All posts by jonsmalldon

Book review: Beneath the World, A Sea by Chris Beckett

Cover of Beneath the World, A Sea by Chris Beckett
Cover of Beneath the World, A Sea by Chris Beckett

Somewhere in South America, in the year 1990, a policeman, Ben Ronson, arrives in the town of Amizad, located in the heart of a magenta tree-d forest, beyond a zone where your memories of the time within our lost, to put an end to the practice of killing the native creatures known as duendes. The duendes are humanoid creatures who have a profound psychic affect on the people they come near. Ronson brings with him the experience of having worked to stop community murders in other parts of the world, and three notebooks he wrote about the time when he passed through the zone, about which he obviously now remembers nothing. The books, and the people and creatures he meets in the submundo delta, will enrich, plague and taunt Ronson whilst the bizarre world in which he has found himself twists and turns its way to survival (or not).

Beneath the World, A Sea is a quite remarkable novel. It very quickly abandons what you believe will be the driving force of the narrative – a rather blunt exploration of cultural collision – for something deeper and more unsettling.

Alongside our policeman’s journey are a handful of other people, all with their own motivations for losing themselves to the delta. Jael, the brilliant brain who has rejected the superficial trappings of success as part of a hunt for deeper knowledge, works with Rico, her boyfriend who is possibly able to communicate with the duendes; Justine, who believes she has failed in life and now seeks to find some purpose; Hyacinth, who collects stories from the native population but for what reason she seems never to be entirely sure; and Dolby, the oilman, who wants to unlock the natural resources this unexploited part of the world can offer.

My frames of reference aren’t vast but I was reminded a lot, and in a very positive way, of Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things in the way that the central purpose of the main character fades as the character themselves confront the reality, and possibly, arrogance of their starting position.

Despite the interlocking of themes, this is a pretty straightforward read. Beckett does an excellent job in world creation without relying on lengthy periods of exposition. Some will lament the slow burn and not-all-revealed nature of the story but then there are books out there for people who want excitement, adventure and really wild things. Beneath the World, A Sea has some quite brilliant observations about life, the universe and everything instead. And it does so in way that is beguiling, compelling and unsettling. It’s everything good science fiction should be.

Manga at the British Museum

If you have to ask then you’re not going to understand. This is Manga. Many cultures, many worlds, many ideas and many, many, many stories. And the British Museum has just one exhibition to explain it to the uninitiated. It’s a heroic failure. A joyous, head-spinning celebration of some of the finest drawing and story-telling produced in our planet’s recent history. Just don’t ask me what the hell is going on. That’s why I brought my son along. One of us had to get it, after all.

Proper manga has to be read back to front. It’s in Japanese originally after all. So the books have a warning on what would be the front page that you need to start at the other end. Even then the temptation can be for your eye to get distracted and wander ahead, or behind, where it should be. I don’t know if the same idea applied to the designers of this show because I didn’t half struggle to stay on track. And I’m not even really sure there was a track to stay on.

It starts with a nice welcome and an introduction to manga’s historical roots. We can include Hokusai in this but before we then get into any narrative thread about development we’re into a video tunnel of talking heads explain how modern manga are published. Turn the corner and there are two beautiful, but seemingly random, examples of stunningly rendered characters from popular manga. The boy recognised Son Goku. I’d already wandered off and was lost admiring Kawanabe Kyosai’s Shintomi theatre curtain which dates from 1880. We only properly reconnected when we joined the queue to be ‘manga’d’ in a self-portrait together at the end of the exhibition.

Because there’s a lot to cover here. Devoting an exhibition to manga is the equivalent of devoting one to ‘writing’ and then trying to explain that some people write funny things, some write sad things, some write autobiographical things, and some people write lies on the sides of buses. And having, at most, three examples, trimmed from hundreds of pages to one quote, to demonstrate each of these types.

So, don’t expect to learn anything. At least not in the traditional way you might expect. But wander with an open mind. Lean in to that which interests you, step back and allow others ahead of you for the stuff that isn’t so much to your taste. Throughout it, admire the skill and intelligence that goes into shaping every single line, every single image, every single panel. But also … maybe accept the challenge that the mainstream view of manga is based on a very partial, very male, very staid view. That there is an undercurrent here, which the British Museum has done a good job of revealing, of more genuinely emotional and more diverse voices.

But maybe don’t ask why an exhibition with a warning about disturbing images has so little that will genuinely shock. My guess, borne out by looking at the demographics filling out the room on a Sunday morning: that would have meant an age restriction on the ticket and would have halved the numbers getting to experience this firsthand.

There has been an interesting mix of responses to this exhibition. Some lament that it is here at all as if only verified Old Masters are welcome at the British Museum. Some decry its slightly sanitised approach as if to not focus exclusively on that part of manga is to make the whole thing worthless. Balls to them both. Dive in. Just don’t expect to be able to follow which direction you’re supposed to be following this in.

TV Review: Good Omens

Good Omens is a novel by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. It is much loved by many people. And by ‘much loved’ I mean: “there are people like me who have read it multiple times and who owe much of their personal philosophy to its story about an angel and a demon who work together to prevent the Antichrist delivering the apocalypse so any adaptation for any other media better not fuck it up too much even if it is adapted by the surviving author.” And so to Amazon Prime comes a six-part TV version, adapted by Neil Gaiman, and starring Michael Sheen as the angel Aziraphale and David Tennant as the demon Crowley.  Nothing has been fucked up. In fact, it’s rather marvellous.

I was fearful. Of course I was fearful. I’ve listened to the radio version. And it wasn’t bad but it didn’t sparkle like the novel. I also endured the first season of American Gods wherein ten endlessly long episodes took us laboriously through only the first third of that Gaiman novel. I have not been back for series two. The list of excellent Pratchett transfers from book to other media can be counted on the fingers of no hands. I think I had every right to be fearful. And I have a feeling that those fears were shared at every level in this production because it’s remarkable how much they have got right – and they have done so by staying true to the spirit of the book without slavishly insisting that everything in it finds its way onto the screen.

Good Omens the TV series should probably pay royalties to the estate of Douglas Adams. The Voice of God (Frances McDormand) frames the action as both narrator and wry observer, and the interconnectedness of all things that powers the Dirk Gently novels is a running theme throughout. (As an aside, compare how well this series works with how not well at all any Dirk Gently has worked).

Whilst the focus is very much on the central bromance between Aziraphale and Crowley, Good Omens is very much an ensemble piece. The decision to strip down the book’s myriad digressions is a good one and leaves most of the enjoyable supporting characters in place. Anna Maxwell Martin is dead eyed and pus-ridden as Beelzebub, Sam Taylor Buck’s performance as Adam conveys neatly that balance between childish whimsy and understanding of the perils of the world beyond his Tadfield utopia, Jon Hamm is a terrifying-in-their-efficiency Archangel Gabriel, and Adria Arjona is suitably confused-witchy as Anathema Device. It was also nice to see Josie Lawrence get to play Agnes Nutter, the seventeenth century prophetess whose predictions are so shockingly accurate, given that she did an excellent job as the voice of Agnes in the radio series. A huge number of other British actors and comedians seem to have picked up pay-cheques too.

Good Omens doesn’t seem to have been particularly warmly received by critics. Perhaps they are feeling bit humbled after gushing in advance about American Gods. Maybe they think that it’s a bit too much out of time. A thirty-year old novel which itself homaged 1970s films, 1950s Americana, Queen, and had as its key location a fantasy village based on a nostalgic, imagined England that never existed. Whatever. They’re wrong.

Whilst not, to me, ever as laugh out loud funny as the book, this is a very enjoyable series. With enough nods to keep long-term fans like me happy, I reckon there’s plenty here for the casual observer too. Watch it before the world ends.

TV Review: Ghosts (BBC)

It’s always the way, isn’t it? There you are, having a fancy dinner party with your double-barrelled surname neighbour who owns the village and you’re disturbed by a dancing caveman, a lovelorn poet, a burnt witch, a filthy minded trouserless MP, a Captain, a Lady murdered by her husband, a ‘scout’ leader with an arrow in his neck and an overly excited long-deceased woman who just wants to be your friend and talk about boys. And only you can see them as they dance around the table, walk into the table, and then sing their praises to the moon. Always the way. Welcome to Ghosts.

The team that brought you Horrible Histories when it was good and then followed it up with Yonderland and the sadly-hardy-watched-but-brilliant Bill (review here) are now all dead. They hang round Button Hall and try not to get too bored with each other. The caveman (Robin played by Laurence Rickard) has turned out to be rather good at chess (“Horsey go cloppety cloppety .. check mate”) but mostly it’s just talks about basket weaving, (“You need it to be about five potatoes high” – this from Katy Wix as the simple singed witch, Mary) that they then can’t do because they can’t touch anything.

And into this world come Alison and Mike. A young couple with no money who, via Alison, are distantly related to the last of the Buttons and so get the house. Initially, only moderately freaked out by the size and expense of their new home, things get a lot more complicated when pervert MP Julian (Simon Farnaby) crosses the temporal plane to push Alison out of a window. Dead for a while but revived she can thus see and interact with the ghosts even though no one else can.

And so, across six episodes, silliness ensues. The kind of endlessly quotable, completely rewatchable silliness that lets everyone bask in a warm glow. Here’s the poet attempting to woo Alison with what he thinks is a tender verse but is actually Kylie Minogue’s I Should Be So Lucky; here are the lost souls trapped in the plague pit into which they were tossed who know all about how the boiler works, (“Red Lever! Red Lever! Red Lever!”); here’s the head endlessly calling out to the rest of his body; here’s the Captain pointing out which of the workmen did something (“The handsome one. With the arms. Strong … probably.”). The jokes come remorselessly thick and fast. It takes a second watching to pick out some choice lines or to see yet another sight gag go by. I’m sure more will come on third and fourth watching.

In amongst the gags there are some genuine moments of emotion. Pat (Jim Howick) seeing his family and Robin talking about the moon amongst them. I’m sure, assuming a second series comes (this being British TV we’ll probably get a Christmas special in 2022 and be grateful), there will be similar moments for some of the other characters too. I’d love to know more about all of them.

There’s no doubt more to say but the best way to appreciate Ghosts is just to watch it. And if, having done so, you are able to walk into a room without going through in your head the souls that must be looking on nearby, please let me know how you’ve done it. I’m convinced that our cat must be seeing something spectral right now. It’s the only explanation that makes sense. I do hope they’re having a good time.

Film Review: See You Yesterday

70 year old establishment white man, Ian McEwan, whose novel Saturday is the most insultingly unrealistic novel ever published, recently drew praise from credulous members of the UK literary establishment when he wondered out loud about how great it would be if science fiction was less about magic anti gravity boots and more about dealing with real issues in an imaginative way. The prick. But, anyway, here comes See You Yesterday, a science fiction film that uses the idea of time travel to explore the reality of black lives in America.

Produced by Spike Lee, See You Yesterday is the feature film directorial debut of Stefon Bristol. The story is simple in the way that the best stories are. Claudette ‘CJ’ Thomas and her best friend Sebastian have discovered time travel in their garage. They are concerned about getting what they need in time for an expo so run an experiment to test it out. It works. But then, because these people aren’t rich but are black, and are in New York, CJ’s brother gets shot and killed by the cops despite being decent and innocent. Thus the loop is formed and CJ and Sebastian deal with the fall out of trying to stop that happening.

See You Yesterday has an absolutely infectious energy. Eden Duncan-Smith has great fun as CJ, and the way her character runs through all the emotions, whilst trying to sort everything out, is the heart of the film. She is ably supported by Dante Crichlow as Sebastian and Astro as her brother Calvin. There’s a beautiful cameo early on from Michael J Fox as the science teacher. I love that ‘the science’ is wilfully unscientific. Gamma rays, protons, worm holes and a chalk board with symbols… and then time travel is achieved by a backpack and a smartphone, why not?

Nobody is going to accuse See You Yesterday of subtlety in its message. This is the science fiction chapter of black lives matter. That’s only a problem if you want it to be a problem. For the rest of us it shows that science fiction can be diverse, interesting, challenging, and still have something to say about the present day. The soundtrack also rocks.

Ian McEwan incidentally, decided his original take would be to play with the idea of … hold onto your hats … robots that might have human emotions. Like I say, life is different when you’re white.

Film Review: Detective Pikachu

I went with my two sons, of course. In their separate ways, and entirely without any influence from me, they have lived Pokémon pretty much their whole lives. When knowledge of Detective Pikachu came into our lives it wasn’t a case if we would see it, it was a case of when. And how often. It is the greatest compliment I can pay this film that the prospect of having to watch parts of it again and again and again does not fill me with any kind of dread.

In a world where Pokémon and humans live side by side, Justice Smith is Tim Goodman. Tim used to be all in for Pokémon but now works in insurance and buries his dreams. A call takes him to Ryme City where it appears his detective father has just been killed and whilst looking over said father’s apartment he comes across a pikachu, voiced by Ryan Reynolds, who he can understand perfectly.  He and his new sidekick, with assistance from rookie reporter Lucy Stephens (Kathryn Newton) try to work out what the heck is going on. The mystery won’t tax you too much but Detective Pikachu is so warm-hearted, so actually funny, and so well put together in terms of action and character that the beyond basic nature of the plot hardly seems to matter.

Stylistically, we’re in a world that’s best described as Who Framed Roger Rabbit meets Blade Runner. A lot of the real-world city scenes are London but it’s well covered by all manner of high-rise Japanese logos. Deckard doesn’t fly across the screen to Vangelis but we are very much in a family version of that kind of neo-noir world. Less rain though. There’s almost certainly more for the fans than for the non fans but this is not remotely a piece just for kids with Pokémon card collections. Concepts that might be hard (and are second nature to devotees) are explained briskly without getting in the way.

And so two boys with their lifelong devotion left the cinema absolutely bowled over. They didn’t seem to be alone in that. And there was already a nice queue for the next showing waiting to be let in. Detective Pikachu seems to have found an audience. Good. It’s an enjoyable watch.

Film Review: The Highwaymen

Whilst not heading towards full revisionism, The Highwaymen is a low-beat retelling of the last days of Bonnie and Clyde from the perspective of the two cops-of-advancing-years who finally bring them to the ultimate justice. 

Kevin Costner is Frank Hamer, Woody Harrelson is Maney Gault and they barrel across the badlands, cooped up, unwashed in their tiny car, trying to work out how and where in the vast wilderness their prey will next appear. The chase will take as long as the chase takes, as America civilises around them. And if that sounds like The Searchers then the film helps you out by homaging one of its most famous shots as a character stands in complete silhouette, looking out at the emptiness, framed by the door.

The Highwaymen is an odd film in many ways. It determinedly wants to present the real impact of Bonnie and Clyde’s crimes so they, are decidedly unglamorous. However, clearly that might mean that we, the audience, think that killing them in a hail of bullets is a bit unfair. So some of the legend remains in place. Bonnie is shown killing a defenceless policeman on the ground; the truth is generally accepted that this infamous incident did not occur.

There are also some incongruities in setting. Some shots are external and beautifully crafted; but then we have people running across obvious sound stages whilst sprinkler rains falls on them.

But, the key reason to like it is the double act whose names are above the title. Costner and Harrelson work so well together. Costner reminding you that despite all this detractors, he can do this stuff effortlessly; Harrelson just adding to his run of quality performances that he now seems to deliver whatever the film.

The Highwaymen is not great. But it’s decent. And there’s more than enough to keep you going. It probably shouldn’t be two hours long but it is and, unlike some, that’s far from an ordeal. It’s almost the perfect film for home viewing: challenging enough, entertaining enough, amusing enough, dramatic enough, but with a story you already know that’s not going to tax you too hard.