Friday, 26 October 2018

Wot I'm reading: the hunt for another Muslim fanatic

Frederick Forsyth: THE KILL LIST


Frederick Forsyth has been keeping us up past our bedtimes since his nerve-shredding debut in 1971, The Day of the Jackal (of which I have a cherished first edition). The Kill List proves that, decades later, he is still a master of his art. As topical as you could wish for, this has a Mission Impossible-style ex-marine, codenamed ‘the Tracker’, tasked with hunting down a secretive Muslim fanatic called ‘the Preacher’ whose disciples are carrying out random suicide killings in the US and the UK.

Forsyth outlines terrorist cells and those who pursue them across cyberspace and the deserts of the Middle East with all the accuracy and immediacy of a TV documentary. His style is succinct, with telling little sketches: in a refugee camp outside Mogadishu “they had no sanitation, food, employment or hope”. Background details like this aren’t allowed to slow down the pace as the Tracker and a talented teenage hacker relentlessly breach the Preacher’s online defences and identify who he is, his history and his whereabouts.

All the plotlines, including an Israeli spy in a Somali market town and a Swedish billionaire’s son kidnapped by pirates, converge on a hamlet in the middle of nowhere and a Bin Laden-style kill-and-rescue operation. If you’ve never jumped out of a plane at 25,000 feet with a 40-kilo rucksack of ammo and survival kit, get ready for it now! Forsyth takes you there as vividly as a virtual-reality theme park ride. Not many thrillers are as thrilling as this.

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Wow! I'm on a Novel Prize "longlist"




That's a NOVEL prize - not the NOBEL Prize!

LILLIAN AND THE ITALIANS is on the "longlist" (22 out of 77 entries) for the Retreat West Novel Prize.

Extracts from Lillian and the Italians can be found on www.davidgeebooks.com

**************** 

Here's a link to Retreat West. The winner gets published by them ....


Friday, 12 October 2018

Wot I'm reading: psychos are getting weirder!

Jeffery Deaver: THE BURIAL 

HOUR


The last time an American psycho lured us to Italy it was Hannibal Lector, eviscerating a police inspector in Florence. Now US investigators Lincoln Rhyme and Amelia Sachs pursue a colourful villain who calls himself ‘The Composer’ to Naples, where this off-the-scale weirdo is orchestrating the panicked final hours of kidnap victims into a composition to honour his ‘Muse’ (whose identity is one of the story’s many surprises).

This is fairly extreme stuff. But with bone and skin collectors in his track record, Jeffery Deaver has made a speciality of the more exotic reaches of parapsychology. Lincoln and Amelia have complex relations with the various Italian law enforcement agencies involved in the case, introducing us to some colourful – and appealing – characters in both the agencies and the refugee community which Stefan, The Composer, is targeting. Towards the end the investigation undergoes a spectacular twist – another of Mr Deaver’s trademarks. Stefan, like Hannibal, is a man of many parts.

I’m not sure I found The Burial Hour entirely plausible – who needs plausibility? – but I certainly did find it enthralling and as satisfying as a glass of grappa (for which Lincoln Rhyme acquires a new taste).

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Wot I'm (not) reading: Comedy flop

Tom Sharpe: GRANTCHESTER GRIND


It’s a big disappointment when a favourite writer produces a dud. Tom Sharpe, who died in 2013, was a great comic novelist, from his wicked Apartheid-era South African satires through to hilarious caricatures of the British establishment in Blott on the Landscape and Porterhouse Blue, both of which made hysterically funny TV series. I only recently discovered that I’d missed Grantchester Grind, a sequel to Porterhouse Blue, and decided to catch up on it.

I wish I hadn’t bothered. The humour here is very dry and barely raised the occasional chuckle. Porterhouse College needs to pay for a new roof to the Chapel and unwisely allows a philanthropic American media mogul to invest. Apart from a set-piece scene where some of the chapel ceiling falls on the congregation, most of the first 150 pages is taken is taken up with dialogue between the conservative College administrators and the deeply philistine American team. Both sides are liberal in the use of the F-word, giving this book the sledge-hammer impact of today's stand-up comedians who think foul language is intrinsically funny.

It is not. I can’t tell you if the following 350 pages get better, because I gave up. I hate to give up on a book, any book, but this one defeated me. Leaden and dull. Maybe Mr Sharpe was just going through a bad patch. After this he wrote several more novels, including another Wilt trilogy (Wilt was not my favourite Sharpe character). But for me Sharpe has joined the ranks of authors I had to stop reading. Iris Murdoch went very tedious in her later books (perhaps because of dementia stalking her), and I lost faith in Anthony Burgess and Gore Vidal, two of my all-time favourites. Lower down the literary food chain I long ago stopped reading Jackie Collins, who was never as good as Harold Robbins. Stephen King still delivers the goods, but Anne Rice, for me, does not.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

David at the Theatre: Anna and the King of Siam




Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Siamese musical has been entrancing theatre (and cinema) audience since 1951, when it starred Yul Brynner and Gertrude Lawrence. This latest production at the London Palladium is a transfer of the 1915/16 New York show with most of its American cast onboard. Kelli O’Hara sounds just as divinely British as Gertie did or Deborah Kerr in the movie (with her singing dubbed by Marnie Nixon) – Ms O’Hara has an operatic range and needs no dubbing. Ken Watanabe is the King, with a ‘singing’ voice no stronger than Yul Brynner’s but very much the same on-stage 'presence'.

The story is a bit crisper than the movie’s, but the plot is unchanged, divided between the governess’s rebellious relationship with the king and the concubine’s star-crossed love story. All your favourite songs are here, gloriously well sung, and the kids (presumably there are several groups alternating performances) are as captivating as they were in the movie and all other stage productions. The palace set is pleasingly simple, but the opening scene – a steamer sailing onto the stage – is as thrilling as any Lloyd Webber blockbuster.

This is a splendid production of a joyous musical. There’s just time to catch it before it closes at the end of September.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Wot I'm reading: The Spy who went back to the Cold

JOHN LE CARRE: A Legacy of Spies


Crafty John Le Carré: after 55 years he produces a sequel to the book that made his name. Peter Guillam, one of George Smiley’s dogsbodies, long retired to Brittany, is summoned back to London to face an enquiry into the operation that ended at the Berlin Wall with the death of Alec Leamas, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1963). Leamas’s son Christoph and the daughter of Leamas’s mistress Liz Gold are demanding ‘reparations’ for the death of their parents in a mishandled Cold War mission.

The story is narrated by Guillam, who recalls his work with Smiley and ‘Control’ (Le Carré’s version of James Bond’s ‘M’) and re-reads stashed files from the 1960s. His interrogators at MI6 still talk in that stilted, slightly camp way we are familiar with from the plays of Alan Bennett. This is also a sequel to Smiley’s People (1980), with the return, if only in memory, of ‘Circus’ friends and a few old enemies from those Glory Days. Bill Haydon (Le Carré’s version of Kim Philby) is talked about. The ‘spectre at the feast’ is George Smiley, who became a father figure to Guillam. Along with Peter we are kept guessing for much of the book as to whether ‘owlish’ George is still alive.

Alec Guinness as BBCTV's George Smiley
Recreating old service files is like rummaging through a dusty attic, except that these are matters of life and death – and treachery. When Guillam briefly meets the son of agent ‘Tulip’, whose defection from East Germany’s notorious Stasi he and Alec Leamas masterminded, Le Carré reminds us that the bleakness of Cold War lives on in the children of that era, children who are now old and still bitter.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy are two of the greatest espionage novels ever written. A Legacy of Spies is not quite as sublime as those two – I found the switching between past and present tense an irritant - but John Le Carré at his ‘nearly best’ is streets ahead of almost every other thriller writer. Smiley is a lot like the fiendish Dr Fu Manchu: at the end I was wondering if this is the last the world will hear of him.

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

David at the movies: An Oscar for this Wilde movie?


THE HAPPY PRINCE


Rupert Everett spent ten years getting the finance for this biopic of Oscar Wilde’s last years, which he has scripted and directed as well as reprising his stage role as the ‘martyred’ Victorian playwright. The result is a triumph of writing, direction and performance. There have been three excellent previous screen versions of Wilde’s fall from grace, but The Happy Prince outshines them all.

Pre- and post-Fall are interwoven. Oscar tells ‘The Happy Prince’, his dark (Grimm) fairy story, to his children in flashbacks from Paris, where he also tells it to a couple of street kids who have become the children of his exile although the older brother is also his rent-boy. Bloated and dishevelled, the old Oscar still has the appetites which sent him to prison. And he still loves Lord Alfred Douglas, who joins Oscar in a villa in Naples (with more rent-boys) in Naples for a few bickering months. Robbie Ross (Edwin Turner) and Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) are the last London friends who offer loyalty and handouts.

Colin Morgan as Lord Alfred Douglas
Everett’s Wilde is as poignant as Stephen Fry’s but even more pitiable as poverty and ill-health overcome him. Colin Morgan gives ‘Bosie’ his prettiest incarnation since John Fraser in 1960. Emily Watson shines in brief scenes as Oscar’s wife Constance, also forced into exile by his disgrace. Tom Wilkinson contributes a vivid cameo as the priest brought to Oscar’s hotel deathbed. The famous lines about the wallpaper and ‘dying beyond my means’ are not forgotten; and Everett has scripted a few one-liners Oscar would happily steal the credit for.

The 'real' Oscar and Bosie
The final scenes almost certainly take liberties with the facts, but they add an operatic grandeur to the 'Last Act'. Rupert Everett’s long struggle to realise this project is a splendid homage to the tragedy of the 'comeback' that was Wilde's greatest drama, his greatest tragedy. The movie deserves to be garlanded with awards: an Oscar for Oscar!


ON CHESIL BEACH


I was never a big fan of Ian McEwan’s novel, which seemed to me a bit slight. The movie version has more meat on its bones, but at its core is the same dilemma: a middle-class couple in their twenties who are ill-prepared for the  ‘consummation’ of their marriage in 1962 – five years before the "Summer of Love".

Most of the film happens on the day of the wedding. Alone in their room in a Dorset hotel, deeply in love but both sexually inexperienced, Florence and Edward (their names, like their story, belong to an earlier era than the 1960s) slowly move towards the Moment. We see their courtship in flashbacks. They met as newly graduated students. Florence (Saoirse Ronan) is a talented violinist. Edward (Billy Howle) is a nerdy historian. Her parents (Emily Watson and Samuel West) are stuck-up snobs. His family are more appealing, although his mother (Anne-Marie Duff) shows bizarre behaviour following a head injury.

The ‘consummation’ which goes so clumsily wrong must surely be something which has happened to many couples in times both ancient and modern. The movie has a coda in 2007 that shows how their lives have progressed since that disastrous evening.

The performances are extraordinarily good. Saoirse Ronan gives Florence a nervous intensity that is spot-on for the character. Billy Howle has the right look and the right awkwardness. The parents, nice and awful, are all perfect. The cinematography is lovely. The music uses some appropriately ironic pop songs from the 60s. McEwan’s script expands his novel with humour as well as pathos.

For me there is still a problem with the fact that one moment of ‘sexual clumsiness’ could have such a lasting impact. That said, there was a girl I knew at university (also in 1962) who – would not thank me for publicising her hang-ups.

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Wot I'm reading: Fashion and passion



LESLEY BLANCH: On the Wilder Shores of Love


Lesley Blanch, who died at the age of 103 in 2007, must be the very last of the great Bohemians. She wrote about fashion and interior design for Vogue and published books celebrating her passion for Russia and the Balkans. This new compilation has been put together by her god-daughter and includes some of Blanch’s travel writing, a retrospective memoir of her Edwardian childhood and (previously published only in French) the story of her marriage to the Russian-French soldier-diplomat and writer Romain Gary.

Her god-daughter calls her “a Sheherezade figure”. Blanch romanticises in vivid detail her girlhood in the years leading up to World War One. She had a baby by an Italian soldier, gave it up for adoption and never mentions it again. I couldn’t decide whether she was heartbroken or heartless. Her first teenage impression of Florence was that it was “forbidding”; Venice was “draughty”.

Blanch’s style, very much trapped in the era between the wars, is often as indigestibly rich as Lawrence Durrell and occasionally as suffocatingly gushing as Barabara Cartland. I was also reminded of Gore Vidal. Like Gore, Lesley must have been a fabulous guest at a dinner party: a colourful talker but not perhaps a great listener. Her writing suggests a monstrous ego at work (Vidal again!) She had a prodigious memory but what she recalls in the most vivid detail are people’s homes and “collectables”. The portrait of her marriage is disappointing: she refers to Gary’s “amorous conquests” (he was a serial adulterer) without going into details and draws a veil over her own infidelities.

I was gifted this book and would not have read it otherwise. Lesley Blanch “lived a life of high intensity on many a wilder shore” (her god-daughter’s words). There is a lot to like, even to admire, in this recollection of a peripatetic life that spanned the entire twentieth century, but its author, I suspect, was not a likeable woman.

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

David at the movies: 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.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Wot I'm reading: Beauty and the Beast of Bosnia


Edna O'Brien: THE LITTLE RED CHAIRS


Edna O’Brien is in her late 80s and, boy, can she still cut the literary mustard. The Little Red Chairs is very close to a masterpiece, up there with the best of this extraordinary author’s oeuvre. And - short of writing about Trump or Brexit - it’s as contemporary as you can get.

A refugee Balkan ‘faith healer’ sets out his stall in a small village on the Irish coast. The locals fall under his spell, none more so than Fidelma McBride, the draper’s wife, childless and unhappy. Fidelma manages to – almost – keep their affair a secret. But then ‘Doctor Vlad’ is exposed as the exact opposite of what he claims to be. He’s a war criminal, the 'Beast of Bosnia', wanted for trial in The Hague.

Fidelma’s life takes an awful turn after this revelation. I won’t give away any more of the plot, but an agonizing event follows Vlad’s arrest and there’s another grim chapter in a London asylum centre where several refugees narrate their stories, of Bosnia and elsewhere in this ruined world in this ruined time.

Edna O'Brien, still cutting the literary mustard
Whether she’s writing of love or of war, O’Brien’s prose fairly dances off the page. This magnificent book possesses a magic of its own, a terrible beauty. The most poignant novel I’ve read in a long time; indeed one of the best ever on the mighty theme of War and Peace.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Wot I'm reading: The patron saints of terror

DANIEL SILVA: The Black Widow


Mossad’s latest confront-ation with the worst the Islamist world has to offer is an annual treat. This year’s villain, as topical as he could be, is an Iraqi known as ‘Saladin’ who is master-minding outrages in European capitals on behalf of ISIS and has the US in his sights.

Israeli superspy Gabriel Allon recruits Natalie, an Arab-speaking French Jewish doctor, and creates a new identity for her that will make her attractive to ISIS: she becomes Leila, a Palestinian ‘black widow’ thirsting for vengeance after the death of her husband at the hands of the Zionists. The infiltration works, although Natalie/Leila’s first meeting with Saladin is under circumstances very different to what she or Allon expected.

This is Silva’s 16th thriller featuring Gabriel Allon. They have inevitably become formulaic. Israel’s military – and moral – superiority over the Islamists is hammered home, although this time round the Jordanian secret service has a part to play, as also (and more regularly) do the British and French services and, of course, the CIA. The climax in Washington is nothing less than apocalyptic. We are once again reminded that no matter how conclusively the West defeats Islamic State (and Al-Qaeda and the Taliban) on the battlefield, 'the patron saints of terror' will continue to bring their war to our cities and our streets.

Another page-turning, nerve-shredding read from Daniel Silva.