Saturday, 19 May 2018

Wot I'm reading: Life and death row

MICHAEL CONNELLY: Two Kinds of Truth


Episode Twenty in Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch casebook. This author has never produced a dud and frequently, as with this one, he delivers an absolute cracker.

Harry, now in his sixties and working ‘cold cases’ for the San Fernando Police Department, is called to a ‘hot’ crime scene when Mexican father-and-son pharmacists are killed by suspected Russian hitmen. The murders are linked to a major racket involving prescription drugs and Harry takes a huge risk going undercover. This story has a life-and-death climax more worthy of an action-man movie than a semi-retired cop.

Titus Welliver plays Harry Bosch on Amazon Prime TV
There’s a parallel story involving a man who’s been on Death Row for 30 years, convicted on evidence found by Harry. New DNA evidence suggests that Harry and his partner must have framed the guy. How could this be? Harry’s half-brother Micky Haller (“the Lincoln Lawyer”) takes on the case which ends in a dramatic court scene that John Grisham would surely be happy to put his name to.

Crime and punishment and the scales of justice. Weighty themes which John Connolly makes as exciting as any adventure story. Another hard-to-put-down read from a master storyteller.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Wot I'm reading: Fifty Shades of Lavender

GORDON MERRICK: The Lord Won't Mind


Continuing my intermittent trawl through the ‘classics’ of gay fiction, I’ve just re-read this hideously titled novel (I’m tempted to say ‘novelette’, it’s so very gay!) from 1970, which is raunchier than most of its predecessors and must have seemed fairly ‘hardcore’ in the 70s. There is much sterner stuff out there now, making this more ‘semi-hardcore’ – a bit like Fifty Shades but minus the spanking and much better written.

Charlie Mills is in his twenties, gorgeous and talented (and seriously hung) when his grandmother introduces him to Peter, who is a bit younger, almost as gorgeous but a bit less talented and not (quite) so hung. They fall into bed and love – in that order. It’s Peter’s gay debut and he falls heavily. Charlie has been round the block before but doesn’t want to be thought of us ‘queer’, so their affair doesn't always run smoothly. But, as the songwriters would have us believe, the best part of breaking up is when you’re making up, so you sort of know where this boy-gets-boy/boy-loses-boy story is likely to end up. Charlie’s grandma is a figure out of Wilde; Hattie, the aspiring actress with whom he strays down the path of bisexuality, is cruelly presented. The New York gays who play supporting roles are surprisingly similar to today’s big-city queens.

Gordon Merrick 1916-1988
The writing sometimes evokes Henry James but more often Margaret Mitchell. There are so many endearments – ‘baby’, ‘darling’, ‘champ’ - that it feels a bit like a Gidget-era script at times. Mostly I found myself thinking of E.M.Forster’s Maurice – there’s a lot of intense dialogue about how much in love they are. Forster would probably not have written a sentence like ‘his whole body was shaken by the spasms of an enormous ejaculation’, but I could (almost) see Henry James (or do I mean E.L. James?) writing it.

I’ve only just found out that this is Part One of a 70s trilogy and have ordered the other two volumes (second-hand). The Lord Won’t Mind is turgid and occasionally terribly twee, but it’s also touching and sexy. It must have meant a lot to gay readers in 1970 even if today it reads like a risqué museum-piece.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Wot I'm reading: a town full of secrets

John Hart: REDEMPTION ROAD


The third novel of John Hart’s that I’ve read, and it’s another humdinger. The Gothic element that featured strongly in The Last Child and Iron House is less evident here, but it’s a splendidly complex thriller. An ex-cop is freed after thirteen torturous years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. A female cop who idolised him is facing charges over the killing of two kidnappers. 

Teenagers play key roles: the kidnapped girl who loves the cop who rescued her more than her parents, and the son of the woman whose murder the ex-cop took the rap for. And the town, unnamed and in an unnamed state, is full of secrets – and killings - past and present. The ending is a tad hard to swallow but it goes on for fifty nerve-jangling pages. Redemption comes at a high price.

Mr Hart writes a richer prose than your average crime novelist. “Gideon’s father wore his days like a faded suit.” “She was alone on the road, just her and the wind and the last line of bruised sky as full night descended.” Quality writing, dense plotting, deeply damaged but believable characters: Hart is in the ‘pantheon’ of thriller writers. I shall wait impatiently for his next book.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Guernsey's best exotic war story - and title!

THE GUERNSEY LITERARY & POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY


From the producers of the Best Exotic Mari-gold Hotel movies comes another film with a bizarre (and overlong) title. Like the Best Exotic duo, it’s a crowd-pleaser. It pleased me!

The year is 1946. A newly successful author (Lily James) goes to Guernsey after a local farmer writes to her about the island’s weirdly named book club during the years of Nazi occupation. She slowly uncovers a secret wartime tragedy which hangs like a dark cloud over the club’s handful of members.

The story is a slight and sentimental one. Despite war and death, this is another feel-good movie, much like Finding Your Feet a few months back and with a similar ‘ensemble’ cast. Lily James just may be the new Julie Andrews, always a joy to see. Michiel Huisman, who plays the farmer, is a new name to me (I haven’t watched Game of Thrones), but he contributes a handsome central presence that reminded me of Alan Bates’s Farmer Gabriel in the 1967 Far from the Madding Crowd. Tom Courtenay is solid as always. Penelope Wilton is outstanding as the widow drowning in the grief of two world wars.

Slight and sentimental, yes, but very involving. I so wanted this movie to have a happy-ever-after Mills & Boon-style ending. Does it? Go and find out.

A QUIET PLACE


I tend now to avoid gut-churning horror movies (Saw and its siblings), but I’ve loved a good scary story since the Hammer Draculas and Frankensteins 
came out when I was a teenager. And I guess some of the scariest flicks have been the Alien series (though the latest additions have been a lot more earnest and a bit less scary).

A Quiet Place comes with CGI aliens that look like hideous clones of Sigourney Weaver’s intergalactic chums. There are stronger echoes of War of the Worlds. Eighteen months after an invasion by people-chomping monsters, we join a family of survivors living in rural America, Emily Blunt and her real-life husband John Krasinski (who also directs) and their three kids. The aliens are blind but super-sensitive to sound, so the family learns to live as silently as possible, talking in sign-language and whispers. The perils of noise are brought vividly home from time to time: a battery-operated toy or a dropped plate brings terrible retribution. Emily is pregnant, so you wonder how she is going to give birth in silence and produce a noiseless infant. These questions are answered in nerve-shredding scenes in the second half of the film.

Normally, when someone’s phone goes off in a cinema, you make noises of disapproval and long to belt them. When this happened yesterday I almost hit the deck!

A Quiet Place has the rustic unease of several of M. Night Shyamalan’s movies. You think the countryside is safer than the city? Think again.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Wot I'm reading: Learning French and life lessons

DAVID SEDARIS: Me Talk Pretty One Day


Like me, you may have heard David Sedaris on the radio. He has a voice that's reminiscent of Truman Capote, and his droll observations of our life and times are a joy to listen to. A friend who is also a fan gave me this collection of his journalism for Christ-mas. He looks back frequently to his boy-hood in New York and North Carolina, growing up in a family that sound as if they were created by J.D. Salinger. When a pet dog died he scattered her ashes on the carpet and then hovered her up: ”she’d never expressed any great interest in the outdoors”.

He and his boyfriend Hugh spent a year living in Paris. There are several comic pieces about his French lessons, which were not a success. He eschewed attractions such as the Louvre in favour of seeing movies seven days a week. He likes to pretend he’s a philistine and a nerd, virtually unemployable, but his writing has made him a great success. The articles don’t always sound as witty in print as they do on the radio, but there are quite a few bons mots which again sometimes bring Capote to mind: “I hoped the revolution would not take place during my lifetime. I didn’t want the rich to go away until I could at least briefly join their ranks.” He repudiates Americans’ (well-deserved) reputation for Puritanism: “How prudish can we be when almost everyone I know has engaged in a three-way?

David Sedaris
David and Hugh now live not far from me in mid-Sussex. Wikipedia tells us Sedaris describes them as “the sort of couple who wouldn’t get married.”  David spends some of his time picking up litter (echoes of another famous ex-pat Bill Bryson) and has a garbage truck named after him. He sounds like a fun guy as well as a funny guy.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Wot I'm reading: A new cop on the Graveyard Shift


Michael Connelly: THE LATE SHOW


Top US crime-writer Michael Connelly introduces his new heroine: LAPD's Renée Ballard, consigned to the ‘graveyard shift’ (aka ‘the late show’) after a row with her superior. This story starts with two violent crimes on the same night: the savage beating of a trans-gender Latino and a mass shooting in a nightclub. A cop investigating the shooting is also killed, making the case a personal one for Ballard and her colleagues.

For those of us who are fans of LAPD’s finest, Harry Bosch, it may take a while to get used to this ‘new kid on the block’. A feud with a lieutenant is a situation Harry has faced more than once, and this case has a Red Herring most readers will not fall for.

There’s a policewoman-in-peril scene which is seriously tense, but as when he deals with Harry Bosch and ‘the Lincoln lawyer’, Connelly’s forte is showing the nitty-gritty of an investigation and the slow unraveling of another rotten apple in LAPD. A new Bosch on its way, but we can look forward to seeing more of night-owl Ms Ballard.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

David at the movies: Creature Feature - enchanting but daft

THE SHAPE OF WATER


Back in the 1950s we used to see sci-fi movies like The Qatermass Experiment and I Married a Monster from Outer Space, shot on desperately low budgets but satisfyingly scary for their time - and more than a little daft. The Shape of Water is a 'throwback' to that era, set in a mysterious US oceanographic facility in the 1960s. Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a cleaner who takes pity on the exotic amphibious man brought to the facility from his home in the Amazon. Elisa is mute and knows what it’s like to feel an ‘outsider’. She feeds the Amphibian and teaches him sign language. And, of course, as the poster clearly signals, she falls in love with him.

Guillermo del Toro is not new to ‘creature features’ or, as he would prefer to call them, fairy tales for adults. There are some very adult scenes in this movie – a pity in a way since it excludes the younger audience who would be enchanted by it. The theme is not too far removed from Spielberg’s E.T. or Close Encounters with Elisa replacing the children captivated (captured, even) by aliens. Michael Shannon’s brutal facility chief is the equivalent of the Nazi bounty-hunters in an Indiana Jones adventure. There’s also a good-guy professor, and Elisa has a sassy sidekick in fellow cleaning-lady Olivia Spencer.

For all the wondrous CGI and make-up, the Creature is still visibly an actor (Doug Jones) wrapped in plastic. The budget was clearly awesome. I’m not sure that it really deserves to be getting all these Awards and Nominations. I couldn’t help remembering all those 1950s sci-fi horrors. Yes, it’s a beguiling fantasy romance but it’s also totally – epically – daft.

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN

This musical extrava-ganza on the life of P.T. Barnum is pitched at the X-Factor audience, much as Moulin Rouge was a few years ago. Don’t expect to hear Hugh Jackman singing ‘Oh What a Beautiful Morning’ (which he has sung on-stage). It’s not that kind of show. The songs are loud, with repetitious lyrics, staged like pop videos. P.T. Barnum was a 19th-century showman, but this is a decidedly 21st-century show.

Zac Efron provides eye-candy for teenage viewers, but the movie totally belongs to Jackman, sounding better than he did in Les Mis and dancing like an Olympic gymnast. Political correctness has diluted the ‘freak show’ with which Barnum begins his circus career – there’s a bearded lady (with a fine belting voice), Tom Thumb and dancing Siamese twins, even a 'Wolf Boy', but nothing as grotesque as the Elephant Man, who, with other tragically deformed people, provided the ‘lure’ for punters into Barnum’s circus.

Keala Settle as Barnum's 'bearded lady';
This is not my idea of what a musical should be, but it’s dazzlingly staged and performed with great exuberance and – somewhat against my better judgement – I enjoyed it!

DARKEST HOUR



Gary Oldman’s take on Winston Churchill is already winning awards and hotly tipped to take this year’s Oscar. Brian Cox gave a more thoughtful perform-ance in last year’s Churchill, but he didn’t win anything. That’s show-biz, I guess.

This version looks at the Great Man at the pivotal moment in his career when he replaces Chamberlain as prime minister of a coalition government in 1940, with the British Army facing annihilation at Dunkirk. King George is not keen on Winston (he championed Edward VIII during the Abdication crisis), and he has a ‘mortal enemy’ in Lord Halifax who thinks he should be leading the country. Churchill's  decisions during the First War don't give him a good military track record.

There are many scenes in dingy rooms and corridors in the war bunker beneath St James’s Park. Even Bucking-ham Palace looks a bit dour. The movie’s best scene, almost certainly invented, is when Winston takes the Underground from St James’s to Westminster (a 90-second journey that here takes six minutes) and finds the people are keener to fight on than the Tory members of his Cabinet. I found myself thinking of Laurence Olivier’s deliberately hammy Archie Rice in The Enter-tainer.

Kirsten Scott-Thomas is a grander, less motherly Clementine than Miranda Richardson was last year. Lily James is charming as the PM's shy new typist. Everybody plays down against Oldman’s shouty interpretation of Winston. His prosthetics deserve an award of their own and he captures the voice and the mannerisms as well as anybody else has, but other actors have given us subtler reincarnations that, unfairly it must be said, failed to attract the Oscar buzz. 

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI



The weirdest title of the year and heavily tipped for Oscars, having already won Best Picture at the Golden Globes. Frances McDormand is Mildred, the small-town mom whose daughter was raped and murdered almost a year ago. She thinks the chief of Police (Woody Harrelson) has not tried hard enough to find her daughter’s killer and pays for three huge billboard posters to remind him (and the townsfolk) of what she sees as a dereliction of duty. Some of the deputies, notably Dixon (Sam Rockwell) are bigoted bullies, but Chief Willoughby is a decent man, dying a slow death from cancer and keenly aware that a crime has gone unsolved.

Rape, murder, cancer (and arson) – this movie pulls no punches. The billboards encourage a violent response and, as we know, violence begets violence. All the performances are gut-wrenchingly good, especially McDormand who wears her grief like an ever-present shroud. The frequent shifts of tone from tragedy to comedy are brilliantly scripted. If I have one negative reaction it’s my usual one to the relentless use of f-words (and even the c-word, although this is amusingly exchanged in one kitchen table scene between Mildred and her rebellious teenage son).

A tough movie to watch, but a good one – even a great one. I’ll be surprised if McDormand doesn’t beat Meryl Streep to the podium at this year’s Academy Awards. Mildred is one of those characters who will stay with you long after you leave the cinema.