Thursday 18 December 2014

Films of the Year 2014: Part 2 - women.

In comparison to 2013 it feels like a lean year for women in film. There are notable exceptions however – in Indian cinema especially, but I’ll cover that in a different post.
Two Days, One Night

Five women are central to three of the most significant films of the year. Marion Cotillard’s performance in Two Days, One Night was the best of the year. Melisa Sözen and Demet Akbag are fantastic in Winter Sleep whilst Agata Kulesza and Agata Trzebuchowska are key to the success of Ida. All three films have attracted significant criticism however. In Sight and Sound Tony Rayns review of Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne’s latest film was annoyingly patronising but elsewhere it garnered a mass of 5 star reviews. For most critics Niri Bilge Ceylan’s Palme D’Or winner doesn’t quite possess the quality of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) or Uzak (2002) and, at 3 hours 16 mins, is too long. Jonathan McCalmont’s criticisms of Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida are, as always, intriguing. Nonetheless for me they were the three most intense and spellbinding cinematic experiences of the year – they are all in my top five.

Other notable performances in very good films include Hilary Swank in The Homesman, Bérénice Bejo in The Past, Mia Wasikowska in Tracks, Angeli Bayani in Norte, The End of History and Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin.

The Past 2
Behind the camera it was exciting to see new films from Katell Quillévéré (Suzanne), Joanna Hogg (Exhibition) and Kelly Reichardt (Night Moves). Even better perhaps was a debut - Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook with a brilliant lead performance by Essie Davis.

One of the joys of 2014 was the return of Lukas Moodysson, in great form, with We Are the Best. At the turn of the century Moodysson made three magnificent films – Show Me Love (1997)  Together (2000) and Lilya 4-ever (2002). Since then he has lost his way but this year’s film, based on a graphic novel by his wife Coco, is a lovely, grown-up tale of three young teenagers starting a punk band in the early 80s. Mira Barkhammar as Bobo, Mira Grosin as Klara and Liv LeMoyne as Hedvig are given a mature, focused script and achieve wonders – they are all utterly brilliant. On one level this could have joined Queen and Pride on my ‘most pleasurable films of 2014’ but at his best Moodysson achieves a tone that is at once funny, ebullient, melancholic and determinedly serious. If anyone wants to see what ‘strong female characters’ look like then watch this film. The girls are both incredibly normal – fickle, jealous, manipulative – and wonderfully anarchic – I won’t spoil the scenes which show their determination, spirit and love of life. I’ve watched it three times – every time it gets better, but it’s also the way the film draws you in each time that is so deceptively clever. The soundtrack is a belter and the cinematography by Ulf Brantås is perfect.

2015 looks like it will be an exciting year with Ana Lily Amapour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden, Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood and Alice Rohrwacher's The Wonders all released in the first half of the year.

Wednesday 17 December 2014

Films - September, October and November.

The autumn is usually the best time for cinema but for once I don't think it's quite matched up to the spring. That said Pride was the most easily enjoyable film of the year whilst Ida might be the best. I usually hate Mike Leigh films - his caricatures and his patronizing way with working class characters get in the way of any enjoyment. Mr Turner still suffered from these faults but less so and there is much that is good in it. Some thought A Most Wanted Man slow and pedestrian but it had me hooked from the first moment. '71 was one of the nicest surprises of the year.
   I missed Locke and Joe at the cinema yet both are fantastic. Tom Hardy and Nicholas Cage pull off two of the best performances of the year.

At the cinema:
  • Pride

  • A Most Wanted Man
  • '71
  • Gone Girl
  • Nightcrawler
  • Say When
  • Mr Turner
  • Ida

Ida shows the rich glories a monochrome palette can achieve in film
  • The Imitation Game
  • Haider
A Still From 'Haider'
  • Interstellar
  • Paddington
On DVD/Blu-ray:
  • Plein Soleil (1960)
  • Sophie's Choice (1982)
  • Locke
  • Joe
  • Starred Up
  • Mary Kom
  • Miss Lovely
Miss Lovely
  • Khoobsurat
  • Gulabi Gang
  • Tell No One (2006)

Films of the Year 2014: Part 1 - Kangana Ranaut in Queen

Queen and Pride: the most enjoyable cinema experiences of 2014.

The two most enjoyable films of the year were Matthew Warchus's Pride and Vikas Bahl’s Queen. Beyond those two 22 Jump Street was a lot of fun whilst Guardians of the Galaxy had lots of good moments. The most enjoyable blockbuster was surprisingly Captain America: The Winter Soldier – who woulda thought it? Here I want to write about Queen.

Queen was a ‘super-hit’ in India and is the 14th highest grossing film of the year. It would be easy to make fun of this statistic – most of the top 10 are fairly bog standard Bollywood blockbusters so why pay any attention to box office numbers?
Two Indian women sit on a picnic table. One is crying.
First the plot: Rani (Kangana Ranaut) is about to get married, but her fiancé (Rajkummar Rao), back from London, calls off the wedding days before. Rani is devastated but eventually decides she would still like to go by herself on her dream honeymoon to Europe; first to Paris and then to Amsterdam. Her parents acquiesce and what follows is a vibrant journey of self-discovery and liberation.

You really have to appreciate what an unusual film this is. Kangana Ranaut carries the film completely - she is extraordinary as a meek, scared and shy young woman who becomes increasing confident, quietly determined and open to all the new experiences around her. Sure there are male characters but there is no male lead. This is still rare, though of course, becoming slightly less rare – recently we’ve had Mardaani, Kahaani, English Vinglish and Mary Kom.

Next, the other main female character Vijayalakshmi (Lisa Haydon) who befriends Rani in Paris is a hard drinking, cannabis smoking, promiscuous, single parent. And, here is the surprising bit; the character is a lovely, warm-hearted, brilliant human being. There are moments when Rani quietly wants her to tone it all down but there is no critique of her behaviour in the film. If anyone wants to direct me to similar characters in Hindi film, then please tell. This is a big two fingers up to the moral majority who believe women like that are sluts, slags and, frankly, lesser human beings.

Now get ready to be shocked again. The main male Indian character is a fairly pathetic excuse of a man. Set against him are four men Rani meets in Amsterdam: a charming Italian restaurateur and three students, Taka from Japan, Oleksander from Russia and Tim from France. All the men are fun loving, indulge in drinking and boisterous behaviour but again, are sympathetic characters portrayed with humour and warmth. And Tim is, hold your breath, of African descent – yes Bollywood fans he is a person of colour!  If you think my tone is a little too facetious, fair enough, but let’s be clear: non-Indian male characters in Bollywood films are usually little more than crude stereotypes and objects of humour.
Queen 2014 Movie Images 540x377 Queen 2014 Movie Images
Most Bollywood movies that try to confront the bizarre cultural assumptions of modern India get trapped in their own contradictions or can’t quite go all the way and bail out with too many compromises. I won’t spoil the ending of Queen but I will say the film gets it just right. Of course there are issues. In some respects the film is very much a fantasy of liberation. Would Rani’s parents have let her go to Europe unaccompanied? Would anybody be lucky enough to meet such a tremendous bunch of strangers?  There is also one awful scene in a brothel that manages to make prostitution seem like a Disney dream and one other in a sex shop that is perhaps a little too broad and relies too much on Rani’s innocence. Furthermore the action has been transferred to Europe and so it will be easy for Indian audiences to feel that the film’s feminist sensibilities and its social criticism, is too easily divorced from their own experiences. Unfortunately I doubt whether any one would have the guts to make a similar film set in India. Thankfully the final scenes ground Rani back in India and the audience is confident that this is a woman who has changed for good.
Furthermore it’s all done with a grace, tenderness, integrity and sense of fun that Hollywood rarely achieves; for the most part there is a delicious lightness of touch to it all and it never feels preachy. I left the film on a kind of Bollywood sugar rush – excited, emotional and a little bit hyper. I’ve watched it since and it’s still brilliant.
My experience so far of sharing Queen with friends and with Hindu, Sikh and Muslim girls at school is fascinating. Some of the younger teenagers seemingly take on the moral indignation of their parents and don’t know what to make of it. Even some of the older ones feel uncomfortable watching it with older members of their family. One even started watching it with a family group but had to switch it off when members of the older generation complained about the content. Thankfully she, and several others, have loved it.
Queen’s super-hit status in India would seem to indicate that a large section of the cinema going public loved it too. I've decided to allow myself the belief that this holds a small source of hope for the future. For any Westerners who have yet to experience the joys of Hindi cinema, Queen is a big-hearted wonder of a film and shows Hollywood how to make a comedy-drama without the lashings of sexist, homophobic nonsense we have become so accustomed to. Treat yourself and see it.

Thursday 25 September 2014

Films - June, July and August

   It feels like it has been a dire summer of film. There was little on at the cinemas during the World Cup and my PS3 broke so I couldn't watch anything at home for a number of weeks either.
   As I conserquence I haven't been keeping a full record and might have forgotten a few. 
   The highlights have undoubtedly been Two Weeks, One Night and Grand Central, whilst Begin Again though undoubtedly middlebrow schmalz, weirdly hit the spot and made me very happy! Mardaani was fab too!

At the cinema
  • 22 Jump Street
  • How to Train Your Dragon 2
  • Bobby Jasoos
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Begin Again
  • Boyhood
  • Grand Central
  • Mardaani
  • Two Weeks, One Night
On DVD/Blu-ray
  • The Consequences of Love (2004)
  • Il Divo (2008)
  • Easy A (2010)
  • Irma Vep (1996)
  • Bad Education (2004)
  • The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)
  • Swades (2004)
  • Aitraaz (2004)
  • Jodhaa Akbar (2008)
  • Bewafaa (2005)
  • Peepli Live (2010)
  • Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012)

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Gulabi Gang

   I’m not sure how you begin to measure oppression but then I’m not sure I need to – there’s so much to go around and I guess you just have to fight it wherever you find it. The press and the politicians generally want our outrage and contempt to be turned outwards, to other countries and other people, usually poorer than us, with different customs and religions; whilst not wanting us to recognise how the Western ruling classes are up to their necks in dirty deals and dirty wars to keep the world pretty much as it is as they increase their profits and hold on to power. That shouldn’t stop us from being thankful of the democracy, the freedoms, the wealth and the infrastructure in the UK that brings obvious benefits, though nor should that make us complacent. The UK statistics for how women and girls are killed, raped, sold or forced into prostitution, physically abused, sexually abused, bullied and mentally abused – usually without any chance of justice - are horrific. Go on, have a look. I dare you.
Gulabi Gang Movie Poster

   But today I watched Nishtha Jain’s Gulabi Gang (and recently read Amana Fontanella-Khan’s Pink Sari Revolution), about Sampat Pal’s group of pink clad, lathi-wielding activists and vigilantes (now over 250,000 strong). Actually I’m not really sure how to define them or what to call them - except very, very brave. We’re in northern India, in Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh (UP). UP is pretty big - 93,933 square miles, so about the same size as the UK. It’s the fourth largest state in India (nearly 7% of its total area) and has over 200 million inhabitants. The state has huge problems with poverty – perhaps 8% of the world’s poor live in UP, and huge problems with the way its inhabitants and its institutions view and treat women.

   Jain spent around five months following Pal and other members of the group and obviously had to confront two huge issues whilst making her film. First there’s Sampat Pal herself. She is a larger than life personality seemingly unafraid of anyone or anything and almost too great a force for the camera to hold in. For the first minutes of the film it’s hard to know if this is the real woman or if she is performing for the camera, or whether she’ll break the fourth wall and start challenging the viewer too. Secondly it would be easy to sensationalise the issues that the film confronts – a woman burned alive by her husband and sister-in-law, with the death covered up by the whole family (and probably, the whole village), honour killings, corruption at all levels of society matched only by lassitude and fatalism at all levels of society. Indeed this is perhaps the saddest part of Gulabi Gang: the number of blank faces - so many people that have seemingly given in to the hopelessness of their existence. ‘Fate’ and ‘God’s will’ are the watch words in their philosophy of stoicism and survival.

   Jain's answer is a measured understatement. You begin to realise that this IS the real Sampat, living day to day with the imperfections of the organisation she has created and the horror of the society in which she finds herself. Moreover, you slowly realise that she has seen it all before, time and again. This isn’t the first women she has seen burned alive, the first time that she’s recognised that a woman’s life is worth nothing, or the first time one of her trusted lieutenants has used the Gang’s influence and reputation to alter evidence and save a family member. If the injustice that surrounds her is barely comprehensible and all pervasive then she meets it head on with a relentlessness of her own. Jain also gives us small pauses in the film – often beautiful tracking shots of animals and the landscape which give you a sense of its vastness and timelessness – that give the film a meditative air and allow us vital moments to reflect on what we’ve just seen.

   The justice the Gulabi Gang delivers is often rough and imperfect but their persistence is remarkable and their solidarity and their faith in each other more so. Jain punctuates her film with moments of tenderness, frustration and understanding that underline all the horrible contradictions facing these brave freedom fighters. A mother decides to fight for justice against all the odds, a girl cries because she can’t bear the injustice and the hypocrisy of the elections, a women explains with equal measures of defiance and despondency why she would support honour killings in her family. Jain has made a fantastically calm film about oppression and injustice and about those fighting back as best as they can. Watch it if you can.

   Also worth a look: Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay`s Dance Bars and Katherine Boo’s brilliant Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum.

Thursday 4 September 2014

Mardaani . . . . and The Professionals.

Rani Mukherjee
   I HAVE bought my Learn Hindi kit – honest!  CDs, book, dictionary – but unfortunately they languish by the side of my bed. But now I wish I’d worked harder so that I could quote some of the brilliant lines in Pradeep Sarkar’s Mardaani. Rani Mukherjee plays Shivani Shivaji Roy, a tough Mumbai police inspector on the trail of gang that abduct young girls and sell them off to be used in sex work. Rani is tough, undaunted and determined as she tracks the gang and she gets to slap, bully and intimidate petty criminals and Hindu nationalists alike. Rani plays it straight, or as straight as is possible in a Bollywood production. The result is intriguing; on one hand there are still few Indian films that have such brilliant roles for women or that tackle such difficult subjects in a reasonably serious way; on the other hand I can’t help but love it in the same way I love The Professionals (please – if you’ve not seen an episode of that 70s show, watch one now!). Not that Mardaani is as reactionary as The Professionals, though it certainly embraces an uncomfortable level of brutal police behaviour, but the over-the-top action sequences, its sly humour and the pleasure of top actors playing it straight in slightly ludicrous circumstances certainly bears comparison.
6. The Professionals

   I doubt I would have enjoyed Mardaani so much a year ago. It’s easy to love the song and dance, the love stories, even the dramatic changes in tone that can occur throughout the course of a Bollywood film and these are the things I fell for, but Mardaani is one of those films that embraces the mode of melodrama AND wants to be very serious too and that film fans, is a dangerous game – I give you Bol (2011). Now I disliked Bol A LOT because it felt like a mixture between Dickens (at his worst) and Eastenders – thus, saccharine, soapy, full of caricatures and melodramatic to a degree that I couldn’t accept, but, I did watch it in my Bollywood infancy so maybe there was a level of culture shock I wasn’t ready for.
Rani Mukherjee In Mardaani Movie Still Images 540x360 Rani Mukherjee In Mardaani Movie Still Images
   So why did I like Mardaani? Rani, though not entirely likeable, is brilliant and compelling. The brutality, despondency and misery of the girls lives’ after being abducted by the trafficking ring is well done too. Some reviewers have mentioned films like Taken (2008) when discussing the film but this is fatuous. Instead I recalled Lucas Moodysson’s beautiful and despairing Lilya 4-ever (2002) and of course you’ll probably think back to some of the angry Amitabh Bachchan movies of the seventies. India is cast as a place of ruthless greed where lives are cheap, morality in short supply and hypocrisy rampant and where role-models – sorry, that should be heroes - with courage and principles are rare. There are elements too that are kind of bonkers – so over the top that you won’t be able to hide a cheesy smile or two. Crucially though, its heart is in the right place. As long as you give yourself up to the melodrama, Mardaani’s pleasures, along with its bitterness and righteous anger, will hit the spot and have you debating all the way home.

Thursday 7 August 2014

A few words on the Coen Brothers

   I’ve enjoyed most of their films and Blood Simple, Fargo, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, True Grit and Inside Llewyn Davis are the ones I can happily watch again and again.

   Watching Miller’s Crossing again the other night reminded me of Will Self’s article in the Guardian a few years ago. At the time I seem to remember it wound me up but now I don’t see too much wrong. The films aren’t great, like those of Tarkovsky or Kiarostami are great but they’re good in interesting ways. It’s not that Self misses the point, he focuses correctly on their reflexivity—that they make films of films and films about films. It’s more that when so much modern culture of a knowing, ironic persuasion can feel empty and somewhat inane, the Coens’ films are straightforwardly pleasureable—Deakins’cinematography, great performances, apposite, ambiguous and humorous soundtracks often with Carter Burwell’s beautiful scores and great production design. Their reflexivity also acts to question tropes, expectations and the viewer's relationship with cinema in a ‘moderately clever’ and discursive way.

I’ll quote this excerpt that focuses in on True Grit:

On the face of it the Coens have made as straight and authentic a remake as is imaginable, the dialogue is crisp and with its idiosyncratic mixture of idioms – Victorian-portentous spliced with rangy slang – oddly convincing. Deakins has also put his quirky lens away in its box and done his best to shoot straight – just like Rooster Cogburn.

But when all's said and done, you have to ask yourself, why? This isn't a western nouveau to join the reinvigoration of the genre that began with Clint Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and has continued through to Andrew Dominik's magisterial The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007); this True Grit says nothing more substantive about the role of Manifest Destiny in American self-conception (which is what, in the final analysis, all serious westerns are about) than the last one did; rather, I couldn't help feeling that somewhere in the Vulcan mind-meld of their creative sensibility, the brothers embarked on this project purely and simply as a vehicle for Bridges. And in as much as it was vehicle for Bridges, in a queered way True Grit is a companion piece to The Big Lebowski.

Think on it: in Lebowski Bridges plays a slacker whose very inanition helps him to rise above the nefariousness of all around him; while in True Grit he plays a man of action whose machismo functions in the same way. The two Jeff Bridges characters are in fact Janus-faces of the same, uh, actor. This, again, leads us back to the Coens' central problem: their reflexivity as directors, making films of films rather than films tout court. Still, in our benighted age, when films about amusement park rides and electronic fidgets scoop the honours, perhaps Hollywood redux is the best we can hope for.

   Lots to agree with here but what the film does, simply and brilliantly, and what Self doesn't seem to get is how True Grit shows the appeal of Rooster, LaBoeuf and Mattie—their principles, bravery, determination, charisma, self-belief whilst still managing to show how these traits can also be harsh, unappealing and unrelenting, and how they so easily translate into reactionary conclusions and actions. Compare it with the 1969 original, (a film I still love btw—Wayne, irascible and charismatic, the title song by Glen Campbell and those gorgeous autumnal colours) to find a very straightforward film, free of any kind of critique and nuance.


   Miller’s Crossing offers a slightly different kind of reflexivity. The film acknowledges and plays with many of the ideas and motifs common to gangster films and noir. Gabriel Byrne’s Tom is a seemingly a classic noir anti-hero. He’s the smart man behind the scenes, talking sense to ruthless mafiosos and psychopaths; he’s also a drinker, not much of a fighter—he takes countless beatings, and cool, in a downbeat, existential kind of way. We route for him perhaps only because the characters around him are even more deranged. We route for him too as we tend to do with all central characters—because its irresistible and because its part of the logic of narrative that we’re all so used to. He’s the movie equivalent of an unreliable narrator and as with many of the best violent thrillers the viewer becomes complicit in the dubious pleasures on offer. The violence is operatically staged and beautifully seductive. The scene when Albert Finney’s Leo guns down his would-be assassins compares favourably with the most sublime slices of movie violence ever staged - even the bar scene in Corbucci's Django. Those with weak minds—like me—will also leave the movie desperate for a slug of bourbon, a filter-less cigarette and a new suit.

   Nothing new then? Well not really, but it’s the panache with which it’s pulled off and it’s profound understanding of how movies work—the appeal of glamour, spectacle, violence, nostalgia, intelligence and that deep, deep desire to identify with others—that make it so good. The film incites a constant dialogue in your head. You explain away Tom’s behaviour because you yearn for him to have a shred of decency but slowly and surely the film forces you to face the truth, even before the final denouement. He’s the worst kind of bastard after all—he wants to keep the status quo, keep the slightly saner hoods in control and he’ll go to any length to do it.

   That he understands love and loyalty makes it all the worse.




Tuesday 3 June 2014

May films

   Most Hollywood comedies are crap so when Henry Barnes gave Bad Neighbours 4 stars in the Guardian I went along. [sighs] I watched it all the way through and laughed a couple of times near the end when the two main characters have a fight - funny like The Three Stooges, but for the most part its fairly dull and embarrassing. 

    Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne and Zac Efron just about keep you watching  At least its not as offensive as many of them - Ted anybody? On the other hand Blue Ruin got a 'meh' on the Guardian film show but it's tense and compelling throughout. I can't wait to see Lukas Moodysson's We Are the Best and Lenny Abrahamson's Frank again on Blu-ray - they are I suspect minor gems.

   Two eminently watchable blockbusters in Godzilla and X-Men: Days of Future Past and Maleficent was rather good too: could Hollywood actually have a decent year?

   Katell Quillévéré's Suzanne was every bit as good as I hoped and I finally got round to watching Jessica Hausner's Lourdes, Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins, Clio Barnard's The Arbour and Ben Wheatley's Kill List.

   I rewatched Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Jab We Met one Sunday afternoon (with a hangover) to celebrate my first year of Bollywood.

   And I seriously need to discuss Ulrich Siedl's Paradise trilogy with someone over a pint! Faith may be one of the most unpleasant films I've ever seen yet all three films have stayed with me.

Hopefully June won't be quite so busy and I'll be able to write some reviews.

At the cinema
  • The Muppets Most Wanted
  • Bad Neighbours
  • We Are the Best

  • Blue Ruin
  • Frank
  • Godzilla
  • X-men

  • Maleficent
On DVD/Blu-ray
  • An Autumn Afternoon (1962)
  • Suzanne

  • Jab We Met (2007)
  • Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995)
  • Kill List (2011)

  • Hum dil de chuke sanam (1999)
  • The Wrestler (2008)
  • Circumstance (2012)

  • 13 Assassins (2011)
  • Lourdes (2009)

  • Elena (2012)
  • The Arbour (2010)
  • Paradise: Love (2013)
  • Paradise: Faith (2013)
  • Paradise: Hope (2013)

  • Peepli Live (2010)
  • In the Loop (2009)

Thursday 15 May 2014

Cuckoo Song (Part Deax) and more.

   Cuckoo Song

It's now out and though I may, for a brief spell, come across as Frances Hardinge's unpaid publicist I hope it does really, really well. Will their be a better YA novel published this year? Nah! Go buy it and then take the day off to read it.

CuckooSong - cover art
  There are excellent reviews at The Book Smugglers and at things mean a lot  and others cropping up all over the place. Special thanks to Ana because my review of Cuckoo Song is my most-read post so far. 

  Frances has done a blog tour - all the details are up at her website here. It's well worth searching out the links for all kinds of fascinating insights.


   There's a review of Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History at Strange Horizons - looks like a must-read.

   Other stuff

   Please try to read Maureen Kincaid Speller's fine essay, They Are Not Ghosts: On the Representation of the Indigenous Peoples of North America in Science Fiction & Fantasy.

   And on Twitter it's well worth keeping track of #readingwomen2014. I already tend to read more books written by women anyway but actually keeping track is interesting. I'm already ahead of the game and reading the Bailey's shortlist will help even more. 
   Christopher Priest has done a series of Q&As – he links to them on his website here

   There are so many literary prizes these days to keep track of, but the Miles Franklin award looks to have some interesting works this year. The Guardian link is here. 

    It’s easy to feel a little apocalyptic about the world right now. You could always just about convince yourself that world leaders wouldn’t blow us all up with nuclear weapons but it’s hard to believe that accelerating climate change mixed with astounding levels of corruption and inequality mixed with the inexorable march of free market capitalism aren’t going to make the world much, much worse fairly soon – and it’s bad enough for billions of people already. Hopefully this is something that will increasingly impact on the content and structure of literary fiction. This post by Alison Flood entitled ‘Which books will survive rising sea levels?’ is worth a read.

   Thanks to Roger at Beccon Publications for sorting me out with a copy of Paul Kincaid's Call and Response and a PDF of What we do when we read Science Fiction.

   Also I've finally found the Notes from Coode Street Podcast - the most recent is with Joe Abercrombie and I've also listened to the ones featuring Nicola Grifith and M John Harrison. It's a brilliant resource - entertaining, erudite and sharp.

Wednesday 7 May 2014

April reading - the brilliance of Eleanor Catton and Jane Gardam

   I read three very good novels in April: The Luminaries, Old Filth and The Adjacent. I’ve also read some mediocre stuff too. These days when I read a bad or middling book I either stop reading or, if I carry on to the end, almost instantly forget about it. However joining Netgalley (and writing this blog) means I’m kind of committed to writing about the bad stuff too and to finish the odd book I normally wouldn’t bother with. Here I would guess that my tolerance for slightly less than exceptional ‘literary’ fiction and speculative fiction is slightly higher than for other genres but not by much. I also appreciate that we all draw our own lines, often based on education, opportunity, stress and tiredness and, that many people read to relax, ‘escape’ etc. I haven’t read to escape since I was a teenager so I tend to be a little (too) severe sometimes on those that do and on novels that are ordinary or worse.

  It’s difficult because I don’t want to belittle people’s hard work, their achievement in getting published and living their dream. Commenting on the banality of a novel seems harsher somehow than lambasting the latest blockbuster or wishing that aliens would kidnap J J Abrams.

   Secondly I became a school librarian because I wanted to share my love of books (and films, etc), not because I particularly enjoy reading YA novels – many are commonplace or desultory (just as most ‘adult’ novels are), the marketplace is saturated with series and often follows current fashion too – thus dark romance and dytopias. That doesn’t mean I discourage our students from reading anything – on the contrary, I encourage them to read anything and everything. But even reading the Carnegie shortlist is onerous and unsatisfying for me - though the payoff is in the discussions you can have with the kids.

   The bottom line of this boring, liberal apologia is this – severe though it may be. Unless a novel has invention, accomplished writing, interesting structure and something interesting to say – with some metaphorical reach and vibrancy, I think it needs to be consigned to the YA section of the library. Nor do I have sympathy with adults who want to read masses of YA fiction - unless it’s their job. I do understand the occasional draw of nostalgia – I can still just about watch Stars Wars and inhabit my 6-year-old self to feel safe and full of wonder. I even reread the Dragonlance novels once to feel that same feeling. I also understand the need to escape – wine, singing and the pleasures of Strictly Come Dancing I understand (all too) well, so I don’t disapprove of a bit of mindless entertainment. BUT, on the whole, there are SO many books and films out there that are entertaining AND stimulating that it hurts a bit somehow, when they don’t get sought out. I appreciate this will offend those who think escapism is a perfectly legitimate pursuit and cause some to proclaim me a culture fascist. I’m not – on the whole I keep any grumpiness that surfaces to myself but I’m giving fair warning that from time to time I will get disappointed when I see mediocrity getting too much praise.

And so, onwards.

The Luminaries

Image of The Luminaries     I loved reading The Luminaries. I haven’t read all of last year’s Booker shortlist yet but it’s hard for me to imagine that there was a better book than this. I’m not sure if I have a review in me, I’ll see. For now the best review is by Julian Novitz in the Sydney Review of Books. I like David Hebblethwaite’s insights and you can read some useful articles in the Guardian though I think Kirsty Gunn’s review is wrong-headed. This short piece by Robert MacFarlane, the Booker chair (and one of the most gifted writers in Britain today), is also very useful for gaining a better understanding of the novel, as is this piece by his fellow Booker judge Stuart Kelly. I’m glad I choose to read it during my Easter break. I need to read books, especially lengthy books, in a relatively short period of time so I can stay immersed and feel that I’m making connections and reading critically. I read it over four days, culminating in an exhilarating 300-page mad dash to the finish. The novel gets easier to read as it progresses – the first section (360 pages) has a density that requires focus, especially as it is in a style to which you may not be used to - unless you regularly return to 19th century classics. There are lots of things to love about it - I love frontier tales that get to grips with the greed and lies, the prostitution and the racism, the hypocrisy and the corruption regarding ‘birth of nation’ myths. The Luminaries does so magnificently and I loved the way that Anna’a character is the mysterious centre of the first half of the novel but increasingly comes into focus during the second half. I loved the quality and the intricacy of the writing and Catton’s intelligence and sagacity. I loved the mystery and the romance.

Old Filth

Cover of Old Filth by Jane Gardam   I’d never read any of Jane Gardam’s work before but when Last Friends made the Folio Prize shortlist I remembered I’d meant to read Old Filth years ago. The novel is very much about the end of Empire, about memory and growing old and about how the experiences of childhood shape and constrict our character and behaviour. It does so by asking us to empathise with people of the upper middle class – people I’d normally find it impossible to empathise with – but Gardam also exposes their privilege and absurdity with great subtlety, humour and irony. Gardam is wise and clever whilst the tone and structure of the novel are sometimes troubling and disorientating but also deeply pleasurable. I’ve gone straight into The Man in the Wooden Hat (rather than getting cracking on the Bailey’s shortlist - aaahhh!!) and will write more when I’ve finished all three.

The Clarke Award

   I also finished the Clarke shortlist, though in truth I didn’t finish two of the novels.  As I’ve already written,  I don’t think those two novels are up to ‘shortlist quality’ – whatever that means, but I do appreciate what a difficult job it must be to read over 110 novels in short space of time. I couldn’t do it. Adam Roberts’ comprehensive 2-part review of the shortlist is now up at Strange Horizons. It’s as brilliant, as funny and as provocative as ever and congratulations to Ann Leckie on her win.

Sue Townsend

   I was sad to hear about the death of Sue Townsend so one night I just curled up and read The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole. It made me laugh out loud and brought back memories of reading it as a teenager, and being a teenager. She is such a clever writer: I shall read more soon.

Fantasy or ‘how to win friends and influence people’

   Netgalley gave me the opportunity to read Trudi Canavan’s Thief’s Magic. We have copies of some of her other novels in the school library but I’d never read one myself and it’s hard not to notice her books in the SF and Fantasy section of Waterstones. I can only describe it as generic; you can see the experience and solidity that has gone into the writing and thus the novel has an effectiveness that can’t be denied: it’s easy to read and it takes its subjects - imperialism, the environment and gender, seriously. Unfortunately it’s not exceptional in any way and is rather transparent. 
   Next on my list was Emma Newman’s Between Two Thorns. I’d been put off by Gabriel Murray’s scathing review at Strange Horizons but I like her Tea and Jeopardy podcast so I thought I’d give it a go. I read it straight after the two Clarke failures and after Thief’s Magic so I was desperate for something good. Though I agree with quite a bit of what Murray writes I found Newman’s novel a little more interesting and the writing considerably better, than the three I’d just attempted to read and so I allowed myself to be charmed.  I don’t think her novel has much depth or resonance but I’d happily recommend it to a teenager.
   Damning with faint praise? Patronising? Possibly, but I did warn you.