Sunday, 27 May 2012

Johannes Cabal: Jonathan L Howard

Buying books on-line is a crapshoot of a very particular kind. You don't have the sense of physicality which comes with humping a wad of books over to the cash register and paying for them. Instead you're seeing a new writer, thinking "That looks interesting" and buying a whole lump of his books because, when you get right down to it, books are stupidly cheap for what they are and why the hell not? Then the box shows up at the door and you realize you've bought a lot more books than you would have bought if you'd been in a shop. After the usual delay, you finally get round to reading one of the books and you realize you don't like this writer's work at all, and that you've just wasted the cost of an evening's drinking for the dull disappointment of one book you don't like and three or four others that you know you wouldn't like so why even bother reading them?

I know all of this, and yet I go on buying new books in clumps through some maniacal combo of outdated preoccupations with saving postage and lunatic optimism that this time things will be different. 

And, to be honest, because sometimes I buy a whole bunch of books by someone who turns out to be pretty good.

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer; The Detective; and The Fear Institute are not, by any stretch of the imagination, truly great books. But they are very well written. Howard's a naturally good writer of prose, a man who knows the value of using the right word instead of the almost-right paragraph. He might not be a masterful plotter, and his characterization is no more than the minimum needed to get through the plot, but he's nonetheless an enjoyable read. 

Cabal's the kind of character who makes great company on the page and would be terrible company in the real world; perhaps recognizing this, Howard's carefully put him in a world which isn't quite real, so as to put a bit of distance between his atrocious behavior and the happy reader chuckling at it.

Of the three books, Johannes Cabal the Detective is probably the best, combining a nice straightforward plot, a good assortment of characters for Cabal to be annoyed with, and a lot more detail about Howard's engagingly bonkers Edwardian era than we see in the other two books. The Necromancer, the first book, is a bit of a mess plot wise, a jumble of incidents which don't quite cohere into a single satisfying narrative. The Fear Institute, the third book, suffers from some of the same problems, but sorts them out better. Oddly enough, both of them end with quite affecting codas which put Cabal's singleminded pursuit of necromancy into a much more human context. 

A lot of our protagonists these days are supposed to be anti-heroes, scoundrels who we root for all the same. Cabal is not your workaday anti-hero. Although Howard softens him somewhat with his backstory, through most of the narrative Cabal maintains a steely resolve to look after number one no matter who gets hurt in the process. Mind you, in a world where reading books is increasingly a minority sport of the mildly intellectual, he's almost tailored as a character that people who read can root for; Cabal is the kind of person who would shoot someone because he doesn't agree with their grammar. This shouldn't be as funny as it actually is. 

The third book ends on an almost TV series finale level of cliff hangishness, with Cabal saved from almost certain death by a mysterious figure who he had thought long dead. The book ends without telling us who this might be. Howard should have more confidence in his own skills; anyone who's stuck with Cabal so far will be buying the next book anyhow. And on form to date, Howard is perfectly capable of not bothering to tell us who the mystery figure was; he's the only other writer I've come across who equals that wonderful insouciance in Patrick Rothfuss'sThe Wise Man's Fear. Rothfuss left out a whole chunk of the narrative and made a joke out of it; Howard's got that same glint in his eye.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

The 2012 Barrel; presumably awash with oil

Eurovision has become quite staggeringly vulgar over the years; not the individual acts, but the ever ratcheting visual flash of the staging by the organizers. Azerbaijan rustled up a hall for this year's extravaganza in seven months, and still had money left over to fill the place with pyrotechnics; maybe it's time that they started applying something like US campaign funding rules to Eurovision and telling the hosts that they can't spend any more money than the first one cost.

The UK don't seem to have noticed what happened to France last year and so they sent a singer to sing an actual song, albeit a singer older than my dad and a song which makes him look young. As a nul points contender, it's got everything going for it. Hungary seems to have discovered a stash of 1980s vampire wannabes and has decided to see if the stage lighting will do the same thing as sunlight; sadly not, though I can't remember anything about the song thirty seconds after they stopped. And; this just in; Albania has its own Bjork. Keeping up the 1980s theme, she looks like a rejected costume drawing for the Flash Gordon movie's evil queen, with the comedy bonus of a hairdo that mixes the best of a beehive and ludicrous pony tail.

Lithuania is going even further back in time with a guy who thinks it's a shame the rat pack don't still dominate the world. Because the song is about how love is blind, he started it off in a blindfold; it would have been kinder to offer it to the audience. Neighboring Russia have had an epic irony bypass, and sent a banderilla of babushkas, all of whom look like veterans of the Great Patriotic War, but apparently one of them is only 44. Flesh colored boom mikes are never a great idea, but on a crew this old, they really look like big warts from just about every angle. But the crowd goes wild, so what do I know?

More than France, possibly, who seem to have caught up with what this is all about and have sent a shouty woman in a nightdress and half the French olympic gym team. I suspect this is going to capture the attention of a much smaller subset of the population than they were planning for; specifically all the people who've been hoping Cher would start touring again because she's SO fabulous.

Italy are now short of money that they've sent necromancers to dig up Amy Winehouse; honestly the only difference I can see is that Nina Zilli hasn't felt the urge to illustrate herself. Not often that the Eurovision has me mourning what might have been in the real world. Norway appear to have found themselves wondering what would happen if Justin Bieber tried to channel Eminem; the answer is that you get something disturbingly like a live action version of Flynn Ryder from Entangled; and perhaps it's best to avoid having your lead spastically flailing around the stage yelling "I don't know what I'm doing tonight." when it's so obvious that he doesn't. 

Just when I thought the Eurovision had forgotten its essential madness, Romania have saved the day with a traditional number; an overadrenalised hot chick in a tiny dress babbling gibberish at the top of her voice and a backing band all in white and playing an assortment of instruments that should never be seen together let alone played together; including a set of bagpipes and a French horn with a bundle of vuvuzelas stuck down the barrel. A welcome return to form for the show. And it seems to signal it getting back into stride; the Danes showed why they're dominating murder dramas but not pop music, and now the Greeks have rolled out with a completely mainstream piece of zorba-inflected bubblegum consisting of English catchphrases and a whole bunch of vowel sounds. That's more like it.

There's always at least one number which makes you think that the country's been subjected to a musical theatre coup, but Turkey seems to have decided that what they really need for next year is a gay tourism bonanza, possibly with vampire overtones. I don't think I've seen anything this camp since I first found out what camp meant. Amazingly, the phrase "Hello Sailor" wasn't used, but it would probably have been overkill.

Jedward have now been and gone, another cunning move in our struggle to ensure that we never have to pay to host this thing again. It's impossible to dislike Jedward, but it's equally impossible to believe that they pay attention during the choreography rehearsals, possibly because they think that as twins they have the superpower of moving as one and so don't need to practice. The outfits this year were arresting; If 1980's Flash Gordon had had a subplot where screamingly fabulous aliens invaded the earth, their armour would have looked just like Jedward's; sensibly, they didn't see any need for head protection.

Voting went pretty much the way it always does, including the ritual humiliation of the UK, who only missed placing dead last by virtue of Norway doing as badly as they traditionally do. Seems like people feel even more hacked off about the Vikings than they do about the Empire.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Ashleigh and Pudsey; So. It has come to this.

Heaven knows, I try not to let anything shock me. I am not going to pretend that the outcome of Britain's Got Talent shocked me or knocked me off stride. The news that, faced with people who could sing dance and the lord knows what else, the great British public voted for an agile dog and his owner did not me surprise me in the slightest. I'm not actually sure what it would take before the outcome of text voting in the UK mainland would make me take a deep breath and say "Well, that, I did not expect." The restoration of chattel slavery and the reintroduction of sumptuary taxes, perhaps. The replacement of the monarchy by an animated waxwork of Henry Hawley Crippen, voiced by Cherie Blair. No, wait, they already did that with 10 Downing Street, and it wasn't even the weirdest thing that happened there in my life time.

Still, it was weird enough to get me thinking, and most of what it got me thinking was "Is THIS what it's all about? Are all of these reality shows with viewer voting just meant to make us give up entirely on the notion of democracy?". Because you've got to wonder, don't you? There goes the British public voting for some random woman and a dog that does what she tells it to do. That's what voting gets you, is it? And then it struck me; some pretty face with a couple of sound bites, backed up by a tame poodle what hogs the camera? Didn't the UK just do this in 2010? Does reality game show land even NEED to point out the futility of voting?

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The Avengers; nothing even vaguely like the best movie of the year, I hope

Right now, Avengers Assemble is scoring 93% on Rotten Tomatoes. This means pretty much every movie critic who's seen it has liked it, which leads me to think that every movie critic alive has been reprogrammed by something insidious in the 3D glasses. That or their collective expectations have beaten down so hard by watching Michael Bay movies that they greet anything better as a starving man falls on a Whopper thinking that at least it isn't a Big Mac.

So. It has come to this.

Joss Whedon has managed to leave me feeling kind of bored and uninvolved with a movie. A movie with Robert Downey Jr, Jeremy Renner and Samuel MF L Jackson in it. And Scarlett Johanssen. I think they come and take my man card off me if I fail to notice that Scarlett's in the movie, though to be honest I'm slightly more bothered that they snuck Jenny Agutter in and I didn't pick up on it till the credits.

Things I liked; I liked it that Stellan Skarsgard got to carry a big silver suitcase, in what I choose to believe was a deliberate shout out to a good simple movie, Ronin.

Eh, that's it. If you liked Chris Evans in Captain America (it was fine), watch it again. If you liked Robert Downey in the first Iron Man movie, watch that again. if you liked Thor; what is WRONG with you? If you like  Jeremy Renner, watch The Town and Hurt Locker. There's too many people in this movie, and none of them have really got enough to do, but the real frustration comes from watching a bunch of actors who are individually capable of carrying a whole movie trying to share out a movie whose plot boils down to "What can we do to avoid getting to the end before everyone's had a chance to get in a character beat or two?".

No 3D movie is complete until I've ragged on the 3D, which as usual adds nothing of importance, but lowers the contrast on the screen so that nothing is as sharp as it should be. I'm keeping an open mind about the Hobbit, and Avatar actually made 3D work for a living, but for everything else it's like a robbery where they make the victim wear the mask.

It did leave me with time to ponder the conundrum of why it is that when the aliens invade, they always trash either LA or New York. I know it's because the movies are made in the US and they're pandering to the local audience, but I'm starting to wonder if the rest of us are putting up with it because secretly it's rather fun to think that the aliens are just going to focus on wrecking America while they ignore the rest of us.

I wanted to like this, I really did. It was heralded as a thinking man's comic hero movie. In reality, it's a big sprawling mess with two big set pieces and a story that only makes sense if you assume that the characters' agents had Joss Whedon's kids in a basement somewhere and wouldn't let them out till he wrote them all a big scene. So, if you only see one superhero movie this year; wait for something better than this.