Saturday, 29 January 2011

How Late It Was, How Late

by James Kelman

This book won the Booker Prize for literature back in 1994 (I was only 3!) amidst controversy and outrage from the press, but fought back with many literary figures support of it as a work of art.

The reason, of course, is the fact that it contains an abundance of swear words. Can something that contains so much offensive language be Literature, with a capital L.
The answer is yes.

Written as a stream of consciousness, with no boundaries in the form of chapters or sections, the reader get a rare insight into the mindset of Sammy, a character dependant upon social security but with a strict sense of morality and key perspective of a bureaucratic, almost Kafka-esque nightmare of a welfare system. After taking a beating from the police after a three day bender, Sammy goes blind and now has to navigate the pitfalls and traps into which so many fall in dealing with the state.   With the loss of one sense, we rely much more on the words recorded and their possible layers of meaning, as without facial expression and body language we are confused as to the subtleties and purpose of much of the conversations.  The ambiguity over narration is also confusing as we cannot be sure of their authority and truthfulness. We only have Sammy's opinion, and don't even know whether he is to be trusted as we know nothing of his past. This battles with the idea that people are innocent until proven guilty, raising questions as to whether we believe Sammy or the state? and why we do or don't believe their version of events.

It's a hard book, no easy read, but it is very interesting to discuss.  Personally I'm not comfortable with excessive swearing, but this is essential, along with the phonetic and dialect choices made by Kelman.  If this book was written in Queen's English it would not be the same book, or represent the same situation or the same character. So who cares if he swears a lot, many people do. If you don't like it then don't read it, but if you're interested in seeing (or not seeing as the case may be) a different representation of life on the breadline then this book will not disappoint.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Free Willy II

Clearly not as good as the original, but a million times better than the third.

There is an oil spill in the hunting grounds of the Killer Wales and Jesse, Nadine and Elvis, Jesse's new-found half brother must do all they can to get Willy, Luna and little Spot to safety (nice little bit of echoing between humans and whales). Randolph is as always amazing as the native american healer, as are the other lead actors.

But the reason I adore this film is because of the whales and the music by Basil Poledouris. The footage of the whales hunting and singing combined with the haunting melodies makes this one of my favourite childhood films, despite it not having princesses or talking animals or explosions.  In many ways it was years ahead of itself with regards to environmental message, and has an effect of making children think in a way which modern films can't quite seem to grasp.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

The Sinking of the Laconia

aaagh I know it's been ages, but now that my essays are done I vow to do one blog a day until I've caught up :)

Ok, so I watched The Sinking of the Laconia about a week ago and I was a little confused at first. Essentially it was a troop ship during world war 2 that was carrying prisoners of war and civilians from Africa, but was sunk by a German U-Boat. When the Captain ordered the ship to rise to check out the damage they discovered the women and children and so took them aboard in order to save the survivors.

Basics out of the way... It started as a kind of bad Titanic remake, with the prisoners in squalid conditions below deck and the upper class English Ladies sipping tea and singing "We'll Meet Again" on the deck. This made the first episode rather dull in all honesty. However, on the sinking of the ship, we discover that one of the "ladies" is a German escaping trial, and many interesting bonds begin to develop, especially between the Germans and the British. It becomes a focused moral drama, where the decisions of the U-Boat captain and the British and German high command are called into question. The British suspect a trap, and so refuse to send out rescue boats, the Germans believe that War is War, and so the survivors should be abandoned in their lifeboats in the middle of the ocean.

The hardest parts involve the children and the Americans. The German escapee loses her baby when the ship sinks and two young children lose their mother, whilst their critical father abandons them to the care of others. The Americans, being told of a missing ship, send out a search plane.  It see's the U-Boat, with painted red cross and many passengers and, ignoring the odd circumstances, fire recklessly, killing some and injuring others.  The surviving British commander then jumps in front of the German Commander, saving his life and being injured in the process.

The main issues are then the intricate balance between respect, morality and orders, with a capital O.   The U-boat captain acts honourably, ignoring his orders for as long as possible, whilst the impossible seeming friendships develop between foes and enemies, regardless or nationality and class. Thus what was a quite boring and predictable start became very enjoyable, despite the awful portrayal of a Welsh accent...

Thursday, 13 January 2011

The Hidden Truth of Churchmoor Terrace

by B.K. Nijjar.

I'm going to prefix this blog by stating that this is quite simply the funniest book that I have ever read. Ever ever ever. 

It involves a mysterious house...
built on a haunted graveyard...
under which there lies a secret company office...
sitting on top of a hidden ballroom...
which hides the zombie barracks...
that covers the hidden tunnels...
to the mysterious GOLD MINE
and the lair of the pig monster...
with a secret door to a magic land where escaped dwarves live.

I KID YOU NOT. All this in under 200 pages? That's a bargain.

Essentially Cara (the heroine) and Lucia (her friend) are walking home from school when Lucia is blown away in a sudden mysterious tornado.  Cara continues home as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened. She later sneaks out to look for her friend who has not reappeared (shocking, I know) and discovers all of the above ^ and that some unnamed evil is TRYING TO SUCK THEIR LIFE SOURCE. Understand? Good.

Interesting plot twists/bits which make me love this book:
1. There are classes of zombie. Some slave away in the gold mine.  Others Waltz around a ballroom in gowns and suits.  Marx would have something to say about that...
2. The elegant Zombies drink blood from a special fountain and sleep upside-down on the ceiling, like Vampires
3. If there is need of a change of location, Cara will invariably knock herself unconscious or fall down a hole, like an uncoordinated Alice from Wonderland
4. Morphey the demon pig makes friends with Cara after nearly eating her, and takes her home to his lair on his back to meet the family.  This would be sweet, except for the fact that he just tried to eat her...
5. The dwarves are bizare, like reject Disney characters, who escaped the mine into this Narnia/Ireland combo land, leading to the resurrection of the Zombies
6. Cara's lovely Dad shows up to save everyone and blow up half the street before everyone goes home for tea...

Except for Lucia, who you may have forgotten, who is now a zombie. Tragic eh?

I don't think it's meant to be a rolling-on-the-floor-laughing comedy, but that was it's effect on me and my friends on discovering several copies in the garage. If you can't source one (which you probably can't) feel free to borrow mine. It'll cheer you up in no time.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The Atom Station

The Atom Station by Halldór Laxness

Set in Iceland just after WW2 with the threat to some countries of the Cold War, and this leads the Americans to try to secure a deal to build a nuclear atom station.  You can basically forget all this however and just concentrate on the relationships and character development as once again Capitalism and Socialism clash.  The story is told from the perspective of 19 year old Ugla (from the North we are repeatedly told. i.e. she's a country bumpkin, a bit like me) coming to terms with the big city, where she has come to learn the harmonium, which I think is a basic piano. 
It's sounding a bit dull, but I'm not doing it any justice. It's an amazing kind of surreal situation, with a maid, a crazy harmonium teacher, his demented mother, a member of parliament, his bonkers family, a prostitute called Cleopatra, two poet-thieves who believe themselves to be Gods, an unselfconscious policeman and a self-conscious policeman with a vocation to become a thief. Quite a cast eh?

The fact is, it draws you in and keeps you guessing all the way through, which is unusual.  An odd mix of Icelandic folklore and traditions and new American influences, eclectic characters and a fantastic storyline with interesting underlying questions as to the motivations and loyalties of politicians, and the comparison of what is truth.

I will say I was disappointed in the ending, but only the last ten pages or so. But then again, I should have known it wouldn't end the way I wanted, it is after all a novel for my European novel course.  I guess I should count myself lucky that it doesn't end with massacre or suicide, and with that I will have to be satisfied.



Ok so to clarify, the number of stars I give a novel does not mean that I don't think a book is good, it simply means that I personally did not enjoy it. For example, Germinal is not an easy read, but I enjoyed it, whilst I didn't enjoy The Trick is to Keep Breathing despite thinking it is a good book.

However, sometimes I will think that a book is rubbish, in which case, tough luck. Sorry.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The Trick is to Keep Breathing

The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway

What to say... I didn't get it.  I didn't figure out who "Joy" was until 3/4 of the way through, and she's the narrator.

The men are seemingly interchangeable, with no real differentiation between them, and the plot confused me so much in its roundabout way of un-chronologically listing events.  Also the occasional two short lines set on their own in the margin at random intervals.  Weird.

I'm going to presume however that this was a genuine plot device in order to convey the confusion and distress of the narrator's mind, in which case, it worked.  I ended up more puzzled at the end than I had at the beginning. She seems like a bit of a slut, trying to explain away, cover, her mental problems with promiscuous behaviour with any Tom, Dick or Harry, regardless of whether they have families and partners.

I felt that the section of the the novel in the mental institute (or whatever the politically correct term is nowadays - God I sound old) was very well written to convey the horror of being constantly misunderstood and the irritation of being dismissed and labelled, although I think that maybe a definite label and easy 10 step solution is what she expected and wanted in some ways.

However, the most annoying part of the book is most certainly the conclusion, which royally pissed me off.  To finish mourning her dead lover, get rid of her depression and begin living again she..................... (wait for it)................ cut her hair, dyed it purple and got some piercings.


I shouldn't criticise, different things work for different people after all and there is no easy solution yadda yadda yadda. But after plowing through this dull story, I was hoping for something a bit more profound.  It honestly would have been more fitting for her to commit suicide.

Ms. Galloway, congratulations for writing the worst book I have read so far in 2011.

Monday, 10 January 2011

GB84 by David Peace

A combination of thriller, mystery and historical commentary, GB84 is a diary of the General Strike of 1984, running week by week through the lives of those effected, from government advisers and Union Representatives to the miners and police on the front line.  In my opinion, Peace gives a well balanced account of the events, highlighting questionable choices on both parts and not judging the people involved, but leaving the reader to come to their own determination as to who was in the right.

As we watch trust break down among friends and colleagues and violence increase I can only be reminded of attitudes usually attributed to WW2: Stick Together but Don't Trust Anybody. As unions and government talk of loyalty to the cause, the question arises as to what is more important; the life and rights of an individual, or the greater good for the greatest number of people, and does this excuse the extraordinary measures taken by the police to intimidate and brutalise the public that they are sworn to defend, or the disruption of an entire nation by the NUM.

What is most important though, is that this book is a bloody good interesting read which will get you thinking as to the changes of the last 25 years, and how a different outcome would have changed the way we live today.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Alice in Wonderland

When I was a child, I read Through the Looking Glass.  I found them confusing but loved the idea of a kind of inverted reality (although clearly I wasn't clever enough to know this and just liked the funny people).  I hated Alice.
When I was five I saw Disney's Alice in Wonderland. It gave me nightmares, repeatedly.

So when the huge advertising campaign for the new Alice in Wonderland I wasn't exactly thrilled. However, being down with the kids/up on the trends I finally got round to watching it.  The first thing that struck me was that she looked ill. Not slightly-drained ill but full on I'm-going-to-throw-up-no-please-help-I'm-fainting kind of ill. At times she was green. I'm very pale but if I ever look like that then I think that someone should put me out of my misery.
(CORRECTION) apparently, this was the look they were going for, I stand corrected.

Back to the the film... the first half hour was forgettably weird, like they had taken every English stereotype and misunderstood it, but once you get to Underland the story does, thankfully, pick up. The role of Alice is, in my opinion, superfluous, as she does very little but grow, shrink, look confused and act like a complete ninny. Saying that, the supporting cast (I feel terrible using the word supporting, but I can't think of a better one) carries the story and actually kept me interested.  The combination of Barbara Windsor, Alan Rickman and Matt Lucas is genius, whilst Helena Bonham Carter is a fantastically demanding Queen of Hearts.  In comparison the White Queen, i.e. Ann Hathaway is fantastically bland and dull, and I'm not quite sure why Hearts cards and White pawn check pieces are combined (explanations welcome). However the star of the show is undoubtedly Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter giving the character surprising depth in his portrayal, combined with his renowned bonkers humour.

Luckily, this film didn't give me nightmares, which, amazingly, marks it higher than Disney's original... Who would have guessed?

Monday, 3 January 2011


Ok so this post is dedicated to Angharad who gave me the idea.

As a book to inspire me for the new year... I think this is the best I could have chosen, despite it's slightly depressing end.  Written by Emile Zola it depicts France in the turbulent period of Napoleon Bonaparte's reign as emperor and the strikes of a small mining village... etc etc

Apart from all the historical stuff, the storyline is enthralling, with the intertwining of several story lines around the central Maheu family and the revolutionary minded Etienne, in which we get to know every member of the family and their neighbours intimately. It is in the minute details of their lives and their suffering that I think the reader gets captivated, until you feel their plight, their anger and the injustice as though it were your own.  There is no 'hero' of such, as every character has depth and flaws, from Catherine's low self esteem to Etienne's stubborn refusal to see beyond the immediacy of his actions and the manipulation of his power.

The machine of their world is literally crumbling around them, their relationships, their power and their mines (and they are THEIR mines, not the owners) and it says enough that I raged, screamed, cried, laughed and mourned along with them.

Similar in effect to the works of Victor Hugo, this book is powerful and manages to create a world now gone, even if it does evoke more tears than chuckles.