Book review: Snuff, Terry Pratchett

Snuff, Terry PratchettAlternate title: Vimes Takes a Holiday, in which Terry Pratchett’s uber-cop Sam Vimes (who by this point has become the Discworld’s Jack Bauer) retreats to his wife Sybil’s country estate on an enforced vacation. Naturally, the countryside proves less idyllic than it seems.

But it takes forever to get the less-idyllic-than-it-seems point. A ruthless editor could cut Snuff down to a novella and still have time to leave work early. Pratchett takes his time letting you know what kind of game he’s playing here, and the build-up is more infuriating than intriguing. Yes, Snuff is ripe with Pratchett’s usual narrative cleverness, but the longer the plot took to materialise the more I wanted to rattle the book to force it to fall out.

Eventually, a story emerges: Vimes’s nasty upper-crust peers are exploiting goblins, one of the last Discworld species still considered beneath humanity. This – “lower race promoted to equal footing as Discworld society is dragged into something resembling the modern day” – is well-trodden Pratchett territory. His long-time readers will be entertained by the plot-turns, but they won’t be surprised by any of them.

Same goes for Snuff‘s black-and-white characters. Vimes, for all his concern about the darkness inside him that threatens to erupt any moment, is a straight-up good guy. There’s never any real worry he’ll slip into darkness. And his opponents are straight-up bad guys, cardboard villains with little motivation beyond Being Evil. (Notably, the goodies are mostly drawn from or associated with the grubby lower classes; the upperclassmen are generally rotten to the core.) “The Sociopath” has become a stock Pratchett character, and there’s not a lot separating Snuff‘s Stratford with someone like Hogfather‘s Teatime.

Previously: Book review: Unseen Academicals, Terry Pratchett


Movie review: Total Recall

Total Recall
The number one reason you go see Total Recall is to check out the woman with the three boobs. So of course I missed the woman with the three boobs because I ducked out for a toilet break during her bit. Sorry I missed your moment of glory, three-boobed woman.

Not that I can be blamed for ducking out. Most movies, the toilet break is something you avoid, or at least try to time right so you don’t miss anything. Total Recall, it doesn’t matter when or how many toilet breaks you take. You’re not going to miss anything (aside from the aforementioned woman with three boobs). It’s impossible to overlook any important plot points. There aren’t any.

So the set-up (and really this film is just set-up) is this: Colin Farrell plays factory worker Douglas Quaid, who inhabits a not-too-distant dystopian future where most of Earth has been destroyed by chemical warfare. There’s hardly any space for the surviving humans to live, though Douglas and his wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale, who I’ve only recently learned is not actually called Kate Beckinsdale. I’ve been calling her Krandle!) still have a pretty massive apartment.

Anyway. Douglas is totally bored with a hot wife and a job that affords him plenty of leisure time and a nice house. So he visits Rekall, which is basically a whorehouse where your memories get fucked instead of… you know. But! When the goons at Rekall go to plant some awesome fake memories in Douglas’s head, it backfires because it turns out all his memories are already false. Gosh! Douglas Quaid doesn’t exist: He’s actually a super-spy called Carl Hauser. Lori isn’t really his wife: she’s also a spy, who’s been assigned to keep an eye on him.

I haven’t seen the original 1990 Total Recall with Arnold Schwarzenegger. But I assume (thanks, Wikipedia) that it was kind of relevant that Quaid/Hauser visited a place that offered him false memories – because it raises questions about whether his discovery that he’s a spy is actually real, or just another illusion. There are no such dilemmas in 2012’s Total Recall, which never seriously suggests that Colin Farrell’s character is stuck in an artificial memory. It’s barely relevant that he even goes to Rekall. Because you wouldn’t want to trouble bonehead modern audiences with any kind of is-this-really-happening-or-not intellectual conundrum, right? (And, as I cynically suggested after I walked out of the cinema, if it turned out Quaid/Hauser was just dreaming the whole time, it makes it harder to sell the all-important potential sequel.)

Total RecallThis lack of anything resembling nuance or intellect pervades the whole of Total Recall. Everything here is surface. If you think about just about any of its storylines or exposition even for a second, you’re in danger of falling into scores of plot black holes. Like, Hauser’s boss is some guy called Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), the ruler of the United Federation of Britain, who’s evil because he wants to build a robot army, or something, to take over another country called the Colony (aka Australia, LOL), or something? Because the UFB is enslaving the Colony? And that’s bad? Or something? Instead of fleshing any of this out – which might give us even the tiniest inclination to care about what we’re watching – Total Recall just bounces from action scene to action scene, occasionally tossing out half-assed explanations about whatever apparently happened in the preceding minutes.

(PS: It kind of bugs me that the movie is called Total Recall yet he goes to Rekall. Just like how it kind of bugs me that it’s called True Blood but they drink Tru Blood. Pick and stick with a spelling, please.)

Farrell does a pretty great job… at being hot. Beckinsale also does a pretty great job… at being hot. Actually, that’s unfair: They’re both decent, in addition to lookin’ fine. However. Their co-star Jessica Biel, who plays Melina, Hauser’s spy partner/girlfriend/whatever? Well, she’s also lookin’ fine. But you could lift her entire character out the movie and it wouldn’t make a lick of difference. So it’s kind of hard to objectively judge Biel’s performance, when all Melina does is stand around doling out exposition and generally being utterly useless. I didn’t even know her name was Melina till I looked it up to write this. (Also: I waited the whole movie for there to be a pay-off explaining the decision to cast two female leads who look almost identical. There isn’t one. Spoiler alert!)

So, in asking yourself whether you should go see Total Recall, here’s what you’re really asking: How badly do I want to see a woman with three boobs on a big screen for two seconds? If the answer is “Really, really badly,” then I guess go check it out. And remember not to take a bathroom break during that bit.


Book review: Always You, Edina, V.G. Lee

Always You, Edina, V.G. LeeLast year I was pretty impressed by V.G. Lee’s short story “Knitting for Beginners, 1960,” a tale which featured in Paul Burston’s anthology Boys and Girls. That story centred on a 10-year-old schoolgirl Bonnie’s crush on the most popular girl in her class – nice, innocent, “aren’t kids adorably naive” stuff. Well! Turns out “Knitting” was just a sliver of the grander story that unfolds in Lee’s novel Always You, Edina. Which is a bit like eating a slice of cake then finding out you can stuff your face with the whole thing.

In Edina we first meet Bonnie as an adult, on one of her regular visits to a nursing home to see her (terrifically sharp-tongued) Gran. Bonnie seems reluctant to talk too much to Gran about her personal life, and her partner “Jay” (note that gender-ambiguous name), so instead their conversations tend to fall back on their family’s difficult history.

Flashback to Bonnie’s childhood in 1960s Birmingham (the same era “Knitting” is set): It’s working class, but seems pleasantly average. Emphasis on “seems”, because there’s more going on in the background that Bonnie realises. Her much-adored father is suspiciously close to his vivacious, bottle-blond sister-in-law – the eponymous Edina, who Bonnie idolises. Their relationship will have twisted consequences, even if Bonnie – who’s obsessed with her crush on popular girl Joanna and her rivalry with her cousin, Edina’s daughter – doesn’t comprehend what they’ll be.

Lee has a knack for gluing a child’s voice on to the page: Bonnie is both precocious and charmingly idiotic, insufferably convinced of her own importance. In other words, she’s exactly like every other 10 year old; there’s shades of Adrian Mole about her. She senses there’s bigger things going on than the ones that directly affect her daily life – the love triangle, her own unusual sexuality – but she’s too careless to be bothered by it. Which all contrasts nicely with the parts of the book set in the modern day (or at least, a day more modern than the 1960s). Grown-up Bonnie’s life has turned out okay, but her relationship with her family seems strained, and she’s not quite open about her sexuality.

Elements towards the end of the book are slapdash – notably when Gran awkwardly takes over the point of view to reveal some key plot points to Bonnie, and a soap opera twist when the identity of Bonnie’s long-time partner is finally revealed.

But any of Always You, Edina‘s flaws are overcome by its warm, funny tone, and the way it throws a spotlight on often-overshadowed subjects. For starters, “mainstream” culture generally pays a lot less attention to lesbians than it does to gay men. And it tells very few stories of gay children (or, to split hairs a little, children who grow up into gay adults) that aren’t weirdly sexualised.

(Also, I should mention: Lee very kindly sent me a free copy of Always You, Edina after she read my review of “Knitting for Beginners.” I mention this partly as a disclaimer but mostly because I want to boast about how an author personally requested that I review her book.)

Previously: Book review: Boys and Girls, edited by Paul Burston