Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Book Review: Dead Men's Boots (2007) by Mike Carey

This is the third of Mike Carey's supernatural mystery/thrillers featuring Felix Castor, exorcist and literary son of Philip Marlowe. A lot of fictional detectives, supernatural or regular flavour, share some or all of Marlowe's DNA, but Carey pretty much goes the full monty. That's not a mark against Carey since he's an excellent writer and his sleuth is as lively and entertaining as the original. I only mention it because this time around Carey has written a mystery that relies less on the supernatural. Not a lot less, but in comparison with the previous Castor books (reviews here and here) this one is halfway to being a straight mystery.

In this adventure Castor is asked to prove the innocence of a man convicted of murder. The evidence against him is overwhelming to the point of redundancy, but some elements of the crime also point to the involvement of an American serial killer. The only problem is that the American has been dead for quite a while. While investigating this case Felix is also looking into the death of a fellow exorcist whose spirit has evidently turned into a poltergeist.

Carey has many strengths as a writer: he can spin out dense, twisty plots with ease; his dialogue is sharp; and his descriptions of the supernatural are always inventive and powerful. This novel, like the previous two, could easily be a bit shorter, but a greater problem that rises up in this novel is the use of two recurring characters who act as deus ex machinas. Nicky Heath is a zombie and computer genius, and Felix turns to him whenever he needs background info. Juliet is a succubus (a kind of demon) who has temporarily retired from her evil ways, but she's still a very powerful creature who more than evens the odds in a fight with the real or the unreal. Both are interesting characters, but in this novel Carey (and Felix) start to rely on them too much. It's really a case of lazy writing. Whenever Carey needs Felix to learn some facts and figures, Nicky pops up to hammer a keyboard and come up with the goods. And when Felix needs some muscle, supernatural or otherwise, Juliet is conveniently there to break heads. Of the two, Nicky is the most annoying. The computer geek who has all the answers has now become a stock character in film and literature. Whenever a hero or heroine needs to access a database of some kind the geek is there to effortlessly provide all the answers with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of attitude. This kind of character is roughly equivalent to the "stoolie" or "snitch" or "grass" of previous years. Their main purpose is to spare the lead character (and the author) the drudgery of going through files and so on.

Dead Men's Boots is quite entertaining, but I'm a little worried that Carey might not be keeping his eye on the ball. The diminished supernatural elements in this novel are a tad disappointing, and Nicky's role as the all-knowing computer genie needs to be reduced. Similarly, Juliet becomes less interesting the more she's simply used to fulfill the role of the cavalry coming to the rescue.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Top Ten Overrated Cult Films

Everyone's trying to find the next cult film. It's one way to make a rep for yourself as a critic or blogger if you can convince the film geekiverse that there's this film out there that no one's seen, it's low budget, it's weird, it breaks the conventions of the genre, and it's got a great performance by someone you've never heard of but who will, after this film becomes better known, be the next big thing in Hollywood. It's a bit like astronomers trying to find a new space object so they can name it after themselves. Sometimes, however, the mad rush to find the next cult film results in some films acquiring an undeserved reputation, and here they are:

1. Eraserhead (1977)

David Lynch's first film is evicted from cultdom because it was marketed as a cult film before it was ever released. I was in film school at the time and we were seeing pins and posters promoting it months before it came to town. The film itself? An overheated compilation of shots and scenes that try way too hard to be weird. A cult film can't be this self-conscious about its eccentricities.

2. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

This film gets a failing grade for being a tease. It promises sexual depravity, it sings and dances about it for God's sake, but does it deliver? No. Everyone keeps most of their clothes on and I'm not sure if anyone so much as kisses. This has to be most chaste film about sex ever. Oh, and it's only got one really good song.

3. Anything by Russ Meyer

For proof that film geeks are 16-year-old boys at heart, if not in fact, look no further than how often works by Meyer turn up on cult film lists. This man's only real talent was combing the world to find mega-breasted women, which was, admittedly, a daunting task in the Paleozoic era before implants. His films are noisy, less subtle than a stubbed toe, as funny as a Bazooka Joe comic, but he does deliver enough T & A to warm the heart (to name one organ) of any teenage boy.
4. The Wicker Man (1973)

It's no surprise the remake with Nicholas Cage was a dud: the original was equally bad.  Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward provide some good acting, but that only papers over a weak and predictable plot. Unless you're on heavy medication every twist in the story can be seen a mile off, which makes Woodward's character's final immolation a bit of a yawn. Before that happens we get a lot of tedious chatter about paganism vs Christianity and a healthy dose of female nudity, which, as outlined above, may account for its cult status.

5. Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974)

Once car chases became de rigueur for 1970s action movies, the B-movie industry started making films all about car chases. This one is the lamest of the bunch. The "chases" consist of a lot of pointless tire squealing and driving real fast in a straight line. The worst part is Susan George's acting. She attempts an American accent and ends up sounding like a recovering stroke victim.

6. Escape From New York (1981)

The concept was great, but the execution was weak. This sounds like it should be a kick-ass action movie, but in fact it's almost action-free. There's a lot of running around and Kurt Russell growling out his lines, but if you're looking for gunplay and violence you'll have to look elsewhere. Truth be told, John Carpenter, the director, only has The Thing on the plus side of his ledger. Escape represents his normal level of mediocrity.

7. Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)

Plan 9 is supposed to be one of those films that's so bad it jumps through a cinematic stargate and becomes a comedy. It is awful, but it's an awfulness that's more dull than droll. For a crappy film that is solidly funny from beginning to end check out The Creeping Terror or The Beast of  Yucca Flats.   

8. Scarface (1983)

Unlike Escape From New York, Scarface does not stint on the action. Unfortunately, the action is directed with more predictability and less flair than the average WWE Smackdown. Brian De Palma couldn''t direct an action sequence if his life depended on it.  He can create homages to Hitchcock until the cows come home, but don't give him men with guns and expect him to film anything dynamic.

9. Harold and Maude (1971)

This film earned its cult status because it has an old woman acting young and crazy and having sex with a young man. That's it; that's all there is to it. If the idea of a retiree not acting her age blows your mind then this film is for you. For the rest of us it wears out its welcome before the first act is over. A sidebar: the film combines eccentric characters with an upper-crust, East Coast milieu, and it's a formula Wes Anderson decided to borrow for The Royal Tenenbaums.

 10. The Warriors (1979)

This is a case of all hat, no cattle. It's got a gritty, grimy, neon-lit look, but, well, nothing really happens. The title gang has to get from one side of New York to the other while avoiding rival gangs. This is done without a lot of action, and the Warriors turn to be one of those platoons from World War Two movies: a representative from every ethnic group. The only thing missing is one of them playing the harmonica. The Wanderers, directed by Philip Kaufman, was another youth gang film released the same year and it's far more deserving of cult status.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Book Review: This Green Land (2004) by John Fullerton

Why the hell haven't I heard about John Fullerton before? The only reason I came across this Beirut-set thriller is that I was in process of discarding a bunch of old paperbacks from the bookmobile and this one stuck out from the usual bulk load of James Pattersons and Danielle Steels. Fullerton is an excellent writer, deftly combining scenes of violence with evocative descriptions of the beauty and terror of Lebanon. It's not an exaggeration to say that with this novel Fullerton puts himself on the same level with Eric Ambler, and, dare I say it, a notch above John Le Carre. So why isn't he more well known? That's easy. You don't get ahead in the thriller business if you slag Israel and the U.S. And you can completely forget about selling the film rights if your heroine is a communist suicide bomber.

The story is set in Beirut in 1985 as the city, and Lebanon, is being hung, drawn and quartered by Israel, Syria, the PLO, the Phalangists, and an alphabet soup of political and ethnic militias. Nicholas Lorimer, a young Brit working for the UN, arrives in Beirut to take up his first posting. He's already been targeted by Ustaz, the leader of a shadowy communist organization working to kill El-Hami, the leader of a Christian militia. El-Hami is poised to become the next leader of Lebanon and once he's in power things are likely to get even worse for the country. Reem is a young Christian woman groomed and trained by Ustaz to assassinate El-Hami in a suicide attack. Part of her mission is to start a relationship with Lorimer. Because Lorimer is with the UN he has easy access to all parts of Lebanon, and Reem can therefore tag along with him and scope out the security around El-Hami.

The inevitable happens and Reem and Lorimer really do fall in love, and what began as a thriller also becomes a very tense romance. The tension comes from the question of whether Reem will let her heart win out over her political convictions. This Green Land succeeds as a thriller because Reem and Nicholas are effective, believable characters who have an unlikely but plausible love affair. As the novel moves to its climax we're desperately hoping that both of them will survive.

What sets this thriller apart from others in the field (and probably doomed its commercial success) is its pointed and effective criticisms of Israel and the U.S. Fullerton doesn't go out of his way to grind a political axe, but he makes it clear that those two allies were behind a lot of the overt and covert carnage in Lebanon. Mainstream thrillers don't dare say things like this. Fullerton was the Reuters bureau chief during Lebanon's civil war and so I think it's safe to say he knows whereof he speaks. In relation to this, it's hard to imagine a better evocation of a city at war. Fullerton peppers his novel with flashes of violence that feel like first-hand accounts. At any moment of the day or night an artillery barrage, a mortar strike, a car bomb or a shootout can kill one or one hundred people.

If there's a weakness here it lies in keeping track of who's doing what to whom. That's probably how it actually felt in Beirut in 1985, but at times I had trouble figuring out who Reem was working for. Lebanon's civil war was a tangled and bloody affair, and Fullerton lets us see the blood but doesn't do much to make the political superstructure to the war more understandable. That, however, is a minor flaw. Judged solely as a thriller this is a top-notch page-turner, as they say, and when I say it bears comparison to Eric Ambler it's because, beyond being well-written, Fullerton borrows Ambler's technique of using a naif as his protagonist. Ambler's male protagonists were almost always innocent Englishmen caught up in foreign intrigues that exposed their political innocence. Ambler used this narrative device brilliantly and Fullerton is his equal with This Green Land. Keep in mind that the hardcover version apparently goes under the title of Give Me Death.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Book Review: Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class (2011) by Owen Jones

For those of us who don't live in the UK, "chav" is a slang term for white working-class men and women. More specifically, chav is meant to describe someone as a drunken, drugged, lazy, stupid, bling-obsessed, promiscuous member of the white working-class. Chav comes from the Romany word chavi, which means child. In the UK, the use of chav started in about 2005. For Owen Jones, the birth and use of this term is symbolic of the way the middle and upper classes have managed to marginalize and emasculate the working-class. "Chav" also represents the triumph of the Reagan/Thatcher model of governance: enrich the rich and impoverish the poor. Chavs are a figure of fun and fear in the UK. Little Britain's Vicky Pollard character is a comic chav, while the tabloid press and right-wing establishment papers like the Daily Telegraph foster a myth of unruly chavs terrorizing law-abiding Britons. Oh, and chavs also like to sponge off the state.

A large part of Jones' book deals with the various legal and political steps that the British government has taken in the last thirty or so years to create a society that is all about financial gain rather than social welfare and harmony. If you've been reading any kind of left-wing reporting in the last ten years none of this will be news. It's a depressing fact of life that the war on the working class has been pursued with equal vigour in the US and here in Canada. The war in Britain differs only in the details. That said, Jones does a superb job of breaking down the ideology and tactics of the ruling classes that have led to Britain becoming one of the epicentres of cutthroat capitalism.

Matt Lucas performing in whiteface.
What's of particular interest in Chavs is that the Brits, always quick to come up new and vigorous slang terms, have devised a way to legitimize bigotry against the unemployed and the working poor. If there's an equivalent to chav in North America it's "white trash", a term that was originally used to describe poor whites in the Deep South. Until Jones' book came along it's probable that no one in Britain viewed "chav" as a derogatory term in the same class as kike, spic or wog, but his analysis of its use in popular culture and the media makes it clear that the term is applied with the same sense of fear and loathing as the more familiar ethnic and racial epithets.

Here on the other side of the Atlantic there is really no direct equivalent to chav, although that doesn't mean one won't be invented soon. One reason for this is that in the US the economic underclass is overwhelmingly black, and any chav-like word would be regarded as blatantly racist. Just because chav doesn't currently exist in North America it doesn't mean there isn't hatred and contempt directed towards the lower class, but the fear of being called a racist acts as a damper on the mainstream right-wing media.

Because the right-wing can't directly attack the lower class they tend to focus their ire on the those who represent or argue in favour of the working class. This is particularly evident in the US. Union leaders, social activists, and left-wing media personalities (the few that exist) are vilified with unbeleivable ferocity, usually by Fox News. Two examples spring to mind. This first is Michael Moore. You can criticize his methodology and his selective use of facts, but what can't be denied is that the level of vitriol directed towards him is mostly about the fact that he dares to challenge the capitalist status quo in the US. In the US it's increasingly the case that any challenge to capitalism or the American way of life is regarded as disloyal, unAmerican, treasonous, and even psychotic. In fact, this response even has a name, and it's called eliminationist rhetoric. In a nutshell, right-wing eliminationist rhetoric argues for the removal from public life of anyone who opposes American capitalism or so-called American "values." At times this rhetoric bears an uncanny similarity to the kind of anti-semitic language floating around Germany in the 1920s and 30s.

The other major example is the right-wing response to President Obama's healthcare plan. This was a public policy directly intended (in a half-assed sort of way) to help the lower middle-class and working class. The reaction to it was extraordinary. Right-wing voices, from the more or less respectable to populist blowhards to the outright loony, all sang from the same hymn book: Obamacare meant the destruction of the US. Obama was called a Nazi, and the level of public discourse went downhill from there. This is probably the purest example of hatred towards the working-class being redirected at those who strive to act on their behalf.

This is one of the very best books of social and political analysis I've read in the last few years. Jones does a great job of balancing the anecdotal with the analytical, and he's not afraid to take fellow leftists to task for buying into the chav caricature. For North American readers the book should be read simply for the warning it contains that once the ruling class manages to stigmatize an entire social group, the path is open to inflict any kind of pain on them. After all, they're only chavs.

If you're interested, my piece on the psychological basis of conservatism is here, and a related post on the lack of social welfare spending as a cause of American religiosity is here.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Book Review: Difficult Daughters (1998) by Manju Kapur

Just this week an international poll taken by the Thomson Reuters Foundation found that India is the least woman-friendly country amongst the G20 countries. Women in India are still subject to domestic slavery, child marriage, and violence and murder as result of dowry disputes. Difficult Daughters shows that the more things don't change, the more they stay intolerable. Difficult Daughters is set in the years leading up to India's Independence and Partition. The central character is Virmati, the eldest daughter of a prosperous family of jewellers. As she comes of age in the early 1940s the political changes sweeping India have also produced a shift in attitudes towards women. A small, but significant, minority of women are choosing to continue their education past the most basic level, right up to university. Virmati is one of those girls.

Difficult Daughters is a hindsight novel. The purpose of hindsight novels is to take us back in time to show us that things were once a whole lot worse, or, in rarer cases, a whole lot better. In this case, author Kupar is looking back and letting us know that Indian women, even the ones from the middle-classes, had it very bad. The hindsight aspect of the novel isn't its strongest feature. It's hardly news to us, or Indian readers, that women faced a laundry list of restrictions, prejudices and barriers once upon a time. The more time Kapur spends detailing the sexism of 1940s India, the more the story drags.

Fortunately, Kapur does a much better job of describing the relationship between Virmati and Harish, a college professor. When Virmati goes to college in Lahore she comes under the spell of the married professor. He pursues her despite the fact that he's married and they eventually become lovers. This affair, and Virmati's quest for educational success, drives her away from her traditional family until, eventually, she's ostracized by them. Harish finally marries Virmati and makes her a co-wife, something that was allowed, but frowned upon, in Hindu society. Life in a two-wife household is hell for Virmati. It's this aspect of the novel that Kapur excels at; her descriptions of the tension in the household, and the weasel-ish hypocrisy of Harish are excellent. As a psycholgical novel, as a character study, Difficult Daughters is very good.

Another novel with very similar themes, but with more ambition and more elegant prose, is The Sweet and Simple Kind (my review here) by Yasmine Gooneratne. It's set in Sri Lanka in the 1950s and is well worth seeking out. And for an excellent novel about Partition read my review of Partitions by Amit Majmudar.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Film Review: Billion Dollar Brain (1967)

In the 1960s it was all about the spies: spies on TV, spies at the movies, and spy novels by the bushel. Harry Saltzman, not content with co-producing the James Bond films, bought the rights to Len Deighton's spy novels and made three of them featuring Michael Caine as British agent Harry Palmer. The Palmer character was intended to be the anti-Bond: a spy who was more civil servant than superhero, and whose adventures reflected Cold War realities. The first two films, The Ipcress File and Funeral In Berlin, followed this formula faithfully. The third film, Billion Dollar Brain, went in an altogether different direction. For one thing Ken Russell was hired as the director. Russell had a formidable reputation based on his work at the BBC, but Brain was his first feature. It's clear he wanted to make a big impression.

Billion Dollar Brain sits halfway between being a James Bond spectacular and a gritty, realistic spy story. That's probably the main reason it did poorly at the box office and with the critics. What everyone seems to have missed is that it's a brilliant piece of filmmaking. The fact that it didn't fulfill contemporary genre expectations is beside the point. Brain is simply a celebration of filmmaking magic. The visual exuberance and flair in this film is off the charts. Russell's shot compositon, camera movements, and use of locations is superb. The story is set in Finland in the depths of winter and I can't think of another film that's made winter look so glamorous, so cold and so beautiful. The visuals are matched by the score, which is courtesy of Richard Rodney Bennett. The music manages to suggest icy cold, romance and tension, and it does it in a lush, romantic style that includes the prominent use of a theremin; probably the first time a theremin was used outside of a horror or sci-fi film. All in all, this is one of the best film scores ever.

The plot conerns a deranged Texas billionaire, the wonderfully named General Midwinter, who's bankrolling an anti-Soviet uprising in Latvia. At the heart of his plan is a giant computer designed to co-ordiante the uprising. Karl Malden is Midwinter's point man in Finland, but he's actually skimming every dime Midwinter thinks is going to Latvia. Harry Palmer has to ensure that Midwinter's schemes don't lead to World War III. The story is not meant to be taken seriously. This is first and foremost a satirical look at Cold War fear and paranoia, particularly the kind that was coming out of the US. General Midwinter is a mad character who would be equally at home in Dr. Strangelove. His ranch is the scene of anti-communist rallies that have a certain pre-war German flavour, and his monogram, emblazoned on the side of his oil tankers, is also ominously familiar. Ed Begley gives a great, outsized performance as Midwinter, and the script gives him a score of juicy lines, my favourite being, "My arm is long and my vengeance is total!" The faint whiff of anti-Americanism may well have hurt Brain with US critics. What might have hurt it even more was it's sympathetic portrayal of the Soviets, led by Oscar Homolka as Colonel Stok. In one key scene Stok leaves a performance of The Leningrad Symphony by Shostakovich to meet Palmer. The symphony, which is a tribute to the defenders of Leningrad, has left Stok in tears, and he explains its meaning to a sympathetic Palmer. That's not the kind of conversation Bond ever had with anyone from Smersh.

This is one of those films that has a score of memorable set pieces and scenes, too many to mention, really, but some of the highlights include Palmer being chased through a snowy woods by mounted troops; a primitive wooden ferris wheel turning by the side of a frozen lake; blackmarketeers ambushing a truck; and, most memorably, the demise of Midwinter, which is a direct and clever homage to Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky. If nothing else, Billion Dollar Brain is the best-looking spy film I can think of, and its sly humour is probably more appreciated today than in 1967. The clip below has the film's opening credits (by the great Maurice Binder) with Bennett's amazing score.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Book Review: Not the End of the World (2004) by Geraldine McCaughrean

So, if you were interested in taking a poke at theism and religiosity how would you do it? Most writers would choose an essay, but not many would choose a young adult novel to do the job. That's what Geraldine McCaughrean has done in Not the End of the World, a retelling of the Old Testament story of Noah and the Flood. McCaughrean makes the brilliant decision to look at this myth through the prism of realism (it's caused by a natural catastrophe), to imagine that it really happened and that life on board the ark followed the laws of nature and basic human psychology.  She asks the questions: what kind of man would build an ark and gather together all kinds of animals? What would life be like on board such a ship? How would Noah's family react to his belief and their predicament? The answers are, in order, a religious nutjob, hideous, and with mounting terror and fear.

McCaughrean presents Noah as a delusional mystic; the kind of man who's continually at odds with his peers because of his zealotry, and a man who bullies his family into following his mad dream of building an ark. Once the waters rise, life on the ark becomes virtually unbearable. The multitude of animals create an epic amount of pungent filth; food supplies for the humans are meagre and nasty; and the various critters are either eating each other or multiplying to plague-like numbers. Noah's extended family have a range of reactions to their circumstances. Some simply retreat into a shell, saying and doing nothing and just hoping that this trip from hell will come to an end. Shem, Noah's oldest son, begins to go insane, becoming filled with even more religious fervour than Noah, if that's possible. Towards the end of the voyage Shem actually becomes murderous. The youngest members of the family, Timna and her brother Japheth, are the most humane and the most questioning on the ark. They give shelter to a trio of stowaways rescued from the flood, and the novel becomes a kind of thriller as the two try and keep the stowaways from being discovered. It's certain that Noah and Shem will kill them.

What McCaughrean manages to do with her novel is show that any kind of religious belief, if taken to its logical extreme (and nothing's more extreme than building an ark), must rest on a bedrock of superstition, unthinking devotion to ritual, fear of authority, and a wilful disregard for logical thinking. It would be easy for an author to attempt this and come across as preachy or condescending or both, but McCaughrean does neither. She lets reality and logic speak for themselves by crafting what amounts to a novel version of a disaster movie. She takes a disparate group of characters, throws them into a hellish situation, adds some religion to the mix, and records what happens. The story is tense, exciting, horrifying, but at the same time McCaughrean keeps the plot lean, and proves, yet again, that's she's one of the best prose stylists operating in any genre.

This book came out in 2004, and it's pleasing to think that perhaps it was McCaughrean's reaction to the rising tide of religious intolerance and zealotry at loose in the world at that time. Bush and Blair, both loud and proud Christians, were busily violating the sixth commandment in Iraq and elsewhere, and across the Muslim world Koranic excuses were found for acts of terrorism, ethnic cleansing, and vicious attacks on women under the banner of sharia law. It's interesting that a Google search for U.S. newspaper reviews of this book turned up nothing. It's probably a measure of just how effective her novel is that it has received so little notice in god-fearing America. Anti-religious content aside, Not the End of the World succeeds marvellously as a thriller and a character study, and don't let the young adult classification hold you back from reading it. This novel, like McCaughrean's The Death Defying Pepper Roux (my review here), stands comparison with anything being written for the adult market.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Book Review: The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break (2002) by Steven Sherrill

Even though this novel does have the Minotaur of Greek myth as its main character, this is not a fantasy novel. Nothing fantastical or magical occurs, there are no prophecies fulfilled, no rousing Clash of the Titans battles, and no one wears a toga. If anything, this is closer to being a hyper-realist story than it is an exercise in fantasy. The setting is rural North Carolina in the here and now. The Minotaur, complete with his massive bull head, has found work as a line cook in a semi-fancy steakhouse. Most everyone at the steakhouse accepts or ignores their bull-headed co-worker, and the Minotaur seems to like it that way. Not a lot happens in this novel, but its pleasures aren't plot-based.

This novel is primarily about the mindset of the outsider, the loner. You can view the Minotaur as an immigrant or simply someone who's socially awkward, but either way Sherrill does a superb job of showing the quiet pains and pleasures of a life lived outside of mainstream society. The Minotaur experiences loneliness but he also seems to take some comfort in being detached from the hurly-burly of relationships.

The most remarkable thing about this novel is author's ability to write about manual labour in an interesting, almost loving way. Sherrill shows that work, even the most routine or meaningless variety, is a kind of social and psychological glue that helps keeps us sane. One of the particular pleasures of Minotaur is the way it captures the feel, the nuances, and the small joys of working with your hands. The kind of job that earns minimum wage is rarely featured in contemporary fiction, and if it is the people doing it are usually presented as villains, oppressed proles, or slack-jawed cretins. Sherrill shows that something as mundane as repairing a car or prepping food can become, when done capably and honestly, poetry.

As I said earlier, this isn't a fantasy novel. Yes, a couple of figures from Greek mythology make cameo appearances, but they, like the Minotaur, have had their godly pride and power swallowed up by America. And that, perhaps, is another theme in the novel: America as a labyrinth that confuses and consumes the weak or unwary. Needless to say, this is a fairly unique novel. The prose style is an intriguing mix of the matter-of-fact and the poetic, and in overall terms Sherrill reminds me, in a roundabout way, of Charles Portis or Kurt Vonnegut, two writers who, like Sherrill, tell tall tales in the plainest possible way. I'll certainly be looking for Sherill's two other novels, and if I lived near him and needed some home repairs I'd definitely call him first because I'm pretty certain he must be a hell of a handyman.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Book Review: Bloodtide (1999) by Melvin Burgess

There are ripping yarns and then there are ripping your throat out yarns. Bloodtide is the latter. In the broadest terms it's about a post-societal collapse London in, roughly speaking, the year 2100. The city is divided between two warring ganglords who syle themselves as kings, and plot to bring all of London under the rule of one king. Surrounding London is a vast ring of wasteland occupied by the half-men, engineered man/animal hybrids who are hunted and feared by Londoners. To add to the fun the Norse gods are also around, meddling in human affairs for their own obscure pleasures and purposes. King Conor rises to rule all of London, but to do so he must commit an act of profound treachery. He also takes as his wife Signy, the daughter of Valson, his vanquished rival. Conor kills all the Valsons, but unknown to him one has survived: Siggy, Signy's twin brother. Signy pretends to love Conor but actually plots his downfall, which is years in the making. There's a whole bunch more to the story, but that would be telling.

Melvin Burgess has bellied up to the literary buffet and helped himself to Norse mythology, Shakespearean plotting, werewolves, shape-shifters, Dickensian street life, mutants, Brit gangster patois, a bit of steampunk, a generous serving of sci-fi, and he's sauced the whole thing with lots of bone-crunching, artery-spurting violence. What's really gobsmacking about Bloodtide is that Burgess has managed to take all these elements and make them work together brilliantly. It's no mean feat. There are lots of writers out there trying to do mashups in the fantasy/sci-fi field and they usually fail miserably. Burgess succeeds because he's a massively good writer. He uses the various genre elements to flesh out the background to the story and create a dread-filled atosphere, but he doesn't let them get in the way of plot or characterization. Lesser writers tend to fall in love with the bling value, as it were, of various genres and thematic elements, and ignore basic storytelling skills.

Burgess tells his story from multiple points of view, which is always a challenge because it often ends up that one character comes across more strongly than the others. Not in this case. The various characters are all equally compelling, although if I had to name a favourite it would be Melanie, a human/pig hybrid. She's a bit like a Beatrix Potter character forced to live in an earthly hell but still holding onto her decency. At the opposite pole from Melanie is Conor, who manages to combine the less appealing characteristics of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot.

The theme of Bloodtide is that power corrupts, but the thirst for revenge corrupts even more. That sounds like a tired idea for a novel, but Burgess articulates it with such imagination and ferocity it feels fresh and original. As dark as this novel is, it's made bearable by it's fast pace; sharp, acidic dialogue; and some seriously hairy scenes of violence. An author's postscript states that Bloodtide  is based (loosely, I imagine) on the first part of the Icelandic Volsunga Saga. Here's hoping that there's a second part to Bloodtide.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Film Review: Attack the Block (2011)

The expression old wine in new bottles pretty much sums up Attack the Block. The old wine is an invasion of bad-tempered aliens into a small, isolated, tight-knit community. The community's most fearless members must band together to resist and defeat the toothy visitors from space. In a nutshell, this is the plot of many alien incursion/mutant critter films from the 1950s. The new bottle is that the community is a slummy South London apartment block instead of a town in the American southwest, and the fearless locals are a feral gang of teenage muggers. There's even a stoner who doubles for the all-knowing scientist figure found in the '50s versions of Attack. The stoner's gained his knowledge from an addiction to the Discovery Channel.

The film begins on Guy Fawkes night with fireworks going off in every direction. Some of the fireworks come down from space and they contain creatures that resemble eyeless, extra-furry, extra-large chimps with glow-in-the-dark teeth. The illuminated teeth are a very nice touch. The first critter to hit the ground is savagely dispatched by Moses, the leader of a small gang of boys who are barely into their teens. The gang has just finished mugging a young nurse. It turns out the first alien was a female in heat, and her scent has attached itself to the gang, who find themselves besieged in their apartment block (the Wyndham Tower; a knowing nod to the very British alien invasion novels by John Wyndham) by a few dozen irate space chimps. Some of the gang live, some die, and the aliens get a proper kicking.

Attack is consistently entertaining simply as an Us vs. Them sci-fi thriller. The pace is good, there are some good gags, and the aliens are a pleasant change from the usual scaly, slimy visitors from space we see in this kind of movie. It's a pity, though, that Joe Cornish, doubling as director and scirptwriter, succumbs to the usual white middle-class (in Joe's case upper class) guilt when it comes to the gang. When we first meet them they seem like every urbanite's nightmare: armed, hoody-wearing visible minorities intent on relieving white people of mobile phones and cash. And, initially, that's exactly what they are. Cornish quickly shows us that underneath the cursing, thievery and threats of violence they're mostly sweet kiddos who just happen to be a bit rough around the edges. And when called upon they're brave, resourceful, and self-sacrificing. It's a pleasing myth for audiences to believe that bad guys, once you get to know them, are actually a thoroughly decent bunch of chaps. It might have been more interesting if the gang's utter ruthlessness and taste for violence was what won the day, not their innate nobleness. Imagine if the aliens had landed and encountered Alex and his droogs? Now there's a sequel I'd like to see.

Attack had a Dr Who vibe that I found enjoyable; it doesn't take itself at all seriously and it's as eager to please as a puppy. The one major flaw is the acting. The actors playing the gang members are decidedly mediocre. What's worse is that John Boyega, who plays Moses and is the hero of the story, is the poorest of the bunch. Chuck Norris has more dramatic range than Boyega. The film's energy and tension suffers noticeably due to the am-dram acting.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Dead Bunny

Well, I've actually done it. I've written a mystery novel. I actually wrote it about ten years ago in a I-reckon-I can-write-something-just-as-good-as-this moment after reading one mediocre mystery novel too many. That was one reason for writing Dead Bunny, the other being that I was interested in going through the challenge of writing a novel. I'd written scripts of various lengths, two of which were actually filmed, but I'd never attempted anything as ambitious as a novel. I wrote it over a period of about four months while I was managing the clothing store my wife and I owned. Business may have suffered as I became a bit Basil Fawlty-ish if anyone dared to interrupt me as I scribbled away while at the sales desk. We closed the business a long time ago. I blame the economy. Anyway, I finished Dead Bunny and then let it sit for a while. I sent it to one Toronto publishing house, and after six months I got a "thanks but no thank"s reply. So early this year I took another look at the manuscript, gave it a thorough revison, and decided to go the self-publishing route. Why self-publishing? Impatience. I just don't feel like sending out my manuscript and then waiting months and months for a reply, and then having to go through the process all over again if I get a rejection slip. I'm hoping my self-published book might attract some sales, a kindly review, and then maybe a publisher for my next book. It could happen. Really.

The most interesting thing about the writing process was learning that hammering out 90k words was the easy part. I'd initially thought that writing something novel length would be tortuous, but once I got going the pages added up pretty quickly. The hard part was trying to say things in an original way. Every sentence, every line of dialogue offers a temptation to resort to cliche, commonplace phrases, and boilerplate metaphors and similies. That was the hard part. Almost as difficult was keeping on top of the plot. Once I started writing the story, which was mapped out pretty neatly in my head at the beginning, it took on a life of its own. That was annoying. It's hard to describe, but it was as though the story was always one jump ahead of me and I was playing catch up.

And now to the novel. It's about the disappearance of the daughter of a woman who's just won big in the lottery. My detective, Quentin Winchester, is actually a secondhand goods dealer who gets roped into looking for the woman by his brother Ron, a lawyer. I've tried to write a mystery that's amusing, puzzling, and also gives readers a sense of what life in Toronto is like. Many years ago I worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reading scripts and novels for their Movies and Mini-Series department. It always annoyed me that the Toronto presented in so many crime novels was either impossibly hardboiled or ridiculously twee. I hope my novel shows Toronto to be neither. Anyway, it's available now for the low price of only $18 by clicking here, or by clicking on the cover thumbnail on the top right. It will also be available through about a week after the date of this post. Buy one. Buy several. You can use it to hold open windows, as a mouse pad, and as a decorative and literary drinks coaster. If you do buy and read it, please let me know what you think, even if, gulp, you dislike it.