Terry Pratchett – The Wee Free Men (2003) Review

the Wee Free men

8/10

It is not necessary to know where exactly this book is situated inside the Discworld series. It is enough to know that this is a Terry Pratchett novel featuring a new character, and that in itself should push you to the bookstores to buy it. It is, however, very interesting to know that this is the first of five Tiffany Aching novels and an excellent starting point for people unfamiliar with the series.

The Aching books are commonly labeled as young adult, but Pratchett is such a treasure that these books should not be overlooked. We are now in the final stretch of Discworld novels, in which Pratchett’s struggle with Alzheimer slowly becomes apparent. But the Tiffany Aching novels see Pratchett still on top of his game and are one of the jewels in his crown.

Tiffany Aching is a nine-year-old girl living on the Aching farm in rolling green fields. A passing witch named Miss Tick (sounds like mystic) sees Tiffany hit a river monster with a frying pan, and sees great potential in the young Tiffany to become a witch. A good long conversation between the witch and Tiffany brilliantly lays out both of their characters and the way witches are regarded in this land and in this book. Terrific character- and world-building. Tiffany is a very smart girl, asking penetrating questions, and both think that the other one is a bit too clever. This is witches as we know them in Pratchett’s books. He loves writing clever, levelheaded people.

A year ago, an announcement came through that a movie adaptation is in the works. If that is still coming for us, then I am looking forward the most to the portrayal of the blue pixies named the Nac Mac Feegle, or the wee free men. Blue, tattooed and sporting bright red hair, they call themselves pictsies (after the Picts, iron age tribes from Scotland). They love fighting and stealing and talking in thick Scottish accents. Tiffany receives their help in her problems because the Feegles know that she is a “hag”. Whether you will like this novel, depends largely on how you will take these pictsies.

What I admire greatly in Pratchett’s writing is how this story is about common shepherd people in a medieval fantasy setting, and how he grounds these people so strongly in the land and the communities they live in. During Tiffany’s adventure, we get flashbacks to her memories of her grandmother, “Granny Aching”, who wields this great influence over the community while all she does is sit still and smoke tobacco. Her “witchery” is being smart and silent, similar to the “headology” of Granny Weatherwax in other Discworld novels. These characters are simply a stroke of genius.

The story is kept simple, mostly because Tiffany is the only one we’re following. Unfortunately, the plot suffers from a number of tired tropes. Tiffany is trying to rescue her brother, who is stolen away by the fairy queen, and so Tiffany has to cross over to fairyland. It’s a dream-world where people’s dreams and mythological monsters become true, blablabla. I suspect that an adventure on Discworld itself would have been a lot more interesting than another rendition of the land of Oz. After establishing Tiffany’s family so well and the land where she grew up in, it makes little sense that the adventure doesn’t take place in that environment.

What annoys me personally about dream-world tales is that the tension completely slips away because everything is possible and the stakes and rules aren’t clear. The second half of the book was therefore hard going. In addition, a dream quest also tends to turn into a meta-level story. It’s a story that is self-conscious about being a story, such as: “I remember this, this is my dream, and therefore we should go there and this and that is supposed to happen next”. Or someone says: “this should happen because that is how stories work.” In the end, Tiffany’s dream-quest ends in an affirmation of her own identity and her place in the land she grew up on. But this essential conclusion that is the theme of the whole novel is weakly delivered and over before you know it.

Overall, The Wee Free Men has some great characters and funny side characters, but the story itself doesn’t live up to that quality. I am still curious about where Tiffany and the Feegles will go next and I will be hoping for deeper storytelling next time round. This is after all a simple origin story for the start of her career as a witch.

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B. Catling – The Erstwhile (2017) Review

Erstwhile1

8.5/10

These books published by Brian Catling are a strange beast. They are too weird to ever become a great success and compete with mainstream epic fantasy series, but other artists hold them in high regard and they gather high praise. Catling is an artist in the modern art scene where he creates sculptures and does performance art, and only recently did he start writing books. So, when he suddenly burst into the scene a few years back, critics were amazed by his striking prose and feverish imagination. Catling’s artistic history in visual exhibitions shines through in his text, which is full of visual metaphors and striking images.

When reading his fantasy series about a mystical forest in Africa named the Vorrh, it is clear that Catling comes from a very different milieu than other fantasy writers. The novels are set in colonial times in which Europeans were wandering around Africa, and Catling connects the idea that Africa was the cradle of the human species with the idea that Eden from the book of Genesis can still be found deep within the heart of the Vorrh. Spooky African witchcraft leads to a tale full of ghost and mystical transformations, which is closer in theme to Ovid’s Metamorphoses than modern fantasy. Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood (1984) would make for a good comparison. The Erstwhile refers to fallen angels who failed to guard the tree of knowledge and are waking up and crawling out of the ground.

The Erstwhile (2017) follows closely upon The Vorrh (2012) and starts with a storm brewing over the Vorrh. Forces are moving and characters die and/or are resurrected. A particularly creepy scene early on transforms old storylines from The Vorrh about Peter Williams and Tsungali into a new beginning. Catling is fond of putting old artists into his novels, the way Dan Simmons puts old poets into his science fiction. In The Vorrh, the experimental photographer Eadweard Muybridge showed up, and The Erstwhile features the painter William Blake. Look up his painting of Nebuchadnezzar and you’ll recognize the cover of this novel. According to Catling, Blake based his painting on something mysterious.

Erstwhile2

Nebuchadnezzar by William Blake

Catling has strengths that are present again in this sequel. His prose is dense, full of strange similes, and he always aims for communicating complex emotional states. His characters are very sensitive to moods, changes of weather and the like. There are constant hints towards unseen forces that give his story a heavy mystical feel to it. It is best to read this slowly; take your time and savor the language and imagery. Reread paragraphs; it’s ok. Rush through it and the language is sure to frustrate you.

I love these novels and think that Catling is one hell of a writer, showing sheer delight in storytelling. The Estwhile meanders quite a bit in its telling because Catling just loves to establish his characters and locations before delivering the punch of a chapter. The result is meandering, but rich storytelling and a fountain of imagination. It is also bloody creepy at times, which gives the story a nice bite to it. And even though it is set in colonial times, Catling is far more interested in evoking a sense of the eerie and the unknown than to get bogged down in morality lessons.

The plot does not go anywhere fast. Catling is juggling a lot of storylines, so that even halfway through the novel he may switch to a character and I find myself thinking: “oh right, that was also going on!” But the story is mostly setting up new threads and taking the first new steps forwards. That makes this a typical middle book of a trilogy where the excitement of the introduction is already past, and threads twist and morph towards a new direction. What that direction is, is not entirely clear. But that can be said about the first book as well; Catling’s plot reveals itself slowly, over time. At least, if there is one.

In the final quarter, the novel starts flagging. It lacks a nice wrap-up, a strong direction with a momentary climax. Catling presents a lot of great, spooky stuff in chapters that are well built-up in a Mervyn-Peake-kind-of painterly way. Yet, plot-wise, not enough happens. I am not happy about the gratuitous violence towards the end, and the last 100 pages leaves me confused about what happened with Catling’s story and his writing. Overall, this is a wonderful book with lots of memorable moments, but the second half left me deflated.

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Cutthroat Island (1995) Review

Cutthroat Island

6/10

Cutthroat Island (1995) is the only big full-on pirate movie between Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) and… Hook (1991) maybe, and The Goonies (1985). And, maybe… that Pippi Longstocking film. Ehh. Cutthroat Island is mostly famous for being the most painful box office bomb of all time. This bloated movie cost most than 115 million dollars to make and made only 18 million back. After this, Hollywood definitely lost all faith in pirate movies for a long time. But is it really that bad? How does it measure up to Pirates of the Caribbean? Let’s have a look.

First, the soundtrack. Pirates have a way of inspiring composers, but John Debney’s score for Cutthroat Island is seriously one of the best soundtracks ever written for a movie. Not just for pirate movies; for movies, period. It is better than Hans Zimmer’s score for Pirates of the Caribbean. It is the very definition of swashbuckling adventure. It is what you imagine good pirate music would be. It is bold, romantic, proud, rousing and thematically complex. One reason why I always wanted to see this movie is because I have owned the soundtrack for about 15 years, but I have yet to see the movie behind it.

Geena Davis plays a pirate daughter named Morgan and she is supposed to be a strong yet sexy female protagonist, kicking ass and male balls of course. I have my doubts over this casting, because Davis has a sort of softness and warmth about her that doesn’t match well with her role. She doesn’t radiate the authority of a captain. The second main role is that of the thief William Shaw, played by the largely forgotten Matthew Modine. He’s the charmer and smooth-talker, but reads all of lines in the same bland way.

Cutthroat Island2

The dialogue is absolutely horrendous. Every second line uttered by Geena Davis has some sleazy sexual pun in it. It doesn’t help to establish her character as pirate captain. Basically, saying bad jokes and punching men in the face is the extent of her personality. In fact, all characters are flat and hurt by bad dialogue. Half of it is meant to be comedic, especially everything Matthew Modine says, but it all falls flat. Every single comedic line falls flat. The problem is that all of the film’s dialogue is comedic lines.

Truth be told, most of these characters are not more ridiculous than those in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. The villain, Uncle Douglas – or Dawg – played by the always great Frank Langella is typical villainous pirate fare. He growls, kills; the only difference with the Pirates movies is that he is not undead.

All those millions of dollars went into the production of sets, costumes and explosions, which makes the movie feel very grounded in an existing world. In our age of green-screen computer-generated backgrounds, this is wonderful to see. Filmed in and around Malta, an island covered in harbors and 17th century fortifications, all standing in wonderfully for English colonies in the Caribbean.

It isn’t all bad. In fact, Cutthroat Island is quite a watchable movie. Sure, the fighting is not well choreographed. Davis and Modine couldn’t win a swordfight against a chair. Davis utters one-lines that would make Arnold Schwarzenegger ashamed. It is filmed in a very matter-of-fact way. But there is true energy and passion behind the movie. It is a movie that truly believes in itself. They are truly proud of their explosions. It is like watching a high-school stage show where you applaud because the kids are so proud of themselves. It’s just a pity that Davis and Modine’s acting and their lines are so unbelievable.

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Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (2017) Review

Salazars revenge

6/10

Johnny Depp plays a drunkard for 90 minutes, and then a giant plothole opens up in the ocean and swallows the movie whole.

Even though the Pirates films seem full of adventurous whimsy, this is an illusion. The series has definitely crystallized into a shape that is very rigid. Each new Pirates film has a whole list of very definite elements that must be present, otherwise the studio simply won’t finance it. There’s the Black Pearl, Barbossa, the music, undead pirates and of course Jack Sparrow. Never shall a Pirates film be made without these elements. You could make a movie about pirates, but it won’t be a Pirates movie.

It is just a shame that what the Pirates series has crystallized into, has never reached the quality of the first movie, nor the potential for swashbuckling adventure that that movie promised for future instalments. I never really liked the heavy weight that the Pirates films put on the supernatural elements. There’s too many undead crews, too many skeletons and fish people. It turned the whole series into something silly and indulgent. The same problem exists with the character of Jack Sparrow. He started out as a proper character but turned into nothing but a comic relief, and even that with middling success.

The fifth movie, Dead Men Tell No Tales (or Salazar’s Revenge in Europe), continues all of these trends.

The story revolves around the young boy Henry Turner, William’s son. They managed to find an actor (Brenton Thwaites) who is just as bland as Orlando Bloom to play his son. In effect, he and the science woman Carina (Kaya Scodelario) are the next generation Will and Elizabeth. They need Jack Sparrow because they are all in search for a thing and bad guys are also searching for the thing and the whole thing is full of chases. The opening scene establishes the level of suspension of disbelief that is required here, as Jack and his crew try to copy the climax of Fast and the Furious 5.

Salazars revenge2

Remember when Johnny Depp got nominated for an Oscar for his performance in the first movie? Yeah, that was 14 years ago. In the fifth one, Sparrow is just a drunk who says eccentric things. Depp shows no memory of his earlier performances, as if we are watching Sparrow’s descent into Alzheimer. The main problem is that there is no effective main character anymore. Henry Turner is too bland and can’t steal the limelight from Sparrow, and Sparrow is too chaotic and unfocused. He both steals and derails the story.

The series is doing what the Marvel superhero movies are doing as well: introducing a villain and killing him off right away in the same movie, and so bringing everything back to the status quo. Villains like Ultron got immense build-ups and then disappear after a single movie. In Pirates, we have again another undead captain, a terror of the ocean, who comes back to life with vengeance on his mind. It was the same with Davy Jones, the same with Blackbeard, and in fact the same with Captain Barbossa in the first one. Jaavier Bardem does have great screen presence, but his character is quite one-note. The same story over and over again, while we lose our grip on the worldbuilding of the story.

The best character of the movie by now is Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). He is sporting a nice wig and a luxurious vessel, all in all reminding me of Hook in Spielberg’s Hook. He is the only character having any depth and intelligence to him. He’s also the most successful pirate and has emotional layers. But the story just didn’t make any sense. It gets to the point where it is so convoluted that nothing makes any sense. Good thing though that you don’t need to be completely up to date with the previous movies to understand it all, because I have no memories of the fourth film.

I did have some fun and I laughed once or twice, but it is just not what I was hoping for. I’m not angry, I am disappointed. After Alien: Covenant and this one, this feeling is getting quite tiring.

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Dave Eggers – The Circle (2013) Review

The Circle

  • Genre: dystopia
  • Pages: 491
  • My rating: 7.5/10

I am always a bit suspicious of immensely popular books in which a mainstream author dips his or her toes into science fiction. These novels are invariably lauded as innovative and “important” by those who are not used to reading science fiction. But since the movie was coming out, I decided to give the novel a shot.

Mae is a young, insecure, naive and ambitious woman who is hired for an entry-level job at California’s most innovative tech company, The Circle. The office is filled with relentlessly passionate people and everything seems magical to Mae. Buoyed up by her own desire to achieve and fit in, she is sucked into the inviting yet toxic corporate culture of the Circle, whose influence reaches all over the globe.

This novel raised painful memories in me of the latest corporate environment I found myself in. The Circle seems filled with passionate believers, like a cult, and at the same time tries to buy the loyalty of its staff with luxurious stuff that is not related to its business. It swallows the lives of its employees. Underneath the smiles and the sheen of excitement lies a suffocating pressure, a neediness, to be part of the “community” at all times. Things start to get really creepy when Mae receives a third screen at her desk, solely meant for being a part of the company’s community, coercing her to like and wink and comment upon the messages of her colleagues at all times.

The Circle is a company that is supposed to be so much ahead of the curve that it went full circle. But the book itself and the technology it talks about is already here and gaining presence. Social media already creates intense social pressures that are new and alien to those that are not part of it. Modern kids already live in electronic worlds and worry about social media-related pressures that older generations are not even aware of exist. For example, the portable webcam invention in The Circle is getting popular right now as dash cams.

In this sense, The Circle is a bit like Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Its science fictional element is small, but the social pressures are stifling. Eggers is not the guy for dazzling science fiction readers with technological ideas, but he does a great job in making you feel squeezed and trapped. In another sense, The Circle is a bit like Huxley’s Brave New World, because Mae enters a world where everyone seems so happy with the new status quo. The dystopian conditions are embraced by people who like what is happening and believe in its messages. That’s just scary.

None of The Circle‘s ideas or messages are new or unique in any way. I do agree with the way social media is shown here in a negative, invasive way, but the message itself is the least interesting thing about this novel. What I enjoyed most about this story is how Eggers took these well-known ideas and used them to create an office space nightmare. I read this with a delicious feeling of scaring myself, because entering the Circle is entering a world full of oppressive, unrealistic expectations. Unfortunately, the message is what interested Eggers the most, and he delivers it with the subtlety of a hammer.

As a consequence, Eggers’ characters are all very one-note. They are vessels to communicate the message. Mae is an empty vessel, insecure and accepting, and her eyes never do open. Her ex-boyfriend Mercer is the voice of reason, and her colleagues are the voices of the zeitgeist. Mae has no spine, never stands up for herself, doesn’t see how she is selling her soul step by step, and she enters badly written sex scenes with strange men. All the characters are so overblown, so unrealistic. Now, if the crazy managers act strange that makes the Circle only more oppressive, which is great to read about, but Mae is blind to it, even joins it, and that makes her impossible to identify with.

As I was reading this at a train station, an old woman approached me and said that I was reading an important novel and that I shouldn’t be taken with all those IT companies that make everything sound great. I nodded politely and said I agreed, but I had to restrain myself from saying that I only enjoyed this as an office space nightmare and refrained from moaning about the bad characters. Those complaints would have fallen on deaf ears. There is a fun novel hidden inside Eggers’ The Circle, but it is buried beneath its own self-regard.

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Eric Harvey – The Leadership Secrets of Santa Claus (2015)

Santa Claus

Please join me while I peruse this highly interesting booklet. We might learn some life lessons. After all, it has over 250K copies sold, even though I got it from a box of free books at the local bookstore. It is an advance reader copy. Strange how an ARC has so many copies sold.

Let’s read it, even though I don’t want to become a middle manager. I can imagine though that Santa Claus has some good leadership advice. After all, he has to deal with high expectations, market fluctuations, and nobody believes in him. In this book he shares 10 essential leadership secrets, which won’t be secrets anymore afterwards.

You know what, instead of reading this book as a self-help management book, this can also be read as a serious effort to expand the Santa Claus mythos. Christmas time lore and Santa worldbuilding is about to receive a serious upgrade. This might be the Silmarillion of the Santa Claus universe. Man, all those Tim Allen movies are going to be even more dated after this.

So what is he up to during the year when we don’t see him? The first thing we learn is that Santa Claus keeps his elves in the information loop. He also gives them leadership classes. And not every elf or every deer has the right resume to enter his workshop. He hires tough to manage easy. New deer do have to be committed to responsibilities like teamwork and customer service. How sad. I fear that this book is going to undermine all that is jolly about the Santa Claus stories.

My first takeaway from this book is that even Santa’s workshop cannot escape the banalities of office life. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. When Harvey talks about how Rudolph became a “lead reindeer”, I realized that even Santa’s reindeer are a team with inner competition and all the banal office space jealousies and tensions that always happen when you put 12 strangers together and demand that they cooperate.

This is the saddest book I have ever read. It takes everything that fun and jolly and replaces it with management lingo.

The elves aren’t happy because they are elves. They are happy because Santa lets them know how they are making a difference. The reindeer also join the regular State of the Workshop meetings so that they know what is going on in the business.

I guess I did learn something important here. All those management clichés about leadership and teamwork are some kind of necessary evil. If I can believe Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens, then humans work well in groups of about 150 acquaintances, but whenever that group grows larger, we need shared beliefs to keep cooperating. And when we need to get things done, like making toys for all the children of the world, you need some kind of culture to keep things running.

As Santa says: Ho ho ho, but don’t forget the snow…

santa clause

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Alien: Covenant (2017) Review

Alien Covenant

6/10

If watching Prometheus makes me go: “Meh, I’d rather pop in Alien again”, then watching Alien: Covenant makes me go: “Meh, I’d rather pop in Prometheus again.” On the surface, these three films are all quite similar. Their stories follow the same beats: we have a ship, we land on some planet, we find alien structures, we get eaten. Usually, people escape, but the monster has followed them onto the ship and there’s a last stand-off. But what is behind this descending order of quality?

Alien: Covenant is simply regurgitating the same stuff that we have seen a thousand times, and to be fair, some people want that. Some might like every Alien film to be the same movie, but it gets really formulaic by now. An Alien film basically writes itself. The least a director could do is provide a new spin, a new twist to the tale. Looking at Prometheus, that movie did succeed in doing so. It looked epic; it had vision and memorable scenes. Not all of it made sense but it breathed new life into that same old story. But Alien: Covenant lacks vision. Worse, it is boring.

The whole first hour hardly takes us anywhere. We get some pretty shots of the new space ship, inspired perhaps by Passengers and Avatar, and our characters walk around a planet that looks like Oregon or Norway. Katherine Waterston plays eeuhh… I forgot her name but she cries and blubbers a lot. The characters just don’t really come to life. Michael Fassbender commands the movie as the android David, but this time he feels overused. And the moment something goes wrong, the whole crew started screaming and panicking like mindless chickens. It was as if the characters suddenly lost all ability to think straight because the plot asked this of them.

Alien Covenant2

Then in the second half, when things are supposed to pick up, there is no suspense. On top of this, the supposedly scary scenes are not properly grounded in the world that the movie establishes. For example, the sparse, industrial ship that the crew arrived on also had a luxurious two-person shower just so that we could film an Alien shower scene straight from some 80s slasher movie. Also, this giant colony ship only has one tiny shuttle to transport people to a planet.

On the whole, Alien: Covenant feels slapped together as if a script needed to be found within a weekend. The writers simply let the previous films lead them. The solution or continuation of the story of Prometheus feels unsatisfying, because it enters the film out of nowhere and had much greater potential for wonder and imagination. But that is now unfortunately lost to us. The special effects are not utilized well, because the alien “xenomorph” never really thrilled. It was too visible, perhaps, but it seems more as if the director didn’t understand how to build suspense well. Big vistas were clearly matte paintings that had no feeling of depth.

I’ve got to wonder what was going on before and during the production, because originally, Neil Blomkamp, director of District 9, was planning an Alien movie. But that one got put on hold indefinitely, probably because director Ridley Scott protested against this, and then Scott quickly pushed through this one. In effect, wresting the Alien series away from other directors and back into his own orbit.

I was really disappointed by this movie. It tries to be two different movies: it takes the philosophical angle of Prometheus, and it tries to be Texas Chainsaw Massacre in Space, but it half-asses both of these elements. The whole story about the Engineers and Elizabeth Shaw’s travels has come to an abrupt ending without the satisfying sense of wonder that Prometheus promised. And it just wasn’t scary or tense. I am mostly frustrated because the Alien franchise is once again dying. It fizzled out after Alien 3 and everything that came after, got a new boost with Prometheus but that second wind is proving short-lived.

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