Thursday, 31 August 2017

Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth

The review was published at Digitally Downloaded here.
I will add a personal note noting the published version misses on a couple of paragraphs I had originally submitted. I think the result is a dryer, too laconic, review that lacks some necessary air.
Which goes to show there are sacrifices to be made when submitting oneself to the mercies of an editor. I am surprised how annoying I'm finding it, but I'm sure I'll get over it just the same.

Friday, 25 August 2017

The Gulf by Anna Sprgo-Ryan

"I think this is a song of hope", said Robert Plant as the band Led Zeppelin started playing Stairway to Heaven on that historical night of theirs at New York's Madison Square Garden. That performance has been recorded for prosperity under the live album The Songs Remains the Same.
The reason why I am mentioning all of the above here is that I think The Gulf, with all the social issues it is documenting and all the sadness in it, is a book of hope.
Told through the eyes of 16 year old Skye, Anna Spargo-Ryan's second book (after The Paper House) takes place at South Australia. Skye lives at a rental apartment in Adelaide together with her single mother and 10 year old brother Ben (I'm pretty sure Ben Ten had a factor in this); her father had long disappeared. Clearly, they are not among the financially better off, and clearly her mother does not enjoy her position in the world.
Two things happen to break the idyll. First, the mother brings Jason home, a guy she met at a Big W queue and quickly develops a relationship with. And second, the family is thrown out of their apartment when its owner sells it. The solution to the family's immediate problem? Move over to Jason's rundown house at the remote rural town of Port Flinders.
Let us just say that things don't go too smoothly with this move and all.
The Gulf is an ode to all those people on the other side of the social divide, the people we generally tend not to devote much thought to. These are the people who live in rural Australia, for whom opportunities are much harder to come by (I will add that the setting receives similar treatment in Australian Rules, a movie that depicts the emptiness of life in rural Australia; that film deals with white to aboriginal relationships, though). These are also Australia's rental class people, the people for whom owning a house they could call home in Australia is no longer an option. It is about single mothers, whom the social welfare system in Australia discriminates against (with the Liberal government doing its best to make life even harder); they are often trapped in a vicious circle between being able to work and being able to afford care for their children. It is about sexual abuse. It is about gender discrimination and the fact that most women still live in a world that has them exposed to predatory males. And it is about the victims of bullying.
Even if you, dear reader, are at a privileged position where none of the above classifications are relevant to you, Spargo-Ryan will politely point out that is ever so easy to find yourself there; not that much needs to happen, really.
As with Spargo-Ryan's previous book, the beauty here is in the level of detail that renders the experience so vivid. It made Ben, to name but one example, one of my all time favourite fictional characters; I could see so much of his naive intellect in children that I know in real life. There is beauty and impact in that level of detail, and what starts feeling like a teenager's diary turns into a book that read, to me, like a thriller. It is not that often that a book was able to put me so clearly inside a teenager's mind, let alone a female teenager.
At the personal level, I happened to be reading this book while listening to the music of Phillip Glass. I have grown to associate that minimalist classical music inseparable to this book, with its dramatic ups and downs providing the perfect soundtrack to The Gulf. I know this is pure coincidence, but it did contribute a lot to my enjoyment from both book and music. To which I will also add that the very fact The Gulf lends itself so well to Glass' superb music is further testimony to its qualities.
Overall: Brimming with authenticity, I qualify The Gulf as a true work of art, a book that captures a significant portion of the Australian experience oh so very well. 4.5 out of 5 crabs (and yes, the book does feature crabs!).

Friday, 11 August 2017

Train to Busan

First, let me praise Train to Busan for being an ambitious shoot, not doubt about it. Given it is a Korean film, and not a product of the Hollywood factory, that is well worth noting. There is more to it, though.
This horror movie tells of an infection that spreads throughout Korea and turns people into vampire like zombies (exact definitions aside, you get the point; if one seeks to live, one should avoid these living dead). Salvation lies at Busan, hence the heroes of this movie take a fast train (that is, the exact opposite of a Melbourne train) from the capital Seoul towards salvation. But will they make it?
On course are very blatant statements on what's important in life and who it is that ruins things for the rest / all of us. I'll put it this way, Donald Trump will not like this movie.
I will also note Busan is at Korea’s southern tip. Heading to its safety from Seoul probably holds more meaning to Korean viewers than it does for me, especially given tensions between north and south.
Overall: Look, we've seen many such movies already; the main novelty lies with the Korean nature of this movie and the glimpse it gives us at Korean culture. For now, though, I will settle with a score of 3 out of 5 crabs.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Hacksaw Ridge

I will admit it, I used to love Mel Gibson, both as actor and director. I mean, Mad Max. As for Braveheart, even though I see the nasty streak it carries, I still think it's a classic. But clearly, not everything (or, in this case, everybody) ages like good wine, and Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge is a fine example.
Story wise, this WW2 war movie is based on the authentic tale of an American pacifist who still wanted to join the war effort despite his religious based inclinations of no harm; his solution was to serve as medic. And good on him, he was obviously a hero through and through IRL. The problem is not the character or its story, the problem is Gibson.
Director Gibson will not skip an opportunity to shove us his views on religion, and by extension sex. Gibson is not shy in portraying the Japanese as nothing more than a prop that's there to serve for nothing but die at American hands (often literally). And Gibson likes his blood.
If you seek yourself some right wing religious propaganda that is lacking any shred of subtlety, look no further than Hacksaw Ridge.
Overall: 2 out of 5 crabs.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Manhattan Night

Film noir is a well established genre that doesn't seem to be getting much of a break these past few decades. Nor does it get that break off Manhattan Night, a modern day film noir attempt about an endangered newspaper journalist (Adrien Brody) whose life destabilises when he stumbles upon a femme fatale.
It is the latter than attracted me to this film in the form of Yvonne Strahovski, an actress I will always remember as Mass Effect's Miranda as well as Chuck's kickass agent Sarah Walker. Alas, both movie and Strahovski are hampered a rather poor plot.
Overall: 2.5 out of 5 crabs.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

The Keeping Room

The Keeping Room is, to put it bluntly, a movie about women trying to get by in an environment plagued by predatory males. It does what it does to deliver its point, as in, it sets itself during the American civil war and tells the story of three southerner women (two white, one black) as they try to survive in an environment now deprived of all its men (because the latter went to wage war).
They get along, more or less. That is, until the men from the north start making their way towards their area as they are winning the war.
When push comes to shove, racial lines blur and the black woman almost becomes an equal. But gender lines do not blur, and the only way our women can make it out alive is if they turn into men.
Overall: Not the best drama ever, but it certainly delivers on its core point. 3 out of 5 crabs.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

The Love Witch

A deliberately eccentric, deliberately B movie style in acting and looks, deliberately made to look like it is set in the seventies but clearly not. The Love Witch is a colorful examination of male to female relationships as viewed from the female side, for a change (and what a novelty this is for American cinema!).
Story wise, this fantastic tale of witchcraft involves a love witch that cannot get men (in all the senses that apply to that verb). They either fail her when she loves them or fail when her love is too strong. What could a woman do?
Overall: 3 out of 5 crabs.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

The Paper House by Anna Spargo-Ryan

It should be fairly obvious to anyone who knows me that books such as The Paper House are not yours truly's run of the mill material. For a start, it is fiction; and further, it is not science fiction, which happens to be my main route down the dark alley of non-non-fiction.
So, why Paper House? It's because I know the author, Anna Spargo-Ryan, from Twitter. And it's because she happens to be a fellow resident of Melbourne. And, as it happens (not that I knew it in advance), The Paper House is as Melbourne a book as a book can be. But just in case you are still worried, I will add that Spargo-Ryan is alright: she's a gamer, and she even got the Switch the day it came out just so she could play Breath of the Wild. Case closed.
The Paper House's hero is the classic anti hero. A modern day Melbourne woman, happily married, is expecting a child. So much so that our family of two moves out of the lively inner city to the quiet outer suburbs, where they can afford a home fit for a family. Life takes the odd turn, though, and our hero goes through the stillbirth of her child pretty close to the end of its due term. Not surprisingly, she is devastated by the experience; however, her particular case seems to carry that devastation an extra notch or two.
At which point our book's mechanics kick into action. For every chapter on the latest in the story of the hero coming to terms with her loss, we have a shorter chapter from her childhood. Together, the tales of past and present converge to portray the image of a dysfunctional family haunted by a severe case of mental illness in their midst. As you can imagine, the chemistry of past and present tale builds up as the book goes.
The beauty of The Paper House lies in not that much happening, story wise, while still filling a book up. Credit goes to Spargo-Ryan for rich language and tons of little details that do an excellent job in the suspension of disbelief department. To give but one example, the hero's accounting of hospital parking costs stroke a chord with this reader. I would argue that the ability to create so much depth with so little is testimony of great writing.
Overall: I would say The Paper House proved an excellent break from my usual reading material, one that was both enjoyable and educational. If you seek a Melbourne centred book and do not mind a couple of hundred pages filled with sadness, do give this book and this author a go. 4 out of 5 crabs from me.