Saturday, February 28, 2015

Top 10 Movies That Are Better Than The Book

There are a couple of lists like this floating around the internet but they're all written by kids who have no idea what they're talking about because they haven't A) seen any films or B) read any books. Also you have to scroll through many screens to get their ridiculously uninformed opinions, whereas to get my ridiculously overinformed opinions you need only look below. You can pretty much stop reading any of those other lists at the point where they claim that Clueless is better than Pride and Prejudice. Ahem. Ok my top 10 or 11 if you want to be technical about it. 

dont trust any list like this with Blade Runner on it because actually the PKD book is really good too
10. Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Azkaban. Pretty feeble source material and a time travelling ending that ruins the logic of the series is turned into a good little film by Mexican auteur Alfonso Cuaron. 
9. The Shawshank Redemption. Even though, technically, there is no actual "redemption" (because Andy was innocent (wd have been a much better film if he'd been guilty)) and despite the fact that Morgan Freeman's VO gets very annoying by the end, this is still much better than the thin on the ground source material by Stephen King. 
8. The 39 Steps. The book is ok, the Hitchcock film is breezy, sexy and fun. It's got a girl and a plane and Mr Memory none of which are in the book. Jorge Luis Borges says in one of his essays that was the first film he'd ever seen that transcended the source material and he is right. 
yeah the guy from 'Wings' stars in Stephen King's 'definitive' version of
The Shining
7. The Shining. Pretty good book. Excellent film. Stephen King was never happy with Kubrick's version so he made his own TV version in the 1990s which is, predictably, a crashing bore. 
6. The Silence of The Lambs. I know not everyone will agree with me on this but I found the book to be gruesome, campy and overbearing, whereas the film is...oh wait a minute...
5. Jaws. Every single person you ever met on public transport in the 1970s was reading this book which isn't actually that great. But those, apparently, were the good old days, now everybody on public transport is playing video games and texting and checking their bloody Facebook likes on their bloody phones. I was on a packed 'supertram' yesterday and there wasn't a single other person on there reading a book. God help us all. Lost my train of...what was I talking...Oh yes, Jaws: strange, clunky, slightly cheesy book with bizarre mafia subplot, 70s style affairs and then some old sea dog prose, but a lean, clever, subtle film (except, obviously, for the scene where Chief Brody gets slapped).
4. Barry Lyndon. Insufferable, long, meandering, silly, anti-Irish book, but somehow Kubrick made a minor masterpiece out of it. He does that a lot does Kubrick. Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket and 2001 could have been on this list too. The duel scenes alone are worth the price of admission...
3. The Graduate. This is a short book that you will still struggle to finish. How anyone thought there was a movie in this material is beyond me. I guess Mike Nichols is a genius or something. 
=2. The Godfather. Have you read the novel? Wow: schlocky, tacky and very much of its time. Written rapidly in the style of Harold Robbins the words kind of assault you with their clumsiness...Puzo, however, carefully rewrote the screenplay with Coppolla, they cast it well, they filmed it well and produced a masterpiece. 
=2 Goodfellas: Henry Hill's memoir has its moments but the film is probably Scorsese's best (and that's saying something). The Copacabana steadicam scene and the editing in the final 10 minutes are cinematic high points of the twentieth century. 
1. Last of the Mohicans. This book is so bad that Mark Twain made hay out of mocking it 150 years ago and it has not aged particularly well since then. The Michael Mann film however, is a classic especially that 8 minute long - almost silent - final sequence. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Audie Awards

I've been shortlisted for a 2015 Audie Award. As usual all praise is due to Gerard Doyle my
audiobook narrator and the good people at Blackstone Audio.

The full thriller/suspense list below. (Good luck to Michael Koryta and James Lee Burke both of whom I sort of know)


Hot Snow; Adapted by John Dorney; Narrated by Various; Big Finish Productions

Dead Six; by Larry Correia and Mike Kupari; Narrated by Bronson Pinchot; Audible, Inc.

In the Morning I'll Be Gone; by Adrian McKinty; Narrated by Gerard Doyle; Blackstone Audio Inc.

The Lost Key; by Catherine Coulter and J.T. Ellison; Narrated by Renee Raudman and MacLeod Andrews;Brilliance Publishing

Those Who Wish Me Dead; by Michael Koryta; Narrated by Robert Petkoff; Hachette Audio

Wayfaring Stranger; by James Lee Burke; Narrated by Will Patton; Simon & Schuster

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Sydney Morning Herald Reviews Gun Street Girl

By Adrian McKinty (Serpent's Tail)
SMH review by Jeff Popple

Irish crime-fiction is currently enjoying something of a golden period with  several outstanding books being produced each year from a range of impressive authors such as Stuart Neville, Ken Bruen, Brian McGilloway and newcomer Anthony Quinn.

In recent years Adrian McKinty has also joined that mix. Born and raised in Northern Ireland, McKinty now  lives in Melbourne, where he writes some of the best Irish crime-fiction currently being produced.

Gun Street Girl is the fourth book in his series about Sean Duffy, a Catholic officer in the Royal Ulster Constabulary during the early 1980s.  Hated by both sides of the sectarian divide, Duffy lives in the middle of a Protestant housing estate, where he has to check his car for bombs each day and deal with the anti-Catholic sentiment of his neighbours.

Following the dramatic events in the last novel, In The Morning I'll Be Gone, Duffy's career is in limbo and he feels even more on the outer.   When he is called to the murder of a wealthy couple, Duffy is initially not too interested, especially when it appears that their son killed them and then committed suicide.

However, it does not seem not quite right and when a few simple inquiries lead to more deaths Duffy finds that he is caught up in something very nasty that involves the security services and a shadowy possibly rogue American intelligence operative.  

This is a  first-rate crime-thriller that commands attention from the opening pages and keeps the reader interested until the end.  The writing is tight and the story is very well plotted...The tale unfolds at a good pace, with McKinty balancing the details of the investigation, and Duffy's frequent drinking, with episodes of fast, violent action and frequent twists and turns.

As usual, the characterisations are very strong and McKinty excels in his depiction of the period and the bleak Northern Ireland townships and the problems of conducting a murder investigation "in a time of incipient civil war": "December. Christmas lights in Carrick. Season of Good Will. Black Santa. Cops taking regular hits from both sides now.  Assassination attempts from the Republicans. Death threats and drive-bys from the Prods. Bricks through policemen's windows."

He also displays a good sense of dark humour and has a quick mordant wit that succinctly and effectively sums up characters and scenes: "Did I describe Deirdre before? You know the type: fake tan, dyed black hair, green eyes, chubby, pretty.  There was a bruise under her right eye but you should see the other girl …"

Gun Street Girl is probably not as good as its predecessor, the excellent In The Morning I'll Be Gone, which won the 2014 Ned Kelly Award, but it is still a terrific read and has set an early high standard for this year's crime fiction.

Jeff Popple is a Canberra reviewer.

Friday, February 20, 2015

An Alternative History Primer

my article on alternative history novels in last week's Guardian. I'm not attempting to be comprehensive here, it's more of a trawl through some of my favourites...
With Ridley Scott’s adaptation of The Man In The High Castle now showing on Amazon and Ben Elton publishing a novel about a time traveller’s attempt to prevent World War 1 the alternative history genre is hotter than ever. The Man In The High Castle was not the first alternative history novel, nor even the first Nazis-win-the-war novel but it is still probably the most influential book in the genre. Anyone who likes historical fiction should be able to enjoy good counter-factual scenarios. It’s fun imagining how things could have been otherwise. As Ray Bradbury showed in his famous story ‘A Sound of Thunder’, one tiny change in the past could have momentous consequences in the future. A “Butterfly Moment” (from the so called butterfly-effect) is the point from which our timeline diverges from the AH timeline. Structuralist historians tend to discount such moments but clearly if Franz Ferdinand’s driver had driven straight on instead of turning right the entire history of the twentieth century would have been different.
           Of course the most successful AH novels are good novels per se with interesting well rounded characters and a plot that moves. Some writers such as Harry Turtledove, SM Sterling, Jasper Fforde and Ken Flint have spent nearly their entire careers writing alternative histories, others such as Kingsley Amis, Iain Banks, Stephen Fry, Stephen King, Kim Stanley Robinson and Philip Roth have merely dabbled in the genre. Wikipedia has compiled a rather daunting list of alternative history novels, here but if that’s too much to contemplate you could do worse than try some of the following:
The first real AH best seller was L Sprague De Camp’s 1939 novel Lest Darkness Fall in which a modern time traveller attempts to prevent the collapse of the Western Roman Empire by introducing steam engines, pencils, double entry book keeping and other exciting innovations.
World War 2 and its aftermath really got the AH genre going in earnest. Spawning many copycats/homages such as Fatherland, SS-GB, The Plot Against America, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, etc. The Man In The High Castle by Philip K Dick is still the best what-if-the-Axis-had-won novel. The butterfly moment was the successful assassination of Franklin Roosevelt in 1934. Set in the early 1960’s the victorious Germans and Japanese have divided North America between them. Juliana Frink, a judo instructor, discovers that there is a resistance movement to the Axis which has been inspired by a novelist called Hawthorne Abendsen. Abendsen, with the help of the Chinese book of prophecy, the I Ching, has written an alternative history novel called ‘The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’ set in a world in which the Nazis lost the war. Subtle, menacing and utterly brilliant this is Philip K Dick’s masterpiece. In a nice touch of crazy Dick believed that he had only dictated the novel which had really been written by the I Ching to prove the existence of other Earths.
Directly inspired by Dick’s novel, The Alteration by Kingsley Amis, takes place in a 1970’s England where the Reformation never happened and where the all powerful Catholic Church is in a cold war with the Ottoman Empire. A talented boy chorister is forced to become a castrato to preserve his beautiful voice, but in so doing his gift as a composer is lost. (Amis believed that sex lay behind all great art.) The fragmented and weak resistance to the church militant is motivated by a novel called ‘The Man In The High Castle’ authored by a certain Philip K Dick who dares to imagine a world in which the Reformation triumphed. Look out for odd cameos from Harold Wilson, Michael Foot and Tony Benn in this neglected tour de force.
The Alteration incorporates some elements of the steam-punk genre, one of the most entertaining of the AH sub-genres. The who-invented-steam-punk debate is a surprisingly vitriolic one that I shall neatly sidestep here, instead I’ll briefly draw your attention to some of the best steam-punk authors. Michael Moorcock and K W Jeter really got things going in the late 1970’s and by 1990 William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s wonderful The Difference Engine saw steam-punk reach its maturity with a novel about the brilliant Ada Lovelace (Byron’s daughter), Charles Babbage and a mechanical computer that achieves sentience Terminator style. Other great books in this oeuvre are Leviathan by Scott Westerfield, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, Mark Hodder’s The Strange Affair Of Spring Heeled Jack (which contains a  very clever butterfly moment) and Neal Stephenson’s fabulously detailed Baroque Cycle.
I’m not sure that books that contain magic really count as AH novels as the butterfly moment is somewhat ill-defined, however if you want to stretch a point Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series could be seen as alternative histories of the Napoleonic Wars and Britain in the 1990s/early 2000’s respectively.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August the very impressive debut novel by Claire North is an interesting spin on butterfly-wing tinkering over multiple lives within the same time-line.  
What about some big really big canvas AH novels? Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt takes place in a Europe that has been utterly devastated by the Black Death and is being repopulated by Muslims from the south and Chinese from the west. The world gets divided up between China and Islam and a dazzlingly imagined alternative Middle Ages is the result. West of Eden by Harry Harrison takes alternative history as far back as anyone ever has attempted, imaging what would have happened if the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs at Chicxulub had missed.
         I hope that you have enjoyed this little run through the AH genre and that I’ve given you some ideas for future reading. Do check out the massive Wikipedia AH list and as usual complaints, suggestions and corrections in the comments below:

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Wolf Hall on the BBC

this was a good scene: Thomas Cromwell showing off his old skills as a soldier to all the beardy dudes in floppy hats
The BBC have been doing costume drama on television for sixty years now so they should be pretty good at it. And the material they've been given to adapt this time is first rate: Wolf Hall & Bring Up The Bodies both of which won Booker prizes. Mantel's books tell the story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn which everybody is familiar with from countless movies, books, school work and TV not much heavy lifting there for the scriptwriters to explain the setting. Wolf Hall was given a generous budget by BBC standards and the directors were able to cast more or less whomever they wanted. All of this wd make you think that the series should be good and certainly the reviews of Wolf Hall in the British and Irish papers have been nothing short of ecstatic. "Utterly brilliant," "superb" "intelligent" and this from Daily Telegraph "the best BBC costume drama ever..." Wow...So by now you've probably twigged that I haven't been enjoying Wolf Hall. You've twigged right. For my money all the papers and reviewers are wrong. Wolf Hall is static, slow, poorly filmed and, I'm sorry to say, poorly cast. The casting is a big problem - far too many characters have speaking roles and they look far too much alike. I kept getting Anne Boleyn mixed up with her sister and her ladies maids and even Jane Seymour (a mistake you do not want to make in real life). And all those similar, pale, actory looking blokes with floppy hats and little beards. . .I've read the books twice and I didn't know who was who half the time. And the lead? Well, I'm allowed to be a little unkind here because everyone else has been so generous about him and he's never going to read this. . .Mark Rylance plays Thomas Cromwell the way Roger Moore played James Bond: he's a game chicken but he's just far far too old for the part. Rylance is 55 and looks older, wiser and more defeated than the canny, spirited, lively Cromwell of the books. In real life Cromwell was in his early 40's when he began to have dealings with King Henry and in his 30's when he began to do wet work for Cardinal Wolsey. This is, famously, how Mantel describes her Cromwell: 

His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and late to bed. 

Cromwell in the books is fluid, smart, mercurial, sexy, dangerous and vindictive. In Hans Holbein's painting he's bold, watchful, brassy and well fed. Rylance just isn't that guy I'm afraid. 

Claire Foy is good as Anne Boleyn and Bernard Hill as the Duke of Norfolk is profane, bold, vulgar, swaggering and brilliant. Anton Lesser, alas, is a big charisma suck as Thomas More and Damien Lewis's Henry isn't very sexy or dangerous either (he simpers, cries and prays way too much) and because of that much of the tension and real fear of the books just isn't there. And, as I've said, the rest of the supporting cast is bland and samey... 
The cinematography is a problem too. Wolf Hall has been shot in the same style the BBC has been doing forever. Establishing shot, close up, relentless scheme of shot/counter shot in the two handers. Wolf Hall could have been made thirty years ago: the camerawork is polite, uninventive, stationary, soft focused and dull. Futhermore the decision to film much of the interiors in what looks like natural light (or a simulated natural or candle light) is an interesting Kubrickian one, but it doesn't quite come off and the interior scenes are drearier than they need to be. And there are a lot of interior scenes. (Remember when they criticised The Phantom Menace for all its tedious scenes of people talking politics on uncomfortable chairs...well here there are endless scenes of people talking politics and God in dimly lit rooms on uncomfortable chairs.) I think if HBO had gotten the rights to this rather than the BBC they would have cast it better, lit it properly, had many more exteriors and filmed everything with more panache. 
But look this is just one person's opinion and I am clearly a voice crying in the wilderness. (I thought the BBC's Sherlock was bollocks & I thought Stephen King's Mr Mercedes was a lazy piece of shit and they both got nominated for Edgar Awards so what do I know.) And I haven't read a single negative review of Wolf Hall anywhere. Watch it and you'll probably like it, and then you should watch the BBC adaptation of JK Rowling's A Casual Vacancy which will probably be right up your alley too. Me? I was disappointed. A great couple of books have been turned into safe, conformist, predictable, middle-class, rather mediocre television that'll play well for Anglophiles everywhere on the BBC, BBC America and PBS.  

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Wolf Hall & Bring Up The Bodies

Thomas Cromwell, badass
I have now watched the first four episodes of the BBC's Wolf Hall...Review to follow but meanwhile my review of Hall & Bodies from a couple of years back...
Let's talk first about the thing that few reviewers seem to want to talk to about: religion. As well as being a clever work of art Wolf Hall is a sustained and subtle attack on the authority of the Catholic church and its role in English affairs. Most reviewers of Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize winning novel have somehow missed this overt agenda but when you grow up in Northern Ireland (with the sixteenth century Protestant-Catholic conflict regrettably still alive and well) you readily see what Mantel is up to. In 1935 Sir Thomas More was canonised by Pope Pius XI and his PR has been nothing less than excellent since, that is until Mantel got on the case. GK Chesterton, A Man For All Seasons, The Six Wives of Henry VIII etc. have all cast More as a witty man of principle attempting to deal with a bullying King Henry and a treacherous Thomas Cromwell. Mantel aggressively subverts this story in a way that only someone who suffered at a Catholic boarding school can. In Wolf Hall More is not the genial pacifist of the legend but in fact is a chilly religious fanatic who gets his kicks from torturing and burning alive those who dared to commit such heinous crimes as doubting the existence of purgatory or translating the Holy Bible into English. Thomas Cromwell by contrast is a smart, liberal, worldly man of the streets who has lived and fought all over Europe. Mantel's Cromwell is a good husband, a good father, a wit, he speaks half a dozen languages and he is tolerant of error. In a now famous passage Cromwell's talents are touched on:

His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and late to bed. 

I wasn't convinced by Wolf Hall when I first heard about it. Do we really need another book about Thomas More and Henry VIII, I asked myself? We've got The Tudors on the telly, we've had several versions of A Man For All Seasons and numerous historical novels about this period in history. We also had this episode drummed into us in school and on half a dozen BBC history programmes. What else new is there to say? Well, quite a lot actually. Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies together form a strident counter narrative to the prevailing view. The history I got in school was the story of a greedy Henry VIII and an evil Thomas Cromwell, wrecking the constitution, cutting womens heads off and destroying the monasteries, rare places of learning and charity. Mantel, as any good defence lawyer will do, goes a bit overboard to show us that Henry wasnt a mad wife killer, didnt subvert the constitution and, she claims, the monasteries were in fact places of corruption, sloth, cruelty, stupidity and pederasty. 
In both books we also get the story of the famous women of the time, especially Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour. Anne is clever but indiscreet, Jane is simple, coy and beautiful. The young Queen Elizabeth is a spiky ginger and Queen Mary is a cold religious prude. But the real heart of these two novels is Cromwell. Mantel's Thomas Cromwell has become one of the richest and most interesting heroes of contemporary literature. It's obvious why this novel is more popular amongst women than men, because the Thomas Cromwell of Wolf Hall is an idealised male lead, impossible for any man to live up to. Whether the real Thomas Cromwell was anything like him I have no idea, but judging from the achievements of his children and wards I'd say that Mantel's take is probably closer to the mark than the villainous coxcomb of A Man For All Seasons. Early in Bring Up The Bodies Cromwell builds a tennis court at his home in London and his game play is described as a strategic, clever and canny, just the way you'd expect it to be. Mantel's Cromwell we come to realize is the true "man for all seasons" and the ball is now firmly in the court of the defenders of Sir/Saint Thomas More to attempt to return Mantel's devastating double volley.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Computer Chess

in any other movie these two would be lucky to get cast as extras but in Computer Chess
they're sort of (spoiler alert) the romantic leads
This is now on DVD, satellite TV, iTunes and Netflix. Most of you will be bored senseless by it, but I LOVED it...
If, like me, you were a fan of Shane Carruth's low budget utterly brilliant time travel film Primer then Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess will be up your alley. Computer Chess is a wilfully strange, satiric sci-fi film set at a computer chess tournament in 1981-2(?) where coders (mostly from MIT and CalTech) pit their chess software programmes against each other in the hope of winning glory and a cash prize. The computer chess ubergeeks discover to their horror that their conference hotel has been double booked by a very 1970’s-style couples therapy encounter group. When the two worlds collide the fun really begins. The opening ten minutes, is according to Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian “audaciously boring”. I didn’t find it boring at all but I like this “audaciously boring” idea - as if the opening act is part of a clever scheme by Bujalski to get rid of the casual viewer early and keep the film for the true fans. To further winnow the audience, except for one very surreal scene in the middle the movie is shot on authentic 1980's style analogue black and white videotape - which I think works really well. I’m not going to spoil Computer Chess by saying any more about it but if you stay with the film to the very end you’ll understand why I brought up the Primer reference. I loved this crackpot little movie. 2013 was a year of plodding witless big budget sci-fi films such as Elysium, Oblivion and After Earth but a little picture like Computer Chess shows you how to do the job right with a sharp script and a clever idea.  

Sunday, February 8, 2015

10 Explanations For The Ending Of Birdman

Do endings matter? Can't we all just watch and absorb a piece of art without trying to impose our own meanings on it? No, we can't. Humans are pattern seeking animals and we want explanations and meanings for things. Even for magical realist movies like Birdman. If you haven't seen Birdman don't read anymore of this.
Still reading? Ok you've either seen Birdman or don't have any intention of watching Birdman or just don't give a crap and all of that is just fine with me...
10 explanations for the way Birdman ended:

1. Riggan could actually fly. Throughout the movie we get lots of hints that his powers are in fact only in his head, but what if they're not?

2. He jumped out the hospital room window in a psychotic state thinking he was Birdman and as he hit the ground he died imagining that he was actually flying and that his daughter was witnessing him hovering with the pigeons.

3. He really died on stage after he shot himself and imagined everything that happened after that in the final second of his consciousness.

4. He really died from the multiple jelly-fish stings in Malibu and imagined the entire movie in the final seconds of his consciousness while dying on the beach (hence that shot of jellyfish: one of the first and nearly the last thing we see in the film).

5. Riggan really died when the bystander talked him down off the building and he changed his mind and jumped again. Everything after that was imaginary as he fell to his death. I'm not so sure about this one because it creates a paradox: his flight over Manhattan seems to have been imaginary because we - the viewers - see that he got to the theatre in a taxi and didn't pay the fare because he thought he had flown there. I suppose its possible that he imagined the irate taxi driver too.

6. In the final scene he only imagined getting out of the bed and jumping out the window (since when do hospital rooms have slide open windows on the 20th floor?)

7. A la St Elsewhere the entire movie takes place in the head of Riggan Thomson's daughter Sam (Emma Stone) who really is in the mental hospital we see at the end of the movie. Sam is in recovery from substance abuse issues and suicide attempts and this is her way of coping: imagining helping her father put on an artistic masterpiece and having an affair with a hot older famous actor.

8. Like #7 above the entire movie takes place in Riggan's head in a mental hospital where he has been committed because of his Birdman hallucinations. 

9. As in #8 above except that Riggan is in the hospital because the spotlight that supposedly fell on Ralph's head actually fell on his head. 

10. This is my favourite interpretation but not the one I actually believe in: Naomi Watts is still playing her character, Diane Selwyn, from David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (who if you'll remember was also a minor actress trying to make it into the big time and who also had a lesbian crush on the female lead). This is going to require some explanation, so here goes. In Birdman Watts's character is simply called Lesley. The female name Lesley was popularised (some even say invented) by Robert Burns in his poem: Saw Ye Bonie Lesley. This is the first stanza of Saw Ye Bonie Lesley:

O saw ye bonie Lesley, 

As she gaed o'er the Border? 

She's gane, like Alexander, 

To spread her conquests farther. 

The 'Alexander' Burns is talking about is of course Alexander the Great who was born the night the Great Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders of the World) burned to the ground. Artemis of course is the Goddess Diana or Diane in the Roman Pantheon and the Romans referred to the Great Temple of Diane/Diana. The name "Selwyn" means one who dwells in the house/castle/temple. So the name Diane Selwyn literally means "Diana the Goddess who dwells in the house/castle/temple". Alexander himself was not only born the night the House of Diana burned to the ground but visited the temple and offered to pay for it to be rebuilt as he saw himself as the reincarnation of the God Apollo who was Diana's brother. Alexander is intimately bound up with Diana and her temple (Diane Selwyn) as is Lesley in the poem. Therefore Lesley = Diane Selwyn, the character Naomi Watts played in Mulholland Drive. In the Lynch movie Diane mixes imagination and reality for the first 4/5 of the film, but in the last reel we see the bitter reality she has left after she has paid to have her ex girlfriend murdered. Birdman could be another one of Diane's fantasies. . .Interestingly Riggan throughout Birdman hallucinates music and sees a drummer but no band, or as David Lynch has one of his characters say chillingly in Mulholland Drive: No hay banda. Silencio.
The one I believe is the real interpretation of Birdman is #1. Alejandro González Iñárritu comes squarely from the Latin American magical realism tradition and in that tradition all such things are possible. Its also the most cheerful ending and who doesn't want a bit of cheer in these troubled times. Other possible explanations & comments below if you please:

Thursday, February 5, 2015

3 Science Fiction Novels

Just before Christmas my better half told me that she had never managed to read a science fiction novel all the way though. She had tried but she'd found the books that had been recommended to her were just not her cup of tea. I did some digging and found out that the books that had been suggested to her in her formative years were the ones I read as kid: Heinlein, Herbert, Asimov, Clarke, Le Guin, Lem, PKD etc. She had zero patience for fantasy of any kind but enjoyed some of the ideas of some of the science fiction novels; however she hadn't been sufficiently engaged by the writing or the characters. This is the problem with science fiction: it is (or was) a genre of ideas and the characters and the words were often mere vectors for communicating these ideas. But science fiction has changed since the golden age and now good science fiction writers have to be good writers too. The plots are more engaging, the characters more fully developed and now there are plenty of female leads and female writers. 
"Ok if you've never read sci-fi why not try this one," I said giving her Wool by Hugh Howey. "Why do they always do the cleaning?" she asked half an hour later. "You'll have to find out for yourself," I said. She read Wool over the next few days. Like me she thought that maybe the last 100 pages could have been tightened but she really liked it. It was her first science fiction novel and now she had a taste for the genre. A taste that I knew had to be treated like a rare orchid. "What's next?" she asked. I thought about The Wind Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi which I had loved but knew that that would kill the orchid stone dead. So next I gave her The Martian by Andy Weir. Despite not being a math or engineering geek like me she loved that one too. "One more," she said so now I've kicked it up a notch and she's reading China Mieville's The City And The City. If she likes that I may have her try Perdido Street Station or her first Philip K Dick but that might be a step too far...It's early days yet but through careful curating I may have brought another convert over to the dark side. Maybe she'll even go see Star Wars VII with me now...
My review of The City And The City, here

Saturday, January 31, 2015

How To Escape From New York

As usual the National Weather Service got it wrong and New York City was not hit with a snowmaggedon, but I've been in New York during 2 of the biggest snowstorms of the last hundred years in 2010 and 1996 and it wasn't pretty. I lived in upper Manhattan from 1993 - 2000 and while I was there I became a little obsessed by the idea of how to escape from the island after an emergency. The first attack on the World Trade Centre and the attack on the Tokyo Subway System convinced me (and eventually my more skeptical girlfriend) that New York was going to be struck again by either a natural or man made disaster and we needed a way off Manhattan if the public transport system went down. Manhattan has a resident population of 1.6 million and with commuters that rises to 3.5 million people on any given day. There is enough food on the island to feed these people for about four days. In a medium or long-term emergency then you better be ready to get off the island if you want to eat. If you've seen Independence Day or Godzilla or Cloverfield or if you've walked around the city during a hurricane or snowstorm you'll know that driving off Manhattan is going to be next to impossible. Traffic is bad at the best of times and in an emergency there is gridlock. Biking however is another story and my plan was to bicycle up to the George Washington Bridge from 122nd Street and escape over the Hudson into New Jersey. I bought a two man tent, a couple of bikes and waited for the disaster that didn't happen. We left New York for good in 2000, but only a year later 9/11 happened and after the initial evacuation they did indeed close the bridges and tunnels to allow emergency vehicles in. During the 2003 blackout gridlock ensured people could not get off Manhattan for a long long time but crucially the George Washington and Brooklyn bridges were open to foot or bicycle traffic so you could walk off if you wanted. 
The best thing to do if you really want to be sure of getting away from Manhattan is to cross the Harlem River in a kayak. The Harlem River connects to the Bronx which is on the North American mainland and from there you can walk to just about anywhere. This is a better route than the Hudson River which is very wide and tidal and if the tide is going out you'll get exhausted trying to cross. The Harlem River is also a better route than the East River which leads to Brooklyn and Queens which are on Long Island (why escape one island only to be trapped on another?). That's all very well you're thinking but how do I keep a kayak in my tiny apartment and transport it to the water? The answer to that is that you go to the nearest REI (or ebay) and buy yourself an inflatable kayak that fits into a bag. You put it in a rucksack and walk or cycle to the water and inflate it with a footpump or a small mobile compressor (the kind you use for inflating airbeds). A collapsable paddle completes this arrangement. The Harlem River is about 150 - 200 yards wide for most of its length which you should be able to kayak across in about 8 minutes. Once you're in the Bronx you can walk out of the city on any of a dozen roads but if you take Broadway and keep heading north you can walk all the way to Montreal if you want. (Trust me I've researched this.) 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Sorry Hitch, Women Are Just As Funny & Probably Funnier Than Men

I think the reason men kept women out of so many occupations over the centuries was the fear that women would do those occupations better than they would. Most men grew up with mothers who were wiser than them, stronger willed than them, more patient than them, harder working than them etc. World War 1 and 2 taught us that women can do every single job in the modern world as good as or better than men. The reason they weren't doing those jobs (riveting, truck driving, etc.) was because men had kept them out. What about the actual fighting of the war itself I hear you ask. Oh sure men having always been good at fighting but again thats only because women haven't been given the chance. What's the #1 box office movie at the moment? American Sniper - the story of Chris Kyle. No woman could surely do that job, right? I guess you haven't heard of Lyudmila Pavlichenko who shot 309 Nazis on the Ost Front including 35 enemy snipers trying to kill her. Pavlichenko was one of 2000 female snipers in the Red Army. You really should know about her. She met FDR. Woody Guthrie wrote a song about her. 
If you look at the list of well governed countries where the rule of law prevails, corruption is minimal and people are generally happier it's always the countries where women are most empowered that are the near the top of every table. Denmark, Norway, Finland etc. And if you look at all the nightmare countries in the world it's always the countries where women are treated like shit. Any place where men with guns (or worse men with guns and holy books) are in charge is always going to be a hell hole. We've known for years that the single best way to move a society out of poverty is to educate girls. Educating them at a school not run by an absurd patriarchal desert religion that worships an invisible sky god probably works even better.
Ok so what has this got to do with funny? We've never allowed women to be funny. Nothing scares men like a woman who is funnier and sharper than they are, so funny girls until very very recently in the history of our culture were told to cut it out. Women have had to sneak funny in the back door. Jane Austen still makes us laugh 200 years later, whereas I've never laughed at Dickens, or Tristram Shandy or Tom Jones or any of those supposedly funny books. Jerome K Jerome and Mark Twain are the only nineteenth century novelists who can hold a candle to Austen in the funny department... Men like women to be beautiful or tragic or poetic or sexy but not funny. And men ran the entire world (and still run most of it) until pretty much yesterday. It wasn't until the age of television that we began to allow and even encourage funny women. But they had to fight tooth and nail to have their voices heard. It's tough to make it as a comic but it was always tougher for female comics who got told that they weren't funny by bookers and agents and club owners and - crucially - male comics. 
In 2007 Christopher Hitchens wrote an essay in Vanity Fair called Why Women Aren't Funny. It wasn't the Hitch's best work and the timing was terrible as Tina Fey's 30 Rock had just started. 30 Rock was the first American successful comedy show with a female head-writer and show-runner since Roseanne. 30 Rock was hit and miss with some very annoying characters but when it was good it was very very good. Fey proved week in and week out that she was sharper and funnier and wittier than the men working on TV. I would love to have seen Fey debate Hitch on this topic, it would have been one for the ages, but she wasn't a God botherer so Hitch didn't engage. 
Fey kicked the doors in for other talented women and its obvious now to any fool that women are just as funny as men. I've said for years that women are generally better writers than men (I'm not going to go into all that again now) but the one area men had left to cling to was in comic writing and now that's going too. Kristen Wiig, Rebel Wilson, Sarah Silverman, Amy Poehler are just about the funniest people on the planet right now. Some people say that the funniest and best written show on TV at the moment is Lena Dunham's Girls. I have a lot of problems with Girls not least because the cast and the girls on Girls come from very very privileged backgrounds and this rubs me the wrong way. No I say that the funniest show on TV at the moment is Broad City now in its second season. Written and starring Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson its also the only comedy show I've ever seen (apart from the great Louie) that accurately portrays what living in New York is actually like: the heat, the dirt, the poverty, the crazies...Broad City finally allows women to deploy every weapon in the comedy arsenal: it's not just witty and clever, it's also vulgar, crude, broad, sexually risque and downright silly. 
Glazer and Jacobson will kick in a lot more doors for women. And now that TV execs (still mostly men) see that women being funny can make them a lot of money you should expect to see a lot more funny women on TV. When the playing field finally levels off in a few years we'll see how ridiculous and dated Hitch's arguments are. 
If you live in America or have access to a US proxy IP address you can watch Broad City, here

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Banged Up Abroad

Cullen Thomas
In a recent interview I was asked about my 'guilty pleasure' in TV watching. I told the interviewer I didn't really believe in the concept of guilty pleasures but then I remembered this blogpost from a couple of years ago...
A long time ago I remember watching Barry Norman on the BBC's old Film programme getting himself worked up about Midnight Express. The prison experiences are indeed very harrowing Norman said, but, he wondered "why should we even care about what happens to a self confessed drug smuggler?" Evidently for Barry Norman drug smugglers were not and could never be a hero of a major feature film. A fortiori then Norman must surely hate the National Geographic Channel's TV series Banged Up Abroad, as the vast majority of its subjects are incompetent or wannabe drug smugglers. I don't share Norman's moral concerns about rooting for a drug dealer as most of the people featured on BUA are generally sympathetic - stupid, yes, but sympathetic.
If I believed in the concept of the guilty pleasure Banged Up Abroad would probably be my current guiltiest squeeze. Every episode begins the same way: a naive Brit or American is in a hot foreign country and is persuaded by a smooth talking new friend/boy-friend/girl-friend into smuggling drugs from said hot foreign country into Europe or North America. Taped up with cocaine or heroin or hash and sweating bullets the scheme invariably goes wrong and the naive Anglo-Saxon gets caught and is thrown into an overseas prison. Actors play the younger version of the subject and they narrate their own story in a studio usually (especially with the Brits) with self mocking ironic detachment. Some of the prisons are so chaotic and corrupt that the subject's life is in jeopardy and they must literally fight to survive from day to day. Other prisons are a little more humane but none of them resemble the gentle Scandinavian prisons which are more about reform than punishment. (A few of the less successful episodes have the subject getting kidnapped by terrorists etc. but this, I feel, is stretching the purity of the format.) Why is Banged Up Abroad so compelling to me? Well, for a start I can easily imagine myself getting banged up abroad, not necessarily because of drug smuggling, but maybe because of an incident in a bar that gets out of hand or a violation of local laws of which I am unfamiliar. The fantasy of escape from a barbaric foreign prison has been a staple of literature for centuries, perhaps millennia (St Peter, I think, pulled a daring prison escape somewhere in the New Testatment) and while very few of the subjects on Banged Up Abroad actually manage to escape, it's not difficult to put yourself in their shoes, wondering if you could do the time and if not how you would try to get yourself out. This idea is so obviously interesting to me that I even wrote a novel all about it called Dead I Well May Be...
If you're only going to watch one episode of Banged Up Abroad try to find the one starring Cullen Thomas who gets arrested for trying to smuggle drugs into Korea with his girlfriend Rocket. Cullen's prison experiences are fascinating: after some initial self pity and suffering Cullen transforms himself through a kind of zen process of meditation and self analysis into a mature and thoughtful young man. For Thomas getting arrested for drug smuggling is, in a way, the best thing that ever happened to him, giving his existence meaning and allowing him to live what Plato called the examined life, or what the poet Novalis felt was the greatest journey of all, the journey inwards into the depth of one's own experiences: "nach innen geht der geheimnisvolle Weg." Thomas used the prison time to become a more reflective and interesting person rather than in his phrase "letting the time use him." He has also written a rather good book about his experiences that can be got on, here.  And surely even Barry Norman wouldn't disapprove of that.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Gun Street Girl

Some more reviews of Gun Street Girl:

First of all thank you to all the amazon and Good Reads reviewers - this book is getting possibly the best reviews of my career from ordinary readers and I'm pretty excited about that. Thank you all.

Now some newspaper and blog reviews (I've removed all spoilers and just left the analysis):

Booklist February 1, 2015
...Duffy is more introspective here, and while the Troubles trilogy featured strong characterization, series fans will appreciate the further insight into the fallout from tragic cases, department politics, and war. As usual, there’s plenty of funny and entertaining territorial battling between the dizzying array of law-enforcement agencies acting in Belfast, and Duffy’s investigative skills seem somehow sharpened by his lost hope.
— Christine Tran

[All four Sean Duffy novels have now gotten *starred* reviews by Booklist. Starred reviews are relatively uncommon and for all 4 books of a series to get starred reviews is  - I think - pretty unusual]

The Irish Times

...Gun Street Girl is another superb satire of its time and place.
-Declan Burke


Gun Street Girl is great; I'm so glad that Adrian McKinty has given readers another novel starring Belfast cop Sean Duffy, whose earlier exploits were described in the terrific Troubles trilogy. Don't miss any of the four….”
—NANCY PEARL, NPR commentator and bestselling author of Book Lust

Irish Independent
...Duffy is a brilliant character and there must be plenty of unresolved crimes, even in a backwater like Carrickfergus, for him to tackle and for Adrian McKinty to turn into further gripping episodes of this terrific series.
-Maurice Hayes


This is so good!....There’s a realistic undercurrent of sour humour in this story of a man who has reached a turning point in a troubled land. But more than that, it’s a hugely entertaining and riveting book, with real elements of the times expertly woven into the storyline to give a gritty flavour of life seen through the eyes of an RUC officer on the line.It’s also the most enjoyable book I’ve read in a long time. Highly recommended. Buy it or borrow it, put it on your MBR list (must be read).
-- Adrian Magson

Bite the Book
...Full of McKinty’s wickedly black humour and brilliantly plotted this just maybe the best book in an exceptional series so far. Sean Duffy has come a long way from The Cold, Cold Ground but it is starting to leave its scars. I was reluctantly happy to see the series finish after three books but I think there is possibly a little more life in this awesome series to come. At least I hope so!
-- Jon Page

...There is a hilarious chapter when Sean tries a dating service (seems no one wants to get romantically involved with a – possibly – shortlived police officer). Gerry Adams is back in a cameo, Thatcher is pulling strings in the background and those pesky Americans think they are the boss...Gun-running, politics, love and murder. You can’t ask for more when it’s Adrian doing the writing. Personally I want more Duffy books, but maybe he has been beaten up too many times for that to be likely. And I was going to say that perhaps it’s not good for me to have all I want, but I felt fantastic reading Gun Street Girl. Just saying
--Ann Giles

finally a nice tweet from the great Ian Rankin on twitter:

My first read of 2015 is Gun Street Girl by - early copy; think it's published next week. Reliably great.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

In The Arts Will 2015 Once Again Be The Year Of The Posh?

in this picture from the Daily Mail article on his class at Eton Eddie Redmayne is #11, Prince William is #20
As a break from the awfulness of the world the Golden Globes is hard to beat: beautiful people getting drunk and winning stuff and being gently teased by the razor sharp Tina Fey - who cd complain about that? I'm a cinephile too and I've seen some of this year's big films and this year's TV has been great. Everything went well at the awards I thought (except for True Detective getting robbed) until the best actor trophy where it was a case of the boy from Eton beating the boy from Harrow. I must admit that I found it hard to root for Eddie Redmayne who comes from incredible wealth and who went to the most exclusive private school in the world (Eton College). The bookies had Redmayne as the favourite to win best actor over Benedict Cumberbatch who also grew up rich and went to the second most exclusive private school in the world (Harrow). We all like to cheer for the underdog so its tricky when the culture offers us a choice between a Cumberbatch and a Redmayne. Redmayne was in Prince William's year at Eton and has lived an incredibly charmed life. There was a nice Daily Mail story about him with the headline How Redmayne Went From Riches To Riches. Many of the hot young English actors you can think of went to private school and from thence to Oxbridge and straight into BBC costume drama and Hollywood. (This year's big BBC costume drama is the much anticipated Wolf Hall starring Damian Lewis, who, of course, went to Eton.) For some reason this rule doesn't seem to apply to Scottish or Irish actors as far as I can see but an alarming number of English actors are very posh indeed. 
Of course you can't blame Redmayne or Cumberbatch or Lewis for the choices their parents made in sending them to school but if you go to Eton or Harrow at the very least you should admit your privilege. Not everyone has to be like George Orwell who went to Eton but who then spent a year living as a down and out "to see how the other half lived." You don't have to do that but it would be nice if you could admit that talent only got you so far and for the rest it was connections, wealth and power. Only 6% of the British population go to private school and only 1% go to boarding school, but those 6% and those 1% dominate every aspect of life in the United Kingdom. Business, the arts and political life are run by a tiny private school clique. The editor of almost all the national newspapers is a private school boy, the men (its always men) who run the universities are private school boys, the man (its almost always a man) who chairs the Booker Prize panel is almost always a private school boy. There are exceptions of course but the exceptions prove the rule. Britain's Prime Minister went to Eton, his Deputy Prime Minister went to Westminster School, his Chancellor of the Exchequer went to Eton etc. etc. Even in pop music, apparently, its the private school types who rule the roost. Yes, its true that often talent will always rise to the top like the cream in the milk but its going to be a harder slog if you went to a comprehensive school, or if you're the wrong body shape, or if you're a working class woman, or if, God help you, you have a Brummie accent...
Redmayne did a good job playing Stephen Hawking, almost as good a job as, er, Benedict Cumberbatch did in the BBC TV version 10 years ago . They both seem like thoroughly nice chaps and that's the problem with chip-on-shoulder class war rabble rousing: Redmayne and Cumberbatch are probably good eggs; my point however - such as it is - is that a working class actor could have done just as good a job as either of them but in today's climate they are unlikely ever to be given the chance to show it. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

This Is What The Bottom Of The Slippery Slope Looks Like

censored pigs in a Malaysian edition of the New York Times - the future...
The New York Times, The Daily Mail and the paper I write for The Melbourne Age all refused to show the new cover of Charlie Hedbo magazine because they were afraid it might offend some (a very small minority I reckon) of their Muslim readers. It's just a drawing of the Prophet Mohammed crying, that's all, but apparently that's considered offensive by some people and so the Mail, the Times and the Age all decided not to publish the cover despite the Hedbo image being the most important news story of the day. The Mail is the biggest newspaper site in the world, the Times is America's paper of record and the Age is my employer. I expect better of them and I think they've gone down a very slippery slope. (Here's a good list of those media outlets on the side of freedom and those on the side of cowardice.) 
Over the last 5 years I've happened to travel to Malaysia quite a lot. Beautiful country Malaysia, nice people, great food, but maybe not the place I'd go to to look for the future of free speech. The pic above is from a Malaysian edition of The New York Times where showing the image of a pig is considered offensive by some people. Malaysia is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious state with no laws about showing or not showing pigs in newspapers, but in recent years various Imams have demanded that images of pigs and pork products be pulled from newspapers and advertisements because they are against Islam. Government agencies while not banning pigs have warned printers and publishers about showing images of pigs. It's no surprise to learn that the movie 'Babe' was pulled from cinemas in Malaysia. 
A fortiori...In what is apparently not an April Fool's story (because it's January) it has been reported in the Evening Standard and Daily Telegraph that Oxford University Press will avoid showing images of pigs in their children's literature. This from the Telegraph version of the story: 

The Oxford University Press has warned its writers not to mention pigs, sausages or pork-related words in children's books. The existence of the publisher's guidelines emerged after a radio discussion on free speech in the wake of the Paris attacks. Speaking on Radio 4's Today programme, presenter Jim Naughtie said: "I've got a letter here that was sent out by OUP to an author doing something for young people."Among the things prohibited in the text that was commissioned by OUP was the following: Pigs plus sausages, or anything else which could be perceived as pork.

The OUP later admitted that the report was true. The New York Times, Mail and Age have taken the first steps down the slippery slope along with the OUP (another one of my former employers) to the blacked out image of porkies above. Hope you enjoyed this doleful glimpse of our censored future...

Monday, January 12, 2015

Sean Duffy #4 - The Irish Indy's Verdict

Sean Duffy #4 "Gun Street Girl" was reviewed by Maurice Hayes in the Irish Independent newspaper (Ireland's best selling broadsheet) below. I've removed major spoilers by making the text white at those points (highlighting the text will reveal it if you really want to know). Maurice hated The Sun Is God but he seems to have enjoyed Sean Duffy #4:
So. Sean Duffy is back, having saved Margaret Thatcher from destruction in the Brighton hotel bombing, reinstated in his rank as detective inspector in the RUC, but marooned in a promotional and career backwater as one of the few Catholics in the force, a suspected maverick whose credentials as a company man are doubted by his superiors. He is, however, back as the old Sean Duffy, ruefully wiser and aged by lifestyle, a music buff with catholic tastes in art and literature far outside the scope of the average plod, not to mind his familiarity with Occam's Razor and his taste for high-class cocaine and single-malt scotch whisky.

Adrian McKinty is back, too, with the same funny and perceptive commentary on social conditions and an acute awareness of political realities in the Belfast of the eighties which locates a fast-moving narrative in the context of recognisable historical events, or fictional allusions to others.

So we have as reference points the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Iran-Contra scandal and a spooky Oliver North type figure, the theft of missiles from Short Brothers, the death from drugs of a Cabinet Minister's daughter, a toffy clique that looks like the Bullingdon Club, and the infamous helicopter crash on the Mull of Kintyre which decimated the Northern Ireland intelligence establishment.
The story starts with an open-and-shut case - a spoilt and disaffected rich boy who has dropped out of university, shoots his parents as they watch television and then jumps over a cliff, leaving a written confession.

It is all too neat, too professional and cold-blooded for an angry boy. Duffy sets off on a trail which takes him far outside his comfort-zone, to cover-up in the higher reaches of the British establishment and to American intelligence adventurers who may be located very close to the White House.

In the course of the inquiry, conscious that he is going nowhere in the RUC, Duffy is headhunted for a bigger game by MI5 in a rather unusual recruitment procedure. However, a fortuitous injury sustained while trying to settle a domestic dispute has him refused passage on the Chinook helicopter which carried so many of his colleagues and prospective colleagues to their deaths.

Lucky for him. Lucky, too, for us. Duffy is a brilliant character and there must be plenty of unresolved crimes, even in a backwater like Carrickfergus, for him to tackle and for Adrian McKinty to turn into further gripping episodes of this terrific series.
Thank you very much Mr Hayes! And since I have your attention gentle reader I might just point you towards the reviews of Gun Street Girl which have been very strong so far, here. And to some very perceptive blog reviews here, and here.