Friday 30 March 2012

Book to TV: Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, Douglas Adams

Sherlock Holmes observed that once you have eliminated the impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the answer. I, however, do not like to eliminate the impossible.
Dirk Gently is a private detective with a difference: he takes the Quantum hypothesis that all things are interconnected, and applies it to his investigations. I'm probably thinking too deeply about this, but it seemed to be a comment on the rules of fiction. In a novel, there are no coincidences, and everything has a purpose in relation to the main plot. In Dirk Gently, we have a character within a fictional world who is aware of these rules, without actually acknowledging that he's in a novel. This makes for quite a surreal read, even without taking into account the other bizarre plot elements familiar to anyone who has read Douglas Adams' more famous Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy books. Adams' matter-of-fact descriptsions -of strange, strange things: a horse apparating in the bathroom, a sofa lodged in an impossible position halfway up the stairs, and a time-travelling Cambridge don, mean that Dirk Genly could conceivably take place in the Hitchhikerverse, if only that hadn't been destroyed at the end of Mostly Harmless.

We don't actually get to meet the titular detective until some way into the first book, and until the sequel, Dirk isn't a viewpoint character. This role is filled in the most part by his old college friend Richard MacDuff, although admittedly Richard shares this position with an alien robot monk, a ghost, and the electric monk's horse (the one that materialised in the bathroom.) Just as in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, much of the sciencey-technobabble goes straight over my head, leaving me somewhat discombobulated. Unlike Hitchhiker's, however, much of it comes back later, by which time it actually makes a little bit of sense. I found myself reminded a little of Doctor Who, which, I later discovered, was with good reason: the time-travelling Cambridge don was recycled from a disused Doctor Who script - written by Adams himself.

Dirk Gently has recently been adapted by the BBC for a three-part TV series, but although they share the same starting point - that is, Dirk Gently, his Holistic Detective Agency and his theory of the fundamental interconnectedness of everything, the stories have very little in common, and have a completely different tone and genre. It came across as a parody of Sherlock Holmes, especially with the modern adaptation Sherlock in the public consciousness, with more emphasis on the actual detecting than in the books, in which Dirk and all around him seem to be accidentally swept up into adventures. Richard MacDuff, here generally known by his surname, is now Gently's partner assistant  sidekick, and they are a team in the grand old tradition of Holmes and Watson, Poirot and Hastings, etc. My overall impression of this Dirk Gently was of a charlatan, a fraud who just makes everything up as he goes along, and through sheer audacity, turns out against all the odds to be right - although I found myself growing more convinced by his methods as the series went along.

Although the adaptations use elements of the books, they are generally only minor plot details with original stories built around them. Rather than being out-and-out science fiction, the BBC stories flip-flop over the genre line from surreal realism into fantasy, notably the episode dealing in robotic engineering. I'm not really qualified to comment on the advances in artificial intelligence, but I haven't yet heard of anything resembling the plot twist in episode 2 in real life!

I read Dirk Gently at the same time that the adaptation was being shown on TV, so have no pre-existing attachment to either version, which is probably for the best considering how different they are. They are best enjoyed with an acknowledgement that they are separate stories, separate 'verses - which is probably better suited to Douglas Adams than most authors, considering the many varied and contradictory Hitchhikers' Guide stories he created.

Thursday 29 March 2012

Mini-review: The Fault In Our Stars, John Green

 Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never beenanything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel's story is about to be completely rewritten. (cover blurb) 
The Fault in Our Stars is one of those intensely human books that make you laugh even while your eyes are full of tears and you can't read any further. Hazel and Augustus are clever, witty teenagers, quirky thinkers that you can't help loving immediately. Their relationship is fun and natural, and made me really believe in love again. By 200 pages in, I just couldn''t imagine the world without them. But this book is about both life and death, with two teenage cancer sufferers falling in love even while facing their own mortality, and it's not fair.

How can any single book be so funny, so uplifting and so heartbreaking all at once? I guess that's what life is. With a few, well-chosen words in the right order, John Green makes poetry of simple prose and helps to bring understanding of the incomprehensible almost within reach. Green is without doubt one of the cleverest writers for teens out there. He knows.

Special kudos to Green for his correct identification, use and strategic abuse of the word "literally," and for his understanding of what star-crossed lovers really are.

Wednesday 28 March 2012

Wonder, R. J. Palacio

I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse.
Ten-year-old August Pullman is off to school for the first time, after being taught at home all his life. It would be a scary time for anyone, but Auggie draws attention. He has severe facial disfigurements that no one can help noticing. And for the first time, he will be constantly surrounded by people noticing, or trying very hard not to notice how he doesn't look like the other kids. Wonder is a simple, heartwarming story that follows Auggie and his friends and family through his first year at Beecher Prep School.

I defy anyone to read this book and not love Auggie. He is a bright spark, a good-natured and generally optimistic kid, although of course his situation gets him down at times. But with the support of a loving family, kind teacher and good friends, he gets through fifth grade and comes out the other side. Wonder is told from multiple viewpoints, a character-driven rather than action-filled novel that portrays the ups and downs of being ten - a ten-year-old with a particular and unusual set of difficulties, certainly, but one that can resonate with anyone who's been ten. I remember vividly the woes of still being a child when my classmates fancied themselves all-grown-up, just like Auggie and his friend Summer:
One of the things I'm not loving about this year is how a lot of the kids are acting like they're too grown-up to play things anymore. All they want to do is 'hang out' and 'talk' at recess.
After a lifetime of putting Auggie first, saying to herself, "hey, at least I don't have things as bad as him," his sister Via has her own worries. She, too is struggling with life at a new school, with friends who have drifted apart, a new boyfriend, and trying to find her own identity away from being "Auggie's sister."

Wonder is a superb book, and I would recommend it to anyone from about ten years old upwards. Although it shows that kids can be thoughtless, and adults can be ignorant - which is worse - it also reveals the best in human nature: kindness, family, friendship and loyalty. We can all learn a lot about acceptance and tolerance - not just from the characters around Auggie, but also in his attitudes to them. He is wise and forgiving, aware that people will double-take when they see him, no matter how kind they might be.
Like, it's okay, I know I'm weird looking, take a look, I don't bite. Hey, the truth is, if a Wookiee started going to school, I'd probably stare a bit! 
It was easy to love Auggie by reading about him on the page - but I was challenged to think about how I would treat him or think about him if I were to meet him in the street, or interact with him on a daily basis. Because, after all, Auggie is just a kid like anyone else. He may face challenges that others don't have to deal with, and that's not fair, but behind his face, he's just a ten-year-old boy with a Star Wars obsession.
To me, though, I'm just me. An ordinary kid.But hey, if they want to give me a medal for being me, that's okay. I'll take it. I didn't destroy a Death Star or anything like that, but I did just get through the fifth grade. And that's not easy, even if you're not me.

I was sent this book by Ellie from Musings of a Bookshop Girl. Thanks Ellie! :)

Monday 26 March 2012

Movie Monday: Anne of Green Gables (1934 film)

Marilla, walking home one late April evening from an Aid meeting, realised that the winter was over and gone with the thrill of delight that spring never fails to bring to the oldest and saddest as well as to the youngest and merriest.

As in 1880 Prince Edward Island, so in 2012 on the Isle of Wight, spring begins to show itself. As the days grow longer, the sun becomes more visible and I find raspberry cordial for sale in Marks and Spencer, I realise it is time to be reacquainted with Anne of Green Gables. After a stressful week at work, my DVD and book came off the shelves almost of their own accord, and I took refuge with my oldest, most faithful literary friend.

Browsing Youtube, I found to my gratitude that someone had uploaded a much older Anne of Green Gables film, back from 1934. This is the film starring the actress who loved the character so much that she changed her stage name to Anne Shirley. Of course I had to watch it!

Being quite a short film, I felt that it was more "scenes from Anne of Green Gables" than a smoothly-run story,   though, at least to start with, it is pretty faithful. About the first half of the film is straight from the book, the dialogue lifted right off the pages. Mrs Lynde becomes Mrs Rachel Barry, and Diana's mother, which shocks the mind a bit when your mind knows the context inside out, knows the next word is "Lynde" and instead you hear "Barry." But it is a prudent choice for a film with a small cast and makes sense - or would do, if there were any reason to include Diana at all. In this film, Anne and Diana's friendship, which is much the heart of the book as the turbulent relationship between Anne and Gilbert, or Anne and the Cuthbert siblings, exists only to draw attention to how it is neglected. It would be less conspicuous if Diana were omitted entirely, as so many other characters are.

Anne Shirley (the actress) is sweet as Anne, and entirely convincing - part of the time. When Anne is caught up in her vivid imaginings and dreamworlds, "pretty nearly perfectly happy," she is as Anneish as anyone other than the Anne in my head could be (let's face it, as Anneish as anyone other than I could, if I had red hair, a Canadian accent and a pretty nose.) However, Anne Shirley (the character) spans a huge emotional range, from ecstatic joy to "the depths of despair," from intelligent, dreamy tranquility to a fiery temper, and Anne Shirley (the actress) only convinced me in the happy end of this scale. She was Anne, but not the whole Anne, the starry-eyed dreamer, but not the neglected, unloved orphan child. Anne was aged up to fourteen when Marilla and Matthew adopted her, but this didn't work for me. Much of Anne's appeal comes from the incongruity of having such a little girl with such a big vocabulary, and where I could expect an eleven-year-old or even thirteen-year-old Anne to break slates over Gilbert Blythe's head, or need to ask how to say her prayers, it did not quite ring true in this self-assured fourteen-year-old Anne.

But the most unconvincing part of this Anne was when Mrs Lynde - sorry, Barry - observed that "They didn't pick you for your looks" and called her "skinny and ugly."

Well, just look at her!

Matthew was quite adorable, all doleful-looking in dungarees and big puppy-dog eyes, shy but stubborn in his own way, and full of heart and a little more awareness of a sense of humour than Book-Matthew. He needs it - because by contrast, Marilla lacks the subtleties of the real Marilla, and comes across as usually, but inconsistantly angry, instead of merely repressed and strict. I felt that the filmmakers had looked at the words of the Marilla of the book, but failed to see the depths of a very complex character, taking all her words at face value and portraying the character thus. If this was all there was to Marilla, I didn't see that Anne would be much better off at Green Gables than at Mrs Blewitt's.

After the slate-breaking incident, however, the film goes off at a tangent, bending and rewriting the story to fit around the relationship with Gilbert and only the relationship with Gilbert, a Gilbert who, though kind of cute, is not Anne's match, a bit yokelly and telling her she reads too much.

Still, it's not a bad film, especially when you consider how old a film it is - older than The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind - with a tiny cast and running at less than an hour and a half. Curiously, I recognised some little moments in this film that were not in the book which must have influenced the makers of the later TV serial - notably when Anne attempts to "wrap Gilbert around her little finger," and get him to pay attention to her. Considering that Anne hated Gilbert at this point in the TV serial, it jarred with me as out of character (I ranted a bit about that in my review in 2009) but made a bit more sense if you include the earlier film in the Green Gables canon.

I missed many of the beloved scenes - the hair-dying, the raspberry cordial escapade, the story club - but the filmmakers had to pick and choose which story they were going to tell, and they went with the romance. And I'll admit it, I succumbed to the warm fuzzies, despite the omissions and changes to the plot.

It is Anne of Green Gables, after all.*

*which is more than I can say for the later installments of the Kevin Sullivan series. I refuse to recognise anything past Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel.

Friday 16 March 2012

Death Comes to Pemberley, P.D. James

I was amused to see this book and recognise that a professional and renowned crime writer had turned her hand to writing fanfiction. There have been many unofficial sequels to Pride and Prejudice, ranging from the realistic to the ridiculous, sequels which focus on the Darcys' family life, sequels focusing on other Bennets, rewrites with zombies... and now, a sequel combined with a murder mystery. This could be fun, I thought. I received the book as a Christmas present from my sister, who seemed anxious in case I was offended and appalled that someone else dared to write a sequel to this classic.

Death Comes to Pemberley starts slowly, with a far more detailed recap of the events that led up to Elizabeth and Darcy's marriage than must surely be necessary, for why would anyone read this without a knowledge of Pride and Prejudice? It takes about 50 pages to get into the story, with plenty of detail of everyday life at Pemberley and Elizabeth's preparations for a ball. As I read these sections, I suspected that I would be more interested in the ordinary affairs of the Darcys and Bingleys, and the staff of Pemberley, than in the story itself!

When I read Return to the Hundred Acre Woods, the official sequel to A. A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh books, I was struck by the amount of period detail that the author had put in, probably in order to create a realistic sense of the time of the story, detail that was never needed in the original stories because they were written to be contemporary. This is the case here, too. P. D. James has clearly put in a huge amount of research, but sometimes the research stifles the storytelling. Still, I do love to know all about the workings of Pemberley and the expansion of the world of Jane Austen's novels.

The tone of the novel, as necessitated by the combination of the Austen Sequel with the Crime genre, is considerably darker than Jane Austen's original. Shadows creep around the edges of the idyllic lifestyle, and Pemberley is furnished with not one, but two suicides in its history. There is a "gritty realism" to James's Pemberley, and her take on the characters and their relationships. I felt uncomfortably aware of how Lydia and Wickham have never quite been forgiven for their elopement, and never would. It was not all doom and gloom however, and occasionally, James came out with some wonderful Austenian (is that a word?) wit:
"There are few activities so agreeable as spending a friend's money to your own satisfaction and his benefit."
With most of the action set at Pemberley, we don't get to see much of the Bennets, but when we do meet Jane and Mr Bingley, they are instantly identifiable within a few words. Lydia, likewise, is just as she always has been - if not more so. We never get to see Mrs Bennet on the page, but her youngest daughter is growing daily more like her mother. I was also pleased to see a bit more of Georgiana Darcy, a character I liked but barely knew in the original novels. She is about twenty one by this point, and despite her shyness, the Darcy stubbornness is becoming apparent in her character. And although we don't get to see Mr Collins, or even read his letter to the Darcys after a murder took place in their grounds, the description of his epistle is priceless.
"He began by stating that he could find no words to express his shock and abhorrence, and then proceeded to find a great number, few of them appropriate and none of them helpful [...] He went on to prophesy a catalogue of disasters for the afflicted family ranging from the worst - Lady Catherine's displeasure and their permanent banishment from Rosings - descending to public ignominy, bankruptcy and death."
Interestingly, it is Elizabeth and Darcy who I felt were least themselves. Their characters were consistent, but  not strong, and I managed to sit through an entire Pemberley supper without registering the presence of the master of the house until he spoke - as if James hadn't known what to do with him until he was needed to move the plot onwards. The couple rarely even appear together in the same scene, and hardly interact, a disappointment considering that they are supposed to be the ultimate romantic couple.

And I've written this far without even mentioning the murder mystery. It is more of a "trial" mystery than a detective novel, with little on-scene investigation and lots of last-minute revelations. I was unsurprised by the killer's identity, as there was a pretty small pool of suspects, and I didn't believe James would dare to turn one of Jane Austen's characters into a killer.

All this might suggest that I didn't like Death Comes to Pemberley, but that's not true. It was never going to be what really happened next, but it was quite a respectable version of what could have happened. Once I'd got past the somewhat stodgy recap at the start of the book, I kept on promising myself "just one more chapter," or "just ten/twenty/fifty more pages" until I realised I had nearly finished, all in one evening. And although at least part of the ending was predictable, I found myself anxious on behalf of even the less sympathetic of Austen's characters. Death Comes to Pemberley was not a great work of literature - I suspect if you look long enough you'd find something better on - but it was a fun, enjoyable page-turner, an easy read to help me through a reading slump.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

Top Ten Tuesdays - Kids' Classics

Top Ten Tuesday is the brainchild of the ladies at The Broke and the Bookish, and this week the task is to list ten books of our favourite genre. A tricky one for me, as I read so many different types of books. Should I list classics? Fantasy? Any particular sub-genre of fantasy? Thrillers? Teen reads?

In the end I decided to go with:

The Top Ten Books That Shaped My Childhood.

These are the kids' books I would reread regularly, and still return to for a bit of comfort reading, the books that inspired my daydreams, make-believe games, fanfiction and not-really-very original fiction.

1. Anne of Green Gables. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed my blog for a while. Anne Shirley was a kindred spirit and probably the most "real" character I'd yet encountered in my reading.

2. The Chronicles of Narnia. For years, the back of my wardrobe was covered in tiny drawings of characters and scenes from this book, cut out and stuck on with blu-tak, in an approximation of a map. If I couldn't actually get to Narnia through my wardrobe, my imagination provided the next best thing.

3. Swallows and Amazons. Oh, for the freedom to spend one's childhood camping, sailing and adventuring, in a world where the lines between real life and fantasy are blurred and where you can live out the stories in your head. That is what childhood should be.

4. Famous Five. I think Enid Blyton was generally disapproved of by schoolteachers and librarians when I was a kid, and I couldn't understand why. Her adventure stories appeal to the imagination of adventurous children with ruined castles, rugged moors and caves galore - and of course, lashings of ginger beer!

5. Malory Towers. I found the first book in this series in the school book box when I was in the middle of my Famous Five craze. This launched me into the world of old-time boarding school stories, midnight feast and hilarious pranks, and inspired my first "novel": First Time At Abbey School, which was basically Malory Towers with the names and events jiggled around. I was very proud of that story, which was handwritten, in pencil, in a Lion King exercise book. I probably ought to type it up before it fades away completely.

6. Chalet School. When it became apparent that I had discovered school stories and wasn't going to give them up, I was bought the first in the Chalet School series by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer. This series follows the school from its beginning with two teachers and three students above an Austrian lake in the late 1920s. Little did the author foresee the way the series must accommodate real historical events several years later - but the Chalet School in Exile, in which the school flees Austria to escape the Nazis, is uindoubtedly the best book of them all. It is remarkable for being a contemporary account of Austria in 1938, written by an Englishwoman and for children.

7. The Railway Children. When I was small, I used to swap toys and books with one of my best friends until my mother put a stop to it. One of the books I did get from her was the ladybird edition of The Railway Children, which became a favourite. Many years later, I was given the "real," full story, and it was wonderful to discover that there was so much more than I had realised.

8. What Katy Did. I was probably given my Katy omnibus because of the heroine's name. The books can be a bit moralising and sickly in places - this is Victorian children's literature, after all - but there are such vivid descriptions of Katy and her siblings' antics and games that I could quite happily imagine myself among them.

9. Little House on the Prairie. Let me put my hands up and say that I have never watched the more well-known TV series, which seems to have a reputation for being too sweet and wholesome to be true. I've lived with the movie in my head for so long that I would jealously resent anyone showing me their version.

10. Anastasia Krupnik. This is probably the odd one out, being the only book or series written after about 1950! Anastasia is "the girl who thinks for herself," and with each book she has a brand-new interest or obsession or project - very much like myself, both then and now. Most of the books end each chapter with a list (things I love/things I hate,) a story-in-progress or a school project, which show Anastasia developing and maturing as a character. She's got a loveable, artistic family, even if her little brother Sam is too precocious to be true.
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