Review: Boy, Snow, Bird (Helen Oyeyemi)

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The second from my Marina Warner reading list: a magical realist novel drawing on fairy tale imagery to tell a story about identity in mid-twentieth century America. I loved this. It’s a slight, easy-to-read little thing on first appearance, but the layers are constructed with great care and detail, so the closer you look, and the more you reassess, the more you see how cleverly Oyeyemi has tricked you into thinking this is a fairy tale, when it is in fact nothing of the sort. I’d have liked, perhaps, a more straightforward take on fewer sources, as the various references and possibilities seem to get out of hand from time to time, but there a lot to enjoy here nonetheless.

Boy, Snow, Bird is written in three not-quite-even parts as the story of Boy Novak, the daughter of Hungarian immigrants, and that of her daughter, Bird. The women speak in the first person, Bird largely through a diary and a series of letters exchanged with her half-sister, Snow, and Boy in the more traditional, direct manner. Boy is probably best described as the book’s protagonist, because her sections are longer, and it is her perspective on things that we get, even if she’s also a difficult, aloof type of protagonist. She reminded me in some ways of Lucy Snowe in Villette: she makes herself small and does herself down, but she’s clearly a striking presence, and it’s not the strange things that happen around her — visions of herself with bloodied hands, for instance — that seem jarring, rather the everyday and mundane becomes uncanny when she interacts with it. She’s quite an average young woman of the time, with no specific skill set or interests. She thinks of herself as frigid, and seems to have an odd relationship with mirrors, but these things don’t have to have magical causes… Boy is also, in fact, a model of the wicked stepmother, though she performs no act of great evil in the story. By making her the voice through which we enter Oyeyemi’s world, we are grounded from the very beginning in the knowledge that dysfunctional fairy tale families represent grimly realistic miseries: Boy is the only child of a man, the rat-catcher, who abuses her verbally and physically, treating her as something evil so that she comes to suspect that perhaps she is. Hence she is shy of her reflection, but also seems to share a private joke with it; she is frigid and unable to deal with an apparently perfect love because she has been punished relentlessly for pretending too much and not enough.

The warning portents weigh heavy through much of the early part of the book. Escaping her father, Boy seems to wander through a magical portal, following two women to the safe haven of a hostel in Flax Hill. We are not sure whether there is something unreal about Boy or about the place, as she struggles to find work, friends and love in her new home. The man she’s fascinated by, Arturo, is a gruff, bear-like figure; woodsmen roam the boundaries of Flax Hill; an old woman with no first name runs a mysterious bookshop. But the real world casts its light against all the strange details, most vividly in the form of Mia Cabrini: a self-possessed woman in pursuit of a career in journalism. Mia grounds Boy in a way that her more traditional friend, Fletcher, cannot quite manage to do, being too different, coming from a world of diets and society pages and perfect weddings.

Despite her inability to say the words ‘I love you’ to Arturo, Boy marries him — partly as she lies under the spell of Arturo’s angelic daughter, Snow. Snow’s mother died shortly after childbirth, but the child is perfect in behaviour and looks, and everyone in Flax Hill dotes on her, including Boy. This changes when Boy and Arturo’s child is born: Bird reveals the family secret, that Arturo’s family are black. Boy is shocked but delighted with her child, however she grows fiercely protective of Bird when Arturo’s parents reject her, initially trying to blame Boy and suggesting she had an affair. The ‘worship’ of whiteness that this Southern family — and the family of Arturo’s dead wife — cling to repulses Boy, and casts Snow in a new light for her. The uncomprehending, blameless child is sent away to stay with her Aunt — Clara, who is also never seen or spoken of in Flax Hill, because she, too, ‘betrays’ the family by her appearance. This moment of cruelty towards Snow, and Boy’s hardness towards her, has enough of the fairy tale’s original impact for us to recoil from Boy, just at the point at which the narrative switches over to give Bird a voice.

Bird, too, has a strange relationship with mirrors: sometimes they don’t show her. Hardly surprising, when half of her family seems not to want to acknowledge her existence. She’s a precocious child — for all Oyeyemi’s beautiful imagery and clever phrasing, things suffer a little for having too much of one very distinctive voice (Boy’s or Oyeyemi’s, or a mixture of the two), rather than their own individuality. People speak in delicately crafted phrases and metaphors that convey wonderfully rich meaning and imagery, but that don’t always sound like the way people actually talk to each other. Still, it’s important to have the idea of Bird’s perspective: she’s able to bring about something of a reconciliation between Snow and Boy, circumventing her mother’s defenses and forging her own relationship with a sister she barely knows.

By the end, the ominous, magical atmosphere has shifted. The old rat-catcher brings some of it to Flax Hill, with a syringe that may or may not have existed, and Bird experiences it hidden in the thick folds of the flag Boy was given by a young love, but in Boy’s final section of narrative the real world comes back into focus. Another hidden identity is revealed, not by spells or enchantments, but by Mia Cabrini’s dogged research. I have mixed feelings about the ending, as I think I see what Oyeyemi was aiming for — ‘she wanted to come back’ — but it’s a topic that deserved more space in the story if it was going to be handled with the nuance it deserves. Mrs Fletcher has become Alecto, Snow’s day job is mundane PI work, Bird’s reflection has reconciled itself to her, and magic is just something that family hopes to perform on those who are its own, to let them know that they don’t have to be alone.

There are so many more details I’d love to recount — in a paranoid, enchanted atmosphere ‘we all look the same to you, don’t we?’ — but then the book is full of them. At first when I finished I was a little torn at the determined realism of everything, but having thought about it some more, I think it was actually very beautifully and effectively balanced against the fantastical elements. Boy and Arturo’s relationship ends up in a particularly warmly evoked place. The book does sprawl a little through its references though, and maybe loses some of its raw power to the maintenance of mystery, and the eagerness to bring in such varied elements of fairy tale imagery. Sticking to one or two reference points, like the main Snow White story, might have made things more effective, holding the plot together whilst still leaving room for all of Oyeyemi’s eloquent considerations of race, gender and identity. That’s no great criticism of the whole though, and I’m certainly going to look up more of Oyeyemi’s writing.

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Review: Pacific Rim Uprising (cinema)

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Not quite trying to do the same thing as A Wrinkle in Time, but for diverse casting, a message of unity against the darkness, and a kickass teen girl in STEM, Pacific Rim Uprising does a far better job. Oh, it’s as absurd as the first one (He Judges thinks more so, I think about the same), but what fun. I meant to rewatch Pacific Rim before going to see this, then didn’t get the chance, but no worries; I don’t feel like I missed much nuance.

Ok, I don’t think the first one is the best thing since sliced bread or whatever either: it’s a fun action movie, whose cast is far more interesting than big robots punching big lizards is. It looks very pretty, it takes a supremely inefficient way of defeating giant interdimensional lizards, and it makes you feel good about nations and peoples working together to protect the world. Uprising also does all of these things with gusto, led by a wonderfully likeable John Boyega, who — despite my fears, given that Stacker was my favourite bit of the original — easily makes up for the absence of Idris Elba.

I suppose it makes sense to think of it and this sequel in the same way I think of Alien and Aliens: there’s a few uniting features and characters, but it’s mainly giving a new group a chance to take the stage, and it’s very much an ensemble piece compared to the first movie. The cadets are fleshed out more than the other Jaeger pilots are in the original, though still not much beyond a general sense of attitude. It’s a difference in characterisation that was pretty marked after watching A Wrinkle in Time though: the difference between encountering characters who I don’t know much about, but who felt like individuals who I’d just met and was getting to know over the course of two hours, as opposed to carefully balanced collections of characteristics, whose building blocks showed as they interacted in the ways predetermined by the plot.

Uprising does have a plot, and things that are necessary to its furtherance happen, but in a handwavy sort of way. You know how there’s that idea that if you look at an audience’s expressions at the high point of a film you should see how absorbed they are?

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Well if Amélie Poulain herself had been sitting in front of me during the epic battle at the end of Pacific Rim Uprising she’d have seen my expression of outraged disbelief and exasperation. Really? I just watched thousands of duck-sized kaiju* knit together three kaiju to make one GIANT kaiju? FINE. OK THEN. It’s so stupid it makes my brain melt a bit (kind of like how they only remember to use the giant sword at the end of the first film). But it’s still incredibly enjoyable. Seeing Gottlieb come into his own! Seeing Jake Pentecost come out from his father’s shadow to save the day! Seeing Amara and her tiny Jaeger prove themselves indispensable!

My heart belongs unreservedly to Liwen Shao though. At first, I worried we were going down the international business antagonist route, which would have sucked in a setting that has reveled in having nations work together. It wasn’t long before the real antagonist was revealed though, leaving Liwen to get involved in all aspects of the fight: from hacking to remoting a Jaeger, to simply striding through scenes of chaos in epically impractical shoes.

I’m still not terribly invested in the setting. So much of the action was as situationally convenient as it was possible to be (I still can’t work out of Jaegers are actually powerful or not??) and much of the plot was clearly made up on the hoof, but the cast carries it all with just the right measure of sincerity. Boyega is a perfect lead, funny and charming and just awkward enough with Jake’s heritage, but still undeniably proud of it. Burn Gorman reprises his role as Gottlieb with enthusiasm, adding a touch of heartbreak to proceedings in his brief scenes with an addled Charlie Day. I might even have enjoyed it more than the original, as with Aliens and Alien. I might just have to watch both again to be sure, though, and I’ll try and leave my brain at the door for the action sequences.


*This is a reference to an interview in which Idris Elba was asked whether he’d rather fight one kaiju-sized duck, or thousands of duck-sized kaiju, and he picks the latter, saying he’d just ‘punt ’em’. Someone on tumblr illustrated this. I can’t currently find it though.

Review: A Wrinkle in Time (cinema)

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A case of going in blind to make sure I get my value for money on cinema membership again, but an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours. It looks glorious — well, I’m a sucker for glitter and colour so it wasn’t hard to win me over there. I can see why the book has so many fans too, and the reviews I’ve seen have been a bit hard on it.

That said, it is in many ways as hazy and diaphanous as Reese Witherspoon’s costumes, rarely landing the emotional punches it’s going for, despite a good story and likeable cast. It’s an ambitious world to present in a two hour movie, and at times the different elements threaten to fracture the whole thing apart. The family story, the science and the magic never quite feel united in the same universe as each other, at least not for the first three-quarters of the movie. The CGI leaf beastie was particularly unnecessary, a far more jarring note than Oprah’s glorious gemstone brows ever were. It made me think that the whole thing was aiming for a Studio Ghibli vibe that would have been better achieved by … just letting Studio Ghibli animate it. The whimsy, the bright colours, the OTT characters and their wild hair and clothes would have suited that animation style so well, as would the coiling, smokey tendrils of the It.

I’d have liked a little more weight given to the story at the beginning too, elaborating on Meg and Charles Wallace’s relationships with their mother (a radiant, scene-stealing Gugu Mbatha-Raw). I appreciate that it was a story in which Meg had to remember her confidence and joy, and to accept that she was deserving of love, so the fact that it felt like she was sidelined at the beginning of her own adventure was probably deliberate, but I could still have done with more scene-setting. Yes, children bully, and yes, teachers are impatient and not always understanding, but there was a bit too much telling not showing when it came to what sort of person Meg had become in the four years since her father left. The information was squeezed in at the edges, in radio commentary and overheard, stagey conversations, so it felt a little like the human story consisted of boxes to be ticked in between beautiful scene changes.

Deric McCabe played a big part in holding all the disparate elements of the movie together actually, playing a precocious, earnest Charles Wallace who took everything as seriously and simply as needed. Whatever bizarre development occurred, Charles Wallace would just take a character by the hand and say ‘don’t worry, it’s like this!’ and you’d have to shrug and play along. By the end I was scrabbling around for the nuance that was evidently in the source material: anxieties about adoption and abandonment, about what constitutes family and how you can love someone and resent them all at once, but the threads were buried too deep to surface and be resolved in a really satisfying way by the end. The fallibility of the father was never really dealt with in the way that I wanted either: where he was prepared to compromise on victory, Meg was not, and that she had to return to family life with that knowledge about him seemed a little monstrous.

Still, the climax had its moments: Meg’s big heroic speech to her little brother, and her escape from the room using magic physics vision was very cool, not least for the heart-eyes Kelvin directed at her throughout. The dynamics between her and Kelvin again showed the potential of the source material — a boy who just wants to please and is adoring of our heroine, who cannot see her own value, as he struggles with his own worth — but his characterisation suffered even more than hers as something that was strung out scene by scene, like a collection of ingredients without the mixing. I may just give the book(s) a go. And if this film brings more people to the source material then that’s no bad thing.

Review: If on a winter’s night a traveller… (Italo Calvino)

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Stock photo: reading.

You, Reader, must be wondering what prompted the flurry of backdated posts the other day, when after nearly a month’s silence, this blog wheezed back into life with three grumpy, lacklustre takes on recent cinematic outputs. Well, let me tell you something: I had just finished the penultimate work of Italo Calvino, and I knew that if I wanted to write up my review for that, I had unfinished business to take care of first. I like, as far as possible, to write these posts in the order in which I have completed something. I do not like having to summarise things (like the Xmas diary), and I feel guilty about the long, rambling essays that were prompted by the recent Star Wars offering.

Of course, I needn’t feel guilty: it’s my blog and I can write as much as I like or as little as I like. And I can address an imaginary reader, but I am far from guaranteed such an audience (not least as publicising this thing isn’t something I do). I shouldn’t need to defend the fact that what is meant to be a review of a book I just read has already devolved into self-reflective indulgence. No indeed! It has officially been a year since I started writing things up here, and such an occasion is a cause for introspection, self-analysis and, most of all, lists.

Do not worry, Reader, I will put the lists elsewhere (if I do indeed choose to look over this past year of blog-keeping through the medium of lists). You are here because you want to know what I thought of Italo Calvino’s mischievous, ambitiously inventive novel — or because you are interested in book reviews more generally, or, perhaps, because you are interested in this blog more generally. But oh, I have just told you something of what I thought: mischievous. Ambitious. Inventive. Are these all unambiguously good things? No? Well, what is? I mean them to be complements, although, as ever, I mean them conditionally.


I received a clutch of novels last Christmas that had been on my to-read list ever since I learned about them from Marina Warner’s Once Upon a Time. This is the first that I decided to read, partly as it seemed the best antidote to all of that high drama in the Lymond Chronicles. I knew it was an experimental novel, postmodern and concerned with gaps and the mechanics of storytelling, so, about as far away from Dunnett’s writing as you can get.

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Alternating between chapters in the second person that address an imagined reader, and chapters representing a variety of narratives that this imagined reader encounters, it holds you between frustration at the lack of progression, and frustration at its endless progression. For the most part, Calvino seems to know my tolerance as a reader down to a tee: it would occur to me that really, there were too many names, too many narratives to take in with all the leaping about from story to story, and just at that moment, a character would have the same thought, or this problem would be related to the act of world-building and addressed head-on. It’s incredibly self-aware, and only a tiny bit smug about it, all things considered.

The smugness is perhaps a necessary side-effect of the degree of confidence required in a story that addresses a reader directly, turning them into a protagonist. Calvino’s reader is a man, of indeterminate age, but one who I imagined as older than me. He is something of a vessel, passively meandering from story to story and exercised as much by the potential of a connection to the Other Reader, a woman, as by finishing the elusive narratives he chases. It’s all very straightforwardly heterosexual and unquestioning. The intrigue of the Reader’s journey often pales in comparison to the flashes of interrupted stories he encounters, and his jealous meetings with other men grow tiresome pretty quickly, given that the relationship between the Reader and the Other Reader is barely characterised, and not really the focus of the book. I suppose what I’m saying is that I agree with David Mitchell that it’s dated a little poorly in elements.

Nevertheless, as a fan of the Thursday Next books, I can now safely say: I see you, Jasper Fforde. I see where your influences come from. And Mark Danielewski, and Paul Auster, and all you post-structuralist, post-modernist guys. And where If on a winter’s night a traveller… hits its notes, it is truly brilliant. It’s hilariously funny in places, it contains really tender segments of description that make you think about reading and writing as mediums through which we get to know the world and other people, and it erupts in flashes of savage political commentary here and there, whilst also having time to take side-swipes at the egos of different kinds of authors and different branches of literary criticism. The undercurrent of tension between those who believe that all stories come orally from the mouth of the original story-teller, and those who support the idea that all literature can be produced by a machine is never directly resolved. The gaps are never filled in. Everyone has very distinct and stubborn notions about what reading should be and what it should do. But in the end, the uniting factor is simply the act of being drawn to story, whether it’s the potential of a story, what the story itself does, or what you can take away from the story. Despite all its attempts to frustrate, its push and pull with the reader (and the Reader), this is a book I was always happy to dive back into, to see what banal scene might be disrupted, what unfinished story might be begun, or what personal preference of mine as a reader might be skewered and dissected. It’s not a book to sit down and race through, but one I was happy to enjoy episode by episode, finding surprising richness and unity in it.

Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (cinema)

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We dashed to catch our last opportunity to see this before the Oscars were announced. It was something I was initially very (characteristically) enthusiastic about — Martin McDonagh! Francis McDormand! — but one that seemed like a bit of a drag to actually go and see, and more so the more I heard about it here and there, and the more the Oscar hype grew. Having seen it, I was certain she would win but that Shape of Water would beat it in the best movie category. It’s not a film with neat answers or direct consequences. It doesn’t offer tidy narrative justice, not even in the fairy-tale register that Shape of Water retreats into at its close. This movie was just one raw reminder after another: life’s not fair and we’re not very good at dealing with it.

If The Guard is to Calvary what In Bruges is to Three Billboards then I can safely say that I think John Michael is overall the McDonagh I prefer (indeed, Martin seems to have some issue with dwarfs that I don’t really care to examine too closely right now). Three Billboards, and particularly Francis McDormand, presents an unflinching portrait of what grief and rage and the lack of justice (or revenge?) can do to us. We try to find meaning and pattern — a deer coming close by when we’re mourning someone, a set of behaviour that fits our expectations and gives our response a kind of clarity — but it’s all a human construct, and when the evidence doesn’t behave how we want it to, and we focus on what could have been, or what should be, to the detriment of those around us (the long-suffering son, for instance), then we’re not really living. I’m not sure though, how this impression of Mildred is meant to be seen alongside the other characters.

Police Chief Willoughby gets a lot of fine monologues, and Woody Harrelson gives him a sort of benevolent grace as he latches onto the ‘game’ he decides Mildred is playing with him. Ultimately, I found him to be a smug coward though, and I’m not sure that was the impression the movie wanted me to get. The most affecting scene of his was, to my mind, the unexpected moment where he coughed blood in Mildred’s face: his failing body rebelling against the civil, chivalrous, reasonable face of authority he was trying to present. He relied so heavily on control — of his image, and of his death — that the pure shock of this moment seemed to reveal the futility of so much of his planning. For all his words of advice to Mildred and to Dixon, did he ever intend them to team up and plan a vigilante roadtrip? It’s hard to say if Willoughby has the last word in this, given that McDonagh deliberately ends the movie before the journey ends. Yet it is all the better for this open ending, because once you’ve gone that far, it’s only going to be trite to end on a rampage or an awkward drive home, and things already felt like they’d gone on a bit long by then anyway.

Moments that felt like typical McDonagh awkwardness — the priest and Mildred’s response to him, the scenes with Peter Dinklage’s folorn and love-struck James, the dim young girlfriend of Mildred’s ex — jar uncomfortably against the stubborn vandalism of Mildred’s grief (and the violence of Mildred’s ex, despite all the professed doubt about it). There were a lot of characters, and a lot of familiar character actors, and it felt at times like self-indulgence that detracted from the central thread of things (not least when it came to Dixon, despite how well acted the character was). But then one can’t always be certain there is a central thread in a McDonagh movie, and it’s certainly fitting that any attempt to find closure or justice here is shut down like any attempt to look for a simple narrative arc. It just doesn’t really make for enjoyable viewing. And no, I wouldn’t necessarily say Calvary is ‘enjoyable’, but the humour sat more easily, and the pathos weighed heavier, along with the insatiable need for justice that would otherwise go unmet, and balanced with a similarly paternalistic take on martyrdom.

Maybe the difference is about the victim’s search for justice versus the mourner’s search for it. Maybe it’s just that Mildred is abrasive and single-minded, to the suffering of her friend, her son and the man who would like to woo her. We can see why she would blame herself from that uncompromising flashback, but doggedly, outwardly at least, she blames only the authorities. She knows that words aren’t to blame: some man is. The movie gives us no elaboration of the details of the horrible event at the centre of the story though, and for all we know there is indeed no evidence to be found. What can one woman’s howl of grief do if there is no evidence to be found? Spread fear and misery and discord, apparently, finding support only from the racist idiot who thinks that solving this one case will make him a good cop.

I could keep going round in circles with this review, but I won’t. Francis McDormand was excellent , and I suppose I’d have liked to feel it was as much ‘her’ movie as Calvary was Brendan Gleeson’s. It did have its moments — the aforementioned deer, and Red’s fearful peace offering — and I know it wasn’t meant to be easy in any way, but perhaps I needed to see more from the perspective of those who were hurt but able to move on (Red and Robbie maybe), rather than those who gave up on their own lives because of tragedies they couldn’t control.

Review: Deadpool (2016)

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Why yes, I am terribly behind on all my reviews. And yes, this is pretty much the exact opposite to the dignified, earnest Black Panther. And yes, I preferred Black Panther. This was a bit of light(-ish) entertainment: I felt guilty about laughing some of the time, and I really just wanted to see more of Negasonic Teenage Warhead and Vanessa. I’m glad Ryan Reynolds got to have so much fun though, he was clearly having an absolute whale of a time, even under all the spandex and prosthetics.

It offered a mildly inventive take on the tragic backstory plot by beginning mid-way through the action of the revenge, but was never going to get away from the standards of the origin story, no matter how self-aware it was. Emotionally-stunted mercenary meets the ideal girl, becomes less emotionally-stunted; tragedy intervenes, he’s worried she won’t love him now he’s changed; she gets dragged into his beef with his enemies regardless of whether he’s able to nut up and face her beforehand. Morena Baccarin was a game Vanessa, so convincingly adoring of Wade Wilson that his doubts about her should have been nothing but infuriating. Funnily though, I was only half-infuriated. Reynolds managed to imbue the Merc with a Mouth with just the right amount of vulnerability, going from glassy-eyed sociopathy to glassy-eyed fear with just a change in the tone of that fixed grin. Yeah, the fear was still a very typical masculine fear about the loss of power and self-control, but Reynolds made me care a bit more than I expected to.

It’s a pity Vanessa ended up being damseled, even if she did manage to survive. I was maybe not fully paying attention, but on their first meeting assumed that — as she was in the bar full of mercenaries — she was also a mercenary. Ah, I wish. No, Wilson seems to be a bit too much of a standard male power fantasy for that (sorry I know nothing of him in the comics, except something something chimichangas?), so Vanessa is a call girl with a troubled past, who is able to joke about her awful life as much as Wilson is. They’re a sweet enough pair though, and the self-awareness does take the edge off things in a good way. It also helps that Negasonic Teenage Warhead and Angel Dust are powerful, individually characterised figures, so there’s no risk of smurfette syndrome.

It’s a universe where no one is sweet and innocent: not the hapless taxi driver who has to take the superhero to his job, nor the blind old lady who he lives with. But it’s a fairly cheerful universe, even with its grim research facility and mad English villain. Having quickly skimmed the character’s Wikipedia page, it also seemed to be a disappointingly certain and linear sort of universe. If the extent of the post-modernism is a bit of fourth-wall breaking, it’s not going to win me over. Let’s see Deadpool 2 retcon the entire origin story, bring back all the supporting characters shuffled round, and really have some fun with the fomula. No? Not what people are really after from this character? Fine, I’ll settle for a Hugh Jackman cameo.

Review: Black Panther (cinema)

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I saw this only once, and a couple of weeks ago, so will keep things brief. This was a colourful, self-assured, beautifully designed superhero movie. It lives up to the hype far better than, to my mind, Wonder Woman did last year. Nevertheless, a superhero movie it remains, and also a very American fantasy of Afrofuturism. Some of the tech was ingenious (the Border Tribe’s gorgeous use of vibranium-thread cloaks); some of it was style over substance (don’t get me wrong, rhino-cavalry are cool, but…why does a peaceful, isolationist country need rhino cavalry? Ok, I guess I need to see some royal rhino cavalry parades…). But it is one of the best of the MCU’s output, a self-contained adventure, with a fun and varied new cast of characters and a heartfelt set of political and cultural messages to make.

It is not a straightforward tale of good versus evil. As the wounded, bitter Erik Stevens, Michael B. Jordan damn near steals every scene he’s in. Stevens is a swaggering, supremely single-minded soldier, who at heart is little more than a lost, hurt child. The vision scene where he meets his father again, and its layers of contrast with T’Challa’s own vision, was an exceptionally strong point of emotion and characterisation. Often I felt that the swings being taken by Stevens were for easy targets,  the lashing out of someone hurting bad, and unable to change the circumstances that existed in modern America, so looking to the past for an easy fix. It’s the story of a boy who grew up with so little hope for the country he was born in that rather than look to change things through the presidency or America’s political systems, he looked to the throne of a country he felt had betrayed an entire race — by inaction rather than by deeds. The need and the want that Stevens feels for Wakanda to become a belated saviour, or at least a weapon for wreaking revenge, is the force that drives the plot of the whole movie. Interestingly, the hero himself spends a fair portion of his time absent, assumed dead, in stasis. It’s an echo of the way Wakanda has been preserved, outside the action of the world around it. T’Challa’s growing realisation that isolationism is no longer tenable is a journey that packs a punch as he deals with guilt and grief and the knowledge that his father was not the perfect man he imagined him to be.

It is also visually delightful and beautifully, impeccably cast. Chadwick Boseman is thoroughly charming and quietly regal, Daniel Kaluuya is as stubborn and trusty a warrior as you could want, Danai Gurira is ferocious, self-assured and oozes pride for her role and her country. The characterisation of so many people is deftly done, and in only a few scenes we get to know Nakia, M’Baku and Shuri well enough to appreciate the different dynamics they bring to the fighting at the end. This, too, is well done, showing a nation teetering on what would be a superbly self-defeating civil war, even as it has the opportunity to finally step onto the global stage on its own terms.

Martin Freeman seems to be there because it was necessary to have an outsider cooing at things, and Andy Serkis, despite having a lot of fun, is proved to be utterly pointless. The scene in which Stevens does away with him makes you wonder why they busted Klaue out in the first place, and seems only to exist so that a woman may die to prove the villain’s dedication to his cause. Still, he gets more subtle as things go on, and the father-son relationships of T’Chaka and T’Challa and N’Jobu and Erik are the driving emotional force of the movie. Around them, it falls to the women to set the tone for the action. The duels at the waterfall were nicely done, but it was the car chase in South Korea and Nakia and Okoye’s fights in the final battle that were the more thrilling scenes.

Black Panther wants to be a superhero movie for groups of people who haven’t had a superhero movie made for them before. I’m not sure it wants to be a new kind of superhero movie in any other way, but that’s okay, because it does the familiar formulae really well. I sure hope everyone survives Infinity War because I’m looking forward to seeing the dynamics of the group fleshed out — particularly the relationship between Okoye and W’Kabi — and to learning more about the setting, which I hope will grow more adventurous in future installments.

Review: Checkmate (Dorothy Dunnett)

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Photo: my own, taken in the countryside near Hexham, Northumberland.

So, ever so slightly slightly bereft, I somehow have to disentangle and articulate my thoughts on this, the final part of the Lymond Chronicles. After a couple of years’ cool flirting with Game of Kings and Queens’ Play, I was finally dragged mercilessly into the world of these novels, and I already know I’ll love reading them again in the not too distant future. Also, at the risk of sounding like my problematic fave: Christ. To plunge straight into spoilers, only Francis Crawford of Lymond could make such a palaver out of the task of returning to a loving family and living out his days in his homeland with the person who might best be described as his soulmate.

I’ll admit that I was a little bemused by the beautiful, happy ending. So few people died! There wasn’t even an indication of how Francis and Philippa were to live out their days, whether peace and quiet was really theirs to keep, or whether they’d inevitably be drawn back into the political game. Instead, music was rediscovered, and happiness, and that was enough. Of course it was enough — it would be the height of churlishness to begrudge these characters that, but I was surprised that that was what it came to, after all the ambitious machinations Lymond had put himself through. Having struggled against his judgement, and then come largely to trust it, it was disorienting for me to find that really, this was a story about that judgement being so wrong, because he could not let himself be himself. So it came down to choosing between a glorious international career that would kill him young and a more personal existence, where one could safely put one’s own pleasures ahead of the concerns of petty and powerful heads of state. And it did rather make me grumble at what — and who — was lost along the way, just because it took so very much for Francis to admit what he wanted and to let himself accept it into his life.

Still, as the man says, sometimes he seems to exist simply for people to sacrifice themselves to. It’s the bitter reproach of someone who cannot love himself as those around him do, combined with the ego of someone who knows he excels at whatever he turns his mind to. Time and again he’s proven through this series that he struggles with the idea that others might genuinely want to help him, and be capable of doing so. I’m not saying that he never allows his allies to take some of the weight of the world from his shoulders, but it’s a rare occasion that it happens, and entrusted to a rare few who are there to look after him at his weakest. He’s so used to those who love him coming to grief that he tries not to let anyone love him. It sounds so much like typical masculine stoicism that you’d be forgiven for rolling your eyes if that were all you knew of Lymond, but Dunnett remains far too sophisticated for such unappealing, shallow clichés. Lymond is no macho man who needs softening, but a suicidal depressive who loves music and poetry above all else and thinks he must prioritise everyone but him because there is no place in the world for him just as he is.

Here in Checkmate, Lymond finds himself backed into a corner by his own contradictory expectations of himself and the world. Forced to stay away from Russia, which itself might not offer the warmest welcome were he to return, he instead cultivates the favour of the French king, and Dunnett weaves in elements of the opulent debauchery of Queens’ Play in line with the familiar court setting. It’s meant to be an obligation of a year only, endured so that in the end he will be granted his divorce from Philippa and he will be free to return to Russia. On top of all this, he struggles with three separate, but interlinked, problems: 1) he knows that Richard is not his full brother, and that it is their mother who broke her vows, not the deceased second Baron of Culter. 2) Richard gave him a pretty severe concussion when they last met, and it has lasting effects in the form of headaches and episodes of blindness. 3) He’s hopelessly, helplessly in love with Philippa, but thinks that he must protect her from this and get as far away from her as possible. Add to this the French war against, well, everyone, the burgeoning tensions between Protestants and Catholics in France and Scotland, the various prospects of Lymond’s men — from the vanished Guthrie and Hoddim to Jerott’s disastrous marriage to Lymond’s troublesome sister Marthe — and, not least, Philippa’s realisation that she is as hopelessly in love with Lymond as he is with her, and you’ve got a hell of a lot going on in one novel. Oh yes, and let’s not forget the ever-present meddling of occultists.

It’s maybe a little too much, though Dunnett balances the detail well, maintaining her awesome sense of historical place and atmosphere even when it all gets a bit overwrought. I think this is a case of ymmv in parts, though if you’ve got this far in the series then I imagine you do have the mileage for it. The combination of sixteenth-century medical understanding with the delicacy of Dunnett’s own description makes Lymond’s great sickness a little bit frustratingly vague for this particular modern reader, though it could of course have been far worse. A crisis of the nerves or the flesh or both, it is a mysterious enough ailment for his contemporaries as well as being one with a root cause in a blow to the head that is partially cured by another blow to the head. I rolled my eyes a lot at the repeated implication that he just needed a good shag (thanks Jerott, classy as ever), but at least this was evened out by Dunnett’s careful, sympathetic handling of Philippa.

I mean, she did also put Philippa into a position where she had to ‘throw herself into the gutter’ alongside Francis (to paraphrase) to achieve what she thought was right, but there, above all, it’s the miscommunication that annoys me, and in the context of the novel rather than in the context of the author’s decision. Francis made the same mistake he always makes: he does not trust those around him, he does not talk to them openly about personal matters that he knows they are invested in, and then they act in a certain way, trying to help, but without some crucial insight or information, or even just the support of Francis in doing so, and Things Go Wrong. Poor Philippa. I was kind of furious at first, but to her credit Dunnett let it be horrific: in the aftermath, she let all kinds of arguments be made, by Francis’ own body during his naked swim and by Marthe, with her blunt, harsh take on the world. But post-traumatic stress can’t simply be talked or imagined away. In the end, I found the use of shock and the fear of loss to be a more convincing argument for why Philippa might be able to enter into a physical relationship than I expected, although it was somewhat tarnished by the late aside that has she just let Francis near her at Sevigny she’d have gotten over her PTSD anyway. Ok ok, but maybe this is the stuff some people read these for. This is the romance in the romance novel. And for the most part, Philippa and Francis’ relationship is beautifully done: from her Francis-esque disguise in Lyons, to their frantic, hilarious scramble through the city’s streets, evading certain death as they quote poetry to each other in multiple languages. Even their ridiculous, stubborn admissions of love and the half-formed relationship recounted by Strozzi and Adam Blacklock creates a satisfying picture of two people who are perfectly matched.

Around them, not all the other characters are so lucky, even in this sprawling, lengthy book (with, I say again, surprisingly few fatalities). Richard Crawford seems to have forgotten his personality on a beach in Aberdeenshire, leaving him little more than a scowling, suspicious, Calvinist hulk. Kate, when present, is a delight as ever, and she does at least get her own happy ending with Adam Blacklock (I didn’t know I shipped it until it was suggested and then I was all over it), but she’s put through a lot in the meantime. Adam himself hasn’t recovered much of the depth and motivation we last saw directly in Disorderly Knights, sadly. Marthe… well, what to say about Marthe and Jerott? I could write them a whole blog post of their own. But let’s stick to the facts: 1) I am still convinced that Jerott loves Francis and that Marthe’s just a cypher for those feelings, and the more Dunnett tells me he loves Marthe the more I find myself squinting at the page in confusion. 2) Marthe could have been the sex-positive bisexual Muslim character of our wildest dreams! Instead she’s the absolute worst person at reading others, someone who cares so little about anyone or anything that she’s little more than piss and vinegar in a pretty face. And she deserved so much better. And I know that’s kind of the point of her: she was essentially ‘bred’ by La Dame de Doubtance, but, being female, was not destined for greatness as a male child would have been. She was used and trained her whole life in order to fulfill someone else’s destiny, and damn right she’s bitter about it. Francis even steals her girlfriend, for goodness’ sake. But much as I still want to love Marthe, Jerott himself puts it best: Lymond has a ‘secret door’, but Marthe does not. And this is entirely down to the way Dunnett writes her. It’s a great pity.

Then again, I never did like the idea that the whole thing was orchestrated by La Dame from the get-go, not least as I barely remember anything about the events of Queens’ Play that since turned out to be so significant. I’m particularly salty about the idea that dear Archie Abernethy was only ever there because he was La Dame’s man. It’s very much a case of personal preference: even when a story contains prophecies and predictions, I’m accustomed to them coming early, and then watching the characters’ responses to them. It seems somehow crueler to only reveal the web they’ve been trapped in afterwards. It’s also hard knowing so little about La Dame herself and her motivations, but I hope that a re-read will make that clearer anyway. I sense that, were life long enough, this is a series one could just read endlessly, round and round, driving at new observations each time. Although I’m not sure I’d ever understand some of the scenes, where my response is far too emotional to appreciate the author’s superior cleverness (and you wonder why I like Jerott Blyth so much…)

I’m sorry if this seems like a very negative note to end the series on. I don’t mean it to be. Anything I don’t mention you can probably assume fairly safely that I loved. There was an awful lot to get through in Checkmate, and Dunnett did it with her usual panache: it was witty, clever, emotionally draining and thrilling right up until the close (though funnily enough, that final revelation about Lymond’s inheritance was the only part of the ending I guessed far in advance). The research that went into these novels is utterly staggering, and yet it never once strangles plot or action or personality. Every character, from the grand historical figures to the minor, disposable characters (Sheemy Wurmit, I remember you and I miss you!) is plausibly human and seems filled with the endless possibilities of humanity. I hope I will continue to enjoy that aspect of Dunnett’s writing, even when re-reading in the knowledge that La Dame had the whole thing planned out.

Review: The Shape of Water (cinema)

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I wasn’t too sure what to expect here, in terms of a fairytale. How much would it be the sanitised nineteenth-century idea of that, and how much would be drawn from the cruelty and violence of, for instance, Il Pentamerone and its recent adaptation? No need to worry, Guillermo del Toro has these things safely in hand: this was not sanitised, but nor was it cruel. It was simply a love story unfolding in an oppressive society, and offered few surprises, but was told beautifully, with impeccable work from the whole cast.

And I should say that I don’t doubt that it is a fairytale, and should be viewed as such: the unnamed Facility and its obsession with the Asset is just how we imagine such places to be, but takes the underdog perspective of the best fairytales and asks: don’t facilities such as this need cleaners? There are punch-cards and cameras, certainly, but the security as a whole is rather lax, and shouldn’t be dwelt on. When the story requires it, it is strict; when it requires it to be loose, it is loose.

So, once upon a time, there was a mute woman called Elisa who kept a rather odd day’s routine: at 9pm she got up, boiled some eggs, had a wank in the bath and then went to work for midnight. She kept her artistic neighbour company and occasionally caught a matinee at the cinema downstairs. And if you’ve ever stumbled over a narrative before in your life you’ll understand that the scars on her neck and the fact that she was found orphaned beside a river will turn out to be relevant later; although, perhaps, only as relevant as you choose to let them be. Naturally, del Toro’s monster (the ambitious government man in charge of the interrogation of an ‘amphibian man’ hauled out of South America) thinks they are an example of man’s cruelty to man: that a human person harmed her as a human child, making her at once defective (‘incomplete’ is how she knows people view her) and also ideal in his mind, because she is a silent woman, and he equates silence with a lack of thought and agency.

The movie does a good job of exploding the notion that spoken language is what separates us from the animals. The deepest connection is between Elisa and the amphibian man, who communicate in snatches of sign language, but mainly even without that. Giles, perfectly capable of expressing himself through speech, suffers a painful miscommunication with the man in the pie shop, who can also change his accent at will, but whose words are empty. And the agent, Strickland, spends all his time trying to be the perfect man: two kids, of whom only the boy speaks to him, and a wife who is perfectly obedient to all his needs (even if she momentarily cannot help but complain at being bled on). He gets himself the Cadillac, that all successful men must have, and makes his proclamations about bathroom etiquette. But a man like him is not human, as Elisa’s impassioned address makes clear: he’s hollow, obediently seeking to conform to the encroaching norms of mass marketisation, from candy to cars.

Meanwhile, those who deviate too far from Strickland’s idea of man made in the image of god form an unlikely alliance. Giles doesn’t even like the pies from the franchised store, he keeps them half-eaten, hoping that if he pretends for long enough things might change. But it’s the goalposts that keep changing, red jelly to green jelly, and he cannot hope to conform when society does not really want to include him. ‘Bob’, trapped between his Russian handlers and his American employers, cannot make either see the beauty and personhood of the amphibious man, and finds no support for his own ideals. In some movies, ‘Bob’ would be revealed to be a scientist before he is a human at some point: he’d want to continue his studies outside the lab perhaps, but in a kinder manner than before. The Shape of Water doesn’t need him to be like that though: his conviction is that the amphibian man should not be killed, and once he’s free, ‘Bob’ only wants to know that he will be truly free. And of course, there is Elisa, and I couldn’t put her situation any better than she does (I’m a little sad so much of it was spoiled by the trailer though), and Zelda, who, when she commits to help her friend, fully commits.

Of course they are all underestimated, and of course Strickland is more vindictive than ever when he realises his career is being thwarted by ‘the help’. But in the end, he still doesn’t understand: ‘you are a god’, is all he can manage, as if, after all this, there are still only gods and men, and no one else. The Shape of Water is a warm, playful and yet deadly serious, committed film. Much of the fallout for the individuals isn’t explored, because that’s not how fairytales end, and Doug Jones still had more to do in Hellboy if we’re honest. But this is beautiful and heartfelt, and Sally Hawkins is fantastic. It’s not the best of the Oscar nominees I’ve seen, but I’d rather see it win than many of the other candidates.

Review: The Ringed Castle (Dorothy Dunnett)

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Adam Blacklock, illustrated by hellsownapollo.tumblr.com. I had been looking at this after Disorderly Knights and wondering about the scar. Now I know.

Yes, it’s that time of the week again, where I have to drag myself away from the Dorothy Dunnett book I’m actually reading, and write up the review of the previous one!

In The Ringed Castle I think I finally appreciated the real cruelty of inventing a character like Francis Crawford. He’s as accomplished as all the famous men of his time, and precociously so, but he is fictional where they are real, and so he can never get the credit for the great changes he contributes to effecting. Also, in his wisdom, he frequently sees disaster on the horizon that he is unable to avert. But because Dunnett writes him and his contemporaries so well, this never feels like an impossible standard of brilliance: rather it’s part of the narrative’s guiding hand, forcing a young man to figure out how to retain his skills and ambition without losing his humanity. Here, Lymond’s taken it upon himself (with a little inspiration from the single-minded ambitions of Güzel) to drag Russia kicking and screaming into the Renaissance. As he negotiates the volatile atmosphere of Ivan the Terrible’s court, his wife — Phillipa Somerville, married on paper only — must find her way through the similarly paranoid world surrounding Mary Tudor and her Spanish husband, Phillip.

If I thought The Disorderly Knights achieved the best combination of historical detail and emotionally-motivated interpersonal drama, the balance of Pawn in Frankincense was towards the latter, and The Ringed Castle is heavier on the former. The research behind it is so impressive, the characterisation and the detail so vivid and convincing though, that it was still a great read. Perhaps a small problem was that the blurb on the back of the new editions I’ve been reading books 4-6 from, references an event that only happens about two-thirds or three-quarters of the way through The Ringed Castle. So up until everyone ends up in London it feels like a waiting game: it’s odd to watch Francis Crawford, more convinced than ever that he’s in control of his life, whilst knowing that all his assumptions about his future will be upended, because we know from the back of the book that despite his intentions, he will not stay in Russia.

Mirroring Lymond’s efforts, the book aims at a fairly clean break with much of what has come before: a few loyal members of St Mary’s, the élite fighting unit born in Disorderly Knights, tag along for the Russian escapades, but the dynamics are changed. Adam Blacklock is not the central witness that he was back in book 3, instead he’s moved to the sidelines of the group, his bad leg, stammer and addictions forgotten beside his private mission to change the artistic sensibilities of the Orthodox Russian court. Fergie Hoddim and the others become a little more rounded out from the impressions we’d had of them earlier, but even then this doesn’t really come to much until the action moves away from Russia. At least the newcomer Danny Hislop is an over-talkative smart-arse, simple in his interests but clever and efficient in his work for Lymond. He brings a little levity and heart to the group of fighting men who have been tasked with whipping the Russian army into shape. (Ahem. Sorry Adam.)

By and large, the passages in Russia are about the vast landscape, the harsh conditions, and the tension inherent in keeping various bickering princelings on the same page. Few of the princelings emerge with much personality of their own; Baida, the general Vishnevetsky, is the only one who comes close, being selected as the historical figure most likely to butt heads with Lymond. Whilst the night-time fight in the winter garden is entertaining, and the confrontation at the front line is grimly inevitable, the scenes don’t quite reach the dramatic heights of Lymond’s other adventures. Appropriately enough, as he exerts his greatest control over himself yet, and Güzel guides him to lose all trace of weakness, the action feels distant and professionally detached. The odd crack does, of course, appear: as Lymond hesitates outside Güzel’s room, Dunnett suddenly reminds us of the impact of the death of Robin Stewart and it’s as abrupt and fleeting an emotional sting as a slap to the face. Similarly, the Tsar’s demand to play chess with his confidante is horrifying, even without any detail other than Lymond’s polite evasiveness.

Lymond remains slippery for me through so much of this though. He and Güzel present a perfect picture of cultured intelligence and taste, but still the emotion is missing. No one gets close enough really to needle him like I needed Jerott to needle him in order to extract the exasperated confession about what Francis Crawford actually wants for himself. Jerott, incidentally, is barely mentioned. I’m fine. This is fine. At least I could take a vague interest in the travels of Diccon Chancellor, an intelligent man with a healthy regard for Lymond’s career and person, who bonds a little with our hero during the visit of the English Muscovy Company to Russia. Oh boy, did I miss what was coming though. So caught up with the strangely compelling horror of Willoughby’s frozen corpse (I’d been to visit the Scott Polar Institute earlier in the week, and will lap up stories of ill-fated Arctic expeditions any time), I missed the historical event on which this novel actually pivots. Some historical figures are well enough known to me that their death is not a surprise; some are in positions where tragedy is not surprising when it occurs; in the Scottish Borders, the historical characters are hard to disentangle from the fictional ones, so that their demise feels like a cunning extension of Dunnett’s own plot. With Chancellor I totally dropped the ball though. I was, like Lymond, still getting to know him. I was gently intrigued by the potential of his relationship with Phillipa, excited for the possibility of his exploration of the north coast of Siberia, and it never once occurred to me that anything would interrupt all that. And that is, of course, the source of the tragedy of Chancellor’s accidental death, written thrillingly and without mercy by Dunnett.

After that, things move more quickly in Scotland and England. The inevitable meeting between Richard and Francis, predictable as the two block-headed idiots are, hurt a lot. Since the beginning of Pawn in Frankincense the bond between these brothers has been pulled taught in the reader’s mind, as we know that they will either never again meet, or their meeting will confirm the fact that they cannot be full siblings. The mores of the time mean that this is no trivial point, and neither Francis nor Richard comes out well from the encounter. In London, finally, we return to Phillipa Somerville, who featured earlier in the novel only briefly before the great chunk of narrative set in Russia. The most prosaic schoolgirl in Northumberland has become an elegant lady of the court, well-versed in the books that Lymond read in his youth and able to quote in multilingual verse alongside our hero. Around her, Lymond discovers the carefree youth that he missed out on — and meanwhile, the scheming Margaret Lennox, arguably the reason he missed out on a carefree youth, works tirelessly to find a way to bring him down.

John Dee rubs shoulders with the loyal Archie Abernethy, and everyone from the Marquis of Allendale to Lady Jane Dormer has an opinion on Phillipa and Francis’ marriage of convenience. History and fiction blend seamlessly once more in London, but it’s only really so that in the end, Lymond can be deposited right back where everyone thought he should be after the events of Pawn in Frankincense. In the meantime, his realisation of his feelings for Phillipa is deftly and beautifully described, as is her carefree ignorance of her own feelings. Characters and rivalries that have been established, subtly, since way back in Game of Kings come into play in new ways, and Francis is given one final test by Güzel, designed to temper the strength she fostered in him. As a whole, the book feels like a very elaborate piece of scene-setting for the grand finale to come in Checkmate, but it does this in no plodding or formulaic way. The humanity of everyone is what drives it, from the isolated, lonely and cruel monarchs Mary and Ivan, to the flawed man at the centre of these stories. I want to sound brave when I say roll on book six, but I don’t think I feel brave. Be kind, Dorothy…