Six months ago, I offered a second snapshot of this site’s performance by publishing the top five pages for both the visual and printed media. On this New Year’s Eve, I’ve decided to look back again since there does seem to have been yet another change.
For the record, the site had just over 1,500 hits in January, 9,000 hits in June, but this December is comfortably over 17,550 hits. It seems I’ve become rather more visible on the all-powerful Google rankings. What makes this somewhat fascinating is the interest in “foreign” material. I don’t consciously pick subject matter thinking this will get a lot of hits. I write about what I happen to have seen or read. My decision to write about Dong Yi, a very good Korean serial, has proved a major success with all the pages dominating the top quarter of the page counts. Indeed, there’s a chance the next top five in six months time may be all Dong Yi pages. The current top page is over 4,750 hits with the top five having 12,590 hits between them. This ignores the 36,500 hits on the Home Page which are anonymised on WordPress. The figures in brackets are the positions in the last listing.
The average page hits for the top five books has gone up from just under 200 to 421 but this remains a pale shadow of the average for the top five visual media at 2,518 hits. It says something about the way the rankings work that a review of Conan, a film based on a written work, can get three times the number of hits for Troika.
The average hits per page across the entire site is 278 which is a fairly dramatic increase from 112 hits six months ago.
So there we have it. I’m finishing the year on a high note. It will be interesting to see whether I maintain the momentum or drop back down into the doldrums. Frankly, this internet phenomenon all seems rather arbitrary and disconnected from what I do. Perhaps I should invite a publisher to send me a book for review that explains how the ranking system works and maximising performance. Not that it matters that much since I’ve not commercialised the site. I suppose setting up my own domain and trying to sell advertising would make a difference. Until then, I’ll bumble along and see what happens.
A happy and successful New Year to all who read this.
Margin Call (2011) is my kind of film. In fact, I would go further and confess liking anything that manages to combine intelligence with the more general dramatic stereotypes. In this case, we’ve had decades of office scenarios in which our cast of stalwarts looks around the room. “Holy shit (the use of Batman’s name is optional), what we gonna do now?” is the usual question blurted out by the least significant member of the team. Grizzled heads shake. There are close-ups on eyes as they shade from horizon-focus to steely determination. They nod at each other in silent confirmation of the strategy. “Let’s get this thing done!” declaims the Boss and they all hit their desks with manic enthusiasm for their thing, whatever it may be. Well, in the proverbial nutshell, that captures the plot of this Hollywood epic. Yes, I know we’re only supposed to use “epic” to describe some brainless adventure film featuring heroes (now of both sexes) with rippling muscles and optional explosions (even in classical mythology, they knew how to blow stuff up). But this is as tense and exciting a film as you could want to see, assuming you like intelligent drama.
I can imagine swathes of people emerging from cinemas around the world, their brains numb with boredom because all people did onscreen was talk. Most of the time, this was done without anyone raising their voices. Despite the tendency to panic and throw themselves of tall buildings, everyone remained calm and got on with their jobs as if this was another day at the office. Yet, when you look at the real world and see what happened when Wall Street almost melted down in September 2008, you can see how a small group of lemmings might feel if they suddenly realised they were standing on the edge of a cliff.
This vision of financial Armageddon was triggered by Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) the senior risk manager of a large financial organisation. He’s been quietly working his way through some historical data but not connecting up all the dots. As the organisation is downsized, he’s escorted out of the building but, in the lift lobby, he gives a file to Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), a young rocket scientist turned risk manager. Curious, young Peter crunches the numbers and comes up with a picture of the cliff. He calls his boss Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) who calls his boss Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) who calls his boss Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) who puts in the final call to the überboss John Tuld (Jeremy Irons). In the midst of this, Demi Moore appears as the senior officer who dismissed Eric Dale. So, in the space of a few minutes, you find yourself watching some of the most watchable actors on the planet. At this point, we need to say a few words in praise of J C Chandor who both wrote the script and directed. This is a “new” director who has signed a deal with Warner Brothers for two pictures. This is his first film.
I can imagine the excitement the actors must have felt when they received scripts. The news suggests there was a queue of talent lining up to compete for these parts. When you see this final cast list, you realise something strange is going on with seasoned professionals all wanting to work on a first picture. Everyone wants a meaty part that allows them to act — particularly Demi Moore who’s not in this film because of her looks.
So, as politicians like to ask, “Where’s the beef?” Let’s start with a simple statement. This is not an apologia for the banking industry. While it doesn’t go out of its way to condemn, it equally doesn’t show the individuals or their role in society in a good light. Nevertheless, it does cunningly explain why we tolerate this excessive greed and conspire with Wall Street, the Square Mile, and their shadows around the world. Think of it this way. Politicians have encouraged a desire in us to own our own homes. Marketers press us to spend our money on their clients’ goods and services. So we all want mortgages, loans for our cars and other “necessities”, and credit cards that extract money from ATMs like there’s no tomorrow. It doesn’t suit us to look behind the curtain to find the Wizard is a pimply youth who spends tens of thousands of his bonus on hookers. So long as the money keeps on flowing, we’re more than happy to turn a blind eye to excesses. Indeed, we’re likely to be somewhat upset during times of obvious prosperity, if banks and finance companies put barriers in our way, e.g. demanding proof of income or that we provide collateral with a provable minimum value. In our entitlement culture, we expect to be given free access to what we want. When the economic worm turns and we find we can’t afford to repay all these loans, the bankers become the scum of the Earth for facilitating our greed.
One line captures the quality of the decision at issue in this film. If a fire in a theatre is anticipated, does anyone blame the first one who runs out of the door? Should there be no fire, the world laughs at the first for unnecessary worry. Should there be a fire and the first to react is not responsible for causing it, why should the world judge them harshly? Well, in this instance, the only solution to this particular corporation’s problem is to sell all its dodgy assets before the world catches on. That means no-one will trust you again (well, until they’ve forgotten this crisis and need you to trade with). But the decision to sell without shouting “fire” is going to cause a lot of short-term damage. You can salve your conscience as a seller because everyone else is a willing buyer. If they can’t smell smoke, that’s their problem. More importantly, you are suddenly going to have a big cash fund and can cherry pick from all the fire sales held by the others without foresight. Better still, you may even be able to afford buying a bank or another financial corporation in distress. If your financial model is correctly predicting a cliff, you could end up richer in the long term.
I was fascinated by the discussion and mesmerised by the performances. Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons are outstanding. Everyone else is merely excellent. Although financial catastrophes come along quite regularly, it’s important to have films like this to focus our attention and persuade us to think about what happened. Sadly, we’re all like Aesop’s grasshopper and have short-term memories. As soon as the credit tap gets turned back on, we’ll all no doubt rush out to borrow again. But this film should give us pause for thought. As to the anonymous corporation’s decision to sell, this is financial Darwinism. It may not be the survival of the fittest, but rather the survival of the early bird. As a final thought, the nearest comparison in subject matter is Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Whereas that failed, Margin Call delivers “big time”. For those who like films without explosions, this is a must-see.
When I was at school, the atmosphere was mostly serious. Various talking heads would appear in front of us, doing their best to interest us in basic information. Educationally, they believed we first needed order and structure. Later, we could build on this for a more sophisticated level of performance. We ground through the grammar of both English and foreign languages so that, when we acquired vocabulary, we could speak and write with formal exactness. All continued serenely until, after we’d polished off O-Levels, our English teacher decided we should explore the range of literary forms. Suddenly, we were expected to parody and lampoon anything and everything supposedly serious. Looking back, this was building on our devout worship of the surrealism of the Goon Show and other potentially satirical radio programmes of the period. If you want an academic justification, I suppose he must have encountered Heidegger’s ideas as incorporated into French existentialism because he gave us an early introduction to the process, courtesy of Derrida, we might now consider deconstruction or, if you prefer, reconstruction. We had to focus on the text, capture its meaning and then make fun of it.
This caught me at an impressionable age and I’ve never really lost a somewhat subversive view of the world. In terms of my reading, I also enjoyed the parodies of the classics of my chosen genres, devouring Bored of the Rings by Henry N Beard and Douglas C Kenney as soon as it came out. Similarly, I grabbed National Lampoon’s Doon by Ellis Weiner. Such books are of their time and I seriously doubt anyone would find them even remotely amusing today. I’m also conscious that neither book would make much sense unless you were really familiar with the originals.
All of which brings me to the modern fashion for mash-ups which has produced such classics as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Seth Grahame-Smith), Little Women and Werewolves (Porter Grand), etc. Personally, I’m not impressed because although there’s some originality at a conceptual level, the execution is neither a good version of the original styles and manners, nor a competent supernatural novel. Such humour as exists comes from the forced nature of the situations, e.g. that Queen Victoria might hitch up her skirts and secretly hunt demons or Abraham Lincoln despatch vampires — easier because of the lack of skirts. But, after a few pages, even the best of jokes palls and leaves us with pages of desperate writing.
For many moons, Garrison Keillor has been broadcasting and writing about Lake Wobegon, a fictional town in Minnesota based, in part, on his hometown of Anoka. Similarly, Stephenie Meyer has been writing about the romantic possibilities if you put a vampire and a predatory young lady in the same room, and wait to see who’s chased and whether two become one (the Spice Girls have a lot of explaining to do). So here comes The Twilight of Lake Woebegotten by Harrison Geillor (Night Shade Books, 2011) (which looks like a pseudonym for someone famous but one can never be sure about these things). Should you be afraid, very afraid?
Well, surprisingly, this is a very good stand-alone novel. Suppose you’d spent the last thirty years never engaging in cultural activities like reading fiction, listening to the radio, watching television or going to the cinema (which probably means you’re Amish). You could still read this book with perfect enjoyment for, although it borrows heavily from the ideas bank underlying the originals, it doesn’t depend on them for their effect.
So here comes Bonnie Grayduck. Forced to leave California to escape investigation into some of her extracurricular activities, she finds herself in a small town in Minnesota. This is both a curse because life appears so unsophisticated, and an opportunity because she believes she can easily dominate the scene and do more of what she enjoys. As is always the case in such stories, she must enroll in the local High School where, in the midst of all the dross, there’s this stand-out hunk who catches her eye. Now begins a strange courtship, the young man resisting her feminine wiles. Rising to the challenge, she plots his downfall only to discover she’s in pursuit of a vampire — and, ignoring the television show, she keeps a diary detailing her experiences. It should be said, however, this is rather better than the CW Network’s teen drama (not difficult) and, in my opinion, even better than the Twilight young adult books of Stephenie Meyer (even less difficult). This novel is written with very adult sensibilities engaged (no porn, of course) and a gentle sense of humour aimed at mocking the standard tropes in vampire, were-thing and Criminal Minds-type dramas. And it’s all set in Lake Wo(e)bego(tte)n so we get news of life and death out on the prairies.
I’m a natural curmudgeon so never do laughter unless I’m confident I can be unobserved — reputation is everything in my household. Fortunately, The Twilight of Lake Woebegotten is not something that threatened unrestrained mirth, but it did make me smile every now and again. By my standards, this is high praise. So allow me to recommend this rather clever book by Harrison Geillor. If you have had Amish tendencies for the last thirty years, you can still enjoy this on its merits, but a little background on Lake Wobegon and both Twilight and New Moon will enhance your understanding. It’s not something Heidegger would have enjoyed (unless in translation), but my English teacher would have approved.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Those of you who have read more than one of these reviews will know I go on at length in sometimes quite complicated English. Worse, I often have more than one clause in each sentence, and routinely use words with more than two syllables. My apologies but this is the language in which I think. Insofar as I need a defence, I’m not trying to write a bestseller. This is just an outlet for me to express my personal opinions. Were I trying to get to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, I would change the style and write in more accessible English.
I begin in this way because All Cry Chaos by Leonard Rosen (Permanent Press, 2011) is something of an enigma. He prefers words like vomitous, wend and ringleted when nauseous, walk and curly-haired would do equally well. Yes, it’s unfair to pick out three words from the thousands, but it says something about an author’s intention when you study his vocabulary choices. For the record, he’s an academic writer crossing over into fiction. Insert a J and you have a man who teaches and writes about writing. Even more interesting is the melodrama of the opening. I’m not denying the emotional commitment of this Interpol detective to the chase, but our hero is curiously affected by this particular criminal. Indeed, his war crimes have disturbed the usual calm of this bloodhound. Then we have a book dotted with pictures of fractals and comparable matching natural/unnatural phenomena, and the text of the story slows down to accommodate a little of the theory behind this particular branch of mathematics — hence the title of the book. Taken overall, you might call this book erudite (i.e. potentially written for clever folk). Not, of course, that there’s anything wrong in writing for the upper band of the market, but it does somewhat limit sales when the presumed intention is to write a detective novel in a thrillerish mode.
From this opening you will understand All Cry Chaos is an ambitious first novel. It’s attempting to tell a good Interpol procedural story and say something about the human condition by reflecting on chaos theory. The nearest comparison is Death Qualified: A Mystery of Chaos by Kate Wilhelm which is a murder case for Brenda Holloway that flirts with the theory of chaos. I’ve always found the ending of the Wilhelm deeply annoying because it passes over the invisible genre line from a traditional investigation and murder trial into science fiction. Although Leonard Rosen is suggesting there may be a better predictive mathematical model, he more or less stays on the right side of the line. While the ability to predict does go further than current modelling permits, I was not offended by the possibility of more or less guaranteed financial returns on investment. That’s all part of the hype the math wonks put about to get jobs with the hedge funds. However, the Wilhelm investigation and description of the trial does stay firmly rooted in reality whereas Rosen has a somewhat less than credible view of the brand of justice meted out by some parts of the Interpol service. Although you might say our hero is something of a stickler for the rules of evidence and procedure, those around him have a more flexible view of how to fight crime. While I might sympathise with the clichéd notion that ends justify means, the idea such an approach might be endemic to a crime-fighting organisation is troubling. It suggests the possibility of officially-sanctioned vigilanteism.
Adding to the contradictions is this American author’s apparent approval of the International Criminal Court. This institution has been most consistently opposed by the US which is against granting criminal jurisdiction to any external body and so creating accountability for either its military personnel or political leaders. Yet the clear practice shown by Interpol in this novel represents a form of exceptionalism entirely consistent with neocon US foreign policy. Both before and, particularly, after an American takes over the management of Interpol, there’s a clear permissiveness when it comes to individuals taking action outside the formal rule structure. We readers are supposed to approve this muscular unilateralism because of the horror the author seeks to inspire from his descriptions of the massacre by Stipo Banovic.
So where does all this leave us? The answer comes from the nature of the story being told. All Cry Chaos is being trumpeted as the first of a series involving Henri Poincaré, a dedicated Interpol agent who doggedly pursues the unrighteous, no matter where they may lurk. In this instance, he picks up an unusual murder case in which an advanced rocket fuel is used as a murder weapon. The victim is almost completely incinerated in his hotel room by a very precisely focussed explosion. The solution to this crime is all rather elegant, emerging as Henri travels around Europe and visits America, talking with and interviewing a diverse range of people. This means the quality of the puzzle and its solution overcomes the clunkiness of the melodrama and the sentimentality of the ending on the family front. Relying on the theory that systems go through cycles of perturbation and then return to new patterns of stability is no excuse for this ending.
On balance, I’m impressed by this first attempt at fiction by this seasoned professional academic writer. For all I find fault with some aspects of the writing and plotting, I’m left with confidence the next book in the series, should he decide to write it, will be better. Leonard Rosen is someone to watch.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
For the record, All Cry Chaos was nominated for the 2012 Edgar for Best First Novel.
The question immediately coming to mind is a simple one. What exactly is a fairy story? It would be rather trite just to list all the stories which feature supernatural creatures like, well, fairies. . . So let’s offer a more sweeping suggestion that a fairy story is one in which there are elements of magic with the possibility of enchantment. In the olden days when we used to sit around the fire for warmth as the night drew in, we would tell ourselves these tales. They were a part of our oral tradition. This is not to confuse them with myths and legends because they more often represent themselves as having elements of truth. Both those who tell and those who listen spellbound, know a fairy story is not intended to be taken as a literal truth. And in this lies the reason for their slow transformation from a purely adult form of fiction to tales we tell our children, to the new varieties of story we come back to as adults. Some like Pan’s Labyrinth or The Company of Wolves are modern parables of our time, intended as polemics or the delivery system for moral improvement. Others like Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day are more “harmless”, being intended as mere romantic dalliances through which we can distract ourselves from the rigours of the world.
It would be difficult to find someone not familiar with Cinderella. The story seems to have embedded itself in cultures around the world as an inspiration to the oppressed to have a little more confidence in themselves and find a prince(ss). This film is a variation on the theme as we see the story from the point of view of a slightly surprising fairy godmother. The titular Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) is an intelligent woman who finds herself out of joint in London, a city on the eve of war. Life has passed her by. Her first and only love was killed in the trenches in WW I. No-one else has ever moved into this clergyman daughter’s circle, condemning her to the drudgery of playing governess to families she dislikes. Having lost three jobs in quick succession, the most recent because she disapproved of her employer’s drinking, the employment agency decides to drop her as unsuited to the life of service. In desperation, she steals the business card of a new female client, thinking she too wants a governess.
So, by accident, she ends up in the flat occupied by Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams). This is a young American woman who’s one lover away from destitution in London. The flat she currently occupies is owned by a fairly sleazy nightclub owner, Nick (Mark Strong) who lets her sing with the band. From this platform, she’s met the piano player, Michael (Lee Pace) and Phil (Tom Payne) who has within his gift the leading role in a new West End musical. She sleeps with all three because she’s lonely and ambitious, but is equally exploited by two of her lovers. In the midst of all this superficiality, Edythe (Shirley Henderson) dictates outerwear fashion and her potential husband, Joe (Ciaran Hinds) designs lingerie for the well-to-do.
At any moment, war with Germany may be declared and mannequins in fashionable shop windows sport the latest designs in gas masks. The social bubble that has carried people through the depression of the 1930s and into relative prosperity is about to be punctured. All this social magic will disappear as the Blitz begins. At this cusp between peace and war, its occurs to these people that they should take decisions for their futures. The catalyst for this fairly momentous change is Miss Pettigrew, whose drive to find employment gives her desperate energy. She has known hardship and pain. Hers is the voice of experience that, when needed, will speak the truth.
Perhaps that’s where the real magic comes into play. She can only find her way into these people’s lives by dishonestly claiming to be sent by an employment agency but, once in place, she has a unique opportunity to provoke others into hard decisions. It’s inherently ironic that a liar should become the mouthpiece of truth. The script is a pleasing balance between hope and despair. David Magee and Simon Beaufoy have done a good job in recapturing the mood of the original novel by Winifred Watson. The direction from Bharat Nalluri is light but sure. The result is entertaining in a way only possible in a fairy story. The right people must come together in the ending but, on the way, we must see beyond the external appearances for the reality beneath. The poster says it all with Joe’s lingerie keeping London’s socialites looking good, and two women from different generations and cultural backgrounds finding common cause in the pursuit of happiness — physical and economic security is less feasible given the outbreak of war. For the record, unlike the original Cinderella, events are largely confined to a single day and the morning after. The oppression necessary to trigger the acceptance of change comes from within. These people are all unhappy in the roles they have chosen for themselves. They can only find freedom when they give up the false dreams and decide to be true to themselves. Put like this, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day may sound a bit trite but, onscreen, it produces a heart-warming response.
As a final thought, I’m a sucker for the piano played well and, in the midst of some good big band numbers and slightly anachronistic jazz, there’s some great piano. Thanks, perhaps, to Paul Englishby who wrote the original score.
A Bitter Truth by Charles Todd is yet another example of a growing phenomenon, not just in fiction, but also in the cinema. To understand it properly, we have to engage in a tiny piece of semiotic theory. I’ll make it as painless as possible. We use language as a means of communication, but all the other “things” we see, hear, smell, taste or touch can be a part of the mechanism for transmitting meaning. So, for example, a book is a physical object. It comes with jacket artwork. We see its colours, touch the paper, see the typesetting, smell the binding (or note the absence of leather, real or fake), and so on. Long before we get to read the words inside, we’ve formed an opinion about the package and what it might contain. As to the text, the author can pick whichever words best convey the meaning he or she wants to transmit. They can be colloquial, catching the current rhythms of speech, or more formal. The syntax can suggest geography (British English differing from the American version), class, a particular time. . . To work effectively, a reviewer must consider every aspect of the creative process that brings the work from the mind of the author to the finished book product to be appraised.
In this case, we have what’s claimed to be a type of detective novel or, perhaps more accurately, a mystery. Ostensibly, it’s set in December, 1917 in a Britain going through the agony of the Great War (a magnificent misnomer, if ever there was one). Bess Crawford, the lead character, is a nurse. She’s broken with social convention as the daughter of a fairly senior army officer and, as such, a member of the upper middle class. She should have stayed at home, engaging only in local charitable works until she was married off. As a child, she’s been with the family in India and so comes with her view of the world coloured by her experience as part of the Raj. As you would expect, she’s independent-minded and now hardened by her work close to the battlefield where she does some of the triage and post-surgical nursing. However you want to interpret history, this was a time of human suffering on an epic scale. Although the fighting itself was fairly localised given the essentially static nature of the trench system used for defence, the ripple effect of the casualty rate was felt in every community in northern Europe and, by this time, the Commonwealth and some American households. Looking back, this was not a good time to be around.
Yet, today’s books and visual dramas have a very precise commercial purpose. Even though the majority of writers and artists still metaphorically starve in garrets, there are major corporations around the world converting entertainment into profits. They depend on a steady stream of content that can be sold to the masses. Not surprisingly, history in the raw would not sell. In our more comfortable lives, we prefer a romanticised nostalgia, sometimes tinged with a slight bittersweet element. Yes, there will be some mention of all the death and destruction, but it will be sanitised into the background. With our modern sensibilities now attuned to warfare as something other people do for us, we can stand back dispassionately and focus on the characters in the foreground. So, for example, several thousand soldiers have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan but they are other people’s children. Our lives go on and we choose not to see the pain and suffering in the families where the maimed are supported and the dead are mourned. Indeed, many of these families are ghettoised into military housing on army bases. We rarely see amputees and other victims on our streets. We have been insulated from the cruel reality of war.
Thus, the view of Britain and France as shown in A Bitter Truth is a form of fantasy, a vehicle to convey a general sense of danger and difficulty, but nothing our spunky girl can’t cope with. Indeed, it’s a quite remarkable effort to take some highly contentious themes and make them, somehow, less awful. Let’s see what we have as we start. Our nurse returns from the front and is pitched into a part of London searching for a deserter. These men were usually publicly shot pour encourager les autres. We then have a victim of spousal abuse, an accusation of infidelity by a soldier during R&R in France, a snapshot of a community relatively close to the south coast, highlights of nursing in a combat zone, and the physical consequences for the French communities close to the fighting. As to British culture, it hardly figures at all. There’s only a hint of class barriers, none of the racism and little of the prejudice against colonials, none of the growing disenchantment with the war despite the jingoism still practiced by the government, and so on.
I would forgive all this if the point of the book as a detective story was well made. There’s no good purpose served by wallowing in the reality of Britain ninety years ago. It’s enough that I lived through the destruction and rebuilding following World War II without recalling the oral history passed down to me by my parents and grandparents of life before and during the first major attempt to reduce the world’s population before global warming got out of hand. Except, this book by Charles Todd is neither fish nor fowl. What could have been a historical novel is lost with no real effort made to give us any detail of the time. What could have been an adventure or thriller is lost because there’s no real sense of danger. Yes, our heroine gets caught up in a murder investigation and later goes hunting around northern France for an orphan, but there’s little emotional involvement. What’s in the background stays firmly there and only rarely do we feel a threat to any leading character’s health. And what could have been a classic detective story in the Golden Age tradition of a country house murder is rather thrown away because, although the solution to the primary crime is firmly rooted in the time, there’s an admission our heroine did not have the means of identifying the motive and so pointing the finger at the murderer. The availability of proof depends on her family connections, followed by a car chase and some romantic hints to leave us with a smile at the end.
This is my first look at Charles Todd, this mother/son writing duo who, as Americans, have specialised in writing about the British in and around the Great War. This is their third Bess Crawford novel and it follows on some thirteen novels featuring Inspector Rutledge of Scotland Yard (another is due in 2012). I’m probably the wrong gender to enjoy it. I suspect A Bitter Truth is firmly aimed at a female readership that wants romantic fiction with an adventurous edge. Those who are not swept up into the new urban fantasies with strong women fighting off vampires and other supernatural beasties, can have a gentle vicarious thrill as our heroine emerges unscathed from the battlefield, solves a few murders as a hobby, and watches some of the unattached men around her with typical British reserve.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Connoisseurs have been nurturing a clichéd idiom for some time, waiting for it to blossom. Some years ago, people could actually say, “push the envelope” without flinching in shame. Now those of us who remain sane (and who have yet to succumb to the lure of digital correspondence) just wish we could go back to using envelopes to send letters. The usage has become so common it’s actually quite difficult to avoid the phrase in so many different contexts from mathematics and engineering through to that fake management consultancy language where tremulous directors are encouraged to take a risk to make some money. So, when you see someone titling a collection, In Extremis: The Most Extreme Short Stories of John Shirley (Underland Press, 2011), you know you are in the presence of death and other extreme events, metaphorical or otherwise.
I like John Shirley as an author. There’s a pleasing directness about his writing style that gets you to the point of the story with minimum fuss and bother. In this case, he offers us a collection of stories in which he was consciously pushing the boundaries of taste. Now that, in itself, is a bit of a moveable feast, is it not? Taste is essentially ephemeral, constantly shifting depending on the audience and the context. In some places, it’s impossible to have a conversation without using “fucking” as a noun, adjective or verb in almost every sentence — and that’s before you get to all the other anglo-saxon words we all love to reserve for outbursts where we want to create an effect. The use of these words is routine in some cultural niches. So, if an author declares he’s attempting to be “extreme”, this rather “begs the question” (deliberately misusing the phrase), where is he hoping to publish these stories and who is to judge whether they are actually extreme? Actually that’s two questions, but we can pass that by. Obviously, if an editor accepts a story for publication, he or she judges the story will appeal to the target readership. So, by definition, the story is not too extreme. It’s just what the readership wants.
Given this contradiction, let’s survey what John Shirley serves up as his most extreme. In fact, it’s rather an odd mixture and many of the stories are, by my standards, quite amusing. There’s the usual amount of swearing, none of which is even remotely extreme. Many of the characters are regular drug users and this, again, has been a routine part of “edgy” fiction and nonfiction once the Beat Generation of writers really got going in the 1950s and spread their more hedonistic lifestyle into the drug-soaked hippie culture of the 1960s. There’s also quite a lot of sex — perfectly natural as an activity — and some interesting cruelty — attempting to microwave the dwarf is a pleasing idea, albeit not for the dwarf, of course. One or two stories flirt with the notion the Christians can be outraged. Nothing can upset the heathens and atheists, of course. They’ve been immune to outrage since they abandoned the conventional paths our society expects and espoused divergent beliefs. Then there’s the odd piece of body-modification. . . But, after a while, there’s a certain monotony about this collection. We have a lot of shortish short stories, all striving to be extreme and therefore shocking in some way. But the reality is rather different from that intended. It all gets a bit boring.
I’m not saying John Shirley is lacking inventiveness. Some of the ideas are quite provocative. It’s just there’s no real attempt to develop the characters or the situations in which they find themselves. We have the idea, see how it works and then move rapidly on to the next. It’s all a bit perfunctory except, in one or two cases, we do get a stand-out stories like “You Hear What Buddy and Ray Did?, a really pleasing noirish story of wrongdoing, “Raise Your Hand If You’re Dead”, as good a science fiction story as you’ll find, and “The Gun As An Aid To Poetry” which is vastly amusing when a muse goes missing and a poet’s output dries up. The ending is somewhat clichéd, but it’s a great way of resolving writer’s block.
Overall, this is not a collection I would recommend you try reading in one sitting. I ended up dipping into it over a period of days, consuming the stories in sequence, but stopping before I tired. In Extremis is not a patch on Black Butterflies, a wonderful collection of short stories that rightly won both the Stoker and the International Horror Guild Awards in 1999. If John Shirley is new to you, don’t start here. If you’re already a fan, add it to the collection.
Three Act Tragedy (2011) is one of Agatha Christie’s earlier books and this adaptation is reasonably faithful to both the plot and the period, it being set in the 1930s with an interesting set of characters, some of whom are sufficiently wealthy to slum it in art deco style houses on cliff tops when not routinely dining at the Ritz or in Monte Carlo, while others put on appearances and trawl the social world in the hope of finding enough customers to stave off bankruptcy. It’s all wonderfully superficial as the cast zoom down to Cornwall or up to Yorkshire via their London pied-à-terres. The director, Ashley Pearce, also nicely plays with the mis en scène, shifting between the pleasing opening framing shots to create iconic images of 1930’s life, both “real” and theatrical, the stylised coroner’s court, and the sometimes beautiful interiors. The overall look and feel is right, reinforcing the rather luxurious world in which Hercule Poirot (David Suchet) and others of his class move so comfortably. In this context, it’s fascinating to watch Poirot breach protocol when talking with those in service. If he’s to extract useful information from them, he must be reassuring and, for example, encourage a maid to be more open and honest than she might otherwise be. Servants had to be invisible and so were often able to observe embarrassing or illuminating facts about their masters and mistresses. They would not hold on to their positions very long if they were too quick to gossip. I suppose Poirot gets away with it because he’s “foreign” and so inherently less intimidating than the British upper and upper-middle classes.
At the other end of the scale come the redoubtable Sir Charles Cartwright (Martin Shaw), a retired actor in the grand style and his life-long friend from university, Dr Bartholomew Strange (Art Malik). These are men of high social visibility and personal wealth so, in terms of casting, it’s very pleasing to see Art Malik in the role of an eminent psychologist with a major estate in Yorkshire and a purpose-built “treatment centre” in the grounds. He has restored the house and now is a respected local employer. The loose cannon floating through this world is the playwright, Miss Mills (Kate Ashfield). She’s nicely picked out from the crowd as a slightly eccentric and solitary observer of the world. Never really mixing, she would rather eavesdrop and accumulate details for her next play set in this artificial bubble of a world.
Although some other Christies do move around a little, this novel not only has Poirot and others charging across the English landscape courtesy of the railway service, there must also be a scene in Monte Carlo. This creates a slightly rushed feel, particularly as our detective must actually do the PI thing, stake-out a person of interest and then use the traditional, “follow that cab” line as if it was new. It’s always good to see our consulting detective get into the practicality of investigation rather than merely sitting in a room and allowing his little grey cells the chance to shine.
As to the mystery itself, it offers a pleasing case for Poirot to investigate. Indeed, in a way, it comes as almost a personal challenge to see through the necessary deceptions to arrive at the truth. However, the reveal is rather more staged than usual. One of the critical problems for any detective working outside the formal police force is the acquisition of sufficient evidence to guarantee a conviction. Having a gathering of all the suspects and then working through to a reasoned conclusion is one of the ways in which the problem can be overcome. Superintendent Crossfield (Tony Maudsley) literally lurking in the wings of the theatre in the hope of a confession is potentially good. Except Poirot and the Superintendent already have more than enough evidence to arrest the suspect before everyone arrives at the theatre. More importantly, Poirot goes out of his way to protect one potential witness but there’s another person probably more at risk, i.e. the one protected may know whodunnit but the other has certain knowledge. Although it’s not a major defect, it does make the ending less satisfying than it might otherwise have been. Overall, this is one of the better adaptations with David Suchet allowed to engage in a little self-parody at times and make us smile.
As a final thought, I offer a note of clarification. If we travel back eighty and more years, it was necessary to prove fault in order to obtain a divorce. It’s fairly obvious if one spouse commits adultery or deserts the other, this is a form of matrimonial “offence” and will justify a court finding that spouse at fault. But, if the spouse is insane, he or she has no ability to form any intention of wrongdoing. Finding fault in such cases is therefore more difficult. Today, we have no-fault divorce and a decree is granted if the marriage has irretrievably broken down. This avoids the problem where one spouse lacks mental capacity.
For reviews of other Agatha Christie stories and novels, see:
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2004) — the first three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2005) — the second set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2006) — the third set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2007) — the final set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: They Do It with Mirrors (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Case of the Missing Will (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Chocolate Box (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Clocks (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Three Act Tragedy (2011)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Underdog (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Yellow Iris (1993)
The question, I suppose, is what we should expect to see when the title of the film mentions Sherlock Holmes. At the first available opportunity, should Sherlock say, “Elementary, my dear Watson” (a phrase never actually used by Conan Doyle), should he display his deductive reasoning while playing the violin, smoking the tobacco from his Persian slipper or mainlining seven-percent solution, or should he wear a deerstalker and an Inverness cape? There are many possible stereotypes that could be adopted. . .
Well, defying convention at every possible turn, here comes Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, an action-packed adventure directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law in their second outing as the dynamic duo. To add a little European sparkle for the box-office ratings, there’s a moderate role for Noomi Rapace, this time wearing rather more clothing than as Lisbeth Salander, with Jared Harris playing Professor Moriarty, Rachel McAdams returning in a cameo as Irene Adler and Stephen Fry as Mycroft (sometimes not wearing as many clothes as he should). It’s a good cast with many other familiar faces popping up in the support roles. Even the landscaping looks good again. In the first Ritchie attempt at Holmes, London was also a “star” with loving attention given to the city as a living, breathing place. This time, although we start in London, Paris also gets a good showing off with a nice castle on top of the Reichenbach Falls.
So how does this film stack up against all the other Holmes offerings? The news is mostly good. Although it’s less obvious as we watch it through, there’s actually some quite clever deductive reasoning going on. Why is it less obvious? Because Ritchie’s camera glosses over some scenes very quickly. In other “detective” films, the camera lingers and allows us, the audience, a chance to spot the clues. Sadly, it’s only when we get a slow-motion reprise of those scenes that we are allowed the chance to see what Holmes saw with his triumphant voice-over explaining the significance of it all. Ah, the slow-motion sequences. . . This is hopelessly overused. I was mildly intrigued the first time we saw predictive movements played out in real time. It was an interesting idea to see how his planning either did or did not work. The final confrontation with Moriarty is also faintly amusing as they both play the same mental game of predicting attack and defence. But the continued use of the technique becomes annoying. If he does make a third (with about $65 million in box-office takings worldwide over the first weekend, the chances of a third look quite strong), I hope he finds some new toy to play with. Anyway, back with the reasoning, Watson and the Swedish gypsy get their own apply-the-Sherlock-method moment and that proves rather effective.
I confess to liking Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson. Although they are given some incredibly silly things to do — Holmes pretending to be furniture must rank as one of the silliest of all time — they manage to keep their dignity and, more importantly, they make a good team. This Watson is genuinely a warrior and, although he loses his limp rather rapidly when running for his life, he’s a crack shot and very steady under pressure. This is just the man you would want by your side if the game was afoot. There are moments of real respect and affection between them with Holmes trusting the man on two vital occasions. They also manage to produce humour from the situations in which they are placed. It may not be laugh-out-loud, but it’s entertaining in a gentle way. Yet the real basis for the success of this film is the characterisation of Professor Moriarty. Jared Harris plays him as a very urbane gentleman whose mask only slips a little when Holmes skewers him with an analysis of his handwriting. Later when he and Holmes can enjoy a little quality time together to discuss fishing techniques, we see him as a narcissistic sadist but, at the end, they can find a moment of peace to play chess while the fate of the world is being decided in the ballroom on the other side of the door. There’s a certain solicitousness about the Professor’s care for the injured Holmes when he wraps a cape about his shoulders. They might have been friends in another lifetime.
Noomi Rapace is just about given a fair crack of the whip. Although this is a film about the threat of war and so, in these patriarchal Victorian times, very much the province of men, she’s allowed to be more than merely decorative. She runs, jumps, rides and, for her sins, dances her way through England, France, Germany and Switzerland on her way to finding her missing brother. It’s better than the usual female tokenism you see in blockbusters. As in the Conan Doyle originals, Sherlock Holmes survives the Reichenbach Falls and Colonel Moran lives to fight another day if he can find the empty house in time for the possible third film in the series. I note Conan Doyle did accord Moran the honour of being the second most dangerous man in London. It would be good if Jared Harris could be persuaded to return as well. As a concluding thought, this is an interesting week with Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows going up against Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. In my opinion, Sherlock beats Ethan. The other linking factor is that these two films give international recognition to Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist who were launched in the Stieg Larsson Millenium trilogy. By coincidence, I’m going to see the David Fincher remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo next week.
The Inheritance and Other Stories is a collection claiming to be written by Megan Lindholm and Robin Hobb. For the record, both are pseudonyms used by Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden, a Californian author who began publishing under her maiden name but, when she found her books were not selling so well, changed names and wrote something different which sold slightly better. A very practical way for an author to break with the past and start over again. “A Touch of Lavender” (1989 — shortlisted for the Nebula Award and Hugo Award for novella) is a remarkable story which recognises that, no matter how talented a musician, there must always be people who not only listen but also hear the quality of that music. In the midst of it all, there are aliens and a government that’s largely indifferent to the welfare of its people unless it believes it can panhandle the aliens into giving them the secrets of their technology. It’s touching in every sense of the word, engaging our emotions early on and giving us a ride through to the bitter-sweet ending. This clearly deserved the shortlisting for the two top awards.
“Silver Lady and the Fortyish Man” (1989 — shortlisted for the Nebula Award for novelette and second place winner for the Sturgeon Award) Frankly, I’m amazed this story was also such a success. According to the introduction, this was the only story the author wrote with the expectation her husband would read it. She wrote it for him and, to some extent, about her feelings for him. So it captures her time working as a hard-seller in Sears and introduces a vaguely supernatural element as the hook on which to hang a rather strange piece of romantic fiction. I suppose it has some nice lines and says something about writer’s block, offering hope for those who find their Muse deserting them. But, for me, it’s a rather pallid story. Even more extraordinary is “Cut” (2001 — shortlisted for the Nebula Award for short story). This is almost a non-fictional discussion on or, if you prefer, a fictionalised introduction to, the issue of female circumcision. Sadly, it’s superficial on the physical and moral aspects. It’s not even good feminism. Instead what we have is a slightly emotional rant with little or no argument developed or reasoned conclusion reached.
“The Fifth Squashed Cat” (1993) is a minor piece of magic as an excuse for debating which has the better life: a kind of hippy drop-out who wanders the world sucking on the odd bone when her energy levels need topping up, or a reasonably talented wage-slave who maximises her opportunities within the conventional world of work. The only reason I quite like it is Megan Lindholm makes the ostensible heroine the victim of her own scepticism assuming, of course, you think working for a living makes you a victim. “Strays” (1998) is more interesting as two young girls from slightly different sides of the tracks meet up and form a loose alliance. There’s a more real sense of place as our “Amazon” commands the feral cats. So, while it’s a fairly slight story, it has a grittiness making it reasonably memorable.
There are three original stories in this collection. I’m not sure “Finis” would ever be accepted in a professional magazine. It features the kind of primitive hook beginners come up with. A few readers might not see the ending from a mile off. Most would snort derisively when their worst suspicions were realised. “Drum Machine” is also in need of an editor’s tender loving care. When you conflate two entirely separate ideas in a single story, you need to do a better job of synchronising the outcome. I suppose the point of the story is that randomness throws up the best and the worst at the extremes and the mass of the average in the middle. But it ends up neither really being about the system of choice allowed in this future USA’s desire to control the gene pool, nor about whether talent necessarily requires originality.
Two of Robin Hobb’s contributions revisit the Rain Wilds of her popular Live Traders series. “Homecoming” (2004) is a nicely told story of corruption and greed that sees a group of nobles exiled to the Rain Wilds only to find the cities of legend lost to the swamp. After initial defeatism, our heroine begins the process of adapting to her surroundings, breaking out from the patriarchal mould of her culture as the men argue and sit around waiting for rescue. She’s making good progress when an entry to a subterranean city is found. The moment the first reports of treasure are received, the men abandon the emerging tree village and go looting. In the end, many die and the few who remain are left to make use of their newly acquired knowledge of their surroundings to do more than merely survive. This is a nicely balanced story as our heroine slowly realises her more indomitable qualities and crafts a new society. “The Inheritance” (2000) is set generations later as a meek, Cinderella country mouse finds advice from an unlikely quarter. This is not so much a fairy godmother as a tough-minded social and commercial guerilla who will encourage the girl into a new life. Although it has a somewhat romaticisied veneer, the overall feel is positive in terms of gender politics.
Finally, we come to “Cat’s Meat”, the third new story. This is another, not-terribly-politically-correct story about an abused woman and her son. I acknowledge the age of this author and perhaps this explains why she seems out of step with what I understand now to be called third-wave feminism. Although to some extent this wave seeks to avoid some of the activism of the earlier waves, it more sincerely embraces a condemnation of gender violence, that the vulnerable not be oppressed by the physically stronger. Although this is set in an unenlightened era before the notion of female emancipation had taken root, it lacks any real sense of authorial condemnation. The woman and child have to rely on the cat for protection. Fortunately, it has no compunction about killing to protect its territory. None of this, women are strong enough to stand up for themselves rubbish for this author. It’s a depressingly familiar tale of a weak woman deciding the best form of defence is to run away.
Taking an overall view, The Inheritance and Other Stories is rather disappointing. I bought it because I had encountered a couple of novellas by Robin Hobb in anthologies and was interested to see more of “her” work. Looking at the two personas, Robin Hobb is the better at slightly greater length. There’s only one really outstanding story from Megan Lindholm with the shorter stories being distinctly uninspiring. So, unless you’re already a fan of either or both authors, I can’t honestly say I recommend this collection with only three of the longer stories being worth reading and a lot of iffy, somewhat romantic, ideas about women and their role in society, and how cats can influence our lives.
For a review of a novel by Robin Hobb, see The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince.