Thursday, 10 May 2018

Review: The Midnight Line

The Midnight Line The Midnight Line by Lee Child
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've read a couple of Jack Reacher books. But don't actively seek them out. Generally I enjoy them. Short sentences. Short chapters. But not a short protagonist! (That's the movie version - try not to think of Tom Cruise!) Entertaining.

I started reading Midnight Line in a hotel lobby. I was sufficiently intrigued to want to know where the story went but not engrossed enough to actually spend money to buy the book. Thankfully, my local library came to the rescue and I was able borrow it to find out what happened. I'm glad I finished it because it turned out to be about something slightly different than I expected. I like trying to out-guess authors, but I enjoy it when they do something different in an interesting way.

From the other Jack Reacher books I've read, there were a number of set pieces that were kind of expected. (Such as, Jack takes on multiple opponents simultaneously and beats them all with apparent ease. Sorry if that's a spoiler.) But there were a couple of twists that were satisfyingly surprising.

Glad I finished it. Apart from anything else, it provided me with a new favourite joke which I'll wrap in a spoiler alert because I know some people get twitchy about revealing anything from a book...

***Spoiler Alert***
I want to die peacefully in my sleep like Grandpa. Not screaming in terror like his passengers.

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Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Review: New X-Men By Grant Morrison Book 2

New X-Men By Grant Morrison Book 2 New X-Men By Grant Morrison Book 2 by Grant Morrison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The four stars are for Grant Morrison's writing. The artwork is worth two stars at best. The second installment is particulary poor with an almost unrecognisable Wolverine rendered inconsitently. In contrast to the messy artwork, the dialog and interplay between Wolverine and Angel Salvadore is crisp and clean. Thank you Mr Morrison

I like the U-Men as villans. They present an interesting third way (Third Species?). They are an alternative to welcoming mutants as the next stage in evolution, or hating and reviling them for their difference. The U-Men take a much more pragmatic approach! (Was I alone in singing "I Want To Be Like You" King Louie style as the Third Species approach was expounded?)

The final, largely wordless, section was interesting. My only criticism is the strange neon icon things that appeared to represent telepathic communication between Jean and Emma. I found them unhelpful and confusing. It was, however, a bold concept to rely almost entirely on the pictures to tell the story and it pretty much worked.

Final comment: given Emma Frost's, for want of a better word, "costume", where did the hip flask come from?

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Monday, 7 May 2018

Review: Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Kind of a three and a half stars as the ending let it down. (I think I could have done without the Sunday section at the end.) Went for four in the end because generally I found it interesting and funny in roughly equal measure.

Pratchett's stamp was all over the book but, if the appendix that details of the writing process is to be believed, it was a truly collaborative process. (I'm probably just not familiar enough with Gaiman to spot his fingerprints.) The writers claim they worked hard to make each other laugh and I laughed along with them, for example where they describe a hellhound's first appearance:
"It was already growling, and the growl was a low rumbling snarl of spring-coiled menace, the sort of growl that starts in the back of one throat and ends up in someone else's."
I also liked the "explanation" of the M25!

Now, clearly it is not a work of theology but it does raise interesting theological (and indeed philosophical) issues albeit wrapped in a comic fantasy. Not a great work but definitely great fun.

I'm labelling my final observation as a spoiler because I know some people get a bit twitchy about revealing plot details - not much of a spoiler in my opinion but better safe than spoiler!

I read in an appendix that the book started off as a parody of Richmal Crompton's Just William books called William the Antichrist. Adam and the Them, along with Tadfield, suddenly made a lot more sense.

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Review: A Room with a View

A Room with a View A Room with a View by E.M. Forster
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read this while on holiday in Florence. Went looking for the Pension Bertolini (it is now a hotel) and many of the other sights described in the book. Loved the city. Loved the book.

It is laugh out loud funny in places. It is the kind of book that on almost every page there's a line you want to share with the people around you. For example, from chapter 1:
"You must have it," said Miss Bartlett, part of whose travelling expenses were paid by Lucy's mother—a piece of generosity to which she made many a tactful allusion.
He preferred to talk to Lucy, whose playing he remembered, rather than to Miss Bartlett, who probably remembered his sermons.
He is nice," exclaimed Lucy. "Just what I remember. He seems to see good in every one. No one would take him for a clergyman."
I could go on!

It was interesting reading it straight after The Masters of Sitcom: From Hancock to Steptoe. Galton and Simpson may have invented the TV sitcom but so much of the humour in this book comes from the situations that it is clear Galton and Simpson were standing on the shoulders of giants.

Serious issues are addressed: class, sexuality, education, passion, repression... but it is seriously good fun and a seriously good read

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Thursday, 5 April 2018

Review: The Masters of Sitcom: From Hancock to Steptoe

The Masters of Sitcom: From Hancock to Steptoe The Masters of Sitcom: From Hancock to Steptoe by Christopher Stevens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The author argues that Galton and Simpson were not just “Masters of Sitcom” but that they invented (or at least re-invented) sitcom. When they first started writing, British comedy required a straight man to provide a set-up and a funny man to deliver the punchline. Galton and Simpson, along with Hancock, set out to change that.

In Hancock’s Half Hour, though, there would be no joke-telling, punchlines or music-hall patter. The writers were intent on getting rid of catchphrases, songs, running gags, musical interludes and sketches. This was a type of comedy as radical as the realist theatre that would sweep the English stage in the late fifties: natural, honest and unflinching.

As they did so, the author argues they changed the face of comedy and traces a direct line from Steptoe And Son to The Royale Family. Whether you buy into that thesis or not (and I'm inclined to give some of the credit to people like Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes) the real strength of this book is in the quotes from Galton and Simpson scripts. More than half the book is straight Galton and Simpson and that alone makes it worth a four star review.

I liked the insights given into their writing process. For example, on what is probably Hancock’s most famous line:

“A pint... that’s very nearly an armful!” It started off as, “A pint... that’s an armful!” and then one of us said, “Nearly an armful,” and the other one said, “Very nearly an armful.” It’s funnier, because it’s more precise.

It is imprecisely precise… and that’s why it’s funny. What’s missing though is much of an insight into the relationship with their actors… for example, with Hancock. Clearly a man with mental health issues and yet rather than help him, they seemed to pick at the wound. Given his insecurities, it seems a bit of an omission to reproduce the following without comment:

HANCOCK: I’ve been living a lie. (Dramatic) Geraldine, I have never said a funny thing in my life.
GERALDINE: When do we get to the lie?
TONY: All those funny things you hear me say aren’t me at all. I employ a ventriloquist. He stands off stage thinking up funny jokes while I stand here opening me mouth. (Emotional) Yes, Hancock the funny man is nothing but a great big dummy.
GERALDINE: When do we get to the lie?

Hmm! Insensitive? Ignorant? Evil? I can’t help but feel it was just plain nasty yet the author offers no comment.

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Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Review: Heaven, How I Got Here: The Story of the Thief on the Cross

Heaven, How I Got Here: The Story of the Thief on the Cross Heaven, How I Got Here: The Story of the Thief on the Cross by Colin S. Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this over the Easter weekend - it seemed appropriate. The story describes Jesus’ crucifixion from the point of view of the “penitent thief”, that is the man to whom Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

I thought this was an intriguing premise but, I got pulled out of the world of the story a few times by some clumsiness in the writing. For example, in the opening page of the book, a first century Jew, writing from heaven, exclaims, “Looking back, the entire day and how it ended still blows my mind.” Really? His mind was blown? Or, the way the author broke the fourth wall (can a book have a wall, never mind a breakable fourth one?) for example, “…I asked Him to save me. That is something you can do too.” Addressing the reader directly can work (“Reader, I married him.”) but too often in this book it feels tacked on, as if the author doesn’t trust us to work things out for ourselves. A related third point is I felt preached at, and none too subtly preached at - especially at the end of the book.

The final section is a question and answer session with the author. He is asked why he didn’t turn it into a full sized novel. I must admit, I was wondering why he didn’t cut it down to a pamphlet as it felt stretched to me.

Worth reading – just be prepared to be beaten over the head with the message.

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Saturday, 24 March 2018

Review: All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder Vol. 1. Written by Frank Miller

All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder Vol. 1. Written by Frank Miller All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder Vol. 1. Written by Frank Miller by Frank Miller
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A lot of people hate this book. I don’t hate it. But I don’t like it. From reading the comments, I guess that many of the haters have a history with the Batman and just don’t like what Frank Millar has done to a beloved character. I have read a few Batman stories (including Batman: The Killing Joke - obviously) but I have no real history with him. I therefore don’t have a problem with a writer re-imaging a Batman and Robin origin story. I don’t see it as a huge leap to imagine a traumatised child growing up to not only fight crime but growing up to be a psychopath who fights crime. Once you are there, it is a believable step to see that crime fighting psychopath turn another traumatised child into a boy soldier. It was an interesting idea. I was willing to go with it.

I went with it but soon ran into problems. For a start, there were too many plot holes and loose ends. For example, Bruce Wayne at the circus with Vicki Vale; crime happens and the Batman appears but at no point does Vicki ask what happened to Bruce. (Minor related side annoyance - clean shaven Bruce becomes grizzled unshaven Batman in the space of seconds. Does the stubble come with the costume?) The dialogue is far from sparkling - don’t get me started on the infamous “Goshdarn Batman”. Characters appear and disappear with no discernible impact on the plot. Batgirl, The Joker, Catwoman... Why were they there? Perhaps all would have made sense if a Volume 2 had appeared but they are a waste of space in Volume 1.

My major issue though is with the portrayal of women. Comics are not always noted for their feminist, gender balanced attitudes but I got more annoyed with this book the more I read. It would fail the Bechdel Test big time! And it’s not just the dialogue, it’s the artwork too. Within the first few pages, we have Vicki Vale dictating a column... in her underwear. Or, our introduction to the Black Canary which I will summarise as follows: “Phworr! Eh? Eh? Phworr!”. A policeman gets beaten up by Batman... and for no good reason at all, there is a lingerie clad woman on the bed behind him. Worst of all, the Joker brings a female minion with him to clear up and she is stripped to the waist with two red swastikas covering her naughty bits. Seriously!?

If it hadn’t have been for the last few pages, this would have been a one star review. I wonder if the “haters” had given up by the end because I see a glimpse of light at the end of the psychopath tunnel.

***Spoiler alert***
Having almost turned Robin into a murderer, the Batman seems to have a moment of self-realisation, shares a moment of grief and (I think) takes a step back from the madness. I could be wrong but I think there is a glimpse of hope at the end.

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