resolved to keep an open mind about the son following in his famed father's footsteps.

My first reaction was pleased surprise. I had low expectations, but it turns out Felix is a skilled writer. The horse racing background (in this case, the television presenting side) is thoroughly researched and well evoked. Not surprising when you learn that Felix used to help his dad with the research for his novels. And I was soon involved in the story. I was actually looking forward to picking up the book and finding out what happened next.

Felix Francis has some weaknesses in comparison to his father. Felix's dialogue is a bit awkward: "I hear through the press's grapevine that he'd found out about your affair." I don't think people really speak like that. And all the talk of presses and grapevines makes me think of winemaking.

Also, he suffers from what I call the hesitation syndrome. It's a maddening tendency not to just state something explicitly, but to hedge it around with qualifications. Hence Felix writes "I could almost feel the injection of adrenaline into my bloodstream that the countdown to the start had produced." Why not have the guy feel it instead of almost feeling it? Elsewhere he describes the music at party being turned up, "making further conversation difficult if not impossible." Why not just make it impossible? You get the picture. It just bugs me.

On the other hand, Felix Francis provides an enjoyably high standard of malevolent mayhem. There is some truly shocking violence. He also generates terrific suspense and provides some first rate surprises. These are all hallmarks of his father's writing, and indicate that Felix has studied the form carefully and done an admirable job putting the lessons into practise. 

The sequence which would have really made his dad proud is the bit where our hero leaves a party, gets into his car and is about to drive off when a shadowy assailant lunges from the back seat and proceeds to garrote him. He only manages to save his life by starting the car and crashing it. But the best bit comes when the police turn up and, instead of being concerned about the assault, assume our hero is drunk and set about trying to charge him.

This is the sort of set piece which Dick Francis did so well (see the aftermath of the knife attack in Banker). It really revs up a reader's emotions — those goddamn cops! — and the ability to stir us up like that is the sign of a masterful writer. Felix Francis has learned his craft scrupulously and applies it skilfully. His stuff is highly readable and I'd happily devour another of his novels.

What is missing from his work only becomes evident when you pick up another book by his dad. There is an element of poetry — of vividness and beauty in the writing — and depth and subtlety in the characters and dialogue which Dick Francis has and which Felix (so far, I've only read this one book) doesn't have.

When you consider all the excellent things Felix Francis can do — and then realise that his father could do all that and more — you begin to see just how special Dick Francis was, and what a loss he is.

(Image credits: All the covers are from Good Reads, except the green audio book which is from Down Pour. I particularly like the elegant one at the top, by the very talented artist and designer Ben Perini. This is the edition I read. Thanks, Judi.)

Sunday 22 June 2014

One Fat Amis Man

Continuing my pleasurable project of reading all of Kingsley Amis's fiction, in more or less chronological order, we now arrive at his fifth novel One Fat Englishman (1963). Amis's development as a writer is really quite impressive. The book is stylistically strikingly different from its predecessors, as if Amis was constantly experimenting with technique and setting challenges for himself. It's also very well crafted and confidently written.

It begins with nearly two solid pages of dialogue, with no exposition or scene setting. This reads almost like the work of George V. Higgins or Elmore Leonard (two American crime novelists who wouldn't be writing like this for another decade). So we are plunged straight into the world of Roger Micheldene, the eponymous obese Brit, an obnoxious publishing executive visiting America — the book draws heavily on Amis's experience of teaching in Princeton a year or two earlier.

And obnoxious is the word. Roger is a drunk and a rage-addict. He is a snob and a connoisseur of snuff and cigars. Although he is in America (a country he hates) on business, his primary objective is pursuing another man's wife, with whom he is deeply infatuated. Oddly, Roger is religious, saying his prayers at night, a first for an Amis hero. Perhaps this is a nod to Graham Greene (or 'Grim Grin' as Amis called him). 

Roger is also unusual in the Amis canon in that he is utterly upper class — such types are often beautifully evoked in Amis, but up to now have always been at the periphery of the novels, never the central figure. Similarly, never before has such an entirely negative and offensive person occupied centre stage. In Take a Girl Like You, Jenny stops Patrick from throwing gravel at some chickens. In One Fat Englishman nobody stops Roger from taking a child's toy robot and throwing it away, deep into the woods. And in Take a Girl Like You Patrick wasn't always like that, nor was he the only character the novel focused on. But Roger is always like that, and he is always the character we're stuck with here. 
Indeed, Roger is such a rebarbative and repellent figure that the book is virtually dead in the water from the word go. We are effectively stuck inside Roger's head, and in his world view, and since he is so thoroughly unsympathetic — and moving through a realm of characters who are equally unappealing — the novel isn't exactly a cheerful experience.

But, as you'd expect in Amis, there are moments of brilliant observation and comedy. A shirt is described as having "a pattern reminiscent of cushion-covers in typists' flats." (I suppose the day isn't too distant when no one will no what the hell a typist was.) When the girl he lusts after dons a bikini and goes swimming, "Roger sat watching like a sniper waiting for a clear shot at a general." And Roger's opinion of satire is compared to his feelings about "mentholated snuff or an African politician." 

There are also a lot of moments which present a very dark view of humanity. After describing a hideously bratty child, Roger ruminates "It was no wonder that people were so horrible when they started life as children".

Amis generally writes his American dialogue very well, but occasionally comes a cropper. I doubt if any American when telling time says "a quarter of" the hour (as opposed to "a quarter to") or used the word "shan't", or uttered the phrase "I should say not," in 1963 or any other year. 

One Fat Englishman calls to mind another portrait of America by a foreign writer who was a novelist of genius — Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. It is reminiscent of Lolita in the darkly comic, acid outsider's perspective it has on the Cold War USA and its ways. And also, quite strongly, in the scene where the hero's beloved runs off with the villain of the novel. Amis would not have appreciated this comparison. He detested Nabokov in general and Lolita in particular. His son, Martin, on the other hand loves Nabokov. So perhaps it's no surprise that of all his father's novels, this is the one which seems to have had the most emphatic influence on Martin. Indeed, perhaps to the extent that he's never got over it.

One Fat Englishman is written in an unusual and striking style: sharp edged, angular, cartoonish, with a heightened sense of reality (or unreality). It would provoke a furious and venomous outburst from Roger to say this, but it is very American, resembling the work of, say, Terry Southern or John Barth from the same period. Come to think of it, it's also a work of satire. 

Pass the mentholated snuff.

(Image credits: The Penguin first edition with the great hairy-belly and Union Jack snuff box cover — design by Freire Wright, photography by Karl Ferris — later a great psychedelic photographer of rock stars) is actually the copy I read, bought from eBay. The rest are from Good Reads. Except the American hardcover which is from ABE.)

Sunday 15 June 2014

An Amazing Spider Dud

I'd reached the point where my praise of Marvel comic book movies had become so all pervading and almost automatic (see recent examples here and here) that it's a considerable relief to report that one is a real stinker.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a complete dud. And in discussing it I shall be revealing some plot twists so you may want to look away now. 

There have always been some built in problems with Spider Man movies. For a start — unlike Batman, say — Spidey's adversaries are some of the worst and weakest super villains imaginable.

This film begins with our hero battling a stupid blue electric guy (Jamie Foxx wasted in a thankless role) and ends with him confronting a big stupid rhino guy. Other crappy Spider Man villains include Doctor Octopus and the vulture guy. Even the goblin guy is a bit dull.

Yet none of this has prevented some fine earlier films. Indeed, the first Amazing Spider-Man was well made, impressive and great fun. So why is this sequel, still starring the excellent Andrew Garfield, such a comprehensive failure?

Well, it's the script I'm afraid. It gives me no joy to say this because two of the writers involved, Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci are among my favourite writing partnerships while James Vanderbilt wrote the superb White House Down. (The fourth name on the screenplay credits is Jeff Pinkner who was, like Kurtzman and Orci, involved in the TV shows Alias and Fringe.) 

But this movie is a mess. And boring. A whole bunch of big noisy stuff happens but the audience (or at least this audience member) remained completely uninvolved. There was nothing to invoke sympathy or interest. It was a long dull slog. The only brief flickers of relief were the scenes about Peter Parker and his girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). They are an appealing, engaging couple with great chemistry.

So when Gwen is perfunctorily bumped off at the end of this film, the only possible source of interest is cut off. Oh well, now we need never watch one of these abjectly apathetic arachnid adventures again.

(Image credits: Not surprisingly, no shortage of pics available for this mainstream multiplex blockbuster. All courtesy of Ace Show Biz.)

Sunday 8 June 2014

Swedish Vampires on Stage

Let the Right One In — sorry, Låt den rätte komma in — was a Swedish film. It was written by John Ajvide Lindqvist, based on his own novel. And it was directed by Tomas Alfredson, who would go on to direct Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, one of my favourite movies of all time.

Without beating about the bush, Let the Right One In is a vampire movie. It tells the story of a lonely, bullied pre-teen boy, Oskar, who befriends what appears to be a lonely pre-teen girl called Eli. But I bet you can guess what Eli really is.

They develop a rather touching relationship and, in a mindblowing sequence at the end, Eli saves Oskar from the bullies. It's a terrific little film and made quite an impression. Inevitably an English language remake followed. It was produced by the resurrected Hammer films, written and directed by the talented Matt Reeves and was re-titled Let Me In.

It was a good film, but there was something lacking compared to the original, as exmplified by the duller and more obvious choice of title. (a title which, incidentally, refers to the old vampire myth that you have to invite them in before they can cross the threshold. And bite you.)

But you can't keep a good vampire down, and now Let the Right One In is back, with it's proper title intact, as of all things a West End stage production. Adapted by writer Jack Thorne and directed by John Tiffany, the action has been relocated from a deprived semi-urban wintery Sweden to a ditto wintery Scotland, which makes very good sense.

Indeed, Jack Thorne's adaptation is smart, economical and full of good choices. It is also a miracle of compression, bringing an astonishing amount of the film into a stage production with a single set. An impressive feat.

That single set is also a miracle of compression. Consisting of an eerie forest of tall trees, other spaces are illuminated or defined by props as required. There is also a playground climbing frame which brilliantly doubles in a surprising way at the end of the play and — astonishingly — allows the swimming pool climax of the movie to be reproduced on the stage.

But, despite being impressed by the set, the acting, the staging and intermittently caught up in the plight of the bullied Oskar, I remained uninvolved and unmoved by the action. I was even a little bored.

Tremendous imagination and effort have gone into attempting to replicate the narrative contours of the original film on stage. And miraculously they've succeeded. Yet I walked out of the theatre feeling neither particularly entertained nor engaged.

In the end it irresistibly brought to mind a quote by Dr Johnson: it was "like a dog walking on its hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all." 

Sorry folks, I know this production is highly regarded. Maybe I just caught a duff matinee.

(Image credits: The movie stills of the Swedish film are from Ace Show Biz. The Let Me in posters are also from that same useful site. The Swedish poster is from Fan Pop. The photo of the groovy stage set is from the Beautiful Dundee blog. The theatre poster — bloody difficult to get a halfway decent image, this was the best I could do — is from the Apollo Theatre site.)

Sunday 1 June 2014

That Uncertain Feeling by Kingsley Amis

Continuing my project to read all of Kingsley Amis's novels (albeit slightly out of sequence), inspired by Zachary Leader's biography, I have now reached Amis's second book, That Uncertain Feeling.

It's the story of John Lewis, a Welsh librarian, who is torn between his wife and the Other Woman: "How reprehensible yet pleasant it would have been to make a pass at her." 

The wife, Jean, is very engagingly drawn by Amis, rather in the mode of the wife in I Like it Here — and also apparently in the mode of Hilly, Amis's real life wife. 

The Other Woman, Elizabeth, resembles some of the hilarious secondary characters in Take A Girl Like You, his fourth novel and one of his masterpieces. Elizabeth is also, in her own way, extremely engaging. So you can see why John Lewis is torn.

That tug-of-war is also between Lewis's innate decency and his Welsh working class roots and the immoral Anglicised upper class milieu in which Elizabeth operates. The book is, to quote an Amis catchphrase "full of fun" and also full of the sharp, yet tender, observations about married life and child rearing which distinguished I Like It Here

The novel is, stylistically, a step forward from Lucky Jim, showing the judicious concision and gift for eliding material with the almost cinematic cutting from scene to scene which distinguishes Amis's writing at its best. Unlike Lucky Jim, it is told in the first person, a technique which the writer would return to with The Green Man, my favourite Amis novel.

That Uncertain Feeling is marked by the keen, witty observation of character which is an Amis hallmark. Lewis's wife walks out her front door and glances quickly around "as if fearful of snipers." Or a man evading Lewis's gaze in a pub: "he turned away like an alcoholic sighting a pink rat." Great descriptions of inanimate objects, too. Such as the "ship's siren out in the bay, a low-pitched, harsh moan like an ogre breaking wind."

One interesting aspect of the book is how science fiction creeps into it. Like Amis himself, Lewis is an SF fan, a regular reader of Astounding magazine and this allows Amis to use science fiction imagery in his prose. Tormented by his longing for infidelity, Lewis thinks how nice it would be if he were like a creature on "one of the outer planets of Vega, where life... was transmitted by asexual reproduction."

This novel does, however, have a serious flaw. There is a sequence where Lewis is around at her house with Elizabeth, the other woman. They think they have plenty of time alone, but Elizabeth's husband returns unexpectedly. Lewis tries to flee the house but gets lost (it's a large mansion). After various misadventures he ends up in Elizabeth's dressing room where he finds an antique traditional Welsh woman's costume (Elizabeth has been putting on a play). Then Lewis for no discernible reason decides to put on the traditional Welsh woman's costume.

He isn't drunk, he isn't a cross dresser, he isn't crazy. Elizabeth hasn't dared him to do it (which I think would be the most plausible motivation in an admittedly thin field). He just puts this costume on, for no reason. Or rather, there is a reason — the author wants him to. It's an entirely arbitrary — and deeply unconvincing — act. And of course events conspire to force Lewis to flee the house still wearing the costume. And catch the bus home in it. And "hilarious" events ensue.

It's an unfunny episode, which falls completely flat. Because it's completely unbelievable. As John Lewis himself might say, "There's no bloody reason for it, man." And it almost sinks the whole book. Almost but not quite. It's a considerable tribute to Amis's skills as a novelist that he manages to regain lost ground. Subsequent set pieces involving some brilliant use of minor characters and very dry humour enabled me to forgive.

And, as is becoming customary with Amis, I learned a new word: amphisbaenic (spelled or perhaps misspelled "amphisboenic" throughout the Penguin edition). It means resembling a (mythical) serpent with a head at both ends. That's what Elizabeth's fancy car looks like.
(Image credits: The recent Penguin with the Nicholas Garland cartoon cover, which is the edition I read, the Penguin Modern Classic with the nice cover painting (peering through bookshelves) and the Panther up-skirts photograph are all from Good Reads. The yellow jacket Gollancz original hardcover is from an ABE seller. The US hardcover with an attractive cartoon cover is from another ABE seller. The rather cool Australian paperback, published by Horwitz, is from yet another ABE seller. Thanks to all concerned.)