Thursday, 26 February 2015

Battlestar Galactica - 2003 miniseries

Oh no. Here we go again. Katie's found a new television show to geek out about, years after everybody else as usual!

The Cylons were created by the people of the Twelve Colonies of Kobol as a labor and military force. Approximately 52 years ago, the Cylons turned on their human creators and the Cylon War ensued. After an armistice was declared, the Cylons left the Colonies, ostensibly to seek a homeworld of their own. The Colonials maintain an Armistice Station as a place where Cylon and Colonial representatives can meet in order to maintain diplomatic relations. However, the Cylons have never sent an ambassador. No one has seen a Cylon since the end of the Cylon War, over 40 years ago...
On what is supposed to be a quiet day, the day of the decommissioning of the old Battlestar spaceship Galactica, the unthinkable happens. The Cylons, not seen or heard from in decades, launches its attack on the human colonies of Kobol, causing total devastation. Only 50 000 humans are left from all twelve worlds. Commander Bill Adama finds himself suddenly the head of the military, while Secretary of Education Laura Roslin, still reeling from a cancer diagnosis, discovers she is the most senior surviving member of the colonial government and sworn in as president. These two have to negotiate the best method of continuing the survival of the human race, and take opposite sides in the "fight or flight" argument. Adama, the military man, initially chooses to continue battling the Cylons, while civilian Roslin's priority is to keep the survivors alive. "The war is over," she says bluntly. "We lost." Sure, I've spent time with the losers of a galactic war before, in Firefly, but that was a petty rebellion, a scuffle, by comparison. Battlestar Galactic is the aftermath of near-annihilation. I say again. Fifty thousand people remain. 

I found the idea about technology advancing so far as to turn on its creators fascinating. It's not a new concept in science fiction, certainly, but I loved the details, that Caprica's Galactica ship reverted back to older technology. Considering how smart technology has got these days, it seems even more relevant than ever now.

The point at which this series tipped from interesting to amazing was when Adama announced the survivors' destination: Earth. I had presumed that the Twelve Colonies of Kobol were extensions of Earth-that-was, a la Firefly. It is the logical assumption, from my Earth-centric perspective. But Adama presents our planet not as "home," but as a legendary "thirteenth colony." Suddenly everything I believed to be true in this universe was turned on its head, especially afterwards when Roslin confronts Adama with the fact that Earth is nothing but a myth. No one knows where it is - or if it even exists!

Battlestar Galactica already shows signs of being darker, less optimistic than most science fiction shows. One character had to make the choice in cold blood to send a hundred people to their deaths in order to save the ship and everyone else aboard - and unlike Star Trek or Doctor Who or any other show with a similar dilemma, no third option became available at the last minute. I can already tell that this is going to be a very traumatic story to get lost in. But it's the characters that will make it worthwhile. Adama and Roslin, reluctant leaders with their vastly different approaches to, well, everything. Adama's son Lee "Apollo," who still blames his father for the death of his brother. Lieutenant Kara "Starbuck" Thrace, the cute, hotheaded, tomboyish fighter pilot. Gaius, the untrustworthy, cowardly doctor who presents a threat due to being under the control of his Cylon lover, the tall, creepy blonde lady who may not be physically present aboard the Galactica, but who he has brought with him nonetheless. And so many more who I haven't yet got straight in my head, but who I am very much looking forward to getting to know better.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: Heroines

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish.
10. Nancy Blackett, Swallows and Amazons. Shiver my timbers, she's great! Nancy, (never Ruth, for pirates are ruthless) is a fearless adventurer, ship's captain and ruler of her group of family and friends. Most early- 20th century children's adventure stories are very much male-led, but Nancy, aged about thirteen, takes command of every expedition, whether that be gold-mining on the fells or a trek to the "North Pole" organised from her sickbed. Nothing frightens Nancy... except perhaps her fearsome Great-Aunt.

9. Precious Ramotswe, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Founder of Botswana's first and only detective agency, Mma Precious Ramotswe is a kind-hearted person who loves her country, loves people and has found her purpose in life in making a difference solving the seemingly insignificant but still devastating problems of everyday life. In an increasingly cynical world, decency and a cup of tea can be just as heroic as anything loud and ostentatious.

8. Catherine Morland, Northanger Abbey. 
"No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be a heroine."
But when she is taken on a trip to Bath, one of the social centres of Georgian Britain, Catherine finds herself caught up in an adventure to rival those in her favourite "horrid" gothic novels. (Never mind that it was all in her head!)

7. Arya Stark, A Song of Ice and Fire. A hot-headed child with a great proficiency with a sword, survived great dangers and terrifies even grown men. However, in later books she moves closer to the dark side, and what was cool at first (a preteen assassin) becomes slowly more uncomfortable reading.

6. Coraline Jones, Coraline. Just an ordinary, bored, inquisitive girl who finds the courage she needs within herself when faced with danger from her button-eyed Other Mother.

5. Lucy Pevensie, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The child who discovers Narnia and, with her innocence, faith and loyalty is the catalyst for saving the magical land from the evil White Witch.

4. Granny Weatherwax, Discworld.
"I can't be havin' with that."
Proof that heroism is not just a young woman's trait. Any of Terry Pratchett's witches could be included in this list, but Granny Weatherwax, with her stubbornness, headology and no-nonsense manner is my personal favour. She even dares to play Poker with Death for a child's life.
I HAVE TO KNOW. WHAT WOULD HAVE HAPPENED IF I HAD NOT... LOST?'
'At the cards, you mean?'
YES. WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE DONE? 
Granny laid the baby down carefully on the straw, and smiled.
'Well,' she said, 'for a start... I'd have broken your bloody arm.'
3. Eowyn of Rohan, Lord of the Rings.
 “But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund's daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.”
A fierce, brave daughter of fierce, brave people, Eowyn too often gets overlooked and relegated to look after the women and children of Rohan while her kinsmen ride off into battle. She is their equal and more than their equal, and when she is brought face to face with one of the most terrifying beings of the Third Age of Middle-Earth, she laughs in his face.

2. Victoria McQueen, N0S4R2. She's a troubled-character, but she will do anything to rescue her son from the clutches of the creepy Charlie Manx and his Christmasland.

1. Anne Shirley, Anne of Green Gables. Which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me. She may not be a swashbuckling adventurer like some of the other characters on this list, but the more I read her story the more I am in awe of how she got through a lonely, miserable childhood up to the age of eleven and still managed to retain her sense of wonder and optimism.

I always feel closest to Anne at this time of year, probably because she arrived at Green Gables in the spring, and the book is so descriptive of the sunshine and apple-blossoms.

Runners-up

Jean Louise "Scout" Finch, To Kill A Mockingbird
Sara Crewe, A Little Princess
Bobbie, The Railway Children
Hermione Granger, Harry Potter
Jo March, Little Women

Friday, 20 February 2015

The Thirteenth Tale & The Girl on the Train

The Thirteenth Tale - Diane Setterfield

Margaret Lea, second-hand bookseller and part-time biographer, receives a strange letter one day: the reclusive author, Vida Winter, is dying and wants to open up the mysteries of her life story and true identity to none other than Margaret. Margaret travels to Yorkshire to stay with the strange and capricious Miss Winter and discovers a past full of mystery, a dysfunctional family, wild, psychopathic twins left to their own devices in a mouldering big house. Looking beyond the story Miss Winter tells, Margaret discovers nothing is quite as it seems, and is forced to confront a long-suppressed pain within her own family.

I think I'm going to like it here, I wrote in my review notebook within a few pages of starting The Thirteenth Tale. What's not to love? It's a book all about books and stories, the stories we make and how they come to define us. The whole idea of Vida Winter's first published collection, Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation, which featured only twelve stories and was reprinted without a number in the title, gave me a delicious shiver. The mysteries of Vida's past are revealed slowly, each answer throwing up more questions, clues slowly coming together to reveal a truth that hadn't occurred to me, but that was hidden in plain sight all along.

The Thirteenth Tale is a rich, atmospheric novel that calls to mind the smell of old books, the cosy feeling of being wrapped up in a blanket with a hot chocolate while a storm rages outside. It is a self-aware entry into the canon of classic gothic fiction, settling among the classics as though it has always been there. I recommend this book to all book-lovers. One to read and then reread as a very different experience.

Thanks to Bex for sending me this.

Shelve next to: Jane Eyre, Rebecca, The Turn of the Screw, The Woman in White




The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train is the thriller that has got the book industry talking this year: the tale of Rachel, a troubled young woman who takes comfort in watching a couple whose house she passes on the train one day and making up stories about them. But no one's life is as it appears to be from the outside, and even the most perfect marriage has its problems. Then the wife disappears...

Although there are three narrators in The Girl on the Train, Rachel (the titular "girl") is the most interesting. Her life is a mess. She is divorced, unemployed and an alcoholic, pretending she's holding things together but fooling no one, not even herself. None of the characters were particularly likeable, but I felt desperately sad for Rachel, wanting her to be able to get her life back on track and move on. Her ex-husband has married again, and they live just down the road from the house Rachel picked for her people-watching. And the families are closer-connected than they realise: Megan, the missing woman used to babysit for Rachel's ex and new wife, and that's not all they have in common. I found it interesting drawing parallels with the couples: Megan and Scott, Rachel and her ex Tom, and Tom and his new wife Anna.

Thanks to her drinking, Rachel has huge gaps in her memory, and the chapters from Anna's point of view offer an alternative perspective of Rachel as more dangerous and manipulative than she'd have us believe, or perhaps realises herself. These chapters plant a seed of doubt, and though I wanted to trust Rachel, I did not quite.

The Girl on the Train kept me up until late on a work night because I just had to know what happened next. Perhaps I was a little disappointed, expecting a cleverer plot twist that would leave me breathless. (It was a perfectly satisfactory conclusion, but I was prepared for a shocker.) But it works well as a dark study of toxic relationships, mental health and addiction, and grief either for what was lost or what was never had in the first place.

Shelve next to: Gone Girl, Before I Go To Sleep.



Friday, 13 February 2015

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances - Neil Gaiman


My reading has been very slow since I picked up Neil Gaiman's latest short story collection, Trigger Warning. "What?" I hear you cry, "But you love Neil Gaiman! You ought to be racing through his latest book at light speed!" But such is the power of his short stories that I found myself unable to go straight from one tale to the next without taking some time to digest what I had just read. If I tried, I found I would take one story with me into the next. Gaiman's writing lingers, whether it be a letter from a human statue, a Doctor Who adventure, or a reinvented fairy tale or three. You will find all of these and more within this collection, and I'll share a couple of lines about each piece:

Making a Chair. 

Gaiman opens this collection with a simple poem about - well, making a chair! But it is also about making art, and how it too should not be undertaken lightly.

A Lunar Labyrinth.

I was reminded a little of American Gods with this exploration of a strange roadside attraction, run by someone with a story of his own. The chatty tone is underlined with a dawning sense of unease, hints more frightening than concrete images would be, until I found myself on the verge of shrieking through the pages to the narrator, "NO! DON'T DO IT!"

The Thing About Cassandra.

What is real? this story asks. What happens when your imaginary first girlfriend comes to town? The shift in perspective at the end makes you return to the start and reread with a new understanding, looking for evidence that seems, if not obvious, hidden in plain sight all along.

Down To A Sunless Sea.

This was a piece I had read before, online, and the images and tone stayed with me even though I'd forgotten the details, returning to this unsettling monologue as though trying to recall a half-forgotten nightmare.

The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains.

Another story I'd read before, in the anthology Stories. It starts off as a subversive fairy tale, a dwarf's quest, but builds up an ominous foreboding. You know no good can come of this quest, you think you are prepared, but I tell you, you are not.

My Last Landlady.

The poem's title, of course, evokes Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess," so I went into it full of suspicion. But of course Gaiman subverted my expectations. He is not here to tell the story you already know. 

Adventure Story.

All about the stories that are lost when someone dies, leaving behind just a few souvenirs and an unsolvable mystery. 

Orange. 

A story written as answers to questions we do not see. Weird and funny, but with an underlying sadness and dread.

A Calendar of Tales.

(How does one write a series of mini-reviews within a mini-review? Just a few words per tale. I'd read this collection as a free ebook on my phone.)

  • January Tale: Battle. Makes me cry with its beauty.
  • February Tale: Encounter on a beach. Chilling.
  • March Tale: Retired Piratess. Wistful
  • April Tale: Whimsical as only ducks can be.
  • May Tale: Mysterious mail. Baffling.
  • June Tale: A squabbling couple, a family holiday. Ridiculous, heartwarming.
  • July Tale: Book igloo!!! What more can I say?
  • August Tale: Phoenixes of the apocalypse.
  • September Tale: A persistent gift.
  • October Tale: A genie, wishes, contentment.
  • November Tale: Burning the past. Disquieting.
  • December Tale: Winter on the streets. Desperation and hope. 

A Case of Death and Honey.

Exactly why would Sherlock Holmes take up the pastime of bee-keeping? How could it possibly keep that brilliant mind occupied? In "A Case of Death and Honey," we discover that it is part of unravelling the Great Detective's most challenging case yet, with a very Gaiman twist and possibly a bit of meta-commentary too.

The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury.

This is a love poem in prose, and a cry of grief and anguish at the fear of losing something so important it has been woven into the fabric of the world-as-we-know-it, and the holes it must leave if it were to be erased. A fitting tribute to a beloved writer who makes the world make that little bit more sense.

Jerusalem.

Perhaps this is not so much a story as a musing on what makes the city of Jerusalem what it is. I wasn't really sure what to make of this.

Click-Clack the Rattlebag.

Eek! A writer of scary stories meets his match in a small boy. A simple tale at first, a bit eerie, a bit gruesome, and perhaps you grow complacent. Then the last couple of lines change everything you thought you knew about this story, and leave you shaken and questioning what you just read. (It's probably fine. Probably nothing. Probably.)

An Invocation of Incuriosity.

This is more of an other-worldly setting than Gaiman usually uses, borrowing from Jack Vance's Dying Earth (which I have not read but which I have now added to my mental list.) A story framed within a story, and the question is how the two tales are connected, why this stranger launches into this story. I had a vaguely Magician's Nephew/Last Battle feeling from this "Dying Earth" setting.

And Weep, Like Alexander.

Why does the time we live in not live up to all we were promised in science fiction in days gone by? Enter the Uninventor. This story is fun, lighter than most in the collection, though vaguely sad. It has a wickedly mischievous ending.

Nothing o'Clock.

A Doctor Who story set during the beginning of the Eleventh Doctor's travels with Amy Pond, before Rory joined the team. I'm still not over the excitement of Neil Gaiman's first episode, "The Doctor's Wife," the anticipation, my - correct - sudden realisation of who the titular "wife" would be, the day before the episode aired, the joy that the episode lived up to and exceeded my wildest hopes. "Nothing o'Clock" is just as brilliant, with a brilliant monster, the Kin, genius and scarier than I've found Doctor Who to be in a long time. And I like the use of time travel to the 1980s, a different time but not all that long ago. It was good to see young Eleven again, but we also get a glimpse of his darker side, the side encountered by the "family of blood" back in David Tennant's time in the role. (Although I like Peter Capaldi's Doctor, I don't think the series as a whole has been up to standard since about the mid-season break of season 6.)

Diamonds and Pearls: A Fairy Story.

These days Neil Gaiman comes as part of a team with his wife, the musician Amanda Palmer. They both have their own careers, but they join forces from time to time. "Diamonds and Pearls" originally was a part of her "Who Killed Amanda Palmer" project. Set in a contemporary city, there is no denying this is, as it claims, a fairy tale, but a very dark one, with elements from the classics, but not as you would know them from Disney.

The Return of the Thin White Duke.

This story read like a colourful rock epic, reminiscent in tone to the Sandman comic and music. Weird, not quite graspable.

Feminine Endings. 

I assumed this was another Amanda Palmer-inspired story, as it is about a living statue, one of her former professions. Apparently not. Hopefully not; it takes a really sinister and horrifying turn.

Observing the Formalities.

A poem of Sleeping Beauty from the wicked fairy's point of view, injured and aggrieved.

The Sleeper and the Spindle.

I've written about this one before; it was published as an illustrated book last year. A crossover between two fairy tales with a lot in common. The queen and princess do not need any handsome princes to do their rescuing for them, thankyouverymuch! Another familiar tale with a twist - and not necessarily the one you were expecting if you've encountered spoilers on the internet.

Witch Work.

A poem with a jaunty rhythm but which seems to slow as you dwell on the imagery of time, hurt and revenge. A haunting, dark fairytale character.

In Relig Odhrain. 

The legend of an Irish saint, turned into verse with a very solid meter. But Columba and "martyred heretic" Oran seem like very strange choices to be celebrated as saints by the church! The story of the poem does not sit comfortably even before you think of the horrors within.

Black Dog.

We are reunited with American Gods' hero-protagonist Shadow, as he spends a little time in the Peak District, a place I love because it is interesting and ruggedly beautiful even when the weather is rotten. It is a land that tells a thousand stories. "Black Dog" shares some themes with the previous poem, and Gaiman skillfully builds this story around an image with more than one meaning. Shadow is quite a passive character, but he is a good one to hang out with to see the world's curiosities and listen to its people.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Star Trek: Nemesis (X)


It is a popular opinion among Star Trek fans that the even-numbered films are really good, while the odd-numbered ones are less so. (This is a fair description, although I really liked III and am rather fond of I despite its slowness.) Despite the Next Generation and reboot films not being officially numbered, the pattern continues - if you include Star Trek parody film Galaxy Quest as number 10, in between Insurrection and Nemesis. (I like to include Galaxy Quest, as it keeps the odd-even pattern tidy, so I really ought to have reviewed that film already. Short version: it's hilarious!) As the last Star Trek movie to be made before the 2009 reboot-of-sorts, I think it's safe to say that Nemesis did not go out on the high that it aimed for, although it is not an embarrassment like The Final Frontier or something I refuse to acknowledge like Generations. But a month or two after watching it (thanks to Christmas and work and lack of computer getting in the way of my review-writing) it's a bit fuzzy in my memory, and I'm writing from less detailed notes than some, so please forgive a rather sprawling review.

Just as the original crew finished off their time in the Enterprise by overseeing a peace treaty with their long-term foes the Klingons, so does Nemesis hinge upon reconciling the Federation's differences with the other main antagonists, the Romulans. (It's rather bittersweet to watch these negotiations with a knowledge of what happens in the 2009 Star Trek film, which is mostly a reboot but also a sequel. Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey.) As the story can be paired with The Undiscovered Country, so there are doubles and echoes within the plot, notably with the discovery of a prototype android resembling Data, and a younger clone of Captain Jean-Luc Picard called Shinzo, who doesn't resemble Picard at all except for being bald. In Shinzo we see what Picard might have become under other circumstances, and the film juggles questions of nature and nurture forming a personality for good or ill.

Star Trek: The Next Generation tends to engage with my head rather than my heart, and although there are a lot of ideas to ponder about fate, destiny and so forth, the plot itself is quite a weak one, relying on phaser action over storytelling. Yes, there are some impressive action sequences - using the Enterprise to ram Shinzo's ship at the end was awesome and horrifying in equal measure. (I seem to have a thing about big modes of transport being used as weapons or generally having disasters, see the train in Skyfall and the starship falling out of the sky in Star Trek: Into Darkness, not to mention the fate of the original Enterprise. It leaves me feeling a bit shaken up.) But ultimately, the story fell a bit flat for me, a bit of a damp squib for the franchise to end on. Even Data's heroic sacrifice at the end, although it had both my dad and me shouting a big "NOOOOOO!" in stereo, did not have the same effect as the other heroic sacrifice it evokes from The Wrath of Khan. In the B4 android there is a potential cop-out. If the Enterprise crew are able to upload Data's, well, data, into this other android, is it basically the same as having him back? I think the film's emphasis on individuality suggests no, but I'm not sure if my conclusion is the intended one.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Book to Film: The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies

I don't like that tagline. An Unexpected Journey was
the "defining chapter" of my Hobbit.

Heartbreaking though it was to admit, as December approached last year I found that I was really not looking forward to the release of the final part of The Hobbit movie adaptation. Far from the excitement of the Unexpected Journey release, when I went to a Tolkien-themed movie quiz dressed up, not as a beautiful elf-maiden or a cute hobbit-lass, but as a "beardy-axe-dwarf-girl." Because why does dress-up have to equal sexy rather than character? (Though, if I say so myself, I think I made a moderately pretty bearded dwarf woman!)


But The Desolation of Smaug, although I gave it a fair review on the blog, noting both the good and the bad decisions, it was the bad that stuck with me. Nothing that compared to Faramir, or Frodo sending Sam away in Lord of the Rings, which were just Wrong, out of character, and contradictory to the book. But the love triangle, the weird combination of padding and speeding over actual content from the book, and the decision to make the climactic scene of the film something ridiculous and not from the book at all lingered far more than the impressiveness of the dragon, and I felt as though I was going to see The Battle of Five Armies out of duty, to get it over with and to complete the series. (By contrast, Return of the King was the biggest film event perhaps of my life, and I must have seen it 7 times at the cinema.)

The Battle of Five Armies began weirdly. Not badly, but the pacing was strange. There were no flashbacks to set the scene, but the film launched straight into the action where Desolation of Smaug left off, with the dragon wreaking death and destruction on the Laketown. As before, the film gives a better impression of the size and deadliness of the dragon, and it is like a scene from the Blitz (or perhaps the end of Carrie), an entire wooden town ablaze. My imagination falls short of picturing just what it would be like to be in the midst of a dragon attack while reading the book, so the film helps to bring that to life. But it is over quickly: after all the build-up from the previous film and the advertising, the dragon is slain before the titles roll. This is true to the book - I'm always surprised when Smaug is killed off earlier than expected - but the book is not split into three parts. Wouldn't it have been better to use that part as the end of part two, rather than the nonsensical attempt to kill a dragon with molten gold? But then, maybe that wouldn't leave much left for the third film.

When Peter Jackson changed the title of the third Hobbit film from There And Back Again to The Battle of Five Armies, I feared that with the name change he had jettisoned the last remains of Tolkien's original, in favour of his speciality, the epic battle sequences which interest me far less than the plot. To be fair to Mr Jackson, that did not turn out to be the case. I was pleasantly surprised by how much character focus there was in this final part, and he did a good job of capturing Thorin's descent into evil and dragonish greed. Oh, I hated Thorin as he refused to help those who had helped him at great loss to themselves, holing himself up under the Lonely Mountain with more gold than he could ever find any use for, willing to condemn his entire company to death rather than spare some treasure he wouldn't even miss. But then, I hate him at that point in the book, too, and the film does a good job of humanising (so to speak) him as he comes to realise how far he has fallen.

And yes, as its subtitle suggests, the battle scenes are long and extended, but I never lost interest. The weakest element was probably the scene in which the White Council take on Sauron. I'm not sure how you could show a battle of magical power in a would that uses showy magic, well, just for show, well, and the scene had to somehow get from Sauron being a shadowy Necromancer figure in Dul Guldur to being a flaming giant eyeball in Moria. I guess it could have happened like that.

Martin Freeman's Bilbo, of course, is at the heart of this film, and it shines brightest when he is on screen, bringing pathos and courage and humour to the film that from time to time seems to forget who it is titled after. I'm sorry, that's not fair. There are a lot of aspects to be addressed in this story, especially when tying it in with its sequel. I'm afraid that I'm bringing a lot of my Hobbit cynicism into this review, despite enjoying The Battle of Five Armies a lot more than I had expected to.

By the time Bilbo arrives back at Bag End to find his neighbours auctioning off his property, I was firmly back in the optimistic, coming-home frame of mind that I started An Unexpected Journey with, and the ending, fading gently back into the Lord of the Rings opening was spot-on, bringing a happy tear to my eye. After all The Disappointment of Smaug, Peter Jackson and his team managed to regain my trust and love for their work bringing Tolkien's work to life. The end note is just as important for one's overall impressions of a saga as the first impression, and The Hobbit ended just right. As an added bonus, the song played over the closing credits was sung by Billy Boyd, Pippin in Lord of the Rings, a tribute to the entire film-making saga. No, The Hobbit is not as strong a film trilogy as Lord of the Rings - it was never going to be, as a trilogy. Two films would have made for tighter storytelling. But as far as I'm concerned, part three was back up to the standard of the first part, leaving the adaptation pretty satisfying over all.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Mini-reviews: Life After Life (Atkinson) and Cross Stitch/Outlander (Gabaldon)

Life After Life - Kate Atkinson


February 1910. In the middle of a snowstorm, a baby girl is stillborn. End of story.

In another February 1910, the same baby, Ursula, is born and survives.

Life After Life is made up of numerous versions of the same girl's life, where one different choice will take Ursula's world in vastly different directions. Not exactly a reincarnation story, as whenever Ursula dies and is reborn, time is reset to the same starting point. But as the book goes on, Ursula starts to have a sense of deja vu, and her decisions are influenced by half-remembered versions of what happened in another time - a glimpse across to another leg of the trousers of time, to borrow Terry Pratchett's analogy.

Life After Life reminded me of a repeating poem, such as a sestina, with the same images and phrases recurring regularly, very beautifully written. The fact that the same character dies over and over again does not make for an easy read; you spend each section getting attached to the same family anew, and you know it cannot end well. Some segments were relentlessly depressing, and there was one point at which I wasn't sure if I could continue reading. Later, however, I was very pleased that I stuck with it. The version of Ursula's life in which she spent the early 1930s in Germany was absolutely fascinating, and led up to the most daring event of the novel. Unfortunately, each story finishes with Ursula's death, and resets back to her birth, so you never get to find out what happens next. Which is the real history, if there is one?

If you liked this, read: 11.22.63 by Stephen King, Kindred by Octavia Butler

This book came from: Laura, as a birthday present. (Thanks Laura!)



Cross Stitch/Outlander - Diana Gabaldon

Cross Stitch has been on my to-read list for several years, thanks to various bloggers' recommendations, but was rather daunting being over 850 pages long. It tells the story of a young English woman accidentally being transported back in time to 18th century Scotland. As she tries to find her way back to her own time, she falls foul of a monster of a man with a disturbing resemblance to her husband in the 1940s, and is persuaded into another marriage with the young and headstrong Jamie Fraser.

I was prepared to have a problem with Cross Stitch because adultery stories are a deal-breaker for me. I can't be havin' with them. But is it adultery (or bigamy) if your husband doesn't exist any more - or won't exist for over a century? Is the Doctor from Doctor Who a bigamist, if he's married more than once? For him time travel is no different from any other kind of travel - all his wives are out there somewhen. For Claire of Cross Stitch,time travel is not so simple. Even though by some freak she managed to hop across the years, it is no simple matter to hop back. Maybe she's stuck in the eighteenth century forever, and might as well make the most of it.

And one can't review Cross Stitch without touching on the subject of Jamie. Most of the reviews I've read about Cross Stitch (or Outlander) go a little bit swoony when writing about him. Yes, he is a very appealing romantic lead, just the right combination of reckless courage and innocent honesty, the sort of character I used to love reading and writing about a few years ago.(and even now I find I am not immune to his charms.)

Although I enjoyed reading Cross Stitch while I was reading it, for the first half of the book I didn't feel the urge to pick it up again when I'd put it down. It had an unexpected humour to it, and I found the idea of a 20th century nurse having to heal illnesses and wounds with 18th century medicine fascinating. But it is long and a little slow for a while. The pace picks up once Claire and the reader have found their way around the world of the past, and I raced through the last 500 pages in about three days. I'm not sure that I'm in any great hurry to continue with the series; it is a big commitment and this one stood quite well on its own. But I'm glad I read it, and the ideas and characters stayed with me after I'd finished the novel, and sometimes I found I would bring them with me into my other reading.

If you liked this, read: A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, Kindred by Octavia Butler (Again. Seriously. Just read that book. And I'll throw in 11.22.63 again for good measure. Both of these books need to be read.)

This book came from: Ryde Bookshop, Ryde, Isle of Wight.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Sunday Summary: I ATEN'T DEAD, or January in Books

I'm back! Not that I've been anywhere, but alas, my laptop has been awaiting repairs for a couple of weeks, leaving me fidgety and impatient, as you'll have noticed if you follow me on Twitter.

I'm working my way down my to-read pile, with a self-imposed read-3-buy-2 rule (rereads and borrowed books are not included here.) I'm also trying out the idea of giving myself a monthly to-read list, although of course it is subject to variation.

January's to-read pile


Cross Stitch - Diana Gabaldon
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making - Catherynne M. Valante
Life After Life - Kate Atkinson
The Last Days Of Rabbit Hayes - Anna McPartlin
The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August - Claire North
The Thirteenth Tale - Diane Setterfield
William Shakespeare's The Jedi Doth Return - Ian Doescher
Elizabeth Is Missing - Emma Healy
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring - J. R. R. Tolkien

Not bad going then! Just one book left from my to-read list, and I also reread Anne of the Island. I plan to write a post or two of mini-reviews to catch up with my blogging by the end of the week - I am very far behind already this year.

My to-read pile is now a to-read shelf for the first time in a couple of years, as I recently replaced my big bookcase with one just as tall and wide, but with extra depth so that I can shelve two rows of books instead of one.It looks very strange having a shelf full of these unread books which I haven't yet made my own by reading. It looks like someone else's bookcase, albeit someone very cool whose shelves I'd be keen on raiding.

Of course, it caused much angst and agonising over which books should be hidden behind the others. I've arranged my shelves roughly by genre, and still have a Lord of the Rings feature shelf with my Lego Mines of Moria set (and the rest of my LotR Lego on top.)



I've read seven new books last month, as well as the two rereads, and have set myself another pile for February. (Not pictured, the first Elly Griffiths thriller, which I reserved in the library.) Of course this is all subject to change.

I bought two new books in January - The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, and of course the latest Neil Gaiman short story collection called Trigger Warning. But I'll be buying no more, no matter how good the offer is, until the end of February when I'm due to meet up with Bex and Laura and hit the London bookshops. Yay!

February's to-read pile


The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August - Claire North
The House at Sea's End - Elly Griffiths 
The Elements of Eloquence - Mark Forsyth
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers - J. R. R. Tolkien
Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances - Neil Gaiman
The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins
The Year I Met You - Cecelia Ahern
The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe - Alexander McCall Smith

Monday, 5 January 2015

Elizabeth is Missing - Emma Healey


Maud gets muddled about all sorts of things these days, but she is sure of one thing: Elizabeth is missing. In her obsession to find out what has happened to her friend, Maud's quest takes her back to a long-forgotten mystery from her past.

Elizabeth Is Missing hit close to home, making me think of my own grandmother, who is 92, and growing increasingly forgetful and confused. And like Maud, she has very fixed ideas that no one else can quite work out where they came from. But they make perfect sense to her. It did not help matters that Maud's daughter in Elizabeth is Missing was named Helen - my mother's name - and her granddaughter Katy (though they were very different people from my mum and me.)

It was a courageous choice on Emma Healey's behalf to write this book entirely from the point of view of an elderly lady with some form of dementia. Written in the first person, the prose is in a sort of stream-of-consciousness, a mixture of past and present as Maud gets her thoughts confused, with gaps between scenes, and the search for elusive words (which may turn up in the next paragraph as if they were never missing.) Each sentence is in the present, although we can observe where it contradicts the thought that Maud had just a couple of lines back. We get to experience Maud's frustration and fogginess while seeing what she forgets, as she forgets it. This fictional view inside a fading mind encourages empathy, patience and understanding. Maud's world is not the same as the one she physically inhabits, but is a world of the mind, of past and present perceived as fluid and changing. 

Maud's memories are bound up in repeated behaviour and in objects, which take her back to a time in her past, in the 1940s, when her sister Sukey disappeared. Her recollection of seventy years ago is far more lucid than her short-term memory, which just will not retain information. She will latch onto small details, ask strange, apparently meaningless questions, such as where would be the best place to plant marrows? As well as the memories of her family, their lodger and her missing sister's lodger, a "mad" woman recurs in her flashbacks, making scenes, but for the most part seemingly unrelated to everything else Maud remembers. As well as perhaps being a parallel to her elderly self, one wonders if the "mad" woman's strange behaviour will be the key to unlocking the mystery. And ultimately the clues were in plain sight all along, if only Maud (and the reader) could figure out what they meant. 

Elizabeth is Missing was an excellent book to start 2015 with, a compassionate psychological study, and a compelling and satisfying mystery. A remarkable, perfectly-crafted debut. 



Sunday, 4 January 2015

Mini-reviews: It, The Last Englishman, Flowers for Algernon

It - Stephen King

2014 was the Year of Stephen King for me: although I had read his books before, it wasn't until last year that I recognised what a wonderful storyteller he is: not the mere writer of horror stories his reputation suggests - King writes about people, makes you care about them, and then, once you've grown attached, he makes you fear not just whichever monster they face, but fear for his characters. And as such, It really isn't "a horror story about an evil clown" at all. Yes, it is gruesome and unsettling at times, but the novel did not frighten me half as much as the idea of it did - and the clown does not appear nearly as often as I'd been led to believe. I still don't think I'd be up to watching the 1990 TV film adaptation though. I really. Don't. Like. Clowns. (I learned that a young Seth Green - Oz in Buffy - played the younger version of Richie Tozier. YES. Perfect.)

Just as someone once described Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane, (a very different book, with similar themes) what happens in It really isn't what it's about. Yes, there is a shape-shifting monster whose favourite disguise is as a murderous clown called Pennywise, but really the book is about the perils unique to childhood, it is about a hostile place, the power of people to ignore what is going on under their noses, it is about the strength in friendship to overcome monsters visible and unseen. At over 1500 pages, It was nearly double the runner-up for longest book read last year, but not a word was wasted, not a page dragged. King has a rich prose, taking his time in building up the town of Derry, inducting the reader into the Losers' Club with Bill, Ben, Richie, Beverly, Eddie, Mike and Stan, and weaving together past and present as our characters' forgotten memories of the summer of '58 slowly return to them as required in the battle against It.

Key quotes: "That's what happened when you got back to your used-to-be, as the song put it. The frosting on the cake was sweet, but the stuff underneath was bitter."

"If there are ten thousand medieval peasants who create vampires by believing them real, there may be one - probably a child - who will imagine the stake necessary to kill it."




The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome – Roland Chambers.


To most people, the name Arthur Ransome is synonymous with quaint English adventure stories for children, full of decent English children in a time when they were allowed to run free, sail, camp, climb mountains and play at being adventurers, explorers and pirates with no supervision from anyone older than the age of twelve or thirteen. All as jolly and wholesome as anyone can wish for! But before he came to write the Swallows and Amazons books, Ransome lived a very different life as a journalist, witnessing first-hand the Russian revolution and cosying up to many of the biggest names of the Bolshevik movement so well that ultimately, his every motive and movement came under question. In The Last Englishman, Roland Chambers attempts to unravel the mystery of Arthur Ransome, only to find the writer to be a slippery fish indeed!

I have to confess myself very ignorant about such a momentous period in history, and as such I found this biography heavy-going at times, but also fascinating, leaving me wanting to read and understand more about early twentieth-century Russia. As a biographer, Chambers draws Ransome as a curious, enigmatic figure, but shows little admiration for him as a man, showing him to be a far more difficult, sometimes naive or irresponsible, and curmudgeonly figure than his character “Captain Flint” – Nancy and Peggy Blackett’s Uncle Jim – the retired adventurer who might be closer to how Ransome would prefer to be remembered.


Flowers for Algernon - Daniel Keyes

One of the science fiction classics of the 20th century, Flowers for Algernon is presented as the journal of Charlie Gordon, a young man with learning disabilities, who is eager to be the test subject for an experimental IQ-increasing drug trial. His journals (misspelled at first) chart his progress from "simpleton," working as a janitor in a bakery, to a genius who puts the world's leading scientists to shame. As well as his increasing intellect, Charlie's progress reports portray his emotional development and his new understanding of the world and the people within it. This is a bittersweet experience, when he comes to recognise the cruelty of his "friends'" jokes at his expense, and that intelligence brings as much trouble as it solves.

Flowers for Algernon is an important novel, as important now as at the time when it was written, raising discussions of personhood, and the treatment of the mentally disabled. It asks how far identity comes from one's perception of the world, and raises the question of the ethics of pushing the boundaries of nature through science: is it a miracle or an abomination best left alone?

Key quote: "Here in your university, intelligence, education, knowledge, have all become great idols. But I know now education that hasn't been tempered by human affection isn't worth a damn."
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