Monthly Archives: October 2013

Books, books, they’re good for your heart

Contrary to popular belief (expressed by no one) I do in fact read things that aren’t terrible fantasy novels. Most of the time I haven’t actually been reviewing these either because they’re non-fiction, which I don’t have a whole lot of experience writing about, I didn’t finish them or I’m not sure I could really say enough of substance to fill a full-length review.

So I thought I’d start writing posts with little short mini-reviews instead. Here’s the first batch:

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1Q84 (book 1) by Haruki Murakami

(TW for rape, child abuse)

Murakami’s books are a real mixed bag for me. On one hand you’ve got Hard-Boiled Wonderland and TheEnd Of The World, which is by turns beautiful and delightfully weird, and then on the other hand you’ve got Kafka On The Shore which features Colonel Sanders as a major character.

1Q84 settles right into my personal habitation zone in the Murakami Weirdness Space. It’s strange, but it’s not so strange that you start to wonder if the author is just trolling you. The book tells two I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-the-same-story intertwining narratives: Aomame, a woman who assassinates men on behalf of a women’s shelter run by a reclusive widow, steps off a traffic-choked highway and appears to enter another universe, identical to our own except that two moons hang in the sky and a handful of fairly minor events over the last decade have changed in subtle ways, sending ripples into the present. In the second story Tengo, a cram school teacher with aspirations toward becoming a novelist, is approached by his editor to surreptitiously do a re-write on Air Coccoon, an ingeniously imaginative but unpolished manuscript submitted by a strange 17 year old girl. Before too long it turns out the two stories are linked in odd and beguiling ways.

All of Murakami’s favourite tropes are in here- an obsession with 60s American music and pop culture, reclusive 30-something year old male protagonists, quirky women with esoteric and insatiable sexual appetites and dashes of magical realism that are taken for granted by the characters. What’s new to Murakami’s oeuvre is a sense of sleaziness I’ve never encountered before. Tengo’s storyline is a slow paced and thoughtful character study with some genuinely intellectual content- for example, the book’s thematic connection to Orwell’s 1984 (I’m assuming no is going to be surprised to learn that there is one) is fairly sophisticated and subtle. Aomame’s half of the plot certainly has elements of that put to a surprising degree often more resembles a cheap airport thriller.

One of the reasons I held off on reading this for so long is because people kept comparing it to Steig Larson’s god-awful Millenium series. To be absolutely clear 1Q84 is far, far better written, but I can see where the comparisons come from as both books feature Strong Female Characters motivated by either their own or other women’s sexual abuse at the hands of men. This is a problematic idea in its own right, and one that Murakami really doesn’t seem to be qualified to handle. The whole “enclave of abused women who plot the assassination of men” angle comes across like a particularly sheltered and naive middle-aged dude’s idea of what a post-feminist society would look like and there’s a whole lot of victim blaming going on. When discussing a friend of hers who was murdered by her boyfriend Aomame spends way too long lamenting that she kept going out with men who were no good for her and if only she’d stop seeking out no-good violent lowlifes then this wouldn’t have happened. At one point Aomame and a newly acquired drinking buddy/ possible love interest have a wild night out with two office dudes, which Aomame doesn’t remember at all the following morning. The way she reacts to this-  by strenuously and pointedly thinking about how it’s not a big deal and she’s certainly not going to get worked up over it- struck me as possibly being a dig at women who do consider the idea of waking up in pain after a night of sex with two men they don’t even remember talking to to be something worth getting alarmed about. Maybe I’m reading something into this that wan’t intended, but in a cultural climate where efforts are being made to more clearly solidify the boundaries of consent and remove a lot of the supposed fuzziness and grey areas that have historically allowed abusers to justify their crimes I can’t help but look at this seemingly totally pointless sequence and wonder if there wasn’t an axe being ground somewhere when it was written.

What’s less ambiguously gross is the fact that Murakami brings a sexually abused young girl into the story, leading to a series of alarmingly graphic discussions about the rape of a ten year old which- I swear to God- go like this:

“She was raped?”

“Yes. Raped.”

“You mean…. full penetration?”

“Indeed.”

“With a penis.”

“Yes, I think it’s realistic to say that we’re talking about actual penetration of the vagina, with a penis.”

And so on, until I wanted to put either the book or Murakami himself in a wood chipper. Also Tengo totally gets off on staring at the 17 year old author’s chest and sniffing her pyjamas, so there’s that.

1Q84 has everything it needs to be a good story and I did enjoy it a lot when it wasn’t being creepy and gross. I really have no idea why Murakami felt the need to sabotage his book like this, unless he really did read Steig Larson’s novels and enjoyed them so much he decided to emulate them, a scenario so terrifying that just typing that sentence gave me palpitations. I might someday get around to checking out the second book- enough groundwork has been laid that Tengo and Aomame’s inevitable encounter should be worth seeing- but I’m in absolutely no hurry.

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Dirty Wars: The World is A Battlefield

A nonfiction account of the rise of America’s targeted kill/capture and drone programs, this gives a detailed and at times insider view of the behind the scenes machinations that resulted in the US military conducting covert operations all around the world. It’s no dry and detached account of the facts; Scahill opens with that famous Voltaire quote about killing to the sound of trumpets and it’s clear from the start that his intention is firmly to throw the book at the US government at the highest level. I was pleased to see a non-partisan approach to this, as Scahill devotes major time to exploding the myth of Obama as a more moderate successor to George Bush.

Over the course of Dirty Wars Scahill documents how elements of the US government at the highest level murdered, detained and tortured civilians with impunity, repeatedly and consistently created the very Islamic terrorist organizations they were supposed to be fighting, destabilized several countries to chase after relatively minor security threats, deceived or shut down anyone who tried to lift the curtain on what they were doing and laid the groundwork for an endless cycle of worldwide conflict leading to a potential state of never-ending war against an enemy which is continually replenished by the very methods the US is using to fight it.

It’s a powerful and at times shocking book that acts succinctly as both journalism and polemic, with Scahill weaving the narrative of Anwar Awlaki, the fist US citizen to be targeted for assassination in a drone strike (the second being his 16-year old son) into the political wrangling and maneuvering of the Bush and Obama administrations. Reading the words of family members of the dead who had previously been indifferent or outright hostile to the groups that their loved ones were killed in pursuit of vowing to blow themselves up in revenge really drives home how massive an injustice has been committed over the last decade and how dispiriting it is that so few people even recognize it as such. The sheer number of civilians murdered worldwide by US “targeted” killing campaigns is staggering.

The book has some flaws, it has to be said. Scahill goes into a bit too much detail about the exact steps taken in the creation of covert branches of the military empowered to operate free from any governmental oversight, which is important to the story he’s telling but could perhaps have been truncated slightly. As it is I often found myself tripping over pages of military acronyms.

Scahill also at times slips into either speculation in order to charge the US government with things that admittedly they’ve shown themselves fully willing to do in the past but which the evidence for in some specific instances was scanty, or engages in hyperbole- the opening chapters accuse elements of the Bush administration of conspiring to destroy American democracy, which the book never gets around to actually proving.

Overall Dirty Wars is an informative inside look at the events of the last decade and change as well as a powerful shock to the system for anyone whose acquaintance with those events has been filtered through the mainstream media. Given the sheer scale of the destruction and death wrought by the US’s counter-terrorism program it becomes very difficult to view them as substantially different from the terrorist groups they’re ostensibly meant to be fighting.

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Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

This one is in the “books I’m not smart enough to talk about intelligently” category. It tells the story of the titular Mr. Fox, a celebrated writer who is unexpectedly visited by Mary, a woman who we are initially left to assume is an old mistress. As it turns out Mary is quite peeved with Mr. Fox’s books, speficially with how he keeps violently killing off all of the women in them. And she’s got just the way to turn the tables: by forcing him to live through a succession of stories, each time with Mary and himself playing different roles, different names, different genders.

What follows is essentially an anthology piece linked by two repeating characters. I’m going to confess that I often didn’t comprehend the connective tissue of the story in terms of which role the two protagonists were playing and what that was supposed to be indicating about them (not because Oyeyemi herself was unclear on those points, but just because I wasn’t smart enough to figure it out), but the individual segments are wonderful enough that they can be appreciated entirely separately. In the space of a single chapter- sometimes in just a few pages- stories as rich and absorbing as lesser authors would struggle to create in an entire novel are conjured up. All of them are infused with a sense of fairy-tale magical realism to various degrees, from a melancholy drama about a lonely woman interacting with a strange writer all the way up to a delightfully over the top story about a boarding school for potential husbands that includes the trickster-God Reynardine chained to the bottom of a lake.

Like I said, there’s not much I can adequately say about Mr. Fox except that you should go read it immediately. You’ll be glad you did, trust me.

Let’s NaNoWriMo

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Hey, everyone, I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year!

Okay, okay. Stop laughing.

Srs talk first: lots of people have heavily criticized NaNo and questioned whether it’s really effective at fostering writing skill, or if it just results in a lot of unpublishable tripe at the end of November. I agree with all of those criticisms. My participation this year shouldn’t be taken as an endorsement of the the NaNo method.

So why am I doing it at all? Three reasons.

1) I’m curious.

2) I think if you view NaNoWriMo for what it actually is- a way of motivating lazy people with a creative impulse to bang out 50,000 word of unpolished first draft- it could be useful in kick-starting a writing habit that might potentially lead to greater things.

3) I’ve written stuff before, but never anything I’d call a finished novel. I had been planning on having another crack at something long-form already, so why not try to apply the NaNo challenge at the same time?

I fully realize that I’m traipsing right into the stereotype of the guy who makes it his thing to take the piss out of other people’s writing and then utterly face plants when he tries to do it himself. But hey, if whatever I come up with is bad enough to entertain someone else by ripping into it on a blog, well, there’s worse ways to leave your mark on the world (and just so we’re clear, I have absolutely no illusions that my noveule will get anywhere close to being published, nor am I entertaining fantasies about actually approaching agents with it- this is purely for fun).

You’ll see frequent posts on this very blog about my deep anthropological insights on the culture and attitudes surrounding NaNoWriMo (research for these deep anthropological insights will be conducted using a forum persona completely disconnected from the one I use for this blog, for reasons that will become obvious when you see the posts) so that will be fun. Also, the NaNo folks do something cool where they get established authors to send you “pep talks” throughout the month to tell you that you’re the best around, no one’s ever gonna get you down. I wonder who’s doing the pep talks this year?

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Wow, Catherynne Valente! She’s one of my favourite authors! It’s a bit weird that they only list her three all-ages books instead of the more sophisticated stuff she’s written, but

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Huh.

Well that should be….. enlightening.

Anyway, stay tuned. I might post excerpts and do teaser Tuesdays (Wednesdays?) and all that shit depending on how much I hate myself by then.

Horror movies!

It’s October! Halloween! Scary movies! Reviews!

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The Strangers

The home invasion genre has kind of exploded lately, giving rise to a slew of movies that are in a way just as formulaic as the exorcism films I complained about in my last horror movie post. I haven’t seen a lot of these movies that I actually like, but I have a lot of sympathy with their aims as they’re preying on very real fears that- unlike other horror film tropes- could actually very well come true. It’s been a long time since I lay awake at night worrying about ghosts, but the fear of someone breaking into my house has often had me jumping at a car door slamming shut at three in the morning.

The Strangers has an absolutely dynamite opening. Eerie, grainy shots of houses filmed from a passing car are followed by a flash-forward where we hear a panicked 911 call (BASED ON A TRUE STORY, apparently) and get some tantalizingly gruesome imagery. The movie proper begins with our heroes, an attractive young couple, arriving at a secluded cabin decked out with rose petals and candles to celebrate a proposal that as it turns out the attractive young woman of the duo wasn’t ready for and turned down. It’s quiet and low key, with no music save for a low rumbling sound. Excellent stuff.

Then they open their mouths and it becomes apparent that a) the dialogue isn’t very good and b) the actors aren’t very good at delivering it.

Hm. Well. Maybe the scares will be good?

They start off good. Things kick off with a sudden pounding at the front door. The Man answers it to find a woman standing at the doorstep, half in shadow because the front porch light isn’t working for some reason. “Hi,” she says in an almost dream-like monotone. “Is Tamara here?” What’s great about this scene is that there is clearly something terribly off about the woman, but you can’t quite put your finger on what. Likewise, the protagonists are obviously freaked out as well when she stays and stares at them for just a tad too long, but not to the point where there’s anything definitively scary going on.

This is great. This is what I mean when I talk about horror movies being subtle. Nothing overtly scary has happened, and yet the scene is scary. And we’ve all experienced things like this in real life- just the other day I got a phone call after midnight from an inebriated gentleman who had rang my number by mistake. There was nothing remotely scary or threatening about the call, but it still left me feeling spooked just because I’m not used to getting calls from random strangers in the middle of the night (the director has stated that this scene was based on a real incident from his childhood- apparently the woman was casing houses to break into). This is the kind of horror I want to see movies exploit more often. I was totally ready to ride the Stranger-train all the way to Scaretown station at this point.

Things continue to be good. The movie takes its sweet time to get going, first attempting to establish the characters despite the wooden dialogue (good) and then giving us long, unsettling shots down corridors and around corners while one of the main characters pootles around the house (also good). Then something bangs against the front door again. Uh oh! Our heroine calls through the door and is answered with….. “Is Tamara home?”. The same monotonous, eerie voice from before. Holy shit that’s scary. This is awesome.

AND THEN THREE WEIRDOS IN MASKS BREAK IN AND START CHASING HER AROUND THE HOUSE ARGLE BARGLE BARGLE

Look, I know the entire point of the movie is that it’s going to be about three weirdos in masks breaking into a house, so I’m not begrudging the fact that it includes three wierdos in masks breaking into the house. But could the three weirdos in masks have done something   a little more interesting than just ran around banging on windows and doors for most of the movie followed by violent torture-porn antics?

To be fair they’re great at first. Like I said, the woman at the door is proper creepy and there’s this excellent, excruciatingly long shot where head mask-guy is just standing in the background staring at the heroine for ages without being noticed.

Also, the two leads have a hefty dose of Stupid Horror Movie Syndrome going on to facilitate the plot. In particular, when the heroine (who is alone in the house for quite some time) realizes the creepy door woman is back her initial reaction is to swan around the kitchen looking creeped out for a while instead of, I don’t know, calling the fucking cops. I know 911 is supposed to be for emergencies only, but I think “there’s a clearly messed up woman at the door who won’t go away and also I’m alone in the middle of nowhere” qualifies. Even when the phone mysteriously goes out mid-conversation with her boyfriend (would you believe her cell-phone’s battery is out) her reaction is to stare at it quizzically instead of saying “SHIT’S POPPING OFF, I BETTER GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE”. You might say that that would be irrational, but here’s the thing: people are irrational about these sorts of things. I’ve literally barricaded my bedroom door based on less than this. Now to be fair when a bumpity-bump happens inside the house she grabs a knife immediately, but even then her plan of action is to wander around very slowly looking scared as opposed to locking herself in the nearest bathroom (and when there are more bumpity-bumps at the window she ambles over for a look even though I can’t think of any scenario in which that would be a remotely good idea. She also does this when someone opens the front door).

Things continue on like that, with our two heroes acting badly and like idiots and the masked home invaders becoming progressively less scary the more we see of them, giving my disengaged brain time to think things like “how exactly do they keep managing to get inside without making any noise?” and “I really don’t think violently psychotic people would be capable of orchestrating elaborate pre-murder trolling operations like this” and “no seriously, go into the bathroom and lock the door why the fuck wouldn’t you do that” and “hey when your boyfriend gets back instead of sobbing and whispering incoherently in a barely-audible voice why not slap him across the face and say THERE ARE PEOPLE IN THE FUCKING HOUSE WE NEED TO GET OUT RIGHT FUCKING NOW” and while we’re on the subject, hey Mr.Square-Jaw, when your girlfriend says that are people trying to break into the house the appropriate response is once again to call the fucking cops instead of wandering around the living room a bit and the declaring the house murderer-free oh and also when you see a woman outside staring at the house in an extraordinarily creepy manner your first response should not be “let’s go talk to her” your first response should be to grab the biggest knife you can find, run to the car, start driving and never fucking stop.

So yeah. I didn’t really like it.

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Dark Skies

When I was younger I had this fascination with paranormal activities of various kinds, but mostly aliens. I don’t actually believe any of that stuff is real, but it still makes for fascinating and often spooky reading. So I’m always on the lookout for good Alien-based horror films, as in my opinion the subject is rife for potential scariness.

Which is why Dark Skies turning out to be possibly the most inept horror movie I’ve ever seen is so disappointing.

Let me take you through the opening minutes. It’s white-picket American suburbia, populated by equally white suburbanites. The family whose story we’re following are preparing for some kind of social event that involves people eating food in the back garden, this being the sort of thing American suburbanites do. The dad checks his hairline- the virility meter of the suburban male- in the mirror as he’s brushing his teeth. The mom calls up her son, who is hanging out with a Troubled Kid who you know is Troubled because he watches porn, and says things like “get your butt over here”, because I guess that’s the kind of thing suburban moms say. There’s an absolutely awful scene right at the beginning that nearly made me just stop watching completely the mom informs the dad that their wayward son is in the middle of “an epic game of Call of Duty”, to which the Dad replies “that’s what save buttons are for”.

So close, and yet so far.

Later that night the Mom hears a bumpety-bump and wander around to investigate (most of this movie consists of people hearing bumpety-bumps and walking around their house at night). It turns out that someone ransacked the fridge and left a trail of destroyed food leading out the front door. The second night she comes down to the kitchen to find that all the jars and kitchen utensils have been crafted into a towering art installation that projects light patterns on the roof. The film does its damnedest to convince us that this is eerie and scary even though in reality it just conjures up hilarious mental images of the aliens stacking cans for four hours.

Later on the family’s alarm system goes off and they rush downstairs to find that all of the photos in their living room (of which they have like a billion) have been taken, leaving the frames exactly as they were. The cop who acts as this film’s designated skeptic suggests that it was the kids, which the two parents appear to actually find plausible even though both kids were in their bedrooms when the alarm went off. It’s like the people who made this movie didn’t actually read the script before filming began.

This all demonstrates the fine line between scary and stupid that I talked about previously. A character coming downstairs at night to find that stuff has been moved around in the kitchen is scary; a character coming downstairs at night to find that their kitchen has been turned into an amateur art installation is just goofy. One bird suddenly slamming into the bedroom window is creepy; ALL OF THE BIRDS slamming into the house is just dumb (for some reason I’ve seen this exact same concept pop up in like five different movies, including The Conjuring).

There is one kind of sort of noteworthy feature to Dark Skies. At one point the two leads go to visit the obligatory Paranormal Expert, a repeat abductee and UFO researcher living in a secluded apartment surrounded by cats who I think was originally intended to be a zany comic relief character, but the actor plays the role completely straight and ends up creating a very unique and interesting horror character. It’s just one scene and it certainly doesn’t redeem the rest of the movie, but interesting nonetheless.

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V/H/S-2

Last year I reviewed VHS, an anthology of found-footage movies with one good segment and four kind of meh ones, and also a weird overtone of misogyny. This is the sequel, as you may have gathered.

The framing story this time round concerns a sleazy private investigator and his assistant, who are hired to look into a college student who hasn’t contacted his family in more than a week. Upon breaking into his apartment they find a massive bank of analogue TVs and video tapes strewn everywhere, but no sign of the student. Naturally the assistant starts to watch them while the head investigator wanders around peering under beds and into dark closets.

There are four stories this time around rather than five, which gives each individual segment a bit more time to breathe and establish a story. The first bit plays with the format in an interestingly gimmicky way- the protagonist gets an advanced eye implant, and we’re seeing the footage that the corporation who designed it is recording. Needless to say his new robo-eye lets him see ghosts. This one establishes a creepy tone at the beginning and includes one really effectively scary image, but once it gets going to turns kind of dumb. Better than the worst stories in the first film, but still not particularly memorable.

The second story is a classic zombie outbreak, portrayed through the eyes of one of the zombies themselves thanks to a bike helmet-mounted camera. It’s gross and has plenty of excellent special effects for gore-hounds but other than a zombie attack on a birthday party (you thankfully don’t see any of the kids getting messily devoured, which would have been going too far in my opinion) this doesn’t really offer anything you haven’t seen before.

The third and unarguably best story comes courtesy of Gareth Evans, director of The Raid (or The Raid: REDEMPTION in some countries) and is about an Indonesian documentary crew going to the compound of a reclusive cult to interview their leader. A grand time is had dropping little hints that something about the place is monumentally fucked up and we watch as the film crew slowly realize they’ve just blundered into the immediate countdown to a Heaven’s Gate-style apocalyptic orgy of death.

There are three reasons why this one works. It knows how to pace the scares, so that the build-up is subtly creepy in a low-key, understated way so that when shit starts to pop off hard in the second half it feels earned. It’s the only segment in either of these movies (hell, one of the few found-footage projects I’ve ever seen, period) that bothers to actually develop the character properly, so that when they start being picked off one by one you actually give a shit. And its genuinely well-written and acted in contrast to the other stories, which feel decidedly amateurish in comparison. The ending goes absolutely balls-out, dropping the usual found-footage rule of plausability (there’s absolutely no way the events portrayed could have really occurred without the audience knowing about it) and drawing influence from some welcome sources- the creepy air-raid siren from our very own Silent Hill even makes an appearance! It’s a rare case of a horror film going over the top and still remaining horrifying instead of turning silly.

Unfortunately the fourth and final story drops the ball pretty heavily, concerning as it does a suburban family and their brain-stem-destroyingly obnoxious children. The story (such as it is) can be summed up as: a bunch of jack-asses troll each other on camera repeatedly, then lake aliens or something attack. The characters take a remarkably long time to realize that something weird is happening even though you clearly see the aliens and associated unusual phenomenon several times on-camera before the attack starts. The aliens are kind of creepy but the cinematography is so frenetic and incoherent that it’s almost impossible to tell what’s going on when they show up. The only redeeming feature of this part of the movie is the family’s ludicrously cute dog, who the camera is attached to for most of the segment. The only remotely creepy or disturbing part of the entire thing is right at the end, when the dog dies.

The framing story this time around is a lot better than the one from the first movie, consisting as it does of an actual story instead of a bunch of asshole getting killed off-camera one by one. Little hints are given as to the true nature and purpose of the tapes such that you can see the beginning of a possible ongoing storyline or universe forming for possible future installments, but wisely we never get anything resembling a full explanation.

Overall I’m not going to say VHS-2 is a horror masterpiece or anything, but it’s got some neat scares and the third section is really something else. If you’re in the mood for some disposable horror junk you could do worse.