Overthinking Atomic Blonde

I don’t often write film reviews, but I went to see the film Atomic Blonde recently and came out of it with mixed feelings. In the end, I decided I was overthinking it all, I should just enjoy the style over substance. But it got me wondering how black people feel when they see another film about the American Civil War or slavery, or how Muslims feel when they see a film about terrorists, or Germans when they watch the triumphalist war films that get shown again and again and again on British TV. I’d like to see a Cold War spy thriller from the Russian or East European perspective. Although totalitarianism was undeniable in those countries, there was genuine fear of the West as well…

First, here are the good things about the film:

  1. Charlize Theron is smart, beautiful, utterly fearless and independent, strong but not superhuman, nuanced psychologically (for an action film) and has a wardrobe to die for. (Fits in with the comic book origin of the story, but I’m not sure anyone in the 1980s dressed that well). She absolutely rocks the Debbie Harry vibe. I also like the French/Algerian secret agent character played by Sofia Boutella. Incidentally, in the original comic book this character was a man, but it was a very smart creative move to change the gender.
  2. The backdrop of Berlin in 1989 is picturesque and atmospheric, with a good use of details (interiors of flats in East Berlin, screening of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, underground breakdance parties in the East vs. decadent nightclubs in the West). As the main characters wandered around from one secret meeting to another, you couldn’t help feeling that this was more of an advertisement for Berlin than anything else.
  3. The music was brilliant: recognisable 80s hits, although mostly predating 1989. You can’t go wrong with an opening and closing sequence featuring David Bowie (Putting Out Fire/Cat People to start off with, and Under Pressure for the end). Plus there were some suitable German titles as well: Nena’s 99 Red Balloons, Peter Schilling’s Major Tom (memorably featured as title theme for Deutschland 83 series) and Falco’s Der Kommissar (although not in Falco’s German version, sadly). However, when you read how complicated it is to get approvals for all these songs, you realise that some tough choices had to be made.
  4. The fight scenes were well choreographed and more realistic than in most superhero or spy movies (although at times too gory for my delicate stomach). There were people panting, struggling, stumbling, being hurt, not quite succeeding, bruises and plasters galore. Life as a spy is not glamorous and James Bond like (although there are some champagne moments): it’s ice baths and careful make-up to cover up the wounds. And lots of pointless walking about and trusting no one, apparently.
Atomic Blonde (2017)
Charlize Theron

And then here are the things which I liked less.

A. The plot is incredibly convoluted and far-fetched. Which is fine, because it is based on a comic book. And in fact, if I am not mistaken, there was at some point in the 1980s a list of Western assets in Eastern Europe that intelligence agencies were afraid might end up in the wrong hands. (I can’t find any details about it, but if anyone knows about this, do let me know. I’m pretty sure I didn’t dream it up!)

B. The problem I always have with Cold War spy thrillers is that it was often far more boring than it’s depicted – but also more nuanced. Real spies would not go around killing members of the police – they were very keen to lie as low as possible. Having lived in an East European country myself at the time, I know that the ‘threat of repercussions’ was often more than enough to keep people in line. Self-censorship was a way of life. Spying was mostly done via bugging or denunciations from the inside. Real hunger (not so much in East Germany, which remained relatively prosperous) and greed for Western products was enough to enable small-scale denouncements (as hinted at by the black marketeer character of David Percival) – but these people seldom had anything of real value to offer. It would be more of a list of people who assembled at a church or demonstrated against the regime etc. The real hero of the film is Spyglass, who could no longer accept the Stasi policies but was aware of the devastating consequences this could have for himself and his family. The foreign spies? On the whole, they could parachute in and out without any trouble and enjoyed diplomatic immunity.

C. By November 1989, the situation would have escalated beyond the capabilities of any secret services. Most people in the former Eastern bloc are now convinced that the 1989 wave of revolutions was aided and abetted by Western intelligence agencies, and that they outwitted the Soviets in that instance. Some of the backbenchers of the Communist Party were no doubt approached and contributed to ousting their leaders, in the hope of gaining power themselves. However, there was also a degree of spontaneity to the mass demonstrations which caught them by surprise. Yes, they might have thought of the people as ‘cannon fodder’ to accelerate the fall of Communism and spread the capitalist ideology to new markets where they could sell their lesser quality goods (I remember those expired foodstuffs flooding our shelves in the 1990s). But, as always happens when you stoke the flames of revolutionary zeal, things don’t always work out as planned. Not everything went the way the Western powers had hoped.

Or perhaps I like to think that. So that assertion by the handsome East German contact Merkel(!) that he’s got people ready to cause trouble at any moment upset me…

Anyway, all this need not trouble you, the casual viewer. Go and enjoy the stylish noir vibe, dwell in 80s nostalgia, get the thrill of the action. Just try not to be facile in dividing the world into goodies and baddies once more…

 

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Can You Hear Me by Elena Varvello #EU27Project #WITMonth

How nice to find a book which fits in perfectly with two reading challenges! A contemporary entry for Women in Translation Month and for Italy in #EU27Project.

Elena Varvello is an Italian author from Turin and this is her first novel to be translated into English by Alex Valente. It has been described as a coming of age story and a thriller, but it is far more of the first, although it does have its suspenseful moments. It is also the story of the fissures tearing apart a family (or even two families) and a description of an individual mental breakdown and its effect on others.

The narrator is sixteen-year-old Elia Furenti, who lives with his mother and father on the outskirts of a small town in northern Italy, in a valley with a river, surrounded by forests. Despite its seemingly idyllic location, the town has fallen on hard times. The local factory has closed down and his father has lost his job. His father could be humorous and lively, but also a bit odd, yet the relationship between his parents has always been very loving. Yet after the closure of the factory, his father’s eccentricities have taken a turn for the worse. He seems to think there is a conspiracy against him and disappears for hours at a time. When a local boy goes missing, Elia can’t help but feel his father is somehow involved. And there is worse to follow…

If I have made this sound like a thriller, I am misleading you. Yes, there is a sense of foreboding and ‘what will happen next’. Especially in that part of the book which alternates chapters between Elia’s experience – how he befriends a boy his own age Stefano and his mother Anna, who have also been let down by a man – and his father’s attempt at kidnapping the girl who minds their neighbour’s daughter. (I am not giving away anything, as the author baldly states it in the very first sentence.)

But overall, it is far more about the unspoken, about all the things that crack open a facade and leave people broken, even though they pretend to be resilient. It is about people hiding the truth even from themselves. It is clear that Elia’s father suffers from some form of schizophrenia and/or paranoia, but everyone refuses to acknowledge it or seek help. This might seem infuriatingly obvious to readers, but from personal experience of friends with schizophrenia, I have seen families denying the fact for years, even decades.

Valley around Turin. From Tripsavvy.

With its ability to capture the tormented adolescent soul, it reminded me of Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, but this is far less idyllic and nostalgic. The tense, moody atmosphere, conveyed not through purple prose, but through a very restrained, economical style, is more reminiscent of Alberto Moravia. There are also hints of that author’s disenchantment with human nature, modern life and that elusive myth of finding happiness.

The book cover of Can You Hear Me captures that one moment of unalloyed happiness in the whole story. Yet even that is tinged by the discovery of some squashed beer cans in his one place of freedom and happiness. The idyllic valley becomes claustrophobic and Elia can’t wait to grow and move away… to another valley, another river, another forest just like the one he can’t quite leave behind.

Experimenting with Form: Six Stories and Sand

I have to admit I still get excited about novels which experiment with narrative structure and confound expectations. There is far too little tolerance for that from publishers (and perhaps readers too, but not as much as publishers think) nowadays. However, if I say that both Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski and Sand by Wolfgang Herrndorf are postmodern novels, you will probably yawn and want to run away a hundred miles. However, they both are postmodern thrillers, and one of them worked well for me, while the other didn’t.

Wolfgang Herrndorf: Sand (transl. Tim Mohr)

This mash-up of spy thriller, action movie and film noir is intent on messing with our heads – and it fully succeeded as far as this reader was concerned. I was confused, struggled to keep the various names, narrators and events apart, although the story was roughly chronological. The main character is ‘Carl’, an amnesiac who is found wandering in the desert, and who some believe to be a spy. He tries to find out more about his identity and encounters all sorts of villains, desperate people and a blonde femme fatale along the way.

Here are some of the post-modernist techniques I observed: parody (of thriller genres), black humour, clever little intertextual references (Lawrence of Arabia comes to mind, but also Casablanca and others) and metafiction (multiple possible beginnings, deliberate misdirection, unreliable narrators all undermining the authority of the author).

I have to admit there are flashes of brilliance and farcical situations in the book which made me laugh and gasp out loud (perhaps also wipe away a tear). But they were few and far between, not enough to make me rush back for more. I struggled to finish the book, which I felt became a victim of its own ambition to say something about the overall state of the world. Yet it succeeded, in a way, even if at the expense of coherence. That is, if the bleak message the author intended was the futility of being honest and good in a world where incompetence and stupidity reign supreme.

Matt Wesolowski: Six Stories 

In contrast, Wesolowski did not set out to be ambitiously and deliberately post-modern. Instead, he uses the popular format of serial podcasts to structure his novel and in doing so creates a Rashomon-like controversy over whose interpretation of events do you believe. Patterns emerge, but so do the gaps –  what are all these storytellers deliberately avoiding? Memory is of course notoriously unreliable, and over twenty years the participants in those mysterious events have had time to repress unpleasant memories or to reinterpret them in a self-justifying light.

So we find plenty of misdirection here, as hidden fears emerge and it becomes clear that the youngsters from 20 years ago misunderstood certain events or were projecting different personalities than they came to inhabit later in life. There is also a strong pastiche of podcasts, selfie-culture and our apparently endless appetite for true crime (including the rather bizarre practice of hooded interviews). Aside from Rashomon, there are allusions to The Wasp Factory, A Clockwork Orange, the Hound of the Baskervilles, perhaps even Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow and other books about disaffected youth and trying to piece together the truth about a so-called accidental death. Finally, here too we have a sense of mourning about the casual cruelty of youth, recklessness, stupidity and the senseless tragedy that ensues.

This book is not pretentiously post-modern and pregnant with weighty themes, it simply wants to tell a good story. And that is exactly why it works. I could not put it down until I finished it. While Sand had the heavy atmosphere of wading to the top of a steep sand dune, Six Stories was an exhilarating gallop through woodland and moors. There was an addictive quality to the writing, tinged with just enough horror and unexplained phenomena to make you shudder and read on, peeking through your fingers.

 

 

Crime Fiction Reviews: Gendered Crime?

I don’t believe in gender stereotypes, but it did occur to me that the last few crime/thriller novels had a bit of a gender bias in terms of subject matter. Written by women = psychological thriller; family, parenting and social issues. Written by men: violence, attacks, conspiracies, shadowy enemy (or everyone is an enemy), political agendas. I enjoy both types of subject matter, don’t consider one ‘better’ or ‘worthier’ than the other, and that’s why I alternate authors, genders and genres. I’m greedy, I want everything!

1974David Peace: 1974

I loved it and I hated it. It is very thought-provoking, a real fresco of the time and place (although just seen through the eyes of one character, which the author will remedy in the rest of the quartet). It is undeniably powerful and grim, perhaps too much so;  unrelentingly dark, so noir that not even a glimmer of hope or light comes through. And I say this as a huge fan of noir! I also found the staccato prose and swearing starts to grate after a while, although initially it is just perfect and captures the inflexions and nuances of Yorkshire speech patterns. But it’s worth remembering that this was Peace’s first novel, and that he keeps getting better and better.

Eddie Dunford, the main protagonist, is trying to make his mark as a crime correspondent. A right little prick he is too – using women, ready to cheat and lie and do anything to get ahead. But he is a bit out of his league with all the corruption and craziness going on around him. The story is (deliberately, I think) convoluted and often hard to understand, yet I can see how David Peace can become addictive.

Other male writers recently read: Matt Johnson – The Wicked Game. That too seemed filled with testosterone, hatred, machismo (nothing wrong with that).

tasteslikefearSarah Hilary: Tastes Like Fear

Sarah Hilary is fast becoming one of the most promising of new crime fiction writers (alongside other recent favourites like Mari Hannah, Eva Dolan and Stav Sherez). This is her third and perhaps most accomplished book to date. Everything just seems to come together in this one: perfectly-pitched plotting with alternating storylines (a device which has recently become so commonplace that it almost jars, but in this case it worked perfectly), atmospheric descriptions of a corner of London full of social contrasts, great observational skills and social commentary, occasional glimpses into the personal life of Marnie and Noah, the two main investigators, plus well-rounded characters, none of whom conforms to stereotype. I love the way Sarah Hilary takes topical subjects and makes you question every assumption or preconception you might have had.

This time the topic is about runaway teenagers and homelessness, vulnerability and visibility, anger and the need to feel loved/protected. Plus, what a great backdrop Battersea Power Station makes! (Oh, and Noah’s migraine suffering? Spot on, thanks for trying to explain to the rest of the world just how debilitating such an attack can be!)

whenshewasbadTammy Cohen: When She Was Bad

Many years ago, Anne Cater, American child psychologist, had to assess the impact of neglect and abuse on two small children in a horrific and notorious case which proved the making of the career of two of her (male) colleagues. Anne refused to go along with the consensus view and it seems she is now proved right, as one of the children went on to commit a horrifying deed in the UK in the present day. Just what it is and who it is – well, Tammy Cohen is teases us with the two strands of the story until the very end. This is one of those cases when the alternating between the two stories felt a little manipulative and intrusive (although they are both cracking stories in themselves).

The second strand is set in a workplace that will sound familiar to many. Kudos to the author for portraying so faithfully a place where targets, egos, ambitions, rivalries all are ripe fodder for resentment and murderous intent. A new boss soon creates a toxic atmosphere in a team in a recruitment consultancy. As distrust rises and tempers flare, matters are not improved by off-site bonding events (ah, yes, those dreaded things!). I have always wondered why there aren’t more novels set in the workplace, where we spend most of our lives, after all. But then I realised that it felt almost too familiar, it made me cringe with recognition – so perhaps there is not enough of an escapist element there. One small criticism would be that I felt the team members were selected especially to cover all bases (which is not the case in many workplaces, where there is a bit of clone effect in hiring): the gay man, the young ambitious guy, the stressed mother, the middle-aged woman cruising to retirement etc.

The other female writer was C.L. Taylor: The Missing, which I will review on CFL. The subject is very clearly domestic: the impact of a teenager’s disappearance on his family.

Now, when I talk about gender differences, I am not saying that the last two writers are ‘just’ women or treat ‘smaller’ subjects, but they do seem to have a more personal, immediate approach. Or perhaps I respond differently to them because I am a woman myself. Marnie and Anne are crusaders for truth just as much as Eddie in 1974, but there is less self-serving career advancement in their quest for justice, much more genuine concern for other people.

Two Recent Orenda Book Titles

It’s hard not to have favourites among publishers, although I primarily choose books and authors rather than from publishers’ catalogues. However, Virago (for women writers), Tuttle (for Japanese writers), Faber & Faber and Penguin Classics were my childhood favourites, and in recent years I have been impressed by Europa Editions, Gallic Books, Peirene Press, World Editions and Istros Books for their commitment to fiction in translation. One publisher who is unabashedly dedicated to genre fiction, especially thrillers and crime fiction, is Orenda Books and I have mentioned before how much I admire founder Karen Sullivan’s drive and energy in finding and promoting writers in the UK and abroad.

What is interesting about Orenda is that their list is made up of books which personally appeal to Karen, so they feature quite a mix of styles and subjects. Not all of them have sparked my interest, but the ones that have been in my ‘preferred genre’ have all been great picks, a surefire combination of commercial appeal and good writing. I will just mention here Nordic noir such as Ragnar Jonasson and Kati Hiekkapelto.

The two most recent titles I’ve read have been somewhat different, something which I would hesitate to label ‘psychological thrillers’, although they have their fair share of thrills and twists. They are stories which rip your heart and make you think long and hard.

jihadiYusuf Toropov: Jihadi – A Love Story

This is not the easiest of books to read, partly because of its themes (terrorism, random savagery, betrayal, misguided ideology – all uncomfortably close to real life and what I perceive the whole ‘war on terror’ to be), but above all because of its structure. The ‘document’ is largely written by a dead man, Thelonious Liddell, an intelligence officer accused of being a traitor, and is interspersed with comments very much like Post-It notes by a psychologist, who we gradually realise is in fact his wife Becky, herself an intelligence officer.  But it’s worth persevering with, because it  is unquestionably an important book for our times, a read that plunges you into the icy water of the costs and failures of ‘the war on terror’.

Thelonius’ memoir contains passages recounting significant moments from the point of view of two other characters whom he meets in the course of his assignment: Fatima, the devout interpreter, and the American soldier Mike Mazzoni, a nasty bully. Points of view, of course, which he is guessing at, which he cannot possibly know, but which sound very plausible (although the psychologist’s comments make fun of them). They really add to the story, but it does mean that you need to concentrate and read carefully. There are so many complex layers and allusions, that you probably need to read the book two or three times to get all the nuances.

And a word of warning for those of you who cannot bear cruelty to animals: in addition to descriptions of flechette attacks on civilian population, and some graphic scenes of torture, maiming and killing (on both sides of the divide), there is also a sad moment when Thelonious has to watch his cat Child die.

inherwakeAmanda Jennings: In Her Wake

I read this in one breathless go, just couldn’t stop, the story is such that it takes you along on a voyage full of suspense, sadness, poignancy, drama. It is the story of a family – two families in fact, and the secrets and pressures which nearly tear them apart. When Bella’s mother dies, her father seems quite broken, about to share something with her but then changing his mind. A series of shocking discoveries makes Bella realise that everything she thought she knew about her life was wrong.

Her search for the truth takes her to Cornwall and another deeply damaged family. But reading the book as quickly as I did does not do it justice, because the writing is very subtle and perfectly judged. Throughout, the settings are conveyed with a great sense of atmosphere – not just Cornwall, but the Old Vicarage, the Bristol bolthole. The characters are complex and vividly described, behaving consistently but also in surprising ways – much like in real life.  Some scenes very nearly made me cry, both by what was said and what was left unsaid. 

There is also a dream-like, almost supernatural strand to the story – as enticing and mysterious as the sirens singing to Ulysses. A book which can be read on many levels: a romping good tale of unanswered questions and suspense, but also a poetic, thoughtful piece on the intricacies of human relationships, loss, regrets, identity and lost dreams.

January Is Good for Thrillers

When the nights are long and cold, what could be better than to snuggle up with very dark, unsettling thrillers?  No? Maybe it’s just me then… And I don’t even feel the compulsion to check that all windows and doors are locked afterwards.  Well, not more than two or three times, anyway!

I will spend more time reviewing the Marseille Trilogy (which is part of my Global Reading Challenge) in a later post, but here are some other suspenseful thrillers I read this month.  My scoring system is perhaps overly strict: 5 star is something that only a handful of books ever, ever get; 4 star means I think you should really, really get your hands on it; 3 stars means it’s a good, solid, enjoyable book; and 2 is OK, average, nothing out of the ordinary.  At least you know you won’t get a waterfall of meaningless 5 stars here! 

Book cover Chris Ewan1) Chris Ewan: Safe House

The only book I have come across so far set on the Isle of Man, it makes good use of its location (the isolation, the village gossip).  It starts with a simple puzzle, which then develops into a very convoluted plot. Plumber and part-time motor racing champion Rob Hale has a bad motorcycle accident.  He is concerned about the fate of his beautiful blonde co-rider, Lena, whom he had just recently met on an emergency boiler repair job in a remote cottage in the forest. However, the paramedics and police assure him that he was the only person found at the scene of the accident.  He is convinced he did not imagine the girl and uncovers a very complex tale of conspiracy.  The twists and turns keep on coming – some of them I guessed fairly early on (I have a bit of a phobia of secret services and can spot them coming from miles away), others did catch me by surprise.  The story does have rather brutal scenes, and the author seems to enjoy giving blow-by-blow accounts of horrific events.  Cleverly done, exciting to read, but a bit too vivid for my squeamishness.  My favourite bits were the more domestic scenes with Rob’s Granddad and dog. 3 stars.

Book Cover2) Quentin Bates: Cold Comfort

This is the second rather than the first book in the series set in Iceland, featuring Sergeant Gunnhildur (a.k.a. Gunna). But that doesn’t matter at all: it’s all about atmosphere and characters in this series.  Gunna is tasked with two cases simultaneously: the manhunt for an escaped convict, and the murder of a gorgeous TV presenter.  She soon begins to suspect that the two events may be related.  Set against a backdrop of the near-total collapse of a country, together with its banking system, the story is a fast-paced, enjoyable read. This is not Scandinavian noir, but has a very tongue-in-cheek English humour about it (the author is English, although he lived for many years in Iceland).  Gunna is a delightful, down-to-earth character, a refreshing change from all the tormented detectives and heavy drinkers populating the northern hemisphere.  The many complicated (and similar-sounding) Icelandic names may pose a bit of a memory challenge, but it was a fun, easy read for an afternoon of similar meteorological conditions to Icelandic winters. 3 stars.

TheA263) Pascal Garnier: The A26

You may remember that Pascal Garnier was one of my major discoveries for 2012.  I completely fell in love with two of his novels translated and published by Gallic Books: ‘The Panda Theory’ and ‘How’s the Pain?’  So I was very much looking forward to the third book that Gallic are just about to launch: they kindly sent me an advance copy. However, this one was a bit of a disappointment.  Although it is still impeccably translated and beautifully presented by the publisher, the story itself did not captivate me as much as the previous two.  Yet, to all intents and purposes, this one fits more neatly into the ‘thriller’ category.  There are more bodies, there are strange characters, there is suspense…  But there is less humour than in his other books and I found myself unable to care deeply for the two main characters, the agoraphobic Yolande and her long-suffering brother Bernard.  Perhaps if I had read this one first, I might have enjoyed it more: it certainly has all of the other Garnier characteristics I enjoy: the noir feel, the effortless and fluid style.  But I suppose my expectations were so high, that this one just could not live up to them. 3 stars.

4) Elizabeth Haynes: Into the Darkest Corner

IntoDarkestCornerThis was the scariest of the thrillers I read this month.  It proves that scary can be done in a much more subtle and chilling way, because the atmosphere turns darker gradually, much like Cathy’s relationship with Lee.  The descriptions of domestic abuse and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder are so realistic, so gruelling, yet they never feel gratuitous.  Certainly not a book to read when you are alone in the house!  The multiple  time frames and similarity of set-ups did puzzle me a little at first, but you soon get into the rhythm of things.  A psychological mind-twister and page-turner, I was hooked, even though I kept thinking I knew what would happen next.  It also shows just how complicated abusive relationships can be, and makes us question how we would react ourselves in a similar situation.  Hard to believe this is a debut novel, as it feels very accomplished and self-assured. 4 stars.

 

Book Review: ‘The Expats’ by Chris Pavone

As a serial expat myself and a big fan of thrillers, I had high expectations of Chris Pavone’s debut novel ‘The Expats’ and it did not disappoint.

The story in a nutshell: Katherine is a typical American expat in Luxembourg, dissatisfied with her life, missing her sense of purpose and past career, but unsure what she wants.  Or is she? Her husband Dexter is a good-natured computer geek working on security issues for banks.  Or is he?  They meet an attractive, yet strangely mismatched childless American couple, who seem keen to befriend them. Or are they?  Well, as it turns out, no one is quite what they seem in this page-turner, with more plot twists than I have had coffees.  I woke up during the night and adjourned to the guestroom to finish reading it, which is unusual behaviour indeed. Continue reading Book Review: ‘The Expats’ by Chris Pavone