Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Book Review: Cuckoo Song (2014) by Frances Hardinge

Fairies are overlooked in most contemporary fantasy and YA literature. It's werewolves and vampires who rule the roost these days when it comes to folkloric creatures. Clearly, fairies need better representation; a high-profile PR firm, perhaps, or maybe a top agent at CAA. Once upon a time, as they say, fairies were a staple of fantasy stories stretching all the way back to Shakespeare. For quite a while now, however, fairies have been relegated to picture books and junior fiction that presents them as Barbie dolls with wings. Frances Hardinge's fairies are mad, bad and dangerous to know.

The setting is a fictional English town in the early 1920s. Triss Crescent, age thirteen, has just woken from a coma that resulted from a fall into a pond. She seems fine, but Triss knows that somehow she's not the same person she was. For one thing, she has an insatiable appetite that no amount of food can satisfy. And what about those cobweb tears? Pen, Triss' younger sister, angrily declares that Triss is not, in fact, Triss: she's an impostor. Their parents don't know what to make of the changes in Triss, and Pen's accusations are simply ignored. It's clear Pen has always ranked lower on the family totem pole than Triss. The family is also haunted by the loss of their adult son, Sebastian, who died five years previously in World War One. His former fiance, Violet, is also on the scene, and her independent, motorcycle-riding, ciggy-smoking, jazz-loving ways deeply offend Mr and Mrs Crescent. In short order we, and Triss, come to the realization that she's a changeling, swapped by the fairies (called Besiders here) in order to punish Mr Crescent. The novel is essentially a mystery-thriller, as Triss tries to uncover the secret of her origin, retrieve the real Triss from the fairy kingdom, and find out what the Architect (the Oberon of the Besiders) is up to.

Hardinge's plot is lean, cleverly put together, and always exciting, but what sets her apart from almost everyone else in this field is the quality of her prose and her unbridled imagination. The average writer in the YA/fantasy world is obsessed with world-building, to the point where some novels read like computer software manuals. One gets the feeling that Hardinge writes in this field because it allows the greatest scope for her prose, especially her exquisitely-crafted metaphors and similes. Here's a sample:

Every time she closed her eyes, she could sense dreams waiting at the mouse hole of her mind's edge, ready to catch her up in their soft cat-mouth and carry her off somewhere she did not want to go.

Hardinge's world-building is right up there with her prose. She ticks all the fairy lore boxes, but in each case adds an extra ingredient or a twist on the conventions of the genre. One example: there's a fairy ride at midnight that both honours convention (humans think it sounds like a flight of geese) but takes the form of a tram filled with fairies that bounds over snowy rooftops in a sequence that brings to mind the work of animator Hayao Miyazaki. And then there's Violet, whose grief for the dead Sebastian takes magical shape in cold, ice and snow if she stays in one place for more than a few hours. It's an outstanding visual metaphor for sorrow and loss.

The fairy characters are true to their roots in folklore. They're feral, hostile to humans, kindly on occasion, unintentionally persecuted by the spread of civilization, and largely unknowable. But mostly they're dangerous, and Hardinge even gives us Mr Grace, a fairy hunter (fairybuster?) who specializes in ridding the world of changelings. Hardinge isn't the first writer to give us fairies cast in the role of sharp-fanged villains. Alice Thomas Ellis did something similar in A Fairytale (my review), and Chris Adrian wrote a modern and very, very dark version of A Midsummer Night's Dream (my review) set in San Francisco. Both are excellent and definitely not for the YA demographic. As I read Cuckoo Song I got the sneaking suspicion that it may have been inspired by a poem called The Changeling written by Charlotte Mew, a British poet who died in 1928. I may be wrong but the poem certainly captures some of the tone of the novel, and here it is:

Toll no bell for me, dear Father dear Mother,
Waste no sighs;
There are my sisters, there is my little brother
Who plays in the place called Paradise,
Your children all, your children for ever;
But I, so wild,
Your disgrace, with the queer brown face, was never,
Never, I know, but half your child!

In the garden at play, all day, last summer,
Far and away I heard
The sweet "tweet-tweet" of a strange new-comer,
The dearest, clearest call of a bird.
It lived down there in the deep green hollow,
My own old home, and the fairies say
The word of a bird is a thing to follow,
So I was away a night and a day.

One evening, too, by the nursery fire,
We snuggled close and sat roudn so still,
When suddenly as the wind blew higher,
Something scratched on the window-sill,
A pinched brown face peered in--I shivered;
No one listened or seemed to see;
The arms of it waved and the wings of it quivered,
Whoo--I knew it had come for me!
Some are as bad as bad can be!
All night long they danced in the rain,
Round and round in a dripping chain,
Threw their caps at the window-pane,
Tried to make me scream and shout
And fling the bedclothes all about:
I meant to stay in bed that night,
And if only you had left a light
They would never have got me out!

Sometimes I wouldn't speak, you see,
Or answer when you spoke to me,
Because in the long, still dusks of Spring
You can hear the whole world whispering;
The shy green grasses making love,
The feathers grow on the dear grey dove,
The tiny heart of the redstart beat,
The patter of the squirrel's feet,
The pebbles pushing in the silver streams,
The rushes talking in their dreams,
The swish-swish of the bat's black wings,
The wild-wood bluebell's sweet ting-tings,
Humming and hammering at your ear,
Everything there is to hear
In the heart of hidden things.
But not in the midst of the nursery riot,
That's why I wanted to be quiet,
Couldn't do my sums, or sing,
Or settle down to anything.
And when, for that, I was sent upstairs
I did kneel down to say my prayers;
But the King who sits on your high church steeple
Has nothing to do with us fairy people!

'Times I pleased you, dear Father, dear Mother,
Learned all my lessons and liked to play,
And dearly I loved the little pale brother
Whom some other bird must have called away.
Why did they bring me here to make me
Not quite bad and not quite good,
Why, unless They're wicked, do They want, in spite,
to take me
Back to Their wet, wild wood?
Now, every nithing I shall see the windows shining,
The gold lamp's glow, and the fire's red gleam,
While the best of us are twining twigs and the rest of us
are whining
In the hollow by the stream.
Black and chill are Their nights on the wold;
And They live so long and They feel no pain:
I shall grow up, but never grow old,
I shall always, always be very cold,
I shall never come back again! 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Film Review: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

It seems that Hollywood has learned something from the fast food industry. Until recently, burger chains and the like competed on price, but over the last decade their strategy has shifted to inventing ridiculous and/or oversized food items that attract publicity as well as diners. That's why we get things like the Krispy Kreme burger or KFC's Double Down sandwich, and so on and so on. Fury Road is the supersized, high fat and sodium content addition to the Mad Max franchise. Instead of one kick ass lead character (Max), why not two? Why cheap out with only one evil, ugly, deranged warlord? Let's have three! And keep the car chases virtually continuous, sort of like the free refills at McDonalds' pop machines.

Fury Road isn't bad, and by the standards of most contemporary action films it's quite good, but measured against the standards of the first two films in the series (we'll try and forget the egregious Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome), it's a bit of a disappointment. To begin with, even though the car chases are bigger and longer, they aren't any cleverer. In fact, you could say they've been dumbed down a bit since this time around guns play a larger role in the action. In Road Warrior bullets were a scarce and precious resource, to be used only in extreme occasions. Here our heroes use them, in relative terms, with abandon. And the problem with unending car chases is that after a while you run out of ways to attack and crash vehicles. The violence is on a bigger and louder scale (although not R-rated, unlike the first two films), but it lacks the spark of demented originality the first two films had.

The oversupply of goodies and baddies means that characterization is an afterthought. Furiosa, the Charlize Theron character, is all-steely resolve, all the time. And Max, the titular star of the show, is reduced to a weapon or tool to be used only during action set pieces. He barely speaks, and, unfortunately, when he or Furiosa do say anything they're given to pompous utterances about looking for "hope" and "redemption." The Warboys and their leader Immortan Joe are visually splendid, but with so many characters involved in the action there isn't time to develop Joe into a memorable villain. He does have a respiratory problem, however, something that's de rigueur for all your top villains.

On the plus side, Fury Road is an emphatically feminist narrative with Furiosa leading the way against Joe's women-enslaving death cult; a cult that bears a strong resemblance to groups like ISIS and the Taliban. The use of a starter pack of supermodels to play Joe's "brides" undercuts the feminism somewhat, but that's only a minor glitch. Charlize Theron definitely earns her stripes as an action hero, and a Furiosa sequel seems both inevitable and welcome. As for Tom Hardy, he needs a sequel just so his character can be properly introduced.


Thursday, April 30, 2015

Film Review: '71 (2015)

If you want to make a decent thriller these days, your first step to success is to make sure your budget is low. The lower the better. A budget that wouldn't pay for Robert Downey Jr's per diem on The Avengers: Age of Ultron is ideal. Minuscule funding means your film can't rely on extravagant action set pieces or big stars like, uh, Robert Downey Jr. Instead of those two crutches, your film will have to focus on character and plot, on the writing, in other words. '71 is a beautiful example of this.

The story is set in Belfast in, of course, 1971. The Troubles have reached a full, rolling boil, and a raw group of Brit soldiers have been sent out into a Catholic area to provide protection for a group of RUC officers (the Protestant-dominated police force loathed by Catholics) who are conducting a raid on a house. A riot ensues, one soldier is killed and another, Pvt. Gary Hook, becomes separated from his platoon and must go on the run through enemy territory. Hook sticks out like a sore thumb thanks to his accent and uniform, and nothing has prepared him for this kind of situation. The action takes place over one night, and Hook becomes the prize quarry for two different IRA groups, a trio of ruthless MI5 men, and his own platoon.

The hunt for Hook is deftly handled. The different groups looking for him have motives that aren't immediately apparent, and the double-crosses and deaths soon begin to mount. The different narrative strands are kept coherent, and thanks to the low budget, there's no time wasted on pointless relationships or redundant background information. In short, the strength of '71 lies in the script's efficiency and attention to detail. One standout example of this is our brief intro to Hook. Before he arrives in Northern Ireland we learn (or infer) from only a few brief scenes that Hook is from a poor background, has no girlfriend, and his only relative is his young brother who's living in an orphanage. This intro gives us a rooting interest in Hook, but it stops well short of an assault on our tear ducts, which a fatter, lazier film might have done. Even minor characters are given a polish that makes them more than predictable storytelling pawns. The platoon's commander is initially presented as a bit of an ineffectual, upper-class twit, but at the end he's got more backbone and more of our sympathy. And what might be the most memorable character is a Protestant boy, who can't be older than ten, who has been transformed by the Troubles into a menacing, pint-sized Liam Neeson.

What gives the film a lot of its tension is that Hook is played by a relative unknown. Put a big star in this role and the audience knows he's going to survive until the end. Stick a nobody in the role and now we're not so sure. Also, I wonder if calling the soldier Hook isn't an ironic nod to the Pvt. Hook in Zulu? The latter film is about heroic empire-building, while this one is about an empire falling apart. And that brings us back to the budget. A Marvel-sized payroll would have given us superfluous characters, action scenes that went on too long, and preening superstars. A low budget, like living on a low income, forces filmmakers into smart and creative choices. They can't paper over plot holes with money. The French film industry has been cranking out smart action-thrillers like '71 for years, and I can only wish there were filmmakers doing the same.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Book Review: American Rust (2009) by Philipp Meyer

This is Meyer's debut novel, and I'm so glad I read his second, The Son (my review), before this one. The Son is big, bold, self-assured and its few flaws are the result of too much ambition. American Rust reads like a novel created by a committee tasked with putting out a literary version of a multi-part New York Times piece on life in the Rust Belt. That Meyer is a good writer isn't in doubt; he writes sharp dialogue, his characters (the male ones, anyway) are rugged, edgy and painfully real, and his descriptions of landscapes, urban and natural, are superb. The problem here is that his novel doesn't have the ambition to be more than just a literary litany of what ails Pennsylvania's coal and steel towns.

The two central characters are Isaac and Billy, best friends, both barely out of their teens, and both unsure what to do with their lives. They live in Buell, PA, and like every other town in the region it's been economically devastated by the death of the US steel industry. Those who aren't unemployed are working for minimum wage or are living a semi-criminal life. Isaac steals some money from his crippled father and decides to hit the road to California by hopping freight trains. Billy, an ex-high school football star, opts to accompany him for no better reason than it seems like a good idea at the time. They are an unlikely pair; Isaac is a weedy brainiac and Billy is a jock with a penchant for violence. They've barely started on their journey when they have an altercation with three homeless men that ends with Isaac accidentally killing one of them by way of defending Billy. A few days later Billy is arrested and charged with the murder, which he doesn't deny in an act of self-sacrifice to give some meaning to his selfish and wasted life. Isaac, meanwhile, goes on the run. Isaac's and Billy's fractured families are drawn into the story, but it's at this point that the story runs aground. The novel is told from the POV of a half dozen or so characters, but what's missing is a compelling narrative. Once Billy's arrested the story drags its feet as we hear from the different characters and their stories of despair and struggle in the heart of the Rust Belt. The only tension or narrative momentum is provided by Billy's stint in jail as he awaits trial and faces the wrath of prison gangs. The writing in this section is excellent, but it could just as well have been dropped in from a standard crime fiction novel.

American Rust is brimming with sympathy for its beaten-down characters and the region that's become an industrial dust bowl. What's missing from this story, what makes the novel so frustrating, is that Meyer shies away from bringing politics into the story. The plight of people in the Rust Belt is entirely the result of a series of ruinous political and economic decisions made by politicians and corporate executives stretching back decades. Meyer barely hints at the factors that impoverished this region. It's akin to writing a novel set in Vichy France and not mentioning the war or the Nazis. The virtually apolitical outlook of the novel isn't unusual in American literature. European writers, especially in the crime fiction field, enthusiastically bring politics and big business into their stories. American writers can't seem to get past their nation's religious belief that the individual and the individualism is everything. They don't seem happy with the idea that a character can be a hopeless victim or puppet of forces beyond his control. Or perhaps they feel that the nuts and bolts of politics and high finance don't have a place in literature. Nineteenth century writers such as Zola, Balzac, and Trollope happily took on these subjects, but the only American of that ilk that comes to mind is Gore Vidal.

Meyer's novel ticks all the boxes when it comes to mentioning issues like drug abuse, unemployment, underemployment, municipal underfunding, poor healthcare, and so on, but without giving these issues any historical or sociological context, Meyer is doing a disservice to the very people he so clearly sympathizes with. The people in the Rust Belt know they've been victimized by politicians and big business, but in American Rust this catastrophe is almost presented as a natural disaster, something that happened for no rhyme or reason.

The committee feel to the novel comes from the inclusion of far too many stock characters and tropes from modern literary fiction. There's the suicide of a mother that damages the children; the Ivy League woman who can't resist the manly charms of Billy the jock; the embittered father, broken in body and mind; and the young, tortured genius who's just too sensitive for this world. And does anyone actually ride the rails these days? Last of all, it has to be said that Meyer is poaching on literary territory created and mastered by K.C. Constantine (my piece on hiin is here), who wrote a series of crime novels set in Pennsylvania's coal and steel country. Constantine, however, was not afraid to bring politics into the mix.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Book Review: Iron Gustav (1938) by Hans Fallada

The eponymous anti-hero of this novel is Gustav Hackendahl, the owner of a large fleet of horse-drawn cabs in pre-World War One Berlin. As his nickname implies, Gustav is hard, unyielding, and largely devoid of any emotions, excepting rage when his will is thwarted. Not a person you'd pick for father of the year, and that's the tragedy at the heart of the story. Gustav has a wife and five children, and this sprawling novel charts the decline and fall of Gustav and his family (and Germany) from 1914 to the early '30s. Gustav has no love or even affection for his children. The only reason he seems to have had a family is so that he'd have people to honour and obey him.

The war begins the ruin, financial and otherwise, of the Hackendahl family. Gustav's horses are requisitioned, his eldest son joins the army, and the other children make life decisions that will take them far away from their father. One daughter, Eve, becomes a prostitute, the middle son a corrupt politician and speculator, the eldest daughter a nurse, and the youngest son drifts from school to long-term unemployment as Germany staggers through the post-war era of economic chaos and political upheaval. Sounds like fun, right? The genius of Fallada is that even though he's describing a cascading series of calamities, defeats and crises afflicting the Hackendahls and Germany, his writing never swerves into mawkishness or sentimentality. The tone throughout the novel is bitter amusement at the ways people can willfully and enthusiastically fuck up their lives and their nation. Fallada points out the political and social reasons that help push the Hackendahls over the edge, but he doesn't let the individual characters off the hook for some terrible personal choices. Fallada also allows for sheer, dumb, bad luck to enter into the story as it does in the real world.

As in his masterpiece, Alone in Berlin (my review), Fallada shows an uncanny gift for describing life on the edge. The physical and psychological pains of being unemployed and/or destitute are something he had first-hand knowledge of, and he writes about the subject with a kind of morbid joy, like someone attentively picking at a large and clingy scab. Fallada is telling the story of an entire epoch in German history and he does it through the prism of Gustav. The qualities that Gustav most prizes--stubbornness, pride, self-sacrifice, patriotism, obedience to authority--are the very ones that send his children off on orbits that mostly end in death and disaster. Gustav's prized qualities are also shared by the pre-war state, which makes his eventual decline all the more inevitable in the context of the post-war Weimar Republic.

Iron Gustav was originally conceived of as a film project, and there is a cinematic quality to certain parts of the novel that helps make it one of the most readable and, dare I say it, enjoyable tales of calamity I've ever read. It's hard to describe this novel without making it sound like a sure cure for happiness, but writing this incisive and energetic, even on a dismal subject, is always a pleasure.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Film Review: Seven Days in May (1964)

This past week saw the latest chapter in the GOP's hysterical attempts to demonize anything Barack Obama says or does. On this occasion they brought in a pinch hitter, Benjamin Netanyahu, who addressed Congress (against all normal protocol) on the dangers of signing a nuclear treaty with Iran. The Republicans cheered and applauded Benjy's every word, and the only thing missing from the event was the ceremonial lighting of torches and sharpening of pitchforks prior to attacking the White House to drive the monster out. Yes, the GOP is now officially one of those peasant mobs in Universal horror movies of the 1930s, with John Boehner in the role of the burgomeister. The Iran fuss follows on the heels of GOP ragefests over immigration, the Affordable Care Act, Benghazi, Obama's birth certificate, and a variety of other issues, both large and small. The common denominator is that the Republicans and the Nazguls at Fox News are convinced that Obama is a crazed muslim marxist who is hellbent on destroying the US of A.

The right-wing's vitriol and fear, both strongly flavored with racism, has been epic, and at several points during Obama's tenure I seriously wondered if a significant minority of Americans who have their hands on the levers of power wouldn't be OK with a coup. I also wondered why no one was rushing to remake Seven Days in May, a thriller about a cabal of Pentagon generals and a right-wing TV news host who conspire to overthrow the government before the President can sign a treaty with the USSR banning all nuclear weapons. Burt Lancaster as Gen. Scott is the head conspirator, Frederic March is the Prez, and Kirk Douglas plays an aide to Scott who uncovers the conspiracy. Probably due to its age, or perhaps because it's story was seen as too far-fetched, Seven Days in May never seems to make any lists of the all-time great conspiracy thrillers. It should. John Frankenheimer was the director, and he's a master at eliciting intense performances from alpha male actors. The discovery of the conspiracy and the President's attempts to derail it are effectively handled, the dialogue is intelligent, and its documentary-style look makes the whole story seem that much more probable.

The film isn't, however, entirely without flaws. A sub-plot involving Gen. Scott's ex-lover and some incriminating love letters could have been pruned, and the documentary look of the film sometimes veers into flat, made-for-TV visuals. Produced at the height of the Cold War, Seven Days in May shows the coup plotters enraged by a policy decision. They have no personal beef with the president, just his plan to scrap nuclear weapons. Contrast that with Obama, whose bitterest opponents have a visceral loathing for him that transcends matters of policy. The remake practically writes itself with Obama's fictional equivalent facing a hostile array of billionaires such as Donald Trump, Sheldon Adelson, the Koch brothers; the combined forces of talk radio and Fox News; and Christian fundamentalist elements in the armed forces. Denzil, are you paying attention? This is your next big role.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Book Review: The Girl with All the Gifts (2014) by M.R. Carey

I find zombie films tiresome and relentlessly unscary, if that's a word, so I surprised myself by thoroughly enjoying this post-apocalypse zombie thriller. Sorry, that's hungries, not zombies. Author M.R. Carey goes out of his way not to use the z-word. I'm not sure why he does this, and it definitely seems odd that none of his human characters use the z-word, but I guess in the crowded field of zombie films, zombie graphic novels, zombie TV shows and zombie novels, you do whatever it takes to stand (lurch?) out from the crowd. But enough about etymology and on to the eating of flesh!

The setting is England twenty or so years hence. A nasty fungus that normally infects ants has somehow jumped species and turned almost all of humanity (the English portion of it, anyway) into crazed zombies hungries. The hungries are akin to the zombies in 28 Days Later; they move fast and they never give up. They also have extra strength and heightened senses. The story begins on a fortified army base where a group of children are being held captive. It emerges that the kids are hungries who, unlike all other hungries, retain their intelligence and personality along with an uncontrollable desire to eat human flesh. They're kept restrained and locked up. The land outside the base is overrun with hungries and "junkers", who live and act much like the bad guys in the Mad Max films. The brightest of the children is 10 year-old Melanie, who is in love with her teacher, Ms. Justineau. Justineau is racked with guilt because she knows that the children are only being kept alive so that Dr. Caroline Caldwell can dissect them in an attempt to find a cure for the plague of hungries. The children are unaware that they are hungries and have no knowledge of the world outside their cells. A band of junkers overruns the camp and Melanie, Caldwell, Justineau and two soldiers, Parks and Gallagher, escape together. They have go on foot to the Beacon, some kind of redoubt located south of London. But that place of safety is a long way off in a land filled with dangers, not the least of which is Melanie, who is trying to manage her urge to eat her companions.

Like I said, I don't care for the zombie genre, but Carey is such a good writer he manages to get past my walking dead defenses. The appeal of the novel, aside from its well-crafted moments of violence and peril, lies in the character of Melanie. She's a sweet child with a love for all the new things the world has to show her, but at the same time she has to control the inner demon that wants to turn her into a remorseless killer. This inner conflict gives the novel its backbone and its most touching moments. The remaining characters are good, but they betray the novel's origins (as we learn in an afterword) as a failed screenplay. Caldwell, Justineau, Parks and Gallagher all fit neatly into their respective action movie character slots--cold-hearted scientist, vocal moralist, grizzled grunt, greenhorn grunt. Carey handles these characters very effectively, but at times they feel a bit too celluloid. The ending betrays its film roots with a scene that's very neat, that brings things full circle, but also makes no sense. That aside, M. R. Carey (the unimaginative pseudonym of Mike Carey) may have made me a convert to zombie fiction. but his best work remains the Felix Castor novels. And here's my piece on why I have a beef with the living, shambling dead.