Best of the Year 2019

Time once more for my annual round-up of my favourite books, graphic novels and films I enjoyed over the preceding year. Sometimes wonder if it is still worth posting this after the demise of the Forbidden Planet Blog, given it won’t have the same reach or impact, but I’ve been doing them for years, and I still do a lot of reviewing each year, so what the heck, I’ll continue the tradition for now.

Books

Fleet of Knives, Gareth Powell (Titan)

I had been meaning to read Gareth for a while, when one of my chums at our long-running SF book group chose Embers of War for one of our monthly reads. I loved it – great Space Opera with a nice moral dimension and characters I really loved, not least the ship herself, Trouble Dog. So I was eager for this sequel, and then even more enthused when I was put down to chair a talk with Gareth, along with Adrian Tchaikovsky and Ken MacLeod, at the first Cymera festival of literary SF in Edinburgh in 2019.

Children of Ruin, Adrian Tchaikovsky (Macmillan)

Children of Time was a huge, well-paced, absorbing Space Opera set across millennia of artificially-boosted evolution and terraforming gone off on a direction the colonists never planned. Adrian’s creation of a very convincing intelligent species that has evolved from humble, small spiders is a terrific slice of The Other, something to be craved in good SF. This sequel is similarly large and despite the size zooms past at a cracking pace (reminding me a little of Peter F Hamilton in that respect, the ability to write a doorstop sized book that never feels that large as you read it because it is so well paced). Set much further in the future evolution of the spider species this sees them co-operating with descendants of the human colonists who terraformed their world before returning to cryosleep and their voyages, and introduces another world and species touched by the hand of human science.

Rosewater: Insurrection and Rosewater: Redemption, Tade Thompson (Orbit)

Tade’s Roeswater made my best of the year list for 2018, and I have been waiting on the following two books. I was delighted to see that rather than straight-forward sequels each of the other two books took different angles and characters viewpoints on the events that had lead to this point, while progressing the overall story, often in ways I didn’t expect, which is no mean feat – I read a lot, watch a lot of films, so quite often I pick up on story beats and can guess where a narrative is going, so I am always happy to have a clever writer who blindsides me on story development. As with the first book I found the Nigerian setting and the richly described life in the city and the local culture a refreshing departure from much Western SF. Insurrection reviewed here, and Redemption reviewed here.

Underland, Robert Macfarlane, (Hamish Hamilton)

Macfarlane has rightly been hailed as one of our most intriguing writers on the natural world – his works are part nature writing, part travel literature, part local culture and folklore, all wrapped in a beautifully poetic writing style which immerses you into the prose. In this Wainright-winning book the theme is exploring the underworlds, each chapter a different aspect of the subterranean, from underground, hidden rivers below the Dolomites to old mines which run out from the east coast of the UK under the sea (and which are now also being used to house high-tech science experiments in the depths, far below land and sea), to a great glacier in Greenland and a man-made underground sarcophogus for nuclear waste. Absorbing, fascinating, and often reminding us that there is still magic to be seen in our world, if we remember how to look.

On the Shoulders of Giants, Umberto Eco, (Harvil)

I’ve loved Eco for many decades – I enjoyed his fiction such as Name of the Rose, and his academic work which I came across later at college. He passed away three years back, but this final, just-translated collection delivers a final set of essays, collected from a series of lectures he gave at an Italian festival each year, all on different themes, from the nature of beauty to truth. As always with Eco the sheer range of his intelligence and his curiosity about multiple subjects is clear, as his enthusiasm to discuss them in a manner anyone can understand. Most of all though, there is that playfullness there, a feeling of sheer delight at having an interesting subject to explore and discuss and share.

Islamic Empires, Justin Marozzi, (Allen Lane)

I picked up an advance proof of this on a whim, to boost my non-fiction reading diet, an area of history I didn’t know a huge amount about. Marozzi, who has been a reporter in the Middle East for many years, has chosen a city and a century for each of the 1500 years since the birth of Islam, and used them to explore a different view on the rise and spread of Islamic culture. The book takes in glories such as the golden age Baghdad, which really does come across like the wonderful fantasies set in that magical city and time, or Damascus, the “perfumed paradise”, the historical description standing in stark, horrific contrast to contemporary Syria and its endless civil war.

The Hod King, Josiah Bancroft, (Orbit)

I described the first in Bancroft’s Babel series as “an engrossing, intoxicating, delightt” (the review ended up on the back cover of the second book, which was nice to see). Former rural headmaster and stick in the mud Tom Senlin has changed a lot as he traverses the ringdoms of each level of the Tower of Babel, searching for his missing young wife. This third volume ups everything in a very satisfying way – the characters develop even more, their trials and tribulations – and their friendhsips – have changed them, the plot cooks to perfection with a real feeling of multiple, slow-burning fuses reaching their kegs of gunpowder. And over all of this Bancroft’s beautiful, lyrical, richly descriptive writing style – Josiah was a poet before he was a novelist, and it shows in the way he can make his words dance and sing to the reader. A fabulous, immersive and very different slice of fantasy. Reviewed here.

Graphic Novels/Comics

Ether #2, Matt Garvey and Dizevez

I loved the first issue of this Indy comic and the long wait for the second issue was well worth it, expanding not just the story and setting but also adding much more personal, emotional depth to the main character. In my review I said “Emotional depth, a story that is developing more complexity with hints of more to come, lovely attention to small details and beautiful artwork that handles the domestic, personal, intimate moments as well as it does the vigilante superhero elements, really, what more can you ask for?” and stand by that. Reviewed here.

Billionaires, Darryl Cunningham (Myriad Editions)

I have looked forward to each new Darryl Cunningham work since his quite magnificent, quietly, sensitively powerful Psychiatric Tales. Since then Darryl has gone on to establish himself as a leading creator of extremely well-researched non-fiction comics work in the UK. Here he takes three examples of the mega-rich – Rupert Murdoch, the Koch Brothers and Jeff Bezos and explores how they developed into the powerful and influential figures they are today. As he points out himself he could have chosen non-white billionaires, or female billionaires or those on a more left wing political slant, but the general consensus would still be the same: no person should have the level of power and influence these people have over so many individual citizens, politicians, even entire governments and their policies. Essential reading for our modern world, delivered in Darryl’s usual exemplary style which makes even the most complex ideas comprehensible. The full review is here.

Americana, Luke Healy

Like many Irish folk Luke has long had a mixed view of America – a fascination for it, its culture and landscapes, mixed with a less rosy view of it as a place so many family members have left for, rarely to return. He has an obsession with walking the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from the California-Mexico border all the way up the west coast to the American-Canadian border, thousands of miles taking in everything from vast, burning deserts to snow-capped mountains (even in summer). Unlike many who write such travel works, Luke isn’t a serious outdoorsman, or even particualrly fit, and it is his physical unreadiness for this endurance hike endears the book to me in a way a book by an experienced hiker wouldn’t. The main pleasure here though is the people he meets along the way, the friendships, the way it all slowly changes his outlook on the world. Reviewed here.

The Book of Forks, Rob Davis (SelfMadeHero)

The final part of the trilogy which started with the brilliantly, wonderfully odd (in the best way) Motherless Oven, and Davis delivers an absolute corker, one of the most unusual and intriguing Brit comics I’ve read in ages. While the main story arc has developed through all three volumes, each has also focused one of the young trio of leading characters: Scarper Lee (the schoolboy whose Death Day was imminent in the first book), the irrepressible Vera Pike (the eponymous Can Opener’s Daughter), and here their unusual friend Castro, who is writing the Book of Forks, exploring the bizarre worlds they live in. There is a real sense of everything coming together here, in terms of character development, of the various plot arcs coming together, and also of the strange world Davis created, being more explored and explained in a very satisfying manner.Reviewed here.

Sensible Footwear: a Girl’s Guide, Kate Charlesworth (Myriad Editions)

I have been looking forward to this for a long time – I know it has been a labour of love for Kate for many years. Partly a biography of Kate growing up, tyring to work out who she is – sexuality not being something that was discussed much openly back in the day – mixed with slices of the way gay culture has been suffused throughout British life, even when people didn’t realise it (and in eras when most would have been actively hostile to gay people), often shown through some great montages depicting slices of cultural life from different decades (which invokes a lot of “oh, I remember that!” moments). Mostly though, this is just a wonderfully warm graphic memoir, beautifully drawn, emotionally rich and left me with a huge smile on my face after I’d finished reading it. I’m also delighted how well it’s sold in the graphic novel section in the Portobello Bookshop where I work some of the time. Reviewed here.

Shout outs also go to the delightful and warm Blossoms in Autumn (review), graphic biography Guantanamo Kid (reviewed here), the venerable 2000 AD (still keeping me reading after forty years), a troubling insight into the civil war in Sri Lanka with Vanni (review here) and the homage to growing up with a deep love of cinema in Reel Love (reviewed here).

Films

The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot

Krzykowski’s film is a little gem of a movie – unusually I knew very little about it before I was sent a copy to review, which is rare in this day and age where most films are discussed online or in film mags well before release. Other than the intriguing title I knew almost nothing going in, apart from the fact it starred Sam Elliot, so it boasted one of Hollywood’s finest cinematic moustaches. I had no idea if this was a comedy, a pastiche, a B movie – that title hinted at all of those. In fact it delivered a very unusual and very satisfying film that explored the cost of going to war on those who had to serve, how it changed them. “I never wanted to kill a man, even one who had it coming,” Elliot’s character tells his brother, reflecting on his wartime service many decades gone, and how they changed his life. A beautiful and often quite emotional work. (reviewed here)

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

I must confess I’ve somewhat gone off Tarantino in recent years. I was there at the start, impressed as hell with the vibrant, powerful Reservoir Dogs, and the clever, switching narrative of Pulp Fiction. But his last few films, while all having elements I enjoyed, mostly left me thinking they didn’t quite work for me. Mostly down to what I thought was increasing self-indulgence on his part – the seeds were sown back in Kill Bill, which has some great scenes, but doesn’t require two films to tell that story – from there on I felt he waffled, added in long, pointless scenes just because he wanted to or because he wanted to play a certain song over it, regardless of how it harmed the narrative flow. Once Upon a Time does drift quite a bit, but in a pleasanter way, and felt far more like earlier Tarantino – it even boasts some nice touches film lovers will like, such as the style of shooting, like the handheld, over the shoulder takes in open top cars in LA, are very much in the style of that period, when new film-makers were shaking up the old studio system, shooting films their way.

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool

I’ve loved Davis since I was in my teens and first discovering jazz music, so I was always going to be drawn to Stanley Nelson’s new documentary. While not without its flaws in its approach, it does a solid job in taking in the long sweep of his musical career, from a precocious young talent getting a break in a big band, through the amazing 60s output and the constant need to re-invent himself as the years and styles around him changed. Mostly though it is the talking heads here with a range of people who knew Miles being interviewed, sharing their memories – friends, family, lovers, fellow musicians (including some who would go on to deserved fame of their own, such as Herbie Hancock) that really makes it interesting, nor does it shy away from his bad side (so focused on his art he neglects time with his wife, his kids, or his later substance abuse and even hitting a spouse during such a period), but the focus here is mostly on the music and how the man and his music evolved over many decades.

1945

Technically this came out late last year, but I only caught up with Ferenc Török’s astonishing film in early January when my beloved Filmhouse (long a second home for me) screened some of their best picks from 2018 that people may have missed. A Holocaust film infused with a 1960s Spaghetti Western vibe (yes, really), shot in crisp, silvery black and white, borrowing heavily from the Sergio Leone playbook, with amazing cinematography, this is one of the more unusual and quite brilliant films I have seen this year. (reviewed here)

Jojo Rabbit

I’m a huge fan of Taika Waititi – I loved the skewed humour and the deadpan playing of it in What We Do in the Shadows and then Hunt for the Wilderpeople (and the way the latter used that humour to examine a serious, emotional subject), then his Big Budget Debut with Thor: Ragnarok, which managed to be a Marvel superhero flick but also still very much a Taika Waitit film as the same time. Jojo Rabbit follows a ten year old boy in the last years of the Nazi regime. Indoctrinated into the Hitler Youth and his head filled with fascist hate propaganda, his imaginary best friend is a cartoonish version of Hitler. When he finds his beloved mother -who worries how much of her original, sweet natured boy is left under all the fascist poison he has been filled with – has secretly hidden a young Jewish girl and is involved in the resistance to the Nazi regime he is, for the first time, forced to see the world differently, with the fantasy and humour elements, while delivering fun and laughs, also serving to contrast against the real historical brutality going on around Jojo. (reviewed here)

The Accountant of Auschwitz

A rather different film about the Nazi era, this documentary follows Oskar Gröning and the changes in German law that took decades to implement, which allowed for more of those who took part in the Holocaust to be tried, finally, for crimes against humanity. Is it worth putting a ninety-something frail, old man on trail? As some make clear in this documentary, yes, because it isn’t just about this one man, it is about laying down precedent, as with the trials in the Hague for those who committed genocide in the Serbian and Bosnian wars, it is to make it clear to such people that sooner or later they will be held accountable under law for their hideous actions, that they cannot hide from what they did forever. Outside some still try to deny the Holocaust happened – some are young, skinhead neo-Nazis, but some are elderly, upright citizens who also try to deny what happened, making this all the more important. Gröning, a former SS man, makes clear his complicit guilt – he didn’t carry out the atrocities, but he watched, and he served in a capacity that helped them to operate the death camps, and he wants those modern day deniers to know that truth, that he was there, he wore that SS uniform, and he saw what they did. (reviewed here)

Apollo 11

Released to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the first crewed lunar mission, I was eager to see this – I’ve been a space geek my entire life, my childhood room didn’t have posters of footballers, it had posters of Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong. This narration-free documentary managed to include footage even life-long space geeks like me hadn’t seen before, and was a powerful, emotional, tense and wonderful celebration of one of the most remarkable feats in the history of human exploration, following three souls who really did go where no man has gone before.

Avengers Endgame

What can I say about this? Big blockbusters are not always the ones which make my end of the year list, but, dammit, this was the culmination of ten years of movies by Marvel, slowly, carefully building up their universe so that those not familiar with the comics would understand each character and the shared universe they inhabit, so when those linked individual films lead to this gigantic, two-parter which spanned all of those films and characters they groundwork had been laid. It’s an amazing approach to storytelling, and for fans like me it paid off – we’ve invested ten years in the film versions of these characters, so many of the scenes here packed a big, emotional wallop for us (sorry, Martin Scorcese, I love you, but regardless of what you think of these kinds of movies, they do count as films and they matter to a lot of us). I also liked the feeling of that original run of connected films coming to an end, of that generation of heroes passing the torch to newer figures. And, darn it, Steve Rogers almost made me cry…

Stan and Ollie

I grew up watching repeats of classic Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton films, usually with my dad. We both still enjoy watching them together, so I was always going to be drawn to this biopic about two of cinema’s funniest duos. The film cleverly avoids the usual chronological approach to their career and instead the bulk of it is set after their heyday, on a final live stage tour of Britain after the war. The two bicker and argue over past incidents, there is a feeling their star has long since declined, their fame fading, they are getting older, the world moving on without them, and yet at the same time there is also a huge reservoir of affection for these two men, and under the arguing (almost like an old married couple), the love between them is also very apparent. John C Reilly and Steve Coogan turn in amazing performances, quite obviously this is a labour of love for those actors, determined to do right by the real Laurel and Hardy. I exited the cinema smiling, and humming the Cuckoo Waltz all the way home… (reviewed here)

The Wind

I caught Emma Tammi’s The Wind late night at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival. Right from the start it established a delightfully creepy atmosphere – you just feel that something here is wrong, the world is out of kilter, and a disturbing opening scene becomes clearer as the film progresses and we learn more of what lead up to that scene and its aftermath. Set in an almost empty, vast landscape of the Plains during the westward expansion, the wind screams constantly over this huge, empty landscape, leading many to talk of demons on the Plains, their shrieks carried in those winds. How much of what we think is happening is real and how much the product of fevered minds slowly cracking under the strain of the environment and the isolation is always open to debate, making it all the more disturbing, while the film boasts some superbly scary, creepy moments. A thoughtful, unusual and atmospheric horror. Reviewed here.

Shout outs to must also go to some of the other films I enjoyed this year but which I can’t fit into the main list. Greta, The Favourite, Ms Marvel, John Wick Chapter 3, Toy Story 4, Karina Holden’s eco-documentary Blue (reviewed here), lo-fi, small budget Indy sci-fi film Prospect (reviewed here), Tehran Taboo (reviewed here), Destroyer (reviewed here), which played with genre expectations and also introduced me to Karyn Kusama, who also wowed me with The Invitation this year, Liberté: A Call to Spy, a female-lead (and scripted and directed) Indy WWII film about the first women to be trained by the SOE and dropped into Occupied France, which I caught at the film festival (review here), and Memory: the Origins of Alien, which I also caught at this years film festival (reviewed here), and documentary Making Waves which explored the fascinating history of sound in the cinema (reviewed here)

Reviews: Dead Astronauts

Dead Astronauts,
Jeff VanderMeer,
Fourth Estate

(cover illustration by Maalavidaa, design by Jo Walker)

I’ve been an admirer of Jeff VanderMeer’s work ever since the wonderfully unusual novella and short story collection City of Saints and Madmen was sent to me quite a number of years ago, and since then I have eagerly awaited any new writing from Jeff. I’ve also been delighted to see his remarkable and unique working gaining a wider audience, both with the later, widely acclaimed books and the film adaptation of Annihilation, which I am sure will have helped put his work in front of new readers.

Dead Astronauts seems to me to work if you are a new VanderMeer reader; while it shares many themes with some of his previous works, most notably on the environment, the place of people in nature, the blurring of artificial lines we make between nature and human-made, between person and machine and nature, between dream and reality, the story here will work for the complete VanderMeer newbie. For those who have read his other work, however, they are likely to find those earlier experiences mean they will savour a deeper flavour from the dark currents running through this river of words.

The eponymous Dead Astronauts – Chen, Moss and Grayson – are crossing a desolate environment, on a mission which may or may not be a fruitless endeavour. It seems likely that they have, in fact, attempted this mission before, in different places and times, crossing the land, entering The City, working against The Company. They may have died and lived and died and lived numerous times in many places and eras, and like many trinities throughout myth and folklore, it feels in places like the three of them are also aspects of one being as well as three.

VanderMeer conjures a deeply immersive reading experience – the descriptions are almost of a dream-place, or a half-dream, perhaps, where notions of past and present and future, of the human and the natural world, crossover one another, drip into each other, meld, reform, reshape, changing people, animals, the land, the mental view points. It’s intoxicating and draws the reader into the same deep, changing waters as the characters; we experience aspects of their world with them rather than just ingest a straight, linear narrative, and the book is all the more powerful and effective for this approach.

Elsewhere we have the Blue Fox adding its perspective, the mysterious Charlie X (is the name a classic Trek homage? An allusion to Jeff’s own “Area X”? Both? Neither?), and a homeless woman living under a bridge by a forest. Both Charlie and the woman seem to share an unusual notebook – the same notebook? A different aspect of that book in a different reality? – which fascinates as much as it confuses. Filled with words, some understandable, others seemingly made-up, drawings and symbols, it is reminiscent of the mysterious Voynich Manuscript.

Maybe you study that pages for days, for months, for years. Maybe seconds. The page splits your brain into before and after. Becomes meanginless to gather meaning to it. This page of a liquid language reminds you of pages from a book you were given, about the coast. In the surge of watery lines. The withdrawal at low tide, leaving spirals of tiny creatures behind.”

Trying to summarise an idea of the plot, as I would with most other novels, is, I think, fairly redundant here. Not because Jeff hasn’t crafted an intriguing, absorbing story, because he has (of course he has, he always does), but I’ve always found right from my first literary steps into his early Ambergris tales that Jeff’s writing is to be experienced, not reduced to a summary of plots and characters.

I described the style earlier as immersive, and I stand by that – this is a book as a dream-place, a meeting of the natural and human, waking and dreaming, like a dark mirror-distorted version of crossing multiple Song Lines, where the imaginary, the fantastic and the everyday all blur and shift and flow over and through one another, changing each other as they do, blurring, sometimes eradicating the artificial distinctions our species often insists on when categorising the world around us, instead putting us within and throughout that world, and it through us, a more magical place mixed with horrors and wonders. This is the sort of book that will permeate your dreams, long after you have finished the final page.

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

The Setting of the Sun

I took a walk on New Year’s Eve (also my birthday), and watched the final sunset of the decade from the roof terrace of the National Museum of Scotland, which is one of the finest (and free) spots to look out across the Old Town’s remarkable cityscape and geology (the one is closely entwined with the other). Last, tiny sliver of the sun about to vanish below the western horizon:

Last Sunset of the Decade

And just a few moments later, looking the same way but the sky now afire, the sun set early as it does in winter, but the heavens a glorious molten copper, a last hurrah of colour before the early winter night falls across the city:

Last Sunset of the Decade 02

This was a long zoom towards Calton Hill – you can see a huge crowd gathered around the old Royal Observatory (now home to the Collective Gallery) to watch that last sunset of 2019:

Waiting for the Sun to Set

Similarly when I turned the camera towards the east and Arthur’s Seat, the huge extinct volcano which dominates the royal park of Holyrood in the heart of Edinburgh, I saw a crowd of figures along the summit, watching that last sunset:

Watching the Last Sunset From on High

Also looking east from the roof terrace, the handsome dome of Old College caught in the dusk light – if you click on the original on Flickr and look at the large version you can just see the distinctive triangular shape of North Berwick Law much further down the coast at the bottom left of the dome in the background:

Sunset on the Dome

Festive Market

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There’s been a festive market for quite a few years now in Edinburgh – it started as a small, traditional German Christmas market around the plaza on the Mound by the galleries, and a small part of the adjacent east Princes Street Gardens. However in recent years, especially under the events company Underbelly (which has been a major player in the Festival Fringe for years) it has expanded dramatically as part of a larger festive and Hogmanay programme.

Festive Market 011

We’re well used to disruption from the festivals in the summer – Edinburgh is, after all, home of the largest arts festival on the planet (and the largest literary festival and the longest continually-running film festival). But the scale and the disruption it causes is starting to seriously anger many citizens, and the complacent response from the promoters and council lackeys isn’t helping. This year the entire east Gardens has been covered in the festive market and fair, so that entire, huge space which is meant to be a shared green space held in common good for the people is anything but. Meanwhile the promoters are, two weeks or more before the events, preparing the west Gardens for the New Year concerts and have fenced off huge swathes of it. So now the public cannot access most of that green space either, both given over to crass, commercial ventures aimed purely at tourists and meanwhile robbing Edinburgh citizens of their entitled green public space that belongs to them

Oh and did I mention the market is illegal?? The promoters didn’t apply for the building permit they require for an erection on this scale, and they and the council kept this quiet, but it leaked out and the local heritage bodies highlighted it, forcing the council and Underbelly to respond, albeit in bleating, weak, pathetic ways, giving no credible reason for such incompetence on the part of both bodies. Then it turns out the same happened last year but they kept that quiet too. Meantime in related events a festive event on the Royal Mile saw huge blocks of stacked freight containers dumped on the middle of this historic area and the streets closed off. The organisers didn’t bother to tell local businesses though, who found out their staff couldn’t even get to work because of this (yet the organisers keep telling us how much these events help “local business”).

Festive Market 012

Still, much as I have gone from originally liking the early versions of the traditional German market to loathing the vulgar, hiugely commercial monster that now robs our city of its open spaces and allows greedy commercial companies to hijack entire public areas of our city for their own use while castigating citizens for daring to be concerned – not to mention angry – at this, it does make a good spot for some nocturnal people-watching photos (I take pics around it, but I am not buying anything there).

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Reviews: Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit,
Directed by Taika Waititi,
Starring Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Alfie Allen, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, Archie Yates

The latest from one of my favourite creators, the Kiwi director and actor Taika Waititi (What We Do In the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Thor: Ragnarök), Jojo Rabbit, based on Christine Leunens’ book Caging Skies, brings with it some controversy for using humour and fantasy elements to depict the Nazi regimes, from Hitler Youth teams to the Gestapo (a fun turn from Stephen Merchant with just a touch of the old Herr Flick about it) to a cartoonish version of the Fuhrer, and even opening credits that conflate Beatlemania screaming crowds with the crowds adoring Hitler. Some seem to think this detracts from the horror of that regime or the historical events it is based on. After catching a preview screening

I have to disagree – first off, it is Taika Waititi, so surely you expect some delightfully skewed (and often dark) humour, even in the face of awful events? Criticising a Waititi movie for those elements is like saying Gene Kelly danced too much in Singing in the Rain. Secondly, I think the humour and fantasy elements were well-used – some for outright comedic effect, but many to counterpoint the barbarity of the Nazi regime, of the brainwashing of children to hate others as different and sub-human, of a state which doesn’t serve its people but consumes them in a hate and fear-filled spiral. Debuting at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, these criticisms by some didn’t stop the film doing well and winning the festival’s Grolsch People’s Choice Award.

As you can probably gather from this, I enjoyed the film, but I am an admirer of Waititi’s approach – if his style and humour isn’t your thing then this isn’t for you, but for those who do there is a lot to enjoy here – the humour and the more fantastical elements (not least Hitler – played by Waititi – being Jojo’s childhood imaginary friend) are grounded by the events of the dying days of World War Two, from the indoctrination of children through propaganda, misinformation, lies and the spread of hatred, the ever-present fear of being suspected of not being Germanic enough and getting a call from the Gestapo, of seeing your own country go so insane with a hate-driven regime that it trains eleven year old children to use as cannon-fodder.

As we watch young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) and his best pal Yorki (Archie Yates, who reminded me – in a good way – of a very young Nick Frost) trying to come to terms with the reality of the Nazi regime as he sees supposed traitors strung up from a gallows in the town square (his mother Rosie, played by Scarlett Johansson, forces him to look at it, to see what the Nazi regime really does) to finding his mother has secretly hidden a young Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their home to save her. Jojo is ten – he has been raised in a Germany controlled by the Nazis, indoctrinated since he was a tiny boy to believe in the Aryan supremacy, of the conspiracy of others (especially Jews), conditioned to think as the state wants him to.

Scarlett Johansson is superb as his life-affirming mother Rosie, clearly loving her son more than anything in the world and yet wondering where did the little boy who ran to her because he was scared of thunder go, when did he turn into this small, blue-eyed, blonde-haired Nazi in a miniature uniform, spouting party propaganda. While you could take much of Jojo Rabbit as an odd, slightly surreal take on the brutalities of that regime, it seemed to me you could also read the film in a number of other ways, from a comment on toxic masculinity (boys being told how to be men mostly through hiding emotions, being “strong”, brutal, pitiless), or the way such propaganda spreads hate through our society, especially to the younger, more impressionable – in Rosie’s anguished musings over how her beloved wee boy became this fervent Nazi I was reminded of an article by a mother in the US whose previously well-behaved, loving teen son absorbed right-wing hate-group material online and changed drastically in much the same way.

Johansson steals many scenes, a mother in the worst of circumstances, trying to salvage her wee boy from the hateful poison put into his young head, to protect a young girl who reminds her of her own lost daughter, of her husband supposedly lost on the Italian front somewhere, of her country gone mad, and yet she does so many happy little things to make life more bearable, to make Jojo smile. It reminded me in some ways of Roberto Benigni in the remarkable Life is Beautiful. The relationship that develops between Jojo and Elsa is also nicely handled – it doesn’t feel too forced and it did feel to me like the way a child would see the world, not an adult trying to speak as a child. The always brilliant Sam Rockwell, playing wounded army captain Klenzendorf may have a supporting role, but it is Rockwell, so it is beautifully underplayed, his damaged soldier moving from caricature of the war-crazy retired warrior to something more human, almost a father figure for Jojo.

Yes, this is an unusual beast, and I do understand when some criticise the cartoonish and humorous elements depicting the Nazis, but I don’t think those do reduce the reality of what happened. As I said at the start I think if anything the humour and fantastical elements contrast against the brutality and make it stand out more. And we do have a long tradition of using film to lampoon Nazis, after all – Bugs Bunny did it for the war effort in the 40s, the great Mel Brooks has lampooned them many times and even the Blues Brothers had their inept Illinois Nazis to ridicule. In an era where it feels like far-right hatred is expanding in so many countries, I think Jojo Rabbit may be portraying a historical period, but there is an awful lot of contemporary issues which we can see woven in there.

Reviews: Billionaires

Billionaires,
Darryl Cunningham,
Myriad Editions

Ever since Blank Slate first published his achingly honest Psychiatric Tales I have eagerly anticipated each new work by Darryl Cunningham, who has, with a mixture of detailed research, touches of humour, savvy observation and sensitivity, become for me one of our finest cartoonists working in non-fiction fields. Billionaires is a very timely publication: while there has been a division between the richer and poorer probably since the earliest civilisations, the disparity has grown enormously since the 1800s until we now have a tiny amount of people – the “one percent” as they are often referred to in the media – who have more wealth than most of the rest of the billions of people on the planet combined.

While the sheer levels of wealth and indulgence and the differential between those at the top and the rest of us may now be hugely exacerbated, Darryl points out right from the introduction that this is not new, drawing parallels to the “Gilded Age” of tycoons like Rockefeller and the Vanderbilts. This is not just an examination of the sheer accumulation of wealth, however, this is more about the effects of that level of wealth both on those who have it and on the wider society around them (which doesn’t have it), and again Darryl points out historical antecedents to our modern One Percent-influenced world, with those early tycoons and their use of wealth to garner power and influence that can be used to shape government policy and public opinion to service their own beliefs and their own, short-term corporate goals (the dismantling of environmental controls, for instance, or laws safeguarding worker’s rights).

For the purposes of the book Darryl has chosen to focus on three billionaires – Rupert Murdoch (media baron), the Koch Brothers (oil and gas) and Jeff Bezos (online services and technology). As he points out himself this means all of his subjects here are male and white, but as he comments, most billionaires are white and male, and while he could cover female billionaires or billionaires of colour (and he hints perhaps he may some day), given Western society has been disproportionately shaped by wealthy, white males, it made sense to focus on them here. Elsewhere in the book Darryl also addresses the fact his choices here are all very right-wing in their political outlook, but notes that such is the influence given to these few super-rich individuals now that regardless of where they are on the political and moral spectrum (the two are often quite separate) the fact just a few people can hold such power over millions of others is worrying.

For each of the three main sections we follow each of the subjects, from early life and influences through to their current positions. In each case I must say that Darryl does his level best to be fair-handed, probably more so than many of us would have been in his place, and that is to his credit – this is no hatchet job, although, of course, it does cover many actions by these men that most of us would probably find morally reprehensible. But it also covers more positive aspects of their life stories – Charles and David Koch labouring on their father’s ranch as youngsters, to learn the value of hard work and self-sufficiency, their father trying to teach them a lesson and not allow them to grow up as what today we’d probably refer to as spoiled trust fund brats.

Or a young Bezos thriving despite a difficult start in life, with a wayward father, who was later replaced by an immigrant man who married his mother and who applied himself in the American Dream style to better himself and his family (and did), along the way encouraging the young Jeff, or showing that the self-capable Bezos starting Amazon in his garage, building office desks himself by woodworking some old doors into work tables. There are even some surprising revelations (well, at least to me!), such as young Murdoch arriving in the UK to study for his degree and becoming so attracted to left-wing politics his rich father was worried about him.

While the early life lessons that formed these men may differ in subject and time and place, there does seem to be a common theme, which is a slow but relentless push by all of them to accrue more power, and the more they have, the more they want. The wealth itself seems almost secondary in some ways, to the power and influence they allow them, be it being able to command the lives of thousands of employees as they wish (Bezos and his demand that everyone in the company works as many hours as him and to hell with family life and the like, for instance), to being able to directly influence the levers of governmental power (and indeed to do so on an international, not just national scale), be it the Koch’s use of vast funding to power so-called Think Tanks and policy groups or college programmes to create “research” that backs their own views, or Murdoch and his “king-maker” model, where his media empire could make or break a political leader, making even Prime Ministers dance to his tune rather than serving their electorate or the national interests (one telling scene with very contemporary overtones notes that Murdoch loathes the EU because in the UK he can lift the phone and tell the PM what to do, but in Europe they don’t care who he is).

The artwork is in Darryl’s familiar, cartoony style (down to the free-drawn lines of buildings, no rulers here!), which is a style I have to say I have tremendous affection for. It is also a style that serves Darryl’s work well – it is clear, concise but very easy on the eye, helping to render the mountains of research and complex details into very simple to understand, accessible graphics. He makes it look very simple, and I am sure it is anything but. The art also leavens the heavyweight subject matter with some welcome touches of humour here and there (a page on young Jeff Bezos on his grandfather’s ranch, learning hands-on skills, including how to castrate bulls, has a cartoon bull staring at the reader and asking in alarm “What?!?!”).

As someone who has read all of Darryl’s works, right back to when he was creating his humour strip on the now-vanished Forbidden Planet Blog years ago, I found Billionaires especially interesting. Not just because it is a fascinating subject and an erudite, accessible examination of these people who have far too much influence over their fellow citizens, not to mention very contemporary (we see laws and even entire government policies changed to suit a few billionaires, not the electorate), but because it ties in very nicely to much of Darryl’s earlier works. Taking in the lives of these billionaires also covers the economies (which Darryl has covered before, most notably in Supercrash) and the environment, which has featured in his science books. While they may not be designed as a connected series, for those of us who have read his previous works, it’s interesting and gratifying to notice many connections to elements of those earlier books.

As with all of Darryl’s works this takes some very important and complex subjects – many of them matters which directly impact on the lives of ourselves and millions of others around the world – and distils all of that huge amount of research into a clear, thoughtful narrative that delivers detail without overloading the reader, and does so in a hugely compelling and fascinating manner. At this rate I think Darryl Cunningham may be becoming the UK’s equivalent to the great Larry Gonick, and our vibrant comics scene is all the richer for his work. Hugely recommended reading.

You can read my reviews of Darryl’s Supercrash here on the blog, Graphic Science is reviewed here, and Psychiatric Tales is reviewed here.

Cymera 2020

Back in June I was delighted to both attend and also take part in the very first Cymera Festival of literary science fiction, fantasy, YA and Horror here in Edinburgh, at the Pleasance (here’s my report and, of course, photos). It went amazingly well, especially for a first time outing (huge kudos to Anne and the other organisers and volunteers),I caught many panels with a wide variety of authors, some new to me, some old friends I’ve known years, and had the pleasure of chairing a talk with Ken MacLeod, Gareth Powell and Adrian Tchaikovsky about their books.

I’ve known that a second Cymera was being planned for June 2020, and now the festival has started its Crowdfunder appeal. I’ve already backed it as I did last year (which also gets me the weekend pass so I can come and go to any and all events through the whole festival, a bargain and dibs on booking which events I want to catch). If you enjoy good science fiction, fantasy, YA and horror literature then this is an event I highly recommend, and unlike many SF cons I have been to, it is in a nice venue in the city centre, not some out-of-town hotel. The Crowdfunder page is here, and there is a short promotional video (warning, the video does include a little bit of me!):

Heron

Out for a walk with chum and his hounds, spotted this large heron on a pile of rocks in the River Almond at Cramond:

Heron on the Almond 02

Heron on the Almond 03

This was next to the old Fair a Far Mill by the weir on the Almond (or as I thought it looked like that day, the ruins of the Palace of Autumn Leaves):

The Ruins of the Palace of Autumn Leaves

The mill dates from the 1700s and was still operating into the late 1800s, and in later life became a metal working shop as well. Sadly many of the buildings along the river were destroyed in a huge flood during the 1930s, today it is a scenic ruin on the path by the Almond, a popular spot for walkers, on the outskirts of Edinburgh.

Thundering Weir Washes Water to the Sea 01

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