Thursday, 26 September 2013

Stephen Hunt: Jack Cloudie

About three years ago I ripped through the first three Stephen Hunt books in a matter of days, finishing by wondering aloud just what he could do in the the threatened three more sequels given that he'd ramped up the destruction in every book to the point where it was hard to know what would be left to write about. 

Either he hit a reset button, or he's gone back to before the calamities and is noodling in around the edges, because everything in the last couple of books is wonderfully intact. His teenage protagonists have to save big chunks of the landscape from certain doom still, but they more or less manage it in the nick of time. I can't quite remember what happened in Secrets of the Fire Sea and I've a wary suspicion that I might not have much of a handle on Jack Cloudie by the time I get round to reading his next book; Hunt continues to be a writer who's better on thinking up cool  stuff than getting me to care what's happening to it.

Jack Cloudie is largely set in Cassarabia, yet another of Jackals' ancient implacable enemies, this time modelled on the Arabian Nights as run by Dr Moreau. If you wanted to take massive offence at its depiction of a caricatured Hollywood Middle Eastern hellhole, you'd be there all day, running up your blood pressure. It's unfair to Arab societies in general, but the depiction of Western capitalism in Jackals isn't doing them any favours either, and if anything, it's more damaging satire. I am a bit more worried about the gender politics. Which is a sentence I literally never thought I'd need to type; in past incarnations as gender officer for two different organisations, I've appalled my constituency by suggesting the empowerment of women by giving them machine guns and by meeting complaints about a male gender officer with a cheery "We thought it was THAT important." So you have to be a long way over the line before I climb out of my trenches and say "Are you sure this is exactly the message you want to send?"

The problem begins with the fact that Cassarabia is a Moreau-ian nightmare; starved of mineral resources, wood, coal or any other damn thing, it solves all problems by breeding livestock specifically tailored to meet the need. And all the livestock is bred out of human slave women, because - well, I think because it's horrible, and Hunt wants it to be horrible. So Cassarabia turns out to be, by a handy margin, probably the most horrible alternative society that Hunt's ever bothered to cook up. Which makes it somehow off when it turns out that the whole engine of the plot (the evil machiavellian plot which the heroes must overcome, not the plot of the book) is a conspiracy to turn the tables on the men and put women in the driving seat. Which, well, how progressive, I'm sure you're thinking. Nah, the women are the baddies. They have all the provocation in the world, but they're still the baddies and they all get schwacked horribly to teach them not to get above themselves, and none of the surviving men are all that terribly bothered or conflicted about it later.

I can see how it's gritty and true to the setting that the men would win, and restore their horrible nasty status quo, and that they wouldn't see anything wrong with it. The problem is that the way Hunt's written it, it's all too easy to come away thinking "Yeah, fair enough, bitches had it coming, didn't they?" And Hunt's stuff is written for a demographic which … might not get the subtext. Hunt needed to put something in there which would spell out clearly that this is a bad day for everyone and that the status quo was not OK. There has to have been a way for him to be true to his characters' world view and yet still show it as mistaken. It's been a couple of days since I finished the book, and it's still bugging me.

Other than that, as the theatre critic said to Mrs Lincoln, it's the usual riot of invention and doing things for the sake of being cool. Despite his image of Cassarabia as a culture working entirely on specially bred animals, Hunt couldn't resist - and never really explains - putting his principal Cassarabian man of mystery in a dune-submarine. I can't blame him for doing it once he'd had such a cool idea, but it doesn't make sense that there's this ONE kind of machine and everything else is creatures… And the logistics of Cassarabia are puzzling, since it's a vast desert which somehow produces enough food to feed and foster a vast array of specialised creatures for every occasion. As long as you keep reminding yourself that it's all supposed to be a cartoon, it's not too bad. I continue to be slightly puzzled what Hunt thinks his audience is; in every book the viewpoint characters are adolescents, but the situations around them are way too dark (half way through the book a character gets straight up murdered, and such is Hunt's form with this kind of thing that it never occurred to me to think that this would all turn out to be misdirection, as it would have been in something more child-friendly). Though if he is pitching it as adolescents, everything I said about gender politics worries me a lot more than it does even now.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

R.I.P.D.: Dead on arrival

Sheesh. I need to sit myself down and have a long chat with myself about the ways I spend my time. Teh intarwebz had already spoken and declared RIPD to be the Living Dead That Should Be Returned to Sender. I went anyway, hoping that this would be the elusive great white whale of suck which would give me something to harpoon properly. What the hell is wrong with me? I'm deliberately going to terrible movies so that I can waste time watching them and then more time writing about them? This is what I'm doing with my life?

I'd love to riff off from this and say that RIPD made me think about mortality and how lives are wasted, but any pile of crap could have done that; it's not as though its themes of life after death mobilised any extra brain cells.

Thing is, I was kind of hoping teh intarwebz were wrong; I was making an each way bet where if the movie turned out to be fun, I'd have some fun, and if it was terrible, at least I'd get a mean blog post out of it. I felt like a canny hedge fund manager; I still feel like a hedge fund manager, but not the good, rich kind. RIPD is some kind of piece of work. It's not much fun, but it's not wrong on a grand enough scale to be worth hyperbole.

The reviewers have been swift to dismiss this as tepid remake of Men in Black, which is unfair to remakes, tepidity, and probably both the comic books which got pulped to make the movies in question. A remake of Men in Black is a completely unnecessary thing (as two sequels demonstrated) but if they'd at least done a shot by shot homage, they might have made a fun movie by accident. As Lloyd Bentsen might have said if he'd been a remedial blogger rather than a vice-presidential candidate, I knew Men in Black, and you're no MiB. Actually, I'm being unfair to Dan Quayle, who was a better remake of JFK than RIPD  is of anything. That's how not-good RIPD is. It's not even a tolerable remake.

What it is is one of those standard brand hero's journey snorathons in which a flawed character has to seek redemption, gain the love of a fair lady, earn the respect of a new peer group and save the world. Always with the saving the world. How many times do I have to say this; give us a strong character and a good actor, and we'll be on the edge of our seats watching him trying to save a kitten (pop culture test case; go watch the classic ER episode Hell or High Water. Two guys and a storm drain, and it was a tv show; you knew George Clooney was going to make it. Still riveting. I tried watching ER after that, and it could never live up to that intro for me). Added snore components; every goddam thing in the world is connected back to our blank everyman hero; the big villain for the whole world is also the small villain of his tiny pre-mortem world. Fafuqzake. This makes White House Down look inventive.

I know, let's just rip it right the way down. Ryan Reynolds is the hero, if that's the word I want to use, which it isn't. We meet him burying a bunch of shaky looking lumps of gold under an orange tree in his back garden in Boston. Yeah, no way that's not going to turn out important later. Then he has some PG13 sexy times with his French wife (because why the hell not, and why the hell should we bother explaining it?). He finally gets out from under the sexy times and goes to work. His wife goes off to - hell if I know, really; chick's a total plot coupon; she jogs off with an iPod on her arm and the next time we see her she's at Ryan's funeral, which comes about as a result of him being murdered to bits by his crooked partner because of the whole burying the gold thing. I bet you didn't know Boston had a major meth problem, but it turns out that it does, and the best plan Boston's finest can come up with to contain it is to launch an enormous raid on a vast isolated derelict warehouse absolutely full of meth dealers. Without taking even three minutes to recce the place, they all just barrel in, dick first into the beehive. I  was starting to see how Boston would have a meth problem; the finest minds they've got could lose at tictactoe playing against Leeroy Jenkins. They seemed perfectly capable of having an out-of-control gummy bear problem.

So Ryan Reynolds get killed by his crooked partner, though if I'd been his crooked partner and some kind of evil mastermind, I'd have just sat back and let natural selection work its magic; Ryan's a stone bonehead, and everyone else was letting him decide what to do, so how long would it have taken? Everything freezes, and he gets whisked up through a whole bunch of CGI clouds before getting whisked into an Eames chair and the moment which gave trailer watchers some reason to hope; Mary-Louise Parker's deadpan "Tough day." Turns out heaven has a police force, and they're hiring. Ryan gets a choice between going straight to hell (what with being a dirty cop who didn't quite get the chance to un-dirty himself, though he was trying, kind of, right up to when his partner shot him so much) or hiring on as heaven police. God, heaven police are even dumber than Boston PD. They've got a file on Ryan two inches thick (it's waved out of the screen in 3D at one point, like I don't see enough files in my day). They know he's both thick and crooked, and he's just what they need? Christ, I thought reality was badly run.

So that's the RIPD, hiring the crooked and inept to chase down the dead who won't stay dead.  I actually liked the business case; on the one hand, the afterlife just can't handle the volume any more, so dead souls are slipping between the cracks, and on the other hand, dead souls hanging round after their time rot out the world around them; man, that explains so much of life, including bad cell phone reception.

This is the point where the movie takes its big hit for trying to be MiB all over again. You got your noob, and you've got your old school mentor, and you've got weird abominations trying to hide in plain sight and then all hulking out into eldritch atrocity while being shot at with stupidly big guns. I hope that didn't sound fun, because it turns out that it's not. Which is perversely impressive. Although most of the money went on special effects, they had just enough money to hire Jeff Bridges (who will do anything I guess), Mary Louise Parker and Kevin Bacon. And T-Bag from Prison Break.  And a ton of extras for the crowd scenes. And Ryan Reynolds, as I mentioned earlier. I'm listing them in order of the fun they are. Notice how I didn't list a writer. I'm going with the idea that they gave the key grip a crayon and a copy of Contour (Follow, the link, I dare you. They BOAST that it reduces screenwriting to a fill-in-the-blanks approach. Then movies like this fill the blanks WITH blanks).

Wackiness ensues. The RIPD come back in new guises, which for maximum yucks involves Ryan being a tiny Chinese person and Jeff being some wanton blonde hottie (Jeff gets a few lines to slap down casual sexism from all the people who ogle the hell out of him, and everyone just gets right on with dissing elderly small Chinese guys because, screw Chinese people, I guess). And of course Ryan, first day on the job, figures out that there's something weird happening with the dead-os collecting gold, which must be connected to the gold he helped himself to - and what do you know, hey presto, his crooked partner (Kevin Bacon, phoning it in and still effortlessly outshining Ryan) is the mastermind of a whole undead plot to reassemble some ancient doohickey which will open the gates of hell (though for some reason that exact phrase never comes up) and let all the damned souls of eternity return to earth.

Apparently this is a bad thing, though by this stage I was rooting for Bacon and seeing him as an undead Moses trying to free his people. No worries; Ryan and Jeff save the day (despite - how could I have forgotten to mention this - having been suspended half way through the movie) and the vast flood of souls stops at the last minute and gets hoovered back up to hell, which is above us. Don't ask. So there's just the property damage and the three or four thousand deaths from flattening thirty buildings in downtown Boston during business hours. Just a hair-mussing, really. Carry on.

And Ryan's wife gets in on the end of the world, because - for no reason at all - Kevin Bacon decides to use her blood to power his engine of destruction. So she gets almost killed just enough that she can have a tearful reunion with Ryan, but then gets better. Which is sugary, but actually less icky with where I thought they were going, a place where a woman can only be happy if she's horribly murdered to get back together with her creep husband. Which would have been an objectively bad message to send, assuming anyone stayed awake long enough to be influenced by it.

Yet, I wanted to like this dog. A) Jeff Bridges. B) Mary Louise Parker C) afterlife hi-jinks. Jeff Bridges doing a comedy cowboy just left me thinking of True Grit. Mary Louise Parker left me thinking of Red and Red 2, and all the good stuff she's done on TV, like Weeds (yes, frequently terrible, but she was always interesting). And after-life hi-jinks:

For better after-life is bureaucracy by other means: Beetlejuice

For better hunting down the dead because they're just plain bad;

Brimstone; where to start? If I don't have you at Crispin Glover as the Devil, you're beyond saving. 


G vs E; completely nuts, and probably objectively no good at all, but a show about Good vs Evil with the production values - and general tone - of a 70s cop show? What's not to like? Plus Marshall Bell as the watch commander, leaving you permanently wondering just how good the forces of good really were

(in a month you'll be able to get RIPD on Blu-Ray and you still can't get either of these shows anywhere…)

For bureaucracy and hunting down souls on general principle Dead Like Me; Mandy Patinkin and more sarcasm than TV had ever seen before. Huge fun.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Under the Dome; This is not going to end well. Or at all.

Stephen King adaptations rarely work out well. If you'd put me in the hot box and worked me over for a while trying to sweat an answer out of me, I'd have said "Bitches, you want to beat the truth out of someone, don't be such lightweights. Drop the phone books; use Stephen King books." Because man, Stephen King is not the kind of guy who's going to use one word if he can get the job done in a chapter. And the iron rule is one page of dialogue is one minute of screen time. Try to cram one of his doorstops into a movie length and you're going to lose most of the words, and with them, you're going to lose the characters, who rise above formula when King has the space to let us hear what they're - kinda long-windedly - thinking.

So, if not movies, surely TV? In TV, you've got all the room you want, all the space you need for King's prose to sprawl out on the sofa just like the viewers. Yeah, not a lot of encouragement over in TV land either, where productions have routinely choked on the need to keep the action family friendly.

CBS found another way to go wrong. Under the Dome is one of King's less grisly books, in that no-one's getting ripped to pieces by eldritch abominations and such as. Bad stuff is happening, but it's all well within the wheelhouse of contemporary drama, even on CBS. And a standard half season run would have been a good fit for Under the Dome's bloated but only a week long plot. The problem - and it's a biggie - is that CBS aren't a cable channel and they like everything to run forever. This is the home of CSI, which is still running even though everyone I know stopped watching it about four years ago. Under the Dome is a bad fit for that model, what with the one week of action and the ending where everything burns down and blows up. Not really something you can spin out.

Undaunted, like fools and geniuses throughout history, CBS went for it anyhow. And they had one brainwave, dialling down the evil lunacy on Big Jim Rennie from "Aliens made the dome just to keep Big Jim Rennie from getting on reality" to "Small town demagogue with a mean streak". Even wilier, they hired Dean Norris, fresh off playing Hank in Breaking Bad, to play him. Norris is a good actor, coming off a role where he'd played a pretty uncomplicated good guy in a landscape of very complicated bad guys. Those two things together brought a lot of ambiguity to the character in the opening straight; sure, you'd hate to have to buy a car off Big Jim, but he wasn't a monster. Might even have some decency to him if he didn't have anything personal riding on a decision. 

Between hiring Norris and cutting a cow in half, the producers must have used up all the money, because there's no-one else in the cast who can even keep up - though in fairness, this was also true of the book characters; when I was reading the book, I kept having to flip back to figure out who the heck was angst-ing now about the current plot red herring. Big Jim might not have been the most plausible character ever to walk the pages of fiction, but he had a couple of dimensions to him...

Now, if CBS had grasped the idea that this was always a short term one time deal, by that one act of tweaking Big Jim to be more subtle, they'd have been well on the way to making an adaptation which might have beaten the source material. Instead, they faffed about, setting up mini-problems each week without ever doing anything to suggest that the townspeople were in any way freaked out by being stuck under an impervious goldfish bowl. They took King's howlingly insane meth plot and made it more howlingly insane, if that were possible. About six episodes in, I was starting to get worried; then I heard they were going for a second season and my heart just sank. There's no long game for the underlying idea. It was always about putting people in a pressure cooker and seeing what happened, and King went out of his way to stack it so that things would go to hell in a hand basket within a week. 

CBS wants something like a dystopian Gilligan's Island, or god help us, another Lost. This is a) dumb b) not the book they're supposedly adapting, but if that was the way they wanted to go, they shouldn't have smuggled in all the dynamite King stuffed his Dome with.

It will be next summer until we see whether getting King in to do the writing gets them back out of the hole they've dug themselves, but in the meantime, watch the Simpsons Movie, which I suspect is going to remain the definitive video version of "small town gets stuck under impervious dome".

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

White House Down; Roland Emmerich really hates America

Although I knew it would be terrible, I had to see White House Down so that I could complete my collection of lunatics-take-over-the-White-House movies for 2013. I'd already seen Olympus Has Fallen, and having lived in Nordor for so long now, I'm mired in the notion of parity of esteem, so of course having seen the plucky underdog go teeth first into the kerb, I had to go and see the over-resourced top dog throw itself under a bus of its own design.

Wait, did I say own design? Sorry, I don't know what I was thinking. White House Down is - you'll want to sit down and have a soothing beverage to hand - even more ripped from the past than Olympus Has Fallen. The "writer" credit should probably have read "photocopier". Every bit of imagination which went into this movie went into stunt design. And possibly into thinking of ways of talking Richard Jenkins, James Woods and Maggie Gyllenhall into standing in front of the special effects pretending to care. In fairness, they're all seasoned mercenaries - well, maybe not Gyllenhall, but she looks pretty gaunt in this thing and I'm guessing that she's got food bills - with not much of a track record of turning things down, and even a small slice of a reported $150 million dollar budget…. 

However, it's a first of sorts for Emmerich. Well, a bit. There's a moppet in peril, of course. There's wholesale destruction of iconic US landmarks, including I think Emmerich's fourth destruction of the White House. The hero has split up with his wife and has to reconnect with his family while proving himself as a father and a hero. There are heroic dudes in uniform and snivelling weasel politicians. Every single character is connected to the hero by a chain of implausible coincidences, and the hero is somehow in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to benefit from these coincidences. The media are morons. Put upon minor functionaries get a moment of heroism. There is a moment where someone waves a flag to save the day and rally the world (I am embarrassed to say that even as I was squirming with embarrassment, I was feeling slightly choked up with the pathos of the moment).

So, yeah, it's the single transferable Roland Emmerich one-size-fits-all movie (I really have to make the time to watch Anonymous one of these days and see how Shakespeare blows up the Tower of London), bolted onto the plot of Die Hard, with nuclear launch codes standing in for the Nakatomi Plaza bond hoard.  Die Hard stuff poking out of the rubble; hero in a t-shirt? Check. Doomed assault by helicopters? Check? Battle on the roof? Check. Nerd on his own in the computer room cracking vault? Check. And getting schwacked when he tries to make his cunning escape? Yeah, that too.

It's also got that wonderful literal mindedness which always walks along an inch behind Roland. Concentrate on every word you hear and everything which has been expensively put on the screen. No matter how apparently inessential it may sound, Roland will, very shortly, either blow it up, blow something up on it or have one of his characters hit someone very hard with it. At one point, we get a listing of the various leisure facilities in the grounds of the White House; not long after, President Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum take a drive through each and every one of those facilities. In a huge car which has already been painstakingly described to us. And so on. All Chekhov ever said was that if you had a gun on the mantelpiece in Act One, it should have been used by the end of Act Three. He didn't say that everything on stage had to be a lethal weapon.

Other odds and sods. Satellite phones that work from the sub basement. Never gets old. Anti-aircraft missiles which you can put down in the middle of the firefight and when you pick them up again, they remember what they were aimed at, even though it's been moving around the whole time and they couldn't have been tracking the movement. Half a dozen grenades blow out a whole masonry wall three feet away, but Channing Tatum is perfectly safe ten feet away behind a plywood podium. And the gun he picks up from the rubble afterwards works perfectly. Channing Tatum schwacking the big bad with a mini gun from six feet away for, oh twenty seconds or so (or at least 600 bullets), and still being able to recover a small electronic device in working order from the remains, which in real life would have been a thin mist over the wall of the NEXT room. 

A thing I actually did like was that the construction of the movie is better than Olympus Has Fallen. There isn't a lot of putzing about creating a flashback; everything happens on the day, and explanations are tossed about in a reasonable way, by Hollywood standards. And the initial seizure of the White House is worryingly matter of fact, making a nice point about how it doesn't matter how much you screen your visitors for guns if everyone else has got guns and is kind of dozy. You could see how it might work in practice, assuming that everyone in the White House has actually had the kind of psychotic break that makes it seem sensible to fill the place with nebulously secured arsenals full of assault rifles.

So what has Roland done for the first time, then? It's subtle, which I admit is a little unexpected. Emmerich has been threatening the American way of life for a couple of decades now, presumably under orders from these guys, but up to now, all the destruction has been from the enemy without. Either it's been space aliens, or freak weather, or the core of the planet melting from cosmic rays or the Hessians (disclaimer, I may not have stayed completely awake all the way through The Patriot, but then neither did Emmerich as far as  I could tell). In White House Down, the enemy is within. Yup, the White House is taken over by lunatic US citizens egged on by the military industrial complex to overthrow a principled president and start a fresh lucrative war in the Middle East.

So now you all know. The very idea of a military industrial complex which would foment armageddon to turn a buck is so ridiculous that it belongs only in Roland Emmerich movies. As is the idea, in general, of lunatics taking over the White House. That never happens in real life.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Allan Guthrie: Two-Way Split/Hard Man

I imagine that Allan Guthrie lives in some kind of witness protection programme, sponsored by the Glasgow Better Business Bureau in an effort to keep him safe from the Edinburgh Tourism Board, who presumably want him dead. Although of course, much though they may want to make an example of him, it could prove counter-productive to murder him to pieces in order to prove that Edinburgh is not a seething mass of murdering moronic scumbags. One more Gordon Pearce book might be enough to tip them over the edge, mind you, so I reckon Guthrie needs to tread lightly. That or get a three movie deal with Neil Marshall; I could see Marshall fitting Guthrie quite handily into his underground Border lair where they could plot together to make Scotland look like hell with bad plumbing for the next decade.

Things Allan Guthrie likes; opening the book with someone getting their nose broken. Having at least one character who's round the bend and acting under the influence of actual hallucinations. Killing just about everyone in the book, usually through hideous miscalculations. Things Allan Guthrie doesn't like; his characters. Edinburgh. The people who live in Edinburgh. After-shave (it's never mentioned without a shudder).

Both Two-Way Split and Hard Man run on the same basic engine, which is more or less, what would happen if you had a Jacobean tragedy, but staffed it with Scots thugs instead of Restoration dandies? I read Two-Way Split on spec, since it cost me a whole ninety-nine cent and the time it took me to read its brisk couple of hundred pages. Gordon Pearce, ex-con and utility thug, spends the book intimidating minor halfwits while the rest of the cast mire themselves into a robbery gone wrong; whereupon the going wrong pisses off Pearce mightily and he sets out for revenge. It does not go according to plan, since the rest of the cast are either crazy or stupid or if possible both, and by the time the action draws to a close, Pearce has no-one left to take revenge on and is looking pretty sick himself. 

So then I saw that there was a second book with Pearce, and it cost next to nothing as well, so I snapped that up to see what happened. A lot of crime writers take a liking to a character and gradually turn him into a superhero, so I was wondering if Guthrie, having set the character up, was now going to do a whole series where his knuckle-headed knight-errant would lope around Edinburgh righting wrongs and such as.

No, that wasn't the way he went. In Hard Man, Pearce is on the edges of the Baxter clan's efforts to protect their daughter/sister from hideous wrong doing at the hands of her husband, Wallace. The Baxters, as we learn in the first chapter, are not at all up to dealing with Wallace, but Pearce can't be bothered helping them out, no matter how nicely they ask or how much of their meagre savings they offer him. The Baxters go to ever more dubious lengths to either nobble Wallace or get Pearce to row in, and it all ends terrifically badly with crucifixions, dognapping, kneecapping and general mayhem. Pearce and his three legged dog are just about the only ones to get out even a little bit intact, and somehow, I can't see this becoming a well-loved series of cheery page-turnin thrillers.

Mostly because Guthrie's actually a good writer. His characters feel real. Breath-takingly stupid, but very real. Which means, of course, that it's pretty gruelling to watch them put themselves through the wringer. In conventional horror movies, you're biting your nails watching the characters getting stalked by some faceless evil, knowing that they're not going to make it. In Guthrie-world, the faceless evil is the characters' own petrifying idiocy, and it's somehow terrifying to watch it sweep one after another off the board. It's impressive, but I don't need to do it again for a while.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Daniel O'Malley: The Rook

For an American, Daniel O'Malley has a goodish ear for British English. For a certain kind of book - for example, a book about how humanity has been in a struggle with the supernatural for centuries - you're boxed in from the start. You're going to have to set it in England, and embed it firmly in the establishment, and it's going to need to reek, somehow, of tradition. So if you have the characters pulling out their billfolds every few minutes, or asking the guys to listen up, all those little breaks with reality are going to make it that bit harder for your readers to believe the big breaks with reality. I could somehow tell O'Malley was not a natural Brit, but until I read the author bit at the back of the book, I thought he might be Australian. So at least he didn't trip on the details, though of course all Americans working that genre now have an eleventy million page primer in the shape of JK Rowling and Harry Potter, and a billion YA novels written in the hope that Potter was an endless seam of gold.

Which brings me to the "Eh, but…" part of the review. The Rook is another one of those books I ripped through at a pretty epic pace despite it not being all that good. In fact, perhaps because of it not being good. However, unlike with Lee Child, at first I was rushing because the book was garlanded with good reviews and had won awards and such as, so I was running on through the weak-ish opening and waiting for the wonderful to cut in. Let me save the rest of you some time; it doesn't. Let me direct you to a better way of spending your time; if you want to read an "urban fantasy" novel about a powerful secret organisation battling eldritch horrors in modern England, start here. Charlie Stross has totally got your back. Better yet, there are several of them, each taking a wild rip through a specific sub genre of thriller. The Laundry is just boss. Accept no substitutes. 

If, on the other hand, you want to read a book in which a frail vulnerable girl turns out to have incredible super powers which solve every problem she runs into, cause everyone who ignored her to suddenly realise she's marvellous and gorgeous, and let her schwack every opponent; Jesus, what the hell are you doing reading this blog? Go read The Rook immediately. You'll love it, and what I'm going to do next will ruin it for you.

Where to start? The book starts with amnesia, which is, of course, bollocks. Our intrepid heroine wakes up surrounded by dead bodies, unable to remember who she is or anything about her life, but weirdly completely clued in how to speak English, how to drive a car, how cutlery works, the local geography of London, who the Prime Minister is, and a whole lot of other stuff which most educated people have to google these days. This is what TV Tropes helpfully calls Laser Guided Amnesia and it is the kind of bollocks which drags on the ground when you try to walk, and hurts a lot if you try to go too far. Myfanwy Thomas (because why the hell not) starts out with amnesia, which turns out to be marvellously convenient for the author  who has to deal with the problem of explaining a whole other world without wheeling on Basil Exposition every couple of pages. We can have a heroine in a central position to the plot who has a perfect excuse for needing endless info-dumps from someone - in this case, her own previous self, who saw all this coming and prepared a huge purple binder full of cheat sheets and an endless series of letters telling her side of the story which we get in alternating chapters just when they can clear up the latest bit of confusion. Quite why the original Myfanwy didn't put it all on an iPad isn't clear. Quite why new Myfanwy doesn't read all the letters the first evening …. People in books don't be practical, much.

Remember the way I keep bitching about the way fantasy books put the hero on one end of the map without a goddam clue, and the problem way the hell over on the other side of the map, and how cool it would be if for once the hero was a professional on the spot instead? O'Malley actually got a fragment of that memo, since Myfanwy's real identity is as an impossibly senior member of the Chequy, a cheesily chess-themed secret opera who deploy weird secret powers against other weird secret powers. So the heroine is in the right job and in the right place, but hasn't a clue how to do the job. Two out of three … no, I'm not in a forgiving mood.

The Chequy is a hoot really; even ubiquitous magic doesn't really explain how it could finance its operations, let alone conceal them (though given the real-life abuses of truth, liberty and common decency people ignore every day of their lives, I don't know why I think they'd notice super soldiers disintegrating eldritch horrors on the main street). And if O'Malley had any friends actually working in the civil service anywhere, they must be worn out punching him in the face for his depiction of overpaid bosses living lives of luxury. The Chequy management live more like merchant bankers than any civil servant - Myfanwy had six different cars. And a limo service 

The brand new doesn't-know-what-she's-doing Myfanwy takes to all of this with implausible ease, turning every Freaky Friday moment into another triumph of common sense and innate coolness. Her previous self had piddling superpowers she could never bring herself to use, crippling shyness, and a freakish ability to organise offices; the new model transcends all these limitations without even giving it too much thought; it's like she's her own Mary Sue. Before the book is through she's the scariest thing in the whole organisation. Mind you, half way through the book it becomes clear that the organisation's been corrupted from within, and the only reason she was in a powerful job in the first place was that the bad guys wanted someone timid and useless doing the job; likewise half the reason she gets away with impersonating herself is that half her bosses are on the take to the bad guys and the other half are too divorced from reality to notice anything different about her. Also, because I've got to be reasonable, there is an equally good explanation for the laser-guided amnesia.

Things that all of this is borrowed from; eldritch secret organisation with a school which takes kids with special powers and trains them to be magnificent? Yup. All chick-lit ever? Yup. Sparkly vampires? Kinda. Hunger Games? Surprisingly, no.

Things that no-one else has ever done? Making the big bad enemy which threatens to overthrow all of the Empire ... Belgium. That, I did not see coming.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Paul Hoffman: The Left Hand of God Trilogy

Fantasy is, of course, bollocks. Some of it is very well written, and some of it makes a real effort to imagine- and more importantly explain - a world where mere progress stays still but magic stomps around with its kickin' boots on. But even the good stuff is bollocks. [1]

There is, for the most part, an unspoken compact between the writers and readers of all this bollocks that we will not acknowledge the sheer fatuousness of the whole notion of fantasy. Paul Hoffman decided, because he is so all-fired clever and such as, to take a huge steaming dump all over this unspoken compact, and write himself a trilogy which ripped the ever-loving piss out of the hero's journey which lies at the tedious heart of practically every sequence of such books. This is a bit like announcing that there is no Santa Claus to a dribbling room full of five year olds. On Christmas morning. While setting fire to the tree. With their presents under it. It's just rude. 

Of course, sometimes you have to do rude things. There's a time in everyone's life when they need to appreciate that there's no Santa Claus. But you need to replace that Santa Claus with something better, even if it's only the valuable understanding that there's no such thing as a free lunch. Hoffman, full of the notion that he's got a memo that the rest of us have missed, does not seem to have got that memo. If you're going to rip up the fun of fantasy itself, you'd better be either hilarious or really really good at whatever it is you think you've invented. 

As to hilarity, I have no doubt that Hoffman could write a better blog snarking out the world around him than I do. As to being really, really good; when the second book came out, I had to reread the first book because I couldn't remember the plot or half the characters. A year after I'd read it. When the third book came out, I couldn't remember much of either of the other two. Why bother buying and reading the third book at all, you might ask? Well you might. I'm not at all sure. The vague hope that Hoffman's obvious intellect and stylistic talent might just bring the whole mess together at the last minute, I think.

This did not happen. The first book is pretty straightforward, being the origin story of the main character, the thoroughly unlikeable Thomas Cale. Mad monks bring him up to be the deadliest tactician on earth, in the apparent hope that he'll act as the field marshal of a lunatic plan to kill everyone everywhere. It's a sardonic and somewhat unlikeable take on the well-worn hero's journey, spiced up with a clever, somewhat supercilious narrative voice, and that vague head scratching which comes over any fantasy or SF reader where the narrative is littered with side references to events and places from our own real world history. Is all of this supposed to be happening in some distant future where our own past is a jumbled memory? Will the usual annoying stasis of fantasy world be explained at some point?

Well, no, it won't be. In the second and third books, Hoffman just goes all over the place, digging up various battles from human history (including the fictitious battle of Duffer's Drift, used to train a generation of British army subalterns in the wake of the Boer War) and reframing them to showcase Cale as the military genius of the age. Hoffman's actually quite good at describing battles, which is an uncommon skill, though not quite so good at making me care what happens in them. Cale's destiny is revealed to involve bringing about the end of the world, but I will not be ruining your enjoyment much when I tell you that this does not happen, even a little bit. Everyone's a buffoon, a knave or a self-destructive idiot, with many characters managing all three at once. And there's a terrible disjointedness of incident; epic battles tossed off in a page or even a line, while chapters are devoted to minor skirmishes in the underworld. And the initially intriguing use of names from our own world just starts to seem like a stupid joke carried on long after everyone's stopped laughing (Hoffman is interestingly defensive about it in an afterword). By the time the third book opens up, it's quite clear that this has all been a mannered post-modernist joke; the third volume opens and closes with a cod-serious papers about the dubious origins of the entire manuscript in some future archeological dig through a rubbish tip. Oh dear, I thought to myself, it's going to be like that, is it? I had half a hope that Hoffman might construct a framing narrative which would make it all less stupid, and at least pay lip service to his audience's need for things to make sense and rise above ridicule, but no. And towards the end, I felt like he was losing interest even faster than I was; the war peters out in a half hearted description of the final battles which robs it of all weight, and then the baddies collectively hang themselves before Cale walks off into the sunset for no apparent reason and no apparent end. And that, my dears, was that.

The Left Hand of Darkness is one of those fantasy cycles which takes place in a medieval-ish world where nothing much seems to have changed for hundreds of years but gunpowder is just around the corner. If you like that kind of thing, read KJ Parker. Religion is a horrible malevolent force which blinds people to the humanity of other people and thus evokes more evil than mere amorality ever could. If you like that kind of thing, read just about anything in any genre published in the last twenty years or so. The political landscape is a wild jumble of pastiches of long dead historical polities usually badged with slightly misspelt versions of the names of completely different countries and cities. If you like that kind of thing, read Stephen Hunt. The world is dominated by criminals and by debauched aristocrats who make the criminals seem fastidious; again just read anything published in the last 20 years or so, whether in SF, fantasy or crime.

In short, for any given element of what Hoffman is about, you can read better somewhere else and not have the feeling the whole way through that the author is taking a piss down your leg while staring straight into your eyes daring you to make a fuss about it. 

[1] Which is OK, since most fiction is bollocks, existing as it does to fill that most important gap in our own experience, the need to feel that something, anything, in the world around us makes some kind of sense. Fiction has a plot, where life is just the collision of a myriad human impulses, all unaware of each other, into a chaotic jumble of events. Our own lives are not what we expected, not what we were striving for; but in a book or a movie, for a brief while, everything has a clear and obvious cause, be it ever so stupid. 

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

2 Guns; it's a free market, not a free world

Goddammit. Is just everything an adaptation of a comic book? The next thing I know, I'm going to be sitting in a new version of Pride and Prejudice, and the credits will come up "based on the graphic novel by Jane Austen". Presumably with additional dialogue by Sam Taylor, since being dead's not much of an obstacle to that kind of thing.

At one level, 2 Guns is older than I am, since I can't remember a time when they weren't making movies where two mismatched protagonists would get together and ... fight crime. At another, it's new, since we're living through a revival of the things which seemed fresh back when everything seemed fresh to people now my age. Based on the demographics of the Hidden City fleapit this evening, the studio's gamble may be paying off; I was the only person in the place who'd even been born when this stuff was last fresh, and so for all those kids it probably WAS fresh.

It's a dumb movie which has to trade on the charms of its leads (who are more or less the only people with speaking parts who get out of the movie alive) and a deliberately tricky narrative structure in the first twenty minutes which keeps switching back and forth in time so as to make the motivations of Denzel and Marky Mark more cloudy. You see, they seem at first to be petty criminals trying to rub by on the Texas Mexico border, but then we see that Denzel is an undercover DEA agent - and then <shocker> Marky Mark is undercover Naval Intelligence </shocker> (somehow, of all the things I've pondered when I've thought about Texas, its coastline never prompted me to wonder about its navy, but never mind). So there you are; two undercover agents, trying to set each other up, neither realising the other's secret identity. What a twist, huh? You can see how you'd sidle up on a thing like that, letting it slowly dawn on the audience. Or, you could do this. Guys, as long as you were going to tell everyone the whole plot in the trailer, why bother with the misdirection?

Anyhow, Denzel and Marky Mark eventually kill everyone which the baddies haven't already killed, and ride off into the sunset together, presumably to take up a life of crime, since they've straight up murdered anyone who could conceivably exonerate them from all the crimes they started out the movie being framed for, not to mention all the crimes they actually committed. And the cast needed quite a bit of killing; I haven't seen such a bunch of irredeemable oxygen thieves since the glory days of Walter Hill movies. Many of the cast probably got killed in their youth in those very same movies. It was a regular Oh look! festival. Edward James Olmos, back playing Mexican drug lords when he'd been doing so well in Battlestar Galactica. Bill Paxton, for once only doing the jerk part of his craven jerk schtick. Fred Ward, who used to lead in those kind of B movies (and is by far the best bit of Tremors and Miami Blues) now relegated to playing the authority figure who turns out to be even worse than the bad guys. Robert John Burke - well, except for The Unbelievable Truth he's spent pretty much his whole life on one side of the law or the other (including a spell as Robocop, as if it mattered by that stage in the franchise).

Honestly, it's kind of fine. Denzel and Marky Mark are good together and even on their own they're dependable actors, so it's not like the movie is actively terrible while they're centre screen. The back-and-forth between them, which is the heart of all these dumb buddy movies, feels grounded, and some of it is even funny. The action scenes were visibly shot to a budget (never more so than one sad helicopter all on its lonesome at the end), but most of the time less is more for that stuff anyhow (there's a clever running gag where the lights keep going out during an interrogation; cost nothing, but got a lot done).

It's still a bad movie, like a lot of other bad movies, and it's a bad because of the message it's sending. Like so many other buddy cop movies, the tale unfolds in the Hollywood world where no-one can be trusted and the government least of all. Everyone is lying to everyone else, and everyone's on the take. Denzel and Marky Mark rob a bank, each thinking that they're setting up the other for a fall which will lead to evidence that will bring down a drug lord. Instead they've accidentally cleaned out a CIA slush fund, and find themselves on the run from their own bosses, the Mexican mob, and Bill Paxton's horrible CIA fixer. Everyone's a complete dick, and most of them get schwacked for their pains.

I've said this before, but it bears repeating; this recurring Hollywood mindset is some of the most evil propaganda I've ever seen. It's ingenious, but it's terrible. It works at so many different levels. On the one hand, it props up the capitalist notion that government is just inherently bad, thus bolstering big business's underlying agenda of ensuring that the general population will hate the government and collude in tax breaks and corporate welfare for the Walmarts of this world. At a slightly more subtle level, it makes it look as though the US is a democracy in which people can freely criticise the ruling structures without fear of consequences; but what's actually happening is much more clever; they're creating a world in which people think that the only place the government behaves like criminals is the movies, freeing them up to behave like criminals in real life because no-one thinks it actually happens that way outside the movies. 

And if I could ask for just one thing to be retired, even if we can't fix the rest of what's broken in the world, can we put an end to the tired convention of the heroes happening upon the baddie-in-chief breathing his last, whereupon his hand twitches towards a weapon and they blast the last of his soul out of him? Just once, can they either murder him honestly out of spite or just walk away to let him choke on his own blood? 

Monday, 2 September 2013

Thomas Perry: The Boyfriend

I commented a while back that with Strip, Thomas Perry had written an Elmore Leonard book. Strangely, with The Boyfriend, he got me thinking that way again. The Elmore Leonard thing about Strip was the big cast of people tripping over each other; the Leonard thing in The Boyfriend is the writing style, pared down to the very basics without a wasted word.

Perry went dark for a while there and suddenly there's a new book every time I turn around; this time last year saw sequels to The Butcher's Boy and the Jane Whitefield books, and now there's an unexpected sequel to 2007's Silence, which was OK but not amazing. You don't need to have read Silence to get the full value out of The Boyfriend, and if you read Silence you're not really wondering what's going to happen next to any of the characters; they're both solid little books which stand up on their own. I'm not complaining that Perry wrote another book about Jack Till; I never complain that Perry's written another book. I'm just not quite sure why he did it that way.

I saw it in one of those awkward sized paperbacks, but when I went looking to see if it had come out in more convenient e-book, I saw that it had been out since May as an e-book and it was now crazily cheap. So I bought it that way and read it between Saturday afternoon and breakfast on Monday morning. Partly because e-books are great for a snatched five minute dip into a book when you're stuck some place with just your phone. And somehow the writing lent itself to that; the situations were crisp enough that you could come back to them wondering what was going to happen next, and just dive back in.

As with most of his recent work, it's really a two hander; a good guy just on the edge of the law is hunting down a bad guy way out on the ragged edge of evil. Perry does loners well; one of the things which he does better than most is to sketch loners who actually work. Jack Till isn't some loose cannon who gets results, dammit. He's a thoughtful reasonable man who plays well with others, but chooses to work alone most of the time. So as he bounces around the US trying to find the Boyfriend, he runs into the rest of the US law enforcement tribe, and his interactions with them feel right; he's an outsider who used to be an insider and he works with them, not against them. It feels so much more plausible than all the wild and crazy private eyes of other genre fiction, even though it leaves the text desperately short of wisecracks.

The plot is simple, though it takes a little time to settle into its groove. Someone is killing a succession of escorts in one city after another; they all look very much alike, and it's not clear why it's happening. Till gets hired by the family of the most recent victim and he keeps picking away at the puzzle when the police write it off as an occupational hazard of the sex trade. The reader gets to see what's building a little earlier than Till does, which notches the tension up as the story unfolds; Till doesn't know just what he's dealing with, but we do. 

Inevitably, a thing like this is going to fizzle out a little as the options for everyone start to narrow; after all, the good guy usually wins in these things and it can only really go one way (which is why re-using Till is perhaps a mistake; once you're a series character, you've got an immortality chit; without a recurring character the outcome would be a little less of a foregone conclusion). So the strength is in the middle, as Till struggles to get ahead of the Boyfriend and stop him from striking again. The middle is a genuine nail biter; sure, Till has his immortality chit and the villain's hardly going to get schwacked in the middle of the book, but Perry has got you invested in the other characters and you're rooting for them somehow to get clear of the unfolding mess.

Even though this is one of Perry's flatter recent books, he's still kept that Austen-like knack of concentrating on some minor facet of day to day life and letting the reader see how, for an observant person, it could easily be the difference between life and death. That's Perry's true distinguishing feature as a writer; he fastens on the telling detail. He doesn't have Leonard's uncanny knack for dialogue, but in his own way, he's true to that Leonard genius for giving you all the story with no wasted language. And in a month which has seen us lose Leonard once and for all, it's nice to see that at 66, Perry is still working hard, and we can hope for another surprise next year.