Tag Archives: violence

Book review – Red Notice

I’ve said it before, but one of the good things about being in the West Surrey Book Club is that I get to read titles I would never have chosen myself.

I turned the last page of Red Notice by Bill Browder this morning, and am looking forward to discussing it with the gang this evening.

Bill Browder’s grandfather, Earl, was a labour union organiser in the USA and ran for President under the Communist flag in 1936 and 1940. The Browder dynasty were all high-achievers in various fields, and it was no surprise that the fiercely ambitious and intelligent Bill didn’t follow any traditional route after gaining his MBA from Stanford Business School in 1989.

He looked eastwards, at the same time as the Berlin Wall and any semblance of Communist principles were collapsing throughout Europe. He founded Hermitage Capital Management and moved to Russia in 1996, making millions for himself and for his investors by piggy-backing on cheap state asset deals being gobbled up so opportunistically by the oligarchs.

But 10 years later, Browder was expelled from Russia and everything fell apart. To try and summarise here the extent of the underlying greed, corruption and violence visited on Browder and all his associates by high-ranking politicians, security forces and police would be challenging, and certainly hard to believe.

One of his legal team, Sergei Magnitsky, stayed in Russia to fight trumped-up charges. He was beaten, tortured and ultimately murdered in police custody, after which Browder and his team fought relentlessly to try and bring some sort of justice for the young lawyer and his family.

Image courtesy of The Prisma

Red Notice is well written and reads like a pacy thriller. It really is hard to believe that this is all cold, hard well-researched and proven fact, rather than the latest Jack Reacher novel.

Image courtesy of Publishers Weekly

I suspect Bill Browder is a hard person to deal with, but it is to his credit that his business activities seem to have taken a back seat whilst trying to find a way, as a political activist, to preserve the memory of Sergei Magnitsky.

I’ve always wanted to visit Russia. I’m not so sure now….

Book review – Fierce Kingdom

Fierce Kingdom tells the story of a couple of alienated young sociopaths on a shooting spree in a zoo park, somewhere in gun-friendly USA.

But really this book is all about a whip-smart, feisty young mother’s relationship with her 4 year-old son, and what she’ll do to protect him when faced with every family’s worst nightmare.

Joan is cajoling Lincoln out of the zoo at closing time, when she realises that the balloon-popping noise nearby was deadly gunfire, leaving bloody corpses strewn around the park.

Do they run, or do they hide? How long will it be before help arrives? Can she trust any other survivors?

The action takes place in real time, from 4:55 pm until 8:05 pm but the author cleverly paints a vivid picture of the dynamics between mother and son in a deft series of flashbacks.

His crying always starts with words. He tries to talk through the weeping, and the words stretch into wails, and then the words evaporate and the tears come, and once they are falling down his cheeks he has passed into something monotone and rhythmic like the ocean, only more grating.”

Joan and Lincoln are forced to leave their first hiding place, introducing them to danger and to other desperate fugitives, talkative young Kailynn and older Mrs Powell, once a teacher of one of the shooters. But will this help, or hinder, their chances of survival?

Author Gin Phillips has written a compelling psychological thriller, pulling the reader through the narrative as breathlessly as if trapped in a tiger’s cage. But it is the mother’s feral instincts to protect her son that will linger after the last page has been turned.

“Make yourself disappear”, she says, already standing, taking an extra second to put her hand on his head – the precious curve of it – as she lets the branches fall. He disappears except for his feet, so she reaches under and bends his legs slightly.

Fierce Kingdom is not without its flaws – would Joan really have thrown her phone away? Why don’t the police arrive earlier? Would a 4 year-old really be so damned clever? – but Ms Phillips has crafted a well-written, high-octane novel, which is also a warm tribute to her own son:

“To Eli, who has entire worlds inside him.”

Book review – Into the Water

The Girl on the Train was a stellar chart-topping publishing success for Paula Hawkins, the psychological thriller selling over 18 million copies worldwide and being adapted into a big-budget Hollywood movie, starring Emily Blunt.

So how does a writer follow that?

With Into the Water, another psychological murder mystery, but told this time from the viewpoint of multiple characters, and across seemingly disparate narrative threads.

In the last days before her death, Nel called her sister. Jules didn’t pick up the phone, ignoring her plea for help.

Now Nel is dead. They say she jumped. And Jules has been dragged back to the one place she hoped she had escaped for good, to care for the teenage girl her sister left behind.

But Jules is afraid. So afraid. Of her long-buried memories, of the old Mill House, of knowing that Nel would never have jumped.

And most of all she’s afraid of the water, and the place they call the Drowning Pool . . .

One of the central characters is the fictional Northumberland town of Beckford, where Jules is forced to return for her sister’s funeral, and where she also has her own demons.

I struggled a little in the first part of this book. There seemed to me to be too many narrators, too many “inconvenient women” dying in the Drowning Pool, spanning too many years.

But like a dexterous seamstress, the author pulls together all the frayed ends and disparate threads in a nerve-jangling finale. My friend and colleague Tina, from TripFiction, observes in her own  review that: the book is constructed like a circular eddy, reflecting the motion of the water in the Drowning Pool – the characters, too, go round in circles. 

Exactly.

But – ultimately – I found this an engaging, well written and cleverly constructed novel, that will no doubt also end up on the big screen.

Thank you, Ms Hawkins…..where next, I wonder?

Paula Hawkins – image courtesy of the BBC

 

 

Book review – The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien

Love. Hope, Passion. Evil. Loss. Loneliness. Isolation. Displacement. Genocide. Survival.

Image result for the little red chairs

Edna O’Brien’s latest novel weaves all these disparate themes, and emotional extremes, into a story that will leave you gasping for air by the time you turn the final page. And shaking your head in disbelief at the evil man can perpetrate.

This is masterful prose from a gifted story-teller at the peak of her considerable powers, honed in 19 novels and much other garlanded literary output throughout her 86 years.

Image result for edna o'brien

The first part of The Little Red Chairs takes place in a small village in rural Ireland. A stranger arrives in this peaceful community. He is an enigmatic presence but a poet and a healer, who soon becomes an increasingly popular figure.

His name is on everybody’s lips, Dr Vlad this and Dr Vlad that. He has done wonders for people, women claiming to be rejuvenated, just after two treatments. It is tantamount to a miracle, what he has done for Hamish’s wife. 

Jack McBride is a good man, but much older than his wife. Fidelma longs for a child, to become a mother before that option is no longer available to her. She comes to know Vlad, but the consequences are a scene as shocking as I can remember reading in any work of fiction.

The second part of the story is told on a broader canvas, both geographically and in its themes. War. Genocide. The asylum process. Immigration. Revenge. These are communicated effectively by the writer, but I preferred the subtlety of quiet, brooding, parochial scenes in rural Ireland – and the difficult to endure, heart-piercing shock of the pivotal scene – to the more sweeping story that develops afterwards.

This book has been called Edna O’Brien’s masterpiece. I’m not sure about that, I’ll have to read some of her other work to compare. But it is a fine novel, memorable and haunting.

Image result for the little red chairs

 

Theatre review – The Shawshank Redemption

The 1994 Oscar winning movie The Shawshank Redemption is regularly right at the top of many favourite film of all time lists.

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Based on a novella by Stephen King, it tells the story of Andy Dufresne, a banker incarcerated in the infamous Shawshank penitentiary for the murder of his wife and her lover.

Andy initially remains aloof inside the brutal prison, but slowly forms an unlikely friendship with fixer Ellis “Red” Redding. He continually professes his innocence of the double murder, but over the years inside The Shank he uses his wit and intelligence to make life as bearable as possible.

This intriguing tale has now been transported to the stage. I can’t compare to the movie or to the original book, but it stands alone as a thrilling, life-affirming piece of live entertainment.

THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION

Paul Nicholls plays the wily banker, Jack Ellis the devious Warden Stammas and Ben Onwukwe, as Red, is a convincing double for Oscar nominated Morgan Freeman.

With stealthy set changes and a little imagination, we’re on the inside of the penitentiary with the cast, moving seamlessly from the canteen to Andy’s cell – adorned by a Rita Hayworth poster – into the exercise yard and back into the new library, a reward for Andy’s money-laundering efforts for Warden Stammas.

The cast of just eleven men punches well above its collective weight, thanks to a clever soundtrack and theatrical trickery .

We come to despise prison bullies and rapists Bogs and Rooster, pity institutionalised librarian Brooksie and laugh with the other long-term inmates.

In just two hours, we live with them all through almost 20 years of lies, violence, fear, friendship and – ultimately – redemption.

I might yet see the much lauded film one day, but it’s hard to imagine it could be a better experience than seeing this stage adaptation, on a wet September night in Windsor.

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Book review – All Quiet on the Western Front

I like the adage less is more.

It’s usually true.

Translated from the original German novel Im Westen nichts Neues, Erich Maria Remarque distills all the horror of war into just 200 pages, in his remarkable  All Quiet on the Western Front.

Paul Bäumer and his school classmates are barely 18 when they’re persuaded by their teacher to fight for Germany in The Great War.

With spare language, Remarque describes the daily routine of their life on the front in France.

In some vivid set-pieces, Paul and his infantry company endure abject extremes: stabbing to death a French soldier who falls into Bäumer’s shell-hole; an infestation of rats in the trenches; a deadly gas attack; daily bombardments from heavy artillery.

But there are also some occasions of black humour that epitomise the camaraderie of those who know death is almost certain: a feast of piglets and white sauce, even as Bäumer and best friend Kat are under heavy fire; swimming naked across a river to meet some French girls, for fear of getting their uniforms wet; stealing a goose to wring its neck and provide a memorable meal for the starving soldiers.

But one by one, his friends fall. To shrapnel wounds. To direct mortar hits. To dysentery. Bleeding to death in no-mans’ land. Drowning in mud. Shot for desertion.

But amongst all this futllity and desolation, he still recognises the insatiable human lust for life.

I am very calm. Let the months come, and the years, they’ll take nothing more from me, they can take nothing more from me. I am so alone and devoid of of any hope that I can confront them without fear. Life, which carried me through these years, is still there in my hands and in my eyes. Whether or not I have mastered it, I do not know. But as long as life is there it will make its own way, whether my conscious self likes it or not.

All this in 200 pages.

Weniger ist mehr.

Movie review – The Nice Guys

I’m not going if it’s just a blokey film, Ruth said.

But it’s getting some great reviews. And it has a 91% Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer ratingparried John.

We were looking for something to do, on a soggy Saturday afternoon and within spitting distance of Dublin. Something to stop us eating and drinking for just a few hours, after a heavy couple of days enjoying Irish hospitality. Something that wasn’t too mentally challenging, after a Leonardo da Vinci culture-fest at the National Gallery the day before. And something sitting down, after some energetic yomps through the moody Wicklow mountains.

John won.

Sure enough, The Nice Guys is a grand way to escape reality. Just park your critical faculties at the door, stick your nose in a bag of Maltesers, lean back in the velvety seat….and let your mind drift back to the 1970s.

Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe stumble around a time-warped Los Angeles as a private-eye Odd Couple.

The plot is a load of old hokum, but has something to do with a dead porn star, a missing girl, some dangerous gangsters and a conspiracy. Maybe.

But forget the plot.

The point of the movie is the undoubted chemistry from the unlikely pairing of Ryan and Russell. Gosling in particular is a revelation in a comedy role, what with his droopy moustache, drink problem and bad father issues.

Enjoy the authentic soundtrack, party scenes, clothes and scenery. Hell, even the title credits transport you back to 1977.

Enjoy some good one-liners too, and a cracking performance from Angourie Rice as Holly, Gosling’s wise-beyond-her-years teenage daughter.

Angourie Rice Picture

It’s a buddy movie. We laughed a bit. It won’t win any Oscars. We stayed dry for a couple of hours. We ate and drank loads more afterwards.

Job done.

Muslim madness

Gill and I went to Paris late in 2015, just two weeks after the so-called Islamic State terror squads had wreaked havoc there through a series of murderous attacks on soft civilian targets, one normal Friday evening.

Outside the Bataclan club, a moving message from a victim's parent

Now further atrocities have been committed in Brussels, by IS suicide bombers linked to the Paris attacks.

These incursions strike at the heart of Europe, developed western economies and non-Muslim religions. But two other unrelated attacks, since the Brussels outrage, have shocked me even more.

Asad Shah, a shopkeeper in the Shawlands area of Glasgow, was by all accounts a kindly man. He was also a Muslim.

Asad Shah

Last Thursday he was murdered outside his shop, shortly after posting a message to his customers on Facebook: “Good Friday and a very happy Easter, especially to my beloved Christian nation.”

Tanveer Ahmed, 32, from Bradford in Yorkshire, was accused today of murdering Mr. Shah. Police Scotland had previously described the incident as a religiously prejudiced attack and said both men were Muslims.

The implication is clear: one Muslim took deep offence at another extending the hand of friendship to Christian friends during their own religious festival.

On Easter Sunday, in Pakistan’s Lahore, the city’s minority Christian community was celebrating at a funfair. Suicide bombers detonated their deadly loads and killed at least 72 people, including 29 children and many women.

Taliban splinter group Jamaat-ul-Ahrar said it carried out the attack against Christians celebrating Easter. Ironically, many Muslims were also killed.

It seems that the so-called Islamic State and its far-flung acolytes will not rest until all non-Muslim religions are eradicated.

I fear the war – for that is now what we face – is only just beginning.

Movie review – High Rise

What greater honour can there be for an artist than to have a generic term attached to their life’s work? Apart from awards and royalty cheques, obviously.

Ballardian is a recognised term for the total literary output of J. G. Ballard. Born in Shanghai in 1930, he died in 2009 and achieved a huge amount in between.

Whilst at Cambridge University, he studied medicine with an intention of becoming a psychiatrist. His exposure to art, anatomy and psycho-analysis shaped his thinking, and future writing, as did a love of science fiction, read whilst training with the RAF in Canada in 1955-56.

His book High Rise, first published in 1975, is now the inspiration for a new film, written by Amy Jump and directed by Ben Wheatley.

Tom Hiddleston – the next Mr. Bond? – plays Dr. Robert Laing, a physiologist who has just moved into a 40-storey modernist apartment block. He seems to be alone, having recently lost his sister, and we see nothing of him outside his pristine apartment and work, where he graphically dissects human brains for his students.

We’re introduced to some of the other occupants of his new home. The enigmatically sexy Charlotte – surprisingly well played by Sienna Miller – is Charlotte, immediately above him. Down in the bowels of the building is the manic Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), and his abused, pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men fame, but with an impeccable English accent here).

The premise of the story is laid bare when Dr. Lang is whisked off to the lavish penthouse apartment to meet Anthony Royal, the architect of this brutalist building (played by a God-like Jeremy Irons). The sprawling roof-top gardens, including a beautiful white horse, are a sop to his ice-cool wife Ann (Keeley Hawes). But at a decadent party, the posh inhabitants of the upper floors humiliate Robert, and the die is cast.

As the power fails, so does the social fabric of the building. The block descends into class warfare, and the movie into an allegorical abyss.

If you like to see rape, violence, a severed ear with a dangling ear-ring, a slow-motion suicide jump and much more, you’ll lap High Rise up.

Robert tries to stay semi-detached, even as the mayhem around him escalates. But when he refuses to perform a lobotomy on Richard for the upper-floor aristos, and screws Helen, he is most definitely involved.

This movie works on many levels, but on none of them for me, I’m afraid.

Ballardian literature is hallucinogenic, apocalyptic, dystopian, bleak science-fiction. I’d prefer to remember the undoubtedly brilliant writer more for his auto-biographical Empire of the Sun, than for High Rise or Crash.

 

Movie review – Disorder

Do you prefer certainty, or the unknown?

The Odeon’s admirable Screen Unseen concept is by definition a surprise. Although they do give some clues on Facebook and lots of clever cinephiles try to anticipate what the next Unseen movie might be.

So I toddled off to last night’s outing, fully expecting to see Hands of Stone, the story of boxer Roberto Duran, starring Robert de Niro as his legendary trainer, Ray Arcel.

The appearance of Disorder on the Censor’s certificate caused a ripple of unease amongst the audience, and within minutes quite a few had vacated their seats and were heading for the neon-lit exit door. Disappointed boxing fans, or perhaps sitting through a sub-titled French film on a cold Monday night was just too much effort?

Matthias Schoenaerts is Vincent, a muscular French army soldier suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Not knowing if he’ll be assigned to another mission, he’s persuaded to sign up for a private security job, a lavish party at the opulent estate of a shady Lebanese businessman.

For the first hour, the film is a taut thriller played out largely in Vincent’s head. Not helped by a cocktail of drugs, his mind and hearing are still on the battlefields, and he’s suffering from a paranoia that distorts his judgement. The soundtrack perfectly complements this mental mayhem.

Thereafter, it morphs into a fairly pedestrian – and confusing – home-invasion thriller.  Vincent is asked to stay on after the party, to look after the businessman’s wife – Diane Kruger as Jessie, looking like a dead ringer for Grace Kelly – and son Ali.

Vincent suspects that the Lebanese husband is an arms dealer who also has dubious links with the recently elected French Interior Minister. His suspicions are confirmed when the husband is arrested on a trip to Switzerland, the police protection outside the estate disappears, and masked men invade the house.

The developing relationship between Vincent and Jessie is the glue that binds the plot together, but the movie is a whole doesn’t quite work. In my humble, non-cinephile opinion.

But Matthias Schoenaerts is an undoubted star, and carries the film as far as it can go. He was outstanding as one of Bathsheba Everdene’s suitors in the recent version of Far from the Madding Crowd,  played a small but important part in The Danish Girl, and is undoubtedly destined for full-blown Hollywood stardom. Another famous Belgian for that favourite quiz question?

Disorder is being called Maryland for English-speaking audiences, and is released in the UK on 25th March.

I wonder what Hands of Stone will be like?