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 fa├žade 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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