Monday, 23 May 2011

A pleasurable re-read

I'm on a re-reading kick right now, which is both unexpected and, to be honest, a little bit counter-productive. I have enough unread books to build a house obviously (don't we all!) but more immediately importantly I'm supposed to be proof reading the excellent second Shooty Dog Thing collection for Paul and Jon and finishing off reading a really pretty superb fantasy novel which it looks like Obverse Books may soon be releasing (before any of the involved parties get the hump, rest assured I'm half way through both books and I'll have them finished asap!).

But I managed, while negotiating my way to my desk in the glorified corridor I call my office, to kick over a pile of haphazardly stacked paperbacks. They fell like a pack of playing cards, fanned out across the floor (all the way to the guinea pig cage for those who know my house) and right in the middle, shining up at me, was the first Brenda and Effie book, Never the Bride. I reviewed that in another place ages ago so I won't bother doing so again, but one thing which struck me at once is that Brenda and Effie and the rest arrive fully-formed in this first book in the series. There's no feeling, as with many such series, that this is a testing ground, that Brenda may end up a different character as Paul Magrs writes each successive book, honing the eponymous bride to his satisfaction. Instead everybody feels real from their first appearance on the page and, as a result, it's a book which takes no effort at all to read, slipping down even on a second read like an exotically Alan Bennett flavoured sorbet (or something). Looking forward to Something Borrowed now.

Of course, one book re-read hardly makes the promised re-reading kick, but I also put both the full set of Little House books and the full set of Flashman novels on my e-reader when I got it, and sitting outside shops waiting for Julie recently, I found myself dipping into - and then being ensnared by - both series, so that, almost before I realised, I was travelling out of the Big Woods of Wisconsin with Laura and 'defending' a besieged Afghan fort with Sir Harry. Since I'm also just about finished Simon Forward's very enjoyable Evil UnLtd book (review to follow) and writing a secret short story for the Obverse Quarterly (and pondering plotting out a Max Carrados novel - well, you never know, someone might be interested!), I seem to have a pleasantly full book-related calendar ahead of me - which is how I like it.

Which mean, I suppose, that I must stop typing on the Internet and get back into it...

Friday, 20 May 2011

Feed - Mira Grant (2010)

Zombies are boring. Sorry, but it's a fact.

You can do the George Romero thing of having a small group or community menaced by hordes of the shuffling bastards, but other than that all you have is over-reaching gimmicky pap like those Pride and Prejudice and Zombies novels, and humorous uses like Michael Jackson's Thriller video.

The problem is that they only really do a couple of things well. Menacing shambling can be pretty effective if there's enough of them or if the intended victim is in some way hemmed in (which is why 'The Walking Dead' works best in scenes featuring hundreds of swarming undead). And they can look pretty good lunging forward out of dark corners to take a quick, gory bite out of the neck of some passer-by. But other than that...

Until now, that is. I'd never heard of Mira Grant or 'Feed' until it featured on the internet's most enjoyable podcast, Writer and Critic (hosted by Fandom's Nicest Man, Ian Mond, and what may well be Fandom's Sexiest Voice, Kirstyn McDermott). I'm so glad I have now though. Grant's taken a genre which was tired and hackneyed almost from the moment it was born and - somewhat ironically - injected new life into it. Zombies still hirple round biting and infecting people in Feed's 2040 but they're not the story in any sense.

In fact, actual zombies as zombies play a very minor role in the book, although it's made clear that the threat they pose is the single most important thing in the life of every person. Instead, the virus which has infiltrated every person's (and every other large mammal's) bloodstream is the central danger. Designed as a cure for the common cold, but mutated into a lethal virus which can either randomly turn a person into a zombie (or, 'amplify' them) during life or, invariably, upon death, the Kellis-Amberlee virus is incurable, easily contracted via contact and invariably and swiftly lethal.

That last is fairly important actually - the virus is only 'swiftly' and not, say, 'instantaneously' lethal, primarily because it can be weaponised and injected, shot in a dart, swallowed and so forth. So instead of zombie victims disappearing under a mass of rending, tearing flesh, it's possible for people to be infected at a distance from the actual danger ('I was dead the second the hypodermic hit my arm', as one character says matter-of-factly). As a result they then have time for effecting final words and, more importantly, to pass on information vital to the plot.

Because this is a book with a proper, fairly convoluted plot, which at a stroke pushes it beyond even Romero's movies. Put in a single sentence, Feed is a political thriller as good as any other, but set in a world where zombies are a reality. It's a brilliant idea and Grant really runs with it. The possibility of infection informs literally everything that the characters do. There's no death penalty except for terrorism, for instance, which makes sense in a world in which the newly dead are as likely to rip your face off as lie there quietly. Apple make the very best infection testing kits (not called 'iZombie', sadly), Alaska has been abandoned, the most popular children's names are George and Georgia (after Romero), notification of death by zombie is automatically uploaded to the CDC, nobody under 40 is comfortable in a crowd and, crucially for the story, online bloggers have replaced traditional newspapers as the primary source of news.

It's a crucial consideration because the reader's viewpoint is that of one of the top news bloggers covering the Republican favourite candidate in a US presidential election (there's little mention of the Democrats, which quite neatly highlights the increasingly right-wing, paranoid America created by the zombie threat). Gonzo journalism is the norm - maintaining a distance from the news is seen as a negative in many ways - and Georgia and Shaun, brother and sister bloggers (he an Irwin who throws himself directly into harm's way to get the story, she a straight Newsie) and their team are amongst the very best. The invitation to join front-runner Senator Ryman's campaign catapults them to the top of the pile, but at the same time exposes them to deadly danger as they unearth a widespread and potentially life-threatening conspiracy.

Grant keeps a fairly tight rein on her story, with a series of reveals which seem, in retrospect, to be pretty standard for the genre but on which she puts an interesting spin. And she's also not afraid to put her characters at risk, even to death, which keeps the zombie threat to the fore. If I had one complaint it's that an editor should have caught the couple of times when she repeats the exact same information within a page or two (about the Sacramento State Fair, for example), but that's a minor quibble amongst an ocean of positives.

There's a sequel out later this year which I'll definitely be picking up. highly recommended.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Blood on the Tracks: A History of Railway Crime in Britain (2010)

I think in many ways I often do fairly clumsy reviews: big, clunky things in ill-fitting cardigans, sellotaped glasses and orthopedic shoes, braying out how much I loved this book or loathed that one, how I found myself awestruck by this show or that, how I was disappointed by some difficult second album or some other long anticipated movie - each point made as it pops into my head, with no thought of later editing or creating a more pleasingly logical whole. There's little lightness of touch, really, compared to my very favourite blogs.

Which means (in segue of the century!) I'd be ideally suited to being a co-author of this book! It should be interesting - True Crime from the Victorian era onwards, with plenty of scope to combine a history of the railways in the UK with an analysis of the degree to which increased mobility, early flawed design ideas and mass population movement contributed to the growth of new types of criminal activity. Alternately, some form of fairly salacious blood and guts narrative, packed with vile murder and dreadful horror would at least have been entertaining.

Instead, the two authors (David and Alan from Peterborough, according to the fly-leaf) contrive to waste every such possibility for real interest. As dry in style as the most arid of academic journals and yet littered with sudden descents into brief laddish chattiness and inappropriate slang, the authors seem at times to be primarily train-spotting enthusiasts whose main purpose is to describe in tedious detail minor branch lines and forgotten engines instead of actual crime (and to print photo after photo of modern railway stations for no readily apparent reason).

This is particularly obvious in those sections where the criminal link to the railways is tenuous at best. One five page anecdote's sole link to crime on the railways is that police at one stage suspected that a murderer had dumped the body in a station locker, while another lengthy section deals with an offence in which - essentially unconnected with the crime - the perpetrator happened to travel on a train.

Each of these cases appears to have been allocated a space in the book on entirely random grounds (I imagine the two authors sifting through other, better written books, occasionally shouting out variants on 'there's a murder in here on a tram - is that close enough?) with an equally random emphasis, so that a fascinatingly mysterious murder gets two quick paragraphs and some mundane and dull theft drags on for page after page of sheer speculation, unconnected photos and oddly right wing declarations about the Police, government and anyone else in a position of authority.

With its combination of uneven tone, unreferenced claims, original research disguised as reporting and love of all things authoritarian, this book reads like someone has filtered an over-long Wikipedia article though a DailyMailathon and then randomly jumbled up the paragraphs.

Actually, it's not as well done as that...

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973)

It's 'Stairway to Heaven', isn't it?

Or The Wall. Or Sgt Pepper, or 'Paint it Black' or 'My Generation'. It's Never Mind the Bollocks and it's also that Bryan Adam song about doing everything for you. It's even Wet Wet Wet nicking the Troggs' thunder with 'Love is All Around' (I've just horrible flashbacks to my wedding and the vile music played for the first dance. Shudder. I wanted 'the Ship Song' by Nick Cave, I might add, but that's an entirely different story...)

In short, it's the David Bowie album that even people who don't like music have heard of. the same could be said of Let's Dance, probably with more legitimacy, but you'll both have forgotten about that by the time I get round to Bowie's 80s albums.

It's also the Bowie album which has suffered most due to fan over-familiarity. I mean, I adore Bowie, but I'd be more likely to stick on the Tonight than Ziggy 99% of the time. Ziggy's better - but I've heard it a million times.
So, in order to keep my own interest from flagging, how about constructing the fantasy album that could have appeared straight after Hunky Dory?

To start with, our imaginary album could grab everything recorded by Bowie's proto-Ziggy project, Arnold Corns. It's not a huge amount of music, to be honest (especially once you dump the two tracks by the band that Bowie doesn't sing on), but what there is is brilliant.

I particularly love the Corns' version of 'Moonage Daydream', complete with different lyrics and melody, which replaces the stonking metal sound and fury of the Ziggy track with a far more Hunky Dory-esque soft glam track, reminiscent far more of Mott the Hoople than Ziggy-era Bowie. I love the way the track stops and starts suddenly, the way the lyric is far more (day)dreamlike and Bowie's high-pitched vocal. The repetitive forty five second guitar break at the end, while Bowie appears to be trying to start a Mexican wave ('Whoooaaaa!'), I can live without though, to be honest.

This version of the track (and we could, if we wanted, include the John Peel 'In Concert' version of 'Looking for a Friend' which does have a Bowie vocal) was never considered for Ziggy Stardust, but there are several tracks which were considered and then dropped for one reason or other.

It's not hard to see why a cover of Chuck Berry's 'Round and Round' was dumped. Intended to serve as an in-album example of the sort of music which allegedly made Ziggy famous, it's a lovely idea, but unfortunately it's rather a dull and routine sort of song - surely not the sort of thing that made Ziggy a 'leper Messiah'! Equally 'Holy Holy' is a re-recording of a track once intended for Hunky Dory and Bowie has rarely been one to look backwards.

Perhaps instead of those two tracks we could have 'Bombers', one of the very few tracks which was once intended to feature on a nameless album between Hunky Dory and Ziggy? More a Hunky Dory funny, folky sort of song than a rocking Ziggy one, 'Bombers' would segue nicely from the Corns track, and work as a quick mood lightener before moving onto the maudlin grotesquerie of Bowie's cover of Jacques Brel's 'Port of Amsterdam'. Probably the most squalid lyric in Bowie's back catalogue, the track actually appeared on an early official Ziggy track listing but listening to it now it sounds more Brecht than Brel, and definitely more suited to Baal than Bowie's alien rock star.

Continuing the outsider theme of 'Amsterdam', how about throwing 'The Shadow Man' into the mix next? It isn't a rock number by any means, but it has one of Bowie's most in your face vocals and drips passion and sorrow and alienation ('See his smile/Made of nothing but loneliness') and segues brilliantly into one of my favourite Bowie obscurities 'Tired of My Life'. Admittedly it sounds more like a Space Oddity out-take than a post-Hunky Dory one, but the quiet despair of 'Tired of my Life' is a decent choice to follow on from the noisier horror of 'Amsterdam', and so it gets the nod over other contenders.

Kicking off the flip side and serving notice that side two will be more rocky, 'Velvet Goldmine' is one of the best of all Bowie out-takes. The track is one with a reasonable claim to be the nearly man of Bowie tracks, having been originally recorded for Hunky Dory, nearly made Ziggy, appeared as a b-side without Bowie's permission and eventually ended up appearing on Best of Bowie compilations. Apparently it was pulled from Ziggy for being 'too provocative' but the lyric isn't exactly gay porn and times have changed in any case. It makes an excellent opener for side two of our putative lost Bowie album (n.b. this is a vinyl album with two sides; this is 1973 after all).

How did 'Sweet Head' fail to make the actual Ziggy Stardust album? Lyrically it's a perfect fit for the rest of the album, with the first verse plausibly being sung in response to the narrator of 'Five Years' and the chorus ('Sweet head, give you sweet head/(spoken)While you're down there...') being a far more explicit version of that in 'Velvet Goldmine'. It's also a cracking tune, with real Ziggy-style guitars throughout.

A bit quieter now, but just as emotionally sturdy and almost as good a song - How Lucky You Are. Starting with battered, single key piano, then Bowie's stilted, flat vocal, it sounds nothing too astonishing to begin with. Schoolboy rhymes in the first verse and a little pedestrian bass it seems fairly obvious why it never made an actual album. But then the chorus kicks in with a roll of drums and Bowie's vocal moves up an octave or two and it turns into something altogether better. It's a shame it's only demo quality, but I'd like to have heard a proper studio version. Either way it deserves better than to be forgotten.

I think we might need to make side two a four track one, rather than the intended five. The problem is that, although there are other unreleased Bowie tracks in the period, they tend to be fairly straight-forward demos of songs which made Ziggy. A piano led version of the title track, a couple of different versions of Lady Stardust (one subtitled 'Song for Marc' just to make it clear who Bowie is singing about) and then we've got to wait for the Diamond Dogs out-takes to find anything of similar quality to the Hunky Dory/Ziggy ones.

So to sign off, let's bookend the album with Arnold Corns - in this case, the Corns' version of 'Hang onto Yourself', which manages to be just as different from its Ziggy counterpart as 'Moonage Daydream', but achieves that effect by going in the opposite direction. With Bowie's most exaggerated American accent ever, this is as obvious an attempt to do a Velvet Underground track as the far earlier perviness of 'Little Toy Soldier'. The first line, in fact, is sung in as close to a Lou Reed impersonation as anyone's ever done and the lyric ("Thought we had a good thing going, and you know and Mama had a thing on/My baby got out last Monday and me I'm on a radio show") with its suggestion of prison and non-sequitur ending could be straight from the Reed Book of Song Writing.

So there you go - an album to fit between Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust. Maybe its best it never happened though because, as someone once remarked, if Sgt Pepper is the ultimate 60s album, Ziggy fills the same role in the 1970s.

Tracklisting to the imaginary album

Side 1

Moonage Daydream (Arnold Corns version)
Shadow Man
Tired of My Life

Side 2

Velvet Goldmine
Sweet Head
How Lucky You Are
Hang onto Yourself (Arnold Corns version)

And finally, from the actual album, the performance of 'Five Years' which remains one of my all time favourite Bowie moments.

Five Years on the Whistle Test

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Catching Up - Books, Movies and Television

Well I finally put the Faction Paradox book to bed, after a weekend of proof-reading and fiddling with the PDF, then sent it off to the printers. Which means it's time for a bit of a catch-up on what I've been reading and watching over the past month or two, while I've had little time for posting on here.

Let's see...

Two books featuring Oscar Wilde as a character: Willie Rushton's only novel, WG Grace's Last Case and one of Gyles Brandreth's Oscar Wilde Mysteries.

The Rushton was the better of the two: a caddish cricketer dies with an Indian arrow in his back while running up to bowl to WG Grace, and so Grace regales Inspector Lestrade and Dr Watson with the tale of his travels across America some years previously in the company of AJ Raffles, Oscar Wilde and others and explains exactly what relevance that trip has to the current murder. If you like Rushton's humour in general, then you'll love this early stab at a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen style adventure.

The Brandreth book is considerably more sensible in every respect, and suffers because of it. It's a common enough trick nowadays to grab AN Literary Figure and make him a detective of some sort, but it's a far more difficult trick to do so and actually make the Literary Figure serve a genuine purpose. Brandreth nearly manages it, but he spends so much time ensuring Oscar rings true that at times it seemed too implausible that he would also be the great detective he proves himself to be in the book. It's pleasantly written, very sympathetic to Wilde and full of interesting background on late 19th century theatre, but perhaps because of the latter, it's a little stuffy, doesn't flow as well as it might and the solution was a tiny bit obvious, meaning I ended up reading it in fits and starts, picking it up largely on the basis that it was to hand, rather than a genuine desire to plunge back into the narrative. Worth a read, certainly, but if it's a choice between the two books, go with Willie Rushton.

A series of monologues about the Crucifixion: Tales from the Madhouse.

Tales from the Madhouse is a short series of 18 minute monologues in which the major figures in the Easter story are relocated from the middle east to a Victorian English madhouse, where they describe in retrospect their actions in Jerusalem and the impact those actions had on one Jewish mystic. I can't recommend this highly enough. The writing is wonderfully rich, the translocation from Judea to England deftly handled and the acting, from the likes of James Cosmo, Claire Bloom and Joss Ackland, is absolutely top-notch.

Shamefully this sn't out on a commercial DVD, even though - for instance - every episode of 'Two Pints of Lager' is. Clearly, there is no God.

Books about old films: '50 Years of Carry On' - Richard Webber and 'So You Want to be in Pictures' - Val Guest

Richard Webber is probably my favourite tv writer. It helps that he seems exclusively to write about things I love - Dads Army, Carry On, Porridge, Hancock, Are You Being Served? and more - but more importantly, he writes about stuff which he loves. And it shows. 'What a Carry On' charts the movies all the way from the excellent 'Carry on Sergeant' in 1958 to the abysmal 'Carry on Columbus' in 1992, with a lot of detail on the development of the series by Rogers and Thomas, and on the interactions of the various stars. It's quite a dry read but never less than interesting, and Webber avoids the temptation to write a blinkered hagiography (who but fans are likely to buy the book, after all?) and rightly slates the films made after the departure of Talbot Rothwell, and points out the failings of the occasional Big Names pulled in to add star cachet to the regulars.

So You Want to be in Pictures should have been great but even though it falls short of that, it still manages to be pretty bloody good. Val Guest directed some of the seminal British stars and movies of the first half of the twentieth century, including one of my all time favourite films, Will Hay vehicle, 'Oh! Mr Porter' and several Hammer movies, as well as workign in the States during the Hollywood golden age. It's no surprise therefore that his autobiography is packed full of anecdotes, backstage gossip and forgotten tales of the black and white era. Compulsive name dropping, a vivid, chatty writing style and a consistently positive attitude towards everything he encounters makes this my current favourite film biography. If you've got any interest in Gainsborough movies, Hammer or Will Hay (or any number of other things, actually), pick up a copy of this book...

Cartoon Movies

Rio - Was OK. Pretty standard cartoon movie fayre, with almost nothing worth noting expecially, but wildly popular with my kids for some reason. The very definition of 'Will make more money via lunchboxes and free toys in Macdonalds Kiddie Meal boxes than in the cinema).

Rango - Was brilliant, Like David Lynch made a cartoon with Sergio Leone filtered through Tod Browning. Possibly with the intervention of some French cinematographer. it looks wonderful, all washed out dustbowl colours and strangely deformed talking animals. It's got a cinematic feel to the direction which is rare - actually, unknown - outside a Pixar film, and it features The Man with No Name as the Spirit of the West. Anyone want to argue that's not the Best Thing Ever?