Saturday, 26 April 2014

No sacred cows here, I review "Apocalypse Cow" by Michael Logan

I read the book at a bit of a run but without being utterly wowed by it, which I guess makes it an easy reading page turner. 

As a book it reminds me of two films, the early Ben Stiller classic "There's something about Mary" and Simon Pegg's "Shawn of the Dead." 

In common with Ben Stiller's grosser film comedies, it has moments where you think "I can't believe they just did that" There is a scene or motif that makes you smile or laugh while you cringe at the imagery. The effort to deliver a visceral shock with a wry grin can be a little hit and miss at times. On the whole it works but it lacks the subtle satire of the discworld novels. This is a book that drops its trousers and waves its humour in the reader's face. 

In common with "Shawn of the Dead" it has a cast of characters who on the whole are the architects of their own demise through over developed stupidity glands. That can work, but it means the book's few attempts at poignancy don't quite work as well as they might. It takes a lot of internal reflections by characters on the well concealed virtues of their lost family members before we are exposed to the grieving scene, but this amounts to telling us the people are entitled to grieve rather than showing us convincingly why they grieve. 

OK I hear you say, it's a comedy not bloody Hamlet cut some slack here and this is true. But even in comedy I felt there should be more consistency of purpose or smoothness of transition between mortal grisly peril and the amusing sex obsessions that seem to infect everybody (not just the crazed animal zombies) when facing a near death experience. 

The other points of plotting concern are the mismatch between the characters' priorities and the scale of the cataclysm that has overwhelmed the UK. When not musing about "oh this is going to be bad for the economy" or "when can I rub my face in her breasts" the central thrust of the story is the protaganists' desire to reveal in a world exclusive scoop the conspiracy story behind the bovine apocalypse. To my mind this was like watching the passengers painstakingly fretting about the positioning of the deckchairs on R.M.S.Titanic. It just didn't seem to me like anything anybody would have cared about. But then I am not a journalist by profession while the author, Michael Logan is, so he is probably better placed than I to judge what thoughts would run through a journalist's mind as a government triggered Ragnorak drew near. 

So, if I were to pick two weaknesses which each knocked a star of my enjoyment factor, it would be 
a) the slightly jolting gear changes of plot/pace/motivation which, for me at least, created discontinuity.
b) the reliance of the humour on shock factor. It felt to me a bit that if we're not sure its funny enough let's add extra blood and gloopy bits, take off more clothes, and throw in a bit of bestiality or cannibalism. 

But setting aside the agonising over why I am not giving it 5 stars or 4 stars, I am giving it 3 and that means, as it says on the tin, I liked it. It's a good read, not too taxing but with some entertaining images.

I have to confess my favourite character was the principal villain, Alistair Brown. I'm a sucker for a smooth talking smarmy murderer, but then maybe that's just my grimdark roots showing through.

I review "I am Legend" 1954 Sci-fi classic by Richard Matheson

I find myself strangely bookend-ed. 
My last book began with a forward by Stephen King and this one ended with an afterword by Stephen King. 
My holiday month began with an apocalyptic book about a parasitic plague like pathogen forming a symbiosis and a new form of life on Earth (The Girl with all the Gifts by Michael Carey) and ended with this book with such striking parallels that one felt the one book must have influenced the other, though I have read them in reverse chronological order. 

My path first crossed this story in 1971 when, for reasons best known to herself, my mother took me her then 8 year old son to see "The Omega Man" a cinema adaption of Richard Matheson's book and starring Charlton Heston as the last man alive. It is one of only three films I remember from my childhood, the scary people with the white eyes and the back crosses for pupils haunted my nightmares for years. I didn't understand it, but it still terrified me. Memories of that bleak film put me off seeing the more recent Will Smith vehicle from the same source material.

The fact that I remember little of the plot of the film is probably no bad thing, as the few bits I can recall show the film sharply diverging from the book.

The book itself, bought and read in a day, is a compact but efficient story which sets a high bar for every apocalyptic nightmare vision that follows it. Here we see the dead rising, call them zombies call them vampires, they are still the scary risen dead, they are still infected and it is an infection that none can escape - save our hero Robert Neville.

We meet him combatting the boredom, the guilt and the constant danger of a life where every other living (and I use the word advisedly) creature wants him dead. A life where he must live in a self constructed prison, foraging for survival by day, hiding behind walls and music and drink by night. The story unfolds in a series of snapshots spread over three years from 1978 to 1979, which at the time of writing (1954) must have seemed magically modern and far away. Those of us looking back with hindsight on that decade of beige and flares might think Robert Neville's alternative a better one to have lived through.

The book tests and probes one man's response to this awful situation, the moments of purpose, flashes of motivation, for example his pursuit of a chance of a pet as companion, interspersed with despair. The desperation not unlike Tom Hanks in Castaway bemoaning the lost ball with a painted face that had been his only excuse for conversation.

The parallels with "The Girl with all the gifts" come in two ways. There is the scientific investigation into the cause of the disease. Both books feature a scientific mind experimenting in a bid to understand and to cure the fate that has befallen humanity - the loving detail in the description of the microscope technology of the respective times I found particularly resonant.

But in both books science does not lead to a cure, rather than a discovery of a symbiosis of parasite and victim that hints at a new way forward. But it is a new order in which the existing human species are not just redundant, or obsolete, but facing extinction. It is in how their respective protaganists respond to this situation that both books leave us a germ of hope. 

Don't get me wrong, these are very different books in so many ways. I rate Carey's book higher as it has had the chance (and taken it) to deepen and extend the kind of premise (revolutionary for his time) of Matheson's book. But I felt as though I were reading two different designers responses to the same basic brief. 

And, having seen the film at 8 and read the book four decades later, I can definitely and belatedly say - as we have all always known - the book is better. 

Sunday, 20 April 2014

My Review of the "Gunslinger" by Stephen King

I stood in Waterstones the other day, doing my bit for bricks and mortar bookshops and trying to work out which of the huge range of books to commit my shrinking money and cramped bookshelf space to.  As a recent frequenter of fantasy online forums (books dammit! I mean books!) this first instalment in Stephen King's fantasy opus had crept in from my peripheral vision to a central place in my awareness. It seemed a safe bet, not just a good read, but something of a literary education by all accounts.  I had read its iconic opening line in a dozen forum threads and heard of the epic scale of the Tower series, so I was ready to plunge in.

Unusually for me, and perhaps for others, I read the forward and the introduction first and with careful attention to detail.  No mere paragraph of acknowledgements here but more an old fashioned apology - that is it say an explanation and defence that begs no forgiveness.

I have read Steven King's "on writing" and also some of his more well known horror writing and rarely has my reading of a book gone so accompanied by a knowledge (albeit sketchy) of the author's method, motivation and intention.

The Gunslinger is an image that sets out to become an epic.  Knowing the inspiration it draws from a cinema showing of Sergio Leone's "the Good the Bad and the Ugly" as a reader you can see what majesty of vision King is striving for.  The desert must be bigger, the walk longer, the time slower, the mountains taller.  For a relatively short book it strives to be BIG.  To a large degree it succeeds. The mysterious chase at the spine of the novel, like an Arthurian quest for the holy grail, transcends all other considerations of plot.  The opening line is also the book's synposis "The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed."    

The homage to Leone's work is tangible from the outset, the other great influence that King claims, in The Lord of the Rings is less obvious.  The spaghetti westerns give the story its visual context, the Lord of the Rings gave its its scale. A sense of enormity which unfolds in the book's denoument.

Along the way to that puzzle of a final confrontation we meet digressions and back story and hints at some strange world related to but dislocated from our own.  The writing is powerful and spare, at times mystifying. The gunslinger is an enigma even to himself, he has a destiny unknown to him, or to his foe, the Man in Black, and there at the heart is my only problem with this enthralling extended piece of high quality writing.  Neither the eponymous hero or his enemy can know where this story is going because the author didn't.

Steven King's method, as I understand it, is to explore situations into which he has thrown characters and to let the story unfold from there following it as much as leading it.  He is the war-reporter on the front-line with the troops sending a daily copy home, rather than the historian a decade later assembling a coherent narrative of known events.

As a reader I am carried by the quality of his writing, the tantalising glimpses of the back story,    the sense of majesty.  However, without wanting to prejudge the rest of the series, there is a risk that he may bite off more than even he can chew.  Like the TV series "Lost" a captivating style and an enigmatic puzzle can hold interest and enthusiasm. but it begs for the release of a fitting finale.  It demands an end that matches in grandeur (you might say justifies) the means by which we got there.

I might have felt differently if I had not read the forward or the introduction, or "On writing."  I might have believed there was already a puzzle in this plot known to the author but buried too well and too deep for my humble eyes to see it. But if I had believed that I would have fooled myself.

This is beautifully written book by a man in love with beautiful writing.  But it is birthed and written from that single initial image, not built upon foundations as deep and internally consistent as Tolkien's epic.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Captain America 2 - the second world war grows up! (spoiler free review)

The advantage of having a daughter with a keen interest in Marvel films, is that there is no risk of me seeing them in the wrong order.  She has worked out that the schedule of filming laid out will last until she is 33 years old (and she is only 19 at the moment).

Today it was my turn to see Captain America 2, or as I like to think of it Captain America 2.5 since the first avengers film neatly bissects the timeline between CA1 and CA2.  What is clear is that some great mind (or minds) has charted out a two decade vista of Marvel films that will enthrall us. The apollo space programme took less time - and probably cost less money.  So, in this film there are seeds planted and threads picked up for those willing to see them.  This is not a series, so much as a web of films which puts me in mind of Terry Pratchett's discworld novels for its intersecting story lines and cast of co-equal principals.

I will endeavour to be spoiler free. However, I should warn all those of you waiting in the UK for the next Agents of Shield series (please don't ask me which number - I must confess to having already lost count), it would be best to see Captain America 2, before accessing agent Coulson and his hardy band.

So what does Captain America 2 bring to the mix.

Well the first film was set predominantly in the safe territory of world war two where good was good and bad was bad and everybody knew the difference.  Even so, the film had to invent a new evil entity since the Nazis weren't nearly nasty enough.  Hence we had Hydra and a colourful red skinned warrior who was the first unfortunate result of Captain America's Ultimate soldier treatment going wrong.   (The second being I understand the incredible hulk.  The red skin and green skin make for a concept as colourful and as tasty as the sauces that came with our Saturday night Indian take away).

In the second film the action is all contemporary, that is to say as contemporary as you can be in a world which openly accepts the existence of super heroes and has just survived an alien invasion orchestrated by a God.

The action is fast paced, opening with a hostage rescue mission during which agent Romanov insists on listing suitable girls for Rogers to date.  When he suggests she concentrates on her mission she blithely asserts "I'm multi-tasking."  Captain America's love life stalled by over half a century is a recurring theme at one point he excuses any failings perceived or real with the observation "I am 95" and for a near centurion he does look pretty hot - or so I am reliably informed by those who should know.

The dialogue is sharp and spare, the scenes well cut.  It is 136 minutes long, but it doesn't feel like it.  At one point our heroes have to retrieve some item locked in a secret compound with many guards and steel doors, but we are not shown how that happens, a simple line "no problem" is enough to let us know it can and will be solved and sure enough the artifact arrives on perfect cue to raise the tempo.

However, there is a darkness beneath the sharp lines and ready action.  The enemy here is hard to perceive and Director Fury's advice to Captain Rogers to trust no-one is sound.  This is a world where everybody is in such a hurry to pack the best protection possible, they have lost sight of whose finger might end up on the trigger.  Like people carrying a weapon for protection, such as Fury's grandad who carried a loaded magnum as proof against a mugging, you can never know whether somebody might turn the weapon on you. And in the same way the surveillance culture comes under scrutiny as the film questions who might gain access to what information and to what purpose.  If Big Brother is watching you, and he's got a big gun, who's watching him?

And in the midst of this, Rogers is the moral throw back to an earlier age of simpler values facing simpler threats.  A soldier left questioning if following orders is still right or not.  And to keep him going there is the morally compromised Agent Romanov, battling her own checquered past while engaging in a banter with Captain America that makes you hope and wish they don't fall into the "just good friends" trap.

My quibbles with the film - the points where suspension of disbelief was required ?  Well, I could just about cope with the violation of several laws of physics, mainly forgetting that no crash happens in slow motion and certainly not slower than a man can run.  When a thousand tons of steel fall from a great height you get a thin smear of metal dust and slime that no-one walks away from, rather than a coherent whole.

My other gripe is when the sensitive electronic equipment on a superslaying drone machine is dangled from what seems to be some steel threaded net sack below the vessel.  It is a sighting as stupid and as vulnerable as nature's placing of a man's valuables - who knows, maybe the electronics needs a cooler temperature to operate in.  Certainly our heroes know where to kick and to kick hard!

Who are the bad guys in the film? well, let me put this way.  You may know how Nazi Germany had a spectacularly poor way of choosing the code names for its secret operations relying on none too subtle references to Norse mythology.  Like, for example, their radar research went under the code name of Heimdall the far seeing guardian of Asgard, not too hard for the guys at Bletchley park to crack what that was all about!  Well in the same way a group named Hydra! kinda hard to kill, two heads better than one and all that - just saying.

And then there is the winter soldier. When your hero is as tough as Steve Rogers, you need somebody equally tough to stand up to him and the winter soldier does not disappoint.  Wearing a face mask scarcely less obscuring than Jason Vorheis he strides through the smoke with an ominous menace walking out of a dark past into a brutal present, but who knows with Marvel films mapped out for the next umpteen years his future, along with every other dead guy's is surprisingly bright.