The Last Wish – Andrzej Sapkowski

Okay, starting at the beginning. This is the first (sort of) in a series of fantasy novels about a monster-slayer for hire known as a “Witcher.” They’re apparently a bit of a big deal back in their native Poland, having won a handful of awards when they first game out back in the mid-nineties. Thanks to increased interest due to the mostly fantastic series of role-playing games by CDProjekt Red, they’ve finally been translated into English. And I done read it.

The Last Wish, one should know, is quite a bit different from what one might expect from something billed as the opening to an epic fantasy saga. This is a collection of short stories very loosely linked by an over-arching tale which exists mostly to move us from one story to the next. There’s no chosen one nor grand prophecies, and no epic plots nor clashing armies. This is very tightly focused and controlled fantasy, with none of the sprawl or bloat which one traditionally associates with the genre. So, what did I think of it? Read on!

Alright, let’s think here. What is the most important component of any fantasy saga? That’s right, tone! What fantasy needs in order to work is a nice strong tone. That could be the poetic majesty of Tolkien, the gritty soap opera of George R.R. Martin or anything in between. The Last Wish has an excellent – if strange – tone. It’s earthy and dirty and raw, but somehow otherworldly and fantastical at the same time.

I wasn’t really sure what to make of the book at first, something about it seemed off somehow, it just didn’t quite click. But then I got it: these story are, by and large, remixes of classical fairy tales. Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, etc. There more going on here than just a re-branding or a “gritty remake,” Sapkowski approaches each of these archetypal stories in a truly clever and unique manner. I don’t want to go into this too much, since a great deal of the charm of the book comes from reaching those ah-ha moments when you realize what tropes are being subverted and what cliches are being broken. So, from that point of view, I’d very much recommend this collection.

I rather enjoyed the characters of the book. Many of them were familiar to me from the video game, and I was happy to find them all quite recognizable and as fun as ever. The stories definitely start to pick up steam in the back half of the collection, with some of the earlier ones coming across just a touch dry.

One should be aware going in, that this is not exactly the swashbuckling adventure that might expect. Most of the stories are largely build around conversations. One story in particular (not my favorite) actually consisted almost entirely of a single extended dialogue. There’s more wordplay here than swordplay, which I thought was actually rather a pleasant surprise. I don’t have the tolerance I did as a teenager for pages and pages of duels and space-ship fights.

And now down to the nuts and bolts. Let’s talk about the writing. I’m a bit hesitant to do so, because it’s rather hard to judge the merits of a translated work. I don’t envy the translator caught between having to fashion quality prose while still attempting to remain true to the original text. The Last Wish, I would say, comes off pretty well. There aren’t any horrible clunkers, and the occasional odd turn of phrase is pretty excusable.

Overall, I liked this book rather a lot. It defied my expectations at every turn, while still satisfying me as a fan of the world and characters. If you like Game of Thrones style grim fantasy, you should give this a read. If you enjoy revised and twisted takes on classical fairy-tales, you should give this a read. Finally, if you like the games, you should definitely check out the source material. Not a masterpiece by any means, but a pleasant morsel by all accounts. I’m quite looking forward to reading more.

Berberian Sound Studio – Peter Strickland

Berberian Sound Studio came out in 2012 and slipped by without a trace, sinking wordlessly into a thousand Netflix queues, never to see the light of day. This is the part here where I try and convince you to dig it up and put your ears and eyes all over it, because it’s fucking worth watching and thinking about, yeah?

Okay, so this is a film about a timid sound engineer who travels to Italy to engineer the audio of a gruesome horror movie – probably sometime in the mid-seventies, though it’s never stated specifically. The fantastic Toby Jones plays our shy protagonist, Gilderoy, an innocent little creature so gentle that he habitually transports spiders out the window rather than squashing them. He mumbles and demurs throughout, flinching whenever he makes eye contact with the brash and swaggering hyper-masculine Italian movie-makers who’ve brought him in to class up their slasher. We see nothing of the horror movie in question; the film is restricted entirely to the world of the sound studio, where the delicate and increasingly frayed Gilderoy reluctantly brings to life the gruesome reality of the movie. The movie in question, The Equestrian Vortex, seems to consist entirely of misogynistic torture and brutality. As the film goes on, the producers and directors of the horror movie grow increasingly abrasive and abusive towards their actresses and characters alike, and the thin wall between reality and fiction begins to dissolve.

So, the first thing you need to know about Berberian Sound Studio is that it is largely a film of mood. Much like the 1970’s Italian slasher movies (known colloquially as giallo films) it concerns, Peter Strickland’s film is largely a construction of mood. Logic and horror ebb and flow in relation to one another. The further we are drawn into the abyss, the less sense it makes. Reason gives way to fear. As with any film dependent on mood, Berberian Sound Studio is a film which must be engaged fully to be appreciated. If you watching it with a bowl of popcorn and a bunch of cackling friends, you’re probably going to be bored stiff. This isn’t Evil Dead we’re talking about here, Eraserhead would be a closer comparison. Though not as suffocating a vision as Lynch’s, this is a lonely and claustrophobic film that must be watched alone, in darkness and in silence. Given that restriction, it functions perfectly. The confines of the sound studio seems to crush in on us. The unrelenting choruses of screams claw at our minds, as if fighting to burrow their way inside. The piles of fruit and vegetation hacked up to approximate the sounds of human flesh begin to rot, and seem almost to come alive. Watching this film is an experience not unlike drowning, struggling for the surface and watching it get further and further away. By the time we reach the third act of the film, and the reality of the story begins to dissolve, it seems only right that things spin out of control as they do.

A few things to note. First off, the soundtrack provided by the lovely English band Broadcast is perfect, worming its way down your spine like a cold finger. The audio is – as one would hope given the subject matter – immaculate. Even seeing how it’s all put together one cannot but help be put under its grisly spell. I suppose it might help if you’ve seen a few giallo films, if only as a reference point. Dario Argento’s Suspiria is probably the most compelling example of the form. And I should mention that this isn’t the sort of film you should watch if you’re the sort who needs a concrete ending. Berberian Sound Studio goes out on a deeply ambiguous note, raising lots of questions and answering none. I for one found it satisfying, if in a disquieting sort of way.

I recommend the film highly, though obviously not to everybody. This is a strange and singular experience, not an altogether pleasant one. Check it out.

A Fragment

Gosh, it’s been a while since I posted any original fiction on here, hasn’t it? I’ve been a bit tied up with editing my two short story collections, A Door in the Mirror and The Burial.

Anyway, no time like the present. Here, this isn’t a complete work by any means, but have a gander at this early scene from the book I’m just now getting started on…

The Third Age

Somewhere there is a child. Touch it. Press your fingertips into its skin, put your lips to its body. You can feel the shape of it, a thing of promise and misery. Another life. How this life goes on and on. A parade of broken things all in a line. Your child is dead and gone.

“Yeah. Yeah, that’s me.”

She blushes, playing with her hair, biting her lip. All the little games. “I thought it was you…”

“Yeah, well.” Mark grins. He likes to play this game. Likes to flirt. Drawing flies.

Kate watches him, half-interested, as he laughs with the girl. As he strokes her bare arm casually, almost accidentally. As he brushes close to her. There is a flute of champagne in his hand and a folded linen napkin in his back pocket.

The girl is like any other. A slender creature of bright lights and bathroom purges. One can see the way her body is set upon her bones, like paper or lace draped, only a wisp of a thing, hardly human. She stands with one hand on her hip, one finger between her lips whenever she stops speaking. Her heels are like knives, clacking the hardwood. Jewelry dangles from her like crusted slime, a hundred thousand dollars in borrowed diamond. Her cheekbones her practiced smile her painted face.

Kate knows her. She is a familiar girl; the thing which orbits about fame, the bobble to be hung from every producer’s arm.

She likes girls like that. Slim delicate creatures who cry when they are alone like lost dogs for a master. Placid as a lake now and desperate beneath the surface. They’re tragic shapes, ghosts of sorrow and lives left behind. Somewhere a listless heartland woman and her fat husband are missing their bright-eyed girl, wondering if maybe tonight she will call and perhaps we’d better stay a few hours more by the phone. She’s here, gone dull and glazed with betrayed hope. Girls like that are gone and gone forever. Girls like that were never children, they’re built in a factory from eggshells and crocodile leather.

Mark laughs softly. He leans close and whispers something in her ear. His lips brush her cheek.

She smiles and she looks down, teeth parted. She turns away, eyes distant, mouth red as an opening flower. And her hand is on the collar of his jacket, touch light as a breath.

We’ve come a long way now. Infinite repetitions of the essential act. Somewhere back there our mothers and fathers are rutting by the naked fire with dirt under their nails and blood in their mouths. And history is a great gear turning, a generator of love raised like a blister on the skin of time. We’re far off.

Kate twists the cork and pops it. She drinks from the bottle, poking about the kitchen, her hands running over every shining surface. So this is Sophia’s kitchen. How strange to think of her in a place like this, chrome and ceramic, knives in the block.

Draft: Gods of the Earth

Phew! This one has been a long time coming. Way back in the beginning of 2012, just after I finished the first pass on Beautiful Machine, I had two big ideas for my next book. The first was for a complex and experimental ghost story about a dead writer. That became The Cannibal’s Prayer, which was written over the course of a few torrential months. The second idea was a bit of a slow burn, eventually turning into a knotty tangle of plot and character which has taken more than three years since I first started it to come to this point. Finally, as of last weekend, I have a finished draft.

GodsGods of the Earth is a sort of political thriller about power, destruction, terrorism, ecology, and dynasty. I don’t want to say too much about it, but it’s kind of a roller coaster. It’s never a good idea to get on a roller coaster without being sure if it’s going to bring you back or just fly off into nowhere, and I was worried about this one at times, so I’m thrilled to have actually managed to make it come around in a loop instead of crashing and burning.

Give it six to eight months of editing and revision time, and this bad boy should be ready for its big debut. Boy oh boy.

Okay, fun’s over. Now comes the real work.

Enduring Love – Ian McEwan

Oh boy. Here we go with the McEwan thing again.

Actually, now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve ever talked about this particular writer before… (checking checking checking) Nope, not a peep.

Okay, so here’s the back-story: I hate Ian McEwen. Hate Hate HATE! He’s a cheap soulless showboat of an old-fashioned patriarchal slug, and I hate him. That said, he is a monumental talent too skilled and influential to ignore completely. Kind of like a less shitty Philip Roth.

A while ago, back in the halcyon days of my higher education, I had a teacher waxing on about Enduring Love. I’d already suffered through three McEwan novels of dubious quality-

WE INTERUPT THIS REVIEW TO BRING YOU THREE IAN MCEWAN LIGHTNING REVIEWS! THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS: I HARDLY EVEN REMEMBER IT, BUT I THINK IT PROBABLY SUCKED! ATONMENT: I DIDN’T BOTHER FINISHING IT, BUT I THOUGHT IT WAS MANIPULATIVE CRAP! ON CHESIL BEACH: SEXIST GARBAGE ALMOST REDEAMED BY HOW WELL MADE IT WAS! AND NOW BACK TO YOUR REVIEW ALREADY IN PROGRESS!

-and wasn’t especially interested in picking up another. I happened to spot a lovely paperback copy of Enduring Love in a book-sale bargain bin and just couldn’t resist. I put it on my shelf and from my mind…

Years later!

I’m looking for a book to read!

And then I spot it! Enduring Love, resting innocuously upon my bookshelf, nestled betwixt Don Delillo’s Underworld and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, looking like Woody Allen trapped in the subway with Gabrielle Sidibe and John Goodman. Oh why not, I says to myself as I pluck it from its perch, why not?

Why not indeed. Here are a few reasons:

INTERJECTION: But first, I should probably sum up what the thing is about. So there’s this guy, and he’s in the park. A hot air balloon drifts past, and disaster strikes. It shakes him up. One of the other people involved in the incident forms a bizarre attachment to our guy. Or does he? Could it all be in the guy’s head? And that is what it’s about.

Okay, so the first reason why not. It’s way overwritten.

McEwan is, like I said, a highly skilled craftsman. He knows exactly how to mold words to suite his desire, bending and shaping them with incredible skill. That should be a good thing, but it ends up actually being quite a strike against this novel, as McEwan seems unable to resist employing the most eloquent and impactful lines possible at all the wrong moments. This book was a bit like one of those unbelievably overwrought works of gothic architecture scarcely able to support its own weight.

The novel immediately gets off on the wrong foot when it describes the hot air balloon as being filled with gas, but not just any gas! Hydrogen! Forged from the elemental debris of the creation of the universe, star-fire caught and contained by human hands! I don’t remember the exact wording and no, I’m not going to bother looking it up, but it was ridiculous and overdone and totally out of place. He also makes sure to note that the balloon is, in fact, a literal balloon and not a cartoon character’s word bubble. Thanks, Ian, thanks for clearing that one up.

Reason number two. McEwan seems to lack empathy for his characters, making it difficult to become invested in their struggles.

Ian McEwan’s novels are not populated by people, but by cyphers and placeholders and lenses through which a broader point may be attacked. I could name dozens of examples if I could remember any of his characters, but I think it will suffice to flip on back to the post-text pages of Enduring Love and have a gander at what is written there. Class, follow along. Does everybody see it?

That’s right! What you see is a lengthy I-don’t-even-know-what-to-call-it. Disclaimer? Apology? Justification? It’s a rather sizable breakdown of the particular psychological disorder suffered by the man in the park which prompts his bizarre attachment to the main character. We also get a lovely bibliography of psychological and scientific journals. I’m not totally sure what McEwan intends by this section, but the way I see it, there are two options. One, the whole book was written to be about this particular disorder, and the characters are, in fact, extraneous to the whole thing. They exist only to tell the story, and have no life beyond that, like the cardboard cut-outs you’d find in a hard science fiction novel. Option two, McEwan himself found the whole thing so implausible that he felt the need to prop up the story with a bunch of scientific justification. Instead of conveying the story in such a way that the reader would believe it, he just hand-waves it away with a notice that, yeah it really happens, okay?

I find this all to be unspeakably lame. Like, what kind of book are you actually trying to write here? Am I suppose to believe in your characters just because you’ve shown your work? Or are you just looking for a pat on the back for plowing through some dry science journals. Like, we’re all supposed to marvel at your hard work? Fuck off, man.

And three. This book is sexist as hell.

Not especially surprising. After all, McEwan’s a sexist bastard. Irritatingly, he’s sexist in that horrid intellectual-progressive way. It’s all very rational and modern and oh come now. It sits in the shadows, spilling invisible poison. It would be easy to read a McEwan novel and think that it’s not so bad, heck, it’s actually pretty good! This fellow’s alright, he clearly knows a thing or two. His novels are polished and refined, so you overlook the ugly heart. You know, like Richard Dawkins. How could such a smart man with such a lovely accent possibly harbor any offensive beliefs? I’m sure it’s alright.

Well, I’m sorry to be the one to break the news, buddy, but it’s not alright. At the least, it must be taken into consideration.

Women, when they’re not actively ruining everything, exist in McEwan’s universe only to prop up and/or motivate male characters. They’re objects first, characters second. If you don’t believe me, well then. Let’s just take a look, shall we?

Okay, so here’s a rundown of all the female characters in Enduring Love. First, the requisite girlfriend. She’s intelligent, an academic of some distinction. Great! But what’s this? Her obvious positive qualities are overlooked in favor of saying that she’s “beautiful.” Astonishingly beautiful, rapturously beautiful! And sexual too, a real tiger in the sack! Oh boy! What a catch! She then spends the whole novel doubting the protagonist’s fully justified paranoia and basically being a shrill harpy whose advice, if it hadn’t been ignored, would have lead the main character to ruin. Next up is the wife the man killed in the balloon accident. A wrinkly old prune, bitterly spewing invective against the man she believes to have been unfaithful to her. And then, oops! Turns out that she was wrong, her wonderful heroic husband was innocent all along! How will she ever forgive herself for being so horrible as to impugn the honor of such a peerless gentleman? There can be no forgiveness, she concedes, properly hating herself. Lastly, completing the trifecta, we have the ditzy blonde bimbo who’s banging her professor and stands around chewing bubblegum like cud and generally being a useless piece of ass. But oh, what an ass, what a body!

So… that’s two counts of horrible doubting partners sabotaging their noble innocent men, and two counts of extremely sexy young women who just can’t get enough of stuffy old professorial types ones assumes are not entirely dissimilar to Ian McEwan himself. And our primary female character checks both boxes! Oh, there’s also a spacey old hippie lady who doesn’t really do much of anything. This is only looking at the broad strokes here, it gets worse when you consider the minutia.

It’s not all bad though, there’s some good stuff here too. Could a final redemption be in store for Enduring Love? Tune in next week to find out!

Or… I guess I could just tell you now. You know, if you want.

The writing is quite good, if you manage to ignore the overwrought flourishes. And there are several sustained scenes of tension and danger that feel really gripping in a way you might not expect from a novel like this. There’s an extended visit to a hippie drug-dealer’s house to buy a gun which is an absolute masterclass.

Sadly, these things were not enough to lift the final quality of the novel into the territory which would constitute a recommendation. Perhaps if I’d come into this willing to give McEwan a little more of benefit of the doubt, I may have thought more highly of it. Yes, I admit that I had very little faith going into Enduring Love, but I’m not made of stone here. I was willing to be turned around on McEwan. This book, however, didn’t do it. I found the overall plot to be dull and unengaging, with the exception of a few spikes of interest. The characters were bland and difficult to believe or become invested in.

Basically, I didn’t like it much. I won’t say that it was horrible, though. I can certainly see why this novel might resonate with certain readers. Just not with me.

God, I just read that back and I sound like a complete twat! A complete and utter twat! Whatever. Off to the printers and goodnight.

The Martian – Andy Weir

Hey look, almost a new book! Only a year or two old here, practically contemporary. I mean, the movie isn’t even out yet! Look, it isn’t like anybody’s sending me review copies here, and there’s a lot of old stuff to catch up on so… there it is. Anyway, the golden age of the novel is long gone, so it’s not like there are all sorts of thrilling new developments to be kept abreast of…

Off topic. Where was I? Oh, right! The Martian!

It’s good. It’s really really good. I mean, it’s not amazing or anything, hardly a masterpiece. But here’s the thing: it does exactly what it sets out to do, and it does it perfectly. This isn’t trying to be a deep literary examination of a man’s soul, and it’s not a rich meta-textual deconstruction or a sumptuous feast of breathtaking prose. It’s a tech-thriller about a man who gets stuck on the surface of Mars and has to MacGyver his way back to earth. That’s it, you get what’s on the package.

Weir makes it work, however, and he does it quite well. We’re constantly on the high-wire here, and he plays the audience with deft precision. We’re afraid when we should be, nervous when we’re supposed to be and excited when the book wants us excited.

There’s not a whole lot to say about it, to be honest. Our Astronaut main character (what was his name again? Does it matter?) stumbles from one disaster to the next, constantly on the verge of succumbing to the relentless inhospitably of space travel and never escaping by more than a hair or two. Weir keeps it coming at a relentless pace, but never so overwhelming that it loses its impact when things go south. The pacing is nearly perfect and the science is (as far as I can tell) excellently researched and conveyed. Sort of reminds me of some of Micheal Critchten’s better works.

Hm, any complaints? Well, the main character’s “quirky” sense of humor did nudge the line into annoying once or twice, and I did occasionally find myself hoping for just a smidgen more character development. Weir clearly knows what he’s good at, however, and he sticks with it.

The Martian kicks like a mule and it’s got a brain in its pretty little head. If you’ve any interest in space travel, survival stories, high tech thrillers or just adventure in general, you should give this one a look. See it before the movie comes out and everybody’s talking about it, all your friends will think you’re cool and stuff.

No, really.