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Archive for August 2010

Nightmares And Dreams In The Cell (2000)

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Back when everyone was discussing Inception, the conversation over at Asking The Wrong Questions strayed onto The Cell, Tarsem Singh’s debut film. It is a film I’ve always regarded fondly but it got short shrift in the comments there so I thought perhaps it was time for me to watch it again. It lived up to my memories but I would caution against anyone buying the 2001 Region 2 DVD because it is simply the worst transfer I’ve ever seen, not because the picture quality is poor (although it ain’t great) but because they’ve some how got the aspect ratio wrong so that even in widescreen the edges of the screen are cropped.

Anyway, in that thread Raz Greenberg said: “I have no argument with you about The Cell being a beautiful-looking film – it’s just a shame that the visuals were wasted on such a dumb script that ripped off pretty much every other significant serial-killer film, and offered no surprises or excitement.” I found this interesting because one of the reasons The Cell has always intrigued me is the way it stands the archetypal serial killer film on its head.

The first half of the Nineties were probably the golden age of the serial killer thriller with The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Seven (1995) enjoying huge critical and commercial success and spawning many imitations. There were other important serial killer films of the period like Man Bites Dog (1992) but it was the thriller format of cat and mouse between insane genius and dedicated cop that captured the public imagination. By the time The Cell was released in 2000 the golden age was over and, with the boom in horror over the last decade, serial killers were back to being faceless, brainless axe-wielding hulks. There is a brilliantly idiotic vote on the cover of the DVD which describes the film as “Seven meets Seven for the post-Seven generation”. It is a meaningless piece of puff but Mark Protosevich’s screenplay is definitely in dialogue with that period.

The film opens with Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) standing in a desert. She is a social worker (unusual enough) and the desert turns out to be part of the coma dream of a young patient who she is attempting to draw out of a catatonic state using dream technology. We then meet Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio) in another, real desert. There is a repeated symbolism to this but also a savage irony: Stargher is a killer who drowns his victims. In fact, he does a lot more than drown them; he psychologically tortures them, then drowns them, then enacts an elaborate sexual fetish every bit as ritualistic as John Doe or Buffalo Bill. It is eighteen minutes into the film before we meet the first law enforcement officer and even then we do not meet the lead FBI agent, Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn), until last of all. He observes that Stargher wants to be caught and only twelve minutes later at the half hour mark, he is. But before the police can even arrest him, he has already succumbed to a seizure brought on by his mental illness.

Stargher’s crimes are elaborate but he is not a genius; he doesn’t want to out smart the police, he wants to be stopped. When Deane enters his head to try and find the location of his final victim, the cat and mouse is emotional rather than intellectual. It also deviates from the standard serial killer film template in that beating the clock to save the missing girl is not her only goal. In fact, it is only after Novak, the law enforcement officer, joins her inside Stargher’s head that the location is deduced; Deane, the social worker, has become more concerned for Stragher himself. The narrative splits with Novak and Deane’s dual quest to saving themselves from despair by saving a life whilst achieving their professional goals given equal importance. When Deane is unable to succeed, she is utterly distraught. Very few film’s shed tears for their serial killers and this level of empathy and emotional complexity sets it apart.

It is probably fair to say that Singh’s primary interest is visual rather than narrative though. For his belated follow up, The Fall (2006), he wrote the script himself and reduced the real world to even more of a frame for his fantasies. And you certainly get the impression that regardless of whether it is a dream or a fantasy, it is the tableux that is of prime importance. Back on that thread, Abigail Nussbaum said:

I can’t think of another movie that goes as far as it does in representing the human unconscious as a wild, irrational space (though I haven’t seen Dark City). It is telling, though, that so much of its imagery is made up of quotes from surrealist, but consciously created, art.

The Cell is actually a less accurate representation of dreams than Inception or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I don’t think it’s realistic on that level any more than it captures the reality of the psychology of serial killers, but it is stunning, and comes closer to the popular concept of what dreams are like – or, more accurately, to dream as a literary conceit rather than a reality – than either of the other films.

There are quotes in the film’s dream – such as equestrian version of Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living – but I wouldn’t say they dominated. If anything, religious imagery dominates but there is also a lot of Singh’s own strong asthetic sensibility in there. However, it is true that they aren’t much like real dreams. On that score, I would like to nominate the recently deceased Japanese director Satoshi Kon for Paprika (2006). The film was apparently an influence on Christopher Nolan but the dreamscapes of Inception turned out to be relatively staid whereas Kon manages to capture the organic chaos of dreaming.

Written by Martin

31 August 2010 at 11:37

Posted in films, sf

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‘The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things To Rats’ by James Tiptree Jr.

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Tiptree is one of the big gaps in my reading of science fiction and, whilst I have lots of such gaps, this is one of the few I care about. This combination of character study and critique of masculinity in the workplace seems a good place to start since not only is it very good but I imagine it encapsulates a lot of her concerns.

Tiptree pins down her protagonist, Tilman “Tilly” Lipsitz, on the dissecting board in a way he himself is unable to do with his rats: “he is naively impressed by the complexity, the intricate interrelated delicacies of living mater. Why is he so reluctant to push metal into it, produce lesions with acids or shocks? He has this unfashionable yearning to learn by appreciation, to tease out the secrets with only his eyes and mind.” His colleagues have no such scruples; “muscular large hairy ones”, excepting Sheila “with the lily waist, the heart-lobed hips” whose methods are equally manly. Tilly is emasculated and the point of being fired so one night he gets ripped to the gills on absinthe and goes into the lab to kill his rats and turn over a new leaf. In the process of doing so the absinthe takes hold and he is plunged into a hallucination before emerging on the other side, horrifyingly re-made, the man they want him to be.

Quality: ****

I’ve given up on expecting the stories to be hard or even for the editors to attempt to justify their hardness. I still wasn’t expecting H&C to come right out and say that this story is actually the opposite of hard SF:

This story is in a sense a companion piece to Wilhelm’s “The Planners,” about being a working scientist in a laboratory, facing moral choices, but replacing the fantasizing of Wilhelm’s piece with a drunken, dreamlike supernatural phantasmagoria at the center of this story, reminiscent of a Keatsian visit to Faerie… This story is a counterpoint to “The Cold Equations,” while portraying it’s affect ironically, and may be taken as representative of the movement by many of the newer writers in 1970s sf away from the hard sf affect into the fantastic.

Written by Martin

28 August 2010 at 13:40

Inferiority Complex

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Yesterday Niall Alexander put forward a reasonable point of view:

But I’d go one further. Put what the consensus has deemed a “well-written” fantasy beside an acclaimed non-genre work, and I’d bet good money that the latter is of a significantly higher quality than the former. I mean technically… artistically… narratively – every which way, ultimately… I can see this being a divisive subject, but let’s not everyone lose our literary lunches at once.

Needless to say, everybody lost their lunch. I posted a comment in the thread in agreement but I think I was pretty much the only one. Usually, I would say that was a reason for me and Niall to re-examine our belief – and it is – but there is also something to the nature of a lot the responses which makes me think they aren’t engaging with him in good faith. Niall is a speculative fiction fan, he writes a speculative fiction blog, he prefaces this very post with a comment about who much of a fan he is; the comments, however, quickly assume the affronted defensiveness typical of the genre fan who feels they have been personally insulted.

Not all of them though. If we ignore Sam Sykes’s typically unhelpful pseudo-aphorism, Simon asks the key question: what do we mean by genre? The problem here is that fantasy can mean two things and I think this distinction gets lost later on in the thread. As a general mode of writing, the whole of literature can be split into the fantastic and the mimetic. However, as a genre, fantasy refers to something more specific. So yes, Jorge Luis Borges and Salman Rushdie write fantasy but no, it doesn’t make sense to consider them genre fantasy authors in the same way, say, Gene Wolfe or China Mieville are. It is true that this border is porous (and perhaps becoming more so) and that someone like Michael Chabon can have a foot in both camps but I still think it is clearly enough defined to be meaningful.

So Niall’s comparison is between genre fantasy and non-genre literary fiction (which will include non-genre fantastic fiction). Isn’t this an unfair comparison though? Putting your thumb on the scales? Another case of if it’s good then it’s not SF? No. If non-genre fantasy does tend to be better than genre fantasy then this gets right to the heart of what Niall is saying. The point of his post is not to cheerlead for non-genre literary fiction but to pose a question: could the fantasy genre raise its game? I think it could. There are brilliant examples of genre fantasy that certainly don’t – many of them listed in the comments – but these individual counter-examples don’t invalidate the argument. As Niall says: “But can a handful of truly worthwhile instances of speculative fiction be said to be representative of the genre entire?”

Mark Charan Newton raises a couple of related points. The first is that “mainstream literature doesn’t have to deal with heavy plot and weird worlds” and “secondary world writing is inherently restrictive”. This is an explanation for the gap so I don’t want to explore it further here but I will say that whilst it is an interesting idea I’m not sure I buy it. The second is that there is a question of perspective here: “mainstream fiction tends to get judged on the 10% good writers, whereas secondary world fiction is judged on the 90% of dross.” I’ve said before that people need to remember that Sturgeon’s Revelation isn’t a natural law and I think that applies here too. I don’t think what Mark is saying is true at all, I think people tend judge different types of fiction on the average example (the same way they judge most things). And I would say that the average example of genre fantasy is going to be worse than the average example of non-genre fiction; I think this would be true if I went into a bookshop and true if I applied it to my own bookshelves. (Someone raised the fact that, as a genre, fantasy is much than non-genre fiction. True enough but again, this is an explanation for the gap rather than a refutation.)

So, if the average non-genre book is better than average genre fantasy, what does that mean? It doesn’t mean you a fool for liking genre fantasy. It doesn’t mean you a fool for preferring genre fantasy to non-genre literary fiction. It isn’t about you at all. It just means that perhaps there is a conversation to be had about pushing the genre forward. If you want more, you have to stand up and shout for it.

The problem seems to be that a lot of fans want it both ways. I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve been told that I’m over-thinking a genre book or a critical approach is too deep or inappropriate or pretentious. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen other people told the same. Equally, as Eric M Edwards say:

Very often I hear the argument that readers of genre novels are often “just wanting to be entertained” not challenged by what they find between the covers. Summer reads, after work books, familiar formulas and series, something to while away the time on a long train journey. In other words, these readers and there are many it seems, look first for uncomplicated stories told plainly and quickly. They are then, in the market for light reading. Unsurprising then, if much of what is produced is exactly this sort of book.

Yet when people point out this unsurprising fact there is uproar. I’m reminded of the recent spat between Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult and the New York Times. Why is it covering Jonathan Frazen and not them? Well, here’s why:

While Weiner admits she is not a literary fiction novelist and while Picoult argues that the themes of her work and Franzen’s, for example, are the same, even if she is a “commercial” writer and he’s not, both writers feel unduly dissed that critics don’t seem to take them as seriously as they do Franzen. Yet neither of them see the disconnect.

Many people fail to see that disconnect. If you don’t have high expectations for your own work, you can’t complain if others don’t either. And if you don’t have high expectations for what you read, you can’t complain if others do.

Written by Martin

27 August 2010 at 07:30

Posted in criticism, genre wars, sf

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‘Cage Of Sand’ by JG Ballard

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A familiarly detached Ballardian protoganist observes an even more obsessed individual: “Sustained by the personal myth he had created, he was now more or less unreachable.” Likewise, the set dressing is all here: Cape Canaveral, abandon astronauts, empty motels, vermillion sands. This is one of those Ballard stories that really needs to be considered as a single canvas hanging in a gallery of similar studies.

Quality: ***
Hardness: *

Bonus Ballard link:

Written by Martin

25 August 2010 at 09:55

The Sharif Don’t Like It

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My palate took a while to develop. As a kid, a cheese and pickle sandwich was about as exotic as I got. I didn’t add pepper or even salt to food and it wasn’t till I left university that I tried chilli. So since I’ve started eating out more (ie since I’ve become a yuppie) I have been pushing myself to broaden my horizons and over the weekend I passed two significant milestones.

My wife has been working very hard and we’ve both been eating a lot of celery soup so we thought we needed a treat. On Friday we went to Passage Cafe, a tiny French bistro on Jerusalem Passage, right next to The Dovetail. It is the sort of lovely little restaurant that I’ve never actually experienced in France but always hoped to find. Its simplicity and lack of fuss is also rare and welcome in London. Anyway, as I was scanning the menu, one thing jumped out: snails a “notre facon”. I’ve been intrigued by snails for a while but never been able to make the jump to actually ordering. Visually they are just so unappealing. However, the fact that here they were served with a robust red wine sauce finally allowed me to pluck up the courage. And I’m very glad I did; they were lovely, a sort of cross between a mushroom and a mussel.

I instinctively offered one to the missus but she looked at me as if I was mad. When I continued to urge her to try one she reminded me that she was a vegetarian. It hadn’t really occured to me that they might be considered meat: she likes mushrooms, she like mussels, she must like this. She will happily shovel down seafood so why not, er, landfood. Does it matter where your mollusc comes from? She was unmoved.

Following more work, more celery soup and our water being cut off on Sunday, we again found ourselves at a tiny little restaurant on a tiny little street: Wright Brothers Oyster And Porter House next to Borough Market. I think you can see where I am going with this. Before we get to that though, a small note of regret.

On Friday, I nipped into The Well for a quick pint before dinner. As I ensconed myself with my Amstel and my Neal Asher I happened to notice the blackboard. Razor clams, chorizo and broad beans! This sounded like the perfect meal, I’ve been wanting to try razor clams – apparently one of the tastiest and most under-rated bivalves – for a while and the combination of ingredients was right up my alley. I vowed I would return and snaffle it. And then what did I find on the menu at Wright Bros? Razor clams, chorizo and broad beans! My euphoria rose only to be hammered flat when I was told that they were finished. One day, one day…

So that let one direction, a direction I was excited and intimidated about. How does one actually eat an oyster? Would I look like a nob? I chickened out and ordered some oysters New Orleans-style which means they were breadcrumbed and deepfried and I dipped them in tartar sauce. They were very nice, like a creamy scampi, but I couldn’t help feeling this was cheating. They had dozens of different oysters on their menu and it seemed ridiculous not to at least sample one in its pure form. So we had a Kumamoto oyster each and that was most assuredly the real deal. Raw, snotty and and incredibly salty, it should be unpleasant but it isn’t. That said, I think it definitely requires acclimatisation but, now that I’ve broken my duck, I am happy to embark on this process.

I didn’t try the other half of the equation because, let’s be honest, stout is vile. It also isn’t very manly, is it? I had a peach bellini and a glass of sparkling rose and felt appropriately macho. Which reminds me, I discovered on Friday that you can make kir royale with cider. This is information I can use.

(The title is indirectly inspired by Adam Roberts and, in turn, indirectly led me to this.)

Written by Martin

24 August 2010 at 10:55

Guardian Summer Short Story Special

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I’ve not seen it mentioned in my corners of the blogosphere but it was the Guardian’s summer short story special last Saturday. Contributors this year are:

I’ve only read the Mitchell so far and, although it is nicely observed in the manner of a middled aged Black Swan Green, it is a pretty thin story.

Written by Martin

17 August 2010 at 09:27

Posted in short stories

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Third Wave Fantasy

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My review of Swords & Dark Magic, edited by Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders, is up now at SF Site:

So Swords & Dark Magic is an excellent showcase for both its contributors and the subgenre itself. If epic fantasy is generally considered to be most comfortable with a word count measured in the millions, sword and sorcery proves to be the perfect genre for the short story. Like their protagonists, the authors follow the adventurers’ code: get in and get out. The result is an anthology with a remarkably high hit rate. In fact, this is probably the single best original fantasy anthology I’ve read. More please.

It turned out to be a cracker but I initially requested a copy of Swords & Dark Magic because of an increasing interest in commercial fantasy, its substance and its taxonomy. This was also the subject of two earlier posts:

Edit: I gave Gene Wolfe’s contribution, ‘Bloodsport’, short shrift in my review since I don’t think it really fits with the anthology. However, I did discuss it in detail here.

Written by Martin

16 August 2010 at 16:08


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There is an interesting post by Amy McCulloch over at the Voyager blog about the shift from illustrative to abstract art on genre covers. It is a welcome trend, the move from this to this (to pick two random examples). However, at the end of the piece McCulloch gives an example of Voyager moving in the opposite direction with Stephen Hunt. Here is the old cover of Secrets Of The Fire and the new one:


I can understand why they’ve done it; it is well known that the blander and more generic a cover, the more successful it is with the target audience. At the same time, it is still a shame. I’ve certainly always admired Hunt’s old covers. (Who is responsible? Artists and designers get a bit of a raw deal, these things are often hard to find out.) It is also slightly ironic given the fact McCulloch starts her post by saying:

We also have to be extra careful not to alienate any potential readers as external market research has shown us that sometimes more traditional-looking, illustrative fantasy covers are off-putting for newcomers to the genre… Basically, more graphic, elegant covers are hopefully appealling to our extremely loyal genre fanbase as well as to new readers who perhaps wouldn’t expect to enjoy a ‘fantasy’ novel — and changing the perception of the genre as a whole.

Unrelatedly but speaking of stylised covers, here is the nicest Bible ever (via Caustic Cover Critic):

Written by Martin

15 August 2010 at 07:57

Posted in books, design

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Pure Extract Of Fantasy

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On the bus into town today I was reading extracts from three highly anticipated fantasies forthcoming from Gollancz. First, there was a brief snippet of The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie:

“Vol . . . un . . . teered?” Tunny wrestled with the word as if it belonged to a foreign language. “So they do exist. Just make damn sure you don’t volunteer me for anything while you’re here. Anyway . . .” He drew the lads into a conspiratorial huddle with a crooked finger. “You boys have landed right on your feet. I’ve done all kind of jobs in his Majesty’s army and this right here,” and he pointed an affectionate finger at the standard of the First, rolled up safe under his hammock in its canvas cover, “this is a sweet detail. Now I may be in charge, that’s true. But I want you lads to think of me as, let’s say . . . your kindly uncle. Anything you need. Anything extra. Anything to make this army life of ours worth living.” He leant in closer and gave the suggestive eyebrows. “Anything. You can come to me.” Lederlingen held up a hesitant finger. “Yes?”
“We’re cavalrymen, aren’t we?”
“Yes, trooper, we are.”
“Shouldn’t we have horses?”
“That’s an excellent question and a keen grasp of tactics. Due to an administrative error, our horses are currently with the Fifth, attached to Mitterick’s division which, as a regiment of infantry, is not in a position to make best use of them. I’m told they’ll be catching up with us any day, though they’ve been telling me that a while. For the time being we are a regiment of . . . horseless horse.”
“Foot?” offered Yolk.
“You might say that, except we still . . .” and Tunny tapped his skull, “think like cavalry. Other than horses, which is a deficiency common to every man in the unit, is there anything you need?”
Klige was next to lift his arm. “Well, sir, Corporal Tunny, that is . . . I’d really like something to eat.”
Tunny grinned. “Well that’s definitely extra.”

Then a longer chunk of The Dark Commands by Richard Morgan:

He pointed out over the rail, old memories roiling like the water. “You can see where the dragon tore its way out – that long, ragged hollow near the front, the pieces that flap about when the swell hits. The dragon comes first, it’s like a mother bird protecting its brood. Then there’ll be a couple of hundred smaller hatching gouges further back where the reptile peons and the higher caste Scaled Folk came out afterwards. Once that happens, the whole raft starts to rot. It loses a lot of its bulk and in the end the currents carry it back out to sea. This has probably been drifting about out here since the early fifties at least.”
“You really killed one of these beasts?” She was watching him keenly now, he knew. “With that blade you carry? Now that is remarkable.”
“I suppose so. As I said, I did have help.”
“Even so. Are you not proud?”
Ringil grimaced. “If you’d seen some of the other things I’ve done with this blade, you’d perhaps be less enamoured of my feats.”
“And perhaps not.”
Was she rubbing herself against him at the hip? Ringil turned to face her, met her eyes, caught the gleam of saliva on the teeth in her grin.
“My lady, I don’t quite know how to put this to you gently, so I won’t try. You are wasting your time with me.”
“Am I?” The grin was still there. “That’s a hasty judgment.”
Ringil sighed, pressed thumb and forefinger to his eyes. Was he really going to have to fuck this mad-woman before they made port.

And finally, there is the whole first chapter of The Republic Of Thieves by Scott Lynch:

Locke’s symptoms revealed themselves the day they entered the Cavendria estuary.
At first it had been nothing more than bouts of dizziness and blurred vision, but as the days passed and they slowly tacked against the current, he began bleeding from his nose and the corners of his mouth. By the time they reached Lashain, he could no longer joke away the trickles of blood, or hide his increasing weakness. Instead of taking on stores, they’d rented rooms, and against Locke’s protests Jean began to spend nearly every coin they had on alchemists, physikers, herbalists, and assorted cures and comforts.
From Lashain’s underworld, which was tolerably colorful if not nearly as vast as Camorr’s, he’d consulted every poisoner and black alchemist he could bribe or coerce. All of them had shaken their heads and expressed professional admiration for what had been done to Locke; the substance in question was beyond their power to counteract. Locke had been made to drink a hundred different purgatives, teas, and elixirs, each seemingly more vile and expensive than the last, until Jean began to fear that one of them would kill him before the poison finished its work.
After that, Jean had dressed well and begun to call upon the accredited physikers of the city. Locke was explained away as a “confidential servant“ of someone wealthy and important, which could have meant anything from secret lover to private assassin. The physikers too had expressed regret and fascination in equal measure. Most of them had refused to attempt cures, instead offering palliatives to ease Locke’s pain. Jean fully grasped the meaning of this, but paid no heed to their pessimism. He simply showed each to the door, paid their exorbitant fees, and went out after the next physiker on his list.

Although I won’t get round to them for a while, I’m looking forward to each of these novels. This is particularly the case for Abercrombie and Morgan who manage to perfectly balance wit and grit, adventure and realpolitik. Lynch I am more concerned about: I was disappointed by Red Seas Under Red Skies and, whilst the wit is never in doubt, I hope this is anchored to something more substantial this time round.

(As an aside, I was amused to note that each of these extracts begin with the principal character waking up in a state of confusion. In your face, creative writing advice!)

Written by Martin

14 August 2010 at 15:45

‘Day Million’ by Frederik Pohl

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Why, Dora is further removed from you than you are from the australopithecines of five thousand centuries ago. You could not swim a second in the strong currents of her life. You don’t think progress goes in a straight line, do you? Do you recognise it is an ascending, accelerating, maybe even exponential curve? It takes hell’s own time to get started, but when it goes it goes like a bomb. And you, you Scotch-drinking steak-eater in your relaxacizing chair, you’ve just barely lighted the primacord of the fuse. What is it now, the six or seven hundred thousandth-day after Christ? Dora lives in Day Million.

One of the most famous stories in science fiction and justifiably so. This must be one of the oldest stories of our post-human future and reading it now it is a mixture of the modern and the quaint but the concise power of its mind-expanding introducion to the possibilities of the singularity – all told in a voice which is avuncular, amused and chiding – remains.

Quality: ****
Hardness: ***

Written by Martin

13 August 2010 at 14:19