Reviews: Americana

Americana,
Luke Healy,
Nobrow

Two thousand, six hundred and sixty miles: that’s the length of the Pacific Crest Trail. Running right across America’s great west coast, it runs through some truly remarkable landscapes as it takes hikers from the Californian-Mexican border all the way to the Canadian border, taking in burning deserts, vast forests and huge, snow-capped (even in summer) mountain ranges like the High Sierras. Hikers of all ages and abilities try to tackle the PCT each year, many “thruhikers” are determined to cover the entire trail in one season, from baking, scorched deserts to frigid mountains, people from all over the world, including Irish cartoonist Luke Healy, who previously brought us How to Survive in the North, reviewed here)

Luke explains that he is not the athletic, outdoor type – far from it. In self-deprecating tones he notes his general unfitness, that his preparations that mostly consisted of doing some extra walking round town back home (not quite the same as doing regular hillwalking and the like!), and this is apparent very quickly as he depicts himself huffing and puffing along through the roasting landscape of southern California, and knowing he has thousands of miles to go. So why has he committed himself to this test of endurance?

It’s a good question, and while Luke muses on possible reasons for this voyage across America’s landscapes – not least his own fascination with the country, like many Irish folk he has a strong draw to that land (new opportunities) but also negative connotations (so many family members emigrating there never to return). And certainly seeing any country on foot as you pass through it is a pretty good way to learn more about it, to appreciate not only the land and the sights but the people, in a way travelling that distance by plane never could. And yet I strongly suspect the main reason is simply that the idea got into his head and wouldn’t leave him, no matter how unlikely a figure he was for a long, tough hiking trip.

And that’s no bad thing – sometimes we get an idea we just can’t get rid of, that may drive us to try something very different from what we would normally do. And in many ways I think Americana benefits from Luke not being a seasoned outdoorsman – we’ve all seen books by Bear Grylls or Joe Simpson, and fascinating though they are, I often find myself a little detached and removed from those accounts, because those writers have trained and endured to function in those spaces at a level far above anything I would manage. In Luke’s account I find it more personable because here’s someone not too different from me, with all the problems that may entail, and I can empathise far more with his account.

I think the comics medium is a splendid forum for travel literature – I’ve long admired Guy Delisle’s work, for instance – and Luke makes good use of the medium here to document his travels and experiences. The art is mostly black and white with some red and blue, and takes a relatively simple approach. That’s not a criticism, the cartooning here is not overly detailed or elaborate, but it doesn’t have to be – Luke delineates landscapes, from tree-covered hills to mountains to deserts with simple but effective, clear strokes, the sequence of panels giving the impression of the continual nature of the trail, onwards, onwards, onwards, across those vast, diverse landscapes of North America.

While I very much enjoyed taking in the changing landscapes, the towns, the trails, I think for me Americana shines most when Luke is describing and depicting his interactions with other people. There are “trail angels”, such as people who kindly leave caches of water along the desert stretches for hikers to make use of (he contrasts this with those who also leave water supplies for illegal migrants crossing the southern border, which are destroyed by the border patrols if found, unlike the hiker supplies), the many who drive near those routes and routinely offer a lift to tired walkers or offer them a space to settle for the night. There’s a lot of generosity and kindness on display here.

The main interactions, however, are with his fellow hikers. As the long route starts to hone him, burning off excess weight, making him fitter and leaner, building his stamina, he encounters more and more people. Some he will keep meeting again and again as they pass each other then catch up on rest days in small towns along the route, and many of those become friends, all with their own trail nicknames (he is given the name “bivvy” for his bivouac and rudimentary camping skills). There are points where he wishes to hike alone, but then he always encounters some of the same people again and again and he finds himself enjoying being with them, the camaraderie of the trail seeps into him.

These newly forged friendships contrast with the feeling of distance from his home and family in Ireland, especially when he gets a phone call to tell him a beloved family member is seriously ill. That’s the sort of news that would make any of us far from home feel isolated and depressed, and while it does have this effect, the ever-changing landscapes and the people he has befriended keep him going. There are many times he feels weak, ill, depressed and ready to throw in the towel, and other moments of small triumphs as he marches tiredly past another milestone and feels that sense of achievement. Does he make it all the way? That you will need to buy the book to find out.

Americana is a lovely read, Luke’s pretty humble approach to his own abilities (especially at the start, untried, inexperienced) endears him to the reader, someone we can identify with, the love-hate-love relationship Irish families have with that vast land over the ocean, the depiction of the simply astonishing range of landscapes and terrains that huge continent offers, from the sand and rock and rattlesnakes of the sun-blasted deserts to bears and deer among the green trees of the hills and mountains. But for me it is the nature of travel and endurance to awaken something in our souls that is the strongest element here, something Luke handles with a quiet effectiveness, and above all the friendships formed along the way.

Nighthawks

A couple of quick, handheld night shots take on the way home from work. This used to be an NYC style diner years ago and is now an Italian restaurant, near the Playhouse Theatre. The way it juts out at the corner of this block, and the large, plate-glass windows and bright interior light kept drawing my eye and I thought it would make an interesting after-dark photo. The fact it had been raining last night, so the pavements were glistening under the street lights, just added to it and it was begging for me to shoot it in black and white (and yes, the title is a nod to the famous painting):

Nighthawks 01

Nighthawks 03

Nighthawks 02

Night Moves

With the clocks going back it is darker earlier each evening here now. Some find this depressing, the long, dark nights. I quite like it, and it is a good chance for some night photography! Sometimes I am out with the tripod taking them properly, other times they are often improvised, taken on the way home from work when I have no tripod handy so I go handheld for rough shots or use things like railings and pillars to sit the camera on to steady it in lieu of the tripod. This is an improvised shot by the Union Canal, the steel skeleton of a new building under construction on one of the last brownfield sites left from the former Scottish and Newcastle Brewery complex which used to dominate this area for years.You can see the flat-topped railing I used to sit the camera on to steady it in the image:

Construction at Night

Another improvised shot on the same night by the Union Canal, bracing the camera against a mooring post to get this image of this houseboat at night – how cosy does it look against the cold, dark night? And below that a short from just a few feet further along looking to the old Leamington Lift Bridge.

Cosy Floating Home

Union Canal at Night

Rough handheld shot in lowlight mode at dusk in Bruntsfield, looking into the windows of Project Coffee – I think for this kind of pic the roughness of the freehand shot actually works:

Project Coffee at Dusk

Zebra crossing at night, Polwarth, another freehand shot walking home from work:

Night Crossing

Another handheld shot, this is the Telfer Subway at night:

Subway at NIght 02

Heading down through the lower part of the New Town to my book group, had been raining a little and the cobbled roads by Drummond Place had that glistening look to them under the street lights:

Drummond Place at Night

Walking through the old boneyard of Saint Cuthbert’s at night – peaceful very dark and quiet and yet only a few steps from busy Lothian Road and Princes Street, bustling with people and traffic, yet down here the quiet of old tombs, the crunch of fallen autumn leaves and so much darker than it looks in these pictures where I could do long exposures. The things you spot, different little realms just a few steps away from busy main streets, if you go a few steps off the main thoroughfare in Edinburgh:

The Path of Night Walks Through the Realm of the Dead

Saint Cuthberts at Night

Steps Into Autumn Night 01

And look a the view of the Castle you get from the old graveyard:

Castle From the Churchyard 01

And here’s one taken with a new toy, a cheap LED light panel that fixes to the camera’s flash gun shoe – I turned it on and took a walk through the old graveyard near my flat. The middle is deliberately allowed to become overgrown to become a mini urban wildlife area, and during the day you can hear all sorts of sounds, from twigs snapping to branches rustling. At night you hear even more of it but can’t see the animals making them, just hear the sounds from the undergrowth between the older tombstones. In the darkness of the walled boneyard, you can imagine how creepy that feels, as if something is following you through the cemetery. For added effect I took these on the way home on Halloween:

Halloween in the Boneyard 04

Halloween in the Boneyard 02

Reviews: Rosewater – Redemption

Rosewater: Redemption,
Tade Thompson,
Orbit Books,
Paperback, 374 pages

(cover design by Charlotte Stroomer)

The third and final part of Arthur C Clarke Award-winning Tade Thompson’s rather excellent Rosewater series arrives from Orbit, and it proves as engrossing as its predecessors. The first novel introduced us to the world of Rosewater, this unusual near-future Nigerian shanty-town that had grown into a city state, based around a vast alien dome, the power politics going on between locals, such as the city’s major, the Nigerian government, the secret police, the aliens and other groups, and the “sensitive” Kaaro and his psychic abilities, which are linked to the alien-created xenosphere. Book two, Insurrection (reviewed here), took us away from Kaaro’s point of view and expanded our experience of this world through the eyes of several other characters, less a direct sequel as viewing events from another angle, giving a much rounder picture of both characters and the history that has lead to this point.

Insurrection also expanded on the alien presence, far from the benign if mysterious visitors who do annual “healing” ceremonies (one of the things which has put the once shanty-town of Rosewater on the political map and made it important) and brought us the xenosphere, this is, in effect, a very slow-motion invasion of our world. It is one which has been going on behind the scenes for decades, centuries even, the base, Wormwood, with roots deep below the Earth. And now more of the aliens are coming from their distant world – or at least the digitally archived mental imprints of that now otherwise extinct species, downloaded into dead human bodies and re-animated in a process similar to the “healing” gifts given to human pilgrims and their injuries.

Jack Jacques, the mayor, has a tenuous alliance with the aliens, or at least a section of them (it appears there are cracks in the aliens and their plans and approaches, just as there are divisions between the different human groups), allowing them to take dead bodies for this resurrection project. Understandably many bereaved families are aghast as this use of the body of their deceased loved ones being used as a vehicle for an alien mind. The arrangement does buy Jacques some bargaining power with the belligerent Nigeria though, still smarting from losing Rosewater as an independent city-state – with the power of the alien behind him, they can’t move too openly against Jacques (not that is stops all sorts of backroom plans and schemes).

Cymera 2019 - Tade Thompson and Aliette de Bodard 04
(Tade Thompson on stage at the first Cymera Festival of literary Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror in Edinrugh this summer, photo from my Flickr)

But this is a delicately balanced situation and not one that can be maintained for long. Nigeria and other powers are interested in what is going on and want to move more openly, laying plans to disrupt the city’s routine and destabilise it, Jacques knows also that he cannot rely on the protection of the alien, and even if he could, he understands that each new one that is brought here and downloaded into a former human body is another nail in the eventual coffin not just of Rosewater but for the human race on Earth. He’s buying time, but that’s all, and he may have less than he thinks – bad enough people are forced to surrender the freshly dead bodies of their loved ones, but what if the belief that the resurrected bodies are entirely blank slate until the alien mind is downloaded are false? What if there is even a partial imprint of the original human soul still trapped in that revived body, now shunted to the back of the mind as the alien takes control?

A lot of hard decisions are going to have to be made by different powers, all squabbling for their own angle and unwilling to face the fact that perhaps their angle is, in the long-run, meaningless if they don’t unite to try and prevent the eventual extinction of their own species and the take-over of our planet by another. Assuming, of course, it is even possible to stop something like this, which has been happening for so many years already, a slow-motion invasion that had established a beach-head long before humans even realise they were at war…

Thompson takes the multi-character angles from the second book and deploys them again here to great effect, giving us insights into the competing human and alien interests, from the ones who are tying to co-operate at some level to the ones who will stop at nothing to impose their own will, consequences be damned (not hard to see echoes of this in, for example, the current climate crisis in the real world and the groups that fight around that despite the dire consequences awaiting all groups regardless of their prestige or power or angle). The notion that the newly resurrected formerly human cadavers, now home to alien intelligences, could also still retain vestigial elements of the original person’s mind, their essence, trapped in there, is horrifying, and brings the idea of global invasion to a very personal, individual level, upping the horror element (it is also not hard to compare this to the often brutal colonial/imperial era of history in Africa).

With so much at stake none of the original characters are safe, and there is a feeling throughout of how precarious the lives of even characters we have come to love are, how easily they could die by the hand of the slow alien infestation or by the quicker hand of their own fellow humans still trying to score points for their own agendas. There will be a blood-toll here, and there is a sense of increasing desperation as some of the players start to fully realise the stakes they are playing for, even as they try to form new plans that they have no idea they can pull off.

It really is all to play for here, and Thompson immerses us in the situation and in the character’s fates – it is a real gut-punch to see something bad happen to some – and keeps us guessing right to the end, how this will play out for both our individual characters and for the fate of humanity and the world. This all comes wrapped in a style and setting which sets it apart from a lot of other recent SF – Tade is, without a doubt, one of the most interesting new voices in the genre, and I can’t commend this series enough to your reading pile.

This review was originally penned for the Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of science fiction writing.

Reviews: The Invitation

The Invitation,
Directed by Karyn Kusama,
Starring Logan Marshall-Green, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Michiel Huisman, Aiden Lovekamp, Michelle Krusiec, Tammy Blanchard

Other than the fact The Invitation debuted to some acclaim at the London Film Festival, I knew next to nothing about this film in advance (a rare occurrence these days when we hear about most films well in advance), but frankly they had me at Karyn Kusama. Kusama impressed me with her Nicole Kidman-starring Destroyer, which I reviewed on here back in the spring (see here). When I realised it was the same director I was more than happy to have a look at The Invitation, and I am glad I did, as it proved to be a masterclass in tension and discomfort, right from the start.

Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his partner Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) are driving up into the hills behind LA, invited to a dinner party with old friends, hosted by his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman). The sense of something out of joint is present right from the start, when Kira and Will’s car hits a coyote on the isolated, tree-lined road up through the hills. And this isn’t just a sudden accident, Kusama drags the scene out – the animal is mortally wounded but not dead yet, making the whole incident more distressing. Will is already uncomfortable at the thought of returning to the house he once shared with his former wife, without this incident – a portent? – on the way.

I imagine most of us would feel awkward at having dinner with and ex and their new partner, and in this case we learn that it is a gathering of a bunch of old friends, but none of them have heard from Eden in a couple of year, leaving them all wondering, understandably, why now, out of the blue, they send an overly-elaborate invitation insisting they all get together at this time. Will is clearly ill at ease, and we gradually discover through tiny flashbacks of memory, triggered as he goes round the home he once shared with Eden, that this isn’t just because they are ex-partners, it is that something happened to them something very, very bad, something that drove them apart and almost finished both of them. Something that happened around this house…

This makes Will question why she can stand living here again, not to mention the strange serenity she and David seem to now possess – a rather creepy form of serenity, the type you expect from someone sucked into some phoney therapy or cultish type group. And then they mention a group run by a guru in Mexico, and introduce two strangers into this reunion of friends, two people the rest have never seen before but David and Eden know from this Mexican retreat. Again Will wonders why these two, odd strangers have been invited to what is meant to be a gathering of old fiends?

The others, even his girlfriend Kira, think he is over-reacting, that it is his history with this house, Eden and the tragedy that befell them that is causing him to react so badly to the evening, to jump at shadows, suspect for no reason. Perhaps he is still disturbed, discomfited, out of his element, in a place he doesn’t want to be. But why does David lock all the doors once everyone is in? Why are there bars on the windows, why is there no phone service, why are Eden and David so keen nobody leaves early?

Is this all in Will’s abused psyche or is something really wrong here? I don’t want to ruin anything with possible spoilers, so I won’t say anymore on the plot. I must say, though, Kusama, crafts such a sense of ever-increasing unease throughout the film, expertly cranking up the sense of wrongness and disturbing atmosphere, but for much of it leaving us to wonder how much is genuinely out of kilter and how much is the broken psyche of Will reacting badly to this event. The slow reveal of the tragedy that befell him and Eden aids in this and gradually changes the viewer’s perspective, leading to a fascinating and darkly compelling third reel.

The sense of tension, of unease and wrongness lurking below what seems like a lovely home and group in a nice area is beautifully done – think Blue Velvet era Lynch crossed with Get Out, perhaps, and the use of mostly one location – the house – enclosed everything and makes it more tense, more claustrophobic. Highly recommended.

The Invitation is released on Blu-Ray (with a raft of extras, including commentary by Kusama, making of and interview features) by Second Sight on November 4th

Reviews: the stunningly beautiful I Go Quiet

I Go Quiet,
David Ouimet,
Canongate

I am different. I am the note that’s not in tune. I go mousy. I go grey.”

Oh where to begin with this stunningly beautiful, deeply emotional little book? When a book arrives with glowing endorsements on the front and back covers from Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman and Stephen Fry it almost feels redundant for me to add my humble tuppence worth of opinion; I’d imagine many readers would already be leaning towards reading I Go Quiet just on the recommendations of those exceptionally fine writers alone.

Nonetheless I’m going to try and say a little about it – I feel compelled to, this book just spoke to me, right from the moment I first put it on the shelves of the bookstore I work in. I was totally taken with it right away, right from the cover, before I had even opened a page. Sometimes that just happens with readers, we find treasure and some part of our literary soul recognises something new and important that we simply must read. Over the years I’ve referred to that sudden tingle I get from a new book, that feeling that I just know I will love it even before reading it, as my bookselling Spidey-sense, and it has never steered me wrong.

Our protagonist is a young girl – rather lonely, isolated, alone even in a busy crowd. She moves through the beautifully painted city scenes, some in dark, industrial Gothic shades of grey and dark blue and black, others brightly lit daytime scenes of a handsome, bustling city, full of life. In each, though, she is solitary, walking alone through empty nocturnal streets, or again always alone through the crowded, sunlit daytime scenes. The vast school scenes and the endless ranks of others hint at Gilliam Brazil-like darkness and emphasise her aloneness: there is that feeling in crowds that everyone else around you seems to know what they are doing, where they are going, what their part is in the greater group and how to get along with it. Our girl, as she observes, doesn’t know how to be in these groups. She fears she hears whispered words as she passes by, as if the larger group is talking about this strange, solitary little figure.

It’s a feeling most of us will have had at some point – it is so very easy to feel alone even in a vibrant city crowd, to think everyone around you seems to have figured out this Life stuff except you, that they all know what they are doing and, perhaps, they are laughing at us for clearly not knowing. And it’s usually nonsense, everyone else is often thinking the same of other people. But that depression and isolation, that lowering of our own self-worth, these things aren’t rational, and telling ourselves that we are being silly and it isn’t really like that doesn’t help our mental state.

Like many of us she has a retreat – she has books. What beautiful scenes Ouimet paints as she browses the bookshelves, enormous, towering stacks of shelves in a dream library that looks like something straight from the mind of Borges. She finds books, reading, words, imagination, escape. The world may be scary, but the books are always there, they are always waiting for her, never judge her. We’re all readers here, I’m sure many of us have experienced similar feelings, embraced the warm, papery touch of books to carry us away from everything that is wrong with our lives in the so-called real world (I’m often unsure that in fact the Real World is any more real than the many worlds I have traversed in books, if I am honest).

But this is not just a retreat from a lonely reality, the library, the books, the stories, the words, they are not just some substitute for the real world for the girl. No, they are her gateway to understanding the wider world and that she does really belong in it. She reads how everything is created of the same stuff, and that means, she realises, that she too is part of everything in return. She’s not that different, she’s not alone, and if she is quiet, it is because she is biding her time, assembling her words, her stories, and when the time comes:

When I am heard, I will build cities with my words. They will not be quiet.”

I was utterly spellbound by I Go Quiet. I recognise in it the child I was, lost in bookshops and libraries, I recognise also the adult me who still loses himself in pages. And I recognise the influence of those books, of those words, their power to fire the imagination, to inspire, that reading is not a retreat from the world, it is an engagement with it at the most fundamental level, an attempt to understand and articulate the human experience, and that reading can empower us to face the slings and arrows of the world, arming us with a shield made of book covers and a sword forged from words.

The artwork is simply beautiful, painted pages, often using double-page spreads. Using very little text, strategically placed and sized to infer more emotional depth, placed on the pages rather than in speech bubbles or dialogue boxes, I Go Quiet has a mixture of the graphic novel format and the style of a traditional children’s picture book, which seems appropriate as it is an all-ages work, suitable for both younger and older readers. It’s a short work, with little text, but that doesn’t matter, because it is the kind of book you read slowly, drinking it in, then you re-read it, looking for more details in the gorgeous art. I’ve read it several times now and each time I find myself wonderfully lost in its emotional currents, feel it making me both cry and smile.

Unusual, moving, and utterly beautiful.

Autumn Colours

Autumn colours in Princes Street Gardens, just below the Castle:

The Autumn Leaves 03

And a closer look at the leaves as they change before falling – the grass below them was carpeted with fallen leaves of red and gold:

The Autumn Leaves 02

The Autumn Leaves 01

And while I was walking through the trees I met this charming wee, bushy-tailed chap:

Foraging Squirrel 03

Foraging Squirrel 02

Reviews: “lost” 90s horror movie Skinner get the 4k Treatment

Skinner,
Directed by Ivan Nagy,
Starring Ted Raimi, Traci Lords, Richard Schiff, David Warshofsky,
101 Films

Unavailable for years – some thought it was actually lost – the late Ivan Nagy’s 1993 is returning to the horror movie scene with a spiffing 4k resurrection on Blu-Ray by 101’s Black Label. Dennis Skinner (Ted Raimi), wanders from town to town, pursuing his obsession – in a nice bit of normative determinism, our Dennis enjoys not only nice, long walks in the seedier parts of town, but picking up sex workers who he not only kills but then expertly skins, keeping those skins as trophies. And even more disturbingly, to wear, to show his “true self”.

The story has elements of the 80s slasher, with the focus on killing young women in bloody fashion, with elements of the serial killer genre (not least Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill and his woman “skin suit”, and a couple of scenes that hint to Norman Bates in Psycho). One of the aspects which differentiates between this and other similar horrors of the era though, is the use of Ted Raimi. Of course Raimi is no stranger to horror and the fantastic genres, having been in everything from Dark Man to a recurring role in Xena. Fair to say, in fact, Ted is a much-loved genre regular.

Here however Nagy is playing Raimi against type – there is always something of the charming goofball about his characters, and normally a lot of humour and a fair bit of charm too. And those qualities are here, and feel very Ted Raimi. And then we see the other side come out, the monster within that charming, smiling, considerate, polite, affable guy in glasses, a monster created in his youth by a brutalising father and the murder and dismemberment of his mother by his father in a grotesque parody of an autopsy.

I must admit at first I wasn’t entirely convinced – the initial glimpses of Raimi’s Skinner letting his restrained inner demon out didn’t quite work for me, it was hard to buy cuddly Ted as an evil killer. But the more I watched the more I revised that opinion because I realised that was more than likely the intention here, that we’d find it difficult to believe one of his characters could be this nasty. Like Ted Bundy and some other real-world serial killers, Raimi’s Skinner is the last person you’d expect to be a bloody-minded psychopath, he seems the nicest, gentlest person, always a ready smile, and that’s a major part of Skinner’s draw here, having a monster who, most of the time, doesn’t seem like a monster.

Traci Lords plays Heidi, the only streetwalker to survive Skinner’s murderous thirst for women, terribly disfigured and in constant pain, hiding her multiple scars and wounds as she relentlessly hunts for Skinner. As with many serial killers Skinner has a preferred method of operating, and as Heidi mutters, this makes him “as creature of habit, predictable”, aiding her quest to hunt him and seek revenge. As the film progresses and we see more of her, while sympathising with the suffering inflicted on her and her right to seek her own brand of justice, the film also starts to intimate that her scarring is as much mental as physical, and that, in some ways, her single-minded pursuit, letting no-one stand in her way, has perhaps made Heidi something of a monster, a dark twin of Skinner, the two drawn together in mutual violence and pain.

Some of the film very much shows its 1990s roots – a hidden area in a run-down factory that Skinner uses as a lair is lit with contrasting spots of green, blue and red light that were a style in more than a few productions of the time, but given that’s when it was made that’s fair enough. The early killings are fairly quiet and almost bloodless on-screen – a sex worker lured away, the intimation of Skinner about to strike, then a cutaway to flashes of skin being cut, but only brief flashes rather than the grand guignol bloodbath some may expect. Theses scenes grow longer and more explicit as the film progresses, however, which is more effective in ratcheting up the levels of tension and horror, and while we have to wait for those longer scenes – and the slow reveal of what Skinner does with those pieces of skin he slices from the victims – it works to the film’s advantage.

Skinner is getting the full 4k restoration treatment, and arrives from 101 Films on a dual-format Blu-Ray and DVD, with extras including interviews with Nagy and Raimi, and a limited edition booklet.

Reviews: The Book of Forks

The Book of Forks,
Rob Davis,
SelfMadeHero

With the removal of my brain aid, it now follows that I have what you could call Unmedicated Interference Syndrome, or rampant Science Fiction. Or just Interference Syndrome. My inferences are now unfettered. The possible completion of this book is in effect Interference Syndrome left to run its natural course.”

Following on from the fascinating, compelling, wonderfully unusual – and frequently disturbing – Motherless Oven and the Can Opener’s Daughter (reviewed here), Rob Davis completes his trilogy with The Book of Forks. It’s pretty fair to say I have been waiting eagerly for this, it has been high up on my list of must-reads for 2019’s releases, and I am glad to report I was not disappointed. I had the good fortune to chair a talk with Rob Davis and Karrie Fransman at the 2015 Edinburgh International Book Festival, where as well as elaborating on how he used the comics medium to imbue the book with a lot of symbolism (more than could have been achieved with prose alone), Rob also disclosed that he planned sequels, but, understandably those were reliant on the first book doing well enough for SMH to commission and publish the others. I am very, very glad that this happened…

While the Book of Forks includes our three main heroes, the schoolkids Scarper Lee (the boy whose Death Day was due in the first book), the plucky and irascible Vera Pike (the Can Opener’s Daughter) and Castro Smith (their friend with the unusual “brain aid” and an unusual way of seeing the odd world they live in), and a number of other players from the previous books getting a look-in (including Vera’s terrifying Mother, and the vile, old Stour Provost), the major focus here is, as in the previous two volumes, on one of them, this time Castro. Castro seems to be imprisoned in the unbelievably vast Factory (some of Rob’s art recalls the classic prison layouts as seen in Porridge etc), where he and others there follow a set routine, in-between which he is working on the titular Book of Forks, his attempts to lay down on paper what understandings he has made of the worlds of the Bear Park and Grave Acre, of the Mothers and Fathers, the household Gods and Weather Clocks.

This is a terrific narrative device – it allows Davis to expand upon the worlds he has created in the previous books, those peculiar towns that seem in some ways so familiar to a sort of 1970s Britain and yet in other ways are bizarrely, often scarily different, to explore their mythology and origins and evolution as part of the actual story rather than a clumsy info-dump. As before the story is interspersed with single black pages with white-lined art – these are pages from Castro’s book – explaining different aspects and functions of these worlds, how they came to be, which made me think of a grotesquely odd version of the Hitch-hiker’s Guide.

It is through these pages, and the discoveries of the various characters on their journey, that we are slowly given a far larger picture of this world than we’ve had previously, a long history, involving ancient Immortals, “death states”, and heroic Postmen who move between the different states and may just be rebels fighting a system imposed on the people within them, adding a moral and philosophical element to the work that questions perceived societal norms and how they come about.

Scarper, still with his perma-frown, despite being rescued from death, and Vera, still troublesome and with that regular knowing smirk on her face, make up the other main component of this volume, seeking out their friend with dogged determination and bravery, and not a little resourcefulness. This element of the tale was as rewarding to me as Castro’s strand, partly for the adventure of it (they travel and dare, while Castro is mostly in one location, although his thoughts are free to travel, and do), but also for the way Davis develops their character.

The idea of travel and adventure bringing people closer, changing them into something new, something different and hopefully better is, of course, an old one, but it is mined here very well by Davis, and both Vera and Scarper grow as we watch them struggle to find their friend, relying more and more on one another, despite all their bickering. It’s clear throughout that Davis has a lot of respect and affection for his characters, and it shows, I think, in the way he allows them to breathe and develop here.

It would be comforting to believe that the immortals were responsible for the cruel rules that govern us, but my evidence suggests we are doing this to ourselves. Perhaps the question to ask is not ‘why do we suffer?’ but ‘why do we wish to suffer?‘”

The black and white artwork is, once more, an absolute pleasure to behold. So much of the character interactions and the emotional heft of the narrative is carried in the way Davis deftly draws the expressions on the character’s faces, it works perfectly with the script to convey so much to the reader, not just story but emotional insights too, and that, of course, draws us as readers much deeper into the tale, makes us invest more in those characters and care for them (a single panel where Scarper and Vera, normally always arguing, run from a rain of knives and take scant cover, holding each other closely packs a huge amount of emotional information into that solitary frame).

Elsewhere the art conveys so much, from wonder (strange sea creatures, a Factory that touches the skies) to disturbing horror (bodies left hanging in the endless showers of knife rain, vast forests inside a library, the giant bears with faces of babies), and those intervening excerpts from the Book of Forks itself that Castro is working on – it’s a rich, rich stew and, like the earlier two books, one which will likely have most readers going back over it all again several times to drink in details and perhaps notice elements they missed before.

Naturally I won’t spoil this by discussing what happens – do Scarper and Vera find their missing friend, Castro? If so, what happens to them now, what happens to the worlds of the Bear Park and Grave Acre and other realms after so much disruption and death? Do they find out why their world is the way it is? You’ll have to read the books to find out. I will say, however, that quite often I have an intuition of where a story is going – not necessarily because the writer isn’t good, perhaps just because I’ve read so many books you get a feel for narrative flows sometimes and can guess where a tale is leading. I’ve not had that with any of the three volumes in this series, and that has been an added pleasure – I genuinely had no idea where Rob would take this story or the characters, and that made it all the more compelling to the final page. The entire trilogy is an absolute must-read, one of the more unusual, intriguing and frankly downright wonderful stories to emerge in recent Brit comics, in my opinion.

Making Waves – the Art of Cinematic Sound

Making Waves: the Art of Cinematic Sound,
Directed by Midge Costin

Last year you may recall I reviewed Score, a documentary on the history and evolution of music in cinema (see here). Making Waves is a perfect partner to Score, with Midge Costin’s new documentary (taking a bow at this month’s London Film Festival) focusing more on the role of sound in the cinema, from the earliest days (basic sound effects, the struggle to find good ways to record decent quality dialogue for the talkies) through to later film-makers who consider the soundscape – dialogue, effects and more – to be an integral part of how they wish their audience to experience their work.

As with Score, Making Waves takes a roughly chronological approach, starting briefly with the silent movie era, and as with Score pointing out that even in the teens and roaring twenties, those early flickering images were never truly silent. Most cinephiles are, I’m sure, well aware that live music usually accompanied silent projections (indeed performers like Buster Keaton sometimes worked visual clues into the film to give the musicians in the cinema a clue to the tempo they should play), but as is explained here, some of the fancier cinemas for some big releases would also employ what we would now consider special effects sound technicians who would make basic effect live to go along with the film, drawing on the theatrical tradition.

With the arrival of the talkies, of course things changed, although not as much as you might assume. Obviously we could now hear the stars of the Silver Screen talk (and as was well satirised in films like Singing in the Rain, those early recording devices and microphones came with all sorts of problems!), and there would be music and effects, from the crack of thunder and lightning (what would Frankenstein and so many other Universal monster movies be without that?) to the simple sound of footsteps, all adding depth and believability to what we are watching, drawing us further into the film’s world.

The film does note, however, that for the most part, for several decades after the arrival of sound, most directors and producers treated the audio as an afterthought- dialogue, some music, some small sound effects like a door hinge squeaking, or a car engine backfiring. There were, of course, notable exceptions to this approach – the iconic King Kong wasn’t just groundbreaking in terms of visual effects, it was clever in creating and mixing sound effects to partner those visuals, thanks to Murray Spivack. The boy wonder Orson Welles had taken his usual methodical and experimental approach to his famous radio productions, giving them a rich soundscape to draw in listeners, and unsurprisingly he took this belief that the soundscape was a vital component of the whole experience to his movies as well.

Much of the most interesting material comes a bit later, unsurprisingly with the new wave of film-makers, who grasped how important the audio elements were, creators who were interested in every aspect of the many components that go into making their films what they are. Hitchcock, of course, Stanley Kubrick, and a raft of hungry new talent like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, David Lynch and more. There are some fascinating talking heads here from many of these now-iconic talents, Coppola and his sound team discussing working the sound ideas into the script, ideas like those amazing helicopter blade effects swish, swish, swishing, using multi-channel recording and playback to allow the sound to move around the theatre. Lynch discusses the soundscape in the astonishing Eraserhead, how much it added to the visuals he was crafting (think on that deceptively simple slow zoom on the radiator and the increasing hiss of steam, audio and visual working perfectly together).

Alongside newer directors and sound techs interested in working together, the latter half of the twentieth century really ups the level of what sound can do in a film on the technological side too. Dolby and multi-channel recording, mixing and playback offers up so many possibilities, and again the film draws on a roster of top talent to talk about how they have used the new sound technologies, from Barbara Streisand innovating the way music and song was incorporated into the film-making process, to George Lucas on the importance of sounds like the scream of a TIE Fighter or the swoosh of a lightsabre, talking to innovative sound techs like Walter Murch and Ben Burtt as well the directors they’ve worked hand in glove with (and boy this has an impressive array of big names – Spielberg, Nolan, Redford, Lucas, Coppola and more).

Linking the different elements covered- ADR(Additional Dialogue Replacement), the Foley artists, editing, music, sound effects etc – the film uses a “circle of talent” to show each element as it covers it (the graphics pleasantly reminding me of VU meters on a sound deck, very appropriate), and this allows the film to move through the different aspects involved in the soundscape of a film production in a clear manner, showing how they have evolved and how they operate, not to mention how they are drawn together into the completed film. This is a fascinating documentary for any cinephile, and while the big name directorial talent doing vox pops here is impressive, it’s even better to see the normally hidden, behind the scenes talent given their fifteen minutes here. I think the only problem I had with this is that with a century of movies to explore there is so much more I would love to have seen explored, but that would take a mini-series on TV rather than a film, and given the constraints of a ninety or so minute film I think Costin has done a wonderful job.

Making Waves is being show by Dogwoof at this month’s London Film Festival, and will be released in cinemas and on-demand from November 1st

Row, row, row your boat

Arriving early for work I had a few minutes to go grab a coffee and have a walk along the Promenade at Portobello. Gorgeous autumn morning, cool but beautiful autumnal light on the Firth of Forth, when I spotted the sailing and rowing club folks out in the lovely old skiff Jenny Skylark, having an early morning row, so I snapped off a few shots before I had to head into work:

The Jenny Skylark on a Morning Row 01

The Jenny Skylark on a Morning Row 02

The Jenny Skylark on a Morning Row 03

The Jenny Skylark on a Morning Row 04

A vry different scene to a month or so back when the haar had settled on the Forth – I saw the rowers out in the skiff, but only dimly, moving through the sea mist just off the shore at Porty, and managed to get these pics, very different weather from the other pics!

Rowing in the Haar 02

Rowing in the Haar 01

Vanni

Vanni,
Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollock
Myriad Editions & New Internationalist

New Internationalist and Myriad Editions have collaborated on another graphic reportage work, following the fascinating and moving Escaping War and Waves by Olivier Kugler last year (reviewed here). In Vanni Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollock explore the tragedies of a land that should be the very image of a tropical paradise, Sri Lanka, starting with the natural catastrophe of the 2004 tsunami, then later the years and years of the grinding civil war in that island, which saw thousands of deaths, disappearances, tortures and other atrocities and masses of displaced civilians caught in the middle, killed, maimed, driven from their homes once more, but this time by human-made disasters, not the anger of the waves.

We get to know Antoni and his family, from the grandmother to the youngest kids, living in a simple but happy life in their wee village on the coast, where fishing provides a living. The Tamil Tigers, fighting against the Sri Lankan army and government which has a long record of treating Tamil people as second class citizens. While understanding the struggle, Antoni and his family are as wary of the Tigers as they are of government troops, and for good reason – they don’t want the young men of their family to be co-opted into the fighting, but of course, inevitably their family is drawn into it (in extremely upsetting scenes later on the Tigers resort to raiding villages and refugee camps, press-ganging any women or men of the right age into service against their will, including some of the young women of the family).

The threat may be on the horizon, but before the war expands to swallow their world, first nature delivers a terrifying event with the tsunami. Pollock’s mostly monochrome artwork moves from smaller panels to four pages with very big panels, the large format of the book (almost quarto sized, I think), allowing the art to really shine. Those four pages utilise the large panels and no dialogue, just “silent” imagery as the wave arrives. The terrified villagers are trying to escape inland, but the angry ocean is far too swift; some desperately make for the roof of the one really solid building, the stone church (their own homes being much flimsier). In four large panels the wave rears up as it strikes the land, washing over trees, buildings, people, the irresistible, awful power of nature made abundantly clear. The following two pages remain free of dialogue, depicting the ruined landscape and shattered village left by the passage of the mighty wave. It is simple and powerful and awful; a terrifying depiction of how vulnerable we are in the face of nature.

The aftermath is extremely emotional, both in story and art – Pollock skilfully depicts the “thousand yard stare” of some of the survivors. Any of us who have been sudden, shocking events such as a bad accident, a sudden death in the family, a fire, will be familiar with that expression that clearly signals the utter shock of your world being ripped apart, the grief, the numbness, the feeling of what just happened, how could it happen, how could things become so terrible so quickly? It’s a form of PTSD, and that is an internal scar on mind and soul that never truly goes away. In another, later scene one of the younger lads of the family, tired of refugee camps, returns to the sea and swims. As he dives under the water his village re-appears on the shore, as it was before, but when he surfaces and looks, all he sees is wreckage and refugee tents; it’s gone for good, and the momentary peace being in the sea gave him vanishes as quickly as the illusion of his old home.

Worse is to come as the civil war grows though. The refugee camps, already struggling, are over-burdened by new columns of civilians fleeing the fighting, and, as in every way our species has ever wages, those civilians often get caught in the cross-fire, shells and bombs hitting the camps. Supposedly by accident, and of course some may be accidental, but as the human rights violations rise it is obvious that some of the attacks on the camps are part of a deliberate fear campaign, with no regard for civilian lives, both sides committing atrocities in the name of their respective goals, both supposedly fighting “for the people” but in reality not giving a damn about those actual people who are suffering and dying.

There are many scenes here which are hard, as you would expect from this subject matter. Not only major scenes of death and destruction, but smaller scale depictions – refugees hobbling in their columns, some missing limbs from bombings and mines, the looks on the faces of children and adults, the obsessive over-protection of some of the older members of the family to the children, clinging to them, not letting them leave the tent or their sight for fear of another attack or disaster claiming them, desperately trying to protect what little is left to them and terrified that in the end they won’t be able to do so; the feeling of panic and helplessness is palpable. In other scenes we see torture and execution – even here though, while not shying from showing the shocking events, Pollock, I noticed censored part of his art where two victims are forced to strip naked to humiliate them before being shot, a small touch, but one I found moving, as the artist attempted to give those men at least a tiny shred of dignity.

Vanni is very much inspired by Spiegelman’s Maus and the graphic reportage of Joe Sacco – Dix, in fact, mentions these in his own notes in the book, and how he read some of these works while he was in Sri Lanka with the UN relief agencies. The characters are fictionalised here, but the stories are real enough, taken from many personal interviews with eyewitnesses (now scattered around the world from India to France, Britain and Canada as asylum seekers), the names and elements of the stories altered somewhat to protect the and their family members who are still in Sri Lanka from potential vengeful retribution from the government there, a government which still downplays the huge scale of the civilian atrocities during the war and their own culpability in it to this day (their continued denials makes it all the more important that books like this give voice to the victims).

No, this is not an easy read, and you may well ask, why do some of us read books like Vanni or Maus or Footsteps in Gaza when we know how upsetting it will be? Personally I have always subscribed to the old adage of “bearing witness” – if you cannot change events (and clearly we cannot with past historical events) then you at least try to bear witness to them, to be aware of them and make others aware, not to let the conspiracy of silence blanket those events and hide the foul deeds of the perpetrators from the eyes of the world. The comics medium is, I think, remarkably well-suited to exploring these kinds of tales in an accessible manner, and Vanni can hold its head up alongside the likes of Sacco for giving a voice to those most of the world has forgotten, to share their cautionary tale of how quickly a seemingly stable, normal society can tear itself apart and its people with it.