Filler content in diary form

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #30:-

Hodder & Stoughton hb, 253pp, £12.99

Subtitled ‘My Life At Rose Red’, this book is a merchandising spin-off from Rose Red, an American TV series scripted by Stephen King. The publishers are anxious for you to know about the King connection, plastering one of those annoying little info-stickers on the front cover. Ostensibly the diary of Seattle socialite Ellen Rimbauer, kept between 1907 and 1928, and discovered by Joyce Reardon Ph.D. in 1998, this is anonymously written and copyright 2001 Hyperion. Nobody claims it was actually penned by King, but the assumption is there to be made. Having read the book, I doubt it (love him or loathe him, it’s unlikely King would have made such a pig’s ear out of telling a story). Not having seen Rose Red I can’t say exactly how the Diary ties in, whether it’s a loose transcript of the series or a prequel laying down the back story.

Seattle oil magnate John Rimbauer, a Citizen Kane figure, builds the huge mansion Rose Red to show society what an important person he is, and marries the young and innocent Ellen. For their honeymoon the couple embark on a round the world trip, and in the course of this the battle lines are drawn in their relationship. Ellen discovers that the man to whom she’s given her heart has no intention of moderating the behaviour of his bachelor days and can be cruel when challenged. Her own significance to him is little more than that of brood mare, hand-picked to provide the sons Rimbauer craves. No sooner have they returned and set up house in the vast mansion on the hill than strange events start to occur. Rose Red is not like other houses; people disappear within the mansion’s walls, though their plaintive voices can still be heard. As her marriage to John deteriorates Ellen becomes obsessed with Rose Red. She has the idea that the house is a living entity and as long as it keeps growing she can live happily there, along with her children and the maid she’s come to love. But with time all of these things are stripped from her by Rose Red, until finally Ellen herself vanishes within its walls.

Speaking of the TV series, King has admitted to wanting to write a classic haunted house story, and the central concept of a house that builds itself and on whose continued growth the welfare of its inhabitants depends is both original and striking, but too many of the individual effects will be familiar from other haunted house scenarios, most obviously The Haunting of Hill House and Poltergeist.

The writing falls between two stools. There is simply too much detail for it to convince as a genuine diary, but on the other hand there is not enough narrative drive for it to work as pure fiction. And the editing choices attributed to Reardon are curious; she gives us men being killed, but removes Ellen’s account of lovemaking with her maid as too indelicate, though interested parties are referred to wwwsomethingorother for further details (apparently in Ms Reardon’s world web-users are less easily shocked than book readers).

Ellen’s character isn’t really convincing either. She goes from bright young thing and wannabe pillar of society, to occasional devil worshipper, frequenter of mediums and lesbian lover of her coloured maid, with no real motivation for these radical changes in such a conventional person.

What we have here is not so much a story as an author randomly piling up effects. It’s kitchen sink school of writing, with the urge to get in as much incident as you can in the hope readers won’t notice it’s mainly quantity and little quality. As a tease for the TV series it’s okay, but I doubt if you need to have read Diary to appreciate Rose Red, and at the end of the day the book simply doesn’t live up to its attractive packaging (an attempt has been made to create the look of a diary, with line drawings and photographs).

(NB: The official Stephen King website recently revealed the Diary author as Ridley Pearson.)

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Song for a Saturday – Out of the Darkness

I’m posting this on the day before the General Election and there seems little cause to think that Britain will be coming out of the darkness any time soon.

But I remain optimistic.

And whatever happened Thursday gone, this is still a bloody good song.

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Filler content with violence

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #31:-

Alice Hoffman
Vintage pb, 303pp, £6.99

Drifter Ethan Ford came to the small town of Monroe in Massachusetts and stayed to settle down with local girl Jorie. Thirteen years on they’re as much in love as ever, with a son Collie and a life that seems idyllic. Ethan is a highly respected member of the local community, a small town hero thanks to his efforts on the volunteer fire brigade and in teaching little league baseball. Then the police turn up one morning and place him under arrest. Thirteen years ago in Maryland, under another name, Ethan raped and murdered a fifteen year old girl. Monroe’s people refuse to believe the man they know so well could have done such a terrible thing; it has to be a case of mistaken identity. Ethan’s admission of guilt divides the town, but most come to accept his contention that he was a different man back then, and a support fund is set up to pay for lawyers. Only for those closest to Ethan it isn’t that easy, and as the fallout from this random act of violence continues people’s lives are turned upside down.

Ethan’s son, Collie, becomes sullen and withdrawn, not wanting to know his father. Twelve year old Katya, the next door neighbour who turned Ethan in to the police, now has to live with the consequences, including the effect on Collie, whom she loves, and also the erratic behaviour of her older sister Rosarie, who has developed a crush on Ethan. Jorie’s best friend Charlotte Kite, as well as being supportive, has to deal with both cancer and the protestations of love of lawyer Barney. The person most affected though is Ethan’s wife, forced to deal with the fact that the man she loves is a stranger. In an effort to make sense of what has happened Jorie embarks on a trip to Maryland to learn the truth. There she meets the victim’s younger brother James, a man still trapped in that terrible moment of violence, and receives from him the girl’s diary. It is reading this blue backed volume that finally brings home to her what she must do.

I’ll admit to being credulous of Ethan at first. Hoffman makes him too good to be true. As presented in the opening chapter he’s a man without flaw, someone who never forgets anniversaries and always says the right thing, a man who, you suspect, doesn’t have to use the toilet, let alone leave the lid up. Such a paragon of virtue is hard to swallow, but there’s a method to Hoffman’s approach; she’s deliberately raising the stakes to heighten the drama and moral dilemma that follow. Ultimately what we have here is a tragedy in the original, Shakespearean sense, the tale of a hero who falls from grace not through the machinations of others but thanks to some fatal flaw in his own character.

Hoffman’s writing is as effective as ever at capturing perfectly the beauty and rightness of the natural world, contrasting that with the occasional lapses into ugliness of the human animal. She spares us nothing in the way of brutality, the very ordinariness of Rachel Morris’s death accentuating its horror. And at heart this is what the book is really about, that violence comes too easy, but what follows isn’t easy at all. Everyone in this book is hurting; everyone has lost something, and Hoffman makes us feel their pain as if it were our own.

This is a book about what happens when your life is turned upside down, when you learn that your comfortable existence is based on a lie. It’s about the consequences of our actions and the hard choices that sometimes have to be made. Hoffman lays everything out in meticulous detail, painstakingly dissecting this small town tragedy, but offering no judgement, leaving the reader to decide. It’s an intensely moving book, particularly in the pivotal Maryland section, which more eloquently and heartrendingly than any other brings home what this is really all about.

Blue Diary is a triumph of the novelist’s art, and quite possibly Hoffman’s best book yet.

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Trailer Trash – The Mummy

Tomorrow we get to vote in a general election, Theresa May vs, Jeremy Corbyn, Tory vs. Labour.

And on Friday this is released.

‘You can’t run. You can’t escape. She’s got plans for you.’

Well, I’m scared.

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2017 Graphic Miscellany #4

Time for another shout out about the graphic novels I’ve been reading this year.

Copperhead Volume 2

Written by Jay Faerber, illustrated by Scott Godlewski

Substitute motor vehicle for horses, aliens for Indians, and super-duper blasters for six shooters and what you have here is a western in space. Clara Bronson is the hard as nails Sheriff of frontier town Copperhead. Among the problems she has to deal with are a crooked businessman with an agenda of his own, hostility to her alien deputy (who is also shunned by his own people), and assorted others with no good in mind, including robbers/thugs who break in while she’s on a date with the local schoolteacher (date is a euphemism), forcing Clara to protect her beau in a neat slice of role reversal. The main thrust of the book concerns the chase into the outlands after a bandit gang who kidnap her deputy to use as bait in their plot to get revenge for some slight. There’s other stuff going on too, not least the mystery of the missing mayor, with threads left hanging at the end. This is part of an ongoing series (‘Volume 2’ is a big clue), and I’m intrigued enough to pick up other volumes if I see any. It’s an entertaining story, albeit nothing most readers won’t have seen before in the plot (just a different dressing), with some engaging characters and some lush artwork that brings the story to vibrant life on the page. Overall this is a very attractive book, one I enjoyed both to look at and to read.

Batgirl – The Lesson

Written by Bryan Q. Miller, illustrated by Dustin Nguyen and Pere Perez

There’s a lot going on in this book. The children of Gotham’s elite families are being kidnapped, but Batgirl is on the case. Unfortunately she’s also been framed for murder by criminal organisation The Order of the Scythe, which adds some complications. And then there’s the Grey Ghost, a super powered admirer who is shadowing her and providing help she hasn’t asked for and doesn’t want. On her side and providing the kind of help she needs rather than simply meddling are Robin and Oracle, among others, and while on a trip to the UK to protect the Greenwich Mean she is allied with British super heroine Squire. And that’s only part of it. To repeat myself, there’s a lot going on here, rather too much in fact. To keep track you probably need to read it a couple of times and make notes. I enjoyed it, but all the same felt that it was a bit messy, lacking in focus, which I guess makes it a tad more like real life, something that shouldn’t be allowed in super hero comics (insert winking emoticon here). There’s some snappy dialogue (Batgirl knows how to quip with the best of them) and at times stunning visuals even if Batgirl’s non-costumed alter ego on occasion looks as if she is tripping on something. Good fun, but not great fun, and more for the visuals than the story which I felt didn’t really live up to its potential.

Jupiter’s Legacy Book One

Written by Mark Millar, illustrated by Frank Quitely

Now this is more like it. A group of people gain super powers and go about fighting evil. Years later there is a major falling out, with some of the group believing that the only way forward is for them to take control of America and remake it along the lines they consider desirable (great again, anyone?). Those who oppose this are either killed or become fugitives. Skip forward a few years, and the children of the murdered heroes join forces and plan a fight back, though their only allies are those regarded as criminals, and in most cases with some justification. This is a gripping story, full of the fights and feats of derring do that you expect from a super hero comic, and simmering away in the background is a subplot about how the heroes got their special abilities, the possibility of alien influence. What makes it go that extra mile though, are the various family dramas, with brother vs. brother, father vs. son/daughter, and so on, with the psychology of these various relationships carefully calibrated, so that at times it feels like a remake of the Greek myths. And even more than that, in this story of outcasts who (may) come good, is its focus on power and its usage, with the world marching in step until we arrive at a totalitarian and fascist regime, initiated for the greater good. Millar presents both sides of the coin, with the Utopian who champions the old order (presumably the Jupiter figure) coming across as rather overbearing and arrogant, even if he is in the right, while his opponents with their hatred and distrust of politicians are playing a tune that’s music to my ears (it’s just the results of their plotting that leave me cold) – in troubled times fascism always has a certain appeal, the glamour of simple answers to complicated problems, which is probably why we can never rid of it. The artwork throughout is excellent, with Quitely equally deft at handling the big battle scenes and the more intimate moments, and by way of a bonus we have a series of standalone full page paintings of the main characters that are simply stunning. I loved this book. It’s probably the best graphic novel I’ve read so far this year, and you can bet I’ll be keeping my eye out for the sequel as I want to find out how it all finishes.

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Song for a Saturday – Bitter Fruit

Little Steven has the mic for the month of June.

And we open with this song, because by this time next week I have a feeling we may all be tasting bitter fruit.

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Filler content telling it like it is

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #30:-

Ursula K Le Guin
Gollancz pb, 264pp, £9.99

Earthling Sutty works as an Observer for the Ekumen on the planet Aka, whose ruling body, an entity referred to simply as The Corporation, is ruthlessly pursuing a policy aimed at casting off the shackles of religion, believing that such superstitions prevent their world from taking its rightful place in the galaxy. For Sutty it is a difficult assignment, conditions on Aka mirroring those she lived through on Earth, where a theocracy tried with equal zeal to stifle all views at odds with its own. A chance arises to travel out into the countryside of Aka, where the old ways survive, and Sutty is sent to the provincial city of Okzat-Ozkat, regarded as a backwater by the planet’s elite. Here she first encounters and is beguiled by the myth in the making that is The Telling, a quasi-religious account of Aka’s past that followers of the old religion regard as somehow vital to the planet’s spiritual health. But her presence may just provide the impetus the authorities need to finally stamp out religion in this province. It’s up to Sutty to find a way of compromise, by which the best of the past can be preserved without acting as a dead hand to the future.

As with so much of Le Guin’s work the clash of ideas is central, here personified in the relationship between Sutty and the Monitor, a local official who takes it upon himself to make sure she doesn’t deflect his society from its declared goals. These two represent diametrically opposed but complementary viewpoints, with more in common than they are at first willing to concede. Each was shaped by tragic events of the recent past. Sutty is haunted by what she endured on Earth, persecution as a Hindu and homosexual, the death of the woman she loved just when things seemed to be getting better. As a child the Monitor witnessed the execution of his grandparents, who adhered to their religious beliefs to the end, and feels that he must commit himself to the path of progress, else what took place will be pointless and his own acquiescence revealed as simple cowardice. For each of them the book represents a rite of passage, and maturity involves accepting the existence of doubt.

While Le Guin is excellent in portraying this ideological conflict in such deeply personal terms, her touch is not so sure in dealing with the spiritual McGuffin at its heart. Akan religion and the material of The Telling itself remain frustratingly vague, perhaps a deliberate ploy on the part of the writer. The Telling’s defining quality is inclusiveness; Le Guin seems to be saying that a people are the sum total of all their beliefs about themselves and not just a reflection of the dominant cultural zeitgeist.

The real critical thrust of the book is in its appraisal of totalitarian mind sets, be they religious or political. It’s tempting, in the wake of September 11, to ignore timescale and see The Telling as in part criticism of Islamic Fundamentalism, and points of common reference are readily found (e.g. a book burning scene that brings to mind the destruction of the library of Alexandria), but ultimately this is the easy option. The Fathers who preside over repression on Earth are a collation of the great monotheistic religions, Jews and Christians as well as Muslims, while on Aka it is atheist rigidity cast in the role of bad guy. For Le Guin the real enemy is extremism, viewpoints that leave no room for disagreement. September 11 has given that message extra urgency.

The Telling revisits Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle of novels, but nobody should come to it expecting work on a par with The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed. Ultimately it is a book that is too self-consciously ‘about something’ and does not wear its real concerns as lightly as its famous predecessors, while Sutty’s final solution has too much of plot convenience about it. But it is a book well worth reading, by an important writer who still has things she needs to tell us and to which we should listen. Sadly it is also a timely book.

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