Grey by Jon Armstrong: I seem to be be buying a lot of Night Shade titles lately. In the last two months, I've picked up Jonathan Strahan's The Best Science Fiction And Fantasy Of The Year, Liz William's Precious Dragon, this book, and the Grimwood below. Indeed, much of the Shade's 2007 output is on my wish list, at least in part because of all the gorgeous cover art they keep producing. Grey in particular, however, has been on my To Read list since I met Jon Armstrong at last year's World Fantasy Convention. (Attentive readers of this blog will notice that most of the new authors I read are those I have met at some prior point.) As precious as my pleasure reading time is, I manged to read Grey on the flights to and from the recent Book Expo America, aided by bad weather-induced delays in and out of North Carolina. And since it's all I took to read with me, I'm glad to report that it didn't suck. Far from it. ("Grey far from sucky!" - Lou Anders, Pyr Editorial Director.) What drew me to the book in the first place is that it seems to be another offering in this recent wave of economics and business-conscious SF, which includes our own Infoquake (David Louis Edelman), and much of Charles Stross's output. Indeed, there are a lot of similarities and parallel's between Grey and Infoquake. For one, much of the action of both revolves around board room meetings and product displays. For another, both feature protagonists that are engaging and compelling to read about, dispite being difficult to like, though Grey's Michael Rivers is the opposite of Infoquake's Natch. The former is a pampered son who is so coddled and sheltered as to have difficulty dressing himself without assistance, the latter a borderline sociopath CEO who epitomizes the self-made cut throat. (Don't worry - both have a long way to go when their respective stories start!) And, like a lot of science fiction, both are really skillful projections of trends in the here and now. While Infoquake draws on the dot com culture, Grey looks to the cult of idiot celebrity our media fosters now and projects it forward. As such, I can believe in both worlds, but I am not sure I'd want to live in one of them (any more than I already do!) Reading about it, however, was a blast. This book is recommend. And to both of these writers, I recommend Norman Spinrad's Bug Jack Barron, since that classic novel kept bouncing around my brainpan while reading these new works.
Curse of the Golden Flower: I'm about 50/50 on Zhang Yimou's films. I really, really loved the 2002 film Hero, with its bold use of color to underscore the twists and turns in a narrative concerned with what is true and what is deception. But 2004's House of Flying Daggers is really just a bit of pretty nonsense. Here, plot twists are thrown in by the handful, for no reason whatsoever but the twist itself, and the result, when everything is said and done, is incoherent nonsense of no significance whatsoever. So this time out, how do I feel about Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia, which my wife tells me literally translates something like "All the gold armor on the floor?" Well, mixed, unfortunately. The film is definitely an improvement on Flying Daggers but nowhere near as good as Hero. What is wonderful about the film is the lavish depiction of the empirial court, as well as the passions and deceptions running through same. What is bad is a plot that pretty much degerates into a pointless bloodbath. With allowances for the fact that there is a simi-historical basis for the story, the only moral I could extract from it was, "if you go up against an emperor who is tougher than you, even if he's corrupt, you all gonna die." Apologies for the spoiler, but, really, it's not a film where there is anything much to spoil. And I think I'm over the wire stunt work now. Films like Casino Royale and the Bourne Identity movies have replaced The Matrix for us now, and while all the flying about is pretty, I think I'd like to see some real hardcore martial arts in my martial arts epics again. This one's not recommended unless you are really interested in all Chinese cinema, are an artist or writer looking for some breathtaking settings, or have some time to kill and just want to stare at the always excellent to watch Chow Yun-Fat strutting around in gold armor. But really, watching Curse of the Golden Flower, I felt as I do about the new Star Wars - all this jaw dropping artistry. Too bad it wasn't put to the service of a better story. One thing though, I am ready for a filmmaker like Zhang to give us the Chinese equivalent of The Lord of the Rings. This film proves the tools are there, just waiting on a story with the scope. I can almost see it in my head, which means I hope somebody else out there is already working on it.
9Tail Fox by Jon Courtenay Grimwood: I read this over a year ago in manuscript form, and have been waiting all this time for a US edition I could put on my bookshelf without violating my oft-expressed Buy in Your Region principles. I was hoping that Night Shade would hop on this and also that when they did they'd put Jon Foster on the cover, so I couldn't be more thrilled when both of these things happened. Though, to give credit where credit is due, at least half the genius of the finished book has to be accorded to designer Claudia Noble. That being said - I was surprised when this novel wasn't snapped up by a mainstream or mystery press. The story is only tangentially SF, and what Grimwood has really done is write a killer mystery novel that also has to go down as one of the best San Francisco books around. Having lived there myself, I have to say he got the city dead to rights and you'd never know the author wasn't a bi-racial Californian himself. The story concerns a not-too-nice SFPD cop who is murdered, only to find himself given the opportunity to investigate his own killing, a little a la DC Comic's Deadman. Whether the agency of his resurrection is fantastical or SFnal is an open question, and I'm not going to say any more that might spoil this great read, so you can just go pick it up for yourself. Highly Recommended.
The Manchurian Candidate: Even knowing that Robyn Hitchcock had a pivotal role in this, I'm such a fan of the 1962 John Frankenheimer original that I put off seeing the remake until recently. That being said, I have to say that Jonathan Demme does an excellent job at updating Richard Condon's novel to the 21st century. The plot stays very close to that of the first film, and even improves on it in two respects. First, as much as I love the utter absurdity of the scene in which Janet Leigh picks up a deranged Frank Sinatra with lines like "Are you Arabic?," Kimberly Elise's Rosie makes a whole lot more sense in the context of the story. Without spoiling anything, screenwriters Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris have given a lot of thought to why a woman would actually pick up a man so clearly losing his marbles. Second, they've also thought a bit more about the plot, and, as such, actually improve on the structure of the original by borrowing a bit from another film in the conspirarcy canon, the 1974 film, The Parallax View. (A lesser film, but elements incorporated to good effect here.) Finally, despite liking the actor enormously in everything else I've ever seen him in, it took a bit for me to warm up to Denzel Washington's Ben Marco, simply because I've long considered it Sinatra's best role (and one I've rewatched countless times). But Denzel does a tremendous job, and bits of both performance and script also seem to partake of Mel Gibson's wonderfully manic character in the 1997 film, Conspiracy Theory (another gem, despite what Gibson might be today). Finally, Liev Schreiber is eerily identical to Laurence Harvey's Raymond Shaw. So, Highly Recommended, particularly if you are interested in screenwriter and/or like admiring how clever remakes are crafted. A solid film all round.