Author: GB

Standard Oil’s Louisiana Docu Drama

People who’ve been following along for more than a decade (I know there are still some of you around from the LiveJournal days), will remember that I reviewed a couple of Robert Flaherty’s documentaries there, particularly Nanook of the North during our 1001 Films viewing.

I’ve never really been a fan of documentaries with scripted action.  For my money show me footage from the era, if it existed, or artifacts, but dressing characters up and having them play a role which might or might not be true to reality is just silly.

Louisiana Story Film Poster

Within this context, Louisiana Story has one thing going for it: it was filmed during the era it attempts to portray, which makes many of the background images, at least, realistic.

I assume costumes, customs and creole are also true to life because Flaherty never used professional actors, but let locals play roles as themselves.

So watching the lazy life on the water take place is a balm, as is seeing the inside of a Cajun house.  The film is very much softened–none of the real issues that Cajuns faced, and none of the consequences of extreme poverty are shown–but perhaps all the better for it.  Watching it in 2020, there is no real harm in idealizing a lifestyle that has all but disappeared today, and it makes the .

On the other hand, the money to make the film came, at least in part, from Standard Oil, which is a mixed blessing.  I’m pretty sure no oil rig ever was as clean, peaceful and unobtrusive as the one portrayed, but I’m also delighted to have seen how a 1940s rig functioned.  Some of the most fascinating scenes in the movie are the ones where drill is being fed into a hole.  Talk about tense moments.

Anyway, I enjoyed watching this one as a document of an era, but it needs to be taken with several grains of salt.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist who writes across several genres and lengths.  His latest novel is Ice Station: Death which, as the title implies, is a horror book set in Antarctica.  You can check it out here.

A Wonderfully Sordid Little Piece

I’m pretty eclectic when it comes to the books I grab off random bookstore shelves, but apart from classics I’d been meaning to read for ages, the stuff I’m most likely to grab are thrillers from the golden age of crime fiction (I have a pretty wide definition of when the golden age of crime was, but I’d generally say it starts somewhere in the 20’s and ends in either the late sixties or early seventies.  Your mileage may vary depending on taste, but that’s my wheelhouse.

The problem, of course, is that I’m no expert on the genre–I read it because I like it, so people like Lawrence Block are subject to curiosity (for those, like me before reading that one, who don’t know, he was a major figure in the crime genre).

Another one I had no idea about was John Creasey.  The Cover of my old Pan paperback copy of his book A Case for Inspector West claimed that his sales (in 1961) exceeded 20 million… but I hadn’t read a single word he wrote.

I will likely not commit that error again.  A Case for Inspector West is one of those books that goes so quickly and pleasantly that you end up wondering where the heck it went.  It’s short, but not that short; the speed is because it’s a fun, well-written work.

A Case for Inspector West - John Creasey

Fun, in this case, is a relative term.  You need to like to have people murdered in cold blood, front and center (no cozy-mystery off-camera murders for Mr. Creasey) to enjoy this one, and you also need to be rooting for the death penalty.  This one was written in England in a time where murderers were hung.

If you’re OK with all that, then yeah, this one is a blast.  It has everything you could want of a nice, ugly case of betrayal and counter-betrayal with a very satisfying body count.

One of the nice things about doing book reviews is that it’s one of the few instances in 21st century life in which you’re allowed to applaud violence and depravity without being criticized for it.

So yeah, Creasey gets two thumbs up from this former Creasey virgin, and I will be on the lookout for his stuff in the future.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose thriller Timeless is not lost in early sixties England, but is bang up-to-date and global in scope.  Also, you can get an ebook, so there’s no need to hunt down an old Pan paperback.  You can check it out here.

Savage, Hyper-Targeted Social Satire

I’ve discussed Pablo Mourier’s work here before.  His biting, funny stories lambast Argentine society with a a surgeon’s touch, applying the scalpel as opposed to the broad brush.

It might appear that this particular method is better suited to short fiction than to lengthier work, but Pablo’s novel, El silencio de los porteros (The Silence of the Doormen) is more of a good thing.

El Silencio de los Porteros - Pablo Mourier

This is a wonderful, laugh-out-loud-funny look at how, even in our alienated modern society, we still live in villages where everybody’s life is everybody else’s business.  The framing device is that the doormen of certain buildings in the best neighborhood in Buenos Aires are, unbeknownst to them, planning a huge extortion of the people who live in their buildings.

On the face of it, it makes sense, and everyone assumes it’s true.  After all, these are the people who know everything that goes on, who’s sleeping with whom and where all the bodies are buried.  It’s possible they buried a few themselves.

Of course, the conspiracy rumor takes on a life of its own and everyone gets dragged into the whirlwind and spat out the other side.

It’s both funny and timely, but I can’t really recommend it to most of my readers because, apart from it not being available in any language but Spanish, the book is also very much understandable only by Argentines.  Hell, the rest of you won’t even understand a lot of the expressions, much less figure out why they’re supposed to be humorous.

But for those with the tools to understand, a lot of this book is priceless.  Get a copy.  Laugh out loud.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  If you like a biting look at life, you can do a lot worse than his book Love and Death.  You can buy it here.

A Book Worthy of the Accolades in an Edition Worthy of the Book

I only bought this one because it was a leather-bound Harvard Classics edition of a book I’d read about more than once, and because it was priced to move at a used book store.

When it cycled to the top of my to-read pile, I was a little afraid that it might be a slog.  After all, a sailor’s memoir from 1840 would likely be in slightly archaic English and contain a lot of technical terms.

But I still read it, and Richard Henry Dana Jr’s Two Years Before the Mast can only be described with one word: Wonderful.

Dana - Two Years Before the Mast

We live in an era that attempts to disparage the literary work that has come before.  We might be too cool to read that stuff, or we might have strange political beliefs that lead us to deny the enormous value of the great books just because they’re written by white guys (as if that affected the quality somehow).  Maybe (as was my case) we’re so caught up with fast-paced modern literature that a dip into the past would slow our roll.

But this one immediately does one of the things that literature is supposed to do: it immediately transports you to another time and place.  In this case, the merchant navy of the first half of the 19th Century and a completely alien, deserted, California coast.

It’s one of those tomes which underlines the difference between books that are merely good, perhaps even those that create great emotional responses, and those that are truly great, the books that not only play to the emotions–which this one does–but also engage the intellect.  A third quality, unintentional, is that it documents something an age disappeared much faster than anyone around ever thought would happen.

With regards to this last bit, I recommend trying to find an edition which has a section entitled “Twenty-Four Years After”, which, as the name says, was written much later and gives a fascinating rundown on the what happened next for the places, people and ships referenced in the main text.  That bit makes it even more wonderful.

As many of you know my preference for beautiful books, it will probably come as no surprise that my recommendation is that you try to get hold of a copy of the Harvard Classics edition (these appear to be going for $10 with free shipping on Ebay as I type, so it might even be cheaper than buying from Amazon.

And the leather, in this case, might even make the experience more genuine.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest novel is the somewhat nautical Ice Station Death.  Well, there’s a ship in it which goes near where Dana was nearly two centuries ago.  You can check it out here.

 

Too Slow and too Telegraphed

In our perusal of the 1001 Films to Watch Before we Die, every single Bogart vehicle so far had been met with my acclamation and my wife’s yawning wondering of what the fuss was all about.

So, of course, as soon as I thought one of the movies was drawn out and predictable, the film equivalent of getting a tooth pulled, she goes and enjoys it.

I mention that just to say that some people (the ones who choose the 1001 films, evidently) will feel differently about this film than I do.  Also, since I’m about to commit sacrilege by panning a classic, I wanted to make it clear that my wife isn’t to blame.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre Film Poster

Yes.  That one.  I didn’t like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Why?  It’s been said that guys like for a lot of people to die very quickly in their films while women enjoy one person to die slowly over the course of a two-hour movie.  While I have no idea if that’s true, it’s certainly true for me–I consider those “uplifting” cancer films about as much fun as I do a good protracted dentist’s appointment.

I got the same vibe from this movie.  It was clear from the moment they set out to look for gold that Bogart’s character was going to end badly, specifically because the gold fever and the paranoia would get him–so all that was left was to watch the descent into madness.  Some people enjoy this sort of thing and look on, amazed, as the virtuoso acting therein.

It’s not my cup of tea in the least, even though the final half hour of the film does pick up the pace as the action comes to a head.

I always like to shout out to any of the cast members still alive today on the extremely unlikely chance that they might be reading.  Today’s actor is Robert Blake, who played a young boy in the film and who later went on to become a murder suspect (acquitted) and is in his eighties.  Talk about an eventful life…

This one is considered a classic, of course, and probably deservedly so.  It’s just that I didn’t enjoy it.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist.  His best-known work is Siege, which, he hopes, doesn’t telegraph the ending as much as The Treasure of Sierra Madre does.  You can check the book out (and buy it!), here.

 

The Sense of Agatha Christie

The Chalk Circle Man - Fred Vargas

When I started reading The Chalk Circle Man, by Fred Vargas, I expected something good–the reviewers can’t ALL be wrong–but I also expected something very French and perhaps a bit existential.

About ten pages into the book, I had a sudden thought: this is what Agatha Christie would be writing if she was alive today.

But that’s ridiculous.  Agatha Christie is the quintessential British writer and, what’s more, she was also a very feminine writer.  Fred Vargas is French and…

And Fred Vargas is also a woman.  Something I didn’t know when I first picked up the book.  That, at least, explains the sense of femininty.

But the other part, the English part? Well, maybe that isn’t there, but there’s definitely a sense of affection for the small town life of France which isn’t that dissimilar from Christie’s familiar milieu.  But, most of all, I realized that Vargas’ main character reminded me enormously of Poirot.

While specifically insisting that, far from being a genius, he is a man of less-than-normal intellect, Adamsberg, Vargas’ Chief Inspector, still gives off that same vibe of knowing what is happening long before anyone else does, and then being proved correct.  And that sense makes you think you’re in a Christie novel.

Morality in 21st century France is very different from that of mid-century England, of course, but the naturality with which sex and unfaithfulness are dealt with is similar to Christie’s deft handling of the same material.

I’m aware that Vargas probably doesn’t want to be compared with the Queen of Crime (and also that many critics would be aghast that I took their avant-garde darling and tried to pigeonhole her this way) but I mean it as the highest praise when I state that this is almost exactly what I’d expect from the Grand Dame if she was alive today.  Recommended, and a quick, engaging read.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose thriller Timeless deals with his passion for books and the publishing industry, as well as his fascination for crime syndicates and the deadly game of international smuggling.  You can check it out here.

 

The King of Planets, Anthologized

Something I always look for when perusing used bookstores are science fiction anthologies.  Partially, this is because, as a short story writer, it’s useful to see what’s come before, but mainly because I really enjoy reading short fiction, especially the stuff published until about 1990 or so, when the genre was focused more on entertainment than anything else.

It’s not unusual to encounter incredible stories forgotten in the pages of some battered mass market paperback, and that discovery is always wonderful.  So my bookshelves are kind of packed with random anthologies chosen for no other reason than that I found them on a shelf at some point.

The latest in this quixotic quest was the 1973 antho Jupiter, edited by Frederick and Carol Pohl, which included colossi like Asimov, Clarke, Blish, Simak, Weinbaum, Anderson, and del Rey.  Only two stories were by authors whose name I failed to recognize immediately.

Jupiter - Carol and Frederick Pohl

But the names, amazingly, are secondary.  The most interesting part of this one is the date.  1973.  Jupiter was just being explored, then.  The major NASA probes were on their way, but enough had been discovered to remove any possibility of the pre-war sword & planet tales being possible.  By 1973, everyone knew that the gas giants had atmospheres at least a few hundred kilometers thick and that any surface activity would need to take place under horrendous pressures and in chemically difficult conditions.

And yet even the more modern stories in the antho assume that there is a surface that can be used under the atmosphere–thinking that today’s discoveries have ruled out.  Which means that, even though there’s a certain amount to modern feel to the tales, the fact that many of them take place on the surface of Jupiter gives them a bit of a sword & planet feel anyway.  We know this isn’t how it is, and the story is superseded by reality.

That doesn’t stop one from enjoying them anyway and, as is often the case, the very best of them in my opinion was Lester del Rey’s “Habit”.  I’ve always thought del Rey to be enormously underrated–whenever he has a story in a volume with the real heavyweights, it usually holds its own or better.

Second place goes to Clarke’s “A Meeting with Medusa”.  This one, while not as entertaining as the del Rey, is imbued with the spectacular sense of wonder that the best SF stories always have.  Clarke was a true master of the form.

Overall, however, this one, though entertaining, is for completists and people who don’t mind reading stories that science has since left behind (interestingly, the Clarke and the del Rey, my two favorites, were also the ones that could be published today with little modification, as none of the story depends on old science).  Good, but not great.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest collection of short fiction (none of them based on old science yet) is entitled Off the Beaten Path.  You can check it out (and hopefully buy it) here.

Looking Back – One Writer’s 2019

I’m doing my year-in-review piece in January so it doesn’t get lost amid all the others.  Why?  Because 2019 was a special year for me, and I want everyone to take notice.

The numbers were wonderful, with about 40 short stories published and a similar amount of sales, as was the income, my best year yet.

But even more than that was the experience of being a writer this year.

I got to do three things I never thought I’d get to do.

Chronologically, the first was to attend the prize ceremony for the Jim Baen Memorial Award thanks to my runner-up finish in the contest.  This contest is a big deal put together by a major publisher, so it was an honor to be among the winners.

After that, I got to launch a book at WorldCon in Dublin.  That is probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done as a writer.  To be able to stand up in front of a group of fans and talk about my book and my writing process was a true honor.  My publisher, Guardbridge Books was super-supportive, and are absolutely wonderful.

The book in question?  Off the Beaten Path, which you can purchase here (or kindle here).

Off the Beaten Path by Gustavo Bondoni

While still in the UK, I got confirmation that I am now an active member of SFWA.  This has been a long time coming, and was one of those career goals that looked incredibly far away when I was starting out.  It’s the one thing that, in my mind, always separated professional authors from the ones still working to get there.  Getting that approval was huge.

In addition to science fiction and fantasy, I also published a literary book entitled Love and Death, which I am inordinately proud of.  It’s the one book I can recommend to any of my readers regardless of what genre they read in.  It talks to everyone’s experience, and sometimes, leafing through it, I can’t believe I wrote it.

You can buy it here.

Love and Death by Gustavo Bondoni_3d

Finally, my bestselling book of 2019, launched before the other two, in March, was a creature feature which surprised most reviewers by actually being well-written.  A mad adventure in Antarctica, it found a welcoming audience and sold a bunch of copies which makes me both happy and able to purchase beer with the proceeds (someday I hope to say “able to purchase yachts with the proceeds” but that day is not today).

You can buy that one here.

Anyway, a great year, and one that I will remember for a long time.

A Classic Format: Ace Doubles Revisited

From the 1950s to the 1970s Ace Doubles were a staple of science fiction publishing, and it was a good thing.  There were hundreds (possibly thousands?) of these books published.

For those unfamiliar with the series, these books have a tête-bêche format with spectacular pulp-style covers.  They contain two novels, and two “front” covers, so flipping the book over gives the impression of going from one book to the next.

I often wonder why the science fiction that is currently winning awards (the Hugos, at least) is utterly obscure and unpopular while everyone flocked to the stuff in the ’50s.  One reason, of course, is the inane, spectacularly boring political content that seems to attract prizes.  But another must be the pretentiousness, the utter horror of using a cover that the reading public might find attractive or exciting.

(I’m not trying to say no one is buying SF.  But I just don’t see the stuff the genre intelligentsia are trying to foist on us at Barnes & Noble… and B&N, having skin in the game, knows what sells and what doesn’t.  Apparently, it’s James S. A. Corey).

And when you read an Ace Double, you’re reminded of the good times.

Of course, with so many to choose from, there’s no guarantee that they’ll all be good.  But I still pulled one at random from a local used book store and waded in, ready for whatever wonders (or horrors) of plot and prose awaited within.

I ended up with Ace Double D-351, and read The Sun Smasher first, as the title seemed to promise less than the other, Starhaven.

Ace Double 351 - The Sun Smasher by Edmond Hamilton

If my objective was to save the best for last, I probably should have read them in the other order.  Edmond Hamilton was a great writer (something I should have remembered because I’ve read a lot of his stuff), and he weaves a tight action story.  Predictable and dated?  Perhaps.  But we’ve had sixty years to catch up with the events of his novel, and both the main character and the way the plot was resolved still seemed fresh after all these years.  The Sun Smasher is an excellent short novel.

Ace Double D-351 - Starhaven by Ivar Jorgenson

Apparently, this one’s author, Ivar Jorgenson is a pseudonym for Paul W. Fairman, but why he should have chosen to publish this one without attribution is a mystery.  Starhaven is a solid tale in the 1950’s mold where a clean-cut hero saves the day and gets the girl.  Wonderful stuff, and interesting in the way it plays with what morality looks like.

Binding these two short novels together is (and I don’t want to give any spoilers) a sense of hidden identity of the characters.  Neither of the heroes knows who he really is at the outset of the narrative, and that discovery–and subversion of the identity–is the key to both plots.

Very fun to read.  Also, I was delighted to get hold of this one because I’ve always felt that, if you’ve never read an Ace Double, your genre street cred is lower than it could be otherwise.

Anyway, they’re dirt cheap.  Find one and read it if you want to remember why people like SF.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer based in Argentina.  His most popular book is a deep-space novel entitled Siege.  You can check it out here.

 

 

A Fairy Tale as an Excuse for an Art Film

After watching Black Narcissus and A Matter of Life and Death, I was utterly unprepared for what awaited in The Red Shoes, put together by the same creative and directorial team.  Both of their previous postwar films had been slightly odd, yes, but they’d also been very focused on the story.

The Red Shoes 1948

The Red Shoes moves away from that tendency quite hard.  The story and character development are just framing devices for a film where music and dancing take center stage, but which isn’t exactly a musical.  So when the girl becomes a prima ballerina and the boy becomes a composer / director and they fall in love, it doesn’t really matter to the audience, as it seems predestined from the beginning.

Their tale is a vehicle for a visual feast set in the middle of the movie in a virtuoso display of filmmaking prowess in an era half a century before CGI.  The stage becomes a fantasy world that, as intended, makes the viewer question where the line between reality and fantasy runs.  And, as intended, the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale at the center of the story spills out into reality.

Or does it?

Normally, when a film’s plot is paper-thin, I hesitate to send people around to watch it.  But this one is about much more than plot.  The eye candy is worth the price of admission, and there’s not much a reviewer can say other than that.  If you like the kind of film that transports you to a magical place despite the lack of modern effects, this one will make you happy.

So, if the above is tempting, go ahead.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work often explores that region where reality and unreal worlds collide.  The best example of this is probably his novel Outside, which you can purchase here.