Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: Soft at heart

John Ford always tried to put on a show as being a cantankerous old coot - his famous interview with Peter Bogdanovich, where he disputes the whole idea that anything he has done has an artistic merit at all, is an absolute gem of a performance, as good as anything he ever squeezed out of John Wayne.

But his films could also be achingly sentimental, and he just couldn't hide that behind his goddamn eyepatch.

Sometimes entire films of his, such as the Quiet Man, are nothing but pure sentiment, and all about the ache of the heart, and sometimes it's just a tiny moment in a wide and blasted landscape full of death and gross vengeance, like the moment  in The Searchers when Ethan finally catches up to his niece, and the Duke's voice actually cracks as he tells her that he's not there to do her harm, and that he's just taking her home.

There's a moment like that right at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a great film that has a lot of things to say about standing up to bullies, and the way the legends of the Wild West have been shaped from something messy and complicated into something that is more palatable for the masses. That's all well and good, but it's the cactus rose on the coffin at the end of he movie that cuts to the heart, and tells you what sort of director Ford really was.

All that myth-making never says anything about what's really in somebody's heart, and how they remember the ones they've loved and lost, not like the way a simple gesture like the cactus flower can. And it shows that John Ford had a soul after all, no matter how fucking grumpy he got.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Wild Rose: You can have it all

There's a terrible idea that you have to suffer for your art, or put everything into it, at the expense of anything and everything else. It's an idea that you see brought up in real life all the time, and it is the basis of a hell of a lot of stories about the process of creating all kinds of art.

Wild Rose is a movie about a Glaswegian lass with big country dreams, played with a massive amount of charm by Jessie Buckley, and for a long time it looks like it's going to be one of those stories. She dreams of getting to Nashville, but has two young kids to take care of and is trapped in her life.

And yet, while she does make it out of Scotland, and all the way to America, she finds that this isn't what she needs, and by the end finds a lovely balance, finding her voice in her own home, and in the love of her family.

She finds that the things you need to say in your art come from your life, not at the expense of it. It's not a matter of either/or, it's a beautiful collision of everything, and you don't have to suffer for it.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Stalag 17: Blood in the mud (and a few laughs too)

A lot of new movies get shit on for having a wayward tone that is all over the place, because apparently modern audiences can only handle one thing at a time, but plenty of classic films show that you don't have to be so monotone, even if they come in black and white.

Take Billy Wilder's Stalag 17, which tells the tale of a group of American POWs in a Nazi prisoner of war camp. It sometimes gets a bit Hogan Heroes - there's even a comedy German sergeant called Schulz - but it also has two men brutally machine-gunned down in the opening minutes, with their bodies left to rot in the mud.

And it carries on like that, all the way though, with silly pranks and prisoners trying to get glimpses of Russian women smashing up against a mob mentality that almost costs the life of William Holden's character, who is a little shady, but not an obvious traitor. The stakes remain extremely life or death, right to the end.

Yet it still feels like a complete piece, not a patchwork of different angles and perspectives. It might take a master like Wilder to show that you can be all over the place without losing focus, but at least he shows it can be done.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Domino: There's the De Palma we were looking for

It would be a slight tragedy if Domino turned out to be Brian De Palma's last film. His career has always been weirdly all over the place, and just when you think he's totally lost it, he'll hit you with a movie that is genuinely inspiring, but this particular film would be a disappointing way to finish.

It's got a genuinely incomprehensible script, with risible dialogue, weird plotting that is all over the fucking place and a fair amount of straight-up racism. It gives a bunch of great actors nothing to work with, is visually drab and has a music score that sounds like something from a Charles Band movie from the 1980s.

And yet, just when all hope is lost, it still has one moment that is very De Palma - a large, crazy set piece towards the end, involving a suicide bomber and a drone at a Spanish bullfight, that is ridiculously over the top and baroque and drawn out in all the best ways.

It's there, after more than an hour of almost unwatchable nonsense, that it becomes very watchable nonsense, and there's the De Palma we all know and love. If this is his last film - and with the increasing periods of time between films, it might very well be - at least it's not a total wash-out.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Color Out Of Space: Trying to film the unfilmable

Color Out Of Space is the only movie I've managed to see in a cinema this year, due to parenthood reasons. I managed to see it just before we all went into lockdown, and it was, if nothing else, a good reminder that as horrible and catastrophic as the coronavirus could be, there are worse things that can happen to the human body.

It certainly starts off with a decent dose of moody dread, and Nicholas Cage is actually pretty good in the first section, full of dad jokes and weird obsessions with alpacas ,but it doesn't take too long before you start saying things out loud like 'why the fuck are you climbing down that well?'.

It just gets too dumb. Watching it, there is a desperate urge to tell people to just walk the fuck away - a brief attempt to paint this as impossible because reality is bending around the family is scuppered by a horse who shows more smarts than the human victims and just gets the fuck outta there.

And ultimately, it fails in the same way almost every cinematic attempt at Lovecraft does - it tries to put the impossible on screen, and there is literally no way to capture on film the unbearable sights and sensations that Lovecraft subjected his unfortunate protagonists to. For a moment, it looks like you're never going to see the most extreme example of body horror in the film, but then it slithers into plain sight and while it's certainly gross, it's not mind-bendingly awful

And that impossibility is there in the color itself, with a shade that is impossible to describe on paper turns out to be a pinkish/purple haze. It's certainly pretty, but ignores everything that is really intriguing about Lovecraftian horror (once you get past the racism and general misanthropy) - you just can't film his impossible.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Sunset Boulevard: Not that old

It's a deadset cinematic classic, so I must have seen Sunset Boulevard half a dozen times, but I only just realised that poor crazy old Norma Desmond is only supposed to be in her early fifties.

To be fair, Gloria Swanson was actually about that age at the time the movie was filmed, but was definitely made up further to appear as a decrepit old hag. And it suggests its only been a relatively short time between her heyday as a Hollywood star and her later gloomy and gothic madness.

It's also a bit rough to suggest she would be so marginalised at such an early age. Hollywood hasn't got much better at treating female film stars well, and there are many fine woman actors who are put out to the pasture at a painfully young age, but Norma is meant to be a legend, and it would be like saying Nicole Kidman has nothing further to add, because she's a similar age.

Sunset Boulevard is a fable about fame and fortune, but to be forgotten like that after such a short period of time and marginalized is the harshest lesson of all.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Brightburn: When super bad becomes super predictable

Brightburn is one of those movies that seems to have a great idea that you can build a whole film on, but then does absolutely nothing new or interesting in it. If you've seen the trailer, you've seen the whole movie.

Maybe it's because there have just been so many comic books versions of the 'what if Superman, but evil?', usually done with a bit more style, and often with a lot more gore (especially when a company like Avatar gets into the action). Superhero movies have always been decades behind their comic book counterparts - the whole Marvel Universe thing is still telling the sort of stories that were commonplace in the comics in the 1970s - and Brightburn keeps up that tradition.

But it also has literally nothing new to add to this weird little sub-genre of superheroes gone bad, other than doing it with a bit of Hollywood gloss. It also has the usual irritating habit of promising to take things further with a sequel that will never happen, leaving behind nothing more than another pointless movie about another pointless supervillain.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

The Man Who Haunted Himself: That's not the Bond I know

The Man Who Haunted Himself was one of those films that every video store in the early-1980s had, because they only had 20 films, but there was always something creepy and off-putting about the cover with an overlapping Roger Moore.

Having finally seen it recently, it's not quite as upsetting as that video cover ever promised, and plays out like a typical psychological horror of the 70s, as Moore's Harold Pelham gradually cracks under the pressure of a doppelganger that is taking over his life.

But there is something genuinely thrilling in seeing Sir Roger Moore completely lose his shit in the film. Even when his Bond was facing certain death at the hands of Scaramanga or Baron Samedi or Max Zorin, it never got more than an arched eyebrow out of him, but he's all confused and sweaty throughout this film.

Moore was always such a stiff-upper-lip actor, but when that lip was given the chance to tremble a bit, it's not disappointing to see Moore get stuck into it.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Human Nature: Don't ham it up

There's really only one way to put a Charlie Kaufman script up on the screen and get a maximum result, and that's to play it absolutely straight. Which is why Human Nature is arguably the weakest attempt to get inside his head.

The first film to come out after the enormous artistic success of Being John Malkovich, Human Nature is full of great actors who have all done powerful work, but they're mugging the shit out of the story of a man raised as an ape and the hairy woman who loves him, and they're playing up the absurdity, instead of doing the proper thing and just pretending it doesn't even exist.

Although it is Michel Gondry's first feature film, it is still soaked in the whimsy that would be a feature of all his movies, but Gondry doesn't yet have the courage to take it completely seriously, and goes for the wacky, which piles on top of the silliness of the script.

It's arguable that it's just a weak script from Kaufman, and that it's overcooked and trying way too hard to say something profound about the human condition (which doesn't add up to much more than that human beings really like to have sex). But the way it's presented does it few favours, and leaves it with all the substance of a cheap can of over-sugared soda.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Posse: Who needs a third act anyway?

Kirk Douglas was one hell of an actor/producer, but only ever directed two films and Posse - his second and last in 1975 - is an odd beast. For the most part, it's a fairly typical example of the revisionist westerns that were all the rage the time, with Douglas playing a lawman who can't see that his own hubris will be his downfall, as he tries to bring Bruce Dern (in total scumbag mode) to justice.

But what is genuinely surprising is that the film ends with Douglas losing his loyal posse to Dern, and even though he promises that he'll hunt them down to the ends of the earth, that's where the film ends. His ultimate vengeance just doesn't matter, his failure is complete and Dern gets to ride away to fuck up the West some more.

When most films of this type come with either total success or total failure at their end, Posse is more ambiguous, and all the better for it. It's a shame Douglas didn't direct more films, because his comfort with that kind of ambiguity is a path more directors should follow.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Robocop: Your move, creep

Even before the first Robocop film was released in the late 1980s, there were comparisons between the title character and Judge Dredd, who had already been around for 10 years. There were the hidden eyes, the short bursts of extreme violence and the unbending devotion to the law. And it's not hard to find comparisons between the dialogue in the movie and comic, with some of Dredd's most iconic lines reproduced word for word in the film.

But the similarities go deeper than that, and far beyond the business end of the characters' spectacular weapons. It's in the cities themselves, and how they play a vital part in the stories.

It's always been arguable that the main character in Judge Dredd isn't the lawman himself, but Mega-City One, and Dredd is just the straight man to the future-shocked population, and the trends and culture that permeate it. Judge Joe Dredd usually emerges from the big mega-epics as relatively the same character, but the city is often changing.

Likewise, the Detroit of Robocop is just as rich and textured. You understand the people who live there, and how they cope with the endless crime and despair. Through the use of the incomparable news segments, and even the ongoing repetition of the 'I'd buy that for a dollar' guy, future Detroit feels like a character as rich as Murphy himself.

Despite some later ham-fisted attempts to flesh out the city, this focus on Detroit was lost in later movies, TV shows and comic books, and it's not a coincidence that none of the later Robocops ever match that original. They've moved on, and left that crime-stricken city behind.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Sonic screwdriver to the heart: Right here, right now

There are a hundred other moments in modern Doctor Who that have got me right in the feels, but I'll end this week with the most recent, and one that isn't even an actual part of the show. It's this message:

Despite grasping the role of the first female Doctor or all its worth, Jodie Whittaker hasn't had as many moments as her previous incarnations that sparked a real emotional reaction, but there was something about this silly little video that came out recently that really got to me.

I know it's bloody stupid, but there's still a part of me that thinks the Doctor is real, and that I'll walk around a corner one day and the TARDIS will be standing there, but I haven't really felt that in a long time, until she sends us a message on how to get through the current pandemic nightmare.

And when everything actually is scary, and the future is horribly unknown, just having somebody remind you that you'll get through this and things will be all right - and that you need to make some bad jokes - is all you need.

Thank you, Doctor. I'll see you again soon.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Sonic screwdriver to the heart: Hello, Sweetie

River Song's cheeky greeting was usually just a bit forced, a desperate attempt at levity, but to it have it pushed back at her with infinite kindness and unbearable tenderness, makes it the most romantic goddamn moment of the entire series.

Without a single word, Peter Capaldi's face says it all as she tells the bad guys he never really loved her, and it cuts him to the core that she really believes it

But even the heart of a star can show his love for somebody, just by standing next to her, and the moment when she finally realises who this old man actually is, it's just a moment of utter joy.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Sonic screwdriver to the heart: Something old

Matt Smith might have been the youngest actor to ever play the Doctor, but he sounds so old here, at the end of all things. So weary, so tired, after rebooting the universe and putting all things right, and it's time for the Doctor to go too.

It's not the end of course, with the Doctor laying down a simple coded message that will bring him back to existence at the wedding of the girl who waited, and he'll appear in his box that is something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.

But for a moment there, he really is leaving us all, and that earlier blaze of glory is quietly overshadowed by somebody who is moving on for good, and taking his endless kindness with him.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Sonic screwdriver to the heart: Look at what you leave behind, Vincent

None of us know what kind of legacy we will end up leaving behind. But still, even if you do end up going out in a haze of anguish and pain, you couldn't ask for more than hearing Bill Nighy deliver a speech that cuts to the soul of everything you're trying to do, explaining with passion and fervor why you were such a unique individual, and were able to overcome your own agony to create something so beautiful it will take peoples' breath away for as long as humans roam the cosmos.

We should all be so lucky.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Sonic screwdriver to the heart: The best temp in Chiswick

And after the temp from West London has only gone and saved the whole bloody universe, and upgraded to a whole new human/Time Lord creation, and helped all the Doctor's companions fly the TARDIS properly, the inescapable truth is that it just can't last.

Donna is resigned to her fate, but still fights it, and then the Doctor has to live with the aftermath. She is returned to her family, and he gets to speak to her one last time, but she has no idea who he is, even as he promises her mother and grandfather that her name will live on in the stars forever.

And just when it can't get any more heartbreaking, there's the last message from silly old Wilfred, who will one day be responsible for the Doctor's death. It's only Bernard bloody Cribbins in the rain, telling the Doctor he'll always think of him, even when he's alone out there in the universe.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Sonic screwdriver to the heart: Right at you

It's not just the holographic message that the Ninth Doctor gives to Rose, as he faces certain death in his latest battle against the Daleks, and sends Rose back to the safety in her mundane life with her mundane family. It's not just the words he says, telling her to live, and leave the TARDIS to die, and to have a fantastic life.

It's the direct look the hologram gives her, showing that the Doctor always knew he would have to leave this message one day, and that he always knew where Rose would be standing at that exact moment. And his voice comes through loud and clear, and maybe it's all just the way Rose is seeing it, but that doesn't make it any less true.

It's crushing, taking a simple message that was just a little too impersonal and making it something heartfelt and honest. All with a simple look.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Sonic screwdriver to the heart: A day like this

I have genuinely thought Dr Who was the best TV show in the entire universe since I was 4-years-old, and that's unlikely to change now. Because you can do any kind of story in Dr Who, and because it values empathy and intellect over brutality and selfishness, and because the Doctor is never cruel or cowardly, and for a million other reasons.

But when it came back in 2005, I didn't expect to get so emotional about it all. But there I was, watching The Doctor Dances, and the big man finally realises what is going on in bombed-out London, and he gets his moment, and it's so well earned:

And no lie, I bawled my goddamn eyes out.

This wasn't just good TV, this was great television, and incredibly moving. Doctor Who has always been something to do with death, but every now and then, nobody has to die. In the middle of a bombed-out London, in the midst of the biggest carnage the world has ever seen, just this once, everybody lives.

Sure, there was that bit in the Ribos Operation where Binro finds out he was right about the stars after all, and I was properly traumatised by Adric blowing up at the end of Earthshock (especially the lack of music and his broken maths medal over the end credits).

But this new series was something new. This is what sold me on the new series. It wasn't the incredible production values, or the irony, or the deadset cleverness. It was this new depth of writing and feeling, and sometimes the show would have moments where it could be horribly cheesy and gut-wrenching at the same time, and it was a glorious feeling.

This is when I first felt it. It wouldn't be the last time.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Sword boy: Cleganebowl

A lot of people hated the final season because it did what Game of Thrones always did, subvert and piss on your expectations. It never quite gave you want you wanted, (which some of us actually love about it).

So while Cleganebowl, a fight that has been coming since the start of the whole damn series, is pretty fucking metal, taking place above the burning city at the end of the world as dragons fly overhead, it's also just gross and grubby and messy and nasty.

It had been building for so long - the Clegane brothers' first faceoff on the tournament field in the opening season was amazing, particularly the way it ends with the Hound dropping to his knees - but the final confrontation sent one last message: that as thrilling as it all was, the path of vengeance was also pointless and horrible.

The Hound's last 'just fucking die!' is the cry of a man who just wants it all to end. And if he has to plummet to his doom with his zombie brother, then that's what he has to do.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Sword boy: Arthur Dayne v everybody

Arthur Dayne is regularly spoken off as the best fighter anybody has ever seen in any of the Seven Kingdoms, and Bran's time-trip back to the fight at the Tower of Joy shows that he deserved all that praise, and more.

It might be a bit too obviously choreographed, but his use of two big fucking swords is the equvalent of bringing a tank to a gunfight, and it takes a bit of dodgy backstabbing to bring him down. Nobody was ever going to beat him in a fair fight, especially when he has twice the usual amount of blades coming at you.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Sword boy: Ser Barristan v Sons of the Harpy

It's not the most beautifully choreographed fight in the whole thing, and takes place in a dark and anonymous alleyway, crowded with slavery-loving arseholes.

But there is something unspeakably noble in Ser Barristan Selmy, a rare man of true honour, dying to save a bunch of dickless ex-slaves on the far side of the world, wading into a fight he can never win - not because he wants t o impress anybody or show off how cool he is - but because it's the right fucking thing to do

Most of the knights in the series are complete dicks - it's notable that some of the most truly honourable fighters do not have that kind of title -but Ser Barristan stays true to his vows and lays down his life for Grey Worm, because honour demands it.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Sword boy: Brienne v The Hound

Probably my single favourite one-on-one combat in the whole series, because it starts off as a decent sword fight between two masters of the form, and degenerates into two characters just beating the fuck out of each other until the most feral wins.

The best bit is when the Hound says he's not a knight, and Brienne's response is to immediately punch him in the balls, because she isn't either. But I can barely watch the part where the Hound grabs onto her sword with his bare hands. In all the gore of Game of Thrones, the sight and sound of his hands slicing apart is one of the very worst.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Sword boy: The Mountain v The Viper

How do you beat a huge giant who is also a total fucking psychopath? You keep your distance, and you keep moving, and you chip away at him until he comes down under his own weight.

And you don't get too overconfident, and too close to a fallen foe, and oh shit Oberyn, hope you didn't need that face.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Sword boy: Bronn v Ser Vardis

An episode after Ned and Jaime had their short, sharp exchange, you get this full-on duel between Bronn and poor Ser Vardis in the Eyrie, with the sellsword proving that smarts beats high-handed confidence every time and rising above his station to become one of the best characters in the whole show. 

Bronn's tactics aren't even that smart - he just wears the other man down until he can get in the mortal blow. He keeps moving, and does whatever it takes to get the upper hand, and Ser Vardis never stands a chance.

It would be easy to assume that Bronn proves that armour is a waste of fucking time, but later in the season, the old bear Jorah Mormont shows how you can properly use armour to your advantage when he uses it to take down a Dothraki fighter, so the lesson from this one is to adapt to your situation, and just take down a lofty bastard when you can.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Sword boy: Stark v Lannister

I've always fucking loved a good sword fight, whether it's Errol Flynn going completely apeshit in The Adventures of Robin Hood, or some of the spectacular light-sabre battles in the various Star Wars (The climactic Phantom Menace face-off is objectively the best), or Ash doing some crazy shit in the final battle of Army of Darkness.

But my favourite sword fights in the past decade were all on Game Of Thrones. It's become extremely fashionable to take a dump on all things Thrones in the past year - largely due to excruciating levels of audience entitlement that still fucking infuriate - but one of the great appeals of the show for me was always the fight choreography, which was often completely brilliant, right until the end.

So after a couple of weeks of taking a literary focus at the Tearoom of Despair, all I wanna do for the next week is highlight seven of my favourite sword fights from the show. They are all largely one-on-one affairs - none of the big battles really count - and while they are all beautifully choreographed, they all have something different to say about character or skill or thematic elements of the whole damn story. And I could watch all of them over and over again.

So let's start with one of the earliest efforts:

There had already been some swordplay in the first half of the first season, but this short, sharp exchange between two of the main characters set the standard for two blokes trying to hack each other up for swords. Even ignoring the long and strange history between the two characters - both had nothing but contempt for each other after the king-slaying - everything you need to know about them is there in the way they thrust, block and move around each other.

Ned is all brutish and to the point, with no fancy flourishes, while Jaime is nothing but fancy floruishes, and is genuinely delighted to finally have a crack at a Stark, and actually face a proper challenge for the first time in years.

It comes to a brutally early end with Ned getting stabbed in the leg from behind, but for a minute or two, Game of Thrones showed that sword fights were more than just action, and could contain multitudes that reams of dialogue could never deliver.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Isolation reading: Not only, but also

I've had to give the 'new novel at the start of the month' thing a miss this time because I wasn't able to get to the bookstore before they closed in the lockdown, but I've kept it up almost every other month. So as well as the 13 books I've highlighted in the past couple of weeks, here's another 13 I tried out, mentioned here for your own consideration:

The drive to read books outside my comfort zone mean I somehow ended up reading a number of books about slightly autistic women working in menial jobs, which is a whole new genre for me. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata might be the zenith of the form, because there isn't anything else to the story than this concept, but is still a breezy look at life through somebody else's eyes. And Halle Butler's The New Me looks like it's going to get extremely dark as eternal temp Millie pursues a hollow vision, only to pull back from the edge. But Plum Rains by Andromeda Romano-Lax proved to be the best of the bunch, partly because it had the added hook of a robot-drenched future, and partly because it also goes back a century in Japanese to tell a completely different kind of story. But mainly because it features a woman trapped in a foreign land as the outside world tears itself apart, and that just feels incredibly prescient right now.

So many of the books I browse past have a blurb that sounds overly familiar - a ridiculous amount of them start with a sudden death and the promise of hidden truths bursting out - and sometimes all it takes is a decent hook to get the attention. All it can take is something like Trinity by Louisa Hall, which has a number of stories revolving around the life of the man who built the first nuclear bomb, and how people in his orbit get absorbed his genius and obsession. Jac Jemc's The Grip Of It All is a straight-up haunted house story, which are always welcome, even if it eventually fizzles out into anti-climax. After Me Comes The Flood by Sarah Perry has the classic 'stranger shows up at a crumbling mansion inhabited by a weird old family', but is never quite gothic or decayed enough for my tastes. And the hook of Emily Ruskovich's Idaho is the simplest - a tiny action becomes a monstrous act of violence - but never offers any simple answers for what happened, even if it's obvious how the effects destroy the lives of the people involved.

And sometimes the novels I choose because they sound like the weirdest thing on the shelf, and I'm always down for that. Consent by Leo Benedictus gets as dark as the cover is white, and might only work as a reading experience if you know absolutely nothing about it going in. It does feature a character detached from society, and so does Katherine Kilalea's Ok, Mr Field, where a concert pianist slowly loses his mind in splendid isolation after impulsively buying a South African villa and shutting himself off from the world. In The Terrible, an autobiographical long-form poem by Yrsa Daley-Ward, the author does want to fit into the world far more than those others, but doesn't has an easy path to get there, and Daley-Ward's beautifully-written tale sings with truth and righteousness.

Finally, I did originally plan to read a lot more non-fiction as part of this new reading spree, but only read a few science and history books before switching to just novels, because novels are just more fun. But they were still hugely entertaining and informative - The Swerve by Stephan Greenblatt covers a lot of territory, from ancient philosophies to medieval monks digging those ideas up again, and it's all fascinating (if a little existentially troubling), while Brenna Hassett brought a deft human touch to the business of digging up ancient dead people in her Built on Bones. For a change of pace, the last non-fiction I tried was incredibly local - Scott Bainbridge's The Great New Zealand Robbery - which takes place on the streets I walk on every day (or at least did, until the Covid-19 lockdown kicked in last week), but is also set in a 1950s New Zealand which is barely recognisable as the same city today. The bit where a recent mayor showed up as the dodgy kid of a career crim was aces, though.

And that, apart from a few books I've loaned away over the months, is all the books I've been reading as part of my one-person book club. I'm looking forward to ramping it up again when we come out of the other side of this coronavirus crisis, because it's incredibly rewarding, intellectually stimulating, and a shit-tonne of fun. Highly recommended.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Isolation reading: Meddling Kids

Meddling Kids
By Edgar Cantero

This is another book that is, despite my best efforts, totally in my wheelhouse, because it's a post-modern examination of the Scooby Doo gang, wrapping them up in the slimy tentacles of a Lovercraftian horror. And that's exactly the kind of book I've enjoyed since I was 12 - a clever hook with the added emotional baggage of unearned nostalgia.

Luckily, Meddling Kids is also a hell of a lot of fun - it's genuinely funny, and also genuinely not afraid to really dig into the concept. It can also occasionally be quite brutal, and no-one is safe, not even vaguely anthropomorphic dogs.

Fortunately, Cantero doesn't just rely on that nostalgic kick to give his characters life, and they still come across as real people in an incredibly fucked-up situation. They might be total analogues, but you do want them to triumph, and eventually pull the rubber mask off to reveal the eldritch horror beneath.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Isolation reading: The Natural Way Of Things

The Natural Way Of Things
By Charlotte Wood

Any book with a cover that is overwhelmed with breathless quotes promising the ultimate in shock and horror is going to have a hard time living up to it, and to its credit, The Natural Way Of Things almost gets there.

It does get pretty hardcore, pretty fast, as a group of women find themselves being held prisoner on a remote camp in the Australian outback, where they are being punished for fucking with the patriarchy, with the patriarchy fucking back

All the different levels of misogyny that modern women face are all present and correct - there is the mindless thug, the male ally who turns out to a complete shithead, and a fellow female who subsists on hypocritical disgust.

But it's not really as shocking as those quotes make it out to be - anybody who is actually surprised by the day-to-day bullshit modern women suffer for just existing really haven't been paying attention, and the symbolic punishments the women go through are awfully familiar.

And yet, there is some hope, because some women don't bend, don't break, and don't let these arseholes get away with this crap. Beyond the shock and horror, there is a message of survival that is even a little uplifting as they fight their way through the constant institutional sexism that tries to beat them down.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Isolation reading: Ghost Wall

Ghost Wall
by Sarah Moss

When 17-year-old Silvie head off to the woods somewhere in Northumberland with her brutish father and a group of archeology students, everything starts sliding slowly into darkness, and there's only dread down there. This isn't going to end well.

Because when that father's obsession with folk history that slide slowly, inexorably into folk horror, Silvie can't get away. She can avoid the group's total Bronze-age diet by ducking out to the local supermarket with a sympathetic student, but she keeps getting dragged back to the camp, and almost becomes a willing sacrifice to some pagan need.

Moss' novel isn't long - it's barely 150 pages - but it has long and deep links to ancient history. Silvie's fate becomes more than a matter of minor mass hysteria, it's the continuation of a cultural nightmare that stretches back to the earliest days of Britain, one that is still hiding somewhere in the deep woods.

Whether Silvie will be able to wake up from that nightmare is the main tension throughout the slim story, but some nightmares can appear impossible to escape.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Isolation reading: Paul Takes The Form Of A Mortal Girl

Paul Takes The Form Of  A Mortal Girl
By Andrea Lawlor

Paul can shape-shift between man and woman, an Orlando in the 90s queer scene, always looking for a new thrill. But the shape-shifting twist doesn't define the story in Paul Takes The Form Of  A Mortal Girl at all, which is as undefinable as the main character's gender.

At first, Paul's just another disappointing fuckpig, just another dumb boy in his early twenties - possibly the most arrogant and dumb age for anybody - sizing up everybody and fucking his way through life, oblivious to the carnage left behind. He's the kind of guy that takes acid and spends four pages expounding on his grand theory of gay music as seen through gender-switched covers, which is just as irritating as it sounds.

But then the book shifts, and Paul tries to settle down as a working-class lesbian, and when rejected from that life, goes and becomes the absolute cliche of a gay man in San Francisco and takes that all the way, and even finds a reflection of himself (and he's always a he, even when he takes on a woman's form).

Paul's story really comes into its own with the gritty details of setting up a new life in a new city, and becomes a lot more identifiable as a stranger in a strange city, watching his meager savings quickly dry up, and it certainly works a lot better than the pieces of harmless fairy tale nonsense spread throughout the book (it's little surprise that Paul is a big fan of Neil Gaiman's Sandman comic...)

The novel does try a bit hard, that music rant goes on too long, especially when somebody is listening to it in apparently genuine awe, and there is a bit towards the end when Paul spends more pages remembering all the mundane details of his life with a character who has just died after lurking in the background of his story, which doesn't pay off at all.

But the book also never overpays the gender-swap stuff. Paul uses it to delight friends and run away into new lives, but it never becomes a major plot point. He never uses it to pull off a heist or murder a rival or anything like that. It's the kind of restraint that Paul himself would probably sneer at, but a fuckpig would always think that.