Thursday 30 September 2010

Ash, Malinda Lo

Despite the age-old saying, I knew as soon as I saw the cover for this book that I would have to read it. Isn't it gorgeous? It made me think of Alice in Wonderland or some eerie fairy tale, and reading the blurb on the back it became clear which it resembled most:
"With her parents both gone, Ash finds herself a servant in the house of her ruthless stepmother and there seems no hope of finding happiness again.

"But Ash is unaware of her mother's legacy, and that it will lead her to a magical place. A place where love, identity and belonging are all waiting...
Yet straight away it became clear that Ash is much more than the fleshed-out Cinderella retelling its description would suggest. I was reminded of fantasy author Cecelia Dart-Thornton throughout the novel, which takes a classic tale as a starting point and takes the story where it wants to go. Though not as extremely verbose as Dart-Thornton, Lo has a descriptive writing style like dark chocolate: rich, seductive and indulgent, but to be savoured, not wolfed down.

The focus point of the story's setting is the Wood, where the fairies reign, mostly forgotten by human and believed to be nothing but "rustic superstition." There is a dreamlike quality to any scenes involving the fairies and the lines are blurred between Ash's imagination and reality. The fairies are not the species to whom Cinderella's usual fairy godmother belongs, distant cousins to Glinda the Good Witch. These are the fairies of old: beautiful, dangerous and completely alien, fascinating and yet somehow horrible at the same time.

"They were grand and beautiful and frightening - the horses' heaads shining white, their eyes burning like a blacksmith's forge. Their riders, too were like nothing she had ever seen before: ethereal men and women with pale visages, their cheekbones so sharply sculpted that she could see their skulls through translucent skin [...] and she could not close her eyes though the sight of them made her eyes burn as if she were looking at the sun."
To me, these old-fashioned fairies of long ago have more than a passing resemblance to vampires - more of a resemblance than many creatures given that name in contemporary fiction, at least. Ash's Fairy Godfather figure, Sidhean, demonstrates this in his declaration of obsession for her:
"I told her that you were mine, that I had given you this cloak, that she could not have you."
Does anyone else find themselves thinking of Dracula here?

Ash is a beautifully-written fairy tale. The evil stepmother and eldest stepsister are straight out of the story-as-we-know-it, but the younger stepsister, Clara, has some redeeming qualities. And as the story progresses, it becomes quite clear that the ending will not be the one we have come to expect. Oh, Ash gets her happily-ever-after, but it is not with Prince Aiden (who you probably know better as Prince Charming, but who actually features very little in this version of the story) nor with "fairy godfather" Sidhean. It is not with a prince at all.

Wednesday 29 September 2010

Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy, Ally Carter

Perhaps it's because I accidentally came into the Gallagher Girls series at book 2, but Cross My Heart... did nothing for me. The premise was great: an elite boarding school is actually a school to train young woment to become spies. Brilliant! I always had a soft spot for boarding school stories, especially the more unusual schools like the Chalet School (or Hogwarts.) And the Gallagher Academy is one of the stranger. While Chalet School girls are fluent in three languages, Gallagher Girls speak up to fourteen. They develop skills so that they can appear to be anyone or anything they like: writing with their non-dominant hand, they have photographic memories, can fool lie detectors and tell you exactly how many people in the room are wearing purple socks (for example.)

All interesting and highly unlikely for high school students, and unfortunately I couldn't even believe it in the context of the story. The main character, Cammie "The Cameleon" is has a reputation for being one of the best young spies (a contradiction in itself, surely!) and yet in Cross My Heart she can be so incredibly stupid. She and her classmates demonstrate this on a countersurveillance exercise - there are spies watching you, you don't know who they are, you have to shake them off and get to a certain place at a certain time. Now is NOT the time to start chatting up the boys. Especially when you have just found out that there is a boys' spy school out there, a fact which, by the way, shouldn't be quite such a shock when you yourself go to a spy school no one else knows about. She doesn't seem to learn, either, seeming to forget half the time that she is a spy, and the other half of the time that Zach who she has a love-hate relationship with, is also a spy. Trust no one!

Despite their rigorous training, I found it difficult to believe that the Gallagher Girls were entirely serious about their vocations: whenever they set up surveillance on the headmistress, and later on the Blackthorne boys, it read more like a Mystery Kids or Secret Seven story with top-of-the-range gadgets. Surely such training requires the girls to be single-minded in their training, but instead they were double-minded: they thought of exactly two subjects throughout the book - spying and boys. Mostly boys. From the moment they see the Blackthorne boys, Cross My Heart fails the Bechdel test - the female characters talk only to boys or about them. I'm not saying this is unrealistic for teenagers in a formerly all-girl school, quite the opposite! Unfortunately it doesn't help to flesh out the characters, and I found it difficult to keep track of which name belonged to which of Cammie's classmates. It might have helped if I'd read the first book in the series: I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have To Kill You (Imagine having to type that multiple times in a blog!)

There were a couple of problems that I had with this story that were resolved at the end, especially regarding some of the headmistress' decisions. Early on, Cammie and her friends suspect that the head (who is also Cammie's mother) is up to something dodgy. Now, surely if you're head of a spy school, you wouldn't conduct suspicious business where the girls would use the skills you've taught them to uncover your secrets! And secondly, I thought it highly unwise of her to introduce half a dozen handsome boys into a school full of hormonal teenage girls and expect them to carry on undistracted. In the end, though, it turned out to be all a test, and the head's realisation that running an all-girls' school left the students ignorant of half of the world's population - not a good place to be if you want to be a spy! Unfortunately, the one plotline where I thought there was genuine danger out of a classroom context, was also part of the test, leaving me once more feeling that the Gallagher Girls were just playing spies.

Sunday 26 September 2010

Film: Comparing Creepiness in Wonka's Chocolate Factories: 1971 and 2005

My first ever acting part was as Violet Beauregarde in a primary school production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when I was nine years old. Chewing gum was one of the deadly sins of primary school, so I had to fake it, and I remember that when the time came for me to inflate like a blueberry, somebody put a blue cloak around me and I stuck my arms out. When I say a blue cloak, I mean turquoise. Not violet. Not navy. Turquoise.

Roald Dahl is the quintessential example of an author that when you reach adulthood you wonder how his books were ever considered suitable for children, and yet at the time you hardly notice anything at all. Perhaps this is because there are less clear ideas about what is fantasy and what is real life when you're a little kid, and therefore things that sit on the boundaries don't worry you so much. I don't know.

The 1971 adaptation of Charlie, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory starring Gene Wilder was one of the classic children's films when I was growing up, alongside Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Oliver! Apparently Roald Dahl hated this film, but for me it was the film of the book, if not a straight adaptation at least it was the companion piece. Wilder's Wonka was subtly sinister, but in such a way that I only really notice watching the film as an adult. His eccentricity was beneath the surface, and all I tended to see was the polite, calm, unexcitable gentleman he seemed to be, the face he put on. Watching it this afternoon, I found his bored responses to the naughty children's fates rather inhuman, such as his monotone: "Help. Police. Murder." when Augustus Gloop was stuck in the chocolate river. I also found something slightly off-kilter about the chocolate room, which (possibly due to poor special effects when compared to what I'm used to) doesn't feel quite real, or quite imagined. The chocolate river, for example, looks like red-brown water and not melted chocolate at all. Not even a chocolate milkshake.

I say as an adult that I never noticed anything creepy about Willy Wonka when I was its target age group, but watching the film again I realise that isn't quite true. The added subplot character "Slugworth" was creepy enough to designate him immediate "villain" with his Demon Headmaster monotone, and I think it was actually quite late on that I understood that he wasn't a baddie but an actor hired by Wonka to test the children's trustworthiness. And as for the boat ride, why, I simply blocked the worst of that from my mind. Perhaps I remembered some of Wonka's poem "There's no earthly way of knowing..." and the flashing colours, but not Wonka's singing in a cold, thin, quavery voice, turning into a scream, and certainly not those awful, where did that come from?! hallucinations, images or whatever that was they passed. No explanation is ever given, but, boy, that is horrible!

Of the children, there was a certain star quality in Julie Dawn Cole's spoilt brat Veruca Salt, the only child (apart from Charlie) with her own song, "I want it now," sang in a mixture of bratty tantrums and (probably) drama-school trained RP calmness.

As well as the stories of the five children who win the golden tickets, the film shows little snippets from around the world of the less successful searchers to illustrate the international obsession with finding the tickets and winning the grand prize. As well as the forged ticket that does not appear in the book but is used in 2005 by Tim Burton, we witness the turmoil suffered by a woman trying to negotiate with the kidnappers of her husband.

Woman's Lawyer: "It's your husband's life or your case of Wonka bars!"
Woman: "How long will they give me to think it over?"
Among all the Wonkamania, it is as though chocolate itself is devalued by the sheer amount unwrapped and discarded. All anyone cares about is winning this golden ticket, and seeing inside the factory. Even the lifetime supply of chocolate seems like an afterthought. Charlie notices this and says,
"I bet those golden tickets make the chocolate taste terrible."
Even the Bucket family aren't immune. There is a slightly uncomfortable attitude that of all the people in the world (100 billion according to this film!) although there's no chance he'll ever find a ticket in his annual chocolate bar, Charlie deserves this prize, is entitled to this prize because he is poor and good:
"A little boy's got to have something in this world to hope for. What's he got to hope for now?"
Well-meaning, but somewhat melodramatic even in the Buckets' poverty, I feel. Besides, in this version, Charlie is not as good as all that. It could be argued that he's no better than the other four children because of the scene in which he and Grandpa Joe steal fizzy lifting drinks, and are only saved from a gruesome fate by chance. He is redeemed by showing remorse at the end when Wonka finally shows his human emotions of disappointment and anger.

The 2005 film, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a film by Tim Burton, so naturally it is more overtly surreal. It came out at a time to make people who savoured Dahl's weirdness celebrate the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp (and Helena Bonham Carter) collaboration, before we started to feel a little weary of their becoming inseparable. The set is full of Burton's trademark twisty designs, garish colours (and a realistic-looking chocolate river!) and an unearthly soundtrack thanks to Danny Elfman (another of Burton's little gang.) Depp's Wonka is in many ways the polar opposite of Wilder's: while Wilder is understated, Depp is immediately bonkers, with a feminine bobbed hairstyle and zombie-grey skin of someone who hasn't seen the sunlight in fifteen years. His childish excitement, childish manner and voice reminiscent of Michael Jackson serve to make his Wonka seem less like an eccentric genius and more as though there is something missing in the connections of his brain.

Yes, Depp's Wonka is creepy when he is clearly not all there, and creepier still when he is. When Veruca Salt is throwing a tantrum at her father demanding a squirrel, Wonka listens intently, and his expression turns to realisation and horror when Mr Salt starts to indulge her, firmly taking parenting into his own hands by refusing to sell the creatures. A moment later, she has fallen down the garbage chute and Wonka's face as he lets Mr Salt in afterwards is beyond creepy. There is something evil about it.

Where Willy Wonka gave Charlie some mischievous traits to prevent him being too much of a goodie-goodie, Burton's Charlie retains his goodness, and we get to see that it is a little sickly-sweet. These Buckets aren't too caught up in Wonka-mania:
"Whatever happens, you've still got the candy."
 When he wins it, Charlie even considers selling his ticket so that the family can eat something other than cabbage soup. The Buckets, getting so little chocolate between them, really savour every bite. Family is what is important to Charlie and the Buckets, and the rather unnecessary backstory (but containing Christopher Lee!) hammers home that value, as well, perhaps, as a moral about having a healthy relationship between chocolate and toothpaste.

The Charlie music is possibly better than Willy Wonka's, especially regarding the Oompa-Loompa's songs, which come in a variety of musical genres and take their lyrics directly from the book, yet they are less memorable than the simpler classic, "Oompa-Loompa-Doopity-Doo." Perhaps that goes for the film as a whole. I would be reluctant to judge which of the two adaptations is better, or more faithful, because they are just so different. To me, Burton's Charlie is slicker than Willy Wonka, and yet it is not the real version. Charlie is a faithful yet wacky re-imagining of the story, while Willy Wonka is the definitive adaptation.

Saturday 25 September 2010

Life on the Refrigerator Door, Alice Kuipers

As its title suggests, Life on the Refrigerator Door is a novel written entirely in post-it notes between a mother and her daughter. It begins very ordinarily, quick scribbled messages, beginning with a shopping list. Because most pages contain only a few lines, it is a book that is very quick to read, and indeed I had flicked through a good chunk of it it Borders three or four years ago. Knowing what was coming meant that the earliest, smallest little bickerings felt desperately sad, as both fifteen-year-old Claire and her mom feel the frustration of living in the same house and yet hardly seeing each other due to their different schedules. Claire comes across as a little bratty at first, and yet you can sympathise with both sides of the story: the single mother with a busy job as a doctor, and her daughter who feels a little neglected when Mom cancels their plans together.

When Mom leaves notes asking, casually but repeatedly, that they have a talk, you know something bad is coming, and eventually she writes down what she'd rather say in person:

"...I've got a doctor's appointment today. I've been trying to tell you. It's nothing to worry about, but I would feel strange if you didn't know. I found a lump in my right breast..."
Writing a novel entirely in fridge notes reads simply, but it must have been incredibly difficult to tell the whole story this way without it seeming contrived. There are a couple of places when I found myself thinking of Claire's response to her mom's message.

"I can't believe you'd leave me a note telling me something like this!"
Later on, though, any doubts about this choice of format are relieved when Claire admits that,
"It seems easier sometimes to ask you stuff on paper."
Besides, much of the tension in Life on the Refrigerator Door comes not from what is written down but what is not said: the irritable note followed by several pages of single line messages while in life away from the fridge Claire and her mom continue in uncomfortable silence, foreboding a disaster to start the messages up again.

Life on the Refrigerator Door is another quick read that nonetheless stays with the reader, using a minimum of words to tell a powerful message about the value of spending time with loved ones. Be warned: with all its cleverly crafted simplicity, it is a strong tearjerker.

October Mini-Challenge: Teen Fiction Month

After Wesley Scroggins’ case of chronic  foot-in-mouth disease in Missouri last weekend and the Speak Loudly blogging campaign that followed, I discovered a lot of book blogs devoted to teenage/young adult books. Re-reading Speak and reading people’s reviews remind me of how much good quality teen fiction is out there and encouraged me to go out and read as much as I can. Working in bookselling I’ve found myself intrigued by a lot of the young adult books when they come into store, but haven’t got around to reading very much. I decided to rectify the matter and make from now until the end of October Teen Fiction month. My challenge to myself is to read as many books aimed at teenagers as possible, and to review each one. I made a start today by making a visit to the town library, where I checked out eight books. That ought to keep me going until pay day!

Life on the Refrigerator Door - Alice Kuipers
Ash - Malinda Lo
Linger - Maggie Stiefvater
Uglies - Scott Westerfeld
The Other Alice - Julia Clarke
Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy - Ally Carter
The Infinite Wisdom of Harriet Rose - Diana Janney
Hold Still - Nina LaCour

Thursday 23 September 2010

No and Me, Delphine De Vigan

No and Me is another of Richard and Judy's book club picks. This time I have got in early with my blog, as it is fifth on the list and not due to be reviewed on TV for a few weeks yet. No and Me is a deceptively simple book, translated from the French. It is one of those borderline books that appears in both adult and teen sections of the bookshop under different covers.

Lou, the narrator, is an intellectially bright but emotionally and socially young girl. At thirteen, she is in a class with fifteen-year-olds (and a seventeen-year-old who has been held back as much as she has been skipped ahead.) She is an only child, and desperately lonely. Her parents seem to have little time for her, as her mother's battle with depression is enough for them to cope with. Lou befriends No (Nolwenn,) a young homeless woman, and interviews her for a school project. When the project is over, Lou realises that she can't just abandon her new friend, or close her eyes now they have been opened to the troubles faced by many around her city.

Lou's narration is full of the hopes and idealism of a good-hearted thirteen-year-old, thinking that she can at least make a difference to one other lonely person's life and help her back into society. De Vigan portrays the innocence of an adolescence with an undertone of sadness. The more jaded adult reader knows that all will not turn out as tidily and happily as Lou hopes, but at the same time, her innocence provokes anger in the question, why not? You find yourself wondering if Lou could be right after all, hoping for a happy ending and trying to fight the deeper knowledge that it won't happen.

No is, of course, the central character of the novel, and yet it seems we never get to know her, really and honestly. She is a spiky yet sympathetic girl - only eighteen - full of the anger of someone who has had to fight from a very young age to survive. Yet in some of her scenes with Lou we get to see a softer, gentler side to her character, the inner child that street life hasn't managed to crush out of her. But much of her character as shown in the book is of the conflict between the different ways she is viewed by society. For Lou she is a friend who really knows what it is to be lonely, but also a project. De Vigan shows lots of different projects and experiments that Lou works on to keep her brain active and boredom away, and there is the nagging sense that No is just another. Lou quotes the fox from The Little Prince:

"To me, you are just a little boy like a hundred thousand little boys. And I have no need of you. To you, I am just a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes.
"But if you tame me, we shall need one another. To me, you will be unique. And I shall be unique to you."

All the lonely Lou wants is to be needed. To the adults; to Lou's parents, the social worker and even perhaps to the prejudices of the reader, No is a lost cause. She just doesn't fit into Lou's world.
Just as Lou needs No, so it seems No needs Lou, repeating the same questions again and again, seeking for reassurance:

"We're together, aren't we, Lou?"
"Do you trust me?"
Even the naive Lou feels a little discomfort at the questions, and recalls:

"I can't stop myself thinking of the phrase I read somewhere, I can't remember where: 'He who's always assuring himself of your trust will be the first to betray it.' And I try to chase those words out of my head."

But once thought, once put onto paper, the doubt remains. Still, when the inevitable betrayal and disappointment happened, I found myself wondering again what No's true motives were. Was she being selfish, was she the untamed wild girl not wanting to be held back by ties to a thirteen-year-old, or did she act to keep Lou from making a terrible mistake? No answers are given to this question. The emotions I felt at the ending challenged me: I felt relief when No left Lou, and at the same time guilt.

No and Me is a slim book with less than 250 pages, quick and easy to read, but difficult to forget.

Sunday 19 September 2010

Laurie Halse Anderson, Speak

1. We are here to help you.
2. You will have enough time to get to your class before the bell rings.
3. The dress code will be enforced.
4. No smoking is allowed on school grounds.
5. Our football team will win the championship this year.
6. We expect more of you here.
7. Guidance counsellors are always available to listen.
8. Your schedule was created with your needs in mind.
9. Your locker combination is private.
10. These are the years you look back on fondly.

Melinda Sordino was an ordinary teenager, happy and popular, until the party the summer before she started high school. Now her grades are slipping, her friends shun her and she skulks through the corridors silently, just trying to get through the day without drawing attention to herself. If only she could tell someone why she really called the police that night.

Speak is a brave, important Young Adult novel that I first read when I was about Melinda's age, and it struck a chord with me. Thankfully I'd never experienced the horrors she had, but I knew how it felt to be the outcast at school, hiding behind my books and trying to persuade everyone I didn't exist. Halse Anderson captures the cliqueyness, injustice and sheer brutality of high school existance. The novel deals with a difficult subject sensitively, and despite her depression, Melinda's narration provides sarcastic humour all the way through with her biting observations about school, her teachers and fellow students, giving the staff names like Mr Neck ("A predator approaches: grey jock buzz cut, whistle around a neck thicker than his head") and Hairwoman. ("My English teacher has no face.")

Melinda finds refuge in a disused supply cupboard that she customises with a poster of Maya Angelou, who she views as a role model. The only other person she feels able to trust is her art teacher, Mr Freeman after spending her lunch times working on her art project to avoid the nightmarish cafeteria. Melinda uses her art project, "Tree" to help her understand and express her emotions through the school year, and it is Mr Freeman she confides in when finally she finds herself able to speak up.

Speak has been made into a film starring a teenage Kristen Stewart of Twilight fame as Melinda. Though it doesn't cover everything in the book, it captures the soul of the story very well and is certainly worth a watch if you can get hold of it.

I was moved to reread and review this novel after discovering that the other side of the pond a wannabe moral guardian with the improbable name of Scroggins has deemed Speak to be inappropriate reading for young people, due to its addressing a difficult subject, namely rape, and is campaigning to have it banned from school libraries. Now, I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he wants to protect young people. Nonetheless, it is very worrying that he is more upset about a book in which a girl tries to cope after being raped, and eventually seeks help, than about the heartbreaking number of people across the world, across the USA, in his own state and probably among the same students he is trying to protect, who don't know how to cope or where to turn after rape. While reading people's twitter and blog comments, I discovered that many people who have been in Melinda's situation found Speak gave them the courage to speak up and seek healing for themselves. Scroggins cannot be allowed to get his way as by doing so he would send out quite the opposite message to the book and risks sending victims of sexual crime back into silence and despair. It seems that - like many who call for the banning of books - that he hasn't actually read it, as his argument is that Speak is pornographic. If he has read it, and that is his perception, I fear it speaks more about himself than the novel.

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

"I've got a Ph.D in horribleness."

Who'd have thought it? A three-act online mini-series chronicling the life of an ineffectual super-villain as he attempts to get into the Evil League of Evil, led by the elusive Bad Horse, and win the girl of his dreams. And it's a musical. And it works.

Dr. Horrible was created by Joss Whedon, best known for such TV series as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, during the American Writer's Strike of a couple of years ago on a low budget and broadcast online. It is a parody or deconstruction of the superhero genre of films. When he's not plotting crimes that will satisfy the Evil League of Evil, Dr. Horrible is a rather awkward but sweet young man called Billy, who is too shy to speak to his "laundry buddy," the beautiful and kind-hearted Penny (Felicia Day). His aspirations seem to be more about gaining respect and status as a supervillain than an actual villainous nature, and changing the world, because "the status is not quo." He has a vocal coach to help him work on his evil laugh, and has no problem stealing "wonderflonium" to power his freeze-ray, but he is reluctant to harm anyone: "There's kids in that park!" he says to a wannabe nemesis after refusing to fight him. He has been beaten up many, many times by his real archnemesis, Captain Hammer.

Hammer, the Superhero to Dr. Horrible's Supervillain, is on the other hand an egotistical, callous slimeball. When Captain Hammer decides to make Penny his girlfriend, just because Horrible likes her, Dr Horrible is pushed out of his comfort zone. He vows to get his ultimate revenge and satisfy Bad Horse's tough criteria for entry into the League at the same time.

For me, the musical highlights are the duet between Dr. Horrible and Penny in the beginning of Act II, where Horrible's bitterness and Penny's hope and idealism meet in catchy, beautiful harmony, and on the flip side, the rocky, angry, guitary Act II finale, "Brand New Day," where Dr. Horrible swears revenge on the sleazy jerk Captain Hammer.

Short and sweet, only the length of a single episode of Doctor Who in its entirety, nevertheless Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is memorable and well on its way to becoming a classic alternative media film. Its story is concise, simple yet radical, making you cheer on the villain and boo the hero. And in the end, Horrible succeeds in getting "the world I wanted at my feet/ my victory's complete/so hail to the king," but at such a cost! Up to that point a comedy, the story turns to tragedy in the last few minutes, in a classic case of "be careful what you wish for." The ending is abrupt, with its victory dirge "Everything You Ever" cut short at the end, showing the smallest glimpse of Dr. Horrible in Billy mode, looking completely lost and forlorn and out of his uniform, looking nothing if not in need of a hug.

Saturday 18 September 2010

Play/Film: The History Boys

I first encountered Alan Bennett's The History Boys in its playscript format as one of my set texts at university. It was brand new at the time, being performed at the National Theatre, although I was never fortunate enough to see it. It was soon afterwards adapted into a film, starring the original cast. I found it interesting to compare the screen production with the version that played out in my head. Usually I am disappointed with how someone else visualises a story that I’ve imagined vividly for myself, however, The History Boys was a notable exception. An excellent cast, both of the schoolboys and staff, breathe life into the characters and make the story more complex than it was on paper. Of course, The History Boys, as I was always told when studying Shakespeare, was not written to be read and studied, but performed.

The play follows a group of grammar school students who, after receiving their A-Levels, return to school for a final term for extra lessons to prepare them for Oxbridge entrance exams. Their most influential staff are old-fashioned teacher Hector who values knowledge for the sake of knowledge, whose General Studies lessons are informative but often irrelevant (such as a wonderful scene, conducted entirely in French, when the boys enact a scene in a brothel, only to change rapidly when the headmaster walks in.) Also we are introduced to new teacher Irwin, whose job is to prepare them for the exams and show them how to turn out original, controversial, unexpected answers, a new interpretation on history.

The eight boys are each well-rounded characters, but the chief boys are sad-eyed Posner whose inner turmoil and crush on the cocky star of the class, Dakin. Though a more minor character, special mention has to go to Rudge, the (comparative) thicky of the class who is more interested in sport than academic achievement and who is only trying out for Oxbridge because it is expected of him. Rudge is played wonderfully by Russell Tovey, otherwise known as George the werewolf in Being Human, and who is currently, and deservedly, popping up on pretty much any TV show you care to mention.

The History Boys is a witty, fun play/film that nonetheless has a rather uncomfortable undercurrent, in particular in the feelings it evokes towards Hector. On the one hand, he is a teacher of the old school (if you’ll excuse the pun) with a passion for learning whose methods are being discounted in favour of league tables and impressing examiners with what they want to hear and never mind the truth. On the other hand, out of school, he crosses a definite line with his pupils in a way that makes it difficult to reconcile condemnation with sympathy, though the boys themselves treat it all as rather a joke. Despite the darker subplots, I found The History Boys to be, overall, a feel-good film about education, aspiration and growing up.

…Until right at the end, where the mood takes a jarring turn. Twice. In the stage play, there are “framing” scenes that seem out of place at the time, but set up the ending. The film does not have any of these scenes, which I was glad about because I didn’t feel when reading the play that they added anything. Yet their absence makes for a more shocking ending. Firstly, there is a shock twist to the story proper, and secondly, there is a sort of epilogue which is at the best bittersweet and at the worst depressing. I didn’t find this made the film any the worse, but if I had not read the play I would not have liked it. Certainly the makes you think and wonder why Bennett chose to end it this way. I haven’t yet come up with an answer to that question.

Rachel Hore, A Place of Secrets

The second in the Richard and Judy Book Club, exclusive to WHSmith (although Waterstones have a suspicious display of New Fiction with the exact same eight titles in one place… cheeky!) But I digress.

A Place of Secrets is a quieter work than the last R&J choice, and one which is difficult to pigeonhole into a single genre: is it primarily literary, mainstream, romance, historical genealogical mystery, realistic or ever so slightly paranormal hinting at something beneath the subject?  Its cover is very similar indeed to a previous R&J novel, Kate Morton’s The House at Riverton, and like the latter, the story is centred around the mystery of something that happened in the past in and around an old, big house.

The viewpoint character is Jude, a widow in her thirties, whose job is valuing and selling antique books. Her job takes her to Starbrough Hall in Norfolk, which happens to be within a few miles from her childhood home. Among the books she finds a manuscript which contains the life story of Esther, adopted daughter of the astronomer to whom the book collection originally belonged, back in the eighteenth century. Fascinated, Jude investigates deeper and finds all sorts of links with her own family’s history.

A Place of Secrets reveals Hore to be a skilled writer, conjuring a vivid picture of Starbrough Hall and the old folly which is central to all of the stories within the novel. She gives an eerie atmosphere to the woodland around it, drawing on images from fairytales, such as Rapunzel and The Babes in the Wood to add to the rather creepy, unearthly feel.

The characters are for the most part sympathetic, with the exception of Caspar, Jude’s boyfriend at the start, who is rather self-obsessed. Jude’s sister Claire is touchy and the sisters’ relationship is difficult, yet despite Claire’s poorly-concealed resentment, there is real love between them. The direction that Jude’s friendship with Euan is frustrating in its obviousness – I found myself shouting at Jude for being unsure of his attraction to her, but that’s more likely me being aware of How Things Work in books, whereas she was unaware of her status as a character in a novel.

A prominent theme is memory, whether it be personal memory, inherited memory in the form of the dreams that Jude and her little niece Summer share, and even, apparently forward memory or premonition. Summer’s recurring nightmares of being lost in the woods come to an end when she sleepwalks and finds herself in that same position. The dream also echoes Esther’s experience at the end of her story, passed on through dreams through family. I think Hore takes the power of dreams too far by using one of the writers’ taboos: revealing the otherwise undisclosed mysteries through dreams. Her eagerness to make sure every loose end is tied up leads to her clumsiest storytelling, although, to be fair, the slightly supernatural dreams and weird tone mean that this device is not completely out of place.

Stars are another motif recurring throughout the novel, and Hore clearly enjoyed her research of eighteenth century astronomy, incorporating it to make an intelligent but easy read. Though a rather sedate read for the most part, she expertly plants questions and hints to keep you reading on, and manages to juggle three or four storylines without causing you to lose interest in any part, until the climax when the subplots are neatly brought together. A minor quibble is that the stories are too tidily drawn together – everything is related and there are too many coincidences, long-lost relatives and so on. Although Hore’s world is vividly brought to life, it’s too self-contained: I found it difficult to imagine anything or anyone there that didn’t further the plot. If someone was walking the dog in the woods, for example, he’d probably turn out to be a long-lost relative who happened to have a family heirloom in his pocket.

Friday 10 September 2010

TV: Blackpool

Another one of those mid-2000s TV series that I missed at the time, probably due to being away at university, Blackpool is a crime drama with a difference. Ripley Holden (David Morrisey) is a thuggish, ambitious amusement arcade owner whose plans to build a Vegas-style casino hotel are jeopardised when a young man is found dead in his arcade. Enter DI Peter Carlisle (David Tennant) who takes an instant dislike to Holden and an equally instant liking to Mrs Holden (Sarah Parish) and watch as Holden's little world starts to unravel. Blackpool is a fairly standard BBC mini-series with a small cast of complex characters and a compulsive mystery, or would be were it not for the musical interludes.

Now, Blackpool isn't strictly a musical series, in the way that, say, Glee is, but the music is more significant than remaining quietly and unobtrusively in the soundtrack like every other show that uses pop music. In Blackpool, dramatic and emotional highlights are translated through Captain Subtext's Truth Helmet* into neatly choreographed song-and-dance routines performed by the characters under the original pop song. Not as slick as if performing original covers, the musical numbers provide some realish surrealism to the drama. The actors' voices provide an extra layer to the music, especially when it is a male singing along with a female-fronted band or vice versa. The cast's voices vary in musical quality (Tennant has a distinctive, husky singing voice while Morrissey's more shouty voice is usually on-key and always in keeping with the character of Ripley Holden) and everyone gives their all. Most memorable is the manly hate tango between Davids Tennant and Morrissey to "These Boots are Made For Walking."

The characterisation is complex, but none of the main characters are exactly lovable - and yet I still found myself caring for them. As the series goes on, Ripley Holden, who starts off as an entirely unsympathetic person, softens and we get to see the heart behind all the bluster and rage. Natalie Holden is the peacemaker of the family, a quiet pillar of the community (she volunteers with the Samaritans) but never really appreciated. When a handsome young detective comes along investigating her husband's part in a murder, it's clear from a mile off where the story will go. The conflict between Natalie doing the right thing, as she has done all her life, or thinking of herself for once starts off well enough, but in the end she comes across as a bit dithery. When all comes to a head, there is too much "I did this for me," or "What about me?" from all sides to really feel any sympathy.

DI Carlisle is a determined man, whether it is to prove that Ripley committed the murder and bring him down, or to get Natalie. When we first meet him, his is the obvious "side" to take because he is Ripley's enemy and Ripley is highly unpleasant. But as Ripley becomes a little more sympathetic, Carlisle's single-mindedness becomes more personal than based on evidence, and he turns to increasingly manipulative and desperate measures to get his nemesis and rival put away.

When it comes to Natalie, he seems to be the antithesis of Ripley. Peter Carlisle is interested in her, wants her to be valued and appreciated as herself, and besides, Ripley has apparently slept with half of the women in Blackpool - that's how much their marriage vows are worth! Carlisle really loves Natalie. And then you remember that he had decided that she was his before they even met, on the strength of a photo. His anger at Natalie when she tells him she can't leave Ripley after all, while perhaps realistic and understandable, shows that maybe his motives aren't so altruistic and noble as we're led to believe. Like Edward Cullen of Twilight, Peter Carlisle is more a creepy stalker who is lucky enough to have his feelings reciprocated, than a romantic forbidden lover. (That being said, in real life - at least in my experience - creepy stalkers don't tend to be David Tennant.)
By the way, take note of how many times Carlisle is shown eating. Especially in the first three or four episodes, he gets through an incredible number of chips, ice creams, doughnuts, etc. etc. Special note goes to the ice cream he sings into during the song, "The Gambler." You know he's unhappy when he refuses a doughnut.

Although the murder mystery is a bit thin and simple, when compared to most crime dramas, there are enough twists and turns, lies and more lies to keep the story going over six one-hour episodes and still keep you hooked. Yet in a way the murder is really a plot point to get the characters into place for the relationships to unfold and unravel. As well as the love triangle of Ripley, Natalie and DI Carlisle, there are family tensions. Ripley's twenty-year-old daughter Shyanne is engaged to a man her father's age, moreover one who knew him in an unhappy past he'd thought he'd put behind him. And seventeen-year-old Danny Holden is a troubled but likable youth with secrets of his own, who is just looking for his father's approval. The answer to the murder mystery itself is not the grand twist ending that many mysteries require, but with only a handful of suspects it's inevitable that the right one would be at least guessed at during the six-hour duration, before being dismissed. But that's okay. That's not what Blackpool is really about. It is more than simply a crime drama or whodunnit. Instead, Blackpool is a character story, a relationship drama. And of course a musical.

*thank you to Steven Moffat's Coupling

Friday 3 September 2010

TV: Ashes to Ashes (series 3, contains spoilers.)

Series three is where Ashes to Ashes really gets weird. At the end of the Series two finale, Alex is shot in 1982 and wakes from her coma in 2008... only to find Gene Hunt talking to her through her TV screen. Up until this point, it seemed fairly straight-forward. Even if in some respects the time-travel was real, it is a parallel reality reached through being in a coma. But if Alex is in a coma in the coma-world, just what is real?

In this final season, it is not only time-traveller Alex who would have strange hallucinations and experiences, but also Ray, Chris and Shaz. Each saw stars in the sky "as if they were standing on the edge of the world." Also, each had a significant character-defining episode in the series, where they faced challenges, and overcame them and proved themselves worthy coppers. And when this happened, the screen went dark, they heard a couple of seconds of the song "Life on Mars," and laughter, voices, the sound of a pub. Not just any pub, but the Railway Arms, that gang's hangout back in the Manchester days.

For the first two series of Ashes to Ashes, I found Alex Drake an immensely irritating character, unable to get past her idea of the world existing only to serve her purposes. In series three, she has mellowed and is more likeable - but perhaps that is because there is an even more annoying character: Jim Keats. (Daniel Mays.) Keats is an officer from the Discipline and Complaints department, investigating Gene Hunt's department and spreading discord throughout his team. He brings up the subject of Sam Tyler's (1979) death and tries to persuade Alex that Gene Hunt had a hand in it.

When series three was being shown on TV, but before I had caught up and was avoiding it, I couldn't help hearing my family and friends discussing the character of Jim as a character designed to question what we thought we knew of Gene Hunt. However, there was no such ambiguity. I could never take seriously the suggestion that Gene was a murderer - or even that he was less than the morally-dubious-but-ultimately-good person we'd come to know. Especially not coming from such a character as Jim Keats, who was just plain creepy. Just watching him smarm around, making pronouncements and insinuations with his rubbery, sneery mouth and unsubtly trying to persuade Gene's team to come and join him, made me want to take a long shower.

I started to have my theories about Keats' identity when he made sure that he was present when two police officers died: first a one-episoder, then a supporting member of the team from the beginning. In the first death scene, he was creepy, but seemed that he was at least trying to be comforting. The second was frankly terrifying. The dying policeman was obviously in pain and distress, and Keats did nothing but held his head still, and waited. Was he some kind of Grim Reaper, I wondered? Or worse? And then it was pointed out that both officers failed.

In the grand finale, when all is revealed, I both had an inkling of where the story was going, and simultaneously had to do mental gymnastics to keep up. It seems that everyone was dead: Alex died from her gunshot wound, Ray, Chris and Shaz all were killed at various points in time before ending up in this world, which must be some kind of purgatory. And Gene Hunt. Not only is Gene dead, but he died as a very young policeman in 1953, and has been here ever since as a guardian angel sort of figure, training up his team until they are ready to "move on." (Oh, and in this world Heaven is a pub!) Jim Keats, his nemesis, is revealed to be either the Devil himself, or one of his minions.

When I was watching Ashes to Ashes, I had wondered if "the answers" to the series' mysteries were hinted at by the titles: Life on Mars showed Sam Tyler finding his life's meaning in a strange world, and Ashes to Ashes, from the funeral service, had an awful lot of death themes in it. However, I dismissed the idea that it was actually set in the afterlife, because the epic series Lost had its conclusion on the same weekend, and revealed to have that same explanation. Actually, Ashes to Ashes aired first, but I insisted on being told nothing about it. I wasn't a fan of Lost, but my sister had told me enough to keep me curious.

My first reaction to the great revelation was "Where did that come from?" But after a few moments' contemplation, I realised I wasn't disappointed, because the clues had been woven in from the start, if I knew to look for them. However, I would be interested to watch the whole five seasons of two series with that extra knowledge of what was going on, and see how it changes my understanding of the story.

TV: Ashes to Ashes (series 1-2)

Let's fire up the Quattro.

After the phenomenon that was Life on Mars, it was not too surprising that Gene Hunt would appear on our screens once more, in another Bowie-song-titled series. This time it is 1981 and the much-loved anti-hero and his team have been transferred down to London. The series has undergone a glamorous makeover and now we land at the beginning of the New Romantic movement. The new titles blare with squealy guitars, and of course Hunt has a shiny new car: the iconic Audi Quattro.

One member of the Life on Mars team is notably absent: protagonist Sam Tyler ended the series 2 finale by committing suicide, sending himself (temporarily) back to 1973 where he felt he belonged. Time moves differently there, and he spent six happy years in the seventies before his fate caught up with him. This time it is police psychiatrist  psychologist Alex Drake in the fish-out-of-water role. Back in the 2000s, Alex had been investigating Tyler's death, and therefore when she arrives in 1981, she has a little background knowledge of DCI Hunt, DS Ray Carling and DC Chris Skelton. Seeing that, as far as Alex is concerned, they and their world were dreamed up by a comatose Sam Tyler, and considering that her last memory was of being shot in the head, it is not unreasonable for her to assume that she too is unconscious and dreaming. Unfortunately for her, Hunt, Carling, Skelton and newcomer Sharon "Shaz" Granger won't accept their roles as sidekicks in her story, and object to this newcomer strutting around as if she is the only person who matters - or even really exists.

Introducing a strong-willed female counterpart to Sam Tyler - and one whose first 1980s outfit is that of a prostitute - adds a new angle to the love-hate relationship between old and new methods, and of course between the characters themselves. As far as Gene is concerned, Alex "Bolly-Knickers" is a posh, smug - but strangely sexy - know-it-all, and Alex considers Gene a misogynistic neanderthal (but ditto the strangely attractive factor.) 

In Ashes to Ashes we get to see deeper sides to the characters introduced in Life on Mars. Ray Carling, (Dean Andrews,) who was not portrayed wholly sympathetically in the original series, softens in his attitudes, showing more respect to Alex than he did to Sam. The moment where I found myself warming to him was in the third episode when he is awkwardly compassionate towards a young woman taking refuge in the police station. Chris Skelton (Marshall Lancaster) has matured from the nervous and rather dim youngster he was in Life on Mars and is in a romantic relationship with the rather lovely Shaz Granger (Montserrat Lombard.)

As in Life on Mars, while Alex tries to get used to her new life in the '80s, surreal happenings keep imposing on her, cementing her belief that she is in a coma and dreaming. As well as seeing her daughter Molly in a time before Molly even existed, every so often the clown from David Bowie's Ashes to Ashes music video turns up taunting her, like the Test Card girl in Life on Mars. She also has to deal with meeting her parents, who died when Alex was a little girl. In 1981. The first series deals with Alex trying so desperately to change her past and prevent the bomb from exploding and killing her family. But alas, as we saw in Life on Mars, it seems that you just can't change your own history.

Or so it would seem. In series two, Alex meets another time traveller from the early twenty first century. The plot around Martin Summers challenges everything you think you know about the rules of time travel in this story's world, when he does something that really, really screws up his own timeline.

Thursday 2 September 2010

Rosamund Lupton: Sister

Richard and Judy discontinued their popular book club last year after leaving Channel 4. Its place was immediately snapped up by the “TV Book Club.” The latter’s success evidently alerted them to the fact that it was not yet a dead genre, for today the Richard and Judy book club made its comeback in conjunction with W.H.Smith and Galaxy. Their first chosen title, Sister is the story of a young woman, Beatrice,  investigating the disappearance of her sister, Tess. When all her friends and family become resigned to the seemingly straightforward answers they are given, Beatrice insists on digging deeper, looking beneath the surface and relying on her closeness to Tess to recognise when things don’t add up.

The novel begins at the end, so to speak, with Beatrice telling her story to a lawyer. The bulk takes place in the past tense, in chronological order, but there are enough glimpses into the present to tantalise and hint at the answers not yet revealed. In her past, Beatrice seems to be flailing around, grasping at any possible clues, and the short scenes set in the present leave you wondering which of her wild ideas, if any, lead to answers.

Although Sister is described on its covers and by the author as a thriller, I would debate that classification. The tone is too slow and contemplative to fit the thriller genre comfortably, although Lupton hooks you by creating a creepy and unsettling atmosphere. There is a real sense of loneliness and desperation as Beatrice battles with the world to prove a truth that no one wants to hear. I found myself reminded of a Nicci French novel, Secret Smile in which the heroine is the only person not fooled by her creepy stalker ex-boyfriend’s nicey-nice manner.

Yet there were moments when I sensed there was something unreliable about Beatrice’s narration. Perhaps she was too desperate to believe what she just knew against all the evidence. As I read on, I came to realise that the story was on Beatrice’s side, however, I was not quite wrong. At the very end of the novel, a sudden switch in tense revealed that one thread of the book was indeed not what it seemed. Although this thread was not strictly crucial to the main narrative and in retrospect it was cleverly written, I felt a little cheated. This thread was in some ways the most solid, reassuring part of the story, and felt more real than the main plot. To have that pulled out and proven to be a fabrication was rather jarring.

While reading Sister, I found myself reminded of several other books and authors:
Nicci French: Secret Smile for its lonely, claustrophobic tone and some plot aspects.
Elizabeth Winthrop: December: a former Richard and Judy favourite, just for how I felt upon reading it.
Emily Barr: The Sisterhood because of the relationship between sisters and my suspicions of the narrator.
Jodi Picoult: any Picoult book. There was a chunk where I really noticed the author had been reading up on her chosen subject, in this case about genetic research on unborn babies.
Stieg Larsson: Millennium trilogy, especially part 3: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest. There was a moment when I wondered just how big a cover-up was going on here, and who could be trusted.
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