A review of Adrian Barnes’ “Nod”

‘Nod’ is one of those rare books that, on closing, you think, and may even say “Wow.” You may even feel a little tearful and moved, and want to immediately spread the word about what the novel has made you feel, or what you’ve learnt.  This is what this novel did for me.

Nod is an apocalyptic thriller featuring a disease that ravages the human mind and turns the sufferer into a zombified maniac.  At this point you would be right in pointing to a book mountain of similar works.  But what sets Nod apart is what makes it so brilliant.

First, it’s the originality of the premise.  It’s lack of sleep, and a consequent slow disintegration of the mind, that’s the plague in question here.  Set in Vancouver, it’s protagonist, a writer named Paul, is working on his latest treatise on the vagaries of words and the history of words that is also named ‘Nod.’  He’s living with his partner, Tanya, the breadwinner in the householder, and enjoying a comfortable existence, when he has a dream of a golden light.  It’s a dream he shares with everyone else.  At least those who slept.  And most people, it would seem, didn’t sleep, in a new plague of insomnia that is not slow to change the world into a crazed reflection of its former state, the benchmarks being, 6 days of mental and physical deterioration leading to psychosis, and 4 weeks, death.  All of this shot through with mother-lodes of rage and panic.

In this strange new world, those who can sleep, of which Paul is one, are termed “Sleepers,” those who can’t, the “Awakened.”  And those who society formerly pushed to its margins, the homeless wanderers, the already mentally ill, the dispossessed, now rise to an awful ascendancy.  Typical of this class is Charles, a “quick he’s coming, don’t catch his eye” type who would, if he cornered you, bury you in an avalanche of conspiracy theories.  The new world of ‘Nod’ allows him to rise in leadership status.  You see, Charles has found a draft manuscript of Paul’s ‘Nod’ and he is using this, Scripture style, to form a new Church of the Awakened where words take on savage new meanings, freighted with unholy power.  And he’s chosen Paul to be his first Prophet.

Paul meanwhile must watch the world and Tanya disintegrate before his eyes.  Ever had no sleep or very little, and felt your mood take on a heightened new pitch of depression, anger and anxiety?  Or a weird euphoria?  Well this is what happens to most of the world’s population now, with exponential acceleration, as they act increasingly like the rage filled undead your more typical zombie fare.  Strangely the Sleepers are disproportionately represented by children, who become silent and watchful and band together in new communities in urban parks.  They become demonised and hunted by the Awakened, or subjects of lab-rat experiments in an equally chilling group called ‘Cat-sleepers,’ those who pretend to sleep (through make up to cover dark circles, and a pretence of normality) to trap unwary sleepers to try and medically dissect from them what makes them sleep.

Throw into the mix a rogue nuclear warship piloted by a horrifically burnt morphine addicted Captain, and Hell has indeed come to town.

Paul is a compelling narrator of events, and his love of words and appreciation of their power to shape meaning and worlds, and their most eccentric forms, historical and present, is the prism through which he views events.  His book within he book ‘Nod’ is not dissimilar to “Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable” and each chapter begins with something like an entry from that work.

It’s this strange marriage of the cruciverbalist (lover of crosswords) and the apocalypse survivor that makes this such a smart and original read.  I’m a fan of cryptic crosswords and other word games myself, and often reading Nod I was reminded of the hours I’ve spent in this world.

The book finishes with an essay by the writer on his brain tumour, of which he was diagnosed slowly after sending Nod out for publication.  It’s a powerful essay on the ending of worlds and the attendant re-calibration of values and meaning.  It is powerful and I urge you to look it up here, and read ‘Nod.’  Don’t worry if you are not a genre fan of apocalyptic thriller, this novel truly transcends genre.






Wittertainment going strong; a review of the “Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review” podcast

This massively successful podcast achieves the rare quality of hitting the mainstream, whilst allowing its listeners to feel hat they are part of a select or cult following, described in-show as “the Church of Wittertainment.” ‘Wittertainment’ being the term given host’s bantering approach.

Simon Mayo, radio presenter and DJ chiefly on BBC Radio’s 2 and 5, and Mark Kermode, leading film critic, are perfect foils.  Kermode is all urbane, sophisticated wit, and Mayo the baffled straight-man.  The podcast, which takes their Friday film show on BBC radio 5 and bookends it with a special introduction and closing extra’s, is available weekly on the same day, and runs for on average 1 hour 30 minutes.  It takes the format of said introduction which sets the show up, a run down of the top 10 films in the UK box office, Kermode’s reviews, an intreview of film star/s, or producers or directors or any combination of these involved in a current release, more reviews and banter, and podcast extras including ‘dvd of the week,’ a review of the show, and possibly more reviews of films they did not have time for.

What works so well is the strength of Mark Kermode’s film criticism, which is very good indeed.  Informed, insightful, intelligent, and impassioned with that reviewers strong value base.  He’s a self confessed “old Trot” (Trotskyite / socialist / left winger).  His reviews can be categorised as; the good ones, and you feel you trust his judgement to give a reliable quality mark (indeed the phrase “Mark Kermode says…is used up and down the UK by the film-going public when assessing exactly what to go and see next); the films he says are “ok” or “are what they are,” you get what you pay for and they do what they say on the tin; those he dislikes because they are bad technically or lazy; and those he hates, with a passion, because they are bad technically and also embed values he sees as hateful, be it the consumerist porn of the “Sex and the City” films, or the misogyny and empty over-long vacant spectacle of a Michael Bay film.  This latter category can produce a “Kermodian Rant” which are celebrated and often very funny, although Mark Kermode himself says that he is wary of such rants, not wanting to be known or reduced to a ranting critic, although he sometimes can’t help himself.

Simon Mayo, as said, is the perfect foil to all this.  He plays a baffled Everyman when his critical companion disappears verbally up his own backside through an overuse of erudite terms, or will playfully antagonise him in an number of ways.  That he is able to do this has been earned in their many years broadcasting together (the show is over 10 years old and stated on Radio 1).  He serves as the conduit to the listeners emails and reactions and is a good interviewer to boot.

The show is in danger, though, of becoming too self-referential and smug, too pleased with itself, to the point when the in-show wittering, bantering and in-jokes becomes a bit leaden and threaten to pull down or overshadow the criticism.  The opening “Wassup’s” are getting wearingly jarring to this reviewer.  The show feels like it needs a better editor to trim some of this stuff down to make space for more reviews or film talk.

However, all the looser stuff fits in with the pod-cast brief of sounding more informal and “unplugged.”  And although the wittering can be occasionally wearing, it can be more often very funny, and gives the show that character of a well known friend in whose company you are both very comfortable and very entertained.



Wanting to be the good guy: a review of “Better Call Saul” Season 2.

Spoilers ahead, you are advised not to read if you have not finished season 1 (but it’s safe to read if you have not finished season 2).

At the end of Season 1, Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) had vowed that he was “never going to let it (wanting to be the good guy, or doing the right thing”) stop him again, from carving his slice of the American dream.

He had just been betrayed by his brother Chuck (Michael McKean) in breathtaking fashion; his dreams of family loyalty and doing right by his brother, a respectable law position and escaping from his past, were all destroyed by Chuck’s insisting to his partner in law Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) that Jimmy not join the firm, as Jimmy practising law would be like “a chimp with a machine gun.”

But Kim, wonderful Kim (Rhea Seehorn), secures Jimmy a shot at another firm which will work with Hamlin McGill or the OAP fraud that Jimmy exposes in season 1.

At close of season 1 it was clear that Jimmy was rejecting the offer to not be held back in becoming what he wants to be by any means necessary.  From now on he will let no-one tell him that the ends do not justify the means. But in episode 1 there’s a huge reversal; Jimmy takes up the chance at another shot of doing things respectably.  He attempts to woo Kim into a more serious relationship.  But his “slippin’ Jimmy” tricks of the trade can’t be repressed.  Whether introducing Kim into the dark arts of quick bar room cons, or performing sleights of hands in his law practice that would get him disbarred if not prosecuted, his rouge self demands a platform.

Eventually the marriage between Jimmy and a respectable law firm proves to be a non-starter, and Jimmy strikes out in a new relationship with Kim to make it big, prepared to sabotage his brother after last season’s big betrayal.

Meanwhile, ex-cop Mike Ehrmentraut (Jonathan Banks) continues to try and protect and provide for his daughter and grand-daughter.  But his ways have become entangled with Drug Lord Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis), here in his pre-Breaking Bad wheelchair days.  He can walk and talk here, and he is highly dangerous.  Ermentraut tries to get one better on him, without any-one getting hurt.  But BB’s law of unintended consequences is making itself felt much more than in season 1 here, and there is a nasty sting in the tale.

The cast are excellent as they were last season.  Bob Odenkirk here tones down the rapid verbal patter and dancing hands.  It’s a more muted, sober Jimmy here, although one prone to the same terrible errors of judgement, deliberately bad or not.  Kim Wexler’s character develops to someone more determined to be successful in their own terms and break through the glass ceiling, even if it means leaving the security of the firm she knows.  She is happy to take part in Jimmy’s bar room cons as a way of letting off steam when wronged by Howard, maybe as a way of kicking back at the male ordered rule-book he represents.  But she is horrified at his malpractice as a lawyer.  Jonathan Banks is excellent again, conveying so much in a twitch of the corner of the mouth.  He’s a fixer and a problem solver whose skills would not shame the most skilled echelons of the CIA’s ‘black-op’s” department.  There is little interaction between him and Jimmy this season, as their stories of trying to out-run and out-think the demons of their past and present run parallel.  I have a feeling they may converge in the world of Gustavo Fring next season.  Maybe, maybe not.

Michael McKean’s Chuck is one of the shows most complex and intriguing characters.  I think we are meant to hate him for his betrayal of his bother.  And yet, we are given a lot of information, related by the brothers or told in flash-back, of how Chuck struggled with his brother’s slippery ways through childhood and beyond, and how he has a knowledge of his brother that perhaps validates his machine-gun toting simian assessment.  Perhaps Chuck could do more to redeem Jimmy and set him up in practice, but perhaps he honestly feels the impossibility of it, and maybe so do we.  Chuck’s illness, his electro-magnetic sensitivity that drives him to wrap himself in a foil blanket, sit in a darkened house and insist that his colleagues leave their mobile phones at the door, gives him his own vulnerability.  By the season finale, Chuck and Jimmy are again in confrontation, there’s been betrayal and counter-betrayal, and it is going to get real dirty real quick.

All this, the memorable minor characters, the quality of the writing, the use of location (Albuquerque is a character in itself) continues the quality of season 1 and makes this so much more than a “spot the BB character or reference” show.  That said, I think it really needs to be enjoyed as a companion piece to BB and not as a stand-alone.  It has similar themes although the scale is smaller.  There are no mid-air collisions, no desert shoot outs or prison massacres here.  It’s more of a chamber-piece than that 5 season behemoth.

And yet, I felt this the weakest of the 2 seasons.  I felt this because it does not build on the momentum of season 1 finale.  Instead it rewinds and tells a lot of the character development of season 1 again.  It seemed Jimmy was scorning and rejecting a respectable law job to build his own practice through un-restrained mischief and larceny.  Instead he unexpectedly has another go at the respectable route, using the odd dodgy trick en-route.  All this makes it feel a frustrating and more padded watch.

But, it still demands your loyalty and there are more than enough hooks to get us back for season 3.