Thursday, November 30, 2006

REVIEW: ‘Helltown’ by Dennis O’Neil

O’Neil is a long-time comic writer and editor, and this novel is set in the DC Comic Universe, re-telling the origin of The Question, a character O’Neil wrote to considerable acclaim in the 1980s.

Vic Sage, alias the Question, isn’t a standard superhero character – he’s essentially a man in a trenchcoat and fedora whose face is rendered blank by a mask. Quite a creepy image, and in making the character an orphan, the character truly is a blank slate, and his driving motivation in the comics (under O’Neil, at least) is that of curiosity, as well as a wish to see justice done, though that’s often almost incidental.

I was a huge fan of the Question comics (even writing letters of comment , some of which, to my adolescent fanboy glee, were published in issues’ letter columns), so I was keen to see what O’Neil did in the prose medium.The results are ... let's say mixed.

In the novel, starting from scratch and set in in the present day, a lot of the ideas underpinning the comic series are lost, and the need to reintroduce the characters – and even other DC Comics characters like Batman – takes a fair amount of time, leaving certain elements overplayed and others rather truncated. It starts rather uncertainly, too, and it’s not entirely clear who or what of the various elements described is going to prove relevant, and what’s just scenery.

The original Question, created by Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko, was a single-minded and pretty harsh character, and in order to start afresh, the 1980s comic series as good as killed him off, but this novel doesn’t quite have the same approach, and to my mind that was a bit of a pity. The reduced role of Myra, the love interest, is a shame as well, and indeed she’s reduced to little more than a love interest, and a rather token one at that – there’s no real reason why Vic should be so keen on her after so few interactions.

That said, the book hangs together pretty well, and some of the action sequences are quite tautly written, even if characters do have some frankly unlikely names (Emiline Grandyfan, Thaddeus Crate, and Eustis McFeely, for example), which rather disrupts the flow when reading. A pity, especially as some of the dialogue is quite snappy.

A cautious recommendation to fans of the original comic series, I guess, but in all honesty you’d be better off hunting down back issues (especially the first 12-15 issues), or even checking out the character's appearances in the Justice League Unlimited cartoon series over the past few years.

Nano Writing Month

Well, it’s the end of National Novel Writing Month, and I’m sure you’re wondering how I did. A quick click on the link to the right will tell you, but let me save you the trouble: out of a goal of 50,000 words, I wrote… around 3000. Less than 5%, by my quick calculation.

By any estimation, this is pathetic, and I’m frankly ashamed of, and embarrassed about, it. Granted, November has been one hell of a month for a variety of reasons, but it’s things like this which make me wonder if I might gradually be turning into one of those people who wants to have written, rather than to write. Many people think that they’d like to write, but it’s the act of keeping the backside on the seat and the pen moving over the page (or, if you’re all modern-like, the cursor scooting over the screen) which is all too often the key part of writing.

There’s a joke I both love and hate, and at the moment it rings all too true:
Two men meet at a party.
“I’m writing a novel,” says one.
“Really?” says the other. “Neither am I.”

REVIEW: ‘The Traveller’ by John Twelve Hawks

Touted as 'the new Da Vinci Code’, this novel is, thankfully, much better than that, though I guess it shares some themes – secret societies, and the notion of a true history of the world which remains hidden from the general population.

The Travellers of the title are people born with the ability to travel out of the material realm as we know it into other dimensions. They’re seen as a threat and tend to be eliminated by the ‘Brethren’, who are keen to make the world as regulated and ordered as possible. Travellers are protected by a warrior group known as the Harlequins, and this book – the first of a trilogy, it seems – tells the story of a Harlequin called Maya trying to protect two could-be Travellers from the Brethren.

From that description, it might all sound a bit science-fictiony, but the book’s set pretty much in the present day (perhaps a few years in the future), with most of the trappings of today, and quite a bit of the paranoid-sounding stuff about surveillance and tracing people has its roots in current events.

It’s pretty well-written, even if plot requirements sometimes force characters to speak in exposition-ese, and there are some interesting twists. I mentioned above that it’s the first of a series, and rather irritatingly this isn’t really very clear from the cover, and I half-wonder if the themes (which will be familiar to anyone who’s seen The Matrix or read The Invisibles comic series) won’t feel a bit stretched over more than a couple of books. But I was sufficiently interested to make a mental note to keep a look out for the next book (in paperback, mind).

There’s a certain amount of internet hoo-hah about the author, as he apparently ‘lives off the grid’ like characters in the book, but I’ll take that with a bag of salt, frankly. Anyway, the book’s not bad, and if you want a dose of easily-absorbed conspiracy-laden reading, I’d recommend it.

File Under ‘Dignityphobic’

To the left there, the cover of the latest Heat magazine.

Just when I thought that the magazine, and Peter Andre and Katie Price, couldn’t stoop any lower, or appear any more desperate to fill pages at any cost, comes this latest issue, with the photo touting an article showing the happy couple ‘at home’.

Yes, she's sitting on the toilet, her knickers are spooled around her knees, and he’s handing her some toilet roll, presumably to wipe after she’s urinated, defecated or both. All, quite charmingly, captured on film.

I’m not actually supposed to admire these people, am I ? Please, someone, reassure me.

The Bigger They Are…

Obviously, this is true.
But of course, I can cheerfully agree with it from my lofty perch (that's over 6’, ladies)…

All right, so it’s yet another bit of pseudo-scientific non-news. But it beats this rather grim prospect for tall men.

And I have to say that I know very little about women, but one thing I’ve come to realise is that they can forgive fat, they’ll even be tolerant of bald or balding, but that (paradoxically) they won’t overlook short…

Monday, November 27, 2006

LIST: Things I Strongly Believe One Should Never Skimp On The Purchase Of

Tea Bags

… any others you can think of? Let me know.

*Surely the ultimate in false economy.

Don’t say I never give you nuffink, awright?*

Here’s another one of those free iTune codes (see this post for how to redeem it): SPMZTSPZCRFF. First come, first served once again, but let’s pause for a moment and consider what a good score that code might warrant in Scrabble.

And, assuming that this isn’t one of those tiresome e-mail hoax whatsits, this could be useful for those of you who, like me, have something of a weakness for the smell of a new book…

*This line copyright © EastEnders Christmas Afternoon Specials every single year since it started. Used with derision.

Give Stray Thoughts What They Want, And No-One Gets Hurt

1. Backnowyes, long time nopost, but verybusyvery oh yes. Don’t hurtbe, sometime things be thatway.

2. My current pet peeve; people who approach me in the street and ask for money – specifically, a particular amount (recently 20p, 40p and 50p, though not in that ascending order). The main thing that annoys me about this is that the approachers have mastered the art of looking sincere and bewildered as if they’re about to ask for directions, so I take my earphone out and ask if I can help, only to be asked for money. I’m always hmm on being asked for money this way anyway, but when I wear earphones to block out extraneous and nonsensical noise and then have it interrupted by specifically the kind of thing I’ve put the earphones in to counter… well, grr.

3. Okay, this seems to have some kind of pseudo-commercial element to it, but I rather like it – can’t explain why, but there’s something rather joyously silly about it. Just ignore the final captions, and the unpleasant interruption of commercial considerations.

4. Meanwhile, do give your money to these good folks, who are releasing DVDs of live comedy. Their first one is from Stewart Lee, and is a bit of a barg (I know, cos I’ve got mine already). Support the independents, and stick it to the man. Yeah!

5. While in Paris the other week, I went to the Buddha Bar. That’s right, look impressed. Yes, I went to this much-vaunted drinking place, where a huge statue of Buddha towers over the dining area, and where the bar is full of candlelit secluded corners which have played host to Johnny Depp, Cameron Diaz, and many other people you’ve heard of (as well as many you haven’t). It’s cloaked in shadow, with only the odd neon light from the bar and flickering flame from a candle or tealight casting any illumination. All of which is my characteristically long-winded way of saying yes, I bumped into a bar stool in the dark, and sent it flying. Smooth.

6. In answer to your several e-mails, no, I have not seen Casino Royale yet. But I intend to, and depending on what I think of the film, I’ll probably post a review of it here.

7. Started Xmas shopping yet? No, nor have I. But I was on Bond Street on Thursday Evening, where it transpires Thandie Newton was switching on the lights, and I had no idea. Curses!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Yes, I did order the Creme Brulee*

I’ve been away from the keyboard a bit recently, I know.

And one of the places I’ve been is the CafĂ© des Deux Moulins in Paris, perhaps best known from the frankly terrific film Amelie.

The photo here is taken from the telephone booth where two people … er, let’s say ‘get frisky’ in the film. And whilst the place is nice, I have to say that it wasn’t quite as sunny and colour-washed as it was in the film. Damn those film-makers with their filters and lenses and washes and doodads.

Y’know, it’s almost enough to make a chap think that there’s some kind of difference between films and reality.

I said almost.

*Though unfortunately they didn't have it.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

REVIEW: ‘Good News, Bad News’ by David Wolstencroft

This is the first novel by Wolstencroft, who’s one of the creators of the BBC drama ‘Spooks’ (known as ‘MI-5’ in the USA, I believe). I’d read positive reviews of the book, and as I’d enjoyed the first couple of series of Spooks (until they’d seemingly been forced to let plots be driven by the need to write various cast members out), I was pleased to get this for 75p in a charity shop.

As you’d expect, it’s a thriller, about two men, Charlie and George, who, at the start of the book, work in a photo developing booth in London. This happy little situation is shaken up quite quickly within fifty pages or so, with some really rather clever twists and gradual revelations about the two men which undermine the expectations which have been built up.

However, once the whole spy and espionage aspect of the book gets going, the constant twists and turns of the plot start to border on laughable, reminding me of Voltaire’s ‘Candide’ in that characters seem incapable of staying dead when seemingly demised. There are also some sequences which I simply couldn’t follow – there’s one in the ladies’ toilet of Oxford Circus tube (does such a place exist? I have my doubts), and another chase in a tube tunnel, where I honestly had no idea what was meant to be going on.

The number of pages devoted to events seem disproportionate too – dozens of pages detailing a trip on the Eurostar (albeit a covert one), but at another point in the book, bam, a new chapter begins and they’re in a totally different country with scant explanation of how they got there. And the plot hinge upon which the whole book moves seems pretty feeble too, and certainly not worth the Security Services creating the mayhem involved in the book.

Finally, there’s one ‘big revelation’ which I found utterly risible, and which, if you don’t want to spoil the book, you can avoid by jumping to the next paragraph. Right, still here ? Okay, brace yourself then, this is it: the two baddies chasing Charlie and George are actually the same person – Rose Willets is Latham. Yes, she apparently is also Latham, a male character, referred to as ‘he’ in the narrative, in spite of the fact that the male pronoun should not apply to a genuinely dispassionate omniscient narrative such as the book purports to take. Quite how she is also meant to be he is never fully (or at least plausibly) explained.

To be fair, Wolstencroft’s writing style is generally quite readable, but the incessant twists of the story undermine the whole thing to the extent that, like Dan Brown’s inexplicably popular bad book, I just kept reading to the end in vaguely awed and appalled fascination - to see what he would come up with next; and not in the sense of being hooked by the tale and concerned about the characters, as they’re pretty much a uniformly unsympathetic bunch.

So, far from recommended, and disappointing after a good start. I got it from a charity shop, as I mentioned, and it’ll be going back to the same place. Here’s hoping they benefit more from selling it again than I did from reading it.

Remembrance of Things Past

It’s Remembrance Sunday, and I’d be remiss to let it pass without some kind of remark, I think.

I stand by what I posted this time last year, though it has to be said that I probably didn’t actually say as much as was appropriate about my respect for the troops involved, instead grinding my teeth about the politicians who send them to their fates (a reaction which was not diluted in any way by seeing Tony Blair lay a wreath this morning. The man clearly has no sense of causation, or even conscience).

So: I think war is a bad thing. A very bad thing, in fact, the very breakdown of civilised behaviour, and a sign that at least one party to the situation is allowing the primal basal ganglia of the brain to rule over the more evolved parts. Not a good thing at all.

And sometimes it does seem that there are some people who are unwilling to listen to reason, and who seem incapable of being dissuaded from certain actions unless it’s with the application of force, or the threat thereof. Granted, there are obvious examples of this where one can easily point to a moral high ground, and other examples where the morality is more murky, or downright absent. That said, there does therefore seem to be an argument – however regrettable the need – in favour of the existence of some kind of military.

The point I’m trying to make here is that whilst I think I admit with some chagrin the need for the military, there does seem to be such a need at this stage in human evolution, and as such I’m both grateful to, and in awe of, the men and women who fulfil these roles, and who are willing to die in doing so. I don’t think I could do it, frankly.

Gallingly, though, there seem to be all too many people who think that war is some kind of game, or political stratagem, or personal crusade, and these people utterly lose sight of the fact that what is lost is not a handful of votes or some financial amount, but the lives of real people, who will be missed and mourned.

Even more annoyingly, all too many of these armchair commanders are people who seem to know little about the subject of war, or (and you know who I’m talking about) have actively sought to avoid it whilst being all too happy to send others into conflict, or to send them into battle for the most spurious of pretexts. These people, unfortunately enough, seem all too frequently to find their way into government.

And their actions do nothing to honour the memories of those who die in the service of their country. It is the bravery, unfortunately, of those who are safely out of range.

Friday, November 10, 2006

LINK: Good sportsmanship, I’d say

Granted, many people feel (moderately justifiably) that the song was rather overexposed, but I like this – it’s for one of my favourite causes, and I think it certainly shows her in a good light, particularly in the last couple of minutes.

Free iTune

I drink too much Diet Coke, and thus have reached my limit in using their free iTunes codes (only 5 per person).

Thus, the following code can be utilised by anyone who wants it - first come, first get. Head over to iTunes' site, find the 'Coke Free Song' section or whatever it's called, and enter the following code to get a free song: TFFRNWCXSBMB.

If you try to use it and it doesn't work, that probably means some-one beat you to it. Them's the breaks, kid.

Evening Standard Free West Wing DVD Codes

This post will make no sense at all to anyone who doesn't live in London and didn't get the free item in question, but here's hoping that anyone who strays here by the almighty power of Google finds this useful:

Episode 2 - 199416

Episode 3 - 269679

Unlock, and enjoy two more episodes of one of the better examples of TV in recent years. Of course, you could have got these numbers by buying the ES yesterday and today, but frankly, the fewer people who buy that tatty Daily-Mail-affiliated rag, the better.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

LINK: Hear here

If you're missing my updates, then you can get a (small) dose of me by clicking here and scrolling down to the bottom of the page, where Cameron, the leader of the Mount Ararat Trek I did in July, has posted a free podcast all about it.

It's well worth listening to, especially if you're not expecting more than half a dozen words from me.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Suddenly, one year later

Lawks alawdy, if it hasn't been a year since I first posted on this blog. Cripes.

No major observations to make on the changed world since 365 days ago, but to note - as I'm often driven to -that if, this time in 2005, I'd tried to guess what my life was going to be like, I doubt I would have been even remotely close.
How about you? Is your life taking you unexpected places? I hope so, and I also hope they're places you're happy to be.

Happy Guy Fawkes' Night.

Separated at birth (or, rather, death)?

The BBC show's logo came after the HBO one, I think, which is rather unfortunate.

...Surely I can't be the first person to have noticed this?

Saturday, November 04, 2006

A Bit Of Window Licking

Was amused to see this in the window of a London bookshop yesterday.

Ignoring for a moment the fact that the title of the book is asking for trouble (that is, the way to survive them would seem to be ‘don’t watch their programmes’, which suggests the book is rather padded out), I love that they’re giving away free mini bars of chocolate with the book.

Perhaps I‘m being simplistic, but I fear that many of the people who might buy the book might also be the kind of people who’d view chocolate as something to be avoided or feared…

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Story Time

Well, as I mentioned the other day, I'm taking part in National Novel Writing Month - hence the little logo in the Profile box to the right. However, rather than bore you with posts which simply say things like '11 words today, think my pen might be faulty', I've created a new link in the column to the right which will take you directly here, where there'll be a running total (assuming the technology doesn't go all HAL on me).

Will I make it 50,000 words, and finish 'Coming Back To Haunt You'? Dunno, but I'm thinking that by stating my intention in public, I might feel your eyes on me, and motivated to avoid public shame. We shall see...

LIST: Films which would be shown as part of a season for dyslexic nature lovers*

- Dead Clam
- Dragon: The Bruce Eel Story
- The Dogs Must Be Crazy
- Mission To Rams
- O Rat! O Rat! O Rat!
- Cats Away
- Vole Actually

*I know, I know, it is a feeble excuse to make lots of anagram puns, but puns aren’t the lowest form of humour, that would be Balls of Steel or The Friday Night Project. And though John Cleese may be on record as knocking puns and plays on words, do bear in mind that he co-wrote and performed the line “The plaice is grilled, in fact the whole room's a bit warm, isn't it?” (Fawlty Towers: The Germans.)