June book reviews by Steve Earles

Various book reviews after the cut:

We Are Pirates’ by Daniel Handler

Published by Bloomsbury Circus

Reviewed by Steve Earles

This book is beautifully bound and presented, it looks and feels mysterious in the same way the contents are mysterious…no wonder it is endorsed by the likes of Russell T Davis and Neil Gaiman.

It’s a great read indeed, a tale of modern day pirates in one sense, but, more importantly, it is about the constraints we live under, whether imposed from within or without, and how we could escape these boundaries if we were prepared to strive hard enough to do so.

The book itself is a fine example of this idea. It is not a typical book, it is wild, original, and unrestrained, something we should all strive to be. As Oscar Wilde memorably and wisely said: ‘be yourself, everyone else is already taken.’

A book then that exceeds the boundaries some authors put on themselves, and hopefully if may have the same wild effect on its readers.

www.bloomsbury.com

Sidney James and The Shadow of Death’ (Granchester Mysteries Book 1) By James Runcie

Published by Bloomsbury

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Recently made into a six-part series for ITV, Sidney Chambers is cut very much from the same cloth as other period detectives such as Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, and Lord Peter Wimsey, and would very much appeal to any fans of the aforementioned detectives.

All the tales of the crime-fighting Sidney Chambers in this volume are beautifully written. We live in an era when so many books are bloated and over-written, so it’s a pleasure to read something as concise as this where every word counts.

Sidney Chambers is a three-dimensional character with a past and capable of great depths, and he is backed up by a believable cast of supporting characters.

On the strength of this find book, I look forward to future Sidney Chambers stories.

www.jamesruncie.com

www.grantchestermysteries.com

www.bloomsbury.com

Rifleman: A Frontline Life from Alamein and Dresden to the fall of the Berlin Wall’ by Victor Gregg with Rick Stroud

Published by Bloomsbury

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Born in the year following the conclusion of the Great War, Victor Gregg joined the Rifle Brigade at nineteen years of age. He was sent to the Middle East where he saw action in Palestine. He fought in the desert and at the battle of Alamein, after which he joined the Parachute Regiment and fought at the Battle of Arnhem. Captured, and sentenced to death in Dresden, he escaped execution only because of the Allies’ infamous firebombing of the city.

In 1946 he finally left the army, but his adventures were not over. He became chauffeur to the Chairman of the Moscow Norody Bank in London. In 1989, he found himself at a rally in Eastern Europe by a fence that marked the border with the Soviet Union, and cut the wire.

This is a tale of a life truly lived in the real world, something we will see less and less of in the future.

The most valuable part of this book is the first hand account of the terrible Dresden fire-bombing, a truly horrific event, and Gregg was actually there, lending his account the power of experience.

I’d love to see this book made into a film or television series as it truly is more powerful than any work of fiction.

www.bloomsbury.com

World War II: The Definitive Visual Guide’

Editorial Consultant: Richard Holmes

Published by Dorling Kindersley

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Dorling Kindersley rightly has a reputation for producing definitive, beautifully presented books on a myriad of subjects. Simple put, if you were to purchase only one book on World War 2, make it this one, as, not only will you get a lifetime of use out it, but so will your descendents.

The text, as you’d expect, is precise, every word is of value. The layout is first class, and as always, the photographs and illustrations are world-class.

Simply put, indispensible for anyone interested in the history of World War 2

www.dk.com

Alfred Hitchcock’ by Peter Ackroyd

Published by Chatto & Windus

Reviewed by Steve Earles

They say that the child is the father of the man and reading Peter Ackroyd’s fine biography of Alfred Hitchcock, we see that is very true.

Hictchcock was fat and lonely as a child, leading an isolated life, plotting imaginary journeys across Europe. A subconscious desire to escape from a child who feared leaving his bedroom, yet he was to grow up to become one of the 20th century’s most revered and influential directors.

Ackroyd humanises Hitchcock in his sympathetic biography. The star power in this biography is high enough to populate several blockbusters, including Carey Grant, James Stewart, and Grace Kelly.

Hitchcock craftily managed his own image. His distinctive silhouette became iconic in its own right. He made cameos in his own films, and he knew just what, and how much, to reveal to the press. Before it became commonplace, Hitchcock actually became his own brand.

There was a dark side to Hitchcock, he relished cruel practical jokes, and the exercise of power, something you can see echoes of in his films, and at the end of the day, cinema is all about the manipulation of emotions, something Hitchcock was a master at.

Well-researched, and very readable, a great starting point for anyone interested in Hitchcock and his works.

www.vintage-books.co.uk

Original Rockers’ by Richard King

Published by Faber & Faber

Reviewed by Steve Earles

There was, is, and hopefully always will be something magical about record shops. The thrill of buying a record because you liked the cover (Iron Maiden are a good example of this, as are Mastodon and Motorhead), and discovering if the music within actually matches or even exceeds, the soundscape your mind has conjured up.

Record shops are also a great place to discover new bands, information about gigs, and meet like-minded folk, and so forth.

Richard King has not produced an enjoyable book about his time working for Bristol’s Revolver Records (Jack Black’s character in the film Hi-Fidelity isn’t as far-fetched as you might think!), but he also goes off on entertaining tangents about songs he likes and why he likes them. It’s like having a good chat with a friend about music.

So, an excellent and enjoyable book on many levels.

www.faber.co.uk

I’ve Always Kept A Unicorn: The Biography of Sandy Denny’ by Mick Houghton

Foreword by Richard Thompson’

Publised by Faber & Faber

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Sandy Denny was one of the great British singer-songwriters of her time, and produced an enduring body of work

Her musical origins lay in the British folk music scene of the 1960s.

She joined Fairport Convention in the seminal year of 1968, recording three albums with them in an incredibly brief period of time, before leaving the band in November 1969, just prior to the release of their ‘Liege & Lief’ album.

She then formed the band Fortheringay with her future husband Trevor Lucas but left the band after recording their self-titled debut album.

She followed this by recording a duet with Robert Plant on Led Zeppelin’s now classic ‘The Battle of Evermore’. She remains the only guest vocalist to record with the band.

She was to go on to record four solo albums and to return to Fairport Convention. Before her tragic death aged only thirty-one, in 1978.

It’s a very human story. Her talent was dogged by her own insecurity, but the same can be said for all of us in some way or another.

Based on a great many interviews with Sandy’s friends and fellow musicians, and with access to Sandy’s photographs and notebooks, this is a superb biography, one with a great deal of depth and insight.

You ask yourself as you read, what would Sandy have achieved if she had lived and what would She have thought of our era where music is being rendered disposable and valueless.

But Sandy’s voice, ethereal and timeless, is still with us, and that at least is some comfort.

www.faber.co.uk

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From The Crematorium’ by Caitlin Doughty

Published by Canongate

Reviewed by Steve Earles.

Death, particularly our own, or of those we love, is something few people want to contemplate, yet it is the one thing we all have in common, it is our shared destiny and eventual destination. Death unites us all, and should, if we were rational about it, show how silly the things we worry, fight, or fret about truly are. Recently, I attended the funeral of a relative, and her husband said a very true thing to me, ‘it puts it all in perspective.’ I constantly think of what he said, it took him over seventy years and the worst loss of his life to realise, so the least I can do is take his wisdom on board

And wisdom is what Caitin writes so eloquently about in ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’. Working in the funeral industry, she has more experience of death than most and in this compassionate and very funny memoir she shares her experiences and insights with us.

Her experiences working in the funeral industry would in themselves be enough to produce an enormously enlightening book. But, Caitlin is a born writer and her muse takes her off into a great many unexpected but welcome tangents, while still remaining within the narrative whole. She is also very respectful to her subject matter. I really enjoyed reading about how other cultures approach death, either now or in the past.

An important part of this book is the need to accept death as the inevitable conclusion to our loves, that hiding the reality of death is actually harmful to the quality of our lives. Caitlin argues that it only by accepting the reality of death, that we value our lives and live them to the full.

I have attended a number of funerals in recent years, and I observed that where the body was waked in the family home, in an atmosphere of friendship and celebrating the deceased’s life, that everyone came to terms with it much better than had everything being hidden. (And there’s nothing more frightening than the unseen.)

An important book, one that will change the way you look, not only at death, but life itself, particularly your own life.

Caitlin’s website www.orderofthegooddeath.com

www.canongate.tv

Remaking Horror: Hollywood’s New Reliance on Scares of Old’ by James Francis, Jr.

Published by McFarland

Reviewed by Steve Earles

‘Remaking Horror’ is an incisive, in-depth exploration of Hollywood’s current craze for remaking films, particularly horror films.

Sometimes, sequels, remakes, or reboots are a good idea. The recent reboot of Mad Max, Fury Road, is a truly superb piece of cinema, a thing of post-apocalyptic beauty and joy forever.

But then we have endless sequels and remakes/reboots of films we either loved the first time or else couldn’t care less about.

But whichever way your opinion swings, it’s a really good idea for a book. Francis is a good writer and his book has a good deal to say.

In chapter two, his exploration of Psycho and its remake is a masterful piece of film writing, and I felt it was very fair. At the end of the day, the original Psycho still exists, so everyone should relax a little.

The third chapter, on John Carpenter’s Halloween, and its many sequels and remakes is very good indeed, and could have done with being longer. Whereas, the fourth chapter, on Friday The 13th, seems far too long, but is much more interesting that its tedious subject matter would suggest.

Chapter five covers A Nightmare On Elms Street, not a series of films I like at all, but well written about.

Elsewhere Francis speaks well of such superior remakes as John Carpenter’s version of ‘The Thing’ and David Cronenberg’s ‘The Fly.’

On The Thing Francis writes very perceptively: ‘Carpenter’s film is considered a horror classic, and often a cult classic because of its worldwide recognition, although it did not do well at the box office. It is also extremely popular for its use of Rob Bottin’s special creature effects that continue to stand the test of time among contemporary films with computer graphic enhancements. It is an import film in the remake annals of horror because it took an early sci-fi horror movie and made it pure horror.’

I also have to praise ‘The Thing’s excellent 2011 prequel of the same name, which features a superb performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead (interestingly, Carpenter’s film was criticised on release for its lack of female characters, so that makes this film doubly interesting).

He also covers the three remakes of the 1956 ‘Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.’ I love the original, but all three remakes have their merits. He writes perceptibly: ‘There are few things in life we can control, but a vast majority of people appreciate the ability to control the body and mind. When there innate qualities are taken away from us, fear reaches a new horrifying level.’

Of course, there are so many bad remakes too, ‘Village of the Damned’, ‘The Haunting’, ‘House of Wax’, the list is depressingly endless…

George Romero’s zombie films are covered, of course, the original trilogy are stone-cold classics. Francis rightly praises the superb ‘Land of the Dead’. Sadly, Romoro’s next two zombie films, ‘Diary of the Dead’, and ‘Twilight of the Dead’, are very poor by his own previously high standards.

The book features some excellent interviews with the likes of Kane Hodder, Robert Englund, and the one and only Mr. Bruce Campbell.

Overall, a valuable book on a very relevant subject and one that would interest a wide audience.

www.mcfarlandpub.com

The Hellraiser Films And Their Legacy’ by Paul Kane

Foreword by Doug Bradley

Published by McFarland

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Clive Barker’s 1887 film of his own story ‘The Hellbound Heart’, ‘Hellraiser’, has become a hugely successful and influential piece of work, spawning a horde of sequels.

This fine book explores Hellraiser and its influences and its own influence on other art and culture in turn. Its influences can be seen in such films as ‘Dark City’, ‘Event Horizon’, ‘Hellboy’, and ‘The Matrix’. Look at ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ and look at the Borg, and compare them with Barker’s ‘Cenobites’. Pinhead even appeared in ‘The Simpsons.’

I was intrigued to read that the appearance of the Cenobites was inspired by a book on anatomy by Andreas Vesalius that Barker had seen.

A real joy for fans of the series are reproductions of Barker’s incredible concept artwork.

Paul begins with Barker’s influences on the genesis of Hellraiser, devoting much time, and rightly so, to the first film of the series. The behind-the-scenes production details are most impressive indeed.

Paul Kane explores the origins of Hell, and the influences of Gustave Dore’s artwork.

Paul writes perceptively of Leviathan (and indeed, sadly, also of so-called human ‘nature’), Hellraiser’s equivalent of the Devil: ‘In the world of Hellraiser, humanity is already corrupt and all Leviathan is doing is taking advantage of the fact. This logical fixation is reflected not only in the layout of its Hell but also in the mathematical and geometrical precision of its own shape. Gone are the serpent’s features, the hooves and goat’s head, even the red skin, horns and wings which denote chaos. Leviathan’s perfect octahedral form is order personified. This is why the original interpretation of a Lovecraftian god would never have worked. H.P. Lovecraft’s Old Ones, like Cthulu, were notable for their alien visage and slimy tentacles…Nor does Leviathan need to lie and cheat to get what it wants: the souls of the damned are there for the taking. If anything, it is the truth that this god deals in, penetrating the outer layers of human camouflage with its black light and seeing right into the very heart of a person, revealing who they truly are.’

On being told that Pinhead was at one time a man, Bradley said, ‘the first feeling I got was a deep sense of melancholia in the face, powerful and unsettling. The layout of the nails being symmetrical helps. It was clearly something that was done to him. The melancholy showed me he was human, once. He was, in a way he could not express, mourning the loss of his humanity.’ While Paul Kane comments: ‘Christopher Lee’s portrayal of the Count has much in common with Bradley’s. They both exude fear without having to do anything at all.’

It explores the film’s themes: the inevitable corruption of the flesh, the destruction of the traditional family unit, and religious themes.

The characters are explored in great detail and there is a fine forward from Doug Bradley who plays Pinhead.

I enjoyed reading about sequels that never made it into production. Barker had an idea for setting Hellraiser III in ancient Egypt! Barker told Doug Bradley the idea that the Great Pyramid was the very first Lament Configuration. (This might explain barker being attached to a remake of The Mummy). The unmade ‘Hellraiser:Hellfire’ also sounds very intriguing. There was also once a notion of a crossover with John Carptneter’s Halloweeen, entitled ‘Helloween.’

Most interestingly of all is a short film: ‘Filmed in the space of a weekend, on a small set at his Two Hours in the Dark, Inc, effects workshops in Canoga Park, California, Gary J. Tunnicliffe’s short Hellraiser film is certainly quite impressive. Shot for a budget of $2,400, twelve hundred of which was spent hiring a high definition camera from World Wide Broadcast Services, Inc. ‘No More Souls: One Last Slice of Sensation imagines an alternative future for Pinhead to the one shown in ‘Bloodline’. Here humanity has destroyed itself in a nuclear war and in one fell swoop both Heaven and Hell are filled to the brim with four million human souls. During the first millennium the souls were processed in Hell, but of course once they had run out there were no more souls to harvest.’

Paul Kane is an excellent writer and researcher, with an in-depth appreciation for his subject matter and a novelist’s skill for writing about it. I’d like to see this book reach more people as it truly is a fabulous piece of work, one that its subject matter deserves. It’s worth every penny, and is essential for fans of Clive Barker and Hellraiser…it has such sights to show you!

You can fine more about Paul Kane and his work at:

www.shadow-writer.co.uk

www.mcfarlandpub.com

The Dinosaur Films of Ray Harryhausen’ by Roy P. Webber

Published by McFarland

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Generations of people have grown up loving the films of Ray Harryhausen. His stop-motion creations have a special magic to them that no CGI enhancement can match. And while his mythological creatures (as seen in Jason and the Argonauts, for example) are justifiably lauded, there is a special quality to his dinosaur creations, possibly because they have an added dimension due to being anchored an archaeological and historical reality.

Roy P. Webber is the ideal man to write this book, his research is first class and he has the ability as a writer to carry it off. Moreover, he has the essential appreciation for Ray’s work.

And work it most certainly was, hard work. Designing, building and animating his creations was a herculean task, and it is covered in great detail here. Yet there is much here for the casual reader, with such films as ‘The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms’, Hammer’s ‘One Million Years BC’ and the incomparable ‘The Valley of Gwangi’ being covered with a superb level detail, including Willis O’Brien’s storyboards from a proposed 1940s version.

The illustrations are very good with a wealth of photos, concept art, and storyboard and design illustrations, for instance, sketches for an unused sequence from One Million Years BC. There is an incredible conceptual drawing of Gwangi’s battle to the death with Styracosaurus. There is also a fantastic series of Ray Harryhausen’s concept drawings (he was a superb artist) for an unfilmed climatic sequence in One Million Years BC in which a brontosaurus attacks the Rock encampment.

If any aspiring filmmaker wanted to learn about stop-motion animation, this book would be a great place to start.

Harryhausen was eventually given the ninth Gordon E. Sawyer Award, a lifetime achievement Oscar handed out to recognise “an individual in the motion picture industry whose technological contributions have brought credit to the industry.”

I also found the pieces about the films that Ray sadly didn’t get to meet very interesting, such as ‘Creatures of the Mist’ (which was to be based on the 1894 H. Rider Haggard novel of the same name.)

We can only hope that some appreciative filmmaker, such a Guillermo Del Toro, might one day revive these lost projects, as in the right hands they have to potential to join the classics Ray Harryhausen made in his lifetime.

To conclude, a well-written tribute to one of 20th century cinema’s true innovators and story-tellers.

www.mcfarlandpub.com