Tuesday 30 September 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: Books that were hard to read

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted by The Broke and the Bookish
I haven't written one of these posts for a while, but this week's topic got me thinking. Not all of the titles listed below were books I hated - although some were - others were ultimately rewarding but hard work. In no particular order:

 1. Horns - Joe Hill. The main character wakes up one morning with horns on his head, and the ability to hear people's deepest, darkest secrets. And most of these are horrific. It is exhausting spending time with seemingly decent people only to find they are so foul underneath.

2. Les Miserables - Victor Hugo. Good story, (great music) and it really gives a lot more understanding to the musical adaptation - but could do with a ruthless editor. I'm not entirely sure we needed fifteen pages about the sewage systems of Paris, and that's one of the shorter digressions from the plot.

3. A Clash of Kings - George R. R. Martin. This was the point at which I was sorely tempted to give up on the Song of Ice and Fire series. I grew heartsick with the violence, the sexism, the awful worldviews of the majority of Westeros. I'm glad I stuck with it, but it's heavy-going at times.


4. 1Q84 - Haruki Murakami. Not my first Murakami novel, but the first I read full of his trademark surrealism. It's in three volumes, and is patchy in quality: fascinating world-building, but I was not convinced by the "love story" or the characters.

5. The Children's Book - A. S. Byatt. The only book I put down unfinished this year (so far.) The Children's Book follows a rather bohemian family at the turn of the last century doing... stuff. It was enjoyable enough, the characters were okay, but a hundred or so pages in, I couldn't figure out what the plot was going to be. The book got ruined on my camping trip in August; I still have it, it is still readable, though not in any condition to pass onto anyone else, so no doubt I'll pick it up eventually just to prevent it from feeling unloved. But I'm not in any hurry.

6. The Bitterbynde Trilogy - Cecelia Dart-Thornton. This is a pre-blogging favourite - as I said before, a book being hard work is not necessarily a bad thing. These books are rich in mythology, but also in purple prose - why use one word when a paragraph will do? I haven't reread them in a while. Life is short and there are so many books. But I still hold a fond place in my heart for The Ill-Made Mute, The Lady of the Sorrows and The Battle of Evernight. 

(Actually, just seeing the covers again makes me want to reread this series right now.)

7. Post Office - Charles Bukowski. One of the first books I had to read for my university course, Post Office was short, and I made myself read it in one go, knowing that if I put it down I would not want to pick it up again. I loathed it with a fiery passion, although I believe I was an anomaly in this. I was disgusted by the main character, could not get past certain decisions he made early in the book, and these feelings overshadowed any humour I might have found in the book. You may notice I haven't posted the cover for this one. I won't have that on my blog or my computer.

8. Rilla of Ingleside - L. M. Montgomery. From one extreme to another: Rilla is one of my favourite books, but only to be read when I am feeling emotionally strong. The first time I read it as an adult I sat up all night crying over it, not only a certain beloved character's death, but that the idea that the timeless, innocent world of Anne of Green Gables should be irrevocably changed by the First World War.

9. The Call of Cthulhu  - H. P. Lovecraft. One of the pioneers of a certain kind of horror fiction, but he writes for the most parts by hints and glimpses, and creating a spooky atmosphere. The prose is full of "indescribable horrors" - you're a writer, man, describe it! 

10. Moby-Dick - Herman Melville. Another candidate for "did not finish." I've read about fifteen chapters, and okay, it is not as impossible to read as I'd expected, even with some unexpected humour, but I'm not sure life is long enough to read another 135 or so chapters of a man chasing a whale, even if it does help me understand the references that seem to be popping up in every film and TV show I watch. I know what happens. Man chases whale past all sanity, resulting in his own destruction.

Monday 29 September 2014

Star Trek: Insurrection (IX)

An undercover surveillance mission on a quiet planet of peaceful people, the Baku, goes wrong when Lieutenant Commander Data malfunctions and starts attacking the people around him. Captain Picard is faced with a dilemma: this is a dangerous example of technology going horribly wrong, but though Data may be a machine, he is a good friend and a trusted crew member. How can the captain allow his destruction? This could have been a major cause of conflict throughout the film, but in actual fact, all it takes is an epic rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan's "An English Tar" from the Captain and a reluctant Worf, to jog Data's memory and restore him back to his old self (with a bit of help from Chief Engineer Geordi LaForge.)

When Picard and Data return to the planet to make amends, they uncover a suspicious plan masterminded by the Federation Council itself, to move the Baku off their home planet and onto another one without their noticing, thanks to my least-favourite addition to the Next Generation Trek-verse, the Holodeck technology. This discovery calls into question the Federation's very soul, a systematic violation of the Prime Directive of non-interference of a culture's natural development. Insurrection adjusts this law to refer only to those planets who have not yet discovered warp-speed travel. The Baku have invented this technology, although they shun it, so apparently they are fair game. It seems a somewhat arbitrary place to draw the line, although we discovered in First Contact that this was the point where everything changed for the human race, when the Vulcans decided it was okay to say hello and introduce them to the wider universe.

This planet has some interesting properties in its atmosphere, restoring youth and extending life - which is why the Federation wants it. After all, there is a case to be made for the fact that it has the potential to help millions and billions of people, instead of just the few hundred who live there. "The needs of the many," and all that. But Picard and the Enterprise crew determine to defend the Baku against forced relocation. Data befriends a little boy on the planet, and learns from him a little more about what it is to be human. Picard finds a girlfriend, and Deanna Troi and Will Riker rediscover the romance that has been hinted at right from the start of the first season - but lose Riker's beard. Riker's beard, has been popularly linked with The Next Generation getting good, and so to have him shave it off - and in an odd-numbered Star Trek movie - could be viewed as a very risky move. Insurrection is not a terrible Star Trek film. It hasn't got the cringe-factor of The Final Frontier (V) nor will I deny its place in Trek canon, as I do Generations, but neither is it ever going to reach classic status with The Wrath of Khan, the one with the whales, or First Contact. It is a solidly OK film, but overall just feels like an average episode on a grander scale.

Tuesday 23 September 2014

The Coldest Girl In Coldtown - Holly Black (RIP IX book 2)

People liked pretty things. People even liked pretty things that wanted to kill and eat them.
Vampires have always existed, but until recently they took great measures to keep their existence a secret. That all changed a few years ago, when a vampire named Caspar Morales got carried away, creating many more. The epidemic spread out of control, and now the vampires of the USA, and anyone infected by them, are imprisoned in Coldtowns, where they party and feast all night long. These parties form the basis of the most popular reality TV shows, are there is a significant proportion of the population who longs to join them, attracted by the glamour and the danger and the romance of being forever young.

Seventeen-year-old Tana is not one of them. She's seen the other side: when she was very young her mother was attacked by a vampire, and infected. In this world, one does not automatically become a vampire until one drinks human blood, but before you can return to your human life, you have to endure the Cold - up to eighty-eight days of desperate cravings as the infection sets in. Not many people make it through.

When Tana wakes up to find herself one of only three survivors of a vampire attack on the party she'd been at - the other two being Gavriel, an ancient vampire and her infected ex-boyfriend Aidan - she heads down with them to the nearest Coldtown, where she finds herself caught up in a strange world of death-seeking misfits, vampire politics and her own nature. Gavriel is an enigma, an oddly charming but deadly vampire with a Past. Can she trust him? Can she even trust herself?

I was impressed with Holly Black's world-building for The Coldest Girl In Coldtown, bringing a renewed sense of danger and glamour to vampire fiction. There was a classic, pre-Twilight feel to this book, of beauty and horror, and I was not at all surprised to see Anne Rice cited as one of Black's influences in the acknowledgements. The crowds of uninfected humans who made their way to Coldtown, particularly the twins known as Winter and Midnight, repulsed me in their sick fascination for the vampire lifestyle, giving up what it was to be human to be part of the undead fame game - for the gate into Coldtown is, with few exceptions, one way only. Yet they were entirely believable too, liveblogging and videoing every experience, and everyone convinced that they were safe, they were immune, that danger and death were things that happened only to other people. This is vampire fiction for the social media generation.

I read The Coldest Girl In Coldtown as part of Readers Imbibing Peril IX.

Sunday 14 September 2014

Star Trek: First Contact (VIII)

The first Next Generation film that wasn't Generations, Star Trek: First Contact takes place as a far-distant sequel to the two-parter episode "The Best of Both Worlds," which took place over two seasons and was cut in half by a whopper of a cliffhanger, when Captain Jean-Luc Picard introduced himself as "Locutus of Borg." Six years later, he still experiences traumatic flashbacks to his time spent as part of a hive-minded killing machine. When the Borg show up to threaten the earth, Starfleet expressly forbid the Enterprise to come to help in the battle, but, defying orders, the crew are forced to travel back in time to prevent the entire world's population from being assimilated, and to ensure that two pivotal events in Earth's space-travel history take place: the first warp-speed space flight, and first contact with extra-terrestrial life forms.

First Contact makes an interesting use of time travel: as discussed in John Scalzi's Redshirts, normally shows like Star Trek will travel either to a significant historical date, or to sometime around the show's own air date. Here, the Enterprise goes back but to a date in our future: 2063, a dark period around the time of the Third World War. Of course, out of this darkness, a bright future dawns.

I left reviewing this film far too long, and had to re-watch it before writing up this post. As such, I'd forgotten how much happened in a relatively short time (and how little happened in its predecessor, Generations. Nothing happened in Generations, because that would imply that it existed, which I'm unwilling to acknowledge.) There are two main stories in this film. Picard's fight against the terrifying Borg, who have assimilated half of the Enterprise's crew (the most casualties so far?) and captured Data. The usually calm, moral and, well, Patrick Stewartish Captain Picard is driven half-mad with his desire for revenge. "The line must be drawn here! This far - no further! AND I WILL MAKE THEM PAY FOR WHAT THEY HAVE DONE!" We know he has gone too far when he accuses the Klingon warrior Worf of being a coward! Picard is kept from going completely overboard by Lily, the 21st-century Earth woman caught up in the battle, who compares him with Captain Ahab of Moby-Dick. First Contact is not the first Star Trek film to draw on this novel: Khan, too, imitated Ahab in his all-consuming pursuit of Captain Kirk and the first Enterprise. 

Meanwhile, on 21st century Earth, Geordi LaForge, Will Riker and Deanna Troi meet up with the man who would become the legend Zefram Cochrane, inventor of warp-speed space travel. He is perhaps not the man they had expected: most uncomfortable with the thought of being believed a hero, being in reality motivated by cold hard money. But Riker tells him, "Don't try to be a great man. Just be a man, and let history make its own judgements." Riker then reveals, this is a quote from the future Cochrane himself. This whole plot is as heartwarming as the Borg story is disturbing: the not-too-distant-future setting bridging the gap between the world as we know it, and the Star Trek universe. Certainly it reawakened the long-forgotten longing of a little girl in the early- to mid-'90s, lying on her bedroom floor poring over her space encyclopedia and dreaming of visiting distant planets. The score is a quiet, haunting theme that not only reminds me of the BBC's Chronicles of Narnia music, but evokes the exact same wistful feelings. And the first contact itself! The aliens push back their hoods, and are, of course, Vulcans, making their traditional greeting. When Cochrane can't replicate the salute, he takes the Vulcan's hand, and it is beautiful: the very, very beginning of the alliance between these two races, an alliance that would expand to include so many more.

Monday 8 September 2014

Mini Reviews: Terra, The Miniaturist, That's Not A Feeling

Terra: Mitch Benn

On a routine expedition to Rrth, Llbp discovers what seems to be an abandoned, unloved child, so he does what any decent being would do: takes her home to his own planet and raises her as his own daughter. Terra grows up knowing that she is an alien, but is accepted by her peers. But when she starts school, she has to confront the differences between herself and the people of Fnrr, as well as their similarities.

I found Terra to be a really lovely science fiction novel, easy to read (once you get used to all the names that look like keysmashes) and refreshingly optimistic for the genre. If the story's conflicts were a little too easily resolved, that is a small criticism. The world of Fnrr is a society evolved quite apart from ours, even perhaps a utopia, but one which reflects so much that is to be celebrated about people (whether human or not.) I came away from Terra smiling.

Shelve next to: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Key Quotes:
"I guess I'm just wondering if everybody hates the G'grk because they're so angry and violent, or whether they're so angry and violent because everybody hates them."
"There's no point knowing something if you don't know WHY you know it."
"A bad scientist tries to prove himself right. A good scientist tries to prove himself wrong, and only when he fails does he conclude he's right."
"The cleverest of the scientists and astronomers admitted - privately at least - that any really intelligent life would be smart enough never to allow its presence to be detected by the human race. It wouldn't have cheered these scientists and astronomers up one bit to now that they were right."

The Miniaturist: Jessie Burton

Amsterdam, 1686. Nella Oortman arrives at her new husband's house to find a frosty welcome. Her sister-in-law and servants seem to have made up their mind to dislike her, while her husband Johannes wants nothing to do with her. On one of his rare attentive occasions, Johannes buys Nella a lavish wedding gift of a doll's house cabinet, and when Nella decides to furnish it, the miniaturist sends unsolicited and disturbing additions: items and characters which show too much knowledge of Nella's family, home - and future.

The Miniaturist explores the role of a woman in the seventeenth century, the expectations of a merchant's wife, and Nella's quest to make a place for herself in this unfamiliar new world. Set against the backdrop of the sugar trade, The Miniaturist takes the part of those who do not conform to the expectations of an oppressive society, that even the privileged classes find their own prisons. The cabinet plot is eerie and full of foreboding; there is a sense of a fate neither escapable nor quite understandable until it is too late. I grew emotionally invested in the family and ached for a happy ending, but tragedy is a foregone conclusion from the very first chapter. An extraordinary debut (and a beautiful cover.)

Shelve next to: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Key Quotes:
"It is not a man she has married, but a world."
"Growing older, Nella realises, does not seem to make you more certain. It simply presents you with more reasons for doubt."
"Everything about this cabinet was indeed distracting. So much happened while I was looking the other way. I was sure I'd been standing still, yet look how far I've come."

That's Not A Feeling: Dan Josefson

That's Not A Feeling shows a year in the life of Roaring Orchards School for Troubled Teens, seen through the eyes of newcomer Benjamin, who was abandoned there by his parents after attempting suicide. The novel has an air of surreality from the start, which could perhaps be attributable to Benjamin's fragile mental state. I have read other books that gave me the same distorted view of the world, but at no point could I actually believe in Roaring Orchards. The creation of a man with unique ideas about the treatment of "troubled" children, there was a troubling lack of distinction about whether it should be viewed as a psychiatric institution or a reform school. There was a regular administering of medication, but no medical staff unless you count the school nurse and counsellor, mentioned only in passing. The school's regime is full of ridiculous jargon, useless and sometimes abusive therapies, staff with no idea of boundaries, and, as the title suggests, the students/patients/inmates are never listened to, only told what the staff want to hear. That's Not A Feeling reads as a parody of alternative therapies, or teaching, or reform schools, but the lack of depth or understanding of the mental health issues touched upon meant that I could not fully engage with the text. Disappointing.

Key Quotes:
"Seeing us as objects of fun let the faculty imagine we were somehow protected, I thin, as comic figures are able to survive all kinds of harm."
"I didn't like the feeling of separating myself in two: the Benjamin who was doing the thinking and the Benjamin that was being thought about."

Friday 5 September 2014

The Cuckoo's Calling and The Silkworm - "Robert Galbraith" (RIP IX book 1)

Earlier this week, a girl came up to me in the shop holding a copy of The Silkworm and asked "whether we had any more books by this author." I resisted the urge to take her to the children's section to show her the shiny new editions of the Harry Potter series, and explained to her the author's real identity, marvelling at how she had managed to miss this news.

The Silkworm is the sequel to J. K. Rowling's first crime novel under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. The Cuckoo's Calling introduced down-on-his-luck Cormoran Strike, an ex-army detective now working as a private investigator, a large man with a prosthetic leg, a brilliant memory and an address book full of useful friends-and-relations, all of whom seem to have a different nickname for him. He is joined by Robin, a young temp worker who finds herself unexpectedly assigned a job as a secretary and general admin assistant. Robin has a keen mind, a great initiative and has always had a private dream of working as a private detective herself, and it is not long before she is well-established as Strike's crime-solving partner.

The Cuckoo's Calling is a tale of murder and intrigue, when the apparent suicide of a troubled young model reveals that all is not as it seems. We know from Harry Potter that J. K. Rowling is a master storyteller, strewing valuable clues throughout her books, but which come together only at the very end as she weaves in every detail of every subplot together to make a perfect plot. As such crime fiction is the logical genre for her to move to. The Cuckoo's Calling was an accomplished first crime novel, and The Silkworm surpasses it. The sequel shows Strike and Robin investigating the disappearance of a controversial novelist who has angered most of his acquaintances by loosely-disguised portraits of them in his latest manuscript. And when his body turns up things turn very interesting indeed - for he has been murdered in a manner taken straight from the pages of his unpublished novel.

The Silkworm is an intelligent literary novel as well as a page-turning thriller, full of references to Jacobean revenge tragedies, quotes of which form the epigraphs for each chapter. The investigation into the novelist's murder involves the unravelling of the cryptic caricatures in his would-be masterpiece, and I love a mystery which involves the cracking of a code. The Silkworm was an incredibly satisfying read: "Galbraith" does not cheat the reader, revealing enough information to make us feel smart, but holding back enough to keep us guessing, finishing up with an epic revelation at the end. I can't wait to see what else J. K. Rowling and "Robert Galbraith" have in store for Strike and Robin, and I hope to read many more novels in this series.

I read The Silkworm as part of
the Readers Imbibing Peril challenge.

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Fringe: Season 4

Spoilers, of course. It would be impossible to discuss this show without them.

Season three of Fringe ended with a nice note of happily-ever-after. The two universes were brought together to create a new world and prevent all-out apocalypse. But then - Peter Bishop, who brought about the unification, popped out of existence. Oops.

The credits sequences of Fringe in season three were colour-coded in order to quickly establish which universe each episode would take place in: blue-green for the original world, and red for the alternative universe. Season four's credits were coloured in yellow. Or amber, if you prefer... ominous in itself when you consider that amber is used in the second universe as a preservative to prevent any holes in the world from growing and spreading. And this new season's setting and characters are different. Despite the lack of Peter, there has still been a "bridge" built between the universes, and the two Fringe teams are working together to repair the damage rather than to destroy each other. But the characters are subtly altered. Our Olivia is harder, having killed her abusive stepfather without Peter there to save her as a child. She was brought up by Massive Dynamic's Nina Sharp, and wears pale pink lipstick. Her redheaded counterpart from the other universe is no longer a mother (has never been a mother - Peter never existed and so neither did their son Henry.) Walter is more broken, and never leaves his lab in the Harvard basement. Other characters are still alive who should have been dead, and vice-versa. It would be interesting to watch the entire first three seasons through and pay attention to every event influenced by Peter in one way or another.

Despite what the observers (the creepy pale bald men who keep showing up whenever anything big is about to happen, and who know too much) have said, it is not that Peter never existed, but that both versions of him really did die as a child. Except, whoops, he doesn't seem to have got the memo, and materialises in the river to find himself in a terrifying It's A Wonderful Life world where no one knows him. His memories are intact, but the world around him is not quite the same - everything and everyone that had been impacted by coming into contact with Peter now is as if he had never been there. The big question is: is this yet another alternative universe, or an altered version of his own world? Can he go home, or is he there already, finding it changed out of recognition?

In this version of reality, poor Olivia is suffering from dreadful migraines - which turn out to have been induced by mysterious figures breaking into her house and secretly dosing her with Cortexifan, the mind-enhancing drug developed by William Bell and Walter Bishop to give her psychic powers. And then we discover that Massive Dynamic's Nina Sharp - in this version, her own foster-mother - is behind it all. As a migraine-sufferer, I hated her for this. Clearly Nina is up to something nefarious - but never mind that; inflicting migraines on a person is pure evil.

But as it happens, it is the other Nina Sharp behind the migraines - the one from the other universe and it turns out she is working for someone else: David Robert Jones, the Big Bad of season one. We last saw him gruesomely killed by being trapped in a door between universes - but in the Peterless universe, Jones survived and is as magnificently evil as ever. His purposes are not made clear, but they are full of havoc and destruction, the end of the world.

Episode nineteen takes a break from the main season's plotline and flashes forward to a very bad future. It begins with scrolling text: "They came from the future." The title credit sequence, traditionally covered in words of science just outside possibility, is changed to include words such as "Joy" "Individuality" "Community." I wibbled and screamed a bit watching this new sequence. If the future Peter had witnessed from the doomsday machine at the end of season three was grim, it is nothing compared with this future. The observers are revealed to have come from a future Earth - perhaps a later stage of human evolution - and we already knew that they can see all points in time, all the different things that might happen. But now it seems they are not just disinterested observers, dispassionately committed to ensuring that events take their rightful course. Now we see another side to them - time travellers from an uninhabitable future earth, who come to 2036 and enslave humanity.

We are introduced to a new team of resistance fighters, and find Walter, Peter and Astrid (who I have unjustly neglected in my reviews. She is a brilliant scientist, a valuable member of the Fringe team, and just lovely) frozen a la Han Solo in amber. Olivia is nowhere to be seen, which is ominous. Earlier in the season (in her own time) she was warned by an Observer that there is no version of the future in which she will not die. Well... surely that goes without saying of anyone? But Olivia has taken his message to heart, and expects this death to be imminent. One young woman from the future resistence (Etta) at one point claims Walter as her grandfather, which set my mind going. If she's, say, 24, she could have been born not long after the current season takes place. Her name - Etta - short for Henrietta - and what was the other Olivia's short-lived son's name, again? Yes, she really is Peter and Olivia's daughter, Walter's granddaughter. Which means that Olivia has a little longer to live, anyway.

Episode twenty takes us right back to the present day, as if we had not seen the future, and we meet the real - real - Big Bad. Now, I'd accidentally been spoiled on this by reading the box blurb. I had thought before that we had not finished the William Bell story. His attempt at immortality in season three had gone nowhere. But after all the shenanigans involved in getting the character into season three without showing Leonard Nimoy - Anna Torv's uncanny impersonation, the animated episode - I had not expected to actually see him in the role again. But it seems that he just cannot stay in retirement. I'd never been quite sure where to place Dr Bell on the scale of good and evil. Certainly his methods were morally dubious, but he was pretty likeable in person. But in this altered universe in which Peter died young, Dr Bell had heard his science partner's rage against the universe and decided to do something about it: to destroy the world and create a new one for just him and Walter, a universe with no place for the human race.

Of course, the season finale ends with the Fringe team saving the day again, but not without great cost. Bell needed Olivia's psychic powers to bring about his new universe, so Walter shoots not his old friend, but Olivia herself. (It's all right - she gets better.) Apocalypse is averted once more, Olivia is expecting a baby, so Peter, Olivia and Walter can look forward to a bright new future...

Future, you say? Remember episode nineteen...

Best episodes: 

2. One Night In October: The Fringe team recruit the other-world counterpart of a serial killer to help solve their case.
6. And Those We've Left Behind: Time loops can be traced back to a husband's desperation to keep hold of his wife.
10. Forced Perspective: A teenage girl has the power to predict death.
11. Making Angels: A beautiful episode bringing together the Astrids of both worlds.
14. The End of All Things: Olivia is held captive. David Robert Jones wants her powers.
18. The Consultant: Events in one universe have effects on the other.
19. Letters of Transit: The terrifying future, in which the Observers have enslaved mankind.
20. Worlds Apart: After spending a season working together, the two Fringe teams must say goodbye and close the door between their worlds.
21 and 22: Brave New World: In which we discover a bigger, badder Big Bad planning a bigger, badder apocalypse than ever before.

Just one more season to go now, and it's a short one - only 13 episodes compared with the other seasons' 22. I'm expecting this final season to take place mostly or entirely in the bad future of episode 19, which is a chilling thought. I wonder if it might not have been better to finish the series here - but then that would leave season 19 as an unfinished plotline. Besides, I thought that last season and look how season 4 turned out!
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