The Lady in the Lake

Posted: April 6, 2021 in Book reviews
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By Raymond Chandler

When PI Philip Marlowe is hired by rich businessman Derace Kingsley to find his wife, Crystal, he has no idea how what seems like a simple case will skew into something with wider implications. Supposedly Crystal has eloped with her lover, a gigolo named Chris Lavery, only Lavery is still in Bay City, and there’s no sign of Crystal with him.

Marlowe’s investigations will take him from Bay City up into the countryside and Little Fawn Lake, where Kingsley has a cabin. Suddenly it isn’t only Crystal Kingsley who might be missing. What happened to Muriel Chess, wife of the caretaker of Kingsley’s cabin, and what, if any, connection is there between the two women and the wife of Dr Almore, a woman who died months before, and who lived across the road from Lavery? And how is thuggish cop Al Degarmo involved?

My third Chandler novel, and yes I am reading them all out of order, but this doesn’t seem to matter so I’ll continue doing so. The plot of this book felt somewhat more organised than in the other books I’d read, and I had wondered if this was an original story by Chandler, but no, checking after finishing it becomes apparent that yet again Chandler cannibalised three of his short stories. For saying that it’s impossible to see the joins, he knits the distinct elements together well, and I’ve no desire to dig deeper into the matter because the novel worked just fine for me, in fact for once Chandler caught me on the hop with the final reveal, and what at first seems a relatively simple tale is far more serpentine than I’d imagined, with great characters and a notable femme fatale.

It’s interesting to see Marlowe out of his comfort zone and away from LA, and to see references to soldiers guarding the dam on his way to the lake, this was written not long after Pearl Harbour and American found itself once more at war. There’s a great little section that talks about how politics and policing needs good people, but doesn’t always pay enough to attract them which is still quite pertinent almost a century later.

Though at times it’s a little old fashioned, particularly grammatically, I continue to adore Chandler’s prose. Before the next Chandler novel I might investigate his short stories, though I am nervous of chancing upon the basis for some of his books.

All in all a fine outing for Philip Marlowe.

Skyfall (2012)

Posted: April 1, 2021 in James Bond
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Little did we know we’d have to wait four years to get out next taste of Bond. An unusual gap (it was then anyway) but not without precedent; there was four years between Die Another Day and Casino Royale after all, and of course the gap between Licence to Kill and Goldeneye had been even longer. This was mainly down to MGM suffering financial difficulties, but the gap did at least allow plenty of time to polish the script, and of course ensured that a Bond film would come out in 2012, an auspicious year given it would be cinematic Bond’s golden anniversary; 50 years since Dr No. Could anyone back then have envisaged 007 would still be going 50 years later?

Skyfall is at once a very familiar Bond, reintroducing many tropes that were jettisoned after Die Another Day; Moneypenny and Q return, as does a Bond car fitted with gadgets. In many ways Skyfall is the outlier in the Daniel Craig era, because it seems separate to the wider “plot”, quotation marks intentional because clearly the wider plot has been made up on the fly. Skyfall is the one Craig Bond film where Vesper doesn’t get a mention, where neither Quantum nor Spectre are the overarching bad guys, no matter what the retrofitting of the next movie will tell us.

Yet for all that familiarity it is a film that plays with the franchise in some very unusual ways. A film that celebrates 50 years of Bond, while at the same time deconstructing it. This is a film that wants to have its cake and eat it. That wants to portray 007, and possibly by extension the UK, as tired and old, while still saying there’s a place for both of them. That glories in patriotism without ever feeling jingoistic (no surprise that Skyfall came out the year of the London Olympics, when a more open Britain wowed the world. 2012 seems a long time ago now.)

 Mallory makes it plain he thinks James is too old for this. “Why didn’t you stay dead?” Watch Bond and Q’s first meeting where they discuss Turner’s ‘Fighting Temeraire’, as Q says “Grand old war ship, being ignominiously hauled away to scrap… The inevitability of time.” He might as well be talking about Bond. Moneypenny’s comments about cutthroat razors being “very traditional” before adding “old dog, new tricks.” Silva laughs at Bond’s old-fashioned notions, and later as Kincade says “Sometimes the old ways are the best”. Most telling of all is M quoting Tennyson. “We are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven.”

Watch as aspects of Bond’s existence are torn down. MI6 headquarters, the Aston Martin, the house he grew up in and, most noticeably, the death of Judi Dench’s M. Bond emerges from all of this though, and the world of 007 is reset. M returns to a very traditional office with leather quilted doors (and returns to being a man). Moneypenny is back in the office, Q is back in the lab, and Bond is back on active service like he’s never been away. As an aside I’ve discovered that in M’s new office there’s a picture of Trafalgar, primarily it shows HMS Victory, but by her side is the Temeraire, back in her heyday. The ship is reborn, as is 007.

The pre-title sequence in Turkey is great, and foreshadows Silva’s issues with M not once, but twice. She insists Bond leave his fellow agent to die, then further orders Moneypenny to “take the bloody shot” despite the fact 007 is in the way. The chase is thrilling and its finale as Bond plunges into the water is excellent, segueing into a great title sequence accompanied by Adelle’s banging Bond tune (second best of the DC era after You Know My Name).

Yes the hard drive full of agents’ names is a clear rip off of the NOC list from Mission Impossible, but it’s purely a McGuffin so who cares, especially as it’s quickly forgotten by the time we’re halfway into the film. It isn’t important except as a means for Silva to torture M.

I’m still not entirely sure why M is stopped on the bridge, coincidence, are those copper’s Silva’s men? Again, it isn’t important. Agents are dead, MI6 has been attacked, so it’s time for Bond to return from enjoying death.

The scene between 007 and M in her home is a joy. The two of them have so much chemistry and despite it all M’s still the one in charge. “You’re not staying here.”

Bond’s evaluation shows he’s broken in more ways than one, and frankly even before M tells Tanner that he failed the tests it’s bloody obvious he has. M despatches him to Shanghai where he kills Patrice, then, aided by Moneypenny, follows a trail to Macau and the mysterious Sévérine who he convinces to introduce him to her boss.

 Sévérine’s fear bigs up Silva, and nine times out of ten this kind of talk falls flat when we actually meet the bad guy (see Renard in TWINE or Blofeld in Spectre) but here it works, because Silva doesn’t disappoint. In all seriousness few characters make an entrance quite as memorable as Javier Bardem does here. Silva is affable and terrifying, camp as a row of tents yet with a reptilian edge that’s creepy as anything. Truly one of the best Bond villains.

Of course, his grand scheme is preposterous. If he wanted to kill M he could have easily done what Bond did and break into her home, yet it works because of the nature of the character. Look at that entrance, and his later arrival at Skyfall. Look at his home (based on Battleship Island) he loves theatricality. The idea of sneaking into M’s bedroom and murdering her in her sleep wouldn’t have crossed his mind. Instead we have a ridiculous scheme likely years in the planning, and yes it relies on a hundred different contrivances.

But I don’t care.

At the end of the day the script is so good (thematically and in terms of dialogue), the direction so assured, and Bardem, Craig and Dench so on top of their game that it doesn’t matter that you could drive a truck though the holes in Silva’s plan.

Some people dislike the final act, it’s a bit too Home Alone, though you could argue it’s more Straw Dogs, and to be honest the first time I saw the film I was a bit sniffy, but subsequent viewings shifted my view, especially once the lightbulb moment struck. For fifty years Bond has been waltzing into the villain’s secret base and blowing it up, this flips it. Skyfall isn’t the villain’s lair, it’s 007’s and it’s the villain that shoots it up (yes technically Bond blows it up but it’s already a ruin by then, and after all Blofeld blew up that volcano when he knew the game was up.) You have to give kudos to a film 50 years into a franchise that can do something so different.

Practically everything about this film is superb. Newman isn’t a patch on Arnold, yet his mournful score works, rising to triumph as required when Bond is, well Bond. Yes it would have been nice to have a bit more of the Bond theme but you can’t have everything.

Mendes’ direction is flawless, aided and abetted by the cinematography of Roger Deakins. Skyfall is arguably the most beautiful Bond film, a fact made even more impressive when you realise so many of the lavish foreign locations were shot in the UK. M stood beyond those Union flag draped coffins, Bond and Patrice’s fight in Shanghai, Scotland…why Deakins didn’t win the Oscar for this is anyone’s guess.

The set pieces are superb, from the pre-title sequence to Bond and Patrice’s second fight, Bond despatching henchmen in the casino and proving Silva wrong on the island (though maybe that was Silva’s plan all along eh?) the underground chase is exciting, but for me the highlight of the film is the inquiry, beautifully shot, Dench’s recitation of Tennyson is lovely, and Newman’s score as Bond runs to the rescue is the icing on the cake; bonus points for Mallory and Moneypenny kicking arse into the bargain.  

Yes I can see why some didn’t like this film because it’s so nostalgia heavy (and one day I will sit down and list all the bloody homages because there are dozens of them) and because it doesn’t seem to be the same 007 as Casino Royale and Quantum. Maybe that’s why I like it. However good Casino Royale is—and it is amazing—I can never shake the suspicion that its slightly embarrassed to be a Bond film, whereas Skyfall embraces it.

Outside of the central trio, hats off to Whishaw, Harris and Fiennes who are flawless. Whishaw is the very antithesis of Llewelyn yet still manages to have the kind of snarky interplay with 007 we’ve known and loved. Similarly Harris has fun with a much more active Moneypenny, and the question remains, how close did she and Bond get in Macau? That leaves Fiennes, who frankly is one of the best actors on the planet so of course he’s great. Mallory has a lot of depth given his limited screen time. At times something of a prick, at others honourable and the only one at the inquiry who wants to hear from M, and the old soldier who can still take down a bad guy. Dench was a fantastic M, but here at least Fiennes proves a more than able successor.

There is an argument that the film’s treatment of women isn’t great. From Bond using Severine, a victim of the sex trade, to get what he wants, to the death of our first female M, and then of course there’s Moneypenny. That Eve is portrayed as a more than competent agent here is great, but that just makes her eventual decision to jack it all in to become a PA all the more galling. It’s a shame because Harris is really very good.

Skyfall isn’t perfect, like most Craig Bond films it’s too long (though the pacing never feels quite as off as it does with Casino Royale, Silva’s plan is ridiculous and the fact that every female character ends up dead or behind a desk isn’t a great look for a 21st Century Bond film.

And yet…

Skyfall remains my favourite Bond film of the Daniel Craig era. Gorgeous to look at, glorious to listen to, full of nuance and jam packed with great performances. I could watch the inquiry scenes on a loop and not get bored, listen to Bardem talk about rats over and over again. For me this is the pinnacle of Craig’s tenure (unless No Time to Die takes its crown.)

Mommy was very bad, but Skyfall is very good.

One film left in my re-watch, same core cast as this one, same director, yet a film I have very different feelings about. But who knows, if this process has taught me anything it’s that films I thought I loved I now dislike, and films I hated I’ve occasional reappraised with hindsight.

So maybe Spectre will be great!

by Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton

For those unaware, Inside No.9 is a BBC anthology show, each episode a self-contained half hour story, usually set in a single location (a house, a car, even a wardrobe once). The series is comedy of the darkest variety and aside from the statue of a hare that can be seen in most episodes, the only  linking element is the use of the number 9, often in highly ingenious ways. Written by League of Gentlemen alumni Shearsmith and Pemberton, each episode features one (usually both) of the actors, in addition to a phenomenal list of guest stars, attracted not only by the quality of the material but by the singular nature of each episode.

Following in the footsteps of anthology shows like Armchair Theatre and Tales of the Unexpected, Inside No. 9’s great strength is the range of stories it can tell, from domestic dramas to gothic horror. No two tales in each series are alike and the writers are incredibly inventive. The humour is black, the stories often tragic, and horror is a repeating theme, and though there isn’t always a twist in the tale, most episodes feature one. It’s also a gloriously moving show as well, and the only limits seem to be the imaginations of its creators, and they seem to have a surfeit of creativity.

When I spotted that the scripts for the first three series had been released, I immediately added it to my Christmas wish list, and thankfully Santa obliged.

The main takeaway from reading these scripts is the reinforcement of just how good Pemberton and Shearsmith are as writers. Take series 2’s ‘The 12 Days of Christine’ arguably the strongest episode of the show to date, part of it’s charm was a fantastic lead performance from Sheridan Smith as the eponymous Christine. She’s wonderful, bringing Christine to life, making us love her and breaking our hearts in the process, but even without Smith the story itself is a masterpiece that grabs your heartstrings and tugs for all it’s worth, and I felt myself welling up as I got to the story’s end, even though I knew what was coming.

Sure, some work better than others on the page. Take Sardines, which has such a huge cast of characters that it’s difficult to keep track when you don’t have faces on screen, but some other episodes worked even better. I probably enjoyed Last Gasp more on the page than I had when I watched it for example. On the whole though, the thing with Inside No.9 is that you can find something joyous, even in episodes that left you a little cold (comparatively speaking, not sure there’s ever been an episode I didn’t enjoy to some extent.) and reading the scripts really hammers home, not only that they’re good writers, but also that they’re clever writers—take the central conceit at the heart of ‘The Devil of Christmas’, or the intellectual contortions of ‘The Riddle of the Sphynx’ or the use of song lyrics to reveal character and plot in ‘Empty Orchestra’.

This isn’t just a cold intellectual appreciation though, at times reading the script elicited genuine cares, genuine pathos, and very often I found myself laughing out loud.

For fans of the show, for those interested in great TV writing, and frankly for anyone interested in good writing of any kind. Highly recommended.

I can’t wait to get my hands on the next volume!

by Becky Chambers

In a bid to leave her old life behind, Rosemary Harper joins the crew of the spaceship Wayfarer as a file clerk. She quickly fits in amongst the multispecies, and somewhat unconventional crew and life is good. But then the crew get an offer they can’t refuse, the chance to build a hyperspace tunnel from a distant part of the galaxy. They’ll each earn a fortune, the trouble is they have to take the slow way there, and they’re going to have to pass through hostile terrain. Can the plucky crew survive the challenges the universe has in store for them?

There are books I love, and books I hate, but perhaps the saddest books are those that disappoint. The blurb of this book hooked me, and the opening chapters reeled me in. Yes, there’s more than a hint of Firefly here, but compared to some homages I’ve read this was at least well done. Chambers’ world building was good, and her characters leapt off the page.

The concept is great, the universe is nicely put together, and the characters (mostly) interesting…

Yet in the end I felt a little cheated.

 Why’s that, you ask? Well in the main because there’s one vital ingredient missing from the story of this crazy diverse crew. Drama. I was tempted to add plot as well, but there is a plot, sort of. I was about a third of the way through before I realised they really were taking the long way to that small angry planet, and worse they were taking the episodic route as well. This was originally self-published and at first I wonder if it’d been released in instalments, because it has that feel about it. Episode 1: shopping. Episode 2: Space insects. Episode 3: Pirates… etc.

This is fine, the characters are interesting enough that the fact that they meander from one situation to the next didn’t bother me that much. The trouble is the lack of drama. Seriously, every problem they face is resolved quickly and easily with the minimum amount of fuss or danger. It gets to the point where I stopped getting excited as the next big thing showed up, because I knew the tension was going to be sucked out of the situation within a page or so, and regular as clockwork it was.

Don’t get me wrong, as a Trek fan the idea of characters resolving issues through chat rather than gunplay isn’t anathema to me but at least mix it up a little.

And don’t get me started on the disappointment of what happens (or maybe what doesn’t happen) when they finally reach the titular small angry planet.

I did enjoy it up to a point though. Chambers’ prose is excellent, and while I’ve read better world building, I read an awful lot worse. Characters like Jenks and Kizzy and Dr Chef and Sissix were fun and interesting. I just wish they’d had more difficulty reaching that small angry planet, and, you know, maybe spent some time there.

Perhaps for all my protestations of being an optimist, in the end I’m too cynical for this nicest of nice stories, or maybe I just want something that isn’t quite so wet. In the end I’d still recommend it as a decent read, just don’t get your hopes up for edge of the seat excitement.  

Quantum of Solace (2008)

Posted: February 10, 2021 in James Bond
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Following up a monumental hit like Casino Royale was always going to be tricky, but likely Eon didn’t imagine it would wind up quite as tricky as it did. A speedy production schedule was further complicated by a Writers’ strike. A bare bones script was fleshed out by director Marc Forster and Daniel Craig on set, the only people allowed to work on it. The result is a film that feels raw and unfinished, and a film many see as a poor follow up to Casino Royale and a poor Bond film in general.

Let’s be honest here, it’s no Casino Royale, and it’s clearly a film that proved problematic to make. And yet…there is a lot to like about it, and while it wasn’t initially intended to be such a sequel to Casino Royale, the two films bookend each other well, which I like.

After all Casino Royale begins in snowy Eastern Europe and ends in sunny Italy. By contrast Quantum of Solace begins in sunny Italy and ends in snowy Eastern Europe. There’s a nice symmetry to that.

The film opens with a car chase. I’ve no idea how Mr White’s associates realised he’d been taken prisoner, but here they are, chasing 007. It’s a pre-title sequence that’s grown on me over the years, to the point now where I quite like it. Still, the nod to Jason Bourne is obvious (i.e., shake the camera a lot and make it hard for anyone to see what’s going on) But it’s gritty and in your face, and features a nice denouement. Shame about Bond’s “It’s time to get out,” though, not exactly a witty pun.

M proceeds to try and scare Mr White, with clear allusions to Guantanamo Bay and extraordinary rendition, but he doesn’t seem easily spooked. His line about having people everywhere is followed up by M’s bodyguard trying to kill her. Here the quick edits work to the film’s advantage, because for a second you genuinely believe M’s been shot (clearly ridiculous, they’d never kill Dame Judi off).

Bond’s quickly in pursuit and a rooftop chase across Sienna ensues. I wonder if this was supposed to be the pre-title sequence, especially given it ends with Bond shooting Mitchell, which would have meant another novel gun barrel moment. The film could just as easily have started with Bond arriving at the safehouse, but then I suppose the film would have had one less action scene and would have been even shorter. Which is fine, Quantum of Solace’s brevity is one of the things I like about it.

Some claim this is another sop to Bourne, where Matt Damon chases someone across the roofs of Tangier. Everyone forgets that Dalton was chased across the rooftops of Tangier decades earlier, and that even before this there’s a deleted scene from OHMSS where Lazenby tracks someone across the rooftops of London, who who’s ripping off who Mr Bourne?

It’s a decent set piece, even if half the time it feels more like a travelogue as we get treated to footage of the famous horse race. I guess they used this to pad the film out.

The first half of the film definitely has a frenetic feel to it. Bond hops from Italy to London to Haiti to Austria and then back to Italy before he heads to Bolivia. The lack of much linking footage is jarring, you almost feel like Bond’s teleporting from place to place.

The tip that sends Bond off to Haiti is pretty thin, and within minutes Bond has arrived and killed the guy (Mr Slate, I guess Quantum stole their codenames from Reservoir Dogs). The fight is short and brutal, and yes feels a tad Bourne’ish. Before you can say “really 007” Bond’s met Camille and almost been killed by her. Again it’s frantic, and isn’t a great introduction to Olga Kurylenko’s Bond girl.

Quick as a flash we’ve met our bad guy, the somewhat underwhelming Dominic Greene, although I think Mathieu Amalric makes the best of the material he’s given, and it’s nice to have a Bond villain who isn’t disfigured. On the plus side we get to see the world’s worst street sweeper (whose brush never touches the ground) and Joaquín Cosío’s wonderfully creepy General Medrano.

Greene hands Camille over to the General (which is what she wants) which is when our boy decides to “rescue” her. Again the stunts are well done but it’s hard to see what’s going on. Gotta love Bond handing Camille off to some bewildered busboy though, one of the traits I love of Daniel’s Bond is how easily he disposes of things once they’ve served their usefulness. Car keys, mobile phones, his father’s shotgun (oops getting ahead of myself) and even people (poor Mathis).

Next thing you know 007’s in Austria and my head’s spinning. Quantum’s hugely public meeting has it’s advantages I guess, a good excuse for rich folks from across the globe to head for Bregenz, but feels a trifle silly as well. Bond being Bond he reveals he’s listening in, cue a nicely done running gun battle with Tosca as the soundtrack. Pretty soon Bond’s accused of killing a Special Branch officer and he’s forced to go on the run. Bond rogue you say? Sigh. Luckily Stevie from Miranda covers for him, so no one knows he’s on his way back to Italy to find Mathis.

“What have you done today?”

Now if the first half of the film feels like a mess, I’d argue the second is much better. The film finally gets the breathe. We get two lovely conversations between Bond and Mathis, one at his home the other on the plane, and once we hit Bolivia the film we get some plot. Giancarlo Giannini and Daniel Craig have wonderful chemistry and it’s a shame he’s killed off. Gemma Arterton’s Agent (Strawberry) Fields is great (again shame she’s killed) although Bond’s seduction of her is clunky (“Would you help me find the stationary?”). Have to say this film does feature one of my favourite jokes in the franchise. We’re teachers on sabbatical…and we’ve won the lottery. Don’t tell me Daniel can’t do funny.

For a film with an unfinished script there’s some neat dialogue. Greene saying Camile is all right “once you get her on her back” obviously a reference to her scarring, and his comment that she and James are “both damaged goods”.

Bond and Camille discover Quantum’s real plan, stage a coup in Bolivia and as reward get a worthless patch of desert, only it isn’t worthless because you’ve ensured all the water flows there. Seriously there are people who don’t get the plot of this film which always surprises me.

The exploding hotel is wonderfully daffy, and Bond and Camile’s attack is nicely done.

As Bond girl’s go, Camille is up there with the best and it’s refreshing to find a character who not only has agency, but also has her own narrative arc. She isn’t interested in Greene, she just wants to kill Medrano, and in the end she does—without 007’s assistance. That she is perhaps the only lead Bond girl who doesn’t shag Bond is the icing on the cake, but she isn’t there as a sex object (gorgeous as Olga Kurylenko is) and nor is she 007’s sidekick. She’s a woman with her own mission and luckily for 007 it runs parallel with his.

Dominic Greene gets better as the film goes on, and his last-ditch desperate fight with Bond works well because he isn’t a fighter, which makes him unpredictable. Have to say as well that his fate must be one of the most coldblooded in the franchise as Bond leaves him in the middle of the desert with only a can of motor oil to drink.

Cue an epilogue in Russia as Bond meets Vesper’s villainous boyfriend and reveals to a Canadian agent (Castle’s Stana Katic) that she risks being duped the same way. Nice use of the flimsy plot of Fleming’s short story 007 in New York. It’s also a nice way to show how much Bond has grown, from the man who thought one less bomb maker in the world was a good thing, to a man who’ll choose to spare the man he wants to kill, because he’s more useful alive.

There’s nice material for Dame Judi to get her teeth into, it’s nice to see Felix again (shame rewrites robbed Jeffrey Wright of a meatier role) and yes that is Stranger Things David Harbour as the slimy Gregg Beam.

Quantum of Solace is also perhaps the most political Bond film, with references to coups tacitly supported by the US (and by extension the UK) and mention of corporations and poverty. It’s clunky, but ally this to a film about the control of utilities and it clearly tackles themes Bond has rarely tackled before (of course you might feel Bond shouldn’t get political.)

If there’d been no writers’ strike I wonder what kind of Bond film we’d have got? Sadly we’ll never know, but Forster’s direction is decent, and Arnold’s soundtrack is great, and Craig gives it his all. It’ll never be one of my favourite Bond films, but for me its far from being the worst, and the second half just about redeems a mess of a first half at least. Rough and ready it may be, but it still ends up better than some Bonds that had far more time spent on them.

Edited by John Joseph Adams

I’m the kind of contrarian who, on a blazing hot summer’s day, would squirrel myself away in a cool, dark cinema (and will again once its safe to do so) so perhaps its no great surprise that during a pandemic I would find comfort in an anthology of post-apocalyptic stories.

Some may find this curious but to me it makes perfect sense. Much as fictional horror helps us process the real horrors of the world, what better way to deal with a pandemic that, terrible as it is isn’t going to destroy humanity, than by getting lost in stories where characters really are facing the end of it all.

This is far more than a collection of mere Mad Max clones, and Adams has pulled together an interesting, and eclectic collection of stories. For starters there’s dizzying array of apocalypses on offer, from your run of the mill nuclear Armageddon to your biological weapon running amok. There’s climate change and alien invasion and simple even ennui as deep time ensures that humanity is simply too bored to go on.

And the characters are as varied as the settings. Adams has drawn writers from a diverse background, which means we get to see as many women as men facing the end of the world, with people of different ethnicities and sexualities struggling with Armageddon. There’s even disabled and trans characters. On both counts this helps keep the collection fresh though there’s still action aplenty.

There’s over 30 stories on offer, so I’m not going to go through them all, but here’s a selection of ones I particularly enjoyed.

The Last to Matter by Adam-Troy Castro is a surreal jaunt to the far future. It’s completely bizarre and could have been annoying as hell but somehow Castro keeps the right side of weird.

Where Would You Be Now by Carrie Vaughn shines a positive light on the post-apocalyptic environment, taking unexpected turns and flipping the usual evil brigands’ trope.

The Elephants Crematorium by Timothy Mudie depicts a world where no more babies are born but rather than focus on how humans react to this the story instead relates to elephants, and it’s genuinely moving.

As Good as New by Charlie Jane Anders takes the monkey’s paw/genie of the lamp tale and gives it a fresh end of the world spin. Original and amusing.

Cannibal Acts by Maureen F. McHugh takes grim subject matter but layers it with emotion. Nowhere near as lurid as the titles suggests.

Shooting the Apocalypse by Paolo Bacigalupi feels very prescient, featuring a photographer and a journalist looking for a story in a near future world where climate change has caused drought to blight various southern American states. It’s tale of desperate people risking everything to cross borders feels scarily like it’s only a few years away from being reality.

Come on Down by Meg Ellison shows how even the most curious of things, a game show, can provide hope in the most trying of times.

Polly Wanna Cracker? by Greg Van Eekhout is another quite surreal, far future entry, but it’s amusing and features a great last line.

I really enjoyed And the Rest Of Us Wait by Corrine Duyvis, set in an underground shelter it follows a young Latvian pop star who also happens to be disabled. Another story that essays the curious things people might take hope in, while also detailing the difficulties the differently abled might face in the event of the apocalypse. A story I desperately wanted to continue.

So Sharp, So Bright, So Final by Seanan McGuire is, on the face of it a zombie tale, but Seanan gives it an inventive, grounded twist, and it’s very well written.

Snow by Dale Bailey starts out as a tale of disease sweeping the world, but morphs into something else entirely, and takes a heart-breaking journey into the dividing line between love and survival.

The Air Is Chalk by Richard Kadrey has echoes of The Omega Man, the central character a celebrity bodyguard trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles menaced by…well some very strange monsters!

Finally Francisca Montoya’s Almanac Of Things That Can Kill You by Shaenon K. Garrity rounds off the collection. An inventive entry that on the face of it is merely a list of the various deaths available at the end of the world, yet still manages to tell a story.

As with any anthology there’s good and bad, but there were very few tales I didn’t enjoy on some level. The only flaw is that it’s quite a weighty tome, which meant that, by around three quarters of the way in, even I was starting to tire of the end of the world, but that’s a minor foible. A very good anthology.

Casino Royale (2006)

Posted: January 11, 2021 in James Bond
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And so, we go from what’s widely perceived to be one of the worst Bond films, to what’s widely perceived to be one of the best. Whatever your view of Die Another Day and Casino Royale, you can’t deny that they feel like two wholly different kinds of films. One utterly ridiculous, the other utterly grounded. Of course, this isn’t new for the franchise. Look at OHMSS sandwiched between YOLT and DAF, or more relevant the gritty For Your Eyes Only following Moonraker. Only Roger Moore could go into space, but even he couldn’t stay there.

Time for the usual full disclosure. Whilst I wasn’t one of the “Bond can’t be blonde” muppets (Rog isn’t exactly dark haired, is he?) I was disappointed in the casting of Daniel Craig, and should I ever meet the fellow I plan to sincerely apologise, because, whilst the quality of his films has been variable, he’s been a superb Bond all the way.

Returning to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service for a moment, it’s interesting to note what else Casino Royale shares with that film. Not only do both feature genuine romance for Bond, they’re both also incredibly faithful (to a point) adaptations, and both feature a tragic death. Beyond this both are not only great Bond films, but they’re also great films full stop. For Craig this has on occasion somewhat hamstrung him, because after such an assured debut the only way was down—George at least began and left on a high.

We can always hope that No Time to Die will, eventually, provide a suitably great swansong for Craig, but only time will tell.

Back to Casino Royale. Things are different from the off, with no gun barrel intro and a black and white pre-title sequence set in chilly Prague and not so chilly, well it’s Pakistan but we never really find that out as all the cricketing preamble is wisely excised. All that remains is a framed cricketing print that gets knocked off the wall during the fight. Bond’s conversation with Dryden is succinct but loaded with information, yet never feels expository. Bond isn’t a 00 agent yet, and to become a 00 requires two kills. Though it quickly becomes apparent to Dryden that Bond already has one, and he’s to be the second.

There’s an interesting contrast between the two kills. The fight in the rest room is brutal and hot blooded, the discussion between Bond and Dryden cold blooded and polite, and Bond’s reaction to each death is very different. When he thinks he’s killed Dryden’s contact, Bond is in shock, and Craig does a wonderful job of portraying a whole host of conflicting emotions here. Bond is almost proud, yet horrified. You can’t quite decide if he’s about to punch the air or throw up, perhaps the perfect response to a first kill.

His execution of Dryden, and it is an execution, is calm by comparison, almost blasé, with Dryden not even getting to finish his homily that a second kill is always…

“Yes. Considerably.”. Interesting to note the flash of a family photo as Dryden topples back. A wife and child perhaps. Nice touch.

We flash back to Pakistan where it seems Bond’s first kill wasn’t quite dead. James quickly resolves this and we get the most imaginative gun barrel in the franchise, followed by titles that, for my money are the best in the series. Exceptionally cool, especially the bullet holes in the 7 of Hearts that morphs into 007 Status Confirmed. Chris Cornell and David Arnold’s fantastic ‘You Know My Name’ playing over the top is just the icing on the cake.

Casino Royale is a long film and, in many respects, an oddly paced one. Two of the big action sequences, after all, arrive early on. Bond’s pursuit of the bomber in Madagascar and his interception of the second bomber at Mimi Airport. Both are excellent, although the free running segment does go on a bit (and is it just me, but does the embassy guard already seem to be examining the bomber’s passport and radioing his superior before the bomber runs up to him?). Both showcase Craig’s physicality, and when he runs through a wall you genuinely believe he can do that. If I had a preference it’s for the Miami section, if only because Bond uses his wits a bit more here. That the film still works despite front loading much of the action is testament to how well the casino scenes are done. Here it’s helped by the source material, even if much of Fleming’s plot is jettisoned (no Bulgarians blowing themselves up) it’s also helped by the arrival of Vesper, and by having Bond and Le Chiffre finally face off.

Now at times I’ve been a little sniffy about the characters. Not the actors. Green and Mikkelsen are superb, but as villains go Le Chiffre always seemed to lack agency. Having him use his inhaler the first time we see him isn’t a great start, and he seems at the mercy of events rather than driving them forwards. He’s very nearly murdered by his own associates before Bond can get close enough to win the game after all. Similarly, Vesper suffers the same issues she does in the book, she’s a little insipid, at times you wonder what it is about her that Bond loves so much, and like the book she seems to go from hating Bond to falling in love in the time it takes to turn over a card.

But actually both of them fared much better in my eyes this time. Green’s chemistry with Craig is off the charts. Their first meeting on the train is wonderful—so good Eon will try to replicate it a few years later, with nought but a pale imitation—as are most of their interactions, the dress/dinner jacket scenes add very little to the story, but I love them. And her acting is spot on. I never noticed before how there’s a fantastic moment when she says goodbye in Venice, just a flicker, subtle as hell but wonderful. She really is saying goodbye for keeps.

It’s debatable how much agency she has, in part because we never quite know when she’s acting against Bond and when she’s not, but if nothing else she feels like she has agency, and she’s certainly a more rounded character than most Bond girls.

At times the poker stuff goes on a bit, and having Mathis mansplain poker to Vesper (and the audience) multiple times is wince inducing, but when the poker scenes work they do so superbly, even if the final denouncement is a trifle contrived (seriously every player gets one-upped by the next in line?).

But this is a film of contrivances, most Bond films are, but they do irk me slightly here. Look at Bond’s detective work in the Bahamas. It’s fortunate that Dimitrios sent that text just as he arrived and was caught on camera, and it’s the first tape 007 looks at. On the plus side I still have a lot of goodwill after Bond smashes the very obvious Goldfinger homage’s Range Rover.

Similarly, handy Bond had a defibrillator in his car.

These are minor annoyances though, and frankly the film is long enough without seeing Bond trek through dozens of tapes.

The car chase that isn’t really a car chase is excellently done, and for those unfamiliar with the novel it must have been one hell of a shock to see Vesper in the middle of the road.

Then there’s the torture scene, where Mikkelsen really comes alive. A slight change from the book but the mechanics are the same.

Mads Mikkelsen is wonderful, but…forgive the indulgence, but I like to think there’s an alternate universe where the weasely Le Chiffre is played by Christoph Waltz, and Ernst Stavro Blofeld is played by Mikkelsen—though could even arguably the best Hannibal Lector we ever had have salvaged Spectre (getting ahead of myself!).

Then we get poor old Mathis’ shabby treatment (I’m sure this will be made up for in the next film) and finally James and Vesper fall in love. Cue montage! Again, the pacing is a little off, because this comes so late in the film, by contrast Bond and Tracy’s courtship happened much earlier in OHMSS, giving their love a little more time to breathe. Still, it’s hard not to swoon over some of the dialogue. “You’ve got your armour back up again.” “I have no armour left, you’ve stripped it from me.” Just divine.

And then, finally, the Venice set piece in a collapsing building. Which is great. Really it is.

You know there’s a but coming, right?

The trouble is, not only does it elongate the film yet further, but it goes against the theme running through the film. Mano a mano. Practically every confrontation Bond has is him vs a single opponent.

Bond vs Dryden, Bond vs the guy in the bathroom, Bond vs Mollaka the free runner, Bond vs Dimitrios, Bond vs Carlos (seriously I never knew his name before today!) in Miami. Bond vs the warlord Obanno (technically there’s his right-hand man but Bond despatches him so quickly he might as well not be there). Then Bond vs Le Chiffre (poker) and Bond vs Le Chiffre (torture). Hell if you take Bond and Vesper’s verbal sparring into account you can even include them.

I mean, for goodness sake the theme hits you over the head right from the start of the Madagascar sequence. Cobra vs Mongoose!

So having Bond kill a bunch of anonymous guys at the end, seems a little lame. I guess they felt the film had to have a final set piece.

Vesper’s death isn’t quite an OHMSS gut punch, but it is still very moving, and Green gets a beautiful death. Glad they included the last line from the novel, shame they had to dilute it somewhat, but I can see why.

And finally we get the line, you know the one I mean, after James has thanked Mr White for saving his life by shooting him in the leg. (Sheesh why don’t you just shag his daughter).

So there you have it. An exceptional film, and one that I feel slightly embarrassed doesn’t sit in my top five (I mean it’s literally number 6 ok!) and I wonder if I shouldn’t move it up a notch or two because damn if it isn’t fantastic. Kudos to Martin Campbell, who also directed Brosnan’s debut Goldeneye.

It isn’t perfect, it’s too long (though god knows what I’d cut) slightly contrived in places, and though my view has changed quite a lot, it still feels a trifle embarrassed to be a Bond film at times. Then again Spectre isn’t embarrassed at all and it really should be (getting ahead of myself again!)

Great set pieces, great acting, a script so polished in places you can see your face in it, a wonderful soundtrack and a truly fantastic Bond. As I said, its main failing is that it’s almost too good, when you set the bar that high following it up can be tricky.

Bone Silence

Posted: December 19, 2020 in Book reviews, science fiction
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By Alastair Reynolds

And so we reach the final part of the trilogy that began with Revenger and continued with Shadow Captain.

I’ll try to keep spoilers for this book to a minimum but obviously may reveal things about the previous two novels, so be forewarned.

<insert spoiler gap here>

Having inadvertently caused a major financial crisis across the congregation the Ness sisters, Fura and Adrana, along with their mismatched crew, find themselves and their former pirate ship still hunted by a fleet of ships now led by an implacable enemy more ruthless than either of the sisters. Now they must not only evade capture, but also try and solve the twin mysteries that have intrigued them both. What is the true purpose of the Quoins, the curious currency in use across the thousands of worlds of the Congregation, and what force is it that restarts humanity after each Congregation falls into anarchy (humans are now in their 13th).

As the sisters become separated each must face off against nefarious foes, but if they’re lucky, not only will they survive, they might just discover answers to those questions, answers that may change the nature of the Congregation, of all future Congregations, forever.

Well after each of the previous books was told from the POV of one of the sisters, here Reynolds eschews the first person for a third person view that broadens the scope of the story, and its no surprise that this is the meatiest novel of the three.

I’ve really enjoyed the trilogy, and whilst Reynolds says in his afterward that this is the last we’ll see of the Ness sisters for a while, he also acknowledges that they might force his hand and shoehorn their way back into his thinking. I really hope they do, because while questions are answered, you feel there’s still a long way for the Ness sisters, and the Congregation to go, and having created such a vibrant far future world of pirates and privateers, it’d be a real shame if he doesn’t return to it because there’s still so much untapped potential.

As always Reynolds’ prose is superb, and I found myself caught by a horrible dilemma. On the one hand I could barely the put the book down—page turner doesn’t do it justice—but by the same token I really didn’t want it to end.

The Ness sisters are great creations, but the real star of the story is the world Reynolds created, a radically altered solar system tens of thousands of years hence, yet analogous with the 18th Century high seas, with the planets long since broken up to form thousands of tiny worlds, some planetoids, some huge space stations. Suffice to say from the grandest element to the absolute minutiae Reynolds’ worldbuilding is as superb as ever.

It isn’t perfect. Many of the supporting characters do blend into one another, the villain deserved more screen time, and the ending feels a little rushed, but these are minor gripes. A fab end to a fab trilogy. I only hope it doesn’t remain a trilogy for long!

Summer Crossing

Posted: November 5, 2020 in Book reviews
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By Truman Capote

Grady McNeil, a 17-year-old debutante, refuses to travel to Europe with her parents and instead remains in New York where she pursues a relationship with Clyde Manzer, a Jewish parking lot attendant. Over the course of a sweltering summer their relationship becomes increasingly serious, even as the cultural and class divides between them becomes ever more obvious.

I came to admire Capote quite by chance. A few years ago the university I worked at gave away free copies of In Cold Blood and, never one to turn down a free book, I took one, not expecting to read it. But read it I did and blimey it was amazing! Having enjoyed one book, I soon snapped up Breakfast at Tiffanys, and again I really enjoyed it. Of course even when I decide I like a writer I can be very slow in picking up other work by them, so flash forward a couple of years and I finally buy another Capote book when I got a copy of Summer Crossing.

This is Capote’s first novel, one he started writing in 1943 before eventually discarding it unfinished. For many years it was thought lost until a manuscript was found at the Manhattan apartment that Capote had lived until around 1950. The finders initially thought they’d located a fortune, but the manuscript failed to sell at auction because publication rights to all of Capote’s work are held by a literary trust. Eventfully the New York Public Library agreed to buy the manuscript for it’s Capote Collection and soon after the book was published.

This is both interesting but also important context. It explains why the novel is so sparse (more of a novella really) why it ends quite abruptly, and also why, in parts, it’s a trifle rough around the edges. Don’t get me wrong, Capote’s way with words is here, and his characters leap off the page, but this is clearly someone at the beginning of his career rather than someone more assured in his prose.

Grady is an interesting character, and I can see why people have made comparisons with Holly Golightly, although I’d say Holly is a much more fully rounded character. Grady is at first insufferable, in a way teenagers often can be, certain of her own importance, feeling invincible and disdainful of others. As the story progresses though our perceptions of her shift, until by the end we remember that she is barely an adult, and Capote deftly makes us care more about her when she realises she’s little more than a child playing dress up, and there are consequences to her fun and games.

Manzer is interesting too, especially his backstory and the tragedy relating to one of his sisters. Peter Bell—Grady’s friend and possible romantic interest—is intriguing. Is he genuinely interested in her, or is he actually closeted and does he see Grady as merely a cover to prevent awkward questions being asked? He clearly loves her, but is his amour platonic or romantic? Capote leaves us guessing either way.

The other major character is New York, and Capote evokes a time and a place I’ve only seen in movies. The oppressive heat is ever present however, providing a pressure cooker environment for Grady and Clyde’s tempestuous relationship as they bounce from practically breaking up to taking their relationship to a whole new level.

It’s fair to say this is probably my least favourite Capote work, so far, and you can see why he abandoned it, I do wonder where he would have taken the story, the ending we get is bleak yet ambiguous, and I can’t help but think he had yet more despair lined up for Grady, though perhaps with some form of redemption with Peter, though if some critics are correct about Peter’s proclivities this might have been a hollow kind of happiness. As it is Grady ends the book slave to her passions, but maybe that’s for the best.

An intriguing read, and hopefully it won’t be a few years before I buy another Capote book.

Maledictions

Posted: October 24, 2020 in Book reviews, horror
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At first look an anthology of horror stories set in the Warhammer universe seems a slightly odd decision, if only because for the Warhammer universe horror is second nature. 40K depicts a universe embroiled in near constant war, a galaxy filled with weird and deadly alien races, where even humans are not immune from the eldritch horrors of chaos that reside in the warp.

A second glance tells a different tale. Freed from the broad strokes of war, of horror on an industrial scale, this anthology allows horror to permeate on a more forensic level, less a meat grinder than a scalpel.

As with all anthologies the quality of the tales varies, and likely stories I liked others might not, and vice versa, but there’s something here for everyone, from visceral bloody horror, to more nuanced, psychological torment.

The highlight for me was Predation of the Eagle by Peter McLean, a gritty survival horror set on a humid jungle planet where the members of a platoon of Imperial Guard are picked off one by one by a relentless enemy. With more than a nod to Predator, there’s an overriding Apocalypse Now, war is hell feel to it. It might not have been the most original story in the book, but it was the most enjoyable.

I also particularly enjoyed The Marauder Lives by JC Stearns, a story of PTSD and how one can never escape the horror of one’s past as a former prisoner of war struggles to come to terms with what she endured.

The past catching up to characters is a popular theme, yet each tale that goes down this route does it very differently. Take Triggers by Paul Kane, which again centres on a character haunted by the past, but which tells a quite different kind of story in more of a Tales from the Crypt style.

Not every story features war, there are stories that could have just as easily been set in a Cornish fishing village, feudal Japan, or the sewers beneath Victorian London.

The big question is whether this is a horror anthology for everyone, or merely for fans of Warhammer’s various universes. Yes, knowing something of the wider context helped me to appreciate some stories, but my knowledge of 40K isn’t encyclopaedic by any means, and I think for most of the stories the wider backstory is just that, backstory, local colour of the kind you might get in any standalone fantastical story. There’s even an argument that a lack of knowledge might allow you to enjoy these stories even more, simply because you don’t have something to anchor them to.

A decent anthology for horror fans and Warhammer fans alike.