Tuesday 26 February 2013

Dollhouse, Season 1.

Last year, my best friend got me hooked on Joss Whedon's cult classic "space western," Firefly. This year she has introduced me to another, lesser-known Whedon series: Dollhouse. The titular Dollhouse is a top secret organisation which provides employees for very specific jobs. Kind of like a temp agency, you might think - except that instead of matching the job to the employee, they create the employee from scratch to be just what the client needs: inventing the memories, skills and personalities to provide satisfaction. But these new-made people are programmed into existing bodies, or "dolls," whose personalities have been erased to make room for these new people - backed up onto disc and removed from their minds. A "doll" can be a detective, or a wife (or husband), a pop star's backing singer, or a teacher - or a spy so convincing that even they don't know that they are anything other than what they are pretending to be. These aren't actors; these are people designed to specification. They fulfill their duties, return to the Dollhouse, where this personality is wiped and they return to their vapid, childlike state, ("Did I fall asleep?" - those words gets seriously creepy after a while.) floating around the house taking endless showers and eating banana pancakes, ("I like pancakes.") until their new role comes up and they go to be reprogrammed.

It must be an extremely challenging role to play one of the "actives," as each week, they are a different character. The series follows one particular "doll," codenamed Echo, and every time you watch an episode, you're in a different show - detective, conspiracy, thriller, romance, etc. The first episodes merely show her in her jobs, the dollhouse staff, and Paul Ballard, an FBI agent who is trying to find out all about the whole sketchy business. And then Echo starts remembering things that have not been programmed into her, memories from before she became an empty "doll," when she was a student activist named Caroline. And that is just when it starts getting weird. Um, weirder.

Dollhouse is a show that engages my brain more than my heart, at first, raising a hundred and one questions about what it is to be human, what makes an individual, and free will. But with a main character who changes personality every week, you need a flexible actress. Eliza Dushku plays Echo/Caroline adequately, convincing in each new role, but never really making me feel any attachment to her - probably because we never get to know any of the characters very well or for very long. But I care for the other "dolls" - notably Sierra and Victor - more. They, like Echo, are rewritten in each episode, but, like Echo, things seep through that shouldn't, making them more like "real people" than the Dollhouse intends.

And when many characters are in charge of an organisation that takes away people's humanity, often by coercion or force, making them do and say and be anything, with the belief that this is really their own choice, it is difficult to like or care for them. I do, however, like Boyd Langton, Echo's bodyguard, a fairly decent, fatherly type of character who seems to be conflicted about the organisation he works for. But he still works for the Dollhouse. Perhaps I trust him mainly because Echo's trust in him is so complete - and programmed into her. Hmm. But he does seem to have more of a sense of morality than the rest of the staff, who put their consciences to one side for science.

I'm also fond of Topher, the immature and rather bratty youthful genius in charge of actually programming the dolls. I understand he was a fairly unpopular character in the early episodes - though he does start to get a bit of poignant character development around episode 10 of the series - but for me he was some refreshing relief and humour in an unexpectedly dark programme. The morality of the Dollhouse doesn't trouble him much, because he is loving the unique opportunity to do what he loves and what he does well: messing around with cutting-edge technology and showing off. He is maybe arrogant, maybe irritating, but he has a childlike energy that contrasts with the stern, businesslike Adele DeWitt (who seems to be universally loved, but aside from her Britishness and occasional hints of vulnerability - and a wonderful comic scene in episode 7, I don't get it.)

 It's difficult to say much more without giving away major spoilers for the last few episodes. Just mentioning minor details highlights their significance, and I watched the first season entirely unspoiled, and that was awesome. But the entire point of writing about this thing is to rave about it. So, um. The big one, I guess, is the introduction of a character, played by an actor I knew from elsewhere, who turned out NOT to be what I expected from his first appearance in the show.

If you've seen the programme, highlight the white text below and watch my mind exploding in spoilery and semi-coherent squealing.

>>>WASH IS ALPHA! Alan Tudyk, guest-starring as a cowardly, hippy nerd afraid of backless staircases, turns out to be THE major villain of the entire series. And he is terrifying in the role. The transformation was one of the most stunning pieces of acting in the entire show, and probably the best thing I've seen him as. I started off thinking, "Oh, look, it's a Firefly cameo, sweet. I love Wash. Dear old Wash." and ended up half an hour later thinking, "hold on, that was Wash? I can hardly believe it."

And then, ALL OF EPITAPH 1. I mean, the fact that it is called Epitaph and not Epilogue started setting off the alarm bells in my mind. Episode 12 seemed like such a perfect finale to season one, that I could not figure out what episode thirteen had to add. (I later discovered that it was added on because Fox needed a thirteen-part series, and the pilot was deemed unsuitable.) And MY GOODNESS it is different. Flash forward ten years from the story-so-far, and the world is unrecognisable. The Dollhouse technology has been developed and advanced, before being taken over by hostile forces to bring about war and worldwide destruction. ("Children playing with matches, and they burned the house down." - *shudder*) "Epitaph 1" shifts the genre of Dollhouse the most dramatically yet from speculative/science fiction/alternative present to a not-too-distant post-apocalyptic horror. This is what the series is headed for. This is the unavoidable conclusion. Beware. I wrote earlier that the series appealed to my mind less than my feelings, but evidently I've grown fonder of these characters. "Epitaph 1" switches between the ten-year flash-forward, focused upon new characters, and a series of flashbacks hinting at the fates of the characters we've spent the last twelve episodes getting to know. And it is heart-wrenching. Whedon sure knows how to rip your feelings up. He broke Topher! Oh, poor Topher. I now realise that what he did to Wash "I am a leaf on the Wind" in Serenity was the kind option. CURSE YOU, WHEDON!!!!<<<

I've hidden the spoilers for the sake of people who haven't seen the series but want to. So far, I've only seen the first season, so please don't leave any season 2 spoilers in the comments. (Or if you absolutely HAVE to rave about what I haven't seen yet, I suggest coding it at rot13.com so that I can read it later on. Go ahead. Laugh at my ignorance of what is to come.)

Tuesday 19 February 2013

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn

A bit spoilery.

After Amy Dunne disappears on her fifth wedding anniversary, her husband Nick is the first suspect. Though he maintains his innocence, desperate in his search to find out what has happened to his wife and to clear his name, the evidence appears damning. Chapters alternating between Amy's diary and Nick's contemporary narration reveal that the Dunne's marriage had been unhappy for a long time. In fact, it seems that Amy and Nick didn't even know each other any more. Their accounts of events in the past, and of each other's thoughts, moods and reactions, show a couple shockingly out of tune with each other.

These conflicting accounts keep the pages turning, switching the reader's allegiance between Nick and Amy, at least at first, while causing us to question if either party can actually be trusted. Nick, in particular, in the first half of the novel, showed the signs of being an unreliable narrator by withholding information, not only from the police, but also from the reader. His cell phone rings, and he turns it off, not telling who is calling, or mentioning it again - until the next time. He is questioned about an overheard argument - an argument he has not described. He claims to be a writer, and yet describes his father-in-law is "literally losing his head."

And then, halfway through, there is a momentous twist, and everything we think we have figured out about Amy, Nick and their marriage turns on its head. I was completely taken by surprise! The second half of the novel. The case plays out like a deadly game between ruthless, manipulative players taking turns. Both Amy and Nick reveal themselves to be highly unpleasant characters in a toxic relationship, and it's difficult to root for either one. The pages keep turning of their own accord as the story heads for a climax, and from a reader's point of view, you want something huge to happen, but you know it can't end well for both. Can there be a winner, or only losers?

Gone Girl starts off as a fairly straight-forward crime thriller, but turns out very different indeed: clever, but very twisted, dark and unsettling. You might want to read something cute and wholesome after this one.

Monday 18 February 2013

The Homeward Bounders - Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones is an author that I've heard about from my best friend for most of my reading life, but only come to discover for myself in the last couple of years. Homeward Bounders is the best I've read so far, encompassing layers upon layers of jaw-dropping genius.

Enough of the gushing, Edwards! Tell us about the book.

When Jamie stumbles upon Them, the mysterious hooded figures who use his world as the setting for their games, he is exiled onto a circuit of worlds, doomed to wander until he can find his way home. On his travels, he meets Helen and Joris, fellow "Homeward Bounders" who, like him, have fallen foul of Them and sent from world to world.

Homeward Bounders crosses the boundaries between genres as Jamie and the others cross between worlds, encompassing myth, fantasy, science fiction and adventure as only children's fiction can. I have got lost in Diana Wynne Jones' books in the past, but this one came alive as I read, a complex, multiverse-spanning plot that nonetheless makes perfect sense. It appealed to my love of adventure, varied settings, limitless imagination and pathos. In the last section, I realised before Jamie did what was going on - but not in a "too-obvious" way. Wynne Jones' narrative style is simple but not simplistic, and her story is sophisticated indeed. In fact, I think that Homeward Bounders transcends mere children's fantasy fiction to take on a mythical status of its own.

Wednesday 13 February 2013

Paper Towns - John Green

In the middle of the night, Quentin "Q" Jacobsen's next-door neighbour and long-term crush Margo Roth Spiegelman appears at his bedroom window and bids him come with her on an adventure - a campaign of revenge. The next day, Margo is missing. It's not the first time Margo has disappeared, but Q is worried. He makes it his mission to find Margo, uncovering some cunningly hidden clues about her whereabouts. But finding Margo's physical location turns out to be just the beginning of the challenge. In their hunt to find her, Q and his friends realise that not one of them can be sure they ever really knew Margo. Paper Towns is as much about uncovering Margo as a real person as it is about finding where she is hiding.

Is it terrible to say that I really like revenge stories? The escapades Q and Margo embark upon are an entertaining take on the usual "bring down the mean girl" high school drama. To give you a sense of the duo's unusual pranks I will duplicate Margo's shopping list. (N.B. random capitalisations are Margo's.)

"3 whole Catfish, Wrapped separately
Veet (It's for Shaving your legs Only you don't Need a razor It's with all the Girly cosmetic stuff)
six-pack Mountain Dew
One dozen Tulipsone
Bottle Of waterTissues
one Can of blue Spray paint."

I will not give the game away about what they do with these items - you can use your imagination or read the book yourself. Needless to say, it was hilarious, with a touch of the guilt you feel for enjoying watching people get what they deserve.

But Paper Towns is not really a revenge story, not after that beginning. It soon becomes a mystery, a sort of treasure-hunt to find Margo, who seems not to want to be found, but leaves obscure clues for Q to figure out nonetheless. And if there's anything I like better in a novel for teenagers than revenge plots, it's mysteries and treasure hunts. Not that I expect to be able to work it out before the protagonists, and nor do I really want to. I enjoy the thrill of being utterly clueless about the author's intentions, of being surprised and trusting them to make it all make sense in the end. Margo's treasure-hunt takes Q and his friends, Ben, Radar and Lacey through Walt Whitman's poetry (note to self: must read some more Whitman) to a seriously creepy office in an abandoned mini-mall, and ends up sending them on a race-against-time road trip from Florida to a non-existant town in New York state, the boys wearing nothing but their graduation gowns. It's a riot, a page-turner, and Q's ticking clock - will they reach New York in time? - adds to the sense of urgency. By this point I was racing through the book as though I too would run out of time.

I may have mentioned before that I really love John Green's books. They have a unique nerdy appeal, with smart, sarcastic and funny characters, and weird little details that just make the books stand out against the rest. In Paper Towns we have Urban Exploring, the world's largest black Santa collection, a teenage boy in a "World's Best Grandma" t-shirt, cross-hatched writing to make a notebook's contents illegible to anyone except the writer. I have since adopted this, as I could find myself in Harriet The Spy trouble if I were to accidentally leave my notebooks lying around.  And of course there are the titular Paper Towns, which are fictional locations invented by mapmakers in order to identify breaches of copyright. All fascinating stuff, and I loved it. But it's not all just quirks and chuckles; Paper Towns makes the reader think about how we view others - as real people or supporting characters in our own lives? Can we ever truly know another person - and if so, how?

Monday 11 February 2013

Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

It is unusual, but not unheard-of for me to watch a film before having read the book it was based upon, but unfortunately I ran out of reading time before Les Miserables hit the UK cinemas, and I was impatient to see this epic musical. I hope my readers will excuse the inevitable comparisons with the later, and therefore obviously inferior, version of the tale. (I say this with some flippancy, assuming the unbreakable truth that "the book is always better." Certainly Victor Hugo's novel has the higher claim of being "the real thing," but does it follow that it is necessarily is the best?)

Well, it is certainly the most thorough! At 1200 pages, Les Miserables has the luxury of being able to spend plenty of focus time on each of the important characters and events, which, though important appear but briefly in the musical adaptation. Hugo also had a disconcerting habit of leaving the story to discourse freely and at length upon any subject that even slightly tied in with the novel's setting, giving chapters upon chapters of historical context for a single scene, and passing judgement upon it all. It verges upon the ridiculous, and I do not think I am alone from thinking that Les Miserables could benefit from a ruthless editor without having to lose its nickname of "The Brick." The most heinous examples are the forty-one pages of the Battle of Waterloo, twenty-five detailing life inside a convent (and an additional twelve pages have been cut from my translation to appear as an appendix) and fifteen all about the sewers of Paris. Don't get me wrong, all these make interesting reading - who, after all, can fail to be entranced by fifteen pages about poo? - but I'd rather read these digressions when Jean Valjean's fate is not in question.

Each member of Les Amis de l'ABC (ABC Society in this translation) the student revolutionary group, has a name, character and history: the fearless leader Enjolras, shy poet Jean Prouvaire, philosopher Combeferre, charismatic Courfeyrac, and cynical drunkard Grantaire. And then, not of them but with them, is young Gavroche, the kinder French cousin to the Artful Dodger. Maybe ten or eleven years old, this young urchin is a scoundrel with a heart of gold, the terror of the respectable folk, but generous to the unfortunate. He provides some delicious heartwarming and comic moments in this heavy tome - "I'm on my way to fetch the doctor for my wife, who's in labour!" But he will break your heart, too. If I can guarantee nothing else, I guarantee that.

Fantine, who appears so briefly if beautifully in the musical, has an entire history as Hugo chronicles her fall from innocence to despair: her friends and lover who deserted her as a sick idea of a joke, her sink from poverty to utter destitution and desperation. I wonder whether Les Miserables may have caused a stir when it was first published, for Hugo's insistance that a woman can be pure and virtuous of heart even when driven to prostitution. After all, didn't even Oliver Twist's Nancy cause outrage in Victorian Britain for being allowed to redeem herself? But Hugo's central message seems to be that good and evil are equally spread across the entire human race, and that desperate circumstances can lead to desperate acts. Justice is not merely the keeping of the law and punishment of crime, but compassion and forgiveness.

Of course the failure to grasp this truth is where Inspector Javert falls down. The policeman is an unambiguously unsympathetic character in his first introduction, a fact which may surprise fans of the film and show. "The Asturian peasants believe that in every wolf-litter there is a dog-whelp which the mother kills, because otherwise it will devour the rest of her young. Endow this dog with a human face and you have Javert." As far as Javert is concerned, the law must be upheld at all costs, as it is absolutely infallible, and law-breakers are utterly irredeemable. Once a criminal, always a criminal, and incapable of doing anything good. Hugo unequivocally condemns Javert's idea of righteousness untempered with mercy. My first impression was of a grotesque, a caricature, far from the tormented individual of the musical. But Javert is not without his strengths - he has a snarky sense of humour, for one, applies his rigid standards to himself as well as to others, and shows a great deal of courage. And we come to feel his anguish as Jean Valjean brings his worldview crashing down around him. Were it not for that first introduction, Javert could be seen as a tragic figure with a fatal flaw.

Hero Jean Valjean is portrayed as an almost messianic figure in the movie adaptation, but here in the novel, his goodness is at times swayed by flaws of character or judgement, particularly when concerning his adopted daughter Cosette. I was rather surprised by the lack of jealousy in the movie at his discovery of Cosette's having a suitor - or, rather, that he does not let his jealousy get the better of him. Somehow, I felt that it would be a critical part of the story, and so it is in the novel - a believable,  understandable, if not admirable trait. I could not help feeling that his withdrawal from Cosette's life after her marriage, doubtlessly intended by the author to be an act of selflessness, was actually rather a petulant and self-martyring act that helped no one and hurt a lot of people.

In Cosette we see her loving, sweet-natured mother Fantine once more, but with her fortunes reversed, rescued by Jean Valjean out of squalor, raised in humble but respectable circumstances by a foster-father who adores her, and ending up both happily married and wealthy. Her story is as happy as her mother's was wretched.

Ah, but the love story. I expressed confidence that Marius' and Cosette's romance had to be better depicted than the film's rushed version. Alas, I was mistaken. Yes, their courtship has more time devoted to it than the movie's two glances and one love song - but sadly more time and page space does not  necessarily mean more substance. Victor Hugo was doubtlessly a believer in love at first sight, but I found such a concept ridiculous. Instead of Marius dripping all over the stage singing, "Black! My world if she's not there!" immediately after seeing this pretty girl for a few seconds, he follows her regularly to the park - never speaking, mind you, only watching her like everyone's favourite romantic stalker - and then spends months putting his life on hold in favour of moping. And when they do finally start holding secret trysts, instead of, y'know, getting to know each other, they just seem to spend the whole time telling each other how in love they are with each other and how pretty the butterflies are when you're in love. (Of course, it is possible that there is nothing to tell, for neither of them seem to have any personality.)

So, in short, is Les Miserables worth reading? My answer is yes, absolutely - once. It gives so much depth and life to the story that is somewhat rushed in the musical, and making the characters much more rounded (even Marius, if not pretty little Cosette.) It is a huge book, not just in size, but in scope - Hugo included everything, and for the most part this is a great achievement. Between the book, the movie (which I have now seen twice) and the soundtrack (which I have been playing on repeat for the past three weeks) Les Miserables has proven to be one of those stories which takes over my head for a little while.

But I think in this case there is no shame in cheating, if you feel the need: skip the discourse chapters, or even read an abridgement. I don't know whether I will read Les Miserables from cover-to-cover again, at least for a good long time, but I will hold on to the book. I can't part with it after the times we've had, and I feel quite sure it will be one I'll want to refer to again and again.

Note: I read the 1976 translation by Norman Denny.

Tuesday 5 February 2013

Top Ten Tuesdays: Bookish memories.

Another top ten that I simply could not resist writing about. There is more to books than merely the story inside the books. So many of my fondest memories are associated with books. So, without any further ado:

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted at The Broke and the Bookish.

1. 1988. Honestly, I don't remember a time when I couldn't read. The first memory on my list is not actually my own, but my mother's. At the age of three, my parents were woken up in the middle of the night, by the sound of me in the next room, reading Goldilocks and the Three Bears aloud. Before I started primary school, I had got myself known as "Katie who can read" (which, incidentally is my twitter nickname if you want to follow!)

2. 1990-ish. My first school's reading scheme books were the Biff, Chip and Kipper series published by Oxford. These are very much of the "This is Biff. Biff has a football. This is Chip. Biff and Chip play football." sort of standard, progressing to more complex sentences and even stories. One day I came into school very apologetic that I couldn't read all of the words. When I pointed to the page, the teachers realised that I had been trying to read the "additional notes for parents" section at the back of the book, and decided that perhaps I ought to move onto more challenging reading. I was devastated. I didn't want to read books that weren't about Biff, Chip and Kipper. Clearly I was very attached to these, erm, characters.

3. 1990-1998-ish. Who else remembers the travelling bookshops that used to visit primary schools? For a week, the school hall or library would be filled with huge metal boxes that would open up to display their ink-and-paper treasures for sale. I discovered so many beloved stories here: my first Famous Five omnibuses came from here, as did Fiona Kelly's Mystery Kids and Ann Bryant's Cafe Club. This was the highlight of my school year.

4. 1993-1996ish. Anne of Green Gables was a birthday present from my parents, and probably I haven't received a more suitable gift until last year's Lego Mines of Moria. One of my family friends has fond memories of me sitting cross-legged rereading Anne while wearing a straw sunhat and my hair in pigtails. For Book Week, we used to dress up as book characters, and I remember exactly what I wore as Anne - a long blue checked dress, the aforementioned straw hat with a navy blue ribbon, pigtails with matching ribbons and felt-tipped freckles. My mother wouldn't let me dye my hair, though.

5. 1992-ish. One evening, when I was about seven, my dad sat me and my sister down in the living room a little before bedtime, took out a book, and started to read aloud: "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it." An excellent opening to an excellent book. I was hooked from the beginning, and even more so when I realised that the Edmund and Lucy were the same as the characters of the same names in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I hadn't realised that there was any more to that story. Over the next couple of months, or years, Dad or Mum would read us a chapter from all of the Chronicles of Narnia and the Swallows and Amazons series every night as a bedtime story.

6. 1998-ish. Discos were the popular form of birthday party when I was in years 7 and 8 (aged 11-13) but the most memorable one (except for my one-and-only slow dance with Sam Irving, who I semi-stalked for the rest of the school year - sorry Sam!) was nothing to do with the disco at all. It was held in a room above a pub (The Bargeman's Rest, which I highly recommend if you are looking for somewhere to eat on the Isle of Wight.)  There was a shelf of second-hand books for sale, which included a few out-of-print Chalet School paperbacks from the 1970s, which I was quick to notice and charmed my parents into buying for me. I still have these, except for one which has since fallen to bits and been replaced.

7. 1999. Harry Potter had been in the world for a few years, but only recently become big. Suddenly it was the name on everyone's lips. Over-protective parents had been concerned by even more over-protective parents who denounced the series as witchcraft, and my sister's school required a permission slip from parents for the children to check the books out of the library. I was at high school by that point, and my friend Lara was reading Prisoner of Azkaban. My father bought a copy of the first three books to see for himself if he thought they were suitable for children, but   he left them lying around in the living room, where anyone could pick them up. And by "anyone," I mean me. From the very first sentence, I was hooked. "Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much." Thus began an adventure that would continue for many years, many rereads, and an awful lot of speculation.

8. 2001-2003. My sixth form years will forever be associated with one thing: The Lord of the Rings. Until the first film trailer, Lord of the Rings was one of those weighty tomes that lived on every bookshelf but people didn't actually read - did they? I associated it with War and Peace. Then I saw the trailer before the first Harry Potter film, and decided that actually, it looked quite interesting. The first movie was released on the last day of the Christmas term, and the year 11 teachers booked a screening at Cineworld for the entire year group. I left the cinema and took down the weighty tome; I simply had to know what happened next. For the next two or three years I lived and breathed Lord of the Rings. My abiding memory of sixth form is of my circle of friends hogging the squashy chairs in the library, reading and rereading Lord of the Rings, talking about Lord of the Rings, writing Lord of the Rings fanfiction... you get the picture. And for the first time, I felt like I fitted in. I've always been a person with obsessions, and for once other people, even some of the cool people, shared my obsession.  I found my niche and could for the first time revel in being a nerd, instead of being ashamed of who I was and conspicuously failing to fit in.

9. 2007. When I arrived home from university, by some chance I discovered that me, my best friend Judith and two other friends (Cat and James, then a couple) had all been reading the same book series: Robin Hobb's Assassin series. So we decided to hold an informal book club - which consisted of going to the pub, beginning discussing where we had got to in the series, predictions and opinions, and generally wandering off-topic more often than not. I recall one summer evening taking wine and cheese to a picnic area near the beach and very much not discussing the books, but nonetheless, book club it remained. Alas, now Cat and James are no longer on speaking terms or living near us, but Judith and I from time to time revive the old book club, recently reading American Gods and last year working our way through A Song of Ice and Fire. And a healthy amount of wine.

10. Present. I confess I find it very enjoyable to watch other people's reactions to big moments in books I've already read. Last year in our aforementioned Song of Ice and Fire readathon, there were a couple of times I got ahead of Judith, and it was with a certain amount of smugness that I listened to her speculations about what was going to happen next. She began reading a certain chapter (those who have read it will know which chapter I am referring to, while those who are going to are none the wiser) one afternoon when we were at the beach. She put the book down halfway through that chapter, and did not resume until three days later! The suspense was almost as unbearable as the incident in question. I was waiting for her anguished "MARTIN!!!!" text message for three days. And when it finally arrived, it was very satisfying indeed. Mark Oshiro's blog Mark Reads is great for that, as he goes into popular books with no prior knowledge, reviewing them one chapter at a time. The comments, too, make for excellent in-depth discussion of the books in question, but read them at your own risk. 
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