Monthly Archives: August 2007

First Among Sequels, Jasper Fforde

Hodder & Stoughton, 2007, 398 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 978-0-340-75201-2

What I find most remarkable about Jasper Fforde is the way every one of his novels feels like a never-to-be-topped bravura performance. Given that he’s now written seven of them, that’s a more impressive achievement than you may think. Lesser authors may squeeze trilogies out of thin concepts, but Fforde seems determined to top the Van Vogtian ideal of a new idea every 800 words. A savvy mix of literary references, genre concepts, crystal-clear prose and good clean fun, Fforde’s novels don’t have plots as they have an avalanche of plot complications and conceptual set-pieces. I’m not sure there’s such a thing as “a Fforde fan who has only read one of his books”: Usually, reading one Fforde means collecting them all. His fan-base is rabid, and it’s easy to see why.

First Among Sequels is the fifth book in the Thursday Next sequence, but it’s not quite a direct sequel. For one thing, it takes place in 2002, fourteen years after the climax of the fourth book. But Thursday Next is living in a universe where five novels have been adapted from her life: four volumes drenched with sex and violence, followed by a fifth “kinder and gentler” tome which sank without a trace. But that’s the least of Thursday’s problems, as she struggles at ACME Carpets, which is really a front for an officially-disbanded SpecOps. But even that is a cover of sorts for Thursday’s continuing activities as a Jurisfiction agent.

But wait! Thursday’s problems don’t stop there. There’s still a do-nothing teenage son to contend with (especially given how he should have started climbing ChronoGuard’s corporate ladder three years ago), cheese smuggling, a resurgent Goliath corporation, a dangerously stupidity-free government, a ghost with a message, declining readership, a husband suffering from writer’s block, more trouble in the world of fiction (including a sudden death for Sherlock Holmes) and a Jurisfiction partner who is nothing less than the fictionalized representation of Thursday herself.

The first hundred pages are a bit slower than usual, but that’s partly because they’re dedicated to an updated tour of Thursday’s universe, twelve years later. There’s a lot of stuff to remember, but Fforde does a fine job at holding our burdened minds through a refresher course in how his elaborate hodge-podge of concepts works together. (No, I’m still not convinced that it all fits together. No, I don’t think that’s important either.) Once again, we’re shown SpecOps, Jurisfiction, the Great Library, the Council of Genres, Text Grand Central, the Well of Lost Plots…

It’s a lot of stuff to juggle, but Fforde does it with aplomb and practised chaos. One of the continued pleasures of the Thursday Next universe is how the crises all seems to take place on different levels at once: At home, at work, elsewhere in Next’s “real world”, in Jurisfiction, across time… Most of those subplots end up being extensive justifications for elaborate set-pieces, but as long as the pages turn (and believe me, they turn quickly), who’s to complain? (As usual, it amuses me that authors count for nothing is Fforde’s grand mythology. This remains, first and foremost, a series for readers.)

I won’t spoil all of the conceptual gags and set-pieces that pepper the book, but the first two are worth a tease. First is a small passage in which the Thursdays feel what it’s like to be in a passage read by a superreader (“a reader with unprecedented power of comprehension; someone who can pick up every subtle nuance, all the inferred narrative and deeply embedded subtext in one tenth the time of normal readers.” [P.72]), a concept nearly certain to be explored anew in a latter volume. (The nice thing about Fforde’s prose is the way it makes even average readers feel like superreaders.) The second good piece is a “refit” sequence describing how books are regularly maintained and overhauled “every thirty years or a million reading, whichever is soonest.” [P.93], a segment giving a new sense to “critical re-evaluation”. But I’ll remain coy on the two madcap tricks in Chapters 36-37, both of which are worth loud “I can’t believe he’s doing this” laughs.

It all amount to another smooth and easy success for Fforde, who takes up a universe that seemed tapped-out and gives it another cool spin. There’s plenty of good material here (including bits of choice political satire), and the only bad thing about Fforde’s books is that they end far too soon. One warning, though: this is for those readers already familiar with Thursday Next’s universe. Everyone else should start back at The Eyre Affair.

What seems clear is that First among Sequels is, fittingly enough, the first of another cycle of Thursday Next novels. Not only are a number of new issues raised and left hanging (including the infamous X-14 cheese), but the book ends on what is nearly a cliffhanger, and ends up being a clear slingshot into the next book. Impatient readers beware: They may want to wait until all of the new Next books are in bookstores before starting to read.

Spook Country, William Gibson

Putnam, 2007, 371 pages, C$32.50 hc, ISBN 978-0-399-15430-0

By now, saying that William Gibson is writing ever-closer to the present isn’t much of a revelation. Each of his three-book cycles so far have moved closer to the present, and after the roughly-contemporary Pattern Recognition, Spook Country is now gently historical fiction, back in the woolly old days of early 2006. It is also part of the same universe than Pattern Recognition; a third volume is not impossible at this point.

It’s perhaps more useful to say that Gibson has always wanted to write about a certain type of universe, and that the universe has caught up to him. The “real year” of Gibson may end up being 2002 forever. He is now more comfortable writing about the weirdness of the present, what with its post-911 homeland insecurity, emergent cyberspace and terminally hip designer labels.

And so from a deck jockey named Case, we end up with a rock star turned journalist, a junkie with Russian/English translation skills and an ex-Cuban freelance intelligence agent. The common thread between all three is a mysterious shipping container making its way around the world’s oceans, with vague rumours concerning its content. iPods containing information are exchanged, non-existent magazines may end up being a front for a private intelligence-gathering operation and “the world’s smallest organized crime family” is up for hire by the highest bidder. Welcome to the winter of 2006. Whatever little science-fictional content left here is something about the virtual space invading the physical world.

But if Gibson has deserted science-fiction, it’s not true that he’s moved on to thrillers. Much like Pattern Recognition was a thrill-free thriller, Spook Country is a spy story with a shaggy dog ending where the stakes are actually much lower than what they may initially appear. Gibson, we sense, is not interested in thrills, maybe not even interested in plot (if he ever was). Gibson is about feel and texture, atmosphere and the feeling of being bewildered by what surrounds us. It makes him less of a genre writer (though his sensibilities are pretty much those of a genre fan), and more of a hip writer-of-the-now.

The problem with defining such a niche is that the resulting books leave the vapid impression of a dream: the prose is exceptional, but not a lot happens to those characters. As even one character complains…

“I though it was going to be terrorism, or crime in some more traditional sense, but it wasn’t. I think that it was actually… A prank. A prank you’d have to be crazy to be able to afford.” [P.351]

The upside of being a hip writer without much regard to plot is that the books become spoiler-proof: The Gibson audience is winnowing itself to a bunch of readers who want to experience his prose, not be shocked or surprised by a bold new take on the future, or even the present. Spook Country, despite the ominous title, is a descriptive novel of the present by someone who has given up on making sense of it. It’s a profoundly passive book, as all characters are manipulated and re-manipulated by people who may not even be doing anything important.

There’s a message there about the seductive superficiality of the world and how it can lead one to refuse to engage with any deeper meaning. But in his own review of Spook Country , John Clute has called the book a comedy, and he may be on to something. Not only are the stakes revealed to be ridiculously low, with little if any practical consequences for the characters, you can almost feel Gibson dangle an Important Plot in front of his readers before yanking it away with a “just kidding” smile. Another writer, faced with the same elements, would have been able to plot a thrill-packed action thriller with his eyes closed. But Gibson refuses to go there, refuses to play with the money, enjoy the power of his characters, refuses to delve into the minds of the bored powerful men that lurk off-screen in Spook Country. You would think that anyone couldn’t resist the allure of private intelligence operatives as it takes place in the real world, but that’s exactly what Gibson does with a smirk and a “Please don’t bother me” doorknob sign.

It’s been a long way since Neuromancer, and there’s no going back for Gibson or his readers. He’s become a Writer of Our Times, and as such has escaped the easy protocols of genre. Reading him today appeals to completely different skills. A few more novels, and he’ll be writing historical novels about the eighties that are going to be indistinguishable from Douglas Copeland’s work.

The Darkening Garden, John Clute

Payseur & Schmidt, 2006, 162 pages, C$40.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-9789114-0-9

In the world of SF criticism, John Clute is the alpha dog: Few others have been able to re-shape the language by which we’re able to discuss genre fiction. For that matter, few people have their names on two genre-defining encyclopedias and three volumes of collected reviews. Clute has introduced a number of genre-specific critical concepts (“real year”, “thinning”, “polder”, etc.) and established a solid framework through which we can consider genre fiction. His work has become an essential part of how we discuss speculative fiction.

Having settled the matter of science-fiction and fantasy, Clute has now turned his cool intellect to the issue of horror. The Darkening Garden is the first articulation of this interest. It’s not an “Encyclopedia of Horror”, though that may follow eventually, nor is it a definitive statement on the subject. It’s a bunch of notes in progress, a first attempt at articulating the nature of the genre put out there for discussion. Typically for Clute, some entries are brilliant, some entries are baffling, and most entries are both at the same time.

It’s also as much an object than it is a book. Published by a small press with a first print run of only 500 signed and numbered copies (I’ve got 190), The Darkening Garden is the kind of cute book that is to be admired as much for its design than for its content. Indeed, each of the thirty entries in this very short lexicon is illustrated, with a variety of artists each showing up once. The outside design is simple: a small, self-effacing black hardcover with a band announcing the title. Inside, the text is laid out with a judicious choice of font and margins, all reinforcing the impression of a small jewel-book carefully set to highlight the content. This is not a mass-market book (it even lacks those ubiquitous bar-codes for easy retail scanning), which is fitting for content that is not for mass consumption either.

Let’s open the book at a random entry and transcribe just one sentence, shall we? Here it is, from “Strange Stories”: “The examples given are not entirely heterogeneous, for the inner creative bent of most of those who have used the term is toward the writing of tales of estrangement rather than AFFECT HORROR as such.” [P.138] Well, actually, that’s not too bad. Clute has often been derided for the complexity of his language and The Darkening Garden is no exception. This is not a book for easy reading; it’s meant to build arguments, map out new territories and stretch minds in new critical directions.

The overarching thesis of the book is a model for horror fiction as a whole. It’s an inversion of Clute’s well-established pattern for fantasy: Whereas that goes from WRONGNESS to THINNING to RECOGNITION to RETURN, Horror (argues Clute) goes from SIGHTING to THICKENING to REVEL to AFTERMATH. (With a side order of VASTATION.) This argument forms the the backbone of the book, and what remains from a first read.

I may lack the critical tools and depth of knowledge required to make sense of it, but at first glance it does seem to make sense. The stereotypical horror film, for instance, signals something wrong with the world during an initial SIGHTING, gets more unnerving as the presence of the supernatural THICKENS, attains a paroxysm of sorts during the REVEL when characters are plunged deep into the new logic of the wrong world, and finally ends with an AFTERMATH where bodies are counted and the evil may or may not return. It’s not a bad model (albeit one would be careful to hammer an entire genre in it), and the best thing about The Darkening Garden is how it offers the theory for evaluation, daring other reviewers to make use of it if it pleases them. (Or criticize it if it makes them even happier.)

I’m not so sure about the other, more tangential elements of the lexicon. (Did we really need an entry on “Picture books”?) Another of Clute’s developing theories is the sense that genre fiction exists at a particular point in human history, that it only became possible as we started making sense of humanity as a story to be told (or understood? I’m not sure about that myself.) That’s where the lexicon brings in the Holocaust and tremendous vastation. I’ll refrain from judgement, except for noting that Clute is growing older, and that as with many people on the wrong side of fifty, he’s more and more apt to say that some things will not outlive him —such as Science Fiction, said to have died years ago.

Casual readers won’t get much out of The Darkening Garden except for a headache and the sense of an unfinished argument. But serious students of genre (and there are more than enough hooks here to link Clute’s arguments about horror to SF and fantasy) will enjoy a new theory of horror. Clute fans owe it to themselves to get a copy of this book, but other shouldn’t worry if they let all 500 copies sell out: I’m sure that this material will pop up again, revised and expanded, in some future Clute encyclopedia or another.

[October 2007: My web server tools detect a vast and cold wind blowing over this site. What could it be? Yes, John Clute sees this review and mentions it on his blog. There are no comments, but my embarassment is considerable. I resist the urge to change the review or replace it with a series of apologies.]

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, Diana Wynne Jones

Firebird, 2006, 234 pages, US$9.99 tpb, ISBN 0-14-240722-4

I didn’t know it, but I’ve been waiting for this book a good chunk of my life.

I should explain that I got tired of straight-up high fantasy early on: After the second or third dozen plot-coupon quest, it’s easy to give up on the genre and go read something else. But other people stuck with it, and sometime during the making of the Grant/Clute Encyclopedia of Fantasy, collaborator/proofreader Diana Wynne Jones came up with A Concept parallel to the Encyclopedia: A tourist guide to generic Fantasyland. Alphabetized, cross-referenced and sarcastic to a degree you wouldn’t believe.

A first edition of the Tough Guide to Fantasyland sprung up in 1996 and was promptly nominated for a Hugo Award. Now, a revised and updated edition has appeared on shelves just in time to protect unwary tourists from the newest horde of Tolkien wannabes. Having missed (but heard) about the first edition, I finally managed to snag a second edition copy and read it cover-to-cover.

There’s one word for this book and it’s brilliant.

The concept itself is sheer genius: if generic Fantasy is so, well, generic, wouldn’t it be possible to list all of the common clichés, obliquely blaming “The Management” for certain conventions and highlighting how certain things behave far differently in Fantasyland than in the Real World? And that’s exactly why the book is so clever: it’s a mixture of ironic shrugs and quiet sarcasm, a demonstration of silly clichés and a call for intervention at the same time. Why should people eat STEW when it’s so bloody hard to prepare even in the best of conditions? Who actually raises the ubiquitous HORSES that behave like motorcycles? Why should COLOR CODING be so reliable? Reading the entries in this guide is enough to make any fantasy reader nod in recognition as clichés are described, explained and dissected. (Don’t miss the ten possible kinds of SWORDS.)

It’s just beautiful. From ADEPT to ZOMBIES, Diana Wynne Jones has staked a fake genre on the ground and pounded a stake through its derivative heart.

No review of the book would be complete without a word about the fabulous design of the book. Someone obviously spent a lot of time thinking about how to present the information contained within, and the result is a small masterpiece of paperback design complete with side margin tabs, quick reference icons, pleasant typography and just enough graphic pizazz to make the entire book pop out. Alas, the acknowledgements are not forthright on who did the interior design of the book, though Tony Sahara is listed at the cover and map designer. (The book also has jokes in places you wouldn’t expect. Don’t miss The Map, or “Other Tough Guides”)

The only problem with The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is that it’s a book to read in small doses: The common thread unifying the whole book is sarcasm, after all, and the basic joke can turn repetitive. There’s also a Point to most of the entries, and it can be useful to pause and reflect upon that Point, especially if it’s made in an oblique fashion, or by inference with other entries. Expect to spend at least one early reading sessions flipping back and forth through the book to follow the best or most unusual leads. Can you say “perfect bathroom reading”? Yes, you can.

I’m always impressed by those who can combine critical insight with entertainment value, and The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is a near-perfect union of the two. It’s very funny, it’s very smart and it acts as an antidote to all of the bad fantasy clichés that have been allowed to contaminate the genre. Why can’t SFWA buy crates of this book and send it (free of charge, as a public service) to every budding fantasy writer? Think of it as a decontamination program, and a call for more stringent quality control. For writers, I expect this book to become an error-checking reference. For readers, a step up toward higher critical thought. For reviewers, something to hold on during the next awful trip to Fantasyland in the hands of a careless Management.

Waydowntown (2000)

(On TV, August 2007) Low-budget Canadian comedy alert! Run for cover! Naah, I kid: though it can be laborious at times, incoherent at others and just plain disappointing at the finish, there’s a lot to like in Waydowntown. As a study of four young people stuck in a silly bet to see who can last the longest without going outside (thanks to an effective use of Calgary’s +15 system of passageways), the film is never quite as formulaic than you’d think. And it wisely doesn’t limit itself to that single premise: other obstacles keep up our attention, including a mystery object of attraction, impending adultery, a kleptomaniac retiree and a suicidal colleague. But if you’re hoping that this will eventually result in a crescendo of laughs and sudden meaning, well, you may be disappointed: The ending sort of peters out without much of a point (because really, if “alienation from your cubicle job” is the best you can do…), leaving us without a proper send-off. A disappointment, especially given how the film generally works until that point.

War (2007)

(In theaters, August 2007) The most remarkable thing about this film is how unremarkable it is. Despite action icons Jet Li and Jason Statham, this plodding police action film putters from one slight action scene to another, strictly going by the numbers until a whopper of a third-act twist comes along to boggle everyone’s minds. The problem, though, is that the film is so routine until then that the twist seems an act of desperation to fluff up a movie that deserved no such complications. More seriously, the twist also locks the film is a no-win logic from which there can be no satisfactory conclusion from the audience’s point of view. From hum-drum, War (whose title leads to much bigger expectations) becomes unpleasant. Which should be proof that Hollywood can, in fact, be too clever for its own good.

Wall Street (1987)

(Second viewing, On DVD, August 2007) I’ve often maintained that this film should end up being the definitive film of the eighties, and another look at it just confirms my suspicions: It’s ageing really well, with just enough period detail to make it look grounded (ah, mid-eighties technology…) while the film itself is driven with a solid grasp of contemporary filmmaking techniques. The dialogue is delicious, Michael Douglas’s Oscar-winning Gordon Gekko is a fantastic antagonist, the narrative drive of the film just keeps going… oh yes, this film holds up well even today. Even the blank characterization of Charlie Sheen works well up to a point, since the character is supposed to act as our stand-in for the film. Less successful are the lacklustre performances by the two female stars of the film, neither of whom do much to distinguish themselves in underwritten roles. Writer/Director Oliver Stone’s audio commentary is spectacular, informing us about the making of the film, the problems that Stone had in dealing with the actors, reactions to reviews of the film and a deeper look into the thematic intentions of the film. (Hint: It’s all about fathers.) Unfortunately, the documentary featured on the disc is a bit long, relies too much on clips from the film and covers some of the same ground as the commentary. But otherwise, the DVD is an excellent showcase to a great movie.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling

Raincoast/Bloomsbury, 2003, 766 pages, C$43.00 hc, ISBN 1-55192-570-2

Faithful readers of these reviews will remember my contrarian approach to the Harry Potter juggernaut: See the film in theatres, then read the book. It’s been an interesting experience so far: The movies provide the plot and the images, while the books expand upon the characters and the background. It’s an approach that allows the movies to stand on their own, sometimes for good, and sometimes not: after a few problems in instalment 3, the fifth entry in the series was the most incoherent film yet. Making sense of it required a consultation with two Potter experts (ie: my siblings) and a trip through the brick-sized book. As one of my Potter consultants remarked: The thickest book of the series yielded the shortest film so far.

Fortunately, there’s a lot more to the book than simply explaining the film. The Harry Potter series has, for me, become critic-proof: Knowing that I have nothing new to bring to the discussion in some sense frees me from trying to rate the books. I’m left to relax and enjoy the book purely on entertainment terms.

And despite this being “the thickest book of the series”, I had a lot of fun reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It’s obvious from the first hundred pages (which barely cover ten minutes of screen-time) that the book is going to be a far more leisurely, far more complete experience than the book itself. While the director couldn’t make up his mind between starting the plot or stopping the film for minutiae, Rowling simply goes ahead and writes another year at Hogwarts, complete with minor character, academic anxieties, quiddich and yet another house-elves subplot.

At the book unfolded like a well-weathered comforter, a minor revelation occurred to me: I’m not reading the Harry Potter books as genre fantasy as much as I’m reading them as a novel of setting and characters. Yes, that’s the heresy of it: I’m enjoying Potter more as general literature than genre fiction. The richness of the series is in how Rowling develops her cast of characters, in how she develops her imaginary world (itself a character, one could argue) and the ramifications of her vision. It’s just as well: aside from Hermione, my favourite characters in this book (or even in the Potter series as a whole) are often the secondary or even tertiary players who just have to suffer through the whole return-of-Voldemort stuff: The Patil sisters, Angelina Johnson, Minerva McGonagall, and so on. Most of them end up on the chopping block of the movie adaptation. Here, they get a bit of space to breathe. New character such as Nymphodera Tonks and Luna Lovegood are much better-developed in the book, and the impact is far more profound than simply seeing magical light-shows on the screen.

Notable subplots cut from the film also add tremendously to the depth of the story. The prefect subplot deepens Potter’s sense of alienation, especially at the beginning of the story. The quiddich subplot adds even more to Umbridge’s meanness and Harry’s isolation. Poor Firenze never made it on-screen, and neither does Dobby and the vast majority of his fellow house-elves. More significant is the near-evacuation of the growing unease in the wizard world. The simple “good-versus-evil” conflict of the movies is nuanced into something that looks a lot like a civil war, leaving families divided —including the Wesleys. St Mugon’s Hospital? Gone. A good chunk of the fascinating academic details are also lost to the film’s length, leaving aside some excellent character moments. (I was particularly fond of Harry’s Patronus spell during his OWL examination, and the final exit of the Wesley twins is far more satisfying in the book. McGonagall’s role is also much more interesting in the book.) In the film, several plot twists appear out of nowhere; the book has the luxury of developing them properly. Umbridge? She’s even more infuriating in the book, and that’s saying something: “Hem-hem”.

Some plot-lines don’t work on the page and on paper: anything involving Hagrid just grates on my nerves (which, I think, is a good reflexion of the series having outgrown the the character), and Dumbledore’s double-dumb plans are inane regardless of how many special effects or chapter-long apologies you throw at them.

But all told, I really enjoyed those few hours spent at Hogwarts. I liked spending time with the characters, and that’s pretty much all I need to say in terms of critical judgement. Once more, like after every book so far, I’m tempted to just rush out and finish the series. But it will pass, and I will just wait for the next movie to come out. (After all, I pretty much spoiled myself rotten about book 7: It’s not as if the series has any surprises left.)

Toy Story (1995)

(Third viewing, On DVD, August 2007) The amazing thing about this film is how well it does most things, regardless of how it was the first computer-animated feature film in history. The boys at Pixar obviously knew what they were doing even there (despite their protests elsewhere on the disc) and the result is, even despite the advances in technology in twelve years, still a pleasure to watch. The lavish tenth-anniversary DVD takes its time to explain to jaded audience what was so revolutionary from Toy Story back in the prehistoric days of 1995, but the gem still remains the film itself. See it again!

The Station Agent (2003)

(On DVD, August 2007) Forget special effects, forget laughs, forget even plot: The Station Agent is about character, mood, tone, emotion and even the absence of anything interesting happening. It end during what most people would see as a lull in the action, and that’s the point of the film: how unlikely friends can find comfort in not having anything happen to them. This, obviously, is an independent film, with all of the quirks and abrupt moments and lack of polish that it implies. It doesn’t really go anywhere, but that will either plays as a feature or a bug. Comedy or drama? A bit of both, and enough so that it doesn’t matter. Call it ninety minutes with people unlike you.

Stardust (2007)

(In theaters, August 2007) Now here’s a charming little film that will fly under most people’s radar. A hybrid of romance, fantasy and adventure (call it a fairy tale for grown-ups), Stardust takes a while to get going and isn’t without dumb plot contrivances regarding walls, distances and magic, but it keeps building as it goes on, and eventually starts hitting all of its targets. The dialogue is amusing, the actors generally go well (although Michelle Pfeiffer gets all of the attention with a rare alluring role for a woman on the verge of fifty), the special effects do their job and the entire film is powered on charm. The final act is where it all comes together, with enough swash-buckling and romance to satisfy everyone. It would have been better had it been shorter, but it’s decent enough and should reach its intended audience once it hits the DVD market. In the meantime, fantasy audiences and Neil Gaiman fans won’t regret seeing this adaptation.

Safe Area Gorazde, Joe Sacco

Fantagraphics, 2000, 227 pages, C$29.95 tpb, ISBN 1-56097-470-2

For all of our outrage at the Holocaust, at autocratic regimes, at genocides and massacres and civil wars and bloody uprisings, we’re not very good at actually caring about the ones that are currently going on. SCHINDLER’S LIST came out in 1992 and everyone vowed “never again” even as Rwanda and Yugoslavia went up in machetes and machines guns. We vowed “never again” anew as details of those conflicts made it in the mass media, and yet Darfur, Iraq, Palestine continue to make the evening news even as I type this. It’s enough to make anyone despair about whatever passes for humanity.

And if you think that this is depressive thinking, well, you haven’t just finished reading Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde. An illustrated non-fiction account of the last days of the the Bosnian War, Sacco’s book defies convention and is different enough to still shock the reader. His unique brand of “comics journalism” appears harmless at first, but give it an inch and it will slip under your skin and remain there for a while.

As the book open in fall 1995, Sacco is abroad the contingent of western journalists making their way to the “safe area” of Gorazde, a mostly-Muslim enclave deep inside Serbian Bosnia. Gorazde is unique in that it has held against Serb ethnic cleansing. In other words, not everyone has been killed. As the UN tries to impose a cease-fire and maintain the supply lines as they make their way through Serbian territory, Sacco interviews the people left in the bombed-out city. As the book advances, they open up and gradually tell the story of three years of war. Three years in which neighbours turned against each other, in which the city was destroyed by its former inhabitants, three years during which the West gesticulated uselessly as more and more people got killed.

The Gorazde in this book is hollowed-out in many ways. It’s filled with craters, bullet holes, destroyed houses and burned-out cars. The bridge has a second ramshackle bridge underneath to protect pedestrians against snipers. And the people are in no better shape: having endured unimaginable horror, they are afraid of even believing that it’s over. Having seen their neighbours rise up against them once, they have no trouble imagining that it could happen again.

The stories that Sacco tell in each chapter can range from history to absurdity to full horror. He explains the roots of the Bosnian war, but he also giggles with the “Stupid Girls” as they wish for American jeans and has problems of his own trying to make his way back outside the Serb perimeter. Gradually, the inhabitants of Gorazde tell him their own stories of survival and grief. The stories get much, much worse as the book advances. Two chapters in particular, “The First Attack” and “Total War”, are as gory as anything I’ve seen outside of Geoff Darrow: Don’t be surprised if your first impulse after reading them is to leave the book aside and go do something else for a while.

That’s the genius of Sacco’s book; a single man at a drawing table making us see the terrible cost of a civil war in a way that is far more affecting than just a series of prose pages. Sacco doesn’t give himself a heroic role in the narrative. Indeed, he portrays himself as a short, round-faced man with prominent lips and eyes perpetually obscured by blank round glasses. Indeed, there are few pretty people in this book. But they are ordinary people, and when things go back to a new normal by the end of the book, we’re glad for them. Their friends and family may not have made it out alive, but they themselves get to sing, study and go back to a normal life. But as one of them says, “I don’t want any nice things. I don’t want a nice place or nice furniture. In the end, probably it will all be destroyed.” The Gorazde diaspora has learned the hard way and they will never forget; never forget that it has happened, and never forget that it can happen again.

Safe Area Gorazde is not an easy book to read: not just because of the violence, but also because of the proximity of the events. This has happened less than fifteen years ago, less than a thousand kilometres away from Rome. And still we read the book and watch the movies and vow “never forget”… but we will.

Silent Hill (2006)

(On DVD, August 2007) There are a lot of bad horror films out there, and a lot of bad videogame adaptations too, so I ask for forgiveness in thinking that a horror film adapted from a videogame wouldn’t be much better. But it is. While Silent Hill will not claim any top spots on any horror movie list, the result is a creepy and visually interesting film that a great deal more solid than it had any right to be. The visual polish of the three planes of Silent Hill does a lot to compensate for the silliness of the script, but there are other things that work in the film’s favour: The predominance of female characters, the way the film plays on creepiness a long time before the last-minute gore (for the record, when I thought “It looks as if someone’s going to be violated with barbed wire!”, I wasn’t actually thinking it would happen.) and the ambiguous ending may or may not please, but they certainly give to Silent Hill a polish that is quite unlike most other horror films. I’m really not so fond of the script (which relies on silliness to get to Silent Hill, betrays the gaming origins of the story by making the characters race for plot coupons and then loses its way in pseudo-religious claptrap shortly before the end), but with the dialogues turned down, Silent Hill is far better than you’d expect. The DVD includes a decent amount of behind-the-scene material, though it remains coys on the film’s ultimate interpretation.

Rush Hour 3 (2007)

(In theaters, August 2007) Third time definitely isn’t the charm for this aggressively irritating comedy. From the very introduction of the Chris Tucker character, he starts grating on everyone’s nerves: his one-note shtick has seldom been as exasperating as in here. Who could actually believe that such a person would remain a gainfully employed policeman? But Tucker alone could be accommodated by a much-better film. Sadly, the rest of Rush Hour 3 seems to take its lead from him: the film is clunky, charmless and even Jackie Chan (now noticeably older) can’t do much to save it. Lousy jokes (including a hammered-in version of the old “Who’s on first” routine), blunt stereotypes and ghastly coincidences are enough to make us long for the breath of fresh air that had been the first Rush Hour. But there are serious problems here, and all of them can be explained either by stupidity or laziness. Even the blatant exploitation of women in this film doesn’t betray misogyny as much as it exposes the puerile minds writing or directing the film. Dumb script, lazy direction and irritating protagonist: After that, it’s a wonder if anything of note emerges from the film. Fortunately, Noémie Lenoir is captivating. Still, if a 5’10” ebony supermodel is the only reason why a movie isn’t a complete disaster, there may be something wrong with the rest of it.

The Last Legion (2007)

(In theaters, August 2007) There are at least two ways this film should have failed. On one hand, it tries really hard to pump up a myth-making link between ancient Rome and the Arthurian legend, with some of the pretentious twaddle that implies. On the other, it’s a decidedly low-brow affair with contrived situations, predictable plotting and by-the-numbers dialogue. The budget of the doesn’t quite reach its ambitions, and the mis-mash between said ambitions and the quasi-juvenile adventure that follows is in itself an issue. But despite all expectations, the film has an amiable disposition, and far better casting than it deserves: Colin Firth and Ben Kingsley give undeserved gravitas to the film, whereas Ashwarya Rai alone is worth ten thousand special effect shots. (No, seriously: with the help of a few good stunts-people, she kicks serious ass and even makes a play for the “dark and sultry Angelina Jolie” role. It’s a nice stretch from her usual romantic lead roles and I want more of it.) While the film keeps hearkening back to other better-made films and practically wallows in it own cheapness, it’s not unpleasant by itself and works a lot better than other more respectable movies. Certainly not worth a huge amount of trouble (except for Ashwarya Rai fans), but not a complete disaster. There’s even something oddly charming about it.