Book Review: The Three

I bought a used copy of this book in hardback, following some very good reviews around the blogs. It has taken me some time to get through it, with 480 pages, and a weighty ‘real’ book to prop up at bedtime.

Thinking of this review, I am left wondering ‘where do I start?’

This is a book about writing a book. Publishing that book, and what happens after that. The bulk of it is presented as the research done by that author, alongside news reports, survivor’s testimony, and interviews with people who knew other characters. It uses whole chapters of ‘text speak’ to show teenagers conversing, and others that are transcribed from taped conversations. Although this adds a very complex structure, it is never once confusing, and everything is in context throughout. Here is an online synopsis.

They’re here … The boy. The boy watch the boy watch the dead people oh Lordy there’s so many … They’re coming for me now. We’re all going soon. All of us. Pastor Len warn them that the boy he’s not to­­–
The last words of Pamela May Donald (1961 – 2012)

Black Thursday. The day that will never be forgotten. The day that four passenger planes crash, at almost exactly the same moment, at four different points around the globe.

There are only four survivors. Three are children, who emerge from the wreckage seemingly unhurt. But they are not unchanged. And the fourth is Pamela May Donald, who lives just long enough to record a voice message on her phone. A message that will change the world.

The message is a warning.

So, is it a science fiction book? Sort of.
An investigative thriller? Sort of.
A doomsday scenario? Sort of.
A dystopian tale? Sort of.

It seems from reviews that it is each of these to some readers, and all of those to many too. With global action switching from Japan to South Africa, Britain to the United States, it is certainly an ambitious book, with immense scope. It feels meticulously researched, much like way the character who is writing the book inside this novel researches her story. There are androids, spooky children, bitchy men and women, and Christian cults in America. The Biblical references are many, and the culture of modern-day Japan and South Africa is examined too.

Suffice to say, there is a lot going on. But it certainly held my attention. It also has one really great last page.

But all the way through, I couldn’t help but feel there would never be any conclusion. I suspected a sequel was in the works, and possibly a dramatic adaptation too. That made it difficult for me to get completely immersed, as much as I would have liked to.

No surprise then to discover a sequel is available now, and that the BBC is adapting this book into a TV serial.

This is currently only 99p in the UK, for the Kindle version. (As opposed to £14.99 for the original hardback)
If it sounds like your thing, here are some links.

TV Binge-Watch: ‘Chernobyl’

Over the past few days, I have watched all five episodes of the HBO/Sky Atlantic mini-series, ‘Chernobyl’. When this appeared on my NOW TV streaming box, I recalled reading many good reviews, so really wanted to see it. Investing more than five hours in one series is potentially risky, but I am pleased to say it paid off.

For anyone who didn’t know, the Ukrainian site of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl suffered a catastrophic accident, on the 26th of April, 1986. There was an explosion that exposed the reactor core, resulting in a leak of radiation that spread far and wide across the Soviet Union, and up into northern Europe too. This serious drama examines what happened, what caused it, and how the authorities reacted to it. Also how so many brave people sacrificed their lives in the hope of containing it.

As dramas go, this is excellent. Helped by a real period feel, and locations that also seem to be very authentic, it never fails to convince, at any level. The mostly British cast brings a touch of class to the acting, backed up by the ever-reliable Stellan Skarsgard. Jared Harris takes the lead, with the wonderful British actresses Emily Watson and Jessie Buckley in significant roles. For the script, we have some use of actual official documents to go on, then a lot of supposition from the writers.

But this is not really about who did what, and why. It takes us into a nightmare world, that of the ultimate doomsday scenario. Incredibly brave fire-fighters and helicopter pilots who receive so high a dose of radiation, their lives are measured in moments, or days. The control room workers present at the time of the explosion, who may or may not have been negligent. It matters little, as they barely survive past the time when they are able to speculate on the poor engineering that caused the accident.

Being ‘our version’ of Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, much is made of KGB interference, and how suspicions and bureaucracy interfere in the attempts to discover the truth.

But you can forget all that. Just sit back, and watch some wonderful performances, disturbing set-piece events, special effects that feel real, and a tribute to the brave people and their families who tried to help. Be warned, excellent make-up reproduces the effects of burns and radiation poisoning in all too gruesome detail. Thousands of people are conscripted into the area to clear up after evacuation, and many are employed to just wander around killing domestic pets that present a radiation risk. This is a far from easy watch, but in a world where we are still heavily dependent on nuclear power, it is perhaps something that everyone should see.

One scene is stuck in my mind. When the firemen and helicopter pilots who were first on scene are all dead, the authorities seal their bodies inside welded lead coffins. They are then buried in a mass grave, as their families watch tearfully from the edge. Some hold photos of their loved ones, but one young woman has only her husband’s shoe in her hand. A cement mixer truck arrives, and begins to entomb the lead coffins in a sea of concrete as the relatives look on.

Powerful indeed, and deeply affecting.

Thinking Aloud On a Sunday

The Quiet Life.

I woke up earlier to the distant sound of a lawn mower, which stopped soon after. Almost a hour later, and one car drove past the house. Since then, the only noise has been the sound of confused bees flying into the windows.
The soft tapping as they try a few times, before realising it is pointless.

The quiet life indeed.

Remembering the sayings of my youth today.
‘Live fast, and die young’. ‘Better to burn out, than just fade away’.

I genuinely never expected to get old. I worked in stressful jobs, smoked too many cigarettes, and liked a drink too. I lived fast, but didn’t die young. I used to say that I would be lucky to see sixty, and when I got to sixty, thought another five years might see me out. But that didn’t happen. I think about why that didn’t come to pass, and can only put it down to living a quiet life.
I stopped worrying about being able to go to shows and exhibitions, or the ability to eat out anytime I chose to. Stopped worrying about having to keep in touch with everyone, and to meet up on a constant rota of plans and engagements. And I moved away from the stress of life in the big city, the constant noise, and crowded streets.

I got a dog, and started to wander about. Living a quiet life.

I rarely go out in the evenings, and there is no circle of friends for me to socialise with. I sleep longer, think a lot more, take some photos occasionally, and read some books. The closest I get to excitement these days is enjoying a binge-watch of a TV series, or a good film that I have been looking forward to seeing.

When I lived in London, I used to hear people talking about wanting to live a quiet life, somewhere peaceful. I thought they lacked imagination, and would regret that choice. They would hanker after the bright lights and entertainment choices they had left behind, later realising that they had made the wrong decision. I didn’t tell them that of course, believing they had to find out the hard way.

Then I got to the age when I could imagine the same thing. I remembered those conversations with a wry smile, as I found myself having them with younger people keen to deter me from making the same decision. I concluded that you have to wait for the right time. That time when the quiet life beckons, and you are able to embrace it.

And I did.

Ollie’s Nose

Ollie is a dog driven by the need to sniff things and smell them carefully. His nose can seemingly detect almost anything long before he can see it with his eyes. And because he has never been neutered, his main obsession is to leave his own scent everywhere, to let every other dog and animal around know that he is in the ‘Hood’. The short walk to Beetley Meadows, with the entrance visible from our house, begins with Ollie sniffing our front hedge. He then marks a few leaves of that hedge, just in case any other dogs are in doubt that he lives here.

Next, every road sign, wheelie bin, front gate, and back fence has to be marked, in a walk of less than one hundred yards that can take a good few minutes. Then his lead is removed, and he is free to mark the sign telling everyone about Beetley Meadows, before dealing with the four corners of the fences surrounding the children’s playground, followed by the basketball court. The first big Oak tree always gets a cursory splash, prior to the serious work of marking the nettles and other plants fringing the pathways.

Once he is satisfied with that, he lifts his head, nose twitching. He is trying to get the smell of any other local dogs, or a squirrel or deer in the vicinity. I am usually well ahead of him by the time he catches me up, after he has been checking under the blackberry bushes for any evidence of much smaller dogs who might have peed up them. Once we get to the bend in the river, Ollie goes into overdrive. There is the rubbish bin to deal with, the dog-waste bin, and the assorted picnic tables and benches.

By now, his ‘marking tanks’ have almost run dry, so he is straight into the river to refill them with a very big drink. Cooled and replenished, he trots off to sort out half a dozen molehills, and the reeds at the side of the riverbank. All this, and we have only been out for ten minutes. Once we are under the trees, every tree and overhanging branch must be inspected. As those trees are home to lots of squirrels, this takes a considerable amount of time. So I carry on walking, and let him catch me up later.

If he arrives with his jowls covered in froth, looking like he has just downed an exceptionally milky cappuccino, then I can be sure he has detected some ‘lady-dog pee’. And if that dog was in season, he will have enough foam around his mouth to make any passerby think he had Rabies.

We have now arrived at the bridge, on the way across to Hoe Rough.

The bridge has to be inspected carefully by Ollie. So many dogs cross it in a day, that he has to mark at least three spots, sometimes five. And woe betide I try to pull him away using his lead. He will stand his ground, suddenly becoming dead weight, refusing to budge until the sniffing is complete. Getting through the gate at Hoe Rough is a mission in itself. Every wooden bar and post of the large gate has to be examined in minute detail, and ‘precision pees’ delivered onto the smallest areas. Any dog coming onto the small nature reserve must be left in no doubt that Ollie has entered before them.

Then I let him off again, for the majority of his daily walk. Off he goes, tracking overnight deer, dogs from earlier that day, and any other smell of any sort he can detect. Once the long walk is over, you can guarantee that he will repeat the process as we retrace our steps on the way home.

Just in case.

Film thoughts: Photography

A long time before I ever owned a camera, I was being taken to the cinema every week by my parents. Most of the time, I just enjoyed the experience of being in the luxurious change of surroundings, staring up at the huge screen, the action playing out before my wide eyes, and the escape from the everyday working-class life it provided. I didn’t think much about directors, scriptwriters, casting, lighting, and editing. And I didn’t have a clue about cinematography.

Then something in me changed.

I was only ten years old when I was taken to see the film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. I thought it was wonderful, one of the best films I had ever seen up to then, if not the best. The huge epic had it all. Wonderful scenery, a great cast, historical interest, and breathtaking set-piece action sequences. I couldn’t stop talking about how good it was for weeks. It was probably about another six months before it dawned on me why I thought seeing that film was such a magical experience, and why so many scenes were indelibly imprinted on my memory.

It was photographed. Just look at this.

As any real film-fan will tell you, pointing a film camera at a scene and yelling ‘Action’ is no guarantee of producing something wonderful to behold. Of all the tens of thousands of films made, really memorable photography is not something that is often mentioned. People discuss the performances of the cast, social relevance, new genres, special effects, costumes, and make-up. But whether or not a film is photographed is a topic that rarely comes up.

Once I had realised why I liked David Lean’s film so much, I began to watch films with a very different ‘eye’. I still didn’t own a camera, but I began to look out for scenes that were more like moving photos, than people passing by the lens of a camera. David Lean gave us so many more like this, from ‘Great Expectations’, to ‘Ryan’s Daughter’. Other directors featured heavily in my formative years of such appreciation, including the incomparable Akira Kurosawa, and Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky.

But I always bang on about films with subtitles and British film-makers on this blog. So to highlight what appeals to me about a film being ‘photographed’, I will feature more modern films instead, and all made in America, with various casts, by a mix of directors.

In 1973, I had been very impressed with a film called ‘Badlands’, directed by someone called Terrence Malick. Five years later, I heard about a new film he had made, and went to see it. The romantic love triangle story was not my usual attraction to a cinema, but with a strong cast, and that name of Malick again, I decided to give it a try. ‘Days of Heaven’ was set in 1916, in Texas, but filmed in Canada on a very small budget. I sat looking in wonder at the screen. The plot was almost irrelevant, as I gazed at the wonderful images. This confirmed what I had suspected five years earlier. That man Malick knew how a film should be photographed. The Academy later agreed with me, giving the film the Oscar for Best Cinematography.

Twenty years later, and Malick caught my attention again. War films are rarely photographed. They concentrate on action, with huge casts, and lots going on. But in his film set during the Pacific War battle of Guadalcanal, he changed the rules. Can a war film be ‘beautiful’? You bet it can. From the idyllic beaches of remote islands, to the swaying grasslands of the interior, Malick manages to show us wonder, alongside the barbarity of war.

2007 was one of the best years for photographed films, with two outstanding examples that excited me a great deal. The first one I got to see was ‘There Will Be Blood’, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. I was attracted by the casting of Daniel Day Lewis, a British actor who famously immerses himself in any role. I read some surprisingly bad reviews of the film, but was still determined to go and see it. Twelve years later, and I can recall scenes at will. I can feel the heat off the screen, and smell the oil spurting from the wells. And mainly because this was a film that was truly photographed, allowing those scenes to imprint themselves on my mind.

I can take or leave a lot of films in the genre popularly called ‘Westerns’. I have seen a lot, and remember those I have enjoyed. Up to then, I probably thought of John Ford’s famous film ‘The Searchers’ as perhaps a great example of using photographed scenery in a film. But with a few exceptions, I never really considered Westerns to be ‘my thing’, especially when it came to being blown away by watching one. And then I went to see a film with an annoyingly long title, ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’, made by Andrew Dominik. I was attracted to the film not by the star, Brad Pitt, but by his co-star, Casey Affleck, someone I thought was one of the best actors of his generation.
What I didn’t expect, was to discover one of the finest examples of a ‘photographed film’ I had ever seen. It is just sublime to watch.

So there you have five examples, from 1962, to 2007. I could list quite a lot more of course, but I would prefer to know your choices.
Please add them, in the comments.

The Longest Day

Today is midsummer’s day, in this part of the world. The sun will not set until 9:30 this evening, giving today its title of the longest day.

From tomorrow, the sun will begin to set earlier, as the countdown to autumn begins.

But it has stopped raining, finally. Even a supposedly dry day yesterday saw some light showers here, and that made it a full three weeks with rain every day. However, the sun is shining this morning, and the forecast is good.
At least for a few days.

Ollie will enjoy a much longer walk, and I will cherish a dry day to walk him in. If they got the forecast right, I might even be able to tackle some jobs in the neglected garden tomorrow, and will be hoping that the last remaining water from the small flood in the shed dries out.

Weather can affect our mood, so they say. I know it certainly affects mine.

Happy midsummer’s day, everyone! 🙂

The Parapet Of Obscurity

I mentioned on Maggie’s blog that writing or blogging online might well be an effort to let others know we exist.

I likened it to ‘putting our head up above the parapet of obscurity’.

Maggie liked that line, which made me think more about it.

Before the advent of the Internet, it was all too easy to get lost in the crowd. Unless you were a sporting hero, an eminent politician, a popular film star or musician, perhaps a famous published writer, you could easily spend your entire life unknown other than to your family, friends, and work colleagues.

Most people lived and died without notice or mention, and any legacy they left of their ordinary lives was in some faded photos, and the memories of those who had encountered them.

Then Blogging arrived.

We no longer had to send pages of manuscripts to publishers, in the hope of getting our thoughts and ideas converted into articles or books. Class distinctions no longer applied, with usernames and graphics becoming the norm. Nobody had to know where you were from, whether or not you were well-educated, or what accent you had when you spoke. Unless you decided to tell the world, it was unclear whether you were male or female, old or young. Perhaps the only clue to your origins might be the language you were writing in. But with so many people speaking English, even that was no guarantee of where you might originate from.

Anyone who so desired could tell the world what they thought. They could have opinions that were widely shared, or be outrageously outspoken. The anonymity of your username ensured that you could do what you liked with no repercussions, other than some comment debate with those who didn’t agree with you. But even that could be skipped, as you could just refuse to approve their comments. If you wanted to publish your book, you could serialise it on your blog, cutting out the need to submit it to a company for approval. You could post photos of places you liked, or had visited, and tell anyone who was reading just what you thought of them.

An explosion of opinion arrived online. Opinions about everything from American presidents, to the quality of some blogger’s poetry. You could find yourself very popular, or perhaps reviled, depending on who was actually bothering to read your stuff. Those bloggers could be meek and needy, or rude and arrogant. Nothing mattered, because you were unknown, and anonymous.

Ironically, this very thing still made those bloggers as obscure and unknown as they would have been without the benefit of the online platforms they were using.

So some people, myself included, decided to stick our heads up above that parapet of obscurity, and actually tell everyone who we really were. Where we lived too, and how old we were. What we had done with our lives so far, and what we hoped to do with the rest. Whether we were married, single, gay or straight, depressed or happy. What we liked to eat, and what we didn’t like. We carried on with our ‘like them or not’ opinions, and cast our thoughts out online as if using small fishing nets in an huge, unfamiliar ocean.

We made some friends, and possibly some enemies too. Risking the disapproval of anyone who had access to the Internet, and potentially causing a great deal of embarrassment to those we knew and loved. And many of us laid our lives open to scrutiny, our pasts, and our presents. For all those of us who have chosen to throw off that cloak of anonymity, we should bear something in mind.

It will be ‘out there’ forever, and can never be taken back. Even if you delete your blog, every comment you made elsewhere will still exist. Your photos will be somewhere on a ‘cloud’, and as long as the Internet exists in its present form, whatever you have written about will never disappear. It doesn’t concern me, as I am closer to the end of my life than the beginning. But take heed, before you follow my example.

Once your head appears over that parapet, it cannot go back to obscurity.