Monday, November 28, 2016

Trilogies of Terror!

If you're an aspiring novelist who wants to work in the mystery, SF or fantasy field, you'd better roll your up sleeves and get busy because no one's going to take you seriously unless you've got at least a trio of linked novels to your credit. Part of my job at the library consists of selecting books to send to shut-ins, and it's always a nuisance wrangling a trilogy for delivery because volume ones are inevitably checked out for months. Volume threes are always readily available, and that says something about the literary staying power of most writers; writing a gripping volume one is relatively easy, but keeping the quality up for two more outings? Not so easy. So here's the bad and the good of the trilogy business:

Paul Cornell has a CV thick with Doctor Who novelizations, comic books, and scripts for various Brit TV series. His Shadow Police series (London Falling, The Severed Streets, Who Killed Sherlock Holmes?) follows a group of London cops who police the supernatural underworld. So far, so high concept. The first novel, London Falling, was about a murderous witch and was solidly written and quite entertaining. The Severed Streets was dreadful. For one thing, having an actual writer, Neil Gaiman, appear as a secondary character in the novel must violate some kind of literary fourth wall protocol. It's also just silly. In addition to that faux pas, the novel had a murky, sluggish plot, and, worst of all, things got too serious. I can stomach an over-the-top fantasy/SF concept if the author gives me a wink every now and then to let me know he or she's aware of the silliness on offer, but a writer who can't crack a smile at their own bizarre creation? No thanks. Throughout volume two, all the main cop characters are living in various kinds of existential hell, and that made reading it a joyless slog. You must be wondering at this point why I bothered to read the next one. Foolishly, I was intrigued by the concept (someone kills the ghost of Sherlock Holmes) and hoped that an editor might have warned Cornell that his weapons-grade gravitas was misplaced. No such luck. The most recent novel is more of the same gloomy, turgid writing. It should also be pointed out that Cornell is poaching on a genre established by Ben Aaronovitch in his Rivers of London series which features--wait for it--a group of London coppers who police the supernatural. What are the odds? And why was Aaronovitch kind enough to put a blurb on Cornell's book? That's taking English politeness too far. So that's it, Cornell, you're now undead to me.

And then we have Robin Stevens. Her threesome of cozy murder mysteries for young readers are set in the 1930s and feature a pair of teenage sleuths, Mabel Wong and Daisy Wells, who go to a posh all-girls school in England. At first glance this sounds like something a committee made up of the BBC, the National Trust, and Country Life magazine might have cobbled together. Normally I'd run far, far away from something like this, but I'd come across a mention of the series in the Guardian that praised the quality of the writing. It also helped that I was working my way through Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels at the time and I needed some reading material to, as it were, detoxify with. Good choice on my part; although, oddly enough, like Ferrante's novels, Stevens' novels also feature a spiky female friendship. Her mysteries (Murder Most Unladylike, Arsenic for Tea, First Class Murder) distinguish themselves by being as well-written as anything in the cozy field, adult or otherwise. Stevens does not write down to her intended audience; in fact, it feels like she wants to challenge her readers. The characters and plots are far more complex than you'd expect to find in books aimed at early teen readers, there's a nice vein of humor running through all the books, and the mystery elements are really strong. The locked room mystery in First Class Murder is an excellent introduction to this sub-genre for young readers and compares well with adult examples. Stevens is writing more in this series, but I'd really like to see her take a crack at a full-on adult mystery.

I've started a great many trilogies but not finished most of them. The lesson here is that writers, even very good ones, have trouble spinning out a high-concept premise over more than one book. The fault lies with publishers, who are always trying to find ways to hook readers into committing to a series of books (and purchases). It's hard to blame them for trying to maximize profits, but it's counter-productive when you kill a reader's interest in an author by pushing him or her into producing crappy work. 

Monday, November 7, 2016

Film Review: Free State of Jones (2016)

The most interesting part of this film is its subject matter, not the filmmaking itself. Matthew McConaughey plays Newton Knight, a medical orderly in the Confederate Army who deserts after learning that a new law allows the sons of the richest slaveholders to be excused military service. Knight returns to his home in Jones County, Mississippi, where he's hunted by the local Confederate militia. After they burn down his home, Knight hides out in a swamp with some runaway slaves. This becomes the nucleus of a guerilla group that eventually numbers in the hundreds and battles the local Confederate forces. Knight and his men end up controlling a significant swath of Mississippi and declare the "free state of Jones", a land dedicated to the principle of egalitarianism for all men, no matter what their colour. The war ends and the Reconstruction period is followed by brutal suppression of black political activism by the KKK and plantation owners. Knight takes a black woman as his wife after the war, and a sub-plot set in the 1950s shows one of his male descendants, who is one-eighth black, fighting Jim Crow laws for the right to marry his white fiance.

The earnest, plodding, clunkiness of this biopic feels, at times, like a throwback to film styles and tropes from the '50s and '60s. 12 Years a Slave and Glory are set in the same era, but they told their stories with subtlety and cinematic flair without diminishing the messages they wanted to get across. Jones has no time for artistry. Dramatic and romantic elements are handled like assignments for a required university course, and the action sequences are staged like pageants. One battle set in a graveyard actually borders on the farcical.

By this point you might think I didn't like this film. Wrong. What sets it apart from a Glory or 12 Years a Slave is that it's eager and willing to tackle issues that don't normally get an airing in American films, specifically the subject of class warfare. At several points in the film it's explicitly stated that the Civil War was primarily about plantation owners, the plutocracy of the South, defending their capital interests with the lives of poor whites. Most films about this period in history might have ended with the conclusion of the war. Jones continues its study of class politics with the Reconstruction period, which, as far as I know, has never been dealt with in any film. The film makes it clear that the efforts of the KKK and their capitalist supporters were directed at denying blacks political power because that kind of power meant a tidal shift in the relationship between capital and labour. All those notions about white Southern notions of "honour" and ''tradition" and fear of black violence were just hogwash. Whites were only interested in instituting a system of legal peonage to replace slavery. In this way Jones emerges as a superior film to Glory and 12 Years a Slave because the latter two films are dealing in honorable platitudes: racism are slavery were bad. This film brings something new to the discussion by showing how racism is so often a screen behind which politicians and capitalists practice their black arts.

Free State of Jones is a flawed film from a purely cinematic point of view, but as an examination of an often poorly understood part of American history it really has no equal. And lest you think that this subject matter isn't worth re-examining in this day and age, check out the interview below with legendary film director William Friedkin. From the 6:23 mark onwards Friedkin defends the birth of the KKK. It's jaw-dropping stuff, and this from someone who's from the allegedly liberal bastion of Hollywood.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Book Review: The Fall of the House of Cabal (2016) by Jonathan L. Howard

Let's play sports analogies: In the field of fantasy/horror fiction, Jonathan L. Howard is a decathlete who regularly ends up on the podium. He's a 20-game winning pitcher who can paint the corners with the fastball, freeze batters with his curveball, and make them look foolish with the breaking ball. He's a centre in hockey who plays a 200-foot game and can be counted on for some Gordie Howe hat tricks every season. And now I've run out of sports I know anything about. My point, and I do have one, is that Howard is a writer who, within his particular field, is adept at any literary style you care to think of. Depending on what's called for, or as the mood takes him, he can do comedy (high and low), horror, big action set-pieces, mystery, wit, spookiness, and good old-fashioned ripping yarn adventure. His masterful skill as a literary shape-shifter is always most evident in his Cabal books, of which this is the fifth in the series.

This time out Johannes and his brother Horst are on the hunt for the Fountain of Youth. To get there they require the assistance of a three women: a spider demon, a witch, and a detective. The Cabal novels take place in a steampunky Europe that looks and sounds roughly like the 1920s. Cabal & Co. journey to several supernatural realms, fight everything from ghouls to vampiric bankers to Satan himself, and it's all done with style and effervescent inventiveness. That description might make it sound like the author has overegged his pudding (a common fault in the steampunk genre), but Howard is disciplined enough to never introduce a new story element without giving it the proper level of development and creative attention. 

What might be most striking about this latest entry in the Cabal franchise is that it still holds the reader's attention. The woods are full of fantasy writers who crank out trilogies, quartets, and quintets, but it's rare for any of these shelf-fillers to maintain a high standard beyond the first in the series. The Cabal books are consistently excellent. One reason for this is that Howard dabbles in a different type of story with each outing. The series has included a mystery story, a picaresque adventure set in a carnival, a Lovecraftian epic, and a war story of sorts. The other factor that accounts for the longevity of the series is that Howard brought in Horst to be a foil for Johannes. Horst is a vampire with a heart of gold, and his geniality,humour and humanity act to leaven the sardonic misanthropy of Johannes. 

You don't have to be a fantasy/horror fan to enjoy this series. Howard's main aim is to amuse, and what stands out most strongly about the Cabal books is their wit. There are lots of things that go bump, slither, and bite in the night, but the overall tone is comic with a generous side order of rip-roaring adventure. The humour is often acidic, the writing sometimes donnish and orotund (I sense the ghost of mystery writer Michael Innes is present here), and there is absolutely never a dull moment. And here's hoping Horst Cabal gets a standalone novel in the Cabal universe. 

Friday, October 7, 2016

Book Review: The Neapolitan Novels (2011-14) by Elena Ferrante

It's hard to know where to begin in describing or evaluating the four novels that comprise Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, so I'll start by declaring that the foursome are among the best works of fiction I've ever read. And here goes my plot synopsis: the story follows two women, Elena and Lila, from childhood to late middle-age, charting their intense, sometimes antagonistic, friendship, and their life in one of Naples rougher areas. Both women, to differing degrees, rise above their surroundings and backgrounds, but the struggle to do so is daunting and costly, So that describes about 9% of the novels.

The single feature that to my mind sets Ferrante above so many other writers is her single-minded devotion to subverting almost every expectation we have about how a fictional narrative is supposed to unfold. Very near the end of the fourth novel, The Story of the Lost Child, one of the two main characters says this:

Only in bad novels people always think the right thing, always say the right thing, every effect has its cause, there are the likable ones and the unlikable, the good and the bad, everything in the end consoles you.

The above quote succinctly describes the antithesis of the Neapolitan novels. Many novels and novelists are promoted as realistic or truthful or uncompromising, but within that realism, more often than not, there's a solid structure of cause and effect, and most problems or conflicts find a resolution. It's probably the most difficult thing for a novelist to do: put aside their omniscience and let characters and events sprawl out in all kinds of messy directions without providing any pat rationales or conclusions. Stories are really about endings, or at the very least summations, and to avoid this almost seems like a violation of the storyteller's craft.

Graham Greene once said that "a writer must have a sliver of ice in their heart," and by that standard Ferrante has an iceberg in hers, as she's absolutely merciless in showing the faults and frailties of Lila and Elena. The two of them make good, bad and foolish decisions, are brave, stupid, reckless, loving, careless, spiteful, generous, kind, and bitter, and Ferrante dissects, with forensic detail, every aspect of their thinking and emotions. The psychological depth she gives her characters is virtually unsurpassed.

Ferrante also weaves an metafiction element through her novels. Elena is the narrator, and a novelist, and there is much discussion of how personal narratives are unreliable or can even be shared by different people. By the end of the quartet it's even possible to question whether Elena or Lila has been the narrator.

The only bumpy part of the series comes at the end, when Elena moves back to Naples after years away. It's a questionable decision on her part, but why she doesn't leave again, given how rocky her life in Naples gets, seems odd. Also, her problems with her teenage daughters aren't fleshed out and feel gratuitously dramatic. Beyond that, the novels are astonishingly perfect, although their emotional intensity often becomes hard to bear. So take my advice and detox between each novel with some light reading--Dostoevsky, perhaps.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Film Review: Hell or High Water (2016)

If this summer's film slate of superheroes and reboots and sequels, all of them CGI-heavy, has tired you out, cast your eyes on Hell or High Water. It's a modern western set in the driest, most destitute corner of Texas that borrows tropes from the horse-powered westerns of yesteryear to tell the story of two brothers who rob banks to pay off the mortgage on their mother's land.

The brothers are Tanner and Toby. Tanner (Ben Foster) is a career criminal and all-around hell raiser. Toby (Chris Pine) is a divorced dad who needs to pay off the mortgage on his late mother's land. The land isn't worth much, but the oil underneath it, which has just been discovered, is worth $50k a month. But if he can't pay off the mortgage the bank will get the land and the oil. Toby has not, we gather, been a good husband or father, so as an act of redemption he wants to put the land in a trust for his kids once he's cleared the mortgage. The amount he needs isn't much, but it involves robbing banks in a variety of flyblown towns across west Texas. Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is soon on their trail.

What's striking about this film is its conscious effort to harken back to the American filmmaking aesthetic of the late 1960s and early '70s. Films like Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands are obvious visual influences, also the use of local, non-professional actors in small roles. Director David Mackenzie has clearly absorbed the feel of those films and tried to bring them back to life, particularly in the handling of the brothers. Tanner and Toby are the kind of antiheroes that were common in the '70s. They aren't well-equipped in temperament or skills to deal with normal life and have ended up living on the fringes of society, which also makes them unconsciously anti-establishment, a key element of the films of that era.

The most modern aspect of the film is its emphasis on the poverty and despair gripping this part of world. Billboards for payday loan  and debt relief companies dot the landscape, most businesses are shuttered, and the population seems either very old or very unemployed. This is Tea Party America, even though the film never makes any direct political statements along these lines. The bad guys, as in so many old westerns, are the banks, who are eagerly foreclosing on anyone and everything. A briefly glimpsed piece of graffiti at the beginning of the film neatly captures the film's political viewpoint: THREE TOURS OF IRAQ BUT I NEVER GOT A BAILOUT. Sadly, the film is content to just blame the banks rather than drilling down deeper to the politicians who are the banking industry's enablers. The western tropes are cleverly woven through the film, especially during a climactic bank heist that results in an impromptu posse chasing the brothers out of town, and, like the legendary James brothers, Toby and Tanner receive protection from some of the locals. Nobody likes banks.

But this isn't a perfect film. The character of Tanner is too much of a generic crazy cowboy, and Ben Foster overacts accordingly. Chris Pine as Toby is fine, but it's not a very demanding role since he's mostly asked to just look hurt or depressed. Although kudos to Pine or the director for the visual motif of Toby constantly hanging his head down as though literally beaten down by Fate. Only at the very end do we see him standing proud. There are some plot holes, and some awkward and superfluous scenes (did we really need to see Tanner bonking a hotel receptionist?) that mar what's otherwise a lean and efficient film. Part of the blame for that, aside from the script, might be due to the director being a Brit. This kind of gritty, regional story is hard for outsiders to get right when it comes to the details, and Mackenzie is sometimes tone deaf when it comes handling his Texan characters. On the plus side, you can count on Jeff Bridges getting an Oscar nom for best supporting actor.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Film Review: Ghostbusters (2016)

First the good news: Ghostbusters is funny. Not as funny as the original, but miles better than Ghostbusters II, a film almost no one cares to remember. What's made this film relatively unsuccessful (it's still grossed over $200m) is that while it succeeds as comedy, it fails as a film. The original version was funny and atmospheric, mildly spooky, exciting, and visually clever. The new one has none of those qualities. The ghosts were a major star of the first film, but in this iteration the spectres are like props tossed on stage for a group of improv comedians to riff on. That's OK to a point, but eventually you have to try and tell a story, develop an atmosphere, or create a sense of crisis or tension.

The fault lies with Paul Feig, the director. I saw Spy, his previous effort, and was astonished at what an incompetent director he is. He doesn't know where to put the camera, and many scenes feel utterly slapdash, as though he'd gone into the editing room and selected the worst takes on offer. He'd be fine directing a sitcom, but when it comes to features he's out of his depth. Another reason for the film's modest returns is that SFX ain't what they used to be, or rather, our enjoyment of them has changed. When the first Ghostbusters came out in 1984 the effects were ooh and aah-worthy. Audiences were only seven years removed from the SFX revolution that was Star Wars, and were eager for more of the same. By today's standards the '84 film looks a bit primitive, but at the time it was impressive. These days audiences don't view effects as anything special. Even middling budget films have great effects, so you can't expect to entice people with the prospect of seeing CGI ghosts. And the creative minds behind the CGI in this film definitely haven't done anything special. There isn't a single memorable entity, and the climax, featuring an unholy version of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade is annoying because it could have been brilliant if they'd used the actual balloon characters from the parade.

And now for the Leslie Jones portion of my review. When it came out that Jones, who is black, was playing the one Ghostbuster who is self-described as not knowing about "this science stuff," the social media reaction was swift and merciless--once again, critics said, Hollywood racism dictates that blacks can't be thinkers. They can provide the muscle or "street smarts," but it's the whites who do the heavy intellectual lifting. The critics were right. Casting Jones as the single non-academic Ghostbuster is liberal racism at it's worst. In interviews defending this casting decision, the filmmakers sound pleased with themselves just to have given a black woman a major role, but the lazy racism becomes apparent when you realize that Melissa McCarthy, who's made a living out of playing women who don't know much about "stuff," has been promoted to the holder of a post-graduate degree. Apparently if there's a black woman in the cast McCarthy has to get an educational upgrade. But the casting decision that annoys me almost as much is that Julia Louis-Dreyfus isn't in the cast. How can you do an all-female Ghostbusters reboot without using America's funniest female actor? Oh well, perhaps they can squeeze her into the sequel to replace Jones' character, who'll be off attending night classes to get her university degree.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Book Review: Number 11 (2015) by Jonathan Coe

There's a Christmas hamper quality to Jonathan Coe's writing--a really superior Christmas hamper, the kind Fortnum & Mason's sells, or the ones Billy Bunter lusted after. In both Number 11 and its prequel, The Winshaw Legacy, or What a Carve Up! (1994), Coe artfully and fluently combines multiple plot lines, a score of characters, elements of tragedy, farce, comedy, social commentary, and a touch of the the polemical (my review). And in Number 11 Coe does all this while also slipping from one literary genre to another without, as it were, grinding the gears. This novel begins with a subtle pastiche of an Enid Blyton-ish story, then adds an epistolary quest tale, a Holmesian mystery, and ends with something that smacks of Dr Who. As a purely literary experience, Number 11 is almost overstuffed with pleasures.

Rachel and Alison are the central characters, and we meet them at age ten when they're staying with Rachel's grandparents while their mothers are on holiday together. The pair aren't really friends at this point, but after an Adventure with a Mysterious Stranger, the two form a bond that lasts, with some major detours, into adulthood. From this point on the narrative resembles a Venn diagram. The centre circle contains a set of Winshaws, a family of media barons, industrialists, and politicians who define themselves by how savagely they can remake Britain into their own avaricious, graceless, cruel and wanton image. The Winshaws were at the centre of the previous novel, but here it's their influence that's being felt--it's now the Winshaws' Britain, and everyone else is trying to eke out a living in it.

Coe uses his wide cast of characters to give us micro and macro views of what modern Britain has become. There's a failed singer who's lured into a dreadful reality show; an Oxford professor whose husband meets with what could be called death by nostalgia; an insufferably wealthy trophy wife whose architectural ambitions lead to disaster; a Katie Hopkins-like columnist who fabricates a story that sends a woman to jail; and a range of more minor characters who all have their role to play in illustrating the decline and fall of the social welfare state.

Although Coe has a lot to say about the state of the UK, Number 11 is not an editorial or opinion piece dressed up in literary finery. His writing is witty, psychologically acute, elegant, and he's not too proud to throw in the broadest of jokes occasionally. Coe is also acutely aware that his kind of comic writing does little or nothing to influence the political climate. In a section of the novel dealing with the murder of some stand-up comedians, he even argues that political satire can actually be counter-productive since it provides the illusion of lively opposition to people like the Winshaws (I actually wrote a piece on this very subject which you can read here). Another idea explored in the novel is that the speed and variety of modern communication is a poisoned chalice. A simple typo on SnapChat breaks up a friendship, and the cynical editing of a TV show almost ruins a woman's life. But Coe is not a Luddite. A sub-plot detailing a man's search for a lost film that he saw as a child in the 1960s is a warning that retreating into rosy memories of the past is not a healthy option.

The only problem with Coe's fiction is that it doesn't move at the speed of politics. The Winshaw Legacy seemed outrageous until Tony Blair and David Cameron came along, and Number 11, which was published less than a year ago, would undoubtedly be a much different novel if it had been written in a post-Brexit vote world. Fortunately, that means we're almost certain to get a third novel in this series, one in which Coe shows how the vulturous Winshaws plan and profit from Brexit. I look forward to it already. I even have a possible title: Wrexit.