Sunday, 27 July 2008

Murder Most Fab by Julian Clary

Published by Ebury Press, priced £16.99 in hardback. I gave this to a friend who is a big Julian Clary fan, then decided to read it myself when another copy was sent to the office. You just can't ignore its bright pink and yellow cover!
As you'd expect, there is a lot of JC in the lead character, Johnny Debonair and JC makes a lot of sharp, keenly-observed comments on the nature of celebrity through Johnny. But I really took to Johnny and loved the special relationships he had with his delightful if dotty mother (a very good sport!) and fabulous, long-suffering grandma. It was a delight to read the varied poetry Johnny shared with his mother from boy to manhood and to watch the fond, close relationship with his grandmother grow from strength to strength.
Of course, it's obvious from fairly early on what part his friend Catherine, initially a nurse with a very unorthodox way of caring for her geriatric patients, will play in Johnny's life and later troubles and the story does fall away, I feel, in the last third or so of the book. However, it is an enjoyable story on the whole, with a lot of pathos as well as the humour you's expect.
I was particularly moved by Johnny's whispered words of "remember me" on saying farewell to each of his lovers and clients and I certainly will remember to look out for Julian Clary's next literary contribution.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Batman: The Dark Knight

Now, I know this is The Reading Room but I thought I would write something about this, (without giving any of the story away!). As everyone knows, this film has had a lot of hype, particularly because of the death of Heath Ledger, (who, incidentally, is tipped to get a posthumous Oscar for this role); and I have to say that I was a little dubious about whether it was as good as everyone was saying, (after my monumental disappointment at the Indiana Jones film). However, my fears were quickly put to rest for the first hour or so of the film. All the performances were excellent, the story/script was very well written and the visual effects were, of course, stunning.

But, (and for me, in light of the fact that the first one was awesome, it is a big "but"), after that, the story (and the film) seemed to go down hill a little. There were at least three occasions where it seemed like the film should have ended but it kept carrying on. The tying up of the Harvey Dent/Two Face story line just seemed to be tacked on and, by the end of it, I was quite relieved that the film had finally finished. Some elements of the story just seemed to have been added to make it more exciting or were unnecessarily convoluted and the scenes between Batman and the Joker were too short.

However, Heath Ledger's performance was indeed, to quote one newspaper, "mesmerising," (although maybe a little bit over-rated) and far superior to Nicholson's attempt, as was Aaron Eckhart's performance as Harvey Dent (but not as Two Face. There just wasn't enough anger and insanity in the performance.). Although I don't think it was a good as Batman Begins, it is certainly one of the best Batman films and Christian Bale is definitely more convincing as Bruce Wayne/Batman than any of the other actors who have played him. But, while I am glad that I paid my £12 to see it first, and have a shiny new poster for my walls, I think it could have been so much better.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Heat and Dust

by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Published by Penguin

I knew the name of this author long before I'd picked up any of her books. She was a writer who collaborated on the famous Merchant-Ivory adaptations of Forster's Howards End and A Room with a View - films I have a lot of time for. And, contrary to some literary criticism, this book does have similarities to A Passage to India; in terms of its setting, its theme of 'the journey' and suppression - both political and sexual.

I'm not sure if I enjoyed this book, but I read it a couple of weeks ago and certain descriptions and ideas have stayed with me.

I think it might be dated. The main character is a strong but awkward English woman, a scholar of some kind, trying to find evidence of her shamed great-aunt, who had travelled to India in the days of Empire. The 'present' is the 1970s, however, which creates extra distance for the reader. The narrator is trying to understand her aunt's past and the times in which she lived. I'm trying to figure that out too (as the reader these are obviously ideas that the author wants me to think about) but I'm also having to consider the 1970s, a time long gone and as strange to me now as the 1920s were to the protagonist.

Jhabvala was writing in India, where she lived with her husband during the 1970s, about the things she saw and heard - and these are the sections which work best. The small details in characterisation have a definite ring of truth about them.

The book can't help when it was written, but it is telling that this 'classic' feels strangely out of time. The Western (the author is German) viewpoint of British rule in India was different then (1970s) to how we see it now. And this is where the problem lies.

Jhabvala has been criticised for depicting a rather traditional, stereotypical view of the Raj period, and I kind of agree with this. The shame of it is, her excellent characterisation and story-telling in the present are also tainted with these out-dated viewpoints - you can't quite get past the idea that the narrator is just another tall, educated, Western observer of 'these people' and their 'exotic' customs.

The great-aunt's dilemma and its resolution doesn't feel real at all. The present day narrator's journey and search feels more real, but by the end I was wondering what the point of it was. If the picture the author paints of the present (1970s) India is a detailed sketch, created in the open air with a full view of her subject, the picture she paints of the 1920s is a stilted chocolate box oil on canvas, conceived in a dark studio.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Once Upon a Time in the North

by Phillip Pullman

Published by David Fickling Books

Phillip Pullman is brilliant and anyone who says otherwise should be punched on the head. I don't love all of his books, though: I've tried a couple of times but just can't get with the Sally Lockheart series. His books for younger children are wonderful, however, and I would strongly recommend that everyone in the world, of any age, read I Was a Rat.

His Dark Materials is also a must-read and way surpasses The Narnia Chronicles in the 'classic' stakes. Like all fans of the Lyra stories, I want more and that is what we have in Once Upon a Time in the North.

It starts slowly and features a young Lee Scoresby and his daemon Hester on a wild-west type adventure. They arrive in a lawless town, where shady characters are plotting dark schemes. It reads like an old-fashioned western (the title is an obvious reference to the classic Once Upon a Time in the West) and I reckon Pullman always had a hankering to write something in that genre. He makes the most of that opportunity here, especially with the exciting shoot-out finale.

I'm not sure this prequel adds anything to our understanding of Lyra's world but we do get to meet a couple of old friends from the trilogy and I was very happy to see them again. I hope Phillip Pullman continues to add more beautiful miniatures to the Materials canon, perhaps next time giving us a noir thriller with a young Lord Asriel, or a gothic mystery with Seraphina.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Mouse Guard

by David Petersen

The gorgeous artwork is just one of the reasons to get seriously into Peterson's Mouse Guard series. It's fab! Unfortunately his publishers are at the moment in some kind of pickle, and the second series has been stuck at issue 3 for a few months. I really wish they'd hurry up and get it together.

Dan introduced me to the book when it first came out last year. They are little paper-back editions, eight inch square, full colour, and feature the adventures of a brave, intelligent colony of mice. The stories focus mainly on three characters: Leiam, Saxon and Kenzie, who are mighty warriors facing deceit in the first issue, then winter famine and attack in the second. At the end of issue three, we are currently stuck wondering whether they will escape the clutches of a hungry owl...

There is a collected edition of the first story and it looks beautiful - autumnal gold being the main theme of the cover. The second issue has a winter theme and the little mice, their mediaeval houses and their forest habitat looks timeless and iconic against the white falling snow.

I couldn't say I was a comic book fan (with one obvious exception!). I've become educated in comics and have a lot of time for talking about them, but I would now have to call myself a Mouse Guard fan. What else could you call someone who has the (excellent) PVC figurines of the brave little guys displayed on her bookcase?

Jamaica Inn

by Daphne du Maurier

Published by Virago

Dan went off to horrible Camden one day to go to his local comic shop and came back with a gift for me - a six-pack of Daphne Du Maurier novels, an apt choice given Dan's birthplace. I had read Rebecca the previous year and sort-of enjoyed it. I love the Hitchcock film - it's definitely in my top three favourites - but the book is not so easy to love. It's full of dialogue and if there's one thing Daphne du Maurier is not good at, it's dialogue. But I was very pleasantly surprised when I tucked into Jamaica Inn. It's a fantastic, ridiculous romp, full of moody descriptions of Bodmin Moor and of course the Inn itself.

If Rebecca is du Maurier's Jane Eyre, then this is her Wuthering Heights. It fits exactly with the Gothic tradition: tragic heroine Mary loses parent and must travel miles to unfriendly relatives and spooky house which holds a secret only she can uncover. It runs exactly to formula but with brilliant results. The villain, Joss Merlyn, is violent, moody and yet strangely alluring to Mary. Luckily he has a younger brother with some of the same traits (but less violent) that she can fall for.

The plot storms along with gusto and I found I literally couldn't put the book down. I read most of it on the tube, going to and from work, and luckily there are very long escalators in tube stations, enabling me to read just a bit more. The book is dark and over-blown, especially in its depiction of the villains, but all the more enjoyable for that. But it is the writing which I found most surprising. Daphne du Maurier can really set a scene, particularly when she is describing her beloved Cornwall. The opening of the novel depicts a muddy, menacing race in horse and carriage which grabs the reader roughly and pulls them along with it:

It was a cold grey day in late November. The weather had changed overnight, when a backing wind brought a granite sky and a mizzling rain with it, and although it was only a little after two o' clock in the afternoon the pallor of a winter evening seemed to have closed upon the winter hills, cloaking them in mist...The wind came in gusts, at times shaking the coach as it travelled round the bend in the road...

I wish I had read this book when I was a teenager. I think I would have given it the same reverence and love I give Jane Eyre or Frankenstein. It has the same teenage fervour that these books have, the same thick, black italics in the writing style and the same monstrous, low-angle descriptions of its setting and characters. And, like those books, it's best read on a grey afternoon in November, with the rain beating on the window and the possibility of thunder not far away.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

The Atomics

by Mike Allred and Laura Allred

Published by AAA Pop Comics

Mike Allred's The Atomics evokes the garish spirit and feverish intensity of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee's Marvel Comics heyday, while bringing a surreal, dreamy logic to proceedings.

The plot is straightforward but lively: a group of teenage freaks find their unpleasant mutations eventually give way to shiny new powers, and they kind-of, sort-of decide to form a super-group. Complications inevitably ensue, as the Atomics come to terms with their new powers, an embittered old friend returns to hound the team, and spacemen and monsters drop out of the sky. But the plot's not really what's going on here: Mike's work tends to use plot as a hook on which to hang audacious set-pieces, nifty bits of character business and, crucially, his trademark low-key musings on the human condition. There's less of the latter than we've seen elsewhere from Allred, but themes of fame, relationships, family, sex and love can clearly be discerned behind the gonzo, four-colour trappings.

There's also an evident love of Lichtenstein and his pop art kin. While the panels effectively move the story along, each stands alone as a quasi-satirical, archly overblown decorative piece, ripe for individual consideration.

Like the best artists (and especially, now I think of it, like the aforementioned Iris Murdoch), Allred wants to do interesting things while having fun. The Atomics can be read on any number of levels: as an affectionate swipe at superhero excess, as a string of goofily engaging pop art asides, as a philosophical discourse on the nature of time, and love, and God; as a superhero sitcom (this edition made me laugh more than any other comic in recent memory), as a callback to the oddball "anything goes" plots of the Golden Age - and as a semi-ironic review of the comics of the 1960s, and the dawn of Kirby and Lee's vibrant, pretentious, witty Marvel Age. But for all its sophistication and subtext, The Atomics' most resonant and abiding element is the unabashed love of the form which hums from every page, and it's this honest excitement which will bring me back to Allred's deceptively straightforward world time and time again.

Under the Net

by Iris Murdoch

Published by Penguin

I was in a real Iris Murdoch place when I picked up this orange-banded Penguin paperback in my local Oxfam. I'd read The Unicorn and The Sea, The Sea as well as John Bayley's moving biography of his wife, Iris. The cover, despite the lovely vintage stripes, was uninviting, as was the blurb.

I feel that Murdoch's novels are mis-sold by her publisher, her critics and booksellers. They tend to concentrate on her philosophy and her credentials as an Oxford scholar, and forget that what she wanted to tell was a good story which would make readers laugh as much as it made them think.

Under The Net made me laugh a lot. It's a slightly dated but very funny tale about a loveable loser - Jake Donaghue, an interpreter and philanderer. Surrounded by various scallywags, the hero finds himself in all sorts of ridiculous siuations, and the writing and style in these sections is not unlike P.G. Wodehouse's descriptions of Bertie Wooster's antics.

One hilarious bit sees Jake trying to kidnap a famous film-star dog from an adversary's apartment, a dog he becomes sweetly attached to as the story progresses. The dog and he for a time become a lovely double act; the dog even uses his marvellous acting abilities to get Jake out of a particularly difficult situation involving a communist rally, a film set of ancient Rome and the local police. Difficult to explain properly - you need to read it for yourself.

This was Iris Murdoch's first book, which she wrote in her early thirties. In Bayley's biography Murdoch is quoted as lamenting the fact that no-one is reading her book. I agree fully with this. Why isn't this novel more well-known? It deserves to be and would be if her publisher would market it more aptly.

The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

Published by Vintage

I read a couple of Atwood's novels last year - Cat's Eye, The Robber Bride - and thoroughly enjoyed them. Like lots of people I think Atwood is a clever writer. Her stories are never predictable and always good brain food and I always find myself reading bits aloud to whoever is within earshot.

I knew The Handmaid's Tale would be depressing - imagined futures in fiction usually are. Authors tend towards the 'glass half full' when it comes to the fortunes of the human race. When she peered into her crystal ball, Atwood's vision was no different.

The story concerns an unnamed girl, known only as Offred, who has been forced into the position of Handmaiden to a wealthy, childless couple. Society has undergone colossal changes ever since a mysterious nuclear incident, the details of which are not made clear. Offred has lost everything - her husband, her daughter, her mother, friends and her liberty. She must wear a red gown which covers everything except her eyes and she must obey the strict code of conduct which the new rulers dictate. The conditions which the people face are infuriating and I found myself constantly wishing for a happy ending for Offred and the countless other victims of the revolution.

Offred narrates her own story movingly. Her voice feels real. She jumps around in the time-line, tantalising us with facts and half-known information about the other characters, such as her husband, Luke, her mother and her friends. What has happened to these people? I wanted to know, just as much as Offred did.

Atwood writes sparsely, the narration steps along like slow clicking heels on a marble floor. Her imagery is deceptively simple: describing the slow changes of the new regime as being like bathwater which is constantly getting hotter. We can feel the slow rising heat of these changes as Offred describes how her life slowly melted around her. We can also apply Atwood's metaphor (and her warning) to our own lives and the slow, seemingly benign 'improvements' to our world - identity cards, metal detectors in schools, curfews for teens...

The final chapter skips ahead a few hundred or thousand years to a time when Offred's words have become a historical artefact. The coldness with which her story is considered- the distant view of the historian - feels wrong. This is a testament to Atwood's clever writing, however. Having just spent three hundred pages hearing Offred's whispering confidences, the last thing we can do is treat her story as a primary source.

In Search of The Third Man

by Charles Drazin

Published by Methuen

I've long been a fan of the Carol Reed film The Third Man and was given this book as a birthday present. It's full of interesting facts and figures about the making of the noir classic, including the actors' salaries, last-minutes script changes and, fascinatingly, the original cast choices. Cary Grant as Holly Martins and Noel Coward as Harry Lime... I like both these actors but I think they might have ruined this film!
The book also charts the rise of the unknown Anton Karas, who achieved overnight fame and fortune thanks to his zither music, now thought of as a character in its own right in the film. Karas' unexpected good fortune and the unassuming manner in which he accepted it is quite movingly described.

The author's enthusiasm for his subject and the thorough detailing of the production process during Hollywood's golden age help make this book a genuinely interesting read. I also like the way the book is structured, taking the reader through the movie-making process, the filming, then onto the premiere and general distribution. The final section of the book concerns Greene himself and offers an fascinating insight into his childhood and early life working for the government. Drazin makes a compelling case that Holly Martins is based on Greene himself: 'I'm just a hack who drinks too much and falls in love with girls.'

The book also describes the Harry Lime-like chase which Orson Welles put the production crew through, just to get him to turn up for filming. And thank goodness they caught him. The Third Man is in many ways Welles' movie. The author points out how Orson Welles is often cited as having written a considerable chunk of the script and given Reed many of the ideas for the iconic shots - not true. And this is what I think the book does best: it gives proper credit to the true creators of the film - the production units, the set directors, the Austrian and European cast of extras, Schneeberger's filming of that famous last scene in the graveyard, the 'matchless' Graham Greene and the ever humble Carol Reed, largely forgotten but a truly great director.