Thursday, 30 December 2010

Book Review: The Stand by Stephen King

I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with Stephen King.  He has a special place on my bookshelf as he was one of the first writers I really got into when I was around eleven or so, (plus we share the same birthday!).  I devoured pretty much all his stuff up until about 1995.  I think it was Needful Things (1991) which broke the spell for me.  Hundreds of pages leading up to the most ridiculous, Deus ex Machina ending ever.  But every now and then I have another bash at a Stephen King, just for old time’s sake.  In recent years I’ve tried Insomnia (94), Cell (06), Just After Sunset (08), Dreamcatcher (01).  They were all, without exception, complete turkeys.

The way I see it, the early ’90s were the turning point for King.  Before then, his books were quite addictive: good pacing, in depth characterisation, unsettling and (often) a decent ending (not always though - endings are definitely his weak point.  King is really an ideas man.  You get the sense that he has so many and sometimes just doesn’t know what to do with them once he gets to the end).  After that, I don’t know what happened really.  Maybe it’s something to do with his prolific nature, his fame and status and his lack of a good editor.  Who’s going to really edit a King book these days?  He’s a bestseller, regardless of how unwieldy and bloated his novels become.  He can do what he wants.

So whilst searching around on my bookshelf for something to read which wasn’t too taxing in the Christmas wallowing period, I thought I’d re-read an older one and see how it holds up under scrutiny.  I decided to go for The Stand (78/90) - the reworked 1990 edition of course!  I last read this on holiday in Mallorca with my family; I was probably twelve-ish.  At the time I loved it.  But would I still love it?  And how would it, ahem, stand up to scrutiny?

Pretty well actually.  First I noticed loads of literary references which I simply didn’t get aged twelve.  King is an intelligent bookish man; he majored in literature and I’ve read interviews where he explains how he struggled for years with his desire to be seen as a ‘literary’ writer yet he produced pulp fiction.  But it’s all here: Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’, T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’, The Scarlet Letter, and um…The Lord of the Rings.  The influence of Tolkien is really obvious throughout, but hey, we all love a good quest of good vs evil don’t we?
What King is really good at is characterisation.  Backstory is dropped in with subtlety and we actually care about (well most) of the characters.  Except Frannie.  God she’s annoying.  I would say his female characters are actually less convincing here (and there’s fewer of them anyway).  The pacing keeps us engaged throughout - even at the ending.  Here’s something to note - a King book which doesn’t have a lousy ending!

True there are areas of style which could do with tightening up and some inconsistencies, but overall it lived up to my memory’s recommendation.  It linked in with his Dark Tower series too.  For some reason I managed to bypass these and have been picking at them every now and then for the past six months.  And I loved the reference to Christine.  Of course that’s nothing new - King is uber intertextual and that appeals to my slightly geeky nature.  But one thing I would say is some parts of the narrative are actually quite experimental (for mainstream fiction).  Stream of consciousness, second person voice, present tense, interspersed diary entries…

I think you could really compare The Stand to Cell to see how far he’s changed (for the worse).  Both have an apocalyptic theme.  But whereas The Stand, despite the horror/fantastical elements remains firmly rooted in reality and character, Cell descends into farce.  The Stand takes small steps and remains wholly believable and true, whereas Cell just made me laugh.  Zombie type creatures created by mobile phones, who are in fact, batteries, who recharge by listening to M.O.R?  Eh?  Instantly forgettable characters, who I care about even less when one dies?  Yup.  I kind of remember some weird levitation thing happening at the end too.  Cell is a cash-cow, plain and simple.  The Stand is the real deal.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Book Review: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Adiga pulls no punches in his first novel which explores the haves and the have-nots, the Lightness and the Darkness in modern day India.  Our narrator and anti-hero is Balram Halwai; born in the Darkness and desperate to get out.  His journey is complicated by ancient caste systems and hierarchies, but a lucky break sees him working as a chauffeur in Delhi where he learns how to be an “entrepreneur” - although his interpretation of this role and what it entails is shown with an acerbic and satirical slant.

There’s an angry tone in Adiga’s writing.  For all of Balram’s witticisms Adiga uses him to explore and comment on social issues.  It’s part shocking, part funny.  We see Balram stuck outside an American-style mall, looking in, but allowed to enter once he changes his clothes.  We see ownership, slavery and squalor.  Balram tries to “dip his beak” into a Russian blonde but runs screaming when he sees her dark roots.

This novel doesn’t have characters; instead we’re given a grotesque array of caricatures, all cruel, twisted, perverted, corrupted or just plain weak.  The ending when it comes is abrupt, the outcome is predictable.  We see two extremes of India and nothing more. 

But maybe they aren’t as far apart as all that.  The Darkness isn’t just down to geography and social status - you can bring the darkness of moral hypocrisy with you wherever you go.  Adiga’s narrator brings this novel to life, but ultimately the centre seems hollow.

Saturday, 18 September 2010


Daybreakers is a vampire movie which owes its heritage to The Matrix and 28 Days Later equally.  It’s not horror; it’s sci-fi with a bit of blood-sucking thrown in, before ultimately descending into action.

Ethan Hawke plays Edward (why Edward?), a vampire with the tendencies of Anne Rice’s Loius who has a real problem with the human red stuff.  Instead, just like Angel, he favours pigs’ blood. 

But Edward’s problems don’t end there.  He works for this Vampire Big Business in the haematology department, trying to create a synthetic substitute because there are like, 20 humans left or something.  I’m still not sure why they weren’t breeding the remaining few. Instead they seem to hook them up in cells: all very Matrix-y.  Anyway, Edward falls in with the Human Resistance, who have discovered a cure for growing fangs.

I admit, I quite enjoyed this film.  Sure, the plot has some yawning craters, but it looks stylish, almost neo-noir in places.  You can guess mostly where it’s going to end up, but it looks pretty along the way. 

 It’s got some great touches - the newspaper headings about the pandemic and how vampire society seems to be mainly a load of white collars.  Plus it’s got Willen Dafoe in it.  What more could you want? 

Not so hot are the almost painfully obvious parallels it’s trying to draw with current issues - genocide, oil shortages, blah blah blah.  But I’m a sucker for vampire films (BOOM BOOM) and Daybreakers does the trick without giving us the wow factor.

Stylish fangs with no bite; but who cares?

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Film Review: The Human Centipede

There’s a buzz in town and it’s all about Dutch horror The Human Centipede which received a general UK release this August.  It’s directed by Tom Six, who says he got the idea from discussing what punishments should be meted out to paedophiles.  Worried yet?  You should be…

Dr Heiter is a man with a vision, a man with a dream.  ‘A cure for AIDS?’ I hear you cry.  Pah.  Our doctor has much more lofty heights to scale.  He’s going to create…O horrible! O horrible! Most horrible…the…er…well, the clue’s in the title.  And create it he does, out of two unsuspecting American gals who’ve clearly never watched a horror film and an unlucky Japanese guy.

The three segments never amount to much by themselves.  The acting is so hammy I thought I was watching a porn film for a minute.  But they get more interesting once they are, ahem, joined.  That’s joined mouth to anus in case you didn’t know.  The doctor is a demented blend of Bela Lugosi, Klaus Kinski and Sunset Beach.  I don’t know if making him German and calling him Josef Heiter was a deliberate ploy, but all I could think of was Josef Mengele and his twin studies.  The Japanese segment was also clearly thinking the same when it yells, ‘You crazy Nazi bastard!’ or some such sentiment.

But is it any good?  Well, it had a certain funny aspect to it.  Watching a human centipede being trained to fetch papers or whatever the doctor wanted it for is always going to elicit a few giggles.  But my overriding thoughts were for the segments.  Who’s got the best deal? I thought.  If I HAD to be a human centipede, which segment would I be?  Well, the front one’s got the best deal clearly.  It gets to lead the way, to eat food and it keeps its teeth.  But the middle or end?  Dr Heiter thinks the middle is the worst section and uses it as punishment.  I suppose you’d feel a trifle constricted.  But the end segment is last in everything, shuffling along behind, always the bridesmaid, never the bride.  So I guess I’d be the front segment.  If I absolutely HAD to be a human centipede.

But…is it any good?  Well I chuckled a few times, got grossed out by some scatology and mused on the life of a segment of a human centipede.

It’s a joke - right?

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Film Review: Triangle

Imagine Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining mixed with Vigalondo’s Timecrimes at sea and you’ve essentially got British horror film, Triangle.  Of course, if you’re familiar with the hubbub about this film you’ll know that director Chris Smith says he came up with the idea two years before Timecrimes.  But hey, who cares?  It’s the chicken and the egg.

I can’t really say much else about the plot or I’ll give it all away, but the spoiler free basics are simple enough.  Jess (Melissa George, or Angel as I still like to call her) is a single mum with an autistic son.  She and a group of friends are caught in a freak storm while sailing and manage to board a ship that passes their capsized boat.

But there seems to be nobody aboard, apart from that sinister figure stalking them…cue lots of shots of a confused George looking over her shoulder, along long art deco style ship corridors.  She’s got deju-vu bad and there’s definitely a spooky atmosphere.

Fans of The Shining will love the references and there’s some great editing going on here, which comes to its fullest realisation in the final part of the movie.  That’s all I’m saying.  But there’s also some gaping plot holes and whilst George’s character is multi-layered, helped by a strong performance, the other characters are a bit stiff.  Try and remember all their names.  Bet you can’t.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Reading 2009

The Black Dahlia - James Ellroy (Quite ridiculous)

London Fields - Martin Amis (Started off well, became disappointing)

Less than Zero - Bret Easton Ellis (I've read this before of course. Awesome)

On the Road - Jack Kerouac (Nice scenery)

Dune - Frank Herbert (A re-read)

Surfacing - Margaret Atwood (Early so OTT feminism ahoy)

Half a Yellow Sun - Chimamanda Adichie (Enjoyed this a lot!)

Engleby - Sebastian Faulks (Flawed but enjoyable. Lost momentum towards the end)

On Writing - Stephen King (Really interesting. Like peering into someone's window through binoculars)

The Shining - Stephen King (Another teenage read)

Behind the Scenes at the Museum - Kate Atkinson (Found the narrator a bit grating! Too many! Exclamations!!!)

Fury - Salman Rushdie (Didn't vibe with this)

Rant - Chuck Palahniuk (My new favourite author)

Book Review: Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux

Theroux’s Strange Bodies is an immensely readable literary thriller which actually works quite well. It follows a strange but recognisabl...