Sunday 27 May 2018

Red Sparrow, the novel by Jason Matthews

What a superb book, and what a pleasure to discover it. Red Sparrow is a topnotch spy thriller. 

When I learned the author was a former CIA agent, I expected it to be authentic and well researched but clumsily written. 

On the contrary, Jason Matthews writes superbly. He has learned a lot from another bestselling author with rather an ordinary name, Thomas Harris. 

Indeed, in many ways, Jason Matthews's Red Sparrow is the best popular novel I've read since Thomas Harris (and Hannibal Lecter) made their own first big hit with another red creature, Red Dragon, published back in 1981.

There are several distinct characteristics which distinguish Jason Matthews's prose. He likes to use animal imagery, which he deploys deftly. "Through the pines, the slate-black river was furrowed by the talons of dusk-feeding ospreys."

In particular he likes to use animal analogies, as when the heroine's heartless spymaster of an uncle takes her to lunch. "He was staring at her as he ate, his dead eye unblinking, just as a wolf watches even while drinking at a brook."

Or when describing the state's reaction to the suicide of one of her classmates at spy school: "The bear sniffed at the body, then turned its back."

Our heroine is Dominika Egorova, played in the recent film of Red Sparrow, by Jennifer Lawrence. Dominika becomes a spy for Russia after her promising ballet career is abruptly terminated. Her evil uncle wants her trained as a 'sparrow' — a kind of espionage prostitute.  

She is sent to the sparrow academy to be indoctrinated in "an Upper Volga Kama Sutra". But Dominika resists this "colossal indignity". She has other plans. 

She is seething with anger and wants revenge against her uncle and against the state. Dominika carefully conceals this secret plan in "the hurricane room inside her."
Matthews writes brilliantly, and with welcome humour. A couple of CIA operatives out in the sticks in Connecticut are "like two Bulgarian swineherds in Sofia for the weekend." 

A formidable attacker goes after them like an "unstoppable serial killer at a lakeside summer camp."

And later, after another, equally formidable, adversary is finally felled one of our heroes mutters, "let's seriously consider sawing his head off just to be safe".
Matthews is also cheeky — he includes a recipe at the end of each chapter, even the most harrowing.

His sources of influence are very interesting indeed. Beside Thomas Harris I detect Ian Fleming — of course.

 Indeed Matthews seems to be mischievously referencing James Bond's creator whenever he mentions a "firm dry handshake" (a Fleming obsession).

And when a character is described as having "eyes, the whites bluish with health" he seems to be channeling the great John D. MacDonald. 

But probably the most intriguing inspiration is Patrick O'Brian. When Matthews speaks of a "toad-eater" (a sycophantic lackey) that's O'Brian. Or when he says of Dominika, "How she longed to wipe the eye of the beast" — meaning to give it a good beating — again we hear O'Brian's voice. 

The only reason I read this book is because of the film of it, which I loved. But I love the book even more and I can't recommend it you highly enough.

I intended to compare the book and the film in this blog. However they are so vastly different — and that difference throws up so many issues — that I intend to discuss them in a separate post all on its own.

Stay tuned.

(Image credits: book covers from Good Reads.)

Sunday 20 May 2018

Entebbe by Gregory Burke and José Padilha

Entebbe — known in America as Seven Days in Entebbe — tells the true story of the hijacking of an Air France passenger jet in 1976 by supporters of the Palestinian Liberation Front. 

The plane full of hostages is then flown to Entebbe, the capital of Uganda, a country at the time ruled by the murderous madman, Idi Amin, who gave sanctuary to the hijackers.

A large cohort of the passengers were Israelis returning to their country. And (spoiler for those who don't know their history) the Israeli military staged an astonishing rescue operation.

These dramatic events were turned into at least three movies within a year of taking place, and now they have been filmed again

I'm not sure any movie has ever been quite so overtaken by current events, though. As Entebbe hits our screens the news is full of reports of Israeli soldiers killing dozens of apparently peaceful Palestinian protesters.

And the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu is all over the media complacently insisting that no wrong has been done...

However, as difficult as it is, let's try and set this all aside and just judge the film Entebbe on its own (considerable) merits. 

I was just knocked out by Entebbe. I expected it to be a fairly gripping account of compelling real life events. But it goes way beyond that. 

It is, in fact, a genuine work of art.

The story it tells has three focal points. The hostages, the hijackers, and the Israeli government agonising over how to respond. 

All are given equal weight, and all feature wonderful actors – notably Eddie Marsan as Shimon Peres, then prime minister of Israel, and Daniel Brühl and Rosamund Pike as two of the hijackers, Böse and Brigitte.

The treatment of Böse and Brigitte in the film is frankly amazing. We care about them and sympathise with them — and yet when they are shot at the end, we welcome their violent demise. 

This will give you some idea of the complexity of this narrative, and how brilliantly it it is handled in Entebbe.

The superb screenplay is by Gregory Burke, a Scots playwright whose previous film script, '71, about a soldier dangerously stranded in the troubles in Northern Ireland, was a modern classic.

And the film is directed by José Padilha, who did the interesting 2014 Robocop remake and has recently been working on the TV series Narcos.

Now, I don't normally credit the directors in the title of these blog posts — film directors get way too much credit already, and screenwriters not enough. But in this case I think Padilha deserves equal billing.

Entebbe begins with sequences of a modern dance troupe, and throughout the action of the movie is intercut with the dancers.

The justification for this is that one of the soldiers, played by Ben Schnetzer, has a girlfriend who is a dancer, played by Andrea Deck (both excellent).

Now I'm aware that not only is this very tenuous, but it sounds like the most pretentious thing in the world.

And it could — and perhaps should have been — but it was actually stunningly effective.

That's what I meant about Entebbe being a real work of art. Both the screenwriter and the director are bringing great creative energy to bear here, and it all works beautifully to fashion something quite profound.

And the film carries a real punch at the end, which again resonates with events unfolding in the real world. Captions on the screen explain how almost all the hostages were rescued safely, and only one of the Israeli soldiers were killed.

His name was Yonatan Netanyahu. And his brother is Benjamin...

I know that summer is here and the weather may well be glorious wherever you are. But I urge you to spend a couple of hours in a darkened cinema with this amazing film. I don't think you will regret it.
(Image credits: only four posters available at Imp Awards.)

Sunday 13 May 2018

Every Day by Andrews and Levithan

I wish I'd alerted you to this movie sooner, and I wish I'd gone to see it for a second time — because it has disappeared from screens with dismaying swiftness. It clearly isn't a big success, which is a great pity because it's also clearly one of the best films of the year. 

Apparently just a routine teen romance, this is actually science fiction. 

It's the story of A. — A. is a strange, body-hopping entity. Every morning A. wakes up in a new human being and inhabits this person, dominating their consciousness until midnight.

The midnight get-out, Cinderella style, is admittedly a bit hokey. But everything else is here very cool. A.'s entire existence has been spent like this. Until the age of 6 A. didn't even realise that this wasn't the way everyone lived.

Our story proper begins when A. wakes up in the body of Justin (Justice Smith), a narcissistic teenage jock who is dating Rhiannon (Angourie Rice), a sweet girl he really doesn't deserve.

And A. falls in love with her. Which leaves A. with the problem of wooing Rhiannon, each day in the body of a different teen, of any or all genders. 

Not to mention convincing her that this isn't some kind of hoax...

The whole story is beautifully contrived and expertly told. (The script is by Jesse Andrews from a novel by David Levithan.) The acting is first rate, as is the directing, by Michael Sucsy. I even loved the locations in Baltimore (my favourite US city).

The thing that impressed me most was the gender fluidity of the story. (For once that clichéd phrase is entirely apt.) When Rhiannon finally believes A. and allows herself to fall in love, it just doesn't matter whether A. is male or female or in between. Or ugly or beautiful or in between.

Back in 1969 Robert Silverberg wrote a  story called Passengers. It won the Nebula Award for best science fiction short story of that year. It concerned disembodied alien entities who could jump into human beings and take them over.

The big shock ending was when the male protgaonist is made to walk into a gay bar and hook up with another man.

In the world of Every Day this sort of thing is no longer even an issue. Which I think is a sign of how far we've come in fifty years. And the world is now a (slightly) better place.

Every Day is a highly imaginative, touching movie and supremely well crafted. It's a criminal shame that it's not a huge hit

Catch it if you can.

(Image credits: All the posters from Imp Awards.)

Sunday 6 May 2018

Victory Disc by Andrew Cartmel

I hope you'll excuse me a bit of shameless self promotion, but my third Vinyl Detective novel comes out this week. Official publication day is Tuesday the 8th of May — although copies are getting into people's hands already and at least one bookstore (naughty Waterstones Leamington Spa) started selling them on the 4th.

Now, I'm not going to do a big, arm-twisting hard sell on why you should buy this book. Essentially, if you've read and enjoyed the previous instalments (Written in Dead Wax and The Run-Out Groove) then I think you'll like this one, too...

What I will say is that a lot of your (or at least my) favourite characters are back in this novel, including Erik Make Loud, Clean Head, Stinky and the whole gang. Plus of course the cats Fanny and Turk. (Closely modelled on my own cats Molly and Jade, and included in these books at the instigation and insistence of Ben Aaronovitch. Thank you, Ben!)

There are two aspects of the new story I would like to mention, though. Firstly, it deals with a crime from the past which still has resonances today. Nothing shudderingly original there. This is fertile territory for a detective novel and Ross MacDonald, for one, used it in all his later Lew Archer books.

But in this case "the past" is World War Two. Indeed the victory discs alluded to in the title of my novel were a unique product of that conflict. 

Popular artists did special recording sessions free of charge, and the resulting discs were distributed to service personnel all over the world as a morale booster.

In particular, my plot concerns the British bombing of Europe during that war. My knowledge of — and interest in — this grim chapter of history is entirely the result of two extraordinary books I was lucky enough to read. A factual study entitled Bomber Command by Max Hasting and a novel called Bomber by Len Deighton.

Both are magnificent books and I recommend them to you regardless of whether you have any interest in World War Two or not. They are both masterpieces of their kind, and they will not leave you unchanged. The extraordinary facts I gleaned from them provide a powerful underpinning for the backstory of my novel.

The other aspect I wanted to discuss is the influence of Cornell Woolrich. 

I've always regarded my Vinyl Detective novels as part of a lineage of crime fiction which stretches back to Agatha Christie and, beyond that, to Conan Doyle.

Cornell Woolrich was a crime writer of the Golden Age, doing his most prolific work in the pulp magazines of the1930s and 40s, though he was still writing into the 1960s. He is best known today for his short story which was the basis of Alfred Hitchcock's classic film Rear Window.

But there is a lot more to Woolrich than that. Specifically, he was as much a master of suspense as Hitchcock ever was. 

Cornell Woolrich had a particular knack for propelling his poor characters into the most hellish of situations. Their suffering becomes the suffering of the reader and his best stories will make you end up in a cold sweat with your heart racing.

I was reading a lot of Woolrich around the time I wrote Victory Disc and I decided to try my hand at contriving the sort of nightmare situations of suspense he specialised in. To tell you any more would be to give away too much about this book.

But I do hope you read it, and enjoy it.

(Okay, now here's the hard sell: British readers can find the book here, with an out of date and wrongly coloured cover. My American friends can find it here, with an equally out of date and wrongly coloured cover.)

(Image credits: The lovely, correctly coloured, green front cover and green front-and-back cover are courtesy of me. I'd like to thank the splendid Martin Stiff for his beautiful design work on this and also my dear friend Matt West of Miwk Publishing who served as a kind of informal colour consultant for this cover. The wrong, wrong, wrong orangey-yellow cover, which you will still find on Amazon, is also courtesy of me. 

And the cover of Max Hastings's Bomber Command is courtesy of me, me, me too. The image of the V-Disc (Victory Disc) is from a little known site quaintly called Wikipedia. The cover of Len Deighton's Bomber is from Books & Boots. The cover of Woolrich's The Bride Wore Black, with stupendous cover art by H. Lawrence Hoffman, is from ipernity. The striking alternative cover design for Victory Disc, featuring the record, the swastika and the slightly bloody Union Jack is the work of the supremely talented James King. Back in the dark days when I didn't think I would find a publisher for these books I commissioned James to design covers for potential editions to be self-published by me. The fact that it never came to that is thanks to Guy Adams and Miranda Jewess. Blessings be upon you both.)