Category Archives: Stuff I Like

Last 30 Days’ Book Recommendations

My mission to recommend a book a day until Christmas continues (somehow). Listed below are the last 30 books I recommended via Twitter with links to my Goodreads reviews, enjoy:

 

The Social History of the Machine Gun by John Ellis https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1061343313

The Passage by Justin Cronin https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/898991957

War on the Waters by James M McPherson https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1002062862

The City by Stella Gemmell https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/629233553

Bloody April by Peter Hart https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/255731118

Anno Dracula by Kim Newman https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1065473118

Chopper: Song of the Surfer by John Wagner and Colin McNeil https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1066248236

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/355262163

Skin Tight by Carl Hiaasen https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/681570152

The Gunpowder Plot by Antonia Fraser https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1035131846

The Lost Regiment #1: Rally Cry by William R. Forstchen https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1069002380

Hardware: The Definitive SF Works of Chris Foss https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1070835616

City of Golden Shadow (Otherland #1) by Tad Williams https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1071653247

Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1059663565

War in the Air 1914-45 by Williamson Murray https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1073255374

Sharpe’s Enemy by Bernard Cornwell https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1074341502

Stalingrad by Antony Beevor https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/245224129

Floating Dragon by Peter Straub https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/245223250

Business in Great Waters by John Terraine https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1076793468

NOS4R2 by Joe Hill https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1077415795

A History of Warfare by John Keegan https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1078182446

Alien by HR Giger https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1079122967

Spellsinger by Alan Dean Foster https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1079818592

Red Dragon by Thomas Harris https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/245222785

The First Day on the Somme by Martin Middlebrook https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1081492776

Mussolini: His Part in My Downfall by Spike Milligan https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1082324809

Slow River by Nicola Griffith https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1083081075

On Writing by Stephen King https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1083807813

Flashman in the Great Game by George McDonald Fraser https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1084672569

Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 by Max Hastings https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1085620022


Last 30 Days’ Book Recommendations

For those who don’t follow me on Twitter, on 23rd August I set myself the task of recommending a book a day until Christmas along with a short review on Goodreads. Here’s the list for the last 30 days for anyone who missed it:

Hyperion by Dan Simmons – https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/245223816

The Darkness that Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker – https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/324718560

Speaks the Nightbird by Robert McCammon – https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1035991441

Lord of the Silver Bow by David Gemmell – https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1036810587

Crossed by Garth Ennis – https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1037745731

The Blue Blazes by Chuck Wendig – https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/725036643

All Hell Let Loose by Max Hastings – https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/717366050

Vurt by Jeff Noon – https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1040358888

Watching War Films with My Dad by Al Murray – https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/918121939

Broken Angels by Richard Morgan – https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/245223698

The Thousand Names by Django Wexler – https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1043204778

The Reality Dysfunction by Peter F Hamilton – https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1044115670

The Dead Zone by Stephen King – https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/245223368

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman – https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/245223551

An Animated Life by Ray Harryhausen – https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1047059554

Robin Ince’s Bad Book Club by Robin Ince – https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/396745389

The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy – https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/987382048

Icon by Frank Frazetta – https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1050037194

Neuromancer by William Gibson – https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/245223673

Use of Weapons Iain M Banks – https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/245223648

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence – https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1052797420

Dune by Frank herbert – https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/245223544

Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson – https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/245224264

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs – https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1055394174

The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub – https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1036354909

Voyage by Stephen Baxter – https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1057330544

War of the Aeronauts by Charles M. Evans – https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/711370188

Dark Fire by CJ Sansom – https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1058921216

The Scar by China Mieville – https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1059845898

The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander – https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1060416159


Orbit Website Guest Post: David Gemmell and the Depiction of the Hero

Thanks to the good folks at Orbit UK for hosting my guest post on David Gemmell and the Depiction of the Hero.


RIP Iain M. Banks

A fond farewell to Iain M. Banks, possibly the finest prose writer ever to grace the pages of science fiction. And also goodbye to his long term collaborator Iain Banks, who injected a much needed narrative drive and energy into mainstream literature. I wish I’d met them both.


Top Ten Movie Battle Scenes

Anyone who’s read Blood Song will know my liking for battle scenes, so I thought I’d list my top ten favourites from the movies – as usual in no special order.

Master and Commander – For the Prize! (2003, Dir. Peter Weir)

Patrick O’Brien’s tales of life in Nelson’s navy are brought to vivid life in Peter Weir’s expertly wrought adaptation. Essentially a chase story, as Russell Crowe’s Captain Jack Aubrey pursues a French privateer half way around the world with Ahab-like zeal, paid off in spades in a climactic clash of frigates. The final frenetic confrontation of cannon, pistols and hand-to-hand combat brings home the fact that, for all the romance associated with it, war at sea in the Napoleonic era was still war, and it’s never pretty.

Last of the Mohicans – Huron Ambush (1992, Dir. Michael Mann)

Michael Mann wisely eschews much of Charles Fenimore Cooper’s source novel (it’s frankly unreadable to modern eyes, or at least my modern eyes) to craft a compelling epic of high adventure and romance amid the chaos of the Seven Years War. Mann’s eye for spectacular action is given free reign as Huron warchief Magua (Wes Studi) leads his braves in a brutally effective ambush of an entire British army. War clubs, tomahawks and muskets abound as Hawkeye (Daniel Day Lewis in pre-cobbler days) fights his way towards his imperilled lady love (Madeleine Stowe in pre-collagen days) and woe betide anyone who gets in his way. Simply stunning.

Saving Private Ryan – Omaha Beach (1998, Dir. Steven Spielberg)

The immediate cinematic impact of Spielberg’s recreation of the Omaha beach landings makes it easy to forget that there was a time when filmmakers failed to present the experience of modern battle as anything other than a stark horror story viewed through the lens of an over-cranked camera. But, despite its many imitators, the real-time progress of Tom Hanks’ shell-shocked captain across the blasted and corpse strewn shore-line has never been topped for sheer visceral shock value. If you ever wondered what a burst of machine-gun fire will really do to a human body, look no further.

Henry V – Agincourt (1989, Dir. Kenneth Branagh)

Branagh’s directorial debut proved he’s as able behind the camera as he is in front of it. Naturalistic Shakespeare is a tricky thing to pull off but Branagh and cast manage it with admirable aplomb – even Brian Blessed gets through the whole film without a single shouty moment. Crucial to Branagh’s desire to present events within a a believable medieval context is his depiction of the Battle of Agincourt as a mud-spattered slo-mo slogging match. Men in armour assail each other with swords, maces and daggers in a rain sodden charnel house shorn of any pageantry or chivalrous pretensions. Grimly compelling.

Platoon – NVA Night Assault (1986, Dir Oliver Stone)

Long before such crimes against cinema as Natural Born Killers and Alexander,  Oliver Stone was a good director, proven in this semi-autobiographical tale of brutalised grunts in the Vietnam War. Stone’s protagonists are rarely heroic, quick to panic and would probably shoot John Wayne in the back if he pissed them off. The graphic depictions of combat and atrocity make for often harrowing viewing, complete with massacred civilians, gang rapes and murderous intra-grunt enmity, stretching the viewer’s nerves to the point that the climactic NVA night assault is actually something of a relief. The subsequent battle is a frenzied mix of cacophonous gunfire and flashing tracer bringing home the random nature of combat. It seems in modern war, cowardice and heroism make little difference to odds of survival. Luckily, most of us will never have to find out if that’s true.

Zulu – Rorke’s Drift Rumble (1964, Dir. Cy Endfield)

US emigre director Cy Endfield’s retelling of the siege of Rorke’s Drift in the first Zulu war is a carnival of British cinema delights; a soaring score by Bond composer John Barry, a stand-out breakthrough performance by Michael Caine and Jack Hawkins playing against stiff-upper-lip type as a drunken missionary “Can’t you see you’re all going to die!!” But the real star of the show is the cinematography, capturing the beauty of a South African landscape marred by the bloody spectacle of thousands of Zulu warriors charging through massed rifle fire.

300 – “This! Is! Spartaaaaggh!” (2006, Dir. Zach Snyder)

Frank Miller’s stylised comic book version of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BCE is given lavish homage by Snyder as muscular bare chested men in leather pants engage in a mutual admiration fest before embarking on slo-mo Persian slaughter viewed through a series of prolonged tracking shots (for some reason 300 has come to be regarded as having a strong gay subtext, can’t think why). This is an unashamedly non-realist approach to ancient warfare featuring battle-rhinos, giants, grenade throwing alchemists and (if you’ve seen the deleted scenes) midget archers – and all the better for it.

Gladiator – Roma Victa! (2000, Dir. Ridley Scott)

If you know a little about Roman history you’ll be aware that Gladiator belongs more in the ‘inspired by’ rather than ‘based on’ category of historical epic – Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Pheonix) was murdered in his bath-house by a slave nine years after assuming the throne rather than being slain in the Coliseum by a former general (who never actually existed) a few months after killing his father – an event he may well have had no part in. But, despite its factual shortcomings, Gladiator contains probably the most accurate depiction of the Roman army at war as General Maximus (Russell Crowe again) leads his legionaries against the barbarous German tribes. Fire arrows fill the air, ballista bolts pin men to trees and catapults rain down fiery destruction on the uncivilised horde as the legions hack and slash their way to victory. “Roma Victa!” indeed.

The Return of the King – Pelennor Fields (2003, Dir. Peter Jackson)

The Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers was a remarkable achievement in itself but even that is eclipsed by the sheer scale of the spectacle offered in Peter Jackson’s final instalment of The Lord of the Rings. Sauron’s hordes of orcs, easterlings and war elephants bear down on the beleaguered city of Minas Tirith in a screen-filling tide that wouldn’t have been possible even in the days when extras would work for less than a dollar a day. However, thanks to CGI we are treated to an unrestrained and largely faithful depiction of the central clash of armies in Tolkien’s classic. From the Ride of the Rhohirrm to the arrival of the Dead Men this is a wondrous spectacle, made all the more impressive by not allowing the visuals to overwhelm the drama – poor old King Theoden, but it was a good death.

Glory – Assault on Fort Wagner (1989, Dir Edward Zwick)

The 54th Massachusetts Infantry was the first black regiment recruited by the Union Army in the American Civil War and earned a blood-soaked place in history by leading an assault on the Confederate Fort Wagner in South Carolina in July 1863. Zwick – later to conjure some highly impressive set-pieces in The Last Samurai – brings home the scale of the sacrifice as Matthew Broderick’s Colonel Shaw leads his troops in an ultimately hopeless charge against the Confederate ramparts, braving a hail of cannon fire and musketry to fight their way into the fort at bayonet point. Although the film makes no bones about the fact that this was a military defeat for the Union, the final scene of black troops and white officers being tossed into the same mass grave conveys a sense that it was at least a battle worth fighting.


Top 10 Movie Shoot-Outs

I’ve always been a sucker for a good action movie, and it’s a shame the genre has declined somewhat in recent years. I guess swearing, guns and blood-squibs don’t cut it in the focus groups anymore. Anyway, as a tribute to a diminished genre, I offer my, in no particular order, list of Top Ten Movie Shoot-Outs:

Hard Boiled (1992, Dir. John Woo) – Tea-shop Carnage

Ballet With Guns has become something of cliché these days, but Hong Kong action maestro John Woo fully justifies the term with the opening scene to his most lauded work. The bullet and body count soars as Chow Yun Fat’s maverick cop faces off against arms-traffickers in a tea-shop. Fast, frenetic action counterpoised with perfectly judged use of slo-mo. This is how it’s done.

The Untouchables (1987, Dir. Brian De Palma) – Chicago Central Staircase

Brian De Palma borrows shamelessly from Battleship Potemkin to provide the focus for dramatic tension as a baby in a pram trips down a stair case in a cross fire of slo-mo gunfire. A tour de force set piece with Kevin Costner’s Elliot Ness taking down Al Capone’s henchmen aided by Andy Garcia’s crack-shot cop. De Palma tried to repeat the formula with escalator-set gun battle at the end of Carlito’s Way. It was good, but not Untouchables good.

Open Range (2003, Dir. Kevin Costner) – Last Twenty Minutes

Kevin Costner’s western is distinguished by two things, its use of authentic frontier dialogue and a brilliantly staged twenty minute gun-battle. Costner’s war-jaded cow-hand and Robert Duvall’s trail-boss take on Michael Gambon’s thuggish ranchers in a slickly-edited climax that subverts the High Noon template: this time the townsfolk actually join in.

The Long Riders (1980, Dir. Walter Hill) – Town Ambush

Walter Hill’s depiction of the career of the James – Younger outlaw gang is perhaps a little too kind to its protagonists. Despite all the Robin Hood-esque mythologizing, the historical record paints a picture of low-down dirty varmints to a man. But they were to receive well-earned comeuppance in the town of Northfield, Minnesota on September 7th, 1876, when local lawmen and townsfolk set about them with gusto, here envisaged as a blood-spattered spectacle of slo-mo bullet impacts, blazing six-shooters and wheeling horsemen. Walter Hill’s finest hour, though Southern Comfort runs a close second.

The Wild Bunch (1969, Dir. Sam Peckinpah) – Hacienda Rampage

Machine guns and misogyny abound in the bloody climax to Sam Pekinpah’s epic eulogising the demise of the gunslinger. William Holden and his grizzled comrades blaze their way through a hacienda full of Mexican revolutionaries, Holden gunning down a woman in the process with the word “Bitch!” Charming, but at least it’s in character. A classic of action cinema, if you can stomach the misogyny and the frankly rather tedious preceding two hours.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976, Dir. John Carpenter) – First Attack

The good one – not the 2005 remake. John Carpenter’s urban reworking of Fort Apache sees assorted crims and cops banding together to battle hordes of gang members in a near-abandoned LA police station. The tense first act, enhanced by Carpenter’s heart-beat paced electronic score, pays off in tremendous style as the cast (still mostly unknown) beat back the first wave of attacking yute in a blaze of shotgun fire. One the best examples of the movie editor’s art ever seen.

Matewan (1987, Dir. John Sayles) – Miner Ambush

The only realist entry on the list sees a thoroughly nasty group of Pinkerton strike breakers assailed by justifiably pissed-off mining folk in John Sayles’ true-life inspired tale of industrial strife in 1920s West Virginia. The tightly edited, but convincingly edgy, final shoot-out, known to history as the “Matewan Massacre”, is a masterclass in how to film realistic action.

Kick Ass (2010, Dir. Matthew Vaughan) – Hit Girl Penthouse Incursion

Matthew Vaughan’s adaptation of Mark Miller’s comic book tale of real people attempting a super hero lifestyle is an odd mix of the realistic – you’ll probably just get yourself killed – and the fantastic – an eleven year old girl can slaughter a roomful of drug dealers with a Naginata. Nevertheless, it’s also riotously entertaining, never more so than when Chloe Moretz’s Hit Girl two-guns her way through the penthouse lair of Mark Strong’s psycho crime boss to the music of Ennio Morricone and Joan Jett.

The Matrix (1999, Dir. The Wachowski Bros) – Lobby Fight

The Wachowski Brothers’ heady mix of philosophy and sci-fi with virtual reality twist allowed for a certain visual excess in the action sequences, most notably in this perfectly choreographed, SWAT team swatting extravaganza. Keanu Reeves and Carrie Anne Moss (Neo and Trinity, surely the best-looking action heroes in movie history) put weeks of martial arts and weapons training to good use in an adrenalized display of acrobatics with guns, an event I’d really like to see make it into the Olympics.

State of Grace (1990, Phil Janou) – Bar Room Show-Down

In the climax to James Cagney’s classic gangster movie Public Enemy, we see him walk across a rain drenched street and into a bar having just stolen two revolvers from a pawn shop. There is two seconds of silence then a thunderous explosion of gunfire. The camera stays fixed on the bar exterior. Silence returns then Cagney emerges, stumbles to the kerb, lays down and dies in the rain. It’s a brilliant moment in cinema and deftly subverted in Phil Janou’s State of Grace as undercover cop Sean Penn walks into a bar in Hell’s Kitchen to settle accounts with Ed Harris’s gang of miscreant Westies. No fixed exteriors here as Penn and co blast away entirely in slow motion amid a welter of blood and exploding whiskey bottles.


Stuff I Like: Tom and Jerry

Like most of my generation I spent a large portion of my childhood watching cartoons. In an age before Playstation and Xbox (who am I kidding? This was before the Atari 2600), one sure-fire way of keeping sugared-up kids quite for a few blessed minutes was to park them in front of a cartoon, preferably several cartoons. The 2D creations of Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, Disney and Hanna Barberra were a kind of third parent, a story-telling parent of endless voices, bright colours and (most importantly) consequence free violence. And by far my favourite surrogate parents were a mischievous mouse called Jerry and his uptight feline would-be nemesis Tom.

One of the underrated aspects of childhood is its facility for uncritical enjoyment. As a child I couldn’t have cared less for the underlying socio-economic and racial injustices prevalent in the America of the 1930s and 40s, later so glaringly obvious to jaded adult eyes. I didn’t pause to question the fact that the only human authority figure to intrude upon the endless war betwixt mouse and cat always seemed to be solely occupied by household chores in a strangely luxurious house, nor ponder why she sounded so much like the maid (i.e. slave) who pandered to Scarlett O’Hara’s every whim in Gone With the Wind (my mother made me sit through it, OK?). It was a mouse and a cat inflicting an often insane level of violence upon one another in a never-ending battle of wills. What’s not to love?

Sound is an important element to the success of Tom and Jerry, from the klaxon scream provoked by a thumb in a mouse-trap to the multi-layered full orchestra score. However, the cat and the mouse are, with a view exceptions, essentially silent comedians, descendents of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, but capable of much greater excess. Shorn of real-world constraints, animation is a medium which allows full reign to physical comedy and pays great dividends when married to sublime characterisation.

Tom and Jerry featured the painstaking hand-drawn animation and exquisite background paintings typical of the cinema distributed cartoons of the 1940s. Sadly these were only financially viable in a post-depression economy and the story of mass-market animation would be one of ever diminishing visual quality marked by an over-reliance on loops and unimaginative characterisation, only really redressed with the introduction of digital techniques in the 1990s.

The sheer anarchic extremity of Tom and Jerry is perhaps the most salient reason for its failure to be successfully reinvented for a modern audience. Reboots and movies have come an gone over the years, all of them failing to recapture the magic of the original; the magic of excess. In an age when TV companies face mountains of complaints when a news reader inadvertently drops the F-bomb or Janet Jackson shows a nipple, the temporary dismemberment, mallet swallowing and disregard for basic firearms safety evident in Tom and Jerry, can have no place – as famously lampooned in the Simpsons episode where Marge launches a campaign to ban Itchy and Scratchy.

On those rare occasions when I catch a glimpse of children’s television these days I see a lot to admire (Horrible Histories for example – if your kids aren’t watching that they should be and you’re a bad parent), but the overall impression of the animated content is one of message laden, toy-selling mediocrity. There’s little in the way of real fun to it, and certainly no anarchy. Which I think is a shame, after all, a little mallet swallowing never did me any harm.


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