Sunday 30 December 2012

2012: A Year in Books (and a bit of film and TV too.)

Looking back over the hundred-plus books I've read this year, I was surprised to see which books had stuck in my mind and how many I had forgotten ever reading - or at least, was surprised to discover I had read them only this year. I've paid flying visits through some story-worlds, and immersed myself in others, which were often but not necessarily the ones I enjoyed the most at the time.

It can be a wonderful but slightly frightening thing to be so engrossed in a story that it is more real than day-to-day life. The notable books and series for this in 2012 were:

The Sandman graphic novel series by Neil Gaiman. Can that really have been this year? It seems a lifetime ago.

Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, prompted by the BBC's second series of Sherlock at New Year. (Towards the end of the year I once more immersed myself in the world of 221B Baker Street by watching the second Holmes movie from last year, and having another Sherlock marathon.

My reread of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, around the middle of the year, reignited a second time by receiving a lot of the Lego sets for my birthday, and a third by the release the first Hobbit film. Middle-Earth has had a strong pull on me since I was 16, and it doesn't like to let me go.

A Song of Ice and Fire. I took a long time to even be tempted to read this series of doorstopper novels, but eventually I was won around - although I have second thoughts about whether or not to watch the TV adaptation.

Shakespeare as a whole, although I've only actually read the one play in its entirety this year - Julius Caesar. The BBC's marvelous Hollow Crown was a magnificent introduction to Shakespeare's history plays - I love the tragedies, and some of the comedies, but apart from studying the famous bits of Henry V, the histories were entirely new to me. But the staging of Richard II, Henry  IV and Henry V utterly captured my mind and admiration in the way only the Bard can do.

Other books that have stuck in my brain:

The Fault in our Stars - John Green.
The Etymologicon - Mark Forsyth (look! A non-fiction!)
The Snow Child - Eowyn Ivey
Tipping the Velvet - Sarah Waters
Little Brother - Cory Doctorow
The Perks of Being A Wallflower - Stephen Chbosky
1Q84 - Haruki Murakami
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer - Patrick Suskind

But looking back over my reading, I realise how much I've already forgotten; how many books that I enjoyed while I read them but which didn't stick in my mind, and the books that I was fairly indifferent to, and how relatively few really engaged me as a reader. And there is a place for light reading, for enjoyable fluff, but I found myself wondering how many books were ones which I read because they were short or easy, and because I hadn't posted a review on my blog for ages. Surprise, surprise, the easy reads often didn't get reviewed either, because I hadn't much to say about them.

Ellie at Musings of a Bookshop Girl wrote an excellent series of posts about rediscovering the joy of reading which I recommend reading if you feel you've fallen into a bit of a reading or blogging slump. Quality, rather than quantity, is my aim for reading and reviewing in 2013. Of late I have not done much of either. And by "Quality" I don't mean reading only Serious Literature and shunning light reading - far from it! At heart I am a fantasy freak. A thriller-seeker. A comfort-reader. A girl with a literature degree and the intent to use it. A nostalgic inner child. All these things at once and more. My aim is to merely to read the books I love, not the page-numbers of those I don't.

I set myself two reading challenges in 2012 - to read 120 books in a year (at the time of writing I have just over 5 books left to read in under 29 hours - not going to happen!) and Ellie's Mixing It Up Challenge, which encouraged me to read outside my comfort zone. In the end I read books in 13 of 16 genres - you can see which ones here - so I missed target but hardly disgraced myself, and seem to have more non-fiction in my list than in most years. But for 2013 I have resolved to set myself no blogging/reading challenges at all - not even enabling a target on Goodreads for how many books to read. That in itself feels like a bit of a scary commitment as I've been setting myself challenges for several years now (and failing to meet any of my targets.) I'm going to be selfish, and I'm going to fall back in love with my books once more.

At the same time, one of Gandalf's lines in the new Hobbit film really struck a chord with me: The world is out there, not in your books and maps. Or as Dumbledore would put it, It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live. So in 2013, I want to go on my own adventures. What form these may take is as yet a mystery, but I feel the need to redress the balance between book and life.

Happy new year everyone, and I wish you all lots of joy for 2013.

Sunday 23 December 2012

Book to Film: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

This is going to be a looooong one. Spoilers for the film, but not later on in the book.

It's always risky adapting a beloved film for the big screen. They say that no two people read the same book; everybody has their own ideas about how it should look, sound and feel. Even Peter Jackson, whose adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings was widely acclaimed, was not guaranteed to repeat his success upon his return to Middle-Earth. One could be forgiven for thinking that after the sprawling three-volume epic, The Hobbit should be a piece of cake, but the smaller novel provides its own challenges. In effect, it has to be two different stories simultaneously: the simple fairy-tale that Tolkien started writing while marking exam papers, and a part of an entire world of mythology that culminated in the Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit's reviews have been very mixed, and those negative reviews that are not primarily concerned with Jackson's experiments with frame-rates, seem to fall in one of two camps. Some complain that The Hobbit is too much like Lord of the Rings, too epic and complex, when it ought to be a Narnia-esque kids' adventure. Others think that it is too simple and childish - not enough like LotR. 

Me? I couldn't be happier. As far as I'm concerned, Jackson got the balance just right, keeping the world of The Hobbit consistent with the existing cinematic Middle-Earth, but retaining the story's unique flavour. At first I had my doubts about the wisdom and necessity of turning The Hobbit into two films, let alone three, but after reading the book I realised just how much happens, how many people Bilbo, Thorin and co meet, and how many places they visit, rushed through at a chapter per location, character or incident. It would be a very long film to do each one justice. Jackson and co have also turned to the back end of LotR's appendices and other writings to give an added depth to The Hobbit.

The film opens with a prologue, slotting it nicely into the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring, by showing Bilbo Baggins as an old Hobbit, and a cameo from Frodo. Perhaps this is a little forced, but it rekindles that homey feeling of Bag End, and was probably put in as an excuse to show Bilbo writing and narrating those immortal words:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
Corny set-up or not, those words would have been missed if they had not been there. The entire Bag End scenes which follow are practically flawless. Martin Freeman truly is the young Bilbo Baggins. I fear Mr Freeman may be in danger of being typecast as an ordinary Englishman (or hobbit of the Shire) who finds himself caught up in extraordinary adventures against his will - see Sherlock's Dr Watson, or Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy's Arthur Dent. But he plays these roles so beautifully! Bilbo and Gandalf's first interaction walked straight off the page and onto the screen, a lighter comedy than in even the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring, and laying to rest my anxieties that this would be more Lord of the Rings: The Prequel than The Hobbit. After this very strange encounter with a wizard who seem to know more about Mr Baggins than he ought, poor Bilbo finds his house swarming with Dwarves, with muddy boots, sharp swords and huge appetites, completely clearing out his pantry and threatening to trash his kitchen. (Spoiler alert: Yes, the washing-up song is in there - one of my favourite moments in the entire film.)

J.R.R. Tolkien didn't give the Dwarves a lot of personality, with the exception of the king, Thorin Oakenshield. Balin is kind, Dori is "a decent fellow," Fili and Kili are young, cheerful and a bit reckless, and Bombur is overweight - that's about all we know. For the film, each of the thirteen has his own look and personality trait. Fili and Kili are shaping up to be fan favourites - especially among the female fans, perhaps for obvious reasons.

May I here point out that they were always my favourites, years before they were cast? Fili, Kili and Balin, who is depicted in the film as a gentle soul but a seasoned warrior, a loyal follower of Thorin, but one filled with doubts about the wisdom of their quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain of Erebor.

An unexpected favourite from the movie adaptation turned out to be Bofur (played by James Nesbitt) who has been expanded from one of the Interchangeable Backup Dwarves to quite a character. He starts off as quite a lovable rascal with a Northern Irish accent and a twinkle in his eye, tormenting Bilbo in his home and sparing no details about exactly how it would feel to run into the business end of Smaug* the dragon. Yet, a moving scene later on in the film proves that he is made up entirely of charm and loveliness.

Reading the book, I never found Dwarven king Thorin Oakenshield to be a very likeable character, surly at best and a complete jerk at worst, but, again, the movie rounds him out a little by showing flashbacks to his past. After showing the devastation of Erebor and the awful aftermath of battles, his quest comes across as more than filling his pockets with gold. I still wanted to shout "Oh, shut up Thorin!" a couple of times, but not as often as when reading the book.

Like Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit uses long, panning shots of breathtaking New Zealand countryside that made me want to pack up my bags and hop on a plane to go on long treks across the mountains. Howard Shore returned to compose the score, keeping in the heartachingly familiar Concerning Hobbits theme, and giving it a jaunty and adventurous twist in keeping with Bilbo's character. As well as other familiar leitmotifs, Shore has introduced some new tunes, most notably the solemn, proud, Dwarf theme (the same tune used in the "Misty Mountains" song which reduced many a Tolkien fan to tears in the first Hobbit trailer last year.) The soundtrack and scenery help to ground this story in the same Middle-Earth as Rings, leaving me feeling as though I'd never left.

It is interesting to compare the perspectives of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings quests. LotR focused upon the human civilisations and the Elves, whose glory days were coming to an end, and the beauty of their kingdoms in Rivendell and Lothlorien, but the only Dwarf, Gimli, was mainly used for comic relief. We return once more to Rivendell, but somehow it doesn't feel like the same idyllic haven that it was before. In the company of Dwarves, we see through their eyes, and I felt that Jackson excelled in subtly giving the same place a sense that something was slightly off-kilter in this golden leafy paradise. The Elves do not sing "tra-la-la-lally," (thank goodness!) but there is a tra-la-la-lally feel to their music, that is at odds with the solid, earthy Dwarves. That being said, I enjoyed seeing another side to Elrond: riding home exhilarated from battling goblins, not the care-worn, frowning leader bearing responsibility for the whole world as well as his wayward daughter.

But it was in Rivendell that I had the closest thing to a criticism of the film: the role of Galadriel. My quibble was not with anything explicitly said or done, so much as the veneration with which Galadriel was treated. Yes, she is one of the wisest beings on Middle-Earth, and, though she is not mentioned in the book of The Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings and Unfinished Tales establish her as being a key member of the White Council. But she is still an Elf. The film adaptation implied in its treatment that she ranked higher even than Gandalf, but the wizards of Middle-Earth are in fact closer to angels than humans or Elves. Still, if these suggestions and insinuations are my only cause for complaint - and "complaint" is far too strong a word, really - then The Hobbit fares better than both The Two Towers and Return of the King, which in turn are nearly flawless despite each containing a moment that makes me shout at the TV every time. 

Galadriel is not the only character to be moved to The Hobbit from Tolkien's works. For the first time, we are introduced to Radagast the Brown, a third member of the order of Istari (commonly known as wizards.) Sylvester McCoy (familiar to many as the Seventh Doctor) portrays Radagast as a rather dotty character, with a darling little pet hedgehog named Sebastian - not a name that you could derive from any of Tolkien's languages, but one which suits the hedgehog perfectly. But I digress. Hidden beneath Radagast's silly exterior which earns ridicule from the haughty Saruman and certain critics, are strength, wisdom and courage equal to that of his peers. "Is he a great wizard?" Bilbo asks Gandalf, "Or is he more like you?" "I think he is a very great wizard," is Gandalf's answer, and I think I would prefer to take Gandalf's side on this matter than Saruman's. Power corrupts absolutely, as is proven by Saruman later on in Lord of the Rings, but there is an innate innocence to Radagast that prevents this in his case.

The great enemy of The Hobbit is, of course, Smaug the dragon, but he barely makes an appearance in the first part of the film - just flashes of stamping feet, swooshing tail and a single golden eye. But there are other foes that Bilbo and the Dwarves must face in the form of the trolls and goblins. These seem to jar a little in comparison to the evil creatures we have previously encountered in Middle-Earth, and it was very strange to watch the trolls sitting around the campfire grumbling and talking. The Great Goblin is quite jolly in a nasty sort of way, even singing a happy little song about how he intends to send the Dwarves to a gruesome fate. Such moments remind us that The Hobbit is a children's story, and yet at the same time, the villains are more complex than the Lord of the Rings orcs, with distinct personalities (albeit not particularly pleasant ones) which may cause a bit of a twinge of disconcerting pity when they get killed. There is a poignant moment when the blue glow of Bilbo's sword, an alert to the presence of goblins, fades away, the goblin having been killed by Gollum. It is strange and unsettling to feel pity for the orcs - battles against them were simple and straightforwardly good-versus-evil in the more "grown-up" Lord of the Rings. Yet that moment of pity foreshadows the critical turning-point in the entire Ring saga: when Bilbo Baggins did not kill Gollum.

It is not only the Hobbit's monsters' characters that seem a little out of place with how we've seen them so far in the cinematic Middle-Earth, but also their appearance. It is apparent that a lot more CGI has been used in the creation of the goblins, and perhaps also the trolls, than in Lord of the Rings. LotR was, of course, a big turning point in computer graphics in the movies, with Gollum a pioneer in motion capture technology. But whereas Gollum fits right at home among the other cast, thanks to the character's design and Andy Serkis' extraordinary acting skills, some of the Hobbit's CGI antagonists don't look as real as the old-style orcs which were actors in prosthetics. I thought that there was something slightly off about the Pale Orc, Azog, but it wasn't until my second viewing that I realised why. It was not merely that computer graphics look less solid than the real thing, but Azog, as well as one or two of the other creatures, looked like they had wandered off the set of Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth - probably no coincidence, as Del Toro also worked on The Hobbit.

Gollum, of course, stole the show, and I was saddened at the end of the film to remember that he only featured in the single chapter of the book and would not be seen again until Lord of the Rings. He is, as ever, alternately hilarious, cute and pathetic, but my friend and I agreed that we also got more of a sense of menace from him than in his previous appearances. Frodo, of course, knew of Gollum before their first meeting, but Bilbo was unprepared, alone and terrified, and he first sees Gollum violently killing a goblin twice his size. Freeman's and Serkis' acting in their game of riddles is marvellous, bringing the book to life in a bit of light relief but with an undercurrent of tension beneath.
"If Baggins loses, then we eat it whole?" 
"...Fair enough."

When Gollum discovers the loss of his "precious," the light relief is gone. The Ring is Gollum's sole reason for being, and its loss seems unendurable. But Gollum will go on hunting it for the next sixty years - or seventy-seven if you go by the book's chronology. Gollum's agony is heartbreaking, and the expressions changing from terror to compassion on Bilbo's face will stay with me for a long, long time. The entire saga depends on that single moment, and it could not have been done better. It was perfection itself.

I still don't care for 3D, though. I'm unsure whether the edition I watched on Friday 14th was the infamous double-frame-rate version of the film or not (I'm no expert in that sort of thing, being more concerned about the story, scripting and acting) but I did find it difficult to focus during the busy action scenes. The 3D is certainly well done, but I found it to be more of a distraction than an enhancement. There was one notable moment when I thought that a member of the audience had stood up in the aisle and blocked the screen, until I realised that it was a 3D character on the edge of the shot.

After Lord of the Rings, I hadn't been too excited about the possibility of a Hobbit film, and doubted the necessity of making more than one - after all, it is shorter than any one LotR volume. Yet despite its simplicity, it is a very full book, as I realised on my recent reread. Are three films really necessary? Well, I've no doubt that there are parts of An Unexpected Journey that could be trimmed with little detriment to the finished result, and I would have estimated that Jackson could probably have made two decent movies without sacrificing any plot. Yet if parts two and three are up to this standard, then as far as I'm concerned, the more Hobbit film there is, the better. (Bring on the Extended DVD!) An Unexpected Journey was an absolute joy to watch - though I strongly advise you to avoid drinking anything before or while watching it. I have already seen the movie twice, and expect to see it at least one more time. Probably more.

*I've been pronouncing it "Smorg" all these years, but apparently the "au" makes an "ow" sound. Similarly, the film rhymes "Thorin" with "Florin" but I've always called him "Thor-in."

+the Faramir-fail and the Sam-go-home-fail, if you're interested.

Sunday 9 December 2012

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer - Patrick Süskind

Just these last few weeks, it has seemed as though the whole world wanted me to read Patrick Süskind's Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. After joining in with a customer about the merits of real books over e-readers, his parting words to me were to recommend this book. My friend had been talking about the movie adaptation, and then Ellie mentioned it as a really challenging book in reply to my comment on one of her posts. Lastly, it emerged that my latest acting "discovery" Ben Whishaw had starred in the movie adaptation. And I couldn't see the film without having read the book. Only Shakespeare is exempt from that.

Perfume starts slowly. Really slowly. We are treated to pages and pages of descriptions of smells, every scent in Paris that you might be able to think of. Scent is, of course, a hugely evocative sense, and this forms the basis of the novel, however, I'm not quite sold on how convincingly it can be described with pen and ink. But though slow, these descriptive pages are compelling. It is easy to describe the appearance of things, but there are all the other senses, and Süskind has chosen to focus on one not widely used in literature.

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, Perfume's protagonist villain, is a very unusual sort of character, even from birth. Those who ought to look after the infant Grenouille are repelled by him in ways they cannot describe, other than that he smells of nothing. Yet his own nose is remarkable, able to identify the subtlest scents, and this one sense occupies his entire mind. He is utterly alien, lacking in human qualities, a psychopathic nose. There is nothing relatable about Grenouille, and yet he is pitiable. Süskind seems to use scent as a metaphor for the soul, and Perfume leads one to ponder on the nature-versus-nurture debate, presenting the uncomfortable idea of a person innately evil. Grenouille moves from place to place, and bad things happen to those he leaves behind. No explicit connection is made, but Grenouille leaves a trail of misfortune behind him, leading back even to his mother, which adds to the sense of menace.

Perfume does not end where you might think it should, and I found the expected denouement to be anticlimactic. When compared with the pages of description earlier in the book, the "finale" is prosaically described, lacking all tension. There is a sense of inevitability of events, with Süskind making no attempts to keep the reader guessing. I came to realise (thanks to my friend's comments) that this is actually incredibly clever, because, after all, this is how Grenouille sees the world. The smells are everything - human actions, life and death, mean nothing to him.

But just when I thought the ending was all wrapped up, the plot takes a horrifying turn by showing not just the evil in Grenouille's character, but the depravity he inspires in his fellow man by the seeming of purity. Perfume is a slow-burning novel, which took its time to grab my attention, but one that lingers, turning out very dark and unsettling indeed.

Friday 7 December 2012

1Q84, Haruki Murakami

The year is 1Q84. This is the real world, there is no doubt about that. But in this world, there are two moons in the sky. In this world, the fates of two people, Tengo and Aomame, are closely entwined. They are each, in their own way, doing something very dangerous. And in this world, there seems no way to save them both. Something extraordinary is starting.

This review could be considering spoilery, if the above book blurb is all you have to go on.

1Q84 follows the lives of two characters, Aomame and Tengo, who are living very different lives in Tokyo. Aomame is a fitness trainer who doubles as an assassin, and who finds her world ever so slightly but significantly wrong after taking a shortcut off the expressway when running late for an "appointment. Tengo is an aspiring writer with a part-time job as a mathematics teacher at a girls' school. When offered the morally dubious task of rewriting a fantasy novel by an enigmatic child prodigy for a literary competition, Tengo finds himself embroiled deeper and deeper in trouble that has little to do with the legal ramifications of fraud. To his dismay, he starts to realise that this extraordinary tale of "Little People," who spin air chrysalises to hatch - essentially - changelings, a secretive cult, and a world with two moons, is not fantasy at all, but autobiography. And the Little People did not want to be written about.

Murakami keeps you guessing about how Tengo and Aomame's stories fit together, as they spend much of the book going about their lives without any kind of interaction or indication that they have ever met. Their worlds don't fit together neatly at first, and in fact I wondered at least once whether they even inhabited the same reality. There are parallels between the two characters' lives, and I would be just on the verge of thinking I knew how they worked when a small detail would seem to throw me off the scent again. The world, or worlds, of 1Q84 shifted and were just a little off-kilter for a while, before Murakami began to answer the questions raised.

The influence of Murakami's "Little People" can be felt throughout the novel, though they are rarely seen and never explained. Are they malevolent fairies or demons? When we do actually meet them, it is in a haunting, surreal scene that unsettles the mind for a long time afterwards. Despite the vagueness of the "Little People," they seemed more vivid and real than any other part of the story - it felt impossible to me that the human mind could make this up. In a New York Times interview, Murakami explained that "The Little People came suddenly. I don’t know who they are. I don’t know what it means. I was a prisoner of the story. I had no choice. They came, and I described it. That is my work." An unsettling thing to read, considering the catastrophic consequences of writing about the Little People in 1Q84. Within the book, Murakami blurred the lines between fiction and reality so well that it even spills into the mind of the reader.

The world of 1Q84 really held my imagination for a long time after I finished reading it, but the story itself was far from flawless. In three volumes, it is too long, with a lot of unnecessary exposition - book 3 introduces a character whose main role is to discover all the things the reader already knows. The characters often don't act or think like real people at all, but are quite clearly doing what they have to in order to fit the plot, rather than the plot evolving naturally from the characters' actions, and the leaps of logic with which characters solve mysteries are ridiculous. Tengo has a memory of Aomame, as a child, looking at the moon, and takes this thought as a message that he needs to look at the moon - and wait! There are two moons! Which automatically means a lot of other things are instantly to be taken as fact, not fiction. Characters somehow arrive at unlikely but true conclusions with very little reason to lead them there, and Aomame "just knows" an impossible thing can only be caused by another, specific, impossible thing.

And, though I can believe in Little People, parallel universes and two moons, I cannot suspend my disbelief enough to be convinced that two people, who interacted precisely once, twenty years ago, in fifth grade, can have a "connection" that means that they are each other's lost love, destined to be together.

All in all, I had a love-hate relationship with 1Q84. It began and ended well, and was full of   extraordinary moments. I felt a thrill every time Aomame noticed something not-quite-right about her new world, and the Little People were among the weirdest things I've read in recent times. But ultimately, the questions were more satisfying to see asked than answered, and the fantasy world was more interesting than the characters or the story itself.

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Shakespeare - Bill Bryson

Straight off the back of my Hollow Crown-fest, I found Bill Bryson's book in a wonderful secret second-hand bookshop in Winchester. I am reluctant to call it a biography, because, as the bookseller commented, everything that anyone knows about William Shakespeare the man, can fit into a four-page brochure. Bill Bryson makes it clear in the opening pages that there is not much to tell - "he is at once the best known and least known of figures," his life chronicled by a few scraps of parish records and legal documents. That being so, why bother with a 200-page book when four pages will do?

Shakespeare's works have captures the minds and hearts of people across the globe for four hundred years, and it is perhaps characteristic of our celebrity-obsessed culture that we want to know every possible detail about the person who created them. Well, prepare to be disappointed. Short of Shakespeare's private diary or love-letters being suddenly unearthed in Stratford - unlikely - all we can really know about him as a person can be found in these snippets and hidden in his writing. And it is dangerous to assume that a writer's work is autobiographical. It's called imagination, a writer's greatest tool. "We can know only what came out of his work," writes Bryson, "never what went into it."

Yet despite having few facts to work with, Bryson's book reveals a lot. Written in a clear, journalistic style, Bryson investigates what we do know about William Shakespeare, chronicling previous efforts to search for the man behind the words. He examines the evidence, scrutinising what we think we know about the Bard and sorting out what is known from what is likely, possible, or myth. What is unusual, Bryson points out, is not how little we know about Shakespeare, but how much has been preserved, compared with his contemporaries.

Though he cannot tell us much about Shakespeare's life that I didn't already know, Bryson fills in the gaps, not with conspiracy theories, but with historical detail, writing of London in the reign of Elizabeth I and then James I, describing the culture of the theatre as context for Shakespeare's life. We can't know the specific details, but we can have an idea of the social and political backdrop against which he wrote.

Bryson is particularly scathing about the popular idea that William Shakespeare was not actually the author of the works bearing his name, which was not even questioned until two hundred years after his death, when anyone who could say yea or nay was out of reach. He points out that the first person to claim Shakespeare was a fraud was a rather dotty woman who based her opinion not on any research or examination of evidence, but by going to places once visited by Francis Bacon, her chosen author, where she "absorbed atmospheres." Erm, whatever that means! It's quite worrying that the theories have gained such credence. Bryson is similarly dismissive of the other theories, comparing the claimants' characters, writing styles and personal backgrounds with those found in Shakespeare's plays. Perhaps the most interesting revelation in the book came near to the end, when Bryson picks out the details within the plays which stem from a rural upbringing, images that would not come so naturally to any of the noblemen (or women) who anti-Stratfordians would cast as the author of these works of genius.

Bryson concludes that "it is possible, with a kind of selective squinting, to endow the alternative claimants with the necessary time, talent and motive for anonymity to write the plays of William Shakespeare. But what no one has ever produced is the tiniest particle of evidence to suggest that they actually did so." 

Monday 19 November 2012

Katie's Adventures in Storyland III

Dear blog, I have neglected you for a shameful length of time. I must apologise, once for my silence and again for the lack of a proper review post now. The truth is, I've been stuck in my biggest reading slump for as long as I can remember. All through November I've had the same book on the go, The Stars' Tennis Balls by Stephen Fry. Now, I love Stephen Fry, and can get quite stuck into this book when I pick it up, but am finding 101 things I'd rather do than pick it up. Usually when this happens, I've got more than one book on the go, but I've read only one other thing alongside the Fry, and that a reread of C. S. Lewis's The Silver Chair. 

I've not been exiled from Storyland, however. Most of my reading time has been spent in editing my friend Elaine Berry's third Wight Moon book (you can read my review of book one here.) What time has been left - when I've not lost myself in the internet's labyrinth - has been spent catching up on film and TV.

Though finished now in the UK, I spent several Sunday evenings losing myself in series three of ITV's costume soap opera, Downton Abbey. Minor spoilers follow.This is escapism pure and simple, a world I can lose myself in - even if I can see most plot developments a mile off, and usually have one character who causes me to shout at the screen every time they appear. In this season, Matthew bore my wrath for making such a martyr of himself for the first few episodes, and when he came to his senses, Lord Grantham took over. If I hear him say, "So you're against me, too," one more time, I might well have to break something. But I suppose this is part of the enjoyment of it - that, and Maggie Smith's wonderful performance as Lady Violet. (I love Maggie Smith.) But though I could have foreseen most of the plot developments, there was a particularly cruel one that came completely unheralded, astonishingly not even hinted at in the media beforehand. Weirdly, though, I woke up the morning that episode aired having dreamed that I'd read of a certain character's leaving the show and rumours circulating on the internet of them being "killed off." (The internet always hints of people being killed off when the actors leave a show, but it doesn't often happen.) Watching the episode later that day, I off-handedly mentioned this dream, but expected everything would come right in the end. It always does. As I said, Downton's plot twists generally aren't twists at all. But that one time, the plot did not take its usual, predictable and fluffy turn, but went down the route of tragedy.

Although I've never been much into the James Bond franchise, I went to see Skyfall with some friends the other week and was pleasantly surprised. Now, perhaps I have a short attention span, or perhaps films are made too long nowadays, but even in the best movies, there usually comes a point when my mind wanders and I just want to get to the final action. Excluding a moment towards the end when I was silently screaming at the villain "WHY WON'T YOU JUST DIE?!" I was hooked from the prologue right through to the end. The plot is quite basic - Bond hunting down a villain - but the backstory brought an unexpected depth to the characters that kept me emotionally invested. This is a Bond who is not always suave and smooth-talking, who doesn't instantly recover from wounds, an M whose authority is questioned, who is not immune from regret. Some of the action scenes are breathtaking in their sheer audacity, but there is also a back-to-basics approach - why waste time and money coming up with strangely-specific gadgets, when a radio and a gun will do the same job, or a London Underground map will provide the answers? There are new faces to old names - Ben Whishaw is wonderful as a Q who looks like he's just graduated from university, an adorably geeky Q with a cardigan, spectacles and a sharp tongue. ("What were you expecting, an exploding pen?")

Ben Whishaw had come to my attention earlier in the year, when I watched his portrayal of King Richard II in The Hollow Crown, a BBC series of four of Shakespeare's history plays, presented together as a saga. I only watched two installments live, but bought the box set with birthday money, and it has reawakened my love of Shakespeare - the language, the stories, the human experience. Although the Internet has gone wild over Tom Hiddleston, who played Prince Hal, later Henry V, it was Whishaw's Richard that I found fascinating to watch. Softly-spoken, but utterly ruthless, melodramatic and changeable, his Richard was both abhorrent and pitiful. Rory Kinnear, too, must not be forgotten, playing a very understated Henry Bolingbroke who is a man of few words, but says just as much in a look as Richard does in some of his soliloquies. These are two names you must look out for in future, actors who deserve to be huge.

Monday 15 October 2012

Katie's Adventures in Storyland II

Winter is coming, the nights are getting darker and the bookshops are getting busier. This can mean only one thing - a new Cecelia Ahern book! (Actually it means many things. Christmas. Crunchy autumn leaves. Woolly jumpers. Hot chocolate.) Though I am usually averse to chick-lit, Miss Ahern's novels come at just the right time, when I am in need of some reading material that is fluffy and comforting, but without being utterly mushy. And her book covers are so pretty! How can you resist something that looks like this?

One Hundred Names is an original concept: journalist Kitty Logan asks her dying friend and mentor what is the one story you always wanted to write? The only answer is a list of names, and Kitty has to search all across Dublin to find the story that links these hundred people. One Hundred Names is quite a short novel, and I wondered whether Kitty would actually meet all hundred people on the list. Of course she doesn't, but the characters she does meet are lovable and memorable, a selection of people of all walks of life. Ultimately, the great mystery of the novel turned out not to be very surprising at all - I guessed it early on, but this in no way affected my enjoyment of the story. This book is all about the journey and the people, with an uplifting message that everybody, without exception, has a story to tell.

In between the other books I've been reading in the last couple of weeks, I have been spending some time with the Andreas girls in Eleanor Brown's The Weird Sisters. This is a quite gentle tale of three sisters, very different in temperament, who return to the family home when their mother falls sick, each bringing their own struggles and secrets with them. The Weird Sisters was quite a slow read, but by the end I found myself really invested in the Andreas family. Rose, Bean and Cordy are really Rosalind, Bianca and Cordelia, named for Shakespearean heroines by their obsessed father.

The family is an eccentric one, structured around Mr Andreas' love of the Bard which, though not fully shared by his daughters, plays a huge part in their identity. Trivial matters and deep truths are wrapped in a blanket of quotations - a delight for a literature-lover like myself who also sees the world through the lens of story, but I can see how it could prove irritating to a reader of a different disposition.

What stands out for The Weird Sisters among other family stories is the narration. Though scenes featuring one sister is a standard third-person, the sisterly relationship is almost a fourth character and is a fluid, omniscient "we" that could refer to any two of the trio, or all three. The sisters bicker and fight, are filled with envy and resentment for each other, but their identity is as one part of three. A crucial theme of the story is of the three girls finding where they belong in the world individually, not just in relation to the other two.

After reading a novel with its plethora of Shakespearean quotes and references, I had to return to the Bard himself, and so to the library I went to look at its selection of plays. I have read, studied and watched several of the Comedies and Tragedies, but I had never read any of Shakespeare's History plays, so I chose to read Julius Caesar. Much to the disappointment of my father, I have next to no knowledge of Roman history, so I went into Caesar with only the knowledge that the title character is murdered. In actual fact, Julius Caesar only appears in about three scenes of his play, and his death occurs halfway through. The story revolves around the conspiracy and assassination of Caesar - the build-up to the event, and its aftermath. If there is a protagonist, it must be Brutus, moralist and betrayer, but there are no heroes, only villains and anti-heroes. Reading this play, I found it difficult to take sides, but only impartially watch a historical event replayed in iambic pentameter. Still, Shakespeare humanises the great names of history, showing multi-faceted characters. Take Caesar: arrogant before the men, gentler and perhaps more vulnerable at home with his wife, shown for his strengths as well as his weaknesses in soliloquy, and all this in three short scenes.

Of course, Shakespeare wrote for the stage, not for the page, but I get as much pleasure from reading his plays as I do watching them, being able to enjoy the poetry and philosophy of his words at my own leisure, rereading favourite lines or passages I did not understand the first time. But although Shakespeare has a reputation for being long-winded and impenetrable, I do not find him so. Caesar is a relatively short play, without any padding, but each scene building plot, tension and character, as tightly-crafted as the best thrillers.

I read the Arden Shakespeare edition (pictured) but was not happy with the method of footnoting. This is evidently a study edition, with lots of useful notes taking up half the page - but I prefer to read the play straight through, with notes at the end of the book instead, where I can look them up if I want, or not if I don't want. They were not only a distraction, but also presumed upon the play not being read as a thriller, being free with the spoilers for the benefit of students on a reread (if it is not incongruous to talk of "spoilers" for a 400-year-old play whose events were centuries old even at the time of writing.)

Thursday 11 October 2012

Dodger - Terry Pratchett

It has long been suspected that although his books are universally classified as “comic fantasy,” Sir Terry Pratchett doesn’t really write fantasy at all. Sure, the majority of his literary output takes place on a flat world, carried through space on the backs of four humongous elephants, who in turn are supported by the gigantic turtle named the Great A’Tuin. And certainly this world is populated with witches and wizards, vampires, werewolves and zombies, trolls and dwarves and blue-skinned six-inch-high warriors. But all that is merely set-dressing. Over the years, the Discworld books have evolved from parodies of fantasy, to fantasy as parody of everything else, to satirical fiction that uses fantastical elements as a lens to view our own society.

When I watched the TV adaptations of Hogfather and Going Postal, I was reminded of nothing so much as the BBC series of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House and Little Dorrit. Perhaps this was in part because Ankh-Morpork had been designed to resemble Victorian London, all ricketty and grimy, and perhaps some shared actors helped (Claire Foy and Charles Dance, for example.) But I came to realise that it was not just the TV adaptations that had a similar style, but the works upon which they were based. Pratchett and Dickens make use of humour and caricature to challenge their readers to think about the ridiculousness of life, silliness to make a serious point.

So when Terry Pratchett brought out a novel set far away from the Discworld, in Charles Dickens’ London, the two worlds joined together seamlessly. Pratchett’s Dodger is not, as I first thought, Oliver Twist from the point of view of the more interesting semi-antagonist, nor a prequel. Instead, despite the shared nickname and outfit, Dodger charts the changing fortunes of another young urchin, a kind-hearted but streetwise lad who earns a living as a “tosher,” scavenging in London’s intensive sewer system. This Dodger has a strict personal morality, even if it doesn’t always necessarily match up with the law, and when he rescues a young woman from a savage beating, his destiny takes a detour and he finds himself mixing with some quite surprising characters from London’s myth and history. “Mister Charlie” Dickens himself plays a significant role in the story, and we see that Dodger influenced some of Dickens’ own writing. I repeat, this Dodger is not Dickens’ Jack Dawkins, but we can infer that he influenced some elements of Mister Charlie’s Artful - a subtlety that perhaps only a master writer like Pratchett could convey.

There are never any doubts over the authorship of this book - you can see that Ankh-Morpork owes a lot to Victorian London, especially now that it is well-established in the Discworld’s industrial revolution. And you really don’t miss the fantasy elements - as I said before, these are mere setting details for Pratchett’s explorations of humanity (even when this humanity refers to trolls, dwarfs and goblins.) London is a fascinating city, both above ground and beneath it, as stuffed with strangeness as anything you could make up. My curiosity, first piqued by Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, was tantalised and has been inspired to read more non-fiction about the secrets of the city.

I was strongly reminded of Pratchett and Gaiman’s friendship and collaboration on Good Omens, more than anything else either author has written in the twenty-odd years since. As well as the appearance of the surname Device in a bonus scene,* I noted a paraphrase of one of the few lines in Good Omens whose author I was sure I could identify. (I would have said it was absolutely a Neil line.) And Pratchett made reference to a curious brass bedstead found in the sewers. I last met this bed in the preface to Neverwhere. Truth really is stranger than fiction.

*bonus scene exclusive to Dodgers bought in WHSmith.

Tuesday 2 October 2012

A Dance with Dragons, part two: After the Feast, George R. R. Martin

contains spoilers

This afternoon, a lady came into the shop where I work and asked for the sixth book of A Song of Ice and Fire. I had to break to her that The Winds of Winter is, in all probability, still on George R R Martin’s personal computer, and that having finished the series so far only an hour previously, I shared her pain. The only consolation I had to offer was that at least we had a year and a half less of a wait than those who had read Dance With Dragons when it was first published in hardcover, and that we had been spared the six-year wait before that.

Quite what Martin had been doing between 2005 and 2011 is his own business – writing Dance With Dragons was certainly no mean feat, and even authors with rabid fanbases need time for holidays, spring-cleaning and walking the goldfish. I suspect that Martin did a little bit of exploring in the forgotten depths of the dictionary, and excavated a new word – “leal” (adj. – loyal, true, faithful) which was proudly displayed on every other page - along with the misuse of “wroth” – angry, in place of “wrath” – anger, which towards the end made me wroth indeed.

Vocabulary aside, let’s get onto the story. I found that part two dragged somewhat, confirming my suspicion that books 4 and 5 were more about moving characters to where they were needed, than advancing the plot. Many characters seem to be taking a long time with many circumlocutions to go nowhere. Less attention was paid to the characters I cared for or was interested in, with the focus moving to one-chapter points of view, newer characters who are more vague acquaintances than friends or fierce enemies. Arya and Bran Stark seem to have found their final destinations far away from the action of the plot, and I can’t see how they might get back into the main story now. Tyrion,who is always entertaining, got himself sold into slavery in Daenerys’ part of the world, then weasled his way out of it to join with a gang of mercenaries – but the whole thing came off as rather a shaggy-dog story. But he’s still alive, for now. (Direwolf Shaggydog and his master Rickon Stark haven’t been seen and barely heard of since Clash of Kings.)

The focus of Dance With Dragons has moved away from Westeros to the former slave city of Meereen, where Daenerys has announced herself queen. Her Queenship, though made of good intentions, has not been going so well, and in an attempt to keep the peace, she has married a shifty character with whom she now shares the crown. Only he may or may not have tried to kill her, and now Dany has disappeared on the back of a dragon to who-knows-where, believed by many to be dead. I found the chapters centred around Dany, or her absence, quite disappointing, but the final one is eerie and dreamlike. In it we are reminded of what seemed to be a poetic piece of rhetoric, a long-winded way of saying that Daenerys would never see her first husband again. But details in this chapter hint that perhaps the improbable is not impossible. “When seas go dry” – Daenerys is at this point located on “the Dothraki sea,” an endless plain of grass “and mountains blow in the wind like leaves.” – we are treated to vivid descriptions of the grass blowing on the hills. Daenerys appears ready to start another grand chapter in her queenly career.

Elsewhere, Martin strikes one of his trademark blows. Jon Snow has been Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, up at the Wall to the north of Westeros. And he’s taken his role very seriously indeed, reminding his unwilling men that they have vowed to stay out of politics and defend “the world of men” – not just the Westerosi men. The men of the watch didn’t like that, though, preferring to think of the “wildlings” as their enemies, and ignoring the real, supernatural threat to mankind.

Then, once, Jon gets a letter that prompts him to do one selfish act, and for this he is - apparently - stabbed to death.


Though perhaps a bit of a goody-goody, I've always had a vague sense that Jon Snow is the real central figure of Song of Ice and Fire. (Then again, we thought that of Ned Stark before he suffered Sean Bean Syndrome in Game of Thrones.) The whole Stark family seems to be becoming more and more peripheral to the plot, and I'm not entirely sure who is to take their place. Daenerys? The surviving Lannisters? Little Tommen?

No, Martin, you can’t do that.

And I’m not entirely convinced he did do that. Jon’s last conscious thoughts are the last we see of this development, and without producing a body – especially with a detached head – I’m not going to be fooled. Martin has “killed off” so many characters, just to produce them alive and sometimes well, that I just don’t trust him any more.
Politics have been quiet at capital city King’s Landing. Queen Regent Cersei is imprisoned and disgraced, and with Jaime and Tyrion absent, and Joffrey and Tywin dead, the Lannisters are no longer the power in those parts. Who’s running the place now? Cersei’s uncle Kevan seems to have a measure of control, but it looks like the mad scheming is over.

Then came the epilogue. Oops! My mistake.

Now what’s going to happen? 


You can’t leave me like that.

Write, George, write like the wind.

Friday 28 September 2012

Jenny Q, Stitched Up - Pauline McLynn

Actress Pauline McLynn is probably best known as Father Ted's Mrs Doyle. Jenny Q, Stitched Up is her first foray into writing for teenagers. The book blurb suggests that more stories are to follow about Jenny and her friends and relations in Dublin.

Jenny Q, Stitched Up is a very light read for younger teenagers, a sweeter Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging. The greatest conflicts in Jenny's life are her mother's pregnancy, ("It's just so, well, SHAMEFUL. And now it's going to be plain for all the world to see") the agony of keeping secrets from her best friend, and the horror of her mum eating all the KitKats. The drama and humour comes from the agonies Jenny suffers over the smallest details - after all, when you are thirteen years old, everything is the most important thing in the world!

Jenny Q is full of warm, lovable characters, and despite Jenny's constant griping about how weird and embarrassing her family is, it's clear that they are actually pretty close. Her best friends, Dixie and Uggs (Eugene) form a cosy "Gang" who meet regularly to engage in craft activities, especially knitting (despite Uggs' feeble protests.) McLynn captures well the dynamics of a teen friendship group, the relentless good-natured mockery and unspoken understanding of its limits, the awfulness of not telling your friends EVERYTHING, or worse, sharing a secret with one and not the other.

At thirteen, Jenny Quinn is just discovering boys - or one boy, anyway, her elder brother's friend Stevie Lee Bolton, "who is a god, end of." There is an adorable innocence in Jenny's first crush, how new and strange she finds it all. Stevie Lee is usually surrounded by a gaggle of gorgeous older girls dubbed "the Slinkies" who Jenny and Dixie regard with a combination of hero-worship and contempt, but once you get past the love-hate-girlcrush, it is refreshing to find that SamDanandEmmyLou are quite normal and nice as well as being pretty. In fact, Stitched Up contains only one real antagonist, and that is the class bully who, coincidentally, shares a name with a boy in my high school circle who I couldn't stand. When Jenny Q and the Gang decide that enough is enough, instead of battling the bully, they try to charm him into better behaviour, attempting in a thirteen-year-old way to understand why he is so unpleasant. I found that this story, though quite sweet, was less successful than other parts of the plot. The bully didn't have quite enough of a presence to really make me sense the conflict, and his story seemed to be resolved a little too simplistically.

Jenny Q, Stitched Up is a sweet, easy read, a heartwarming story for teenagers and pre-teens, or a shameless indulgence for older readers. I borrowed this book from the library, but am tempted to buy myself a copy. A book to keep you company on a rainy autumn day, with a large mug of cocoa and a chunky knitted jumper.

Sunday 23 September 2012

Katie's Adventures in Storyland

Hi everyone. Once again I must apologise for the lack of proper reviews around here lately. As is evident from the blog, most of my reading energies have been going on the Song of Ice and Fire novels by George R R Martin. I'm currently about halfway through the final volume, and will shortly be joining the impatient masses begging Mr Martin to chain himself to his computer until book 6 is completed.* Oh, well, I suppose I have a year and a half less to wait between volumes than those who read Dance With Dragons when it came out, however long Martin takes.

But Song of Ice and Fire (may I shorten this title?) hasn't been alone occupying my mind. Welcome to the new very occasional series I am renaming Adventures in Storyland. (Is this a really terrible title? Little bit terrible, perhaps?) Here I will chronicle other stories - book, TV, film and Other - that my mind has been visiting, that have not had a whole post to themselves.

May contain spoilers

While waiting for my best friend (who is the other half of my unofficial book club) to catch up with me in the Ice and Fire series, I reread Pratchett's Unseen Academicals. Now, I love Terry Pratchett, and read or reread several of his books each year. I gave this book a glowing review when I read it first time around, but this time I took a while to get into it, even putting it back on the shelf for a while. I was clearly not in the right frame of mind for it at first, and the wizards' stories are my least favourite sub-series. But when I got to Mr Nutt's big secret (which was, of course, no secret on a reread) my heart broke a bit all over again. Dear old Mr Nutt, always striving to achieve "worth." In Nutt, Pratchett deals with a subject that J. R. R. Tolkien himself confessed to having trouble with in his own books - the problem of the orcs and goblins as irredeemable. Nutt is lovely, if burdened with a horrendous inferiority complex that makes you just want to give him a hug. And he has his own moments of Awesome at the end.

After many years of good intentions, I read The Perks of Being A Wallflower, soon to be a film. A year in the life of a geeky, awkward high school student, written as letters to an anonymous recipient. Perhaps it is the combination of Charlie's intensity and introspective character, and the epistolary narration that marks this out as a "literary" novel rather than being filed in the "young adult" bucket with other books with similar settings and themes. Not that I mean to imply that a book can't be both literary and YA, or that YA is inferior. Take a look at the greyscale spreading across the adult bestseller charts in your local bookstores.+ Alternatively, pass that by entirely and buy Perks of Being A Wallflower instead. It's an easy read, but one that lingers on in the mind long after the book is finished. I thought it was a cross between The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Speak. (Many critics have compared it with Catcher in the Rye, but this is a book that I have never had any desire to read, so I can't say. If anyone wants to try to change my mind on Catcher, I'm willing to be persuaded.)

The last few days I've been hit with a beast of a cold, wrapped up in woolly jumpers and working through many boxes of tissues, watching DVDs. I was rather taken aback to see how many films I have acquired that are based upon comic books, and specifically superhero comics. I've always considered the sort of superheroes with superhero outfits and superhero names too cheesy for words, especially if capes and masks are involved.

Avengers Assemble (as The Avengers is called in the UK) strikes a careful balance, neither hamming up nor downplaying the cheesiness, but embraces the cheese for what it is. The Avengers introduced cult favourite Joss Whedon to a wider audience and is full of excellent performances. For those not in the know, Hollywood has been building up to this film for a long time. The Avengers Initiative comprises all of the Marvel superheroes who have previously starred in their own films: Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, Thor, as well as Black Widow and Hawkeye - the ultimate collaboration, based upon the ultimate comic book crossover.

Also in the last week, my sister introduced me to the Batman mythology via Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. A much darker story than your average superhero tale - or, at least, my preconception of your average superhero tale. Christian Bale's Batman is more of a superantihero than simple hero, the late Heath Ledger was exemplary as the terrifyingly psychopathic Joker, and Jenny and I raised a glass each time Morgan Freeman appeared on screen, because of his being Morgan Freeman. Living in comic book ignorance, I may have been the only person to be truly shocked and unspoiled for Harvey Dent's plot. Wow! I thought, I really did not see that coming! What a twist! What storytelling! before I discovered that it was an open secret, and everybody else who ever saw this film was waiting for the twist. Heh. Still, the surprise pleased me, and I ended up buying the double pack with Batman Begins. I'd been warned that Batman Begins was "all right, pretty good, but not up to The Dark Knight," but I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected to. And looking at the cinema's website, I discover I just missed its last showing of part 3, The Dark Knight Rises, and have to wait for the DVD. Bother.

And of course I have been watching Doctor Who, which is four episodes into the five-part "first half-series." Unlike previous seasons, which each seem to have been aiming to be bigger and more impressive than the last, the episodes have been simple, fun adventures, one story per episode. Instead of a series-long epic tying each episode together, the main story is that of companions Amy and Rory Pond (or Williams) trying to juggle two lives: their everyday life as a married couple, and the Tardis-life. It can't go on forever, and they know they need to make a decision. It looked as though they were going to be sensible and decide to stay home, say "Thank you, Doctor, it's been good," and get on with their lives. And then, at the end of the last episode, they make the opposite decision. They'll travel with the Doctor a little longer. Now, knowing that they have just one more episode to go before they leave the show, ensures that such a decision bodes as ill as saying "We'll stay together forever." And I think that Doctor Who may have run out of non-fatal ways to permanently separate the Doctor from his companions. I've felt that it was time for Amy and Rory to move on, and thought that their decision to "quit" the Doctor was a refreshing, sad but not devastating way to do it. And then they don't make that decision at all! I thought I was ready to say goodbye - and instead the writers caught me off my guard and now I'm very much afraid for the Ponds.

*N.B. I don't literally mean he should be chained up. High output should be rewarded by food and water, fresh air and exercise. Ill-treatment of his characters, on the other hand...

+ I'm sure they're not all crimes against the written word. 

Thursday 20 September 2012

Looking Forward: The Casual Vacancy - J. K. Rowling

Five years after the final installment of the beloved Harry Potter series, J. K. Rowling has ventured in a very different direction. One week from today will see her first novel for adults, and it could not be further away from the fantasy world of Hogwarts. Being J. K. Rowling, she has let little slip about The Casual Vacancy, and the only information available is the same press release synopsis:
When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock. Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war. Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils…Pagford is not what it first seems. And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations? 
 I'll be honest: my primary thoughts on reading this synopsis were far from hysterical cheering. A book about council elections. Huh. Could Rowling choose a duller subject? It's a brave move for her to take such a different direction, leaving behind the Potter comfort zone and abandoning the genre and target audience that has made her one of the most famous women in the world today. Now she must rely solely on her reputation for storytelling. Rowling and her publishers have kept the contents of this book as secretive as the Potter books. Although many books are embargoed from being sold ahead of their publication date, The Casual Vacancy is unusual in that it must not even be unwrapped before 8AM BST - not even a sneaky peek allowed for booksellers, on pain of the Cruciatus curse (possibly! Sorry. I was trying to avoid Potter references here.) I rather suspect that there must be more to this story than the small-town politics. Rowling has hinted that it will "shock fans" with its un-Potterish themes. I sincerely hope that she doesn't mean that The Casual Vacancy will be fitting into this year's bestselling genre!

I'm wary about the hype, although I will certainly want to get a scoop by being one of the first to read and review. Quite aside from this book launch, Thursday will be a busy day in the bookshop, so don't expect anything before Friday night at the earliest. I don't want to compare this book with Potter, and perhaps this will be easier by being set in the "real world" without magic or fantasy, but I'm sure some comparison will slip into my mind. (For some reason, I'm picturing Rowling's village Pagford as Hot Fuzz's Sandford!) I've always admired Rowling's mastery of storytelling above everything else, so I'm quite curious to see how that stands with new characters and settings. One week to go, and we'll know.

Friday 14 September 2012

A Dance With Dragons, part one: Dreams and Dust - George R R Martin

Contains spoilers

After the change in pace and characters in A Feast For Crows, the first half of Dance with Dragons feels a lot more like the series I'd grown used to, with its characters spread out across the continent of Westeros and beyond. I had missed a lot of characters in the previous volume, so was pleased to see Tyrion, Daenerys, Jon and Bran return to the centre stage, although I was stricken by the horrible realisation that I had grown attached to Tyrion, despite all the warnings not to get too emotionall yinvolved, because Martin kills off so many favourite characters. So far, although I've been  a bit shocked or saddened by some of the characters' deaths, I haven't lost anyone I've really cared for. I thought I was keeping a safe emotional distance. My realisation that there is someone I would be really upset to see die, whose absence would be a real hole in the series, made me feel apprehensive of Tyrion's future.

All through the series, Daenerys' story has been taking place apart from the others, with her stranded on another continent, with only the occasional rumour of her dragons. Now the plotlines are beginning to come together, and not in the obvious way. From the start of the series, I, and probably everyone else, expected her to invade Westeros with her dragons and reclaim the Iron Throne - but in Storm of Swords she made the decision to stay where she was. Now Westeros is coming to her - various factions across the continent are pledging their support of the exiled Queen.

But Daenerys' rule of her current kingdom is not going to plan. Firstly, she is beginning to realise the truth of what I warned her back in my review of Clash of Kings, that baby dragons may be cool and mark you out as something different, but untrained fully-grown dragons are death on scaly wings. Her kingdom is threatened with rebellion, war, starvation and now disease. Although she is a compassionate Queen, perhaps her compassion is her undoing. She's taken too many people under her wing, but hasn't the resources to keep them alive. I have no idea how this situation can be resolved without Dany ruthlessly abandoning her principles and her people.

After a two-book absence, we are reunited with Theon Greyjoy, the foster son of the Stark family who betrayed the closest thing he had to family - closer than his own family - and was betrayed in his turn. There had been a few hints that Theon was alive and not having a happy time of it, and now the full extent of his misery is revealed. All this time he has been the captive of the sadistic Ramsay Bolton and horrifically tortured. The most pitiful thing was the way Theon has suffered so much at the hands of Ramsay and yet he is so pathetically grateful for all the things that Ramsay could have done to him and didn't. I hated Theon by the end of Clash of Kings, the last time we saw him, but perhaps the two-book break cooled my anger with him. Was that a deliberate decision on Martin's part? After reading his chapters I can feel only horror and pity for him - and hope that he'll be put out of his misery soon. These chapters are the most harrowing of all, and worse is to come as Ramsay prepares for his marriage to "Arya Stark." The real Arya is far away now, but I read in dread thinking of the innocent girl, Jeyne, who has been chosen to take her place.

In this book we rejoin Arya's brother Bran, whose story hasn't really interested me that much since he was believed dead in Clash of Kings. His chapters have been full of wolf dreams in which he sees through the eyes of his direwolf Summer, which I've fouind rather abstract, and he seems to be losing part of his humanity each time he "borrows" (to use Granny Weatherwax of Discworld's phrase) the body of another. He and his two guardians have been travelling to meet someone who can train him to use his psychic abilities, and finally they meet. Here, the story took an eerie and unusual twist - instead of the wolf-dreams, Bran now has tree-dreams, or visions, where he can see the past from the point of view of the oldest trees. Possibly there is even a bit of time travel involved, as the people he watches sometimes seem to hear his voice, faintly, on the wind. But what sort of toll is this taking on Bran?

This volume is only really the first half of a book, so although a lot has happened, I'm not entirely sure what the plot is doing - it still feels that Martin is setting the pieces into place for a big climax. Still, we've had a couple of massive game-changing plot twists, including the introduction of a character who has long been presumed dead, and the final chapter of the volume going from bad, to a brief moment of hope, before ending on a sudden note of OH NO! And look out for an audacious Monty Python reference on page 378.

Sunday 2 September 2012

The Hobbit - J. R. R. Tolkien

Despite my well-known adoration of The Lord of the Rings, I had only read its prequel The Hobbit once, in my teens. In the run-up to the Fellowship of the Ring, I tried to read it, but couldn't get past the first few pages. It wasn't until afterwards, when I was obsessed with all things Middle-Earth, that I got around to reading it. Although I enjoyed it well enough, it didn't make as much of an impression as LotR, or even The Silmarillion. I'd grown attached to all the characters and the majesty of LotR, and The Hobbit, with all its interchangeable dwarves, and its there-and-back-again narrative just didn't impress me in the same way.

That was about ten years ago. Now, watching the trailer and some of Peter Jackson's behind-the-scenes vlogs, I'm getting as excited for the Hobbit films as I was for LotR. And I realise I'd forgotten a lot of the Hobbit's plot; whole characters and settings I barely remembered. Time to reread it, I decided, and once decided it was just a few steps to my bookcase.

The Hobbit certainly is very different in tone and style to The Lord of the Rings, and I think it has to be accepted as its own entity rather than viewed as LotR: The Prequel. Though there is plenty of danger throughout, it is a far more fun and whimsical adventure story, narrated in a manner that is at times reminiscent of the Chronicles of Narnia, with Tolkien himself interjecting and commenting on the story he is telling. There are even talking birds and dragons, singing goblins, and elves who sing about "tra-la-la-lally, down in the valley," rather than endless ballads about their ancestors.

It was recently announced that The Hobbit will be adapted not into one, not two but three films. Considering that it is less than 300 pages in my edition, and 19 chapters long, I wondered just how that could possibly work. Even with material taken from Tolkien's other writings to connect the events with Lord of the Rings, wouldn't the story feel "like butter scraped over too much bread?" But despite its brevity, a lot actually happens in this slender volume. Bilbo and the Dwarves run into trolls, goblins, Gollum, giant spiders, Elves, men, a were-bear and, of course, the dragon Smaug, before fighting in an epic battle. Compared with the chapters of getting from one place to the next in LotR, Tolkien writes concisely and sparingly, passing weeks of walking in a sentence and covering each incident in a single chapter. I could quite easily see how a few sentences from the book could be expanded into, say, twenty minutes of screen time, and I'm excited to see how they do this. Instead of being afraid that Jackson will add things in that "didn't really happen," I'm rather intrigued by what material they can get out of Tolkien's original text due to the sheer amount of story and character Tolkien packs into each line.

Bilbo and the dwarves meet characters along the way, who are introduced and then bidden farewell at the end of their chapter. Even all of the dwarves are not given full personalities: Thorin is proud and haughty, Balin gentler and kinder to Bilbo, Fili and Kili young and cheerful - but what can you tell me about Dori, Nori and Ori? Beorn, Bard, the Elvenking - none of these have a lot of page time, and yet their characters are firmly established.

The Hobbit starts of reading like a fairytale, beginning with Bilbo Baggins being chosen right out of the blue by a wizard he hasn't seen since his childhood, to "go on an adventure" - handpicked to do the dirty work on a quest for some dwarves he's never met in his life, and probably end up as a dragon's Sunday roast for his efforts. Oh, and he has to provide cake and breakfast all round. Any self-respecting hobbit would tell  Gandalf exactly where he could put his quest, but unfortunately for Bilbo (and fortunately to us the readers) he is descended on his mother's side from the Tooks, a family of hobbits with the most disgraceful habit of having adventures, and somehow he agrees to be the party's "burglar." Or perhaps he just doesn't isn't given a chance to refuse. One rather wonders what led Gandalf, in all of Middle-Earth, to the home of this rather pompous, comfortable little hobbit, and whether the wizard saw great qualities in Bilbo, or whether it was Gandalf's confidence in Mr Baggins that caused him to grow as a character. He starts off as a scared, homesick little chap, and gradually grows in courage, cunning and confidence with each brush with death, ceasing to rely on the dwarves to look after him, and instead saving their lives on more than one occasion. He even defies them to attempt to make peace with the men of Laketown when Thorin's pride and greed would make them enemies.

For an apparently simple, black-and-white fairytale with good guys and bad guys, I was impressed with how  morally dubious Tolkien makes the otherwise good guys. We have a king with more wealth between him and thirteen friends than most countries own, called upon to help a neighbouring town that has been utterly devastated by a natural disaster (namely a dragon) - and he refuses. No! he says, This is my treasure and what claim do you have on it? Er, Thorin, what about simple decency? No? (He repents in the end, and it is implied that Smaug has left some sort of curse on the treasure that possesses the unwary with an overpowering greed - some version of the malevolent power that the One Ring holds over its bearers, perhaps?)

As I type this, I'm watching my Fellowship of the Ring DVD, and I was struck by how the two stories in the Ring saga show contrasting views of the people of Middle-Earth. Where the Elves in Lord of the Rings are depicted as wise, beautiful, too-good-to-be-true people, The Hobbit, follows a group of dwarves, who are the rivals. In this book, the Elves are more like the wild tricksy fair folk of ancient legend. Meanwhile, while before I was disappointed that The Hobbit didn't show the same characters or peoples as LotR, today I found myself missing the dwarf history in the film. Yes, this time around I have been won over by The Hobbit, and am really impatient for the first installment of the movie.  Why can't it be December already? Yes, it's a controversial move to split the story into three parts - I wasn't entirely convinced at first that even two was a good idea, but if anyone can do it, I trust Mr Jackson. After all, I'm convinced he is part hobbit himself.

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