Monday, 8 February 2016

Old Stories, New Settings: on modern-day adaptations of classic literature

I always used to consider myself a purist when it came to adaptations of beloved books. I have a button badge that says "The Book Was Better," and yes, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it is. And yet we book-lovers do like to watch film adaptations of familiar stories, to see the stories and characters we know and love brought to life. Woe betide anyone who gets it wrong! But can anyone really reproduce the films that play out in a person's mind when they read a book? No one ever reads the same book as anyone else, or so they say; everyone brings something new to the reading. But a good story is timeless, and so often people demonstrate this by bringing old stories to a new setting, to show how themes and characters can transcend a single place and time. It's an idea I used to frown upon, but have come to appreciate. Viewing a familiar tale in a new way can give you a new understanding and better appreciation of the original text.


The point at which I first acknowledged this was in the summer of 2010, when the BBC showed the first series of Sherlock. I recognised the brilliance of casting Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman (even without a moustache) as the Great Detective and his sidekick, before I even identified that they were dressed in modern clothes. They were Holmes and Watson, there was no doubt about it. From before Holmes appeared on-screen, from the first time he spoke, his character was clearly defined, given new life free from the trappings of the smoggy setting of Victorian London and its formal language.

 

I didn't need to read the back blurb of Jacqueline Wilson's recent novel Katy to know what it was. A Katy on a swing? Well, that would be a modern-day telling of Susan Coolidge's What Katy Did, a classic that was inevitably a big part of my childhood - and indeed now Nick Sharratt has illustrated a paperback of the original to match, a visual confirmation that times may change but children do not.

I knew that Wilson had liked that book as a child, although to the modern or older reader, the Victorian moralising is rather unpalatable now. Jacqueline Wilson specialises in stories about dysfunctional families and flawed but believable child heroes and heroines, so adapting What Katy Did plays to her strengths. I really liked how closely she stuck to the original, especially in the first half of the book, mirroring even the minor details: the ice-house, on which the children love to sit, has become a garage roof. Aunt Izzie is now Katy and Clover's stepmother, and middle-child misfit Elsie their stepsister, while the younger ones are at least half-siblings. It was the details of the children's make-believe storytelling and games that made that story come alive for me as a child, so it's really interesting to see what their modern-day counterparts get up to (and it is really not that much different at all. Katy and her friend Cecy have mobile phones now, instead of "post-offices" in the garden, but they use them to taunt and exclude poor Elsie in just the same way.) Halfway through, at the time of the accident, the story moves away from the original What Katy Did and becomes a new Jacqueline Wilson book with 21st century values. Katy does not need to become reformed (and utterly dull) and be rewarded with miraculous healing. The world doesn't work that way, and by giving her heroine the challenges of accepting her limitations and setting herself new goals as a person with a disability, Jacqueline Wilson has written a more relatable young heroine for modern-day Katys to relate to.


Possibly the most adapted and updated story of them all is Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, the tale of hate turning to love that has formed the starting point of most romantic comedies. Bride and Prejudice brings a Bollywood twist to the classic tale. The world has grown smaller, but human nature remains, and the formalities and misunderstandings of Regency England translates well into the cultural divide between a rich, haughty American businessman and a bright young Indian woman whose mother wants to arrange good marriages for all her daughters. Oh, you know the story! Bride and Prejudice is a smart, funny, sometimes corny but feel-good adaptation of the old story.

Then, of course, there's Bridget Jones's Diary, based on the novel by Helen Fielding (which I think was originally published as a weekly newspaper column.) I read and watched this before I ever read Pride and Prejudice (yes, there was such a time!) and haven't seen it for ages, but although it's more loosely based on Austen's novel, there are clear parallels in this tale of a thirty-something singleton surrounded by smug marrieds, with the charming cad on one side, and on the other hand the snob called Darcy who looks like Colin Firth (the ultimate bit of meta-casting.)


The latest adaptation Pride and Prejudice heralded a new kind of storytelling in the form of the Literary-Inspired Webseries. Filmed in short episodes in video-journal format, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries give us Lizzie Bennet, a twenty-something graduate student who has moved back home with her family in a difficult financial climate, wondering what future there is in store for someone with an English degree - a painfully relatable variation on the theme. Most of the drama happens with Lizzie relating events to her video journal (with some interruptions from friends and family, and some excellent re-enactments.) Ashley Clements is sassy and expressive as Lizzie, Laura Spencer (wasn't she in The Big Bang Theory as Emily?) is sweet and lovable, while Mary Kate Wiles is lovably obnoxious as Lydia, as you'd expect, but shows more character growth than Austen allowed her, and a rare vulnerability later on. The other two sisters are relegated to being Mary the Emo Cousin who Lizzie (perfect!) and Kitty is literally Lydia's adoring cat.


Since The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Youtube has been rather overrun with modern-day video-diary versions of every classic imaginable: all the Austen, I think, Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, Little Women, and my beloved Anne of Green Gables has got not one but two webseries inspired by it. Green Gables Fables came first, starring Mandy Harmon as Anne, and in September returned for its second season. I think it took a little while to get really good, as the actors grew into their characters. It is very faithful to the book, although I wasn't quite sure that some of the substitutions quite reflected the original - having a manicure at the salon, for example, doesn't quite have the same importance as finally getting to wear nice clothes, and the hair disaster and the cake disaster less dramatic. But by the time Gilbert Blythe turns up in the middle of the first season, it got into its stride, and it is notable for its amount of "transmedia" with Youtube channels for supporting characters, who all have regularly-updated Twitter accounts interacting with each other for things that can't be shown in a five-minute video diary once a week. Tanner Gilman is a magnificently lovable, nerdy Gilbert Blythe, who is more important to get right than a Mr Darcy (and I'm sorry, women everywhere, but I still don't get the appeal. Not when I've grown up with Gilbert Blythe.)

Between the first and second seasons, Green Gables Fables filled in with some of the events of Anne of Avonlea updated and the stories told through their social media. Season two focuses on Anne of the Island, which follows Anne at Redmond College. It diverged a little from the book at the beginning with a subplot about Diana, who never went to university in the book, and yet it seems mostly to remain true to their characters - the growing distance between two friends, Diana being more of a homebody while Anne is academic and ambitious. The format doesn't always quite work; how do you show intensely private moments in a "Hello world, this is what happened to me today" video diary? And fitting four years' worth of events into one academic year also has its occasional uncomfortable juxtaposition of events happening too close together (notably Anne's romantic woes.) But I'm so glad to see Anne of Green Gables being talked about more - and discussions use the books as a starting point, instead of the (albeit excellent) 1985 TV miniseriesGreen Gables Fables is an immersive storytelling experience, putting the viewer into the story and living through it as it unfolds. There's been some extraordinary writing and acting, and Ruby Gillis's last video made a fine adaptation of a particular scene in Anne of the Island. 



And I'm completely spoilt in having Project Green Gables as well. This Finnish-made adaptation re-imagines Anne Shirley as a black foster kid in a mostly-white community, a decision that gives added weight to the story in a contemporary setting. Like her ginger counterpart, Anne has her own hair woes, though with its natural texture rather than colour, and this change gives a deeper, more serious interpretation than mere vanity. Gilbert is going to have to work very hard at repentance for his hair taunts, and you can't blame Anne or laugh about her unforgiveness under these circumstances. This isn't a petty matter any more. As I write this, the story is up to the point of the Great Hair Disaster, and in Project Green Gables, Anne's rash mistake is buying a cheap chemical hair relaxer from the internet, with devastating results.

Project Green Gables may be less polished than Green Gables Fables, but it is more adventurous when it comes to adapting scenes and chapters of Anne's life to a modern setting, and by doing so it better retains and underlines the nuances of the original. It is not a brooch that Marilla accuses Anne of stealing, but her prescription medicine, an accusation that cuts much deeper and has potentially far-reaching consequences. She's not an orphan any more, but a foster child of unreliable parents. And just her gossip about Avonlea school goings-on makes me think about the original, so-familiar text in a different light. Laura Eklund Nhaga plays a very different Anne Shirley to Mandy Harmon - and yet they both are Anne, bringing out complementary sides to her personality. Both Annes are aged up to about sixteen or seventeen, whereas in the book she first appears as a precocious eleven-year-old. Laura Eklund Nhaga brings out her innocence, her passion and enthusiasm, her non-stop joyful chatter, instantly convincing me that she was Anne. The supporting cast are also wonderful, and like Anne, they are the book characters come to life but in a very different way from Green Gables Fables. A special mention for including the hilariously obnoxious Charlie Sloane, not a character who tends to be very prominent in film adaptations. The series shows a deep knowledge of the source material, easily making reference to the little things as well as the defining events.

With two webseries adaptations as well as a film and a new television adaptation in the works, I'm over the moon. Anyone who knows me will tell you that Anne of Green Gables is the book that defines me, and although I can hardly fault the best-known television adaptation, as far as I'm concerned, the more Anne, the better.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

The London Bookshop Crawl 2016

I love book shopping. I know, what a shocker! But nice as it is going book shopping on my own, it's so much better going with friends, to make an event of it, where we all enable each other to buy ALL the books and spend too much money on additions to our towering to-read piles. Last year I went on three book shopping trips with online friends and also went to Hay on Wye for a couple of days with a friend from the Isle of Wight. Yesterday was The Big One, the London Bookshop Crawl Bex has spent months organising for friends, family and anyone else who wanted to come along.

It was an early start for me. Ordinarily for an event like this I would stay overnight at my sister's flat in South-West London and travel from there, but she was very inconsiderately away for the weekend, so I decided to make a day trip of it. The weather forecast was not promising, predicting gale-force winds and non-stop heavy rain for Saturday, so I found myself awake until the early hours worrying and making contingency plans just in case the passenger ferry from Cowes were to be cancelled. When it came to it, although it was a little drizzly and a little blustery, I had a very calm and uneventful crossing, and I got up to London at around ten.

We met in the cafe at Foyle's, where two tables had been reserved for the party, and several people were sitting around chatting, with coffee, cakes and pastries. Other members of the group had gone off around the shop. I was particularly excited to meet Ellie (from Bournemouth) and Ellie (from London), who I've known online and whose blogs I've been reading for years, but had never met, and Erica turned up not long afterwards. Erica reviews bookshops, rather than books, and her blog is a rather handy directory of recommendations which I check out every time I go to a new town or plan a London trip.

Once we'd got everyone together in one place, we set off down the road to Orbital Comics, a friendly and not at all Big Bang Theory-esque comic book shop. We had a mixture of comic book newbies and devotees in the group - I'm more of a newbie, and prefer short series or stand-alone titles to those which have been running for decades. Several members of the group had copies of Lumberjanes, which was a series I've been vaguely aware of through following the author Noelle Stevenson on social media, so that was my first purchase.

After Orbital we headed back to Charing Cross Road and Cecil Court, the bookshop centre of London. The shops were somewhat smaller in that area, so we broke up into smaller groups. My first stop was Any Amount of Books, which, although I didn't recognise it by name, is one of my old favourite Charing Cross Road haunts from my student days. I found several "maybe" books in there, but didn't want to load up too soon, so I left  The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl, Fannie Flagg's Standing in the Rainbow and a children's adventure book set at the Isle of Wight's very own Blackgang for another time. (I kind of regret not buying the Blackgang book though; I've never seen it before.) If anyone's read these books, do let me know what you think! I bought What She Left by T. R. Richmond, a book I've vaguely had my eye on at work, and went back to the till a second time after Nnedi Okorafor's Lagoon caught my eye and shouted "Buy me! Buy me!" How can you refuse such a call?


Cecil Court is full of bookshops of all sorts, though many specialised in collectors' editions. Marchpane is the children's bookshop (and wasn't it once in the Goldsboro premises?) It had Enid Blyton hardbacks, Chalet School books, including one of the few I've never been able to get hold of (for good reason, looking at the price!) I ran into Bournemouth Ellie and some other people - I'm sorry I can't remember exactly who as I hadn't learned everyone's names yet, but I think Louise was one, and possible Katherine too (and apologies if I've spelled your name wrong or assigned you the wrong Twitter identity) - in Goldsboro Books where we sighed over a £7500 set of first editions of Lord of the Rings. Goldsboro prides itself on being "The Home of Signed First Editions.) Not everything was out of our price range though; all the expensive books were of course locked in glass cabinets, but signed first editions of brand-new books sold at their retail price. I treated myself to Ali Smith's new book Public Library, it being National Library day and all.

 

Out in the street I found a poor lost and lonely Laura and, after a bit of window-shopping, took her on a little detour to Forbidden Planet, feeling slightly treacherous as I did so, as she and Bex had been arguing for ages about whether that ought to be part of the Crawl or not. I hold my hands up Bex, it really was my suggestion. We stopped off for lunch at Laura's favourite little noodle place in Leicester Square, before rejoining the group and trekking up to Persephone Books, where a very lovely member of staff was expecting us. I think, however, she was not expecting quite so many of us as we filed in... and filed in... and filed in until we were packed into the little shop like sardines in a can. The bookseller, whose name I think was Lydia, gave as a tour of the "backstage" area; office and storeroom and packing area, because Persephone is mostly a mail-order company and everything happens on site. She also talked us through what Persephone publishes (out-of-print books mostly from women writers of the early 20th century) and recommended some titles for different tastes and genres. She was an excellent hostess, really knew her stock, and it looked like we came away with multiple copies of all her recommendations between us. I bought The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, which is my friend Sharon's favourite Persephone publication, as well as Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins, one of the bookseller's suggestions. Persephone had a 3 for £30 deal (normally their books cost £12 each) so many of the group teamed up with other people buying one or two books to make the most of that offer. You also get a free bookmark with each purpose, matching the books' colourful vintage endpapers, which are prints from fabrics made in the year of first publication.



Next we traipsed down to the London Review Bookshop. This shop selects its stock on its merits over than bestseller quality, meaning that the books on display aren't necessarily what you would find in every branch of Waterstone's and WH Smith. By this point my shoulders were starting to ache from my rucksack and all my shopping bags, so Ailsa, who I'd got chatting with, and I squeezed into a corner of the busy cake shop for a mid-shopping snack. While we were in there, the group agreed to miss out Daunt Books, which was due to be the next stop, as we were running over time, and most of them headed off to our final bookshop, the massive Piccadilly branch of Waterstone's. Ailsa and I stayed at the LRB a while longer, and I was sorely tempted to stock up on many of the fiction hardbacks on the recommendations table (and that's before we even get onto the paperback shelves) but limited myself to one: Yuki Chan in Bronte Country by Mick Jackson. We stopped off at the craft shop next door (and now I know where I can stock up on sealing wax when I run out of the stuff that came with my Harry Potter stationery box) and met up with the group at Waterstone's. I then proceeded to hand out copies of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet to everyone who'd expressed an interest in sci-fi. Tina and I had kept on running into each other deliberating over whether or not to buy Loney, winner of the Costa First Novel prize. I did, she didn't. My last purchases of the day were Gracekeepers author Kirsty Logan's short story collection The Rental Heart... and another copy of Anne of Green Gables. Yes, that makes four. Not including the colouring book, the journal, all the Anne stationery, and other books in the series. It's the luscious little Collectors' library edition, pocket-sized with gold-edged pages and illustrations, and all for the price of a trade paperback.


Many members of the group began heading off homewards around that point, and Laura, Bex and I ("the founding members") found some comfy chairs up on the fourth floor and sat down to rest our feet and chat about how the day had gone. It went AMAZINGLY. I don't think I've ever been with so many like-minded bookish people, even when I was at university studying books. Everyone was a kindred spirit, easy to join a conversation with, even though we didn't all know each other to begin with. I'm just sorry I didn't get to talk to everyone. Those of us who were left at 6ish had a table booked at Pizza Express, a really lovely end to a fantastic day. It was a long journey home, with a slight delay on the Southampton line, so I took a slightly earlier and faster train than the one I'd initially intended. I got a taxi from the station and arrived at the Red Jet terminal with plenty of time to spare. The journey across the Solent was a little choppy, but hardly the chaos and disruption I'd been led to believe (though that may still be to come.) I finished my day when I got home with a "special" hot chocolate (with a splash of Bailey's) and was in bed by midnight, where I stayed for the next eleven hours. A long day (and an expensive one) but such a happy one.

Friday, 5 February 2016

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet - Becky Chambers



When Ashby, Captain of the Wayfarer, takes on a new clerk, not all of the crew think he's made the right decision. Rosemary is young and inexperienced, and this is her first time off her home planet of Mars. But Rosemary is efficient and friendly, if reserved, and does not take long to settle in among the Wayfarer's varied crew. And if she has some secrets she'd rather keep in her past, well, doesn't everyone?

The Wayfarer is not a military ship, nor a diplomatic one, or a rag-tag bunch of crooks evading capture. It's a construction ship whose main job is to build wormholes. The latest job is the biggest yet: a tunnel from an unknown part of the galaxy, to aid an alliance between the Galactic  Commons and a somewhat volatile and dangerous tribe. But first, they have to get there...

As the title suggests, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is the story of a journey, a character study of a small cast in a confined space (with the occasional stop along the way.) I enjoyed it as a leisurely read, taking my time over the book, and enjoying getting to know the characters and the universe portrayed. The different species are really diverse, not with just one "hat" to mark each one out as different, but with a wide variety of cultures, appearances, beliefs and language styles. This is not an Earth-centric setting; the Humans (from Mars and from the Exodus Fleet outside the Solar System - Earth is all but deserted) are fairly new additions to the Galactic Commons. Dates are measured in tenday periods, which add up to Standards (and I'm pretty sure a day is not the twenty four hours of Earth. Why would it be?) The universal language is Klip. As well as five humans: the Wayfarer's crew includes Sissix, of the very tactile reptilian species Aandrisk, the ship's doctor and cook known as Dr Chef, who is Grum, a near-extinct people who change gender over the course of a lifetime, Ohan, a Sianat Pair, short-lived joined species (comparable to Star Trek's Trill) who are always described in the plural. And Lovey, the AI, who tends to get overlooked but is a much-valued and loved part of the team. 

What struck me as remarkable in Small Angry Planet was that this really is a civilian ship. When did you last see an unarmed spaceship in science fiction? Star Trek's Starfleet may claim not to be military, but follows a strong naval tradition, and its exploration starships are heavily armed with phasers and photon torpedoes, which are regularly used. Star Wars is full of lightsabers and blasters. Battlestar Galactica and her fleet are engaged in a desperate fight for survival against the Cylons. Firefly's rebels are armed and fight dirty. But the Exodan humans are pacifists, and Ashby refuses to allow weapons aboard his ship, even for self-defence. It struck me as shocking and sad to realise that violence is taken for granted even in the Utopian futures, and Small Angry Planet is revolutionary just by not arming this tunnelling ship. And it shouldn't be. But being unarmed doesn't always protect them

What happens when the Wayfarer reaches its destination, while tense, twisty and shocking, is not really the point. It's about the journey, both the long physical voyage in space, and the changes in each of the characters as they change and grow, confront secrets, challenges and dilemmas. They don't always make the right decisions. Some choices will reverberate past the end of the book. 

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a really fresh, intelligent and fun science fiction novel. As Stephen King's 11.22.63 affected the way I view time-travel, so Small Angry Planet set a new standard for space-travel stories. And there is a sequel on its way later this year. I usually prefer stand-alone stories to series, but Becky Chambers' universe and characters are too vast, too rich, to be contained within 400 pages. It feels as though we've only just scratched the surface.

Monday, 1 February 2016

January mini-reviews: The Tree of Seasons, Galaxy Quest, Pride


I took a trip to nearby Ryde a couple of weeks ago to explore the big bookshop there, and spent a good hour browsing all the rooms and nooks (and being plunged into darkness at one point when the electricians didn't see me hiding in a corner.) I'm sure I've written about Ryde bookshop before. The front part houses the new books, and then you go through a door to the labyrinth behind: three stories of second-hand books: genre fiction and travel at the back, general fiction lining the halls and stairways, and several rooms for children's books and non-fiction of every genre imaginable. I always feel that you can get lost in "L-Space" in a shop like that, take a wrong turning and you might end up in another bookshop in another town. After much deliberation, I bought A Place Called Winter new, and a couple of science fiction novels. 

On the way back to the bus stop, I wandered into a charity shop where I found myself confronted with another name from my childhood: my first celebrity crush, Boyzone singer Stephen Gately, with whom I was embarrassingly besotted during my early teens (don't judge me!) Although I hadn't thought of him for years, it still came as a shock in the autumn of 2009 when Stephen died at the age of just 33. (You might remember  that marking another landmark in the "how low can they go" history of the rag known as the Daily Mail when they published a really hateful article insinuating that instead of suffering the hitherto unknown heart condition diagnosed by the coronors, Stephen basically Died Of Gay.) Anyway, he was writing a children's book at the time - I read somewhere that he was very much against the use of ghostwriters, although the book was ultimately finished off for him from his notes and probably edited a lot - and it was this book, The Tree of Seasons, which I found in the Cancer Research shop on a 2 for £1 deal.

The Tree of Seasons is a rather charming fairy tale, evoking the feeling of endless summer found in Enid Blyton, Narnia, The Hounds of the Morrigan and others. Three siblings, Josh, Michael and Beth Lotts, go exploring in the forbidden woods behind their great-aunt's house, and find within a tree a portal to four magical kingdoms, each controlling a season of the year. But all is not as it should be; the ruler of the autumn kingdom has been overthrown by an evil witch whose influence is spreading out into the world beyond. It is up to the Lotts children to stop her. The plot is a fairly conventional story of the genre, a McGuffin-hunt, with good and evil characters, peril and unlikely friendship. But the world-building is immersive, atmospheric and poetic, the book a joyful celebration of nature. 

On the subject of famous people I like dying, 2015 was a notorious year, with the loss of Leonard Nimoy, Sir Terry Pratchett, Sir Christopher Lee and the actor who played "Gilbert Blythe," Jonathan Crombie. We're only at the end of January but already 2016 is almost matching last year, adding David Bowie and Alan Rickman to that list within about three days of each other, and yesterday I woke up to the news of TV and radio personality Terry Wogan's death as well, all three from cancer. My local radio station has been playing even more Bowie songs than usual, and of course that week I rewatched one of my favourite films from my teens, Labyrinth. It was harder to choose just one of Rickman's films to remember him by: Harry Potter or Robin Hood? Die Hard or Sense and Sensibility? But I went with Galaxy Quest, the affectionate Star Trek spoof described by George Takei as "a chillingly realistic documentary," in which a once-great sci-fi cast, who relive (or endlessly suffer through) their glory days on the convention circuit, get mistaken for real-life space heroes by a race of aliens in desperate need of help. Rickman's performance as the self-loathing thespian (who is never without his alien prosthetic headgear) is a thing of beauty, the film is gloriously quotable, poking fun at all that is ridiculous about the likes of Star Trek, while also celebrating what has made it endure for half a century. As an  honorary entry in the Trek canon, I'd rank it second only to The Wrath of Khan (tied with The One With The Whales.)

After Ellie emailed me to tell me she'd bought and watched one of my more recent favourite films, Pride, I got so excited about her discovering it for the first time that I needed to rewatch it again. And again (twice in two nights.) I could quite easily reach the end and go straight back to the beginning yet again, if I didn't stop myself. It's quite rare for me to find a film so good I don't want it to end; no matter how good a movie might be, normally once it's passed the 90 minute mark I tend to find my attention wandering a little until the climax. Pride is one of those British comedies about unlikely people achieving big things against all the odds, like Billy Elliot and The Full Monty. It's set during the miners' strike of 1984-1985, and based on true events, when a group of gay men and women from London pledge their support for a Welsh mining community. Strong friendships are built between these two very different groups of people. The script is spot-on, uplifting, with a ready wit, and acted by a stellar cast of big names, such as Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy and Paddy Considine and relative newcomers like Ben Schnetzer, George MacKay and Faye Marsay. It is an absolute joy to spend a couple of hours in the company of these warm-hearted characters.* We see them grow and change as we become acquainted with them, from activist Mark Ashton, to still-closeted young Joe ("Bromley") to Bill Nighy's character Cliff, on first appearances a rather uncomfortable, stern gentleman but who, we come to discover, has a poetic soul, a deep abiding passion for the coal that is at the heart of his homeland, and secrets he's held for decades. Imelda Staunton as matriarch Hefina is magnificent (she must surely banish any thoughts of Professor Umbridge in this role.) Andrew Scott, who you might know as the gleefully evil Moriarty from the BBC's Sherlock, shows a contrasting subtlety in his portrayal of gentle bookseller Gethin, while Dominic West plays Gethin's partner Jonathan, a flamboyant but not cliched actor with secret battles of his own. The film ends with captions of "What happened next," a bittersweet mixture of sadness and triumph, and one simple sentence about Jonathan is particularly sweet.

Pride was an instant addition to my top films of all time; it is perhaps as close as you can get to the perfect film. It tackles difficult subjects with an illusion of ease, is by turns moving, inspiring, and hilarious. You'll laugh, you'll cry tears of sadness but more of joy and mirth. The ultimate feel-good film. Oh dear, I might have to go and watch it again.

*because, although many are based on real people, some of whom were interviewed in the extras and extraordinarily well cast, by nature of being written into a drama, they are characters nonetheless.) 

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Sunday Summary: January in review

The last month has been a fairly quiet one after the madness that is working the Christmas season in retail, and now I get some recovery time in my first holiday since the beginning of November. Next Saturday is the London Bookshop Crawl which Bex has been organising, and which I am so excited for. A big group of us are getting together to stock up on books and cake, beginning at Foyle's and ending at the big Waterstone's in Piccadilly before heading off to Pizza Express afterwards. I've met Bex and Laura before, last year, and I recently found out one of the other attendees, Hannah, also lives on the Isle of Wight, so we met up for coffee the other day to get to know each other a little, and ended up geeking out wildly about books in general, and TV and Netflix series - always a good starting point for a new friendship. And I'm very excited to meet a couple of people who I've "known" online for years but never met.

So, how did I do with my January reading?


Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - Susanna Clarke
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet - Becky Chambers (In progress)
Upstairs at the Party - Linda Grant
The Drawing of the Three - Stephen King
Silence is Goldfish - Annabel Pitcher
The Rest of Us Just Live Here - Patrick Ness
Disclaimer - Renee Knight
Career of Evil - "Robert Galbraith"
Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen (reread)
Our Mutual Friend - Charles Dickens

Also Read:

The Ghost Hunters - Neil Spring (begun December 2015)
Sofia Khan is Not Obliged - Ayisha Malik
Second Term at Trebizon - Anne Digby
The Tree of Seasons - Stephen Gately

The Trebizon boarding school stories were one of my favourite series when I was growing up, alongside the Chalet School and Malory Towers books, but they were rather lesser-known than the others, marking the very end of the school story fashion. So imagine my delight when I learned that Egmont have started reprinting the books again. I found this out through Robin Steven's Twitter feed, and practically started screaming with excitement. I'm pretty sure that Miss Stevens must be at least partly to thank for this rediscovery, with the success of her Wells and Wong mysteries making old-fashioned boarding schools cool again. Yes, I do own all but one of the series already, but I actually quite like the modern-style covers a lot more than, say, the Enid Blyton redesigns which I have grumbled about before, and I'm so pleased that a new generation will get to meet Rebecca, Tish, Sue and the others. I've no intention of buying second copies of all of the books, but I do need to show my support of the reprint, don't I? (Plus one or two of my old editions are very battered.)


February To-Read Pile

Note: I don't expect to stick closely to this list, what with the bookshop crawl expected to add at least another half-dozen books to my shelf, but these are some of the books I'd like to read in the not-too-distant future:


Left over from January:
  • The Rest of Us Just Live Here - Patrick Ness
  • The Drawing of the Three - Stephen King
  • Upstairs at the Party - Linda Grant
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - Susanna Clark
New or re-entries:
  • A Place Called Winter - Patrick Gale
  • The Book of Strange New Things - Michel Faber
Books I want to reread soon:
  • The Charioteer - Mary Renault
  • American Gods - Neil Gaiman. 
American Gods was on my shortlist but not read on Bex's last Rereadathon (are we going to do another one this spring?) With the work apparently coming along nicely on the TV adaptation, and the casting of Ricky Whittle as Shadow, (not someone I know, but he looks the part more than any other actor I've seen suggested) that book has made its way back onto my to-read list. I've read most of Gaiman's books several times, and American Gods seems to come out every two or three years or so. It's time once more.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Sofia Khan is Not Obliged - Ayisha Malik



Sofia has recently decided to commit to a life of celibacy. Her sister is due to get married, one of her best friends is about to marry a man who already has another wife, and her family just will not stop badgering her about when it's going to be her turn. But she's just broken up with her boyfriend, who wanted her to move in with his interfering family. One day, after an unfortunate incident on a London Underground train, she finds herself commissioned to write a book about Muslim Dating...

It's unusual to find a protagonist in mainstream fiction these days with a strong religious faith (of any religion.) If you do, it's either downplayed, showing the characters indistinguishable from anyone else but for a few words or rituals. And when religion is explored in depth it tends towards an anguished crisis of faith. And in particular, Islam gets fogged to the outside view by ignorance, misinformation and fear. Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged shows us an insider's view, an ordinary British Muslim whose faith is an integral part of her life. She chooses to wear the hijab (much to the dismay of her mother) and her working life brings its own challenges in finding a quiet place to pray five times a day. She is also loud, stubborn, witty, likeable and intelligent, an occasional smoker and lover of lemon puffs and chocolate hobnobs - a likeable and relatable character.

I picked up Sofia Khan at work when unpacking the new books delivery, and knew after looking through a few pages that I had to buy it. By the time Sofia shouts at a racist about terrorists not wearing vintage shoes, she had become real to me: I could see her, hear her voice, I needed to know her story. Despite her determination to stay single, Sofia ventures out into the dating world for "research" for her book, with its perils and pitfalls. But the most significant relationships come into her life through other means: the American with whom she has a hilarious bantering chemistry, the former fiance returns, and then there is a slower-building friendship that may become something else. Given the genre - the romantic comedy - it's inevitable that Sofia will find love somewhere, but it is not a straight-forward conclusion. Along the way, Sofia falls under pressure to please her family who just want to see her happily married, but is she making the right choices, and if not, how will she know?

Sofia Khan is a cheerful read, and had me giggling every few pages, but also made me feel for her sorrows and dilemmas in her quest to find happiness for her friends and family as well as for herself. She doesn't always make the right decisions, and with mistakes come consequences that are not easily brushed away. Sofia's family might not understand her choices, but what they do have, beneath the bickering and nagging, is love, which shines through the inter-generational conflict, in a wonderfully rounded and believable cast of characters. My only complaint about this book is that one of the promising new friends was written out of the story about halfway through and barely warrants a mention afterwards. But there were so many other great characters to spend the rest of the book with.  I came away from this book feeling as though I'd made a lot of new friends in the Khan family, and in Sofia's closest circle, Hannah, Fozia and Suj, Katie at work, and Conall (not Colin!) the grump next door who has hidden depths.

I'm really excited for Sofia Khan, which I'm hoping will be one of 2016's big debuts. It's been chosen by WH Smith travel stores as part of their Fresh Talent promotion, so this ought to help to make the book one of the big new hits of 2016. I want to get people reading and talking about Ayisha Malik and Sofia Khan, and good news - there is a sequel in the works. I can't wait to see what happens next.

You can read an interview with Ayisha Malik about Sofia Khan at the New Statesman here.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Bout of Books 15: Saturday, Sunday, Wrap-Up

Bout of Books


Apologies for the lack of any posting yesterday. I'd fully intended to write my last long-overdue post from last year on Friday to schedule for Saturday, but then Hamilton happened, and I was somewhat distracted. And yesterday I've been at work, which is getting nice and quiet again. While everyone else has been groaning about going back to school or work after their holidays, I've been thinking "hooray, it's the furthest point of the year from the pre-Christmas and post-Christmas madness!"

Saturday and Sunday's reading:


 

I've begun my reread of Pride and Prejudice. It's been a long time since I've read that. It could even be my least-red Jane Austen book because I know it so well from all the million and one adaptations and stories inspired by it, the quintessential rom-com. So coming back to it, I'm reminded anew why it is one of the best-loved books of all time. Despite being written 200 years ago, it's very modern in characterisation and in Jane Austen's sharp and spiky observations. I would not like to get on her wrong side!

But I'm also cheating on Pride and Prejudice with another rom-com, which I unpacked at work yesterday: Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged, which could and probably already has been described as "the Muslim Bridget Jones." I idly thumbed through that book and by the time I'd read about the titular heroine shouting at a racist about terrorists not wearing vintage shoes, I felt as though Sofia was standing right there with me. I could see her, I could hear her voice, and I wanted to know her better. It's a really refreshing read after the darkness of the two thrillers I've read this week, laugh-out-loud funny, and it's the first read of 2016 that I'm going to be pushing at everyone to read. On Thursday I had a customer come to me for "recommendations of romantic comedies," which I had trouble with because it's not really a genre I read very often. If only he'd come in just a few days later! So, mysterious stranger, if by some unlikely chance you're reading this: READ SOFIA KHAN! 

And on that note, I will go and continue doing likewise.

Wrap-Up (Monday 11th January)

I didn't quite manage to read the four books I'd aimed for, partly because of engrossing myself in Hamilton on Friday, and then last night I got caught up in "just one more episode" of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 instead of finishing my book. I followed a couple of new blogs, and said hello to a few of my old favourites, but overall, once I got back to work on Wednesday, I didn't spend so much time interacting with other bloggers or doing challenges or twitter chats as I would have liked. Something to work on for the next readathon, I think. On the plus side, I've written more blog posts in the past ten days than I did for the whole final quarter of 2015.

The final stats:

Books finished: Disclaimer, Silence is Goldfish, Career of Evil
Other books begun: Pride and Prejudice, Sofia Khan is Not Obliged
Total pages read: 1460 (averaging 208 and a half per day.)
Best reading day: Tuesday with 433 pages.
Worst reading day: Friday with 92 pages
Favourite book: Sofia Khan is Not Obliged, even though I haven't finished it yet. Look out for a fangirling review later this week.
Least favourite book: Disclaimer. 


Friday, 8 January 2016

Bout of Books 15: Wednesday-Friday

Bout of Books

Hello all. I've been at work for a couple of days so decided not to write readathon updates in my free time, but devote the time to actually reading over my lunch breaks and evenings instead. My third book of choice was Career of Evil by "Robert Galbraith" (who I think we all know is J. K. Rowling.) I don't think it was quite as good as The Silkworm, which followed detective Cormoran Strike as he looked for clues to a murder within the victim's manuscript of a novel, but it still did not disappoint. Career of Evil is another really dark thriller, with moments of pitch-black humour which make way for an investigation into a trio of very, very unpleasant characters. Although the suspects in this novel were limited to three, Rowling - sorry, Galbraith - keeps you guessing right to the end, "It must be this one," "Nope, here's a clue that says it can't be..." and when at last Cormoran Strike reveals the incriminating evidence, we find that, once more, the clues were there if only I hadn't overlooked them. Clever. Meanwhile, all I could do was watch helplessly, as Robin Ellacott, Strike's assistant, made some of the biggest mistakes of her life...

After the darkness of Career of Evil and Disclaimer earlier this week, it's time for some comfort reading, and I fully intended to spend today re-reading Pride and Prejudice. But life had other plans, and instead I got somewhat distracted listening to the soundtrack of the Broadway musical Hamilton which nearly everyone on the internet has been raving about for the past few months. I'd been trying to resist the hype, not being a fan of hip-hop or US political history, but I succumbed and have spent most of the day listening to it instead of reading. I'm not going to become completely obsessed with the show, but I did enjoy the songs, became emotionally involved in the fates of the characters (some of which I knew a little about, most of which I did not) and have had the whole thing in my head ever since. It piqued my interest in Alexander Hamilton and the early years of the USA as a nation, gave me a hunger for more knowledge on the subject. A couple of bloggers I follow, Sarah and Alley are taking part in a readalong of Hamilton's biography, and although I've no plans to join in the reading, I'll certainly be stalking their #Hamalong posts, which may have played a part in persuading me to give the show a chance. I'm glad I did, even if it did disrupt my readathon.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

A Little Life - Hanya Yanagihara



One of the books shortlisted for 2015's Man Booker Prize, A Little Life appeared to be the favourite to win but ultimately lost out to Marlon James' History of Seven Killings. Hanya Yanagihara tells the story of a group of friends living in New York, starting out as college graduates beginning their careers, and seeing them through several decades. Charismatic but unpredictable artist J.B. and architect Malcolm, but really focuses on kind-hearted actor Willem and most of all Jude, who never speaks of his past, and is something of an enigma. The first section gave a very relatable depiction of people in their late twenties still trying to figure out what it means to be an adult.

Yanagihara uses an interesting mixture of narrative voices: first and third person, with a touch of second as well, to give a variety of perspectives of Jude's "little life." When shown from Jude's own point of view, he is not named - which can prove a little confusing when he is only identified with a shared pronoun "he," although for the most part it is kept fairly straightforward. This technique indicates his lack of self-regard, self-importance or even sense of a personal identity. Jude and his friends are a tight-knit circle but not an exclusive friendship. As the years go by, relationships between the quartet change, get strained and fixed, drift apart in adulthood but always share their bond. Yet J. B. Malcolm and Willem can't figure out what to make of Jude, no matter how much they love him, for he never speaks of his past. And it emerges he has a very good reason for not wanting to speak about it.

A Little Life is an emotional rollercoaster, between the heights of the love of the people in Jude's present, and the crashing lows, all the different kinds of self-destructiveness that comes as a souvenir from fifteen terrible years of his childhood. You come to really care about these people, feel their sorrows and their frustration when Jude just won't admit he needs or deserves help. At other times, you revel in the relief and joy that things are finally going well - but always, hanging over your head, is the threat of another relapse. And every so often, Jude reveals a hint of the trauma in his backstory, and it's harrowing stuff, but for the most part I think, tactfully handled.

However, near the end of the flashbacks, I found myself questioning how plausible that every adult in Jude's life for fifteen years was a complete monster. Of course I know there are some really evil people out there - but for one kid to encounter so many, everywhere he went, and no one else, brought me out of the novel to ponder if perhaps Yanagihara had gone a little over the top with Jude's tragic backstory. Then, with one shocking plot twist in the last hundred pages, I felt more and more fearful of the ending. The love and goodness of Jude's friends and adopted family wasn't enough to keep the book from leaving a bad aftertaste. The penultimate section of the book would have been a fine and satisfying note to end on, although as hard as I tried to resist the fact, the ending was always inevitable. But how I wished it wasn't. It's been nearly two months since I began writing this review, and over that time, the dismay and disbelief from the last hundred pages or so have been my lingering impression of the book, quite overshadowing all that impressed me through the majority of the book. A Little Life is a book that stays with you long after you put it down, which is a point in the favour of any book, surely. But it's a shame that what I remember after I finished the novel was not the same as what drew me back to its pages through the reading process.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens

THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS.


You can't beat a good Star Wars film for the ultimate cinema experience. When those words flash up on-screen: "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away," and the triumphant theme music blares around you in surround sound, with the narrative crawling up the screen: this is what the movies were made for. To watch a new Star Wars movie like that: it feels a little like living through a moment in history, a nostalgia for a time before I was born. And yes, I know I have experienced this before, but those were episodes I and III, and we don't talk about them.

Admittedly, I'm not a Star Wars obsessive. I love the films - the original trilogy, that is, I have no strong feelings about the prequels which I regard as an optional extra - but I wouldn't be able to tell you the names of many character not named in script, and I haven't read any of the Expanded Universe novels. A decade ago I argued in favour of the series in a Wars vs Trek debate with one of my friends; now I have turned to the Dark Side as this blog has documented. But it doesn't have to be an either-or thing. Star Wars is magnificant, magical storytelling at its finest.

In the promotional material for The Force Awakens, fans across the world were asking the same question: "Where's Luke?" We knew that Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher were all signed up to reprise their most famous roles in the new installment, so what was the big secret? Had Luke, dear, eager, pure Luke Skywalker turned to the Dark Side? What a punch in the gut that would be. Or perhaps, almost more unthinkable, he'd actually died in the time since Return of the Jedi and would only appear as a Force ghost...

All became clear from the start of the opening crawl. "Luke Skywalker has vanished." Well played, J.J. Well played. Out-of-universe, we'd inadvertantly been asking the same questions as the characters in-universe. Where's Luke?

Luke, who turns up only at the very end, stouter and bearded and oh so sad, and Leia - now General Organa - appear really only as cameos in this film (much like Leonard Nimoy as the elder Spock in the 2009 Star Trek reboot.) Han Solo has a bigger role,but the focus is solidly on the next generation of characters. There is Poe Dameron, the star fighter pilot in Leia's Resistance to the First Order, the new baddies. Then there is Finn, formerly known as stormtrooper FN 2187, who has defected from the Dark Side and just wants to get away, but keeps on being drawn back to danger on the planet of Jakku. Finn is lovely character, fearful yet brave, with some great moments when he tries to be all chivalrous and rescue Rey, who is quite capable of saving herself, thankyouverymuch. Rey is a resourceful, rather angry young woman who was abandoned on Jakku as a child and left to fend for herself as a scavenger on a junkyard. And it is she who is at the heart of The Force Awakens; she who fills the ordinary teenager-turned-hero role originally held by Luke (and isn't it great for little girls to have a hero of their own?)

And as for the villains. Out of the ashes of the evil Empire has risen the First Order, overruled by Supreme Leader Snoke (a giant hologram of a creature) but the face of the villains is unmistakeably Kylo Ren, who proved to be a far more intriguing and multi-faceted character than I could have imagined. I saw his image in the promotional material and said, "Seriously?!" J. J. Abrams had replaced the most iconic baddies of all time, Darth Vader, with another tall dude with a cloak and a bucket on his head?

But that's the point. Kylo Ren idolises Darth Vader - conveniently ignoring the fact that he'd switched back from the Dark Side in the end - and of course he's never going to be as impressive, or live up to Vader's memory. He is powerful with the Force, but unstable, unhinged, lacking in self-control. There's a wonderful moment where one of his minions (no, not a little yellow squeaky banana-man! Despicable Me has ruined that word forever) comes to Ren with a look of terror on his face, to confess a failure to recapture the adorable droid BB8, with its map of "where to find Luke Skywalker." Being used to Darth Vader, the minion - and the viewer - is prepared for a ruthless and speedy death. Instead, Ren turns his lightsaber onto his expensive and complicated machinary. Where Vader was cold, Ren is hot-headed, immature, dangerous yes, but not fully-grown into his power.

And Kylo Ren does have a lot of power. How could he not? For before he wore the mask and took on the name Kylo Ren, he was simply Ben. Ben Solo, son of Han and Leia, nephew to Luke, grandson of Darth Vader himself. As a trainee Jedi, he turned on the rest of his class and slaughtered them all, it seems, causing a devastated Luke to disappear to an unknown planet. But what could have happened to turn the son of our heroes to the Dark Side? What kind of parents were Han and Leia? Could they have done anything to prevent his fall? Ren's commitment to the Dark is not absolute; we see him wrestle with the temptation to turn back to good, and his mother believes there is hope yet. And Han, the cynic, though he suspects Ben is lost forever, reaches out to him nonetheless. They meet on a bridge (it is always a bridge) and Han urges his son to come back with them. That would be interesting, wouldn't it? To have the bad guy in the midst of the Resistance, with his parents, striving to come back to the light. That would have been an interesting Episode Eight plot. And it looks, for a moment, as though Ren is tempted. He falters. He expresses his inner turmoil and anguish over "what must be done." And then I had another horrible dawning realisation, as Ren handed over his lightsaber. It looked awfully like he was begging Han, his own father, to kill him, to put him out of his misery. There would be a painful struggle, but I didn't believe Han could do it. He's not as hardened as he wants you to believe...

But as it happens, he was saved from having to make that agonising decision, once Ren activates his lightsaber just as it's directed at Han's heart.

I did not see that coming. I should have seen that coming, but I did not. I fell for it. I fell for that manipulative piece of work and gaped in disbelief as Han reached out to his son, forgiving him even for his own murder, and tumbled off the bridge into the darkness. Well. That made things much more interesting! And we see that there is more to Kylo Ren than the wannabe villain emo kid with a bad temper. Can there be any coming back from this?

I'm pleased to be able to conclude that Star Wars has recovered from the disappointment that was the prequel trilogy, and is back up to a high standard. My only criticism, bringing it down to four stars instead of five, is the amount of repetition, visual and plot, from the original movie. Instead of the Empire there is the First Order. Instead of the Death Star which can destroy a planet, there is the Starkiller Base, which looks an awful lot like a planet-sized Death Star which can destroy an entire solar system in one go. And, once more, it is taken out by a fleet of ace pilots. You get the Big Bad murdering the mentor figure in front of the fledgeling Jedi. All this seems very familiar. But Han Solo highlights some of these similarities with disdain: "So, it's bigger." It's very safe ground to return Star Wars to its former glory, and if the plot takes the shape, it is a classic shape of storytelling: the hero's quest. Already it fits into the canon as if it were always part of the story (a feat the prequels never managed) and, as my friend Paul said the other day, it's good to watch a Star Wars film without knowing what was going to happen next. Roll on Episode VIII!
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