Monday, 28 October 2013

Theatre Review: Titus Andronicus at the Swan 2013

Shakespeare’s early tragedy Titus Andronicus has always had a bad rap. Featuring (in no particular order) murder, rape, mutilation, dismemberment, filicide and cannibalism, some critics refused to believe it was even
penned by the bard, while it’s rarely performed among the hundreds of Hamlets and Othellos (although it’s certainly increasing in popularity with modern audiences).

In fact, Titus probably has more in common with Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy as well as later dark and twisted Jacobean revenge dramas like Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy or Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. Shakespeare’s audiences, used to the influence of bloody Senecan drama, loved it.

The story follows Titus, an ageing general of Rome who’s spent years and years dedicating himself to the Empire and fighting the goths. In fact, he’s already lost twenty (yes, twenty) sons in the war. At the start of the play he returns to a Rome that’s in political uncertainty as two brothers campaign to become Emperor. But he doesn’t return alone; Tamora, the captured queen of the goths, and her sons are in tow. Titus promptly sacrifices one despite Tamora’s pleas for mercy.

And this is where the trouble starts. You see Titus is a stickler for rules. He’s the kind of guy who calls a spade a spade and he believes in the chain of command. So not only does he turn down the chance to rule Rome himself, he refuses to support the younger and more appropriate brother. Instead he puts Saturninus on the Emperor’s throne (big mistake). Before you know it, the Emperor’s freed Tamora and married her…and boy does she want revenge on Titus.

Many of the difficulties in the play come from the excessive, almost cartoon-like violence as well as the sometimes jarring combination of horrific action and beautiful language. When Tamora’s sons, Chiron and Demetrius, rape Titus’ daughter Lavinia they hack off her hands then cut out her tongue so she can’t speak or write their names. Her uncle’s lament turns her into some delicate woodland creature or plant, ‘hewed […] Of her two branches’ while her disfigured mouth releases ‘a crimson river of warm blood / Like to a bubbling fountain stirred with wind.’ Michael Fentiman’s 2013 production for the RSC at the Swan deals with the extreme nature of the play with an assured and deft use of black humour.

Not that Lavinia’s assault is handled lightly – I’m pretty sure such treatment would lose any audience immediately. The complete horror of her ordeal is heightened by the early bloodless stabbings in Act One, so when she finally opens her mouth the sight of all that red stuff spouting out onto her soiled white dress is all the more shocking. Chiron and Demetrius’ cruelty is intensified as they've hacked off her long blonde tresses and tied it round her stumps. Rose Reynolds plays the part with sensitivity and an increasing resilience; she delivers a judgemental 100 yard stare that penetrates the dark depths of any soul. There’s even a bit of awkward humour as she tries to eat a boiled egg with no hands in a kind of Hulk-Smash! moment.

But uncomfortable scenes aside, where this production really excels is in its biting, witty and deeply dark tone. In the ‘70s literary critic Nicholas Brooke pointed out how Jacobean and Caroline tragedy provoked “horrid laughter” in contemporary audiences – something that modern performances deliberately tend to minimise. Heaven forbid we laugh in Act Five of Macbeth or Lear.

Fentiman’s production however gives us the go-ahead to laugh all we want. There’s heads and hands flying about all over the place, severed limbs used as comic props, Titus dressed up as a kind of mad Nippy in a Lyons tea shop, and a finale that’s a triumph of orchestration. Tamora’s (Katy Stephens) expression when she realises she’s been feasting on her sons (murdered by Titus and baked in a pie) is priceless. The stage erupts into chaos – a jaw-dropping melee of mass murder and violence by unusual and comic means: Titus is stabbed with a table leg, one of the Emperor’s wenches rogers a dinner guest up the arse with a cake cutter, a corkscrew is rammed into a neck and I noticed one character gleefully brandishing someone else’s tongue on the end of a fork. 

Stage blood becomes more and more prominent as the play progresses, and I'm pleased to report that I got spattered when Titus cut Chiron’s throat (front row seats = very interactive). The audience go with it – there’s laughter and chuckles and guffaws. And a few gasps; Aaron’s murder of the nurse is particularly inventive. Not content with just stabbing the poor woman (who emits an almighty shriek) he rolls her over and sticks the knife…well let’s just say if you’ve seen Se7en you’ll know what I mean. On the night I went one woman in the audience lost all constraint at this point and bellowed out, “OH MY GOD!” in the loudest voice you could imagine. Of course we all laughed. I bet the actors high-fived each other backstage.

Both Stephen Boxer as Titus and John Hopkins as Saturninus are excellent, bringing a great deal of humour to their performances. Katy Stephens is mesmerising as Tamora: fierce, sexy, manipulative and with a great rock queen wardrobe. The sons Chiron and Demetrius (Jonny Weldon and Perry Millward) come as an identical pair of idiotic (but dangerous) buffoons riding BMXs. Aaron, the devious Moor, is physically a commanding presence, but he didn’t quite pull it off; I wanted him to be a bit more wickedly evil. After all, this is the guy who’s done a ‘thousand dreadful things’ (murder, rape, arson, cattle mutilation, corpse defilement…just the usual really).

The set-design and costumes show an eclectic mix of historical periods and cultures; there’s Nazi-esque iconography, modern riot police, Moorish temples, Muslim veils and the influence of classical Rome. Violent acts aren't just specific to one particular time, and a play that was hugely popular with contemporary early modern audiences still speaks to us today (this production opened in the same week as the shocking Woolwich slaying).

Titus Andronicus is an absolute triumph: disturbing, funny and relevant. It never descends too far into farce though, and the last moments are chilling. Aaron, buried up to his neck in the earth, is powerless to prevent the young boy Lucius (Titus’ grandchild) from picking up his baby…and then the cake cutter. The boy looks at both speculatively before the lights go out. It’s a bleak comment on how violence breeds violence, and it’s hard not to think of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson. It’s a bloody (literally) brilliant production. Oh and by the way, the stage blood did come out in the wash.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Book Review: The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

A lovely first edition hardback copy of The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon was recently wedged through my letterbox for review.

I really enjoyed this one - shameless escapism but with added literary allusions. Perfect! You can read my thoughts on it here.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Book Review: Why I love...Moby Dick

A while back I decided to re-read those books on my top book list.  First up was Moby Dick.

Highlighters are my friends
There’s something irresistible about Herman Melville’s 1851 opus, Moby Dick; a novel of monstrous proportions that lurches from high seas rollicking adventure to natural history to existential debate to political satire to etymology lesson like a green sailor yet to find his sea-legs.

From its famous first line ‘Call me Ishmael’ (in which out narrator is introduced) you might expect to become very well acquainted with our guide. But after 680 or so pages we end up knowing surprisingly little about him.  Despite a lengthy set-up in which Ishmael visits Natucket, selects his whaling ship and becomes very good friends with Queequeg (a friendly cannibal who carries around shrunken heads) we kind of lose sight of him as he slips from the narrative. 

Instead Melville embarks on detailed chapters on cetacean anatomy, philosophy, the grisly reality of whaling and of course Ahab – all without a single “I” in sight.  When Ishmael does pop up again it takes a moment to remember who he is.  And then there’s the genre and style of Moby Dick.  It’s a mashed-up tapestry of prose, poetry and drama.  We actually get monologues from Ahab, Starbuck and Stubb plus chapters made up entirely of script complete with stage directions and asides, breaking any remaining illusion of Ishmael actually owning this story.  It’s all very grandiose, Shakespearean, self-aware and also surprisingly modern; there’s just so many voices vying to be heard. 

And what about the ending?  After pages and pages (and pages) Moby Dick pulls Ahab down to a watery grave, along with the Pequod and all her crew (bar Ishmael) in just a few brief sentences.  It’s certainly a strange beast of a novel, but one that’s magnetic in its dramatic urgency.

At the centre of this watery maelstrom is Ahab’s obsession with hunting down the infamous white whale, Moby Dick, who chomped his leg off in an earlier encounter.  The crew may have thought they were off to see the world and gain their fortune in blubber, but soon they’re locked in a fatalistic journey to the depths of mania and madness.  Like the wiped out North American tribe the Pequod is named for, the ship is doomed and Ahab is the devil’s own.  One of my favourite scenes shows the crew working feverishly through the night burning the carcass of a whale in the try-works.

As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like the flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooneers wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul.

The Pequod hurtles towards her doom, the lives of her crew tied to Ahab’s infernal purpose – it’s all pretty epic.  Even worse is the sinister Fedallah, a creepy Parsee who Ahab smuggled aboard.  Fedallah spends most of his time literally hanging around in Ahab’s shadow so he doesn't cast one (clearly also of the devil) and prophesying an ominous future.

But Ahab isn't just a cut-out monomaniac.  Melville gives his captain Shakespearean tragic depths as we see both the extent of his hubris as well as the tantalising possibility of deliverance through Starbuck.  I'm a little bit in love with Starbuck.  Ahab’s first mate, he’s in between a rock and err...another bigger rock as he tries to follow his master while battling with the knowledge that Ahab is completely bonkers and will get them all killed.  There’s a great passage when he hovers outside the captain’s door, questioning whether to murder him.  Of course he can’t.

‘Oh my Captain! my Captain! noble soul! […] why should any one give chase to that hated fish! Away with me! Let us fly these deadly waters! Let us home!  Wife and child too are Starbuck’s […] this instant let me alter the course! […] See, see! The boy’s face from the window!  The boy’s hand on the hill!’

Nice try Starbuck.

However Ahab’s having none of it.  ‘This whole act’s immutably decreed,’ he tells poor Starbuck, ‘‘Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled.’

Ahab is created in the mould of Shakespearean tragic hero – flawed and doomed to follow his purpose to the end.  He reminds me a bit of Macbeth in V.vii when he’s outmanoeuvred and knows he’s heading for a sticky ending.  ‘They have tied me to the stake,’ Macbeth says, ‘I cannot fly / But, bearlike, I must fight the course.’  There’s something strangely impressive about a man who will always stand by his decisions and actions, even when they’re clearly insane. 

Noah's not bothered about Ahab's troubles
Other Shakespearean motifs abound in Moby Dick too, such as little Pip, the cabin boy who goes overboard.  When he’s picked up later he’s lost his mind through a mixture of pure terror and transcendental experience in the open empty waters: knowing God.  Not surprisingly he ends up living in Ahab’s cabin (the crazies stick together), reminiscent of Lear’s fool, poor Tom.

It’s no wonder that Khan Noonien Singh liberally quotes and adapts Moby Dick throughout STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982) – another reason I love this book.  Reading through Moby Dick and finding passages used in Star Trek is like looking in the pocket of a pair of jeans you haven’t worn in a while and finding a twenty (and it’s also one of the many reasons why the new reboot just isn't, well, real Star Trek….).  Like Ahab and his whale, Khan is obsessed with getting his revenge on Kirk and he will sacrifice anything and everyone to get it (there’s a great Moby Dick reference in STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT too concerning Picard and the Borg). 

In epic vengeful situations nothing beats a bit of Ahab:

Khan: ‘He tasks me! He tasks me, and I shall have him! I'll chase him round the Moons of Nibia, and round the Antares Maelstrom, and round Perdition's flames before I give him up!'

Ahab: He tasks me; he heaps me […] and I'll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before I give him up!’

Or when Khan borrows some of Ahab’s exact words from the end of the novel, as he also faces destruction:

Ahab: ‘Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!’

And then there’s Moby Dick: Ahab’s nemesis and the epicentre of his rage.  The fact the whale is white makes it even more horrific; ‘an ‘elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than the redness which affrights in blood’.  Ahab believes Moby Dick is the source of all evil.  Yet at the same time Moby Dick is almost sublime – beautiful in its ghastliness and capable of bringing you closer to God – if you can actually figure out the divine workings going on.  The sailors dissect other whales they've killed, trying to pin down the essence of “whale-ness” but it’s something they can’t find or explain.  The white whale becomes a site where meanings multiply and collapse.  The ultimate mystery, Moby Dick sinks from view, Ahab trapped forever in its jaws (as you can see Melville brings out the grandiose in anyone).

Best Moby Dick Quotes

‘Come, Ahab’s compliments to ye; come and see if ye can swerve me. Swerve me? ye cannot swerve me, else ye swerve yourselves! man has ye there. Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush! Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!’

‘He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.’

‘Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom; and therefore his shipmates called him mad.’

Moby Dick goes with…

  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov for obsession
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison for a darkly destructive and obsessive relationship

Monday, 26 August 2013

Found a home for this one

A story that is. Finally. I was beginning to wonder if it'd be relegated to the bottom drawer where unloved stories go to die.

It's called Love Scenes (Double Feature) and is up over at Metazen. Link is here!

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Book Review: The Low Road by Chris Womersley

Australian writer Chris Womersley’s début novel The Low Road (2007) has just been published in the UK for the first time.  It’s an intense thriller focussing on three men linked through crime and the ghosts of their past: Lee who’s on the run with some extortion money, Wild, a disgraced doctor struck off due to gross negligence connected to his morphine habit (and facing a prison sentence) and Josef, an ageing criminal sent to hunt down and kill Lee.

When Lee’s wounded by a gunshot to his stomach, Wild ends up using his medical skills to save him temporarily – although he can’t take the bullet out – so they begin a journey together towards another doctor friend of Wild’s in a safe place in the country.  All the while Josef is edging ever closer to the pair, intent on getting back the cash (a paltry sum we’re told time and time again.  Lee is risking his life on nothing really).

Let’s get the Cormac McCarthy comparisons out the way first (because there will be).  The Low Road does have flavours of both The Road in its dystopian bleak journey and No Country for Old Men in its depiction of a collection of interlinked characters travelling towards each other for an inevitable Western-style show-down.  But that’s no bad thing.  Womersley’s book shares a similar fatalistic tone, aided by his dense evocative prose.  This style is a selling point, and works in agreeable juxtaposition to the highly plotted thriller-ish narrative.  Like The Road, there’s also a sense of dislocation and timelessness – this could be any place, any time.  Instead it’s more a story about mankind’s capacity for violence and self-destruction which could happen equally in Australia, America, Europe or beyond.

Womersley jumps between all three characters’ perspectives – although Josef’s view only features in a few chapters.  That’s a shame really because I wanted to know more about Josef – especially in the light of some of the decisions he makes towards the end of the novel.  Wild and Lee are more developed, but again there’s still a distance.  Their dark horrible secrets are hinted at but held back till the final section – and you might look at Lee in particular in quite a different light once it’s revealed.  His section also features three present tense chapters focussing on his secret (an event during his prison sentence) that clearly shaped the man he’s become.

The Low Road is one of those rarities – a fusion of the literary with a pacey filmic plot.  On the whole it works (although occasionally I felt it was one metaphor too much).  But be warned – it’s a dark, bleak and ultimately nihilistic world view with no hope of redemption.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Film Review: Michael Haneke's Amour

Michael Haneke's 2012 film Amour was the favourite at Cannes last year.  I've just reviewed it for The Hollywood News and you can read my take on it here.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Book Review: Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd

Waiting for Sunrise (2012) tells the story of Lysander Rief, a vaguely famous stage actor, who travels to Vienna in search of a cure for his (ahem) embarrassing problem of a lurve-related nature.  It’s 1913 and he’s interested in trying out this new-fangled “talking cure” everyone’s on about so he finds a psychoanalyst in the Freudian tradition.  Soon enough, Lysander’s noting down his dreams, lying on a couch, talking about his mother and recounting a cringe-worthy primal scene when he was found doing something best left as a solitary pursuit by his mother (again with the mother – what else did you expect?).

It’s in his analyst’s waiting room that he meets Hettie Bull, a clearly neurotic unstable (but sexy) sort, and Lysander immediately embarks on an ill-conceived fling with her.  I quite enjoyed this section of the novel.  The beginnings of the affair are suitably intriguing, and we even get a brief cameo from the man of the moment, Freud.  However Waiting for Sunrise soon morphs into a different kind of book and I found I was reading some sort of thriller.  Lysander is pretty much blackmailed into joining the war effort as a spy.  I'm not really sure what qualifies him as a spy.  But I guess he’s an actor – we get a lot of explanation about how good he is at assuming a disguise by smearing Vaseline all over his upper lip (makes you look like a snot-dribbling crazy apparently).  Some stuff goes on the Front Line, there’s a set of interchangeable upper class army toffs and everyone acts a bit suspicious.  Lysander is trying to find code-name Andromeda – an informant who’s sending top secret info to the German side.  He follows clues here, there and everywhere…leading back eventually to (you guessed it) his mother.  Is this some kind of joke on Boyd’s part?

At one stage I thought Waiting for Sunrise was going to turn into something else again.  Lysander becomes hooked to chloral hydrate, prescribed for his insomnia, and we’re told it can result in fantasies and delusions.  Perhaps his spying career is all in his head?  His analyst is a big fan of something called Parallelism – the idea that you can work through the bad troubling stuff from you past by creating an alternative reality where things worked out differently (a bit like Atonement I guess).  But no, nothing really evolves much further here, despite some promising signs.  Boyd jumps between telling Lysander’s story in the third person and the first (part of his Autobiographical Investigations or a journal that his psychoanalyst instructed him to keep) and I really thought that perhaps we’d see some gap between events and narrations.  Instead, there doesn't seem to be any point to the shift in narrative modes and I found the jump very jarring and pointless.

There are certainly some merits to Waiting for Sunrise.  Boyd’s creation of pre-war Vienna is evocative and anyone interested in psychoanalysis will enjoy the Freudian nods.  And whilst it’s plot driven, like a thriller should be, I had enough interest in Lysander and his philandering ways to turn the page.  But again some characters felt underdeveloped.  I was waiting for some craziness with Hettie (the latter part of the novel felt like it was building up to some sort of confrontation with her), but she just sort of slips from view.  It feels like Boyd never really got going and the narrative relies on too many densely plotted strands once the setting moves to London.

I can see this becoming some sort of ITV hour long series and I think it would work for TV.  But Waiting for Sunrise sadly hasn't persuaded me to try out any other of Boyd’s literary thrillers.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Book Review: Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas

A work colleague lent me this book because he said it reminded him of my life.  I opened it and read the first few pages on a cold, wintry Sunday in February.  I read, ‘It was a cold Sunday in early February’…intriguing…  I continued: ‘I’d spent most of [the day] curled up in bed in the damp and disintegrating terraced cottage.’  I looked at the walls of my damp and disintegrating house.  Curiouser and curiouser.

OurTragic Universe is a storyless story told by our narrator, Meg.  Meg is a writer who’s been trying to finish her literary first novel for years but spends most of her time obsessing over her dog, eating tangerines, knitting socks and bumbling around the Dartmouth area.  She seems to be in Devon due to some self-imposed exile from Brighton and lives in this mouldy leaking house (the rent was cheap) with her miserable boyfriend Christopher (who spends a lot of his time moaning and lying on the sofa being pathetic).

But then into Meg’s life comes… well not a lot really.  She’s interested in narrative theory and loves discussing different ideas of stories with her various friends and acquaintances.  So we get all the big names and ideas here: Propp, Jung, Campbell, Chekhov.  She’s sick of writing formulaic genre fiction (she’s a ghostwriter for a series of YA novels) and wants her literary opus to be a work of ground-breaking post-modern genius.  At one stage she considers turning her almost unintelligible notes for her ever-changing novel into the actual novel itself and calling it NOTEBOOK. She duly deletes most of her gazillionth draft and finds her word-count at 43.

Scarlett Thomas mirrors and explores a lot of these ideas through her plot and structure – not that there is much of a plot to speak of, more a series of random events.  Although are they random?  Meg tries a bit of cosmic ordering and can’t quite work out whether some things that happen are as a result.  Who knows?  You certainly won’t.  There’s also the Beast.  The Beast is roaming Dartmoor, howling at night and snuffling under doors.  Meg's dog goes to investigate and snuffles under the door too (as I was reading this my cat went to investigate some strange noise coming from under the front door). Now just as you think you've got a more conventional plot device…well, let’s just say don’t expect Hound of the Baskervilles.

This is an ideas book.  You've really got it all: reincarnation, cosmic ordering, narrative, cultural norms, parapsychology, Tarot, archetypes, animal psychology, Zen, magic… But often a lot of this knowledge is delivered to us through a long conversation and info-dump from characters just hanging round Devon, not doing a lot. This would be my main criticism of Thomas’ book.  However when the narrator is interesting, the ideas good and the writing wonderfully witty and insightful, you probably won’t mind.

But did I get any insights into my own life?  Did fiction continue to mirror reality?  Well let’s look at the evidence.
  • Lives in a mouldy, disintegrating house (check)
  • Leak in ceiling (check)
  • Persistent cough due to damp (sort of check.  Only while I was still sleeping in the room with no ceiling)
  • Thinking of moving (check)
  • Co-dependency with her dog (check – well, cat)
  • Loves having pretentious conversations about narrative and stories with friends (check)
  • Tarot (check)
  • Cosmic ordering (check – I thought it had worked too! But then it didn't)
  • Believes in magic (check – Sort of. When Derren Brown hypnotised the nation it rather embarrassingly worked on me)
  • Trying to write literary “opus” (yawn, check)
  • Favourite poem is Convergence of the Twain (check)
  • Mum is obsessed with scanning all her old photos (God yes)
  • The Beast (check – if we can count the foxes living in the garden)

Yes Meg is clearly me.  It’s official.  The whole experience reminded me a bit of that story – you know the one – where this girl is putting together a jigsaw puzzle.  As she adds the pieces she realises the picture on the puzzle is her own room, and there she is, sat at a table doing a puzzle.  How strange.  But what’s that at the window?  Only a few pieces left.  Is it…is it…some slavering axe murderer waiting to pounce?  Wait a minute, what’s that sound….?

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

The rules of attraction: what Bret Easton Ellis has taught us about dating

It’s that time of year again when stands in book-stores are filled with the complete works of Jane Austen and frilly pink gift editions of Shakespeare’s sonnets.  Yes, Valentine’s Day is upon us once more, with its tantalising whiff of love, smooches and stuffed teddies.  But what would bad boy of postmodernism, Bret Easton Ellis, have to say about this love thing?  What advice might he offer to those in the dating game?

1.  It’s always important to look one’s best

One thing’s for sure, surface is everything.  Whether you’re dressed to impress with your latest designer duds like American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman or name-dropping your celeb friends like Glamorama’s Victor Ward, you owe it to yourself to be utterly beautiful and glittering.  Prepare carefully for your romantic evening: exfoliate, wax, tweeze and moisturise.  Don’t forget to floss.  Then you’re ready to hit a nice restaurant like Spago with your date, and maybe a club or two later.  Strike a pose, there’s nothing to it.  Who cares what’s underneath?

2.  Money = sexy time

There’s nothing more attractive to the opposite sex than walking into a bar and buying three bottles of Cristal, a Mexican dancing girl and a dwarf.  And if you’re whining that you can’t afford it maybe you should just shut the fuck up and take a Xanax or something.

3.  Pick your locations carefully

We all know some places are better to pick up that special person than others.  Go for college dorms, parties, late night bars, restaurants with six month waiting lists and badly lit street corners. 

4. If you haven’t got anything nice to say don’t say anything

It’s absolutely fine to be racist, homophobic and sexist.  Just don’t let your date know that you’re racist, homophobic and sexist.  It’s all about looks remember?  But the thing to note carefully here is this only counts if you actually care about your date’s opinion.  If you don’t, well you just keep right on venting.

5. Drugs make you popular and hot

Stuck for witty banter and topics of conversation on your date?  Follow the example of Clay from Less than Zero; do some fat lines and you’ll be ready to impress the object of your affections with your sparkling wit, confidence and intellect.  When you’re ready to go some place a bit more secluded and comfortable, take Valium to get the mood right.

6. Be quick! You've got a shelf life

You've got to be fast in this dating game.  No amount of riches is going to help when you’re old and wrinkly at twenty-eight.  Surgery can only assist you so far.  So get yourself out there and hook yourself a real looker before it’s too late.

Just remember – there’s not someone for everyone out there, so you’ve got to be at the top of your game.  But hopefully if you borrow a leaf from Bret’s bibliography you’ll soon be ready to put on those Wayfarers, hit the bright lights of the big city, and find some hard-body to love all of your very own.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Book Review: Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

The best character in China Mieville’s second novel is the city of New Crobuzon itself – a sprawling, crazy and psychedelic metropolis that would have made Hunter S Thompson proud.  The hub of this city is Perdido Street Station.  From here the city spirals out into different boroughs, districts and oddities; there’s slums and high rises occupied by bird-men, sewers and abattoirs, a glass dome full of sentient cactus people and a dump which is home to HAL 9000 and his buddies.  Oh, and there’s bugs.  Christ, are there bugs.  There’s a whole bug ghetto and the protagonist Isaac (a tubby and edgy scientist) is dating a woman with a scarab beetle for a head.  Yes, you read that right.  Add to this mix a giant spider that shimmers in and out of reality and likes cutting off people’s ears and some giant moths that suck your mind out and there’s a real bug-fest going on. 

Isaac is approached by Yagharek, one of the bird-men (a garuda) who’s been maimed by his own kind and had his wings sawed off.  He wants to be able to fly again and hopes Isaac can help him.  Although Isaac is a scientist, the science studied in New Crobuzon is all kinds of fantastical: magic and demonology sit beside physics and chemistry here.  The plot threads are disparate to start with; we move from Isaac and his research to his creepy-crawlie girlfriend Lin, who’s crafting a sculpture of a local crime lord with khepri spit (don’t ask) to the corrupt heads of state to an underground politically active newspaper.  These strands all eventually combine into what’s essentially an overblown bug-hunt, as giant slake-moths terrorize the city each night (Isaac inadvertently hatched one and let it escape).

In a way this seemed a bit of a cop-out to me.  Mieville spends so long world-building and creating his wide-ranging cast that once it all becomes focused on hunting moths Perdido Street Station falls into more familiar and lacklustre ways.  And at nearly 900 pages this is a long book.  If I wanted giant creatures attacking each other in a city I’d be watching Mothra vs Godzilla.  Still, the ending re-awakened my interest.  It’s pleasingly bitter-sweet and downbeat, raising a load of ethical issues and questions.  Fans of urban fantasy, the new weird and speculative fiction will love Perdido Street Station.  But be prepared for an acid trip of a plot and lots of creepy-crawlies.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Book Review: Dark Matter by Michelle Paver

There’s nothing like a bit of horror and creepiness to get you through the winter months so Dark Matter (2010) by Michelle Paver seemed the ideal reading material for a dreary British January.  Paver’s novel (nominated for The Shirley Jackson Award) is set in 1937 and centres on Jack, a working class boy who’s down on his luck and has lost his dream of becoming a world class physicist.  This is because Jack is POOR.  However, hope lands in the shape of some Oxbridge chaps, all with names like Teddy and Algie and Gus.  They are RICH.  We know this because they say things like “grand” instead of “okay”.

In an echo of Frankenstein and the scientific pursuits of Walton, the lads all set off on an expedition to the Arctic and to what is surely a fruitful environment for any spooky story - 24 hour darkness.  And it is quite creepy.  You get a real sense of claustrophobia as time runs out and the daylight disappears, plus we know that something unwholesome is lurking around, biding its time. 

But that’s all you get really.  A sort of squelchy, cold creepiness.  As soon as Jack sees the old bear baiting pole I guessed what it had been used for.  And there are so many missed opportunities.  What could have been a slow, menacing possession was just a series of vaguely sinister events.  The “revelation” barely caused me to blink (or shudder).

I think it’s the voice I find most unconvincing.  Paver narrates most of the story through Jack’s journal and it’s here that it falls apart a bit.  I know we’ve established Jack is POOR, but his language veers between clichéd examples of ’30s slang and childishly simple sentences.  Is this Jack or Paver?  Perhaps Paver hasn’t made the jump from children’s to adult fiction as seamlessly as others thought.

And then we get to dog obsessions and thinly veiled homo-eroticism.  Jack talks about his favourite husky like some dementedly twee eight year-old from an Enid Blyton novel.  I thought they were going to slap each other on the back at one point and settle down to a spiffingly good tea party with scones and lashings of ginger beer.  And guess what?  Jack loves Gus.  But he can’t say it because he’s a man you know.  Stiff upper lip, what what.  But he loves him!  He really does old chap!  And do you know what?  I think good old Gus might love him back too!  Damn that rotten, bloody ghost.   Dammit to hell!

Dark Matter is great for atmosphere and does offer some genuinely disturbing moments.  But it’s a disposable read that won’t be keeping you up late at night, worrying about what’s hiding in the closet.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Reading List 2013

Perdido Street Station - China Mieville (urban fantasy best avoided by arachnophobes)

Macbeth - Shakespeare (a re-read for work)

Our Tragic Universe - Scarlett Thomas (enjoyed this!)

Written on the Heart - David Edgar (pretty weighty stuff: Tyndale, King James Bible, semantics, lots of men debating religion)

Waiting for Sunrise - William Boyd (literary thriller that doesn't quite cut it)

The Reader - Bernhard Schlink (found the tone/voice oddly disengaging)

The Low Road - Chris Womersley (neo noir meets Cormac McCarthy)

The Twelve - Justin Cronin (vampire saga part 2)

The Whaleboat House (literary whodunnit)

AngelFall - Susan Ee (YA novel I reviewed for The Hollywood News)

Fight Club - Chuck Palahniuk (finally got round to it. Think I've seen the film too many times as I found it a bit....boring!)

The Game - AS Byatt (too dry...yawn)

Moby Dick - Herman Meville (love this book)

The Virgin Suicides - Jeffery Eugenides (you'll like it for the rose tinted '70s nostalgia) 

Seventh Heaven - Alice Hoffman (American suburban life)

To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee (hadn't read this since junior school)

The Bone Season - Samantha Shannon (reviewed for The Hollywood News)

The Shining Girls - Lauren Beukes (yeah I enjoyed this - murder and time travel)

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...