Archive for August, 2012

ParaNorman (2012)

August 31, 2012 2 comments

I have the sense ParaNorman (2012) went wrong when the powers-that-be sat down to discuss what kind of animated film they wanted to make. Scripts are just words written on pieces of paper if you’re lucky or otherwise displayed on screens of various sizes. When it comes to animation, you can take a simple sentence and make it scary for kids or horror for adults, rotfl for smsers or laugh-out-loud for adults. How you show characters saying the words can be adjusted to whatever audience you’re aiming at. So when the powers-that-be sat down, I think they failed to decide what their intended audience was going to be. The result is something that, at times, may be too scary for young children but is never scary at all to those with any intelligence, with a sense of humour that ranges from the juvenile fixation with what goes on in the toilet stall to distinctly adult sensibilities. I think the rule is you either make an animated film for children with just enough to keep parents from passing out with boredom, or you make an adult film and, if parents are daft enough to take their slightly older children, they can do all the explaining afterwards.

Three generations of the Babcock family


So what do we actually get in this package? Let’s start with the stop-motion animation which is stunningly good. Although there’s some CGI in there, all the main action revolves around the use of physical puppets on actual sets using real props. The loving care invested shines through the screen and produces a visual delight. Now come the characters. Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) himself is one of life’s natural victims. His hair stands up and his ears stand out. As if this was not enough to make him the focus of attention for every bully in the world — in this case led by Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) — not only does he see ghosts, but he insists on telling everyone about it. So, not surprisingly, he goes into school and is greeted by the word “freak” written on his locker. The only one even remotely in as much trouble is the inevitable fat boy, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi). Together, they make a good pair. However, there’s a major discontinuity between the first fifteen minutes and the rest of the film. We start off with Norman watching a creature feature on television with his grandmother (Elaine Stritch). It seems she died some years ago but is sticking around to keep an eye on our boy in case he gets himself into trouble. Then we see him walking off to school, first without his world view and then watching him react to all the ghosts around him. He’s hardly able to walk in a straight line, ducking and weaving through the crowds around him. But, once he passes through the school gates, we never see him fail to walk or ride his bicycle in a straight line. There’s never another hint he’s reacting to anything except two ghosts. His grandmother and his uncle who has the temerity to die before he can tell Norman how to deal with the “curse”.

Norman and Neil pledge mutual support


The rest of the family is mother Sandra (Leslie Mann), father Perry (Jeff Garlin) and older sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick). In all films where the hero is a boy on the cusp of teenager status, older sisters exist in a parallel dimension, aware of their brothers in a vague way but never inclined to involve themselves in anything affecting them. The parents view their offspring as at a dangerous stage and fear for them (or maybe, as in this case, they’re afraid of them). The school has one of these over-the-top women as a drama teacher, the town has a sheriff and dim deputy, and there are the usual assortment of locals from the hillbilly yokel to well-heeled middle class citizens.

Uncle not yet dead


The plot is struggling to fill time allotted. In the distant past, seven Puritans conspired to kill a talented girl as a witch. Naturally, she was upset and cursed them. Once a year, on the anniversary of her burning, the seven undead return unless the witch is persuaded to go back to sleep. This task is passed down from one generation to the next except Norman fails to get the message in time. He therefore has to wing it, reacting to circumstances as best he can. Some of the early set pieces are wonderfully amusing but, in humour terms, the film shoots its bolt early. Thereafter, we’re left with a mixture of adventure and some preachy sequences when the film-makers thought they’d better give the kids an ear-bending on the need to look for the good in people, not to bully the vulnerable and not to judge people by appearances. All the pace evaporates and plot logic is sacrificed. For example, seven undead would be ripped to pieces and trampled to dust in five minutes by this marauding bunch of townsfolk. The failure to actually burn down the town hall is inexplicable. And so on.


So we should be thankful ParaNorman (2012) rejects the Disney animation approach which is to make all the humans and animals cute. You couldn’t hope to find a more dysfunctional town of people than this unhappy bunch. But the film fails to follow its own logic and so produce something satirical or frightening. Yes, there are some very funny moments, but they grow increasingly rare as the film progresses to what should be the major confrontation at the end. Sadly, there’s no real sense of menace or tension. Once the true character of the witch is revealed in a flashback midway through, even a five-year-old could predict how it will all end. So this is not a Coraline (2009) or Corpse Bride (2005). Rather it’s a film that couldn’t decide what it wanted to be and, in trying to be all things to all people, failed to keep enough of the people happy for long enough, leaving us with an empty spectacle — beautiful to behold but lacking in substance.


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The Goddess of Dance by Anna Kashina

August 30, 2012 1 comment

The Goddess of Dance by Anna Kashina (Dragonwell Publishing, 2012), Book II The Spirits of the Ancient Lands, follows on from The Princess of Dhagabad which was first published in 2000 but is now republished by Dragonwell. As is the way of the world, there will be a third, perhaps without the twelve year gap. So where to start?


Anna Kashina is one of these brave people who not only moves to a new country, but also moves to a country with a different language. When you start off with Russian as your mother tongue, you’re switching from Slavic syntactical systems to a Germanic language, and from the Cyrillic script to our alphabet, both of which slow down the assimilation of the new language. As a result, the English in which this book is written is less naturally idiomatic and slightly more generic. There are also moments when I suspect a thought was first captured in Russian and then translated a little too literally. In a book which is a modern take on the Arabian Nights, this actually works well most of the time. In that context, you expect a more unworldly form of writing with the occasional exotic interlude. For example, “He must be captured back.” is rather more evocative and imperative than a mere, “He must be recaptured.” Except, every now and again, we get a ghastly Americanism. Yes, I know this is a book now published by an American company and intended for sale to local readers. But there should be enough sensitivity in the editors to blue pencil usages like “gotten” or the not infrequent use of “I guess” from an otherwise language neutral text. As it is, there are jarring moments when our Princess and her romantic interest suddenly lapse from an intense exchange into incongruous slanginess. And while we’re on the more technical aspects, I make allowances for only having an ARC to read but this has been typeset by an amateur. Hopefully, the text was reset for sale to the public.

Anna Kashina slightly out of focus


Which brings us to the story itself. Structurally, this is quite an elegant updating of the style and conventions of One Thousand and One Nights which, you will recall, was a frame with multiple embedded short stories. The Goddess of Dance is predominantly a linear story describing a Scheherazade who grows in power as time passes. The mechanism of this empowerment is that she experiences the embedded history of another woman as a dream. As the dream develops, our heroine is fascinated by the dance this role model is learning (rather like the exercise routines you see on YouTube) and begins to get fit in body and mind by practising the moves herself.


For these purposes, let’s speculate that the original Arabian Nights frame is an early feminist tract. The Princess is able to survive and eventually win a reprieve from the paranoid and homicidal King. At the time the stories were being collected and published, most women were treated as chattels and of little intrinsic value. That the King felt able to kill each new wife on the morning after marrying them speaks loudly of his view of women as irredeemably disloyal and the ultimately disposable sex toys. So readers watching a woman talk her way out of a death sentence would see a relatively modern view of women as able to take a mentally ill man in hand and, through the judicious use of talk therapy, restore him to sanity and a more balanced view of the role of women in society. In this story, the amor vincit omnia moment came at the end of the first novel, freed the djinn and restored his human status. We’re now into dealing with the aftermath of having a superpowered magician wandering around without anyone telling him what to do and, perhaps more importantly, what not to do. Well, of course, that wasn’t so much a problem when the Princess was telling him what to do, but there are plenty of really bad people in this world and if they should happen to lay hands on a djinn, they could inflict a lot of damage. So it’s a good job this ex-djinn is basically a nice guy who, despite several thousand years of experience, can still fall in love with the first pretty young thing to flutter her eyelashes at him. The only man we meet with a djinn is a bit dim and easily manipulated by his djinn which is fortunate because, if she was not a brake on him, he would do terrible things (yet more evidence of a woman’s power of persuasion saving the world).


And this is the major problem for me with this book. For the most part, it reads like a YA novel with very simplistic characterisations and a sweet young girl going through trials to toughen her up, and then we have this romantic fiction element with some chaste love, followed by a delicately described orgy, followed by love-at-first-sight (or perhaps it’s a spell) and a one-shot pregnancy deal, followed by more chaste love which finally gets to real sex in the Mills and Boon style of metaphorical writing. Personally, I prefer my fantasies to be more gritty rather than this float-away-on-a-pink-cloud approach to Arabian Nights stories. The Goddess of Dance has all the elements that could have made for a tense and exciting drama but, at every point where Anna Kashina could have introduced a real sense of danger to life and limb, we get the old, “I will struggle while even a single breath is left in my body.” approach to problem solving. While this may go down well in the market for teen female readers who want their spunky, can-do heroine to come through the fire with flags flying and a hose pipe to put out the flames, this jaded old man wants something altogether more edgy and potentially frightening.


From all this, you will understand that you will love this book if you are seventeen, have overdosed on Stephenie Meyer type fiction, and want to see what life is like for Princesses in the Arabian Nights scenario. Everyone else will shake their heads in disbelief that an author could assemble the elements for a potentially great story and then waste every opportunity to write one.


A copy of this book was sent to me for review.


The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes: Shoscombe Old Place (1991)

More by an accident of arcane knowledge than any superior kind of deductive reasoning power, I knew who had committed the crime within the first ten minutes. I claim no credit. It simply represents a sometimes misspent youth during which I seem to have picked up a vast array of information only useful when teaming up in a pub quiz, or solving crosswords and television crime cases. Alternatively, my Alzheimer’s is kicking in and, even though I’m often not entirely sure what day of the week it is, I’m suddenly able to remember stories that I read more than fifty years ago. That said, the adaptation of Shoscombe Old Place by Gary Hopkins is crisp and to the point (The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, Season 1, episode 3). There’s only a little padding and the 50 minutes plus ads passed quite satisfactorily until I was able to pop the champagne along with Mrs Hudson (Rosalie Williams). We’d both used inside information to back the right horse.

Frank Grimes introduces Jude Law before he was famous

So what’s the story? Well, here’s Sir Robert Norberton (Robert Ellis), a trainer with a stable full of potentially great horses at Shoscombe Old Place except, despite all the fertiliser in the stables, not all is roses in the garden. The trainer is up to his eyes in debt and being harassed by his creditors. He needs a win win to avoid financial disaster. If there’s a silver lining in all this, it’s that he’s not the owner of the rather fine hall, the stables or the horses. His sister, Lady Beatrice Falder (Elizabeth Weaver) has a life interest in the all the property with the title then passing over to another relative. To some extent, a personal bankruptcy would not unduly damage his family’s position. Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett) gets involved because John Mason (Frank Grimes), a concerned head of stable, hears that Samuel Brewer (James Coyle), one key creditor, has gone missing. When allied to other information, there’s clear evidence suggesting that Sir Robert may have killed Brewer. Apart from this speculation, life at Shoscombe proceeds more or less as normal except for the dismissal of one of the servants, allegedly for stealing, and the banishment of the dog. Lady Beatrice and her maid, Carrie Evans (Denise Black) are routinely seen by the indoor staff and on their daily carriage ride around the estate. We should also note an early screen appearance for Jude Law as Joe Barnes, a wannabe jockey.

Jeremy Brett thinking

So what we have is Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke displaced out of London to Dunham Massey Hall near Altrincham disguised as Shoscombe. Having installed themselves at a local pub, they acquire the banished dog and enjoy scenic walks around the countryside. There are tendencies to the Gothic as a ruined Church is given a “reputation” by the superstitious locals (reinforced by Patrick Lau, the director insisting on candid shots of gargoyles and muffled fiendish laughter from stage left). All of which means Shoscombe Old Place is reasonably entertaining once you look past the showiness of some of the direction.

For reviews of The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes series, see:
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes: The Boscombe Valley Mystery (1991)
The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax (1991)
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes: The Illustrious Client (1991)
The Problem of Thor Bridge (1991)

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes: The Problem of Thor Bridge (1991)

The Problem of Thor Bridge (1991) is a slight story that is spun out to an hour by Granada TV but fails to hold attention. It’s from The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes which, in publication terms, represents the final twelve short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle featuring our famous detective and, in television terms, is Season 1, episode 2. My sympathies are with Jeremy Paul who drew the short straw of adapting this for the screen. The script is actually quite faithfully to the original although it features quite long sequences where figures stride about the landscape looking distraught but, for the most part, not saying anything to each other. I understand the game that must be played to try to fill the screen with interesting action. To that extent, the arrival of the horseless carriage in Baker Street is a masterstroke. Indeed, the appearances of this wonderful machine brightened my day significantly. More to the point, it was just the kind of showy extravagance that a nouveau riche American would make a point of being seen in while abroad in London. It would have been considered tasteless by conventional society, but given him a significant boost among the other arrivistes.

Daniel Massey in confrontational mode

So, if we put the performances of Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke to one side, the whole shooting match stands or falls on the characterisation of this jumped-up American by Daniel Massey. In his day, Massey would have been considered one of our leading actors, perhaps surprisingly, being nominated for an Oscar and winning the Golden Globe for his role in Star! I suppose his good looks and natural charm won everyone over — being the godchild of Noel Coward also probably helped. Anyway, what with the success of Dominic West in The Wire, Hugh Laurie in House, and Matthew Rhys in Brothers and Sisters, we’ve grown more used to seeing our British stars making a hit on US TV (except for people like Joely Richardson in Nip/Tuck who fail to move their accents across the Atlantic). Massey’s attempt is one of these magnificent failures. He blusters and stomps his feet, waving his arms around when all else fails. Sadly, none of these physical efforts can distract from the stagey awfulness of the accent. Since his role is pivotal, it leads us down the path to melodrama. Maria Gibson (Celia Gregory) wears her slightly revealing dress with great style and walks around the country house hoping to find a welcoming smile, but she knows in her foreign heart that her husband no longer loves her. He’s in the thralls of that prim-looking Grace Dunbar (Catherine Russell) Ay, caramba! or whatever the Brazilian women spurned say at this point in their lives.

Celia Gregory with a wild foreign look

So then on to the bridge itself and, from the outset, we all know the alleged seductress didn’t do it. Poor Grace is locked away in a cell, but still manages to look fresh and strangely unabashed. To get to the answer, all you have to do is ask a couple of questions based on some simple facts. We start with a matched pair of guns in an easily accessible box in the house. Maria is found shot in the head. There’s no gun beside her. A gun is found in Grace’s wardrobe. The other gun in the pair is missing from the box. If you are in need of inspiration, the CSI episode in Season 5 where a Sherlock Holmes impersonator is shot will supply the answer.

The magnificent car that steals every scene it’s in

Put all this together and The Problem of Thor Bridge (1991) is very poor value. When distilled to its essence, we have a bullying Yank who’s quick to fall in love with a Brazilian beauty and then, with equal suddenness, drops her in favour of the English governess. Even at the best of times, Victorian and Edwardian servants were victimised by despotic landowners and their sons, and this poor English rose is no exception. Quite what she sees in this appalling man is never clarified although, I suppose, she may be thinking she can defend the children. Whatever the reason, she endures jail and then submissively consents to be taken away from it all by this dangerously unreliable man. Not even the great Jeremy Brett can save this melodramatic rubbish from sinking into oblivion.

For reviews of The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes series, see:
The Boscombe Valley Mystery (1991)
The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax (1991)
The Illustrious Client (1991)
Shoscombe Old Place (1991)

The Cutting Season by Attica Locke

One of the supposed benefits of my education was a strong emphasis on languages which, as was then the fashion, included both Latin and Greek. While nurturing the development of a rather intellectual way of speaking within the school, there was a necessary parallel development of a separate street language to minimise the bullying from the rest of the neighbourhood. To this day, I can still switch on the Geordie if required. One of the more pleasing idioms from my classical days was, “To pile Pelion on Ossa.” When the Aloadai were attacking Mount Olympus, they were having problems reaching up so high. Their answer was to take Mount Pelion and pile it on top of Mount Ossa, hoping this would give them the necessary height. Sadly, this epic construction project was a failure, albeit spectacular.


So this brings me to The Cutting Season by Attica Locke (HarperCollins, 2012). This is a very ambitious novel which takes a relatively conventional murder mystery and locates it in Louisiana with a setting in an old plantation estate, preserved as a museum and exploited as an upmarket venue for weddings and social events. A balance therefore has to be struck between a service to local schools in sanitising and demonstrating the circumstances under which slaves worked the cotton fields, and maintaining the colonial mansion and immaculate lawns to provide the right milieu for the upper middle class to continue flaunting their wealth and massaging their egos. A necessarily ironic juxtaposition providing the money to pay for the upkeep of the house and grounds, and to offer employment to many who live in the local community.

Attica Locke showing great promise as a prose writer


The book therefore straddles a number of quite different genres. A murder occurs which starts us off in the mystery category with Caren Gray, the manager of the estate, thrown into the role of amateur detective. She has a daughter and, during the course of the book, Caren Gray finds it necessary to contact the father of the child. This adds an increasingly strong romantic element. In a social context, the book also examines the way in which the cotton industry is now consolidating and discusses the impact this has on local communities. Because of the setting in a colonial estate, a counterpoint emerges as we’re invited to compare how the plantations were run using slaves to the current position of the undocumented workers from Mexico, El Salvador and other sources of willing labour. Indeed, the history of the estate becomes increasingly important as the book progresses so we acquire some more general social comment on racism in both a historical and contemporary genre style. There’s a political element and, of course, because the daughter may have seen or heard more than she should, it’s a thriller.


As a much-practised juggler, I was just about keeping all the balls up in the air as the book progressed, but one more element suddenly appeared. It was at this point, I lost faith in the entire enterprise. The golden rule when writing should always be that simple is best. Although an author can legitimately flesh out the basic bones of plot with the characterisation and detailed descriptions of the milieu, there comes a point when enough is enough. This book is a classic example of piling Pelion on Ossa. Just when you think the giants cannot push their mountain consolidation project any higher, they come up with a new system of buttressing and throw up new earthworks. The problem is that, no matter how high each new set of earthworks, they are never going to arrive at Olympus. So it is with authors. They can keep piling new plot elements into the mix but this, of itself, is not going to make the best book. All the complexity does is prove the author’s lack of confidence in a simple story. There’s a murder. The estate’s manager is pushed into a situation where she has to investigate. The innocent young black boy is accused by the white police. As a single mother, she needs the help of her ex-partner and, together, they must weather the storm as the solution slowly emerges. Obviously motive is important so some history and general background is essential, but what we have here is excessive.


It’s a great shame. The prose is of the highest quality with a multilayered approach. Structurally, the early stages of the book could not be bettered but, as you read on, the author loses her way. The plot grows increasingly diffuse and I gave up caring who was responsible and why. So The Cutting Season goes on to the list of valiant failures. It’s a brave effort but just as the Gods in Olympus were able to look down on the Aloadai as they tried to mount an attack (pun intended), so we can see this as a book that almost made it but missed out completely because, no matter how hard she tried, the author could not close the final gap to arrive at her destination. That said, the quality of the prose demonstrates this is an author to watch for the future. Even though I found this book unsatisfactory does not mean future books will be flawed. I shall be watching for the next book if only for the pleasure of reading the prose.


A copy of this book was sent to me for review.


Falling Glass by Adrian McKinty

August 27, 2012 3 comments

When I’m reading, I tend to play with various similes and metaphors to capture the immediate experience. This is not to deny the text my full concentration. I always respect the words. But it’s a kind of background monitoring process which was rather more active than usual while reading Falling Glass by Adrian McKinty (Serpent’s Tail, 2011). There’s a rather heightened style at work here that’s like watching the start of a fireworks display when, every now and then, one of these big rockets shoots up and lets go a hail of shells, each one exploding with colours on their way down. There are some wonderful lines where the idea takes off and the elegance of the prose execution just lights up the sky. Unfortunately, in the early chapters, not that much is happening so this is a triumph of style over substance. I’m not denying interest in watching our hero at work or then going through a recruiting interview, but it’s all a little like treading water when you’re hoping the hero will set off to swim the Channel. To get things moving, it would have been credible for our man to be recommended for the job and sent the necessary paperwork by courier. What we actually read has a sense of padding with literary pyrotechnics to distract us. Unfortunately, after a while, there are so many rockets exploding, it gets a bit tiring on the eyeballs and eardrums.


The novel itself is almost a stand-alone in that it only ties in with other books by Adrian McKinty through the series character Michael Forsyth who appears, mostly, as a telephone voice. This means we’re off and running with Killian, an Irish Tinker with the gift of the gab who prefers to talk his way out of danger and smooth over troubles. This time, the commission is find the wife of a rich businessman who’s run off with the two children in one of these acrimonious custody disputes. It’s obviously suspicious he’s being offered such a large finder’s fee but, when the “chase” begins, it’s hard to see the catch.

Adrian McKinty finding the middle ground


I’m wholly unconvinced by the heavy artillery sent after Killian. The initial brief, as I understand it, is that he follows Killian until the missing wife and children are found, and then he kills the wife (and, if necessary, Killian) and brings back the laptop. Ah, yes, the laptop, something the rich man failed to mention to Killian. As for the traumatised children, they can be collected by the police and social services from the probable scene of carnage. Their father can then collect them through the courts. The professional killer doesn’t seem the sharpest knife in the cutlery drawer, so his physical attack on Killian feels premature. There’s no reason for him to believe he’ll be able to track down the wife from the information he acquires. However, as a plot device, it certainly does enliven the proceedings and gives Killian an incentive to rescue the situation. And this confirms the more general impression about the plot dynamics that, after a gentle ramp-up over the first third of the book, the narrative then takes off down an unexpected hill on the other side. I suppose, pursuing my similes, it’s like one of these old-school roller coasters that slowly winches the paying customers up the first peak until the release and the kinetic energy is sufficient to take them through to the end of the ride without stopping.


This is a book rooted in the history of a partitioned Ireland both in more general cultural terms by making Killian a Tinker, but also by making The Troubles an integral part of the book. Of course any book that dares trespass into that minefield is inviting a prejudiced reaction. If Adrian McKinty makes the book balanced in its coverage of the different warring factions, he’ll be accused of dumbing down and simplifying. If he writes anything even vaguely pro-terrorist or pro-British, then he’ll be called reactionary and a propagandist. In this respect, McKinty does rather well by diverting attention away from navel-gazing and introducing an uninvolved third party. The hired killer has no relevant political or religious connection to the Irish conflict. He’s had troubles of his own to contend with. And Killian is a Tinker and so also despised by all factions.


At its heart, Falling Glass is a story about loyalty, conscience and guilt. While we can’t separate Northern Ireland from The Troubles, we can ask neutral questions about the aftermath when the worst of the violence has subsided. This is not to sweep the low levels of continuing violence under the carpet, but simply to see it in a different socio-political context following “power-sharing”. This book shows us many different shades of individual from young men learning how a balance is being struck between the use of force and the art of persuasion, to old hands who have no compunction about the resort to violence when it’s expedient. But more than anything, we’re asked to consider whether any issue transcends the religious conflict. For example, is paedophilia a greater or lesser problem when priests belonging to the Catholic Church have been involved? It seems the Church itself and the An Garda SÌoch·na (the Irish police) believed it more important to cover-up the problem to protect reputations than to protect vulnerable children. In today’s climate of opinion, it should be a matter of conscience to protect the young against abuse and all those responsible should be brought to justice regardless of their former status. Yet such idealism doesn’t always work in a culture mired in the past. It may well be that, for all the political lip-service paid to democracy and positive programs to reduce levels of discrimination, some of the guilty may still enjoy immunity for past sins.


There’s some violence on display but, with one exception, it’s not gratuitous. Taken overall, Falling Glass is a thriller built like a roller coaster ride, full of excitement captured in electric prose.


For reviews of other books by Adrian McKinty, see
The Cold Cold Ground
I Hear the Sirens in the Street
In the Morning I’ll Be Gone
The Sun Is God.


Follow this link for An interview with Adrian McKinty.


A copy of this book was sent to me for review.


An Unattended Death by Victoria Jenkins

August 26, 2012 2 comments

Independently of the process by which we select lovers and so accumulate families and relatives, one of our rights as social animals is to choose our friends. Although there are times when commercial or political expediency forces us into relationships we’d rather avoid, there are always the one or two genuine friends with whom we feel comfortable. The question, therefore, is what makes one person “friend” material. On balance, I think it’s a question of world view, that the potential pair find they share a similar way of assessing how the world works and deciding how best to exploit the opportunities they identify. I suppose this is just a different way of restating the old idiom, “Birds of a feather, flock together.” But whereas some species do congregate in multitudes as a way of reducing the odds they will fall victim to predators, this strikes me as rather different. It’s a more personal exercise of preference. Yes, it will have some defensive capability because, by sharing burdens, friends weather the storms and emerge stronger. But this is not a “fair weather” phenomenon. Friends are friends whether their current experiences are good or bad.


Of course, none of this has anything to do with An Unattended Death by Victoria Jenkins (The Permanent Press, 2012) which is a story about people who happen to get caught up in a police procedural investigating a death that may or may not be accidental. The heroine is Irene Chavez who moved away from small-town America in the Puget Sound area and was making a life for herself when, as is always the way, she fell in love. At first, this did not derail her efforts to complete her education, but pregnancy slowed her down. The death of her husband completed the process and diverted her into the police force. With her fourteen-year-old son in tow, she’s now returned to the area of her birth as a detective. Because the men who would have taken lead on this particular death are either too busy with other cases or have gone on holiday, she’s confirmed as the principal to investigate a possible death by drowning.


Thematically, this is a book exploring the different ways in which people form and break relationships. The family of the deceased is wonderfully Byzantine — they see themselves as intellectuals, the majority with a medical background and so, as summer residents only, they avoid mixing with the permanent locals. It’s a class thing elevated by their background of some wealth and an innate sense of privilege. In the face of this death, their desire to withdraw from the world and lick their emotional wounds grows stronger. They see the death as so obviously accidental that it does not warrant investigation. The resistance to Detective Chavez is therefore passively aggressive which, to some extent, is also designed to amplify the detective’s sense of her own intellectual inferiority in the face of these well-respected experts. On the land next door, is an elderly lawyer who has a property dispute with the family. The deceased herself was a slightly less than conventional psychiatrist who exploited her own sexuality to bridge the communication gap with her patients. In her personal life, she was ending the reasonably long-running relationship with an unfaithful lover. This means there were several people who might have had motive but opportunity is complicated.


In her personal life, the detective’s son gets picked up by the police as a passenger in a truck taken without consent and containing a modest quantity of drugs. As a single mother with a job forcing her to spend long hours away from the home, she has always been aware her son might fall in with the wrong crowd and get into trouble. Because of her role as a detective, the local police bump the case up to the new prosecuting attorney. This gives some level of protection to the police against allegations they cover up the crimes of their own. Interestingly, this attorney is also non-standard, having avoided the usual monomaniacal career path the majority of professionals follow to achieve moderately high-ranking positions. He takes a personal interest in the case and so becomes aware that the detective has been the victim of an attempted rape. The detective had deliberately avoided new relationships after her husband died. This latest experience is hardly likely to endear her to those of the male gender. So much for his chances should he be interested in a relationship with the detective.


This is a slice of the real world, mainly told from the detective’s point of view. We therefore look over her shoulder as she follows the trail and confronts her own sense of insecurity as events in her own life and that of her son threaten her hopes for a peaceful life. The resolution of the case comes as a part of the natural flow of events. There’s no artfully staged confrontation with a room full of suspects. Indeed, when she has the answer, she decides not to rush to the family of the deceased with her analysis and explanation. Life just goes on. This makes An Unattended Death a superior crime novel. The detective proves to have more intellectual gumption than the Paris family would patronisingly choose to believe. She works out their “little secrets” which prove the same as those of their social inferiors. Underneath all the veneers of class, people are people. This is definitely recommended to anyone who enjoys a character-driven mystery where, until the end, it remains unclear whether it’s possible to prove the death a murder.


A copy of this book was sent to me for review.


Prosecutor Princess or Geomsa Peurinseseu — episodes 13 to end

Well, we’re into the final episodes of Prosecutor Princess or Geomsa Peurinseseu with Seo In Woo (Lover Boy) (Park Shi Hoo following on from Iljimae and Family’s Honor) ‘fessing up to everything — even to stealing Ma Hye Ri’s (Kim So Yun) credit cards and cell phone at the ski resort so they would meet. Jeni Ahn (Park Jung Ah) also admits to being in on the conspiracy. Now our couple must adjust to the new reality. At first, she’s into self-pity, lying at home feeling sorry for herself, not answering her phone and worrying everyone at the office. What does Lover Boy want her to do? Just clear his father’s name. He died of a heart attack in prison as a murderer. We then see the significance of the football boots. He promised to buy them for his son but was diverted and framed for the murder before he could pass them on. Lover Boy also explains that he saw Ma Sang Tae (Choi Jung Woo, continuing in father roles from Brilliant Legacy) as a child at her home. Denied help, his mother couldn’t stand being in Korea without her husband, so they went to America where she was killed in a traffic accident. Left on his own, he was adopted. Yet again, he refuses to apologise for using her to investigate her father.

Ma Hye Ri (Kim So Yun)

Angry she goes to her father. Bad Papa instructs her to quit as a prosecutor and marry the man he chooses. For once, she stands up to him. Later she finds a recording Lover Boy made for her alarm clock when he says he’s sorry for the pain to come. So we get her confronting him and demanding respect. At last, she’s trying to become a real person. This bring us to the classic line, “I love you, you bastard!” which does rather sum it up well. And then we get a kiss for real. At last she feels she can breathe freely. But instead of leaping into bed to celebrate — this being a Korean drama — they go outside and she remembers the boy who came to their house to assert his father’s innocence. She took pity on him and gave him banana milk and a cookie which, in line with his friendly character and allergy to bananas, he threw on the ground.

Seo In Woo (Lover Boy) (Park Shi Hoo)

So because there are three more episodes to go, they decide they’re not a couple (despite the real kiss) and she gets back into the investigation, talking honestly to Shin Jung Nam, the security guard who claimed to see enough to blame Lover Boy’s dad. Lover Boy does the follow-up to soften up the man. Finally, Shin Jung Nam admits he took the large sum of money that was left at the scene of the murder. When Bad Papa realised he’d been spotted, he paid the hospital to treat the guard’s son and told the guard to keep the money he’d found. Meanwhile Bad Papa realises Lover Boy has been using his daughter to investigate the murder. They meet and he accuses Lover Boy of seducing his daughter as revenge. Lover Boy offers to give up his daughter if he admits the murder. It now gets painfully melodramatic. Bad Papa apologises to his wife for being prepared to break all the rules to get out of poverty. Seeing the writing on the wall, Bad Papa agrees to confess if Lover Boy will never see his daughter again. My pain level is rising fast as Lover Boy and Ma Hye Ri continue to insist they’re not in a relationship. He apologises, again, for using her and the script writers pile on the romantic angst. The scenes with the mother add fuel to the flames of unnecessary pain. All we need is for Bad Papa to admit all and the happy couple to walk off into the sunset.

Ma Sang Tae (Choi Jung Woo)

So finally he explains how he killed the man who was blackmailing him and framed Lover Boy’s father. It was all a dirty business deal with a politician standing in the shadows to give planning permission and wave through permits. He paints it as self-defence when the blackmailer attacked him. Lured on by greed, he kept quiet, the wrong man went to jail and died there. This is wonderful but there’s a legal wrinkle. If it was an accident or self-defence, there’s a seven year period of limitations on the prosecution. This has expired. But if it was murder. there’s a fifteen year period and he could still be prosecuted. Feeling too guilty at he pain he’s causing, Lover Boy decides to stop, so Jeni Ahn releases all the accumulated evidence to the Prosecutor’s office. To add further embarrassment, Lover Boy now volunteers to be Bad Papa’s lawyer.

Yoon Se Joon (Han Jung Soo) and Jin Jung Sun (Choi Song Hyun)

With everything to play for, Bad Papa’s business starts to collapse while Lover Boy goes to talk to the corrupt politician Kim and blackmails him into giving evidence in support of Bad Papa. Predictably it’s Lover Boy who ultimately wins the day because he prepares an animated presentation, CSI-style, that convinces the prosecutors the death was basically an accident. A court formally declares Lover Boy’s dad innocent and there are smiles all round, except Bad Papa’s business collapses and creditors strip the family home of everything moveable. Bad Papa and Mum set up a bakery and, when all the guilt has subsided, our happy couple are finally free to be happy ever after. As a postscript, Yoon Se Joon (Han Jung Soo) actually proposes marriage to Jin Jung Sun (Choi Song Hyun) which proves common sense can prevail even in daft Korean drama.

This is a great shame. After a rocky start, Prosecutor Princess or Geomsa Peurinseseu picked up speed only to die in the final furlongs. When you run a race, the pace should pick up as you reach the end and not focus on the losing horse being dragged kicking and neighing across the finish line. The ending is agony prolonged to excruciating levels. At its core this is a good but slight story. Everything could and should have been wrapped up in no more than ten episodes. Spinning this out into sixteen episodes was a catastrophic mistake. Adding to the problems were the complete lack of credibility in the primary characters played by Kim So Yun and Park Shi Hoo. Kim So Yun was a victim of the script which gave her no chance of appearing completely sane while Park Shi Hoo looks good but continues to act woodenly. I actually felt Choi Jung Woo came out rather better as the homicidal father. He did at least fight to defend his position and then made an honest confession. He actually managed a smile as the bread-maker in the new bakery business run by his wife. While Han Jung Soo and Choi Song Hyun demonstrate how difficult it is for any couple to get together in Korean culture. Life over there sure is tough when it comes to romance.

For the reviews of all episodes, see:
Prosecutor Princess or Geomsa Peurinseseu — episodes 1 to 4
Prosecutor Princess or Geomsa Peurinseseu — episodes 5 to 8
Prosecutor Princess or Geomsa Peurinseseu — episodes 9 to 12

For those of you who are fans of Park Shi Hoo, there’s a fan site at


The Devil Delivered and other tales by Steven Erikson

One of the ways of getting perspective is to look back at how things were in the past. This is not nostalgia for its own sake, you understand. But distance helps more clearly to see how dishonest some of the mythologising has become. As a working adult during the 1960s, I’m now surprised to learn this was a decade of drug-fueled rebellion. Apparently, we were all hippies and invented free love. This version of history comes from the dual launch into the wider market of the oral contraceptive, which freed us all from the fear of siring the next generation, and LSD which enabled us to go on trips without leaving the chair in which we were sitting. When able to move, we could rut away like bunnies to psychedelic music and then run out into the streets, rip up paving stones, and pelt the nearest policeman. I seriously missed out here, having spent a quiet decade finishing my university degree, training and earning a living. Although there were moments of excitement as I was reading the New Wave science fiction which, for me, was best captured in the work of J G Ballard whose focus on people in completely different situations (often involving the end of the world) was pleasingly provocative.


I’m inspired to think back because of The Devil Delivered and other tales by Steven Erikson (Tor, 2012) which, in spirit and to some extent style, reminds me of Ballard with echoes of The Burning World and Vermilion Sands filtered through “The Terminal Beach”. This is a collection of three novellas originally published in separate editions by the excellent PS Publishing. The point of titular story may be captured in a single image. A child has been chained to a bed. It never knows what crime it committed to justify such punishment. It just dies. So as a species, we’ve damaged the world and generated such a catastrophe, our children have no choice but to be born into it and then die because of it. We were always a selfish species and only thought of our own convenience and never what price our children might have to pay. Earlier I mentioned the process of mythologising. Well, the idea of the noble savage is a classic modern invention. No savage has ever been noble. The only good thing about “him” was there were not enough of his ilk to damage the environment. We only managed to begin the real destruction of the world when we multiplied and got civilised.

Steven Erikson showing his rimless spectacles off to the best advantage


Out in the centre of a new completely ozone-free area of North America, William Potts thinks about the collision between what we were and what we might become. He communes with the ghosts of the past and wonders if it would really benefit humanity to move off the planet via a space elevator rather than suck the last of the oil out of the ground to eke out the last few minutes of energy before dying. Physical adaptability when faced by the threat of species extinction would be the answer. He sees it in the changes to invertebrates and small mammals under the radiation. But humans don’t have the capacity to change so rapidly. His cameras broadcast evolutionary “truth” as it happens and the internet soaks it all up. The human survivors are hooked on the notion at least some plants, insects and animals will survive when the higher species have gone. Except, of course, some humans may already have evolved — and did we do this before? Ah, such nice questions to contemplate as you die under the pitiless glare of the sun.


The second novella, “Revolvo” also has resonances in the 1960s because I was strongly into theatre and therefore watched productions of work by Eugène Ionesco, Fernando Arrabal, N F Simpson and other playwrights who produced absurdism with comic overtones before it went out of fashion. This story is a wonderful modern recreation of the nihilism that entertained me fifty years ago. As the negative side of existentialism, absurdism is a reflection of the general sense of powerlessness we all face in a world we cannot control and which often seems to have no purpose other than “to be”. By definition, I can’t really tell you what happens in this novella because it’s absurd. All I will say is that individuals may exhibit symptoms matching the state of the economy and the behaviour of the stock exchange, the poor may be taken into protective custody by an anarchist philanthropist until being left in the sympathetic glare of the press, while the one true artist may find a niche for himself where Neanderthals and others will never find him — in this, he echoes Berenger in Rhinoceros who proclaims at the end, “I’m the last man left, and I’m staying that way until the end. I’m not capitulating!” As strong an assertion for the right of individual liberty as you could hope to find. In other reviews I’ve reflected on how difficult it is to write this type of fiction well. Anyone who aspires to write in an absurdist style should read this as an example of how to do it really well.


We finish with “Fishin’ with Grandma Matchie” which is a surrealist fantasy pretending to be the story as told by a nine-year-old with a big imagination. This is the least successful of the three because it lacks discipline. The art of really great storytelling is knowing when to stop. This breaches the golden rule, and grows repetitious and rather boring.


Taken overall, The Devil Delivered and other tales is one of the more interesting books of the year simply because Steven Erikson is brave enough to attempt to push out into less well-travelled areas of literature. “The Devil Delivered” is not routine eco-catastrophe as science fiction collides with Armageddon. Rather it’s science fiction aspiring to capture some sophisticated ideas about the adaptability of the individual and what someone might have to sacrifice to reach the next level of existence. “Revolvo” reinvents a form of writing that was rooted in the post World War II experience of life and relocates to a modern world where we face a slightly different struggle to find any real meaning in our lives. Finally, even though not a complete success, “Fishin’ with Grandma Matchie” is seriously inventive in playing with the standard tropes featuring the relationship between Satan and ichthus, the power of love, and the need of comedians to see the big picture where two walls make a corner.


A copy of this book was sent to me for review.


The prejudices betrayed by what we say and write

August 23, 2012 4 comments

Sometimes, when reading non-related items in the news, the mind can suddenly identify a common denominator. Since it happened today, I’ll celebrate the event with an opinion piece. It seems there’s a self-published book called The Pearls: Defending Eden by Victoria Foyt and Weird Tales, under its new management, has tied itself in a knot over whether it should reproduce the first chapter of this book in its magazine. Also in America, I note that Todd Akin has refused the demands of his political party to withdraw from the election to represent Missouri in the Senate — as an aside, the drunken skinny-dipping episode in the Sea of Galilee may suggest other members of the same party can act in a debauched way. For the record, Akin distinguished between legitimate and other types of rape, asserting the belief that women could control their bodies to ensure they could not become pregnant if unwillingly impregnated. On our side of the pond, George Galloway offered the opinion that Julian Assange was not guilty of rape as he understood the word. Rather it was a case of bad manners or poor social etiquette. This on the day the Augusta National Golf Club ended its eighty-year single-sex membership rule and admitted its first two women members. It seems Darla Moore and Condoleezza Rice are now lining up as many of the male members as possible in friendly competition on the golf course with a view to demonstrating they are better players of the game (the ambiguity is deliberate).

The lives we lead as social beings inevitably involve the use of signs and symbols to transmit meaning to each other. We talk, we write, we draw, and we use body language and facial expressions to package the meaning and send it to others. This means our society must agree what meanings are to be given to combinations of letters or symbols, and to lay down rules for the interpretation of what we see. As you might imagine, this would appear to be an immensely complicated communication system to learn if you saw it all written down. But we assimilate it as part of the socialisation process. Growing up, we listen to authority figures and interact with our peers. When we say and do things meeting with group approval, we’re rewarded. When the group disapproves, we may suffer social penalties or more formal punishments. This stick and carrot approach throughout our formative years teaches us how to conform or, at least, how to appear to conform.

As adults, we’re the sum of all our prejudices and beliefs. Everything we see and hear is filtered through the lens of our personal sensibilities. If input matches our prejudices, we applaud. If input fails to match our prejudices, the reaction can range from simple dismissal to an angry physical retaliation. In my early schooling, we were taught self-reflection, to look with some degree of honesty at what we believe and decide whether those beliefs are “legitimate”. Today, no-one in the schooling system is taught critique whether for self-reflection or the assessment of others. People unthinkingly communicate with the world not realising how they reveal themselves in what they say and do.

So what would happen in a book written by a homophobe? Well, early on, the previously well-regarded A is outed as gay. Suddenly, all his co-workers stop co-operating with him and his employment is terminated because he can no longer perform his job effectively. His reputation follows him so no new employer will offer him a post. He ends up losing his home when he cannot pay the mortgage and, in the final pages, is beaten to death when found begging on a street corner. This would conform to the prejudices of many readers and they would buy the book. What might a gay author write on the same subject? When A is outed and suffers discrimination, he takes his employers to court and gets substantial damages for wrongful dismissal. He uses this money to establish his own business which supplies goods and services first to the gay community, and then more generally. When the opportunity arises, he offers employment to gay and straight people, making no secret of his own sexuality nor of his policy for equal treatment. He becomes a multimillionaire and buys the company that fired him. In a management evaluation exercise, he reallocates all the homophobes who abused him to work under managers who are openly gay.

Both books would be considered parables, expressing different points of view to appeal to niche groups of buyers. In other words, authors don’t suddenly stop being prejudiced when they write. They write about what they believe and express opinions about what they think is right and wrong. Fueling this process, organisations exist to make awards, but their criteria for deciding who deserve the awards represent their own prejudices. So, for example, The Libertarian Futurist Society makes an annual Prometheus Award to the books best demonstrating what it means to be free. The Black Caucus of the American Library Association Literary Awards are given to outstanding works of fiction and nonfiction by African American authors. There’s no overlap between the award winners.

In an election, voters look for candidates holding opinions similar to their own. If they are anti-abortion, they will vote for candidates who deny abortion no matter how the woman became pregnant. If the political tide is turning against overt sexism or racism, people and organisations can trim their sails to move elegantly into line, or they can try to swim against the tide. So Augusta can, with whatever grace it can muster, offer membership to two token women of high status. The blogosphere can turn on Weird Tales for offering support to a book the commentators have labelled as racist. British George Galloway feels free to comment on the Swedish laws as they define rape. All these events mean we live in a society where we value free speech. For better or worse, people can say what they want to get elected to high political office and publish what they think will sell. Looking back this year, I’ve read books that suggest grooming young women to be sex slaves is OK, that killing illegal immigrants is OK although, if you want to be kind, you could intern them and then deport them by sending them out to sea to become someone else’s problem, or that trying to depose a military leader because he’s gay is always justified even if the country’s defence is then put at risk, and so on. There are as many opinionated authors as there are books published. It’s sad so many of them have no idea that what they write can seem [insert word]ist to others not sharing their beliefs. Or perhaps they are aware and actually want to offend those who don’t share their beliefs. Whatever the truth of the matter, it doesn’t really matter because the alternative of censorship is not in the public interest. We should all be allowed to make fools of ourselves or become heroes in the eyes of others for saying what needs to be said. As an elderly, white, male atheist, I’m no exception since I frequently hold opinions at odds with the rest of the world and assert my right to publish them.

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