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Monday, 29 November 2010

Books - Frozen Moment - by Camilla Ceder

Star rating – 8/10

Another review, another Swedish crime theme......This one is the first novel from Camilla Ceder, and although the book cover brag of ‘Move over Wallander...’ is a little wide of the mark, it is a very gripping, and well crafted story.

The clich├ęd lead male detective is there with all his personal hang-ups and failed relationships – this time in the shape of Inspector Christian Tell, who leads a team stationed in Gothenburg. But this story is unusually told from two different perspectives, Tell’s and that of a female would be journalist Seja, who stumbles into the first crime scene, and as a witness, starts up an inappropriate relationship with Tell. This double window on events as they unfold is cleverly employed by Ceder to make sure both sides of the story are told.

The crime that Tell is charged with investigating is that of a man murdered out in a remote rural spot – shot then run over by a car to break up his body. As he is piecing together the possible suspects and motives, another body is found in almost identical circumstances with seemingly no connection whatsoever to the first. At the same time as this real time investigation, Ceder uses the motif of a storyline with more historical events. The two plot lines inevitably intertwine in a thrilling way to give a very satisfying and page turning read.

As well as Tell, she uses great characterisation for some of his colleagues too, especially of the women in the force. Tell’s relationship with his boss is nicely done, and she is shown as a human being despite his trepidation around her. His colleague Karin Beckman is an especially interesting creation – a strong female police officer grappling with the difficulties of balancing the demanding hours of the job with a young family. She is not afraid of telling it like it is and standing up to her boss when she fears his grip on the case is slipping.

The translation from Swedish is good, and apparently Ceder plans to write more about Inspector Tell - I certainly hope she does as this first instalment is a cracking start.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Films - The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest - directed by Daniel Alfredson

Star rating – 8/10

Much has been written about how this last in the Millennium trilogy of the films of the block buster novels by Stieg Larsson is a) not as good as the book, b) doesn’t stand on its own merits, and c) has more of a made for TV feel than a movie. I agree with all these statements, but still think it is a great film, and a fitting end to the wonderful anti-hero, Lisbeth Salander’s struggles with the establishment.

To qualify the statements slightly, firstly, none of the three films are as good as the books they are dramatising, but given that any original book is usually better than any filmed version, and given that these particular books are among the best I have read for a long time that would have been a big ask. The first book, and therefore film, is the only one that really stands on its own as a story. The second and third volumes are really ones to be devoured one after the other, with scarcely a heart beat between finishing one and hungrily beginning the next (well that’s how it was for me at least), so it felt quite odd to have a gap between the films. And yes they were made for Swedish TV so they do have that sort of feel, something that I am sure the impending Hollywood remakes will address.

But I defy any remake to come up with an actress so fitting and perfect as Noomi Rapace is for the part of Lisbeth Salander. For much of this two and a half hour film she is not on screen, as the intricate plot threads are woven to their brilliant conclusion. When she is present, she is either in a hospital bed, or being silent in the court room for most of the time. But Rapace manages to convey all you need to know about how Lisbeth is feeling, either angry, traumatised, bitter or triumphant, with just the look in her eyes.

The plot is intricate and fast paced, and includes state cover ups of the highest order, along with brute force and thuggery, and the little people battling against all odds to get justice. We don’t get the full feel of Lisbeth’s skills at computer hacking in these films, inevitably lots of detail has to be left out to cut the books down to size. But I still loved it, and love the anti – hero Lisbeth Salander, with all her vulnerability, strength and intelligence. Mess with her too much at your peril Hollywood.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Gig - Dylan LeBlanc - Deaf Institute

Star rating – 8/10

I’m a sucker for a sad country song, especially when the angel voiced Emmylou Harris is featured on backing vocals. So I was drawn to Dylan LeBlanc when I heard about him this summer, and love his debut album ‘Paupers Field’. The 20 year old from Louisiana was at Manchester’s Deaf Institute on his first UK tour. This is a venue that lends itself to this sort of intimate, and emotion filled performance.

LeBlanc has certainly lived a lot for his years and had an eventful life so far. He has seen and done a lot of painful things, including suffering a nervous breakdown as a result of alcohol and drug addiction, and been in rehab as a result. Rumours also abound about his relative shooting someone, and he has loved and lost too.

Obviously bad for him – but good for us – because there’s nothing like searingly sad songs to uplift you and make you feel alive. He plays most of the beautiful tracks from his album, including ‘Low’ and ‘Emma Hartley’, some in a slightly slowed down way, with a drawling but beautiful voice nonetheless. The highlight of the evening for me was ‘If the Creek Don’t Rise’, although with a different feel without Emmylou to back him up. He is not a natural performer, with his unwashed hair, and reluctance to look at the audience. He looks vulnerable up on stage as he wrinkles his nose against the microphone when he sings like a frightened rabbit.

LeBlanc seems to be one of life’s vulnerable outsiders, even naming his record after the burial ground for people who could not afford to lie it the regular cemetery. We have one like that just around the corner from where I live, in the grounds of Withington Hospital where the poor souls from the old workhouse were interred many moons ago. It says a lot about him that he wanted to remember people like them. He finished with a cover of ‘Rake’ by Townes Van Zandt, and politely left the stage. And left the audience a bit richer for the experience, but still wondering how one so young can transmit so much pain so delicately and movingly.

Books - Mr Shivers by Robert Jackson Bennett

Star rating – 8/10

This is a first novel full of raw emotion – hatred, revenge, dogged determination, and pain. It is also a story that conjures up shifting moods. It starts with a broken young man, Marcus Connelly, who has left his wife and is headed for the American west in the time of the Great Depression after the murder of his young daughter. He is indeed a man on a mission, to find and kill the man who did this terrible deed. But it is no ordinary mission, the extent and horror of which is revealed bit by bit as the book unfolds.

Robert Jackson Bennett is a great descriptive writer. He conveys the swirling dustbowl brilliantly, along with the destitution and desperation of those headed on the long, usually fruitless road to find work and something to put in their empty and ravenous bellies. Connelly’s loneliness and desperation are evoked beautifully as he finds himself alone under the stars. The images depicted are at first like a brutal Clint Eastwood movie, then the story veers into a much more gothic, mystical tale of the elemental forces of good and evil.

Connelly is in search of a very distinctive, badly scarred man, and he soon finds that he is not the only one. Other seekers have similar tales of horror at what this man-monster has done to them and their loved ones. He collects a straggle of fellow travellers, and loses some again along the way. For he must find and destroy the man at all costs. But just who is this Mr Shivers? Is he a monster or the devil himself?

I couldn’t wait to read on in anticipation of the next move, the next encounter, and the final denouement. It is a very well written first novel, and stirs up profound feelings of the power of good and evil. It is just a shame that the dust jacket gives away that Connelly is seeking revenge for the murder of his daughter. This is not revealed until a way into the book and would have been so much more powerful if it had stayed that way. Bit this is a minor quibble. Jackson Bennett is certainly one to watch, and if his descriptive powers are anything to go by, he will produce more profound, chilling works yet.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Exhibitions - Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead - British Museum

Star rating – 8/10

The sense of drama and history I get as I pass under the magnificent Ionic, not to mention iconic, pillars of the British Museum is palpable. And the special exhibitions in the beautiful and inspiring dome of the reading room within its walls certainly have an awesome setting. But not all have lived up to my always grand entrance into the building. But this latest offering about the attitude and rituals of the ancient Egyptians towards death and the afterlife certainly lives up to its star billing.

I admit that I am a sucker for all things Egyptian and ancient. The death mask of the boy king Tutankhamen in the Cairo museum is quite probably the most beautiful and mesmerising object that I have ever seen. I was transfixed and dazzled by its perfection for a long time when I was lucky enough to see it a few summers ago. But this exhibition about the rituals and beliefs of the Egyptians around death and the afterlife is not so much noteworthy and memorable for any particularly beautiful single object, but for its totality as an illuminating event.

We are all familiar with the process of mummification that Egyptians followed to give their dead divine qualities, but we are probably not so familiar with the totality of their rituals surrounding their departure from this world and hopeful entrance to the next. Death was just a part of the eternal cycle of life to them. Nothing more, and nothing less. They believed that people had both physical and spiritual attributes, which were separated from each other at death, and had to be reunited to attain the holy grail of eternal life. Key to the process of reunification were the gods Ra and Osiris. Ra was the sun god and creator of the world, who died each day as the sun went down, and rose each morning to a new dawn. Osiris was a mythical king who was murdered by his brother, and brought back to life by the goddess Isis.

Magic and spells were key to the whole process of entering the afterlife, and the power of the written word resulted in the Book of the Dead – a collection of the famous hieroglyphics which we are so familiar with today. These manuscripts were buried with them (only the highest ranking ones of course), written on the walls of their tombs, and on the coffins themselves. And boy were the ancient Egyptians confident of their destiny: ‘I am noble, I am a spirit, I am equipped: O all you gods and all you spirits, make a path for me’ is a particular favourite of mine. No self doubts, a touch of arrogance – might as well have been Mancunians.

And some of the spells doubled as fixes for illnesses of the living – great multi tasking. The women of course had to make do with being a part of the papyri of their husbands. That is until around 1100BC when I am not sure why but they struck out on their own. One particular book that caught my eye was that of Anhai the Chantress of Amin –now there’s a great title for you. Having said that this exhibition is all about finding out about the detail of the process, there are some beautiful pieces in it, such as the golden coffin of Henutmehyt, and the golden masks of the dead, fashioned to make them resemble gods.

The netherworld was a mysterious place for the Egyptians, and they had odd notions of how to reach it. The heart was the location of the mind for them, and it had to be weighed on a set of scales against a god to see if they merited entry into paradise. If they were not worthy and had been particularly bad in their human life their heart would be eaten by a monster – ouch.

They had great spells to ward off nasties on their journey, such as a spell to prevent them being tipped upside down and thus having to consume their own urine and faeces; and a spell for repelling beetles: ‘Begone from me! O crooked lips’. And they were not averse to a bit of cheating. They tried to cheat death by pleading with their hearts not to testify against them for their mortal sins.

This is a beautiful, fascinating exhibition, full of minute details and familiar images, but put into a totally new context. Catch it if you can – and be sure to make a grand entrance.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Books - Parrot and Olivier in America - by Peter Carey

Star rating – 5/10

I felt it was an omission on my part not to have read any of the previous novels of Peter Carey, twice winner of the Booker prize, so I was intrigued enough to start his latest Booker shortlisted book ‘Parrot and Olivier in America’. It is the story of two central 19th century characters, Olivier de Garmont, a young French aristocrat who needs to escape from post revolutionary France; and Parrot who is an older working class Englishman with republican leanings.

They are thrown together in an odd sort of way by Olivier’s mother, who wants her son kept an eye on as he travels to America. She makes Parrot a co-signatory of his bank account, which makes for a distinctly unusual master-servant relationship. Some of the differences that Olivier finds when he gets to American are amusingly told, such as the very flexible attitude to class, and the belief that all people can make their way up in the world with no limit put on their success by class.

Carey tells the tale through the words of both men in alternate chapters, which I found slightly confusing and leads to a lack of focus. I am sorry to say that I didn’t have much sympathy for either of them as they get in and out of various escapades and scrapes. It is undoubtedly a clever novel, with Olivier’s character being loosely based on the French scholar of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville. I get the feeling that it is trying to be too clever for its own good, and somewhat looses grip on plot and storyline in the process. So not an impressive introduction for me to the work of Peter Carey.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Gigs - Dave Haslam Close Up with John Bramwell - Green Room

Star rating – 9/10

Having been slightly admonished for not covering any of the previous ‘Close Up with...’ events, it is a pleasure to put that right by reviewing this wonderful event featuring I Am Kloot’s front man and songwriter, John Bramwell.

The format is an intimate one, with the opening session a 40 minute interview, followed by a brilliant solo acoustic set of 6 songs, then a question and answer session from the audience. Bramwell is an open, honest, amusing and very engaging interviewee. He hardly needed much prompting from Dave Haslam to recount numerous funny tales, and touching snippets to give a window into his world. Haslam was though, a great enabler, interjecting just enough to keep the tales flowing in the right direction. He started off with the time when he was the Wine and Spirits Manager in Hyde Tesco and somehow managed to seriously over order the whisky, plus leave the stock mysteriously £5,000 short. Obviously not his calling then – Tesco that is, not the booze. But he managed to leave on good terms – I can’t imagine anyone leaving John on anything other than good terms to be honest he is so charming and damn nice.

His song writing technique was explored, and he seems to just get words and melody at the same time in a strange but near perfect process. He has tremendous respect for his follow Kloot members, who he is obviously very much at home with.

Bramwell is not a slick rock star, he is self effacing, witty, intelligent, and seemingly good, if probably slightly wild, company. He does not buy into the Manchester label that is often put on the band, preferring instead to connect with landscapes and night skies. The interview could have gone on for twice as long, at least, as he got into his stride and relaxed into the format.

The acoustic set the followed the interview and did not disappoint. He started off with ‘From Your Favourite Sky’ just because he loves it. And the lyrics show what an insightful songwriter he is – just touching on enough raw nerves to draw the listener in and wonder how on earth he knows just how they feel. And so what is love indeed. He goes to delight with ‘I Believe’ and ‘Storm Warning’. He then hilariously reveals before he sings the song, that he wrote ’86 TVs’ about an experience at Granada Studios with a transsexual. Then a couple of great tracks from their latest, Mercury nominated, ‘Sky At Night’ album.

The Q&A session was just as engaging and touching, even though most of the questions seem to come from his long time friends and housemates. John Bramwell just seems like that kind of guy. He revealed a youthful love of Hawkwind, and a current penchant for classical music like Holst so that his music listening didn't interfere with his own creative processes by crowding out any potential new songs. My world could do with more sensitive, honest song smiths like him.