Monthly Archives: February 2004

Ursula K. Le Guin – Changing Planes

There are some books that an established author can get published but which, coming from a novice, would never see the light of day. It’s not always a question of quality, either. A “concept” book may only be saleable with a big name attached. This is a case in point.

The concept behind Changing Planes is that, given the right set of physical stimuli, a person can travel to other “planes” of existence, populated by intelligent nonhuman races. The stimuli in question include tiredness, boredom, and slight nausea. In our society, they’re best found in airports, waiting for delayed airplanes. In theory, you can spend the two-hour layover in O’Hare as a week-long holiday on some alien planet.

The book itself is a description of some of the other “planes”. Each description is almost entirely plot-free, and some are pretty heavily polemical. But the ideas are different enough, and intriguing enough, that Le Guin manages to sustain the idea for the entire book. She would be well-advised not to do a sequel, though.

Rob Grant – Incompetence

Incompetence takes place in a near-future Europe, where anti-discrimination laws have been taken to extremes: no one can be denied employment (or discriminated against) on any basis – even simple incompetence. The results include blind airline pilots and a police chief with serious anger management problems (and a loaded gun). The plot is your basic espionage/thriller: the main character, a secret agent, travels through Europe trying to find out who killed his colleague, and incidentally getting framed for various crimes, beaten up, and having his shoes stolen along the way.

The book is of mixed quality. Some of the vignettes and short scenes are excellent (Such as when the main character talks his way onto a plane without a ticket by pretending to have short-term memory problems . He simply replays the same conversation with the stewardess until she gives up and lets him on board.) But in the end, the fast pace becomes frenetic, and all the amusing touches can’t disguise the book’s lack of such essential ingredients such as characterisation, or any complexity of plot.

If you like Grant’s other magnum opus (the TV series Red Dwarf), then you will probably like this book. If not, well, maybe give this one a miss.

Outkast – Speakerboxx/The Love Below

The sheer variety displayed on this double album makes it deliciously hard to describe. Speakerboxx, performed and produced by Antwan (Big Boi) Patton, is a fabulously inventive rap masterpiece, with songs ranging from bass-heavy gangsta (“Tomb of the Boom”) to upbeat party hip-hop (“Bowtie”, “Church”), and taking in all manner of experimenal beats and grooves inbetween (“Ghetto Musick). On the other hand, The Love Below, produced and performed by André (3000) Benjamin, is a fabulously inventive R&B masterpiece, with tunes ranging from beautifully chilled out (“Prototype”, “Take Off Your Cool”) to energetic (“Hey Ya!”), and taking in all manner of experimental beats and grooves inbetween (for example the frantic jazz/drum ‘n bass crossover version of “My Favorite Things”).

The key thing that binds the albums together is an utterly fearless eclecticism. Orchestral string sections, big band style horns, hard rocking guitars, easygoing acoustic sections, layered samples and hyper-produced twiddlings…it’s all there, and it all just works. On top of it all lie Antwan’s precise counterpoint rap phrasings, and André’s seductively meandering vocals. There are numerous brief interludes scattered throughout the album, most of which I can live without (even if some of them are fun once or twice, such as “God”, and “Bamboo”), but amongst the 30 (!) actual tracks, there are no more than a handful I would call weak. It’s an extraordinary double album: topical and timeless, sensitive and hard-edged, sexy and fun.

If I can figure out which one it will displace, Speakerboxx/The Love Below is heading straight into my all-time top 10.


Alex and I saw this together at a Saturday morning matinee, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. The plot, which centres around a mysterious series of events on the Spooky Island theme park, gives each member of the gang a chance to shine, and to show how well they’ve transferred from the original cartoon to the live action. The key is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It has a fair number of decent gags, too. Some will appeal to kids, and some will appeal to adults who grew up with the cartoon. (The Scrappy-Doo flashback scene is hilarious.) It’s just a good fun family film.

Harlan Coben – No Second Chance

Since becoming a parent, I’ve developed an almost allergic reaction to bad things happening to young children (babies, infants, and toddlers) in fiction and film. I first noticed this reaction when I was reading Michael Marshall Smith’s The Straw Men. There is a point about half-way through the book that literally took my breath away, and it took me a while before I was willing to carry on reading it. I had a similar reaction to No Second Chance.

The book starts with Dr. Marc Seidman being shot. He surfaces from unconsciousness twelve days later, and learns that his wife was shot and killed, and that his six-month-old daughter is missing. Then the ransom note arrives.

Like all of Harlan Coben’s books, No Second Chance is fast-paced and tightly plotted. In style and tone, it closely matches Tell No One. In that book, the protagonist thought his wife was dead, and fought throughout the book to find out what really happened to her; in No Second Chance the hero is struggling to get back his daughter. Both characters are completely devastated by their losses, and are driven to desperation by hopes of getting their loved ones back. Consequently, No Second Chance felt less fresh and original than Tell No One. Although I didn’t predict the final twist, it was obvious there was going to be one. I found it stretched the ending out just that little bit too far, though.

It’s a quick, thrilling read, but it’s not one of Coben’s best.

Henning Mankell – One Step Behind

Three young people have been missing since Midsummer’s Day. Postcards from them have been arriving from all over Europe, but one of their mothers thinks that something is wrong. She thinks they aren’t travelling at all, and that the police should make efforts to track them down. Kurt Wallander has a nagging feeling she might be right, but it is only when his long-time colleague and friend Svedberg is murdered that his fears take a more sinister shape. He discovers that Svedberg had been conducting a secret investigation into the disappearance of the youngsters for a month already without telling anyone else. Was he killed because he was getting too close to the truth?

As well as being a well-constructed police thriller, I also found this a very intimate book. At the start, Wallander is diagnosed with diabetes. He also spends most of the book consumed with self-doubt and near-panic that he can’t cope with the stress of the investigation. Everyone around him knows that he is more than capable, but he has trouble seeing it himself. Consequently, he works himself into the ground to try and prove his worth, not only to his colleagues, but also to himself. He never grants himself a moment’s peace. I recognised a lot of myself in Wallander’s character, and reading the book actually felt therapeutic. It may not resonate with everyone in the same way, but even without the personal echoes, it’s still an excellent crime novel and a well-observed character study.


Dark, tense, and twisty police thriller about washed-up cop Nick Tellis (Jason Patric) as he investigates the murder of Michael Calvess, an undercover narcotics detective. Calvess’s former partner, Henry Oak (Ray Liotta) had been working the case before him, but he had been removed because he was too emotionally involved. Tellis insists that Oak is allowed to help him with the investigation, but does Oak have his own reasons for wanting to track down the killers? The acting, script, and direction are all excellent, making it a thoroughly solid, gritty cop film. It’s also interesting for the way in which it examines how being a parent–or missing the opportunity to become a parent–affects you.

The Little Polar Bear

Curious tale about two warring races (the “seals” and the “polar bears”), and the homosexual, cross-species relationship between two youngsters from each race. The narrative follows Lars (a bear) and Robbie (a seal) as they struggle for acceptance amongst their own people. Through their love they manage to forge a fragile truce between the two races, but it is doomed from the start. At the height of tension, when both tribes find themselves under assault from a robotic alien berserker creature, Lars is cast adrift on an ice floe. Delirious from exhaustion and thirst, he embarks on a spirit quest to a far-off tropical land, where his concepts of friendship and power are turned upside down by a succession of strange creatures. Robbie eventually finds and rescues him. Lars returns to his people in proper Messianic fashion to lead them in a bloody battle to defeat the alien invader.

How this managed to get billed as a children’s film, I’ll never know.