Tuesday 9 February 2016

A Valentine's Day Top Ten Tuesday for the Singletons

Top Ten Tuesdays are created and hosted by the Broke and the Bookish.

It's that time of the year where you are constantly surrounded by red hearts and cutesy teddy-bears (and if you're really lucky, a display table of pink stationery at Staples!) as the shops cash in on coupledom even more than usual. Romantic love is a fine thing (she says, grudgingly) but, despite the media assuming that everybody is (heterosexually) paired up, it is not a part of every person's life - and nor is the single person's life incomplete without their "other half." So in this week's Valentine-themed Top Ten Tuesday I've chosen to celebrate literature's single heroes and heroines.

  1. Bilbo Baggins: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. Perhaps because The Hobbit has literally no female characters (unless, as I still like to believe, some of Thorin's band are lady dwarves but Bilbo is too unobservant to notice) but it is one of the few stories out there without a single romantic subplot. In decades following his adventures, Bilbo lives a happy and comfortable bachelor's life at Bag Eng, the eccentric of Hobbiton. His nephew, Frodo, hero of Lord of the Rings also never marries or even considers it as a possibility. He is rather more damaged by his adventures, and opens his home to his good friend Sam and his family before crossing the sea to find healing in "the West."
  2. Sherlock Holmes in the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has no time for romantic distractions; his work is too important to him to even consider courtship or marriage. Almost certainly asexual and aromantic.*
  3. Esmerelda "Granny" Weatherwax: Discworld by Sir Terry Pratchett.  Granny Weatherwax is the leader that witches don't have: stubborn, prickly and judgemental, Granny nonetheless has a strong moral compass and a huge heap of resentment for it - she'd rather have been the wicked witch of the family. Her brand of witchcraft is mostly plain common sense, with just a little bit of magic when necessary. One of Sir Pterry's most enduring characters.
  4. Mark Watney: The Martian by Andy Weir. We don't know a lot about Watney's personal life on earth, but for the duration of the novel he is the only person on a planet for over a year. That's pretty much as single as they come. Watney's resourcefulness, resilience and a quirky sense of humour help him to survive an impossible situation.
  5. Matthew Cuthbert: Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery. I could have equally selected Matthew's sister Marilla here, but Matthew seems more at peace with his bachelor existence - after all, if he were to court a woman, he'd have to talk to her, and Matthew is the shyest man imaginable. He lives a quiet life as a hard-working farmer, but his world is turned upside down by the arrival of a little red-headed chatterbox one spring morning.
  6. Professor Minerva McGonagall: Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling. Rowling later revealed that Professor McGonagall was widowed, but as this happened a long time before the start of the series, I'll let that stand. She is the head of Gryffindor House at Hogwarts, and deputy head of the school, rather prim and stern on first meeting, but gradually revealed to have a softer side and fiercely protective of her students.
  7. The Hempstock women: The Ocean at the End of the Lane - Neil Gaiman. I'm including all three here, as they are inseparable, three generations of women (one a little girl who has been a little girl for a very long time.) There have been men, perhaps,once, but the Hempstocks are a self-sufficient matriarchy on a cosy farm, seem very ordinary on the outside, but beneath that homely surface runs a deep, strong power.
  8. The Marquis de Carabas: Neverwhere - Neil Gaiman. I'm not sure de Carabas really counts as I'm quite certain he has dozens of lovers off the page. But, at the same time, he is an imposing, tricky, solitary figure, like the cat from the fairy tale from which he has taken his name and built his reputation.
  9. Snufkin: The Moomins by Tove Jansson. Snufkin is a solitary wanderer, quietly self-confident, and although he has good friends among the Moomin clan, he always stands a little by himself, happily playing his harmonica and thinking wise and philosophical thoughts.
  10. Miss Jenny Honey: Matilda by Roald Dahl.  Despite - or perhaps because of - her abusive upbringing at the hands of her monstrous aunt (and now employer) Miss Trunchbull, Miss Honey is a gentle, kind-hearted primary school teacher, beloved by the children in her class, and who takes particular care for child prodigy Matilda. Jenny is the sort of teacher who makes a child want to come to school in the morning, makes learning fun, sweet but determined that a child gets every opportunity possible, a quiet protector even while still living in terror of her aunt. She is a survivor; her home is a tiny, shabby cottage, her food is plain, and yet it is her sanctuary.  But little as she has, she does not hesitate to share it with Matilda to save her from the miserable, neglected childhood she herself experienced. 
A note: This was a really tricky list to come up with. I was very strict with what constituted "single" - someone who goes on dates does not qualify, nor do child characters or a lady who spends most of the book single before finding her prince charming just in time for the end of the book. Women in particular were very difficult to find; in centuries of novels, most ladies seem to be there to support their men or to eventually find a man to support them - or be the slightly sad or ridiculous maiden aunt whose life has passed her by. What does it say that three of my four female entries are either old witches or witch-ish? 

There must be more stories about single ladies living their lives where "happily ever after" doesn't mean married with kids. (And I recognise that I too need to write these stories.)

One of my Twitter friends, @thepagelady suggested a couple of titles I hadn't come across before: Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George and Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell, both of whose protagonists are girls or women who are "single by circumstances." Definitely books I plan to look out for.

 Can you suggest any more examples?

*There's an extra "n" in it. I have no idea how he smells. Probably like pipe tobacco.

Monday 8 February 2016

Old Stories, New Settings: on modern-day adaptations of classic literature

I always used to consider myself a purist when it came to adaptations of beloved books. I have a button badge that says "The Book Was Better," and yes, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it is. And yet we book-lovers do like to watch film adaptations of familiar stories, to see the stories and characters we know and love brought to life. Woe betide anyone who gets it wrong! But can anyone really reproduce the films that play out in a person's mind when they read a book? No one ever reads the same book as anyone else, or so they say; everyone brings something new to the reading. But a good story is timeless, and so often people demonstrate this by bringing old stories to a new setting, to show how themes and characters can transcend a single place and time. It's an idea I used to frown upon, but have come to appreciate. Viewing a familiar tale in a new way can give you a new understanding and better appreciation of the original text.

The point at which I first acknowledged this was in the summer of 2010, when the BBC showed the first series of Sherlock. I recognised the brilliance of casting Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman (even without a moustache) as the Great Detective and his sidekick, before I even identified that they were dressed in modern clothes. They were Holmes and Watson, there was no doubt about it. From before Holmes appeared on-screen, from the first time he spoke, his character was clearly defined, given new life free from the trappings of the smoggy setting of Victorian London and its formal language.


I didn't need to read the back blurb of Jacqueline Wilson's recent novel Katy to know what it was. A Katy on a swing? Well, that would be a modern-day telling of Susan Coolidge's What Katy Did, a classic that was inevitably a big part of my childhood - and indeed now Nick Sharratt has illustrated a paperback of the original to match, a visual confirmation that times may change but children do not.

I knew that Wilson had liked that book as a child, although to the modern or older reader, the Victorian moralising is rather unpalatable now. Jacqueline Wilson specialises in stories about dysfunctional families and flawed but believable child heroes and heroines, so adapting What Katy Did plays to her strengths. I really liked how closely she stuck to the original, especially in the first half of the book, mirroring even the minor details: the ice-house, on which the children love to sit, has become a garage roof. Aunt Izzie is now Katy and Clover's stepmother, and middle-child misfit Elsie their stepsister, while the younger ones are at least half-siblings. It was the details of the children's make-believe storytelling and games that made that story come alive for me as a child, so it's really interesting to see what their modern-day counterparts get up to (and it is really not that much different at all. Katy and her friend Cecy have mobile phones now, instead of "post-offices" in the garden, but they use them to taunt and exclude poor Elsie in just the same way.) Halfway through, at the time of the accident, the story moves away from the original What Katy Did and becomes a new Jacqueline Wilson book with 21st century values. Katy does not need to become reformed (and utterly dull) and be rewarded with miraculous healing. The world doesn't work that way, and by giving her heroine the challenges of accepting her limitations and setting herself new goals as a person with a disability, Jacqueline Wilson has written a more relatable young heroine for modern-day Katys to relate to.

Possibly the most adapted and updated story of them all is Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, the tale of hate turning to love that has formed the starting point of most romantic comedies. Bride and Prejudice brings a Bollywood twist to the classic tale. The world has grown smaller, but human nature remains, and the formalities and misunderstandings of Regency England translates well into the cultural divide between a rich, haughty American businessman and a bright young Indian woman whose mother wants to arrange good marriages for all her daughters. Oh, you know the story! Bride and Prejudice is a smart, funny, sometimes corny but feel-good adaptation of the old story.

Then, of course, there's Bridget Jones's Diary, based on the novel by Helen Fielding (which I think was originally published as a weekly newspaper column.) I read and watched this before I ever read Pride and Prejudice (yes, there was such a time!) and haven't seen it for ages, but although it's more loosely based on Austen's novel, there are clear parallels in this tale of a thirty-something singleton surrounded by smug marrieds, with the charming cad on one side, and on the other hand the snob called Darcy who looks like Colin Firth (the ultimate bit of meta-casting.)

The latest adaptation Pride and Prejudice heralded a new kind of storytelling in the form of the Literary-Inspired Webseries. Filmed in short episodes in video-journal format, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries give us Lizzie Bennet, a twenty-something graduate student who has moved back home with her family in a difficult financial climate, wondering what future there is in store for someone with an English degree - a painfully relatable variation on the theme. Most of the drama happens with Lizzie relating events to her video journal (with some interruptions from friends and family, and some excellent re-enactments.) Ashley Clements is sassy and expressive as Lizzie, Laura Spencer (wasn't she in The Big Bang Theory as Emily?) is sweet and lovable, while Mary Kate Wiles is lovably obnoxious as Lydia, as you'd expect, but shows more character growth than Austen allowed her, and a rare vulnerability later on. The other two sisters are relegated to being Mary the Emo Cousin who Lizzie (perfect!) and Kitty is literally Lydia's adoring cat.

Since The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Youtube has been rather overrun with modern-day video-diary versions of every classic imaginable: all the Austen, I think, Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, Little Women, and my beloved Anne of Green Gables has got not one but two webseries inspired by it. Green Gables Fables came first, starring Mandy Harmon as Anne, and in September returned for its second season. I think it took a little while to get really good, as the actors grew into their characters. It is very faithful to the book, although I wasn't quite sure that some of the substitutions quite reflected the original - having a manicure at the salon, for example, doesn't quite have the same importance as finally getting to wear nice clothes, and the hair disaster and the cake disaster less dramatic. But by the time Gilbert Blythe turns up in the middle of the first season, it got into its stride, and it is notable for its amount of "transmedia" with Youtube channels for supporting characters, who all have regularly-updated Twitter accounts interacting with each other for things that can't be shown in a five-minute video diary once a week. Tanner Gilman is a magnificently lovable, nerdy Gilbert Blythe, who is more important to get right than a Mr Darcy (and I'm sorry, women everywhere, but I still don't get the appeal. Not when I've grown up with Gilbert Blythe.)

Between the first and second seasons, Green Gables Fables filled in with some of the events of Anne of Avonlea updated and the stories told through their social media. Season two focuses on Anne of the Island, which follows Anne at Redmond College. It diverged a little from the book at the beginning with a subplot about Diana, who never went to university in the book, and yet it seems mostly to remain true to their characters - the growing distance between two friends, Diana being more of a homebody while Anne is academic and ambitious. The format doesn't always quite work; how do you show intensely private moments in a "Hello world, this is what happened to me today" video diary? And fitting four years' worth of events into one academic year also has its occasional uncomfortable juxtaposition of events happening too close together (notably Anne's romantic woes.) But I'm so glad to see Anne of Green Gables being talked about more - and discussions use the books as a starting point, instead of the (albeit excellent) 1985 TV miniseriesGreen Gables Fables is an immersive storytelling experience, putting the viewer into the story and living through it as it unfolds. There's been some extraordinary writing and acting, and Ruby Gillis's last video made a fine adaptation of a particular scene in Anne of the Island. 

And I'm completely spoilt in having Project Green Gables as well. This Finnish-made adaptation re-imagines Anne Shirley as a black foster kid in a mostly-white community, a decision that gives added weight to the story in a contemporary setting. Like her ginger counterpart, Anne has her own hair woes, though with its natural texture rather than colour, and this change gives a deeper, more serious interpretation than mere vanity. Gilbert is going to have to work very hard at repentance for his hair taunts, and you can't blame Anne or laugh about her unforgiveness under these circumstances. This isn't a petty matter any more. As I write this, the story is up to the point of the Great Hair Disaster, and in Project Green Gables, Anne's rash mistake is buying a cheap chemical hair relaxer from the internet, with devastating results.

Project Green Gables may be less polished than Green Gables Fables, but it is more adventurous when it comes to adapting scenes and chapters of Anne's life to a modern setting, and by doing so it better retains and underlines the nuances of the original. It is not a brooch that Marilla accuses Anne of stealing, but her prescription medicine, an accusation that cuts much deeper and has potentially far-reaching consequences. She's not an orphan any more, but a foster child of unreliable parents. And just her gossip about Avonlea school goings-on makes me think about the original, so-familiar text in a different light. Laura Eklund Nhaga plays a very different Anne Shirley to Mandy Harmon - and yet they both are Anne, bringing out complementary sides to her personality. Both Annes are aged up to about sixteen or seventeen, whereas in the book she first appears as a precocious eleven-year-old. Laura Eklund Nhaga brings out her innocence, her passion and enthusiasm, her non-stop joyful chatter, instantly convincing me that she was Anne. The supporting cast are also wonderful, and like Anne, they are the book characters come to life but in a very different way from Green Gables Fables. A special mention for including the hilariously obnoxious Charlie Sloane, not a character who tends to be very prominent in film adaptations. The series shows a deep knowledge of the source material, easily making reference to the little things as well as the defining events.

With two webseries adaptations as well as a film and a new television adaptation in the works, I'm over the moon. Anyone who knows me will tell you that Anne of Green Gables is the book that defines me, and although I can hardly fault the best-known television adaptation, as far as I'm concerned, the more Anne, the better.

Sunday 7 February 2016

The London Bookshop Crawl 2016

I love book shopping. I know, what a shocker! But nice as it is going book shopping on my own, it's so much better going with friends, to make an event of it, where we all enable each other to buy ALL the books and spend too much money on additions to our towering to-read piles. Last year I went on three book shopping trips with online friends and also went to Hay on Wye for a couple of days with a friend from the Isle of Wight. Yesterday was The Big One, the London Bookshop Crawl Bex has spent months organising for friends, family and anyone else who wanted to come along.

It was an early start for me. Ordinarily for an event like this I would stay overnight at my sister's flat in South-West London and travel from there, but she was very inconsiderately away for the weekend, so I decided to make a day trip of it. The weather forecast was not promising, predicting gale-force winds and non-stop heavy rain for Saturday, so I found myself awake until the early hours worrying and making contingency plans just in case the passenger ferry from Cowes were to be cancelled. When it came to it, although it was a little drizzly and a little blustery, I had a very calm and uneventful crossing, and I got up to London at around ten.

We met in the cafe at Foyle's, where two tables had been reserved for the party, and several people were sitting around chatting, with coffee, cakes and pastries. Other members of the group had gone off around the shop. I was particularly excited to meet Ellie (from Bournemouth) and Ellie (from London), who I've known online and whose blogs I've been reading for years, but had never met, and Erica turned up not long afterwards. Erica reviews bookshops, rather than books, and her blog is a rather handy directory of recommendations which I check out every time I go to a new town or plan a London trip.

Once we'd got everyone together in one place, we set off down the road to Orbital Comics, a friendly and not at all Big Bang Theory-esque comic book shop. We had a mixture of comic book newbies and devotees in the group - I'm more of a newbie, and prefer short series or stand-alone titles to those which have been running for decades. Several members of the group had copies of Lumberjanes, which was a series I've been vaguely aware of through following the author Noelle Stevenson on social media, so that was my first purchase.

After Orbital we headed back to Charing Cross Road and Cecil Court, the bookshop centre of London. The shops were somewhat smaller in that area, so we broke up into smaller groups. My first stop was Any Amount of Books, which, although I didn't recognise it by name, is one of my old favourite Charing Cross Road haunts from my student days. I found several "maybe" books in there, but didn't want to load up too soon, so I left  The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl, Fannie Flagg's Standing in the Rainbow and a children's adventure book set at the Isle of Wight's very own Blackgang for another time. (I kind of regret not buying the Blackgang book though; I've never seen it before.) If anyone's read these books, do let me know what you think! I bought What She Left by T. R. Richmond, a book I've vaguely had my eye on at work, and went back to the till a second time after Nnedi Okorafor's Lagoon caught my eye and shouted "Buy me! Buy me!" How can you refuse such a call?

Cecil Court is full of bookshops of all sorts, though many specialised in collectors' editions. Marchpane is the children's bookshop (and wasn't it once in the Goldsboro premises?) It had Enid Blyton hardbacks, Chalet School books, including one of the few I've never been able to get hold of (for good reason, looking at the price!) I ran into Bournemouth Ellie and some other people - I'm sorry I can't remember exactly who as I hadn't learned everyone's names yet, but I think Louise was one, and possible Katherine too (and apologies if I've spelled your name wrong or assigned you the wrong Twitter identity) - in Goldsboro Books where we sighed over a £7500 set of first editions of Lord of the Rings. Goldsboro prides itself on being "The Home of Signed First Editions.) Not everything was out of our price range though; all the expensive books were of course locked in glass cabinets, but signed first editions of brand-new books sold at their retail price. I treated myself to Ali Smith's new book Public Library, it being National Library day and all.


Out in the street I found a poor lost and lonely Laura and, after a bit of window-shopping, took her on a little detour to Forbidden Planet, feeling slightly treacherous as I did so, as she and Bex had been arguing for ages about whether that ought to be part of the Crawl or not. I hold my hands up Bex, it really was my suggestion. We stopped off for lunch at Laura's favourite little noodle place in Leicester Square, before rejoining the group and trekking up to Persephone Books, where a very lovely member of staff was expecting us. I think, however, she was not expecting quite so many of us as we filed in... and filed in... and filed in until we were packed into the little shop like sardines in a can. The bookseller, whose name I think was Lydia, gave as a tour of the "backstage" area; office and storeroom and packing area, because Persephone is mostly a mail-order company and everything happens on site. She also talked us through what Persephone publishes (out-of-print books mostly from women writers of the early 20th century) and recommended some titles for different tastes and genres. She was an excellent hostess, really knew her stock, and it looked like we came away with multiple copies of all her recommendations between us. I bought The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, which is my friend Sharon's favourite Persephone publication, as well as Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins, one of the bookseller's suggestions. Persephone had a 3 for £30 deal (normally their books cost £12 each) so many of the group teamed up with other people buying one or two books to make the most of that offer. You also get a free bookmark with each purpose, matching the books' colourful vintage endpapers, which are prints from fabrics made in the year of first publication.

Next we traipsed down to the London Review Bookshop. This shop selects its stock on its merits over than bestseller quality, meaning that the books on display aren't necessarily what you would find in every branch of Waterstone's and WH Smith. By this point my shoulders were starting to ache from my rucksack and all my shopping bags, so Ailsa, who I'd got chatting with, and I squeezed into a corner of the busy cake shop for a mid-shopping snack. While we were in there, the group agreed to miss out Daunt Books, which was due to be the next stop, as we were running over time, and most of them headed off to our final bookshop, the massive Piccadilly branch of Waterstone's. Ailsa and I stayed at the LRB a while longer, and I was sorely tempted to stock up on many of the fiction hardbacks on the recommendations table (and that's before we even get onto the paperback shelves) but limited myself to one: Yuki Chan in Bronte Country by Mick Jackson. We stopped off at the craft shop next door (and now I know where I can stock up on sealing wax when I run out of the stuff that came with my Harry Potter stationery box) and met up with the group at Waterstone's. I then proceeded to hand out copies of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet to everyone who'd expressed an interest in sci-fi. Tina and I had kept on running into each other deliberating over whether or not to buy Loney, winner of the Costa First Novel prize. I did, she didn't. My last purchases of the day were Gracekeepers author Kirsty Logan's short story collection The Rental Heart... and another copy of Anne of Green Gables. Yes, that makes four. Not including the colouring book, the journal, all the Anne stationery, and other books in the series. It's the luscious little Collectors' library edition, pocket-sized with gold-edged pages and illustrations, and all for the price of a trade paperback.

Many members of the group began heading off homewards around that point, and Laura, Bex and I ("the founding members") found some comfy chairs up on the fourth floor and sat down to rest our feet and chat about how the day had gone. It went AMAZINGLY. I don't think I've ever been with so many like-minded bookish people, even when I was at university studying books. Everyone was a kindred spirit, easy to join a conversation with, even though we didn't all know each other to begin with. I'm just sorry I didn't get to talk to everyone. Those of us who were left at 6ish had a table booked at Pizza Express, a really lovely end to a fantastic day. It was a long journey home, with a slight delay on the Southampton line, so I took a slightly earlier and faster train than the one I'd initially intended. I got a taxi from the station and arrived at the Red Jet terminal with plenty of time to spare. The journey across the Solent was a little choppy, but hardly the chaos and disruption I'd been led to believe (though that may still be to come.) I finished my day when I got home with a "special" hot chocolate (with a splash of Bailey's) and was in bed by midnight, where I stayed for the next eleven hours. A long day (and an expensive one) but such a happy one.

Friday 5 February 2016

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet - Becky Chambers

When Ashby, Captain of the Wayfarer, takes on a new clerk, not all of the crew think he's made the right decision. Rosemary is young and inexperienced, and this is her first time off her home planet of Mars. But Rosemary is efficient and friendly, if reserved, and does not take long to settle in among the Wayfarer's varied crew. And if she has some secrets she'd rather keep in her past, well, doesn't everyone?

The Wayfarer is not a military ship, nor a diplomatic one, or a rag-tag bunch of crooks evading capture. It's a construction ship whose main job is to build wormholes. The latest job is the biggest yet: a tunnel from an unknown part of the galaxy, to aid an alliance between the Galactic  Commons and a somewhat volatile and dangerous tribe. But first, they have to get there...

As the title suggests, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is the story of a journey, a character study of a small cast in a confined space (with the occasional stop along the way.) I enjoyed it as a leisurely read, taking my time over the book, and enjoying getting to know the characters and the universe portrayed. The different species are really diverse, not with just one "hat" to mark each one out as different, but with a wide variety of cultures, appearances, beliefs and language styles. This is not an Earth-centric setting; the Humans (from Mars and from the Exodus Fleet outside the Solar System - Earth is all but deserted) are fairly new additions to the Galactic Commons. Dates are measured in tenday periods, which add up to Standards (and I'm pretty sure a day is not the twenty four hours of Earth. Why would it be?) The universal language is Klip. As well as five humans: the Wayfarer's crew includes Sissix, of the very tactile reptilian species Aandrisk, the ship's doctor and cook known as Dr Chef, who is Grum, a near-extinct people who change gender over the course of a lifetime, Ohan, a Sianat Pair, short-lived joined species (comparable to Star Trek's Trill) who are always described in the plural. And Lovey, the AI, who tends to get overlooked but is a much-valued and loved part of the team. 

What struck me as remarkable in Small Angry Planet was that this really is a civilian ship. When did you last see an unarmed spaceship in science fiction? Star Trek's Starfleet may claim not to be military, but follows a strong naval tradition, and its exploration starships are heavily armed with phasers and photon torpedoes, which are regularly used. Star Wars is full of lightsabers and blasters. Battlestar Galactica and her fleet are engaged in a desperate fight for survival against the Cylons. Firefly's rebels are armed and fight dirty. But the Exodan humans are pacifists, and Ashby refuses to allow weapons aboard his ship, even for self-defence. It struck me as shocking and sad to realise that violence is taken for granted even in the Utopian futures, and Small Angry Planet is revolutionary just by not arming this tunnelling ship. And it shouldn't be. But being unarmed doesn't always protect them

What happens when the Wayfarer reaches its destination, while tense, twisty and shocking, is not really the point. It's about the journey, both the long physical voyage in space, and the changes in each of the characters as they change and grow, confront secrets, challenges and dilemmas. They don't always make the right decisions. Some choices will reverberate past the end of the book. 

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a really fresh, intelligent and fun science fiction novel. As Stephen King's 11.22.63 affected the way I view time-travel, so Small Angry Planet set a new standard for space-travel stories. And there is a sequel on its way later this year. I usually prefer stand-alone stories to series, but Becky Chambers' universe and characters are too vast, too rich, to be contained within 400 pages. It feels as though we've only just scratched the surface.

Monday 1 February 2016

January mini-reviews: The Tree of Seasons, Galaxy Quest, Pride

I took a trip to nearby Ryde a couple of weeks ago to explore the big bookshop there, and spent a good hour browsing all the rooms and nooks (and being plunged into darkness at one point when the electricians didn't see me hiding in a corner.) I'm sure I've written about Ryde bookshop before. The front part houses the new books, and then you go through a door to the labyrinth behind: three stories of second-hand books: genre fiction and travel at the back, general fiction lining the halls and stairways, and several rooms for children's books and non-fiction of every genre imaginable. I always feel that you can get lost in "L-Space" in a shop like that, take a wrong turning and you might end up in another bookshop in another town. After much deliberation, I bought A Place Called Winter new, and a couple of science fiction novels. 

On the way back to the bus stop, I wandered into a charity shop where I found myself confronted with another name from my childhood: my first celebrity crush, Boyzone singer Stephen Gately, with whom I was embarrassingly besotted during my early teens (don't judge me!) Although I hadn't thought of him for years, it still came as a shock in the autumn of 2009 when Stephen died at the age of just 33. (You might remember  that marking another landmark in the "how low can they go" history of the rag known as the Daily Mail when they published a really hateful article insinuating that instead of suffering the hitherto unknown heart condition diagnosed by the coronors, Stephen basically Died Of Gay.) Anyway, he was writing a children's book at the time - I read somewhere that he was very much against the use of ghostwriters, although the book was ultimately finished off for him from his notes and probably edited a lot - and it was this book, The Tree of Seasons, which I found in the Cancer Research shop on a 2 for £1 deal.

The Tree of Seasons is a rather charming fairy tale, evoking the feeling of endless summer found in Enid Blyton, Narnia, The Hounds of the Morrigan and others. Three siblings, Josh, Michael and Beth Lotts, go exploring in the forbidden woods behind their great-aunt's house, and find within a tree a portal to four magical kingdoms, each controlling a season of the year. But all is not as it should be; the ruler of the autumn kingdom has been overthrown by an evil witch whose influence is spreading out into the world beyond. It is up to the Lotts children to stop her. The plot is a fairly conventional story of the genre, a McGuffin-hunt, with good and evil characters, peril and unlikely friendship. But the world-building is immersive, atmospheric and poetic, the book a joyful celebration of nature. 

On the subject of famous people I like dying, 2015 was a notorious year, with the loss of Leonard Nimoy, Sir Terry Pratchett, Sir Christopher Lee and the actor who played "Gilbert Blythe," Jonathan Crombie. We're only at the end of January but already 2016 is almost matching last year, adding David Bowie and Alan Rickman to that list within about three days of each other, and yesterday I woke up to the news of TV and radio personality Terry Wogan's death as well, all three from cancer. My local radio station has been playing even more Bowie songs than usual, and of course that week I rewatched one of my favourite films from my teens, Labyrinth. It was harder to choose just one of Rickman's films to remember him by: Harry Potter or Robin Hood? Die Hard or Sense and Sensibility? But I went with Galaxy Quest, the affectionate Star Trek spoof described by George Takei as "a chillingly realistic documentary," in which a once-great sci-fi cast, who relive (or endlessly suffer through) their glory days on the convention circuit, get mistaken for real-life space heroes by a race of aliens in desperate need of help. Rickman's performance as the self-loathing thespian (who is never without his alien prosthetic headgear) is a thing of beauty, the film is gloriously quotable, poking fun at all that is ridiculous about the likes of Star Trek, while also celebrating what has made it endure for half a century. As an  honorary entry in the Trek canon, I'd rank it second only to The Wrath of Khan (tied with The One With The Whales.)

After Ellie emailed me to tell me she'd bought and watched one of my more recent favourite films, Pride, I got so excited about her discovering it for the first time that I needed to rewatch it again. And again (twice in two nights.) I could quite easily reach the end and go straight back to the beginning yet again, if I didn't stop myself. It's quite rare for me to find a film so good I don't want it to end; no matter how good a movie might be, normally once it's passed the 90 minute mark I tend to find my attention wandering a little until the climax. Pride is one of those British comedies about unlikely people achieving big things against all the odds, like Billy Elliot and The Full Monty. It's set during the miners' strike of 1984-1985, and based on true events, when a group of gay men and women from London pledge their support for a Welsh mining community. Strong friendships are built between these two very different groups of people. The script is spot-on, uplifting, with a ready wit, and acted by a stellar cast of big names, such as Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy and Paddy Considine and relative newcomers like Ben Schnetzer, George MacKay and Faye Marsay. It is an absolute joy to spend a couple of hours in the company of these warm-hearted characters.* We see them grow and change as we become acquainted with them, from activist Mark Ashton, to still-closeted young Joe ("Bromley") to Bill Nighy's character Cliff, on first appearances a rather uncomfortable, stern gentleman but who, we come to discover, has a poetic soul, a deep abiding passion for the coal that is at the heart of his homeland, and secrets he's held for decades. Imelda Staunton as matriarch Hefina is magnificent (she must surely banish any thoughts of Professor Umbridge in this role.) Andrew Scott, who you might know as the gleefully evil Moriarty from the BBC's Sherlock, shows a contrasting subtlety in his portrayal of gentle bookseller Gethin, while Dominic West plays Gethin's partner Jonathan, a flamboyant but not cliched actor with secret battles of his own. The film ends with captions of "What happened next," a bittersweet mixture of sadness and triumph, and one simple sentence about Jonathan is particularly sweet.

Pride was an instant addition to my top films of all time; it is perhaps as close as you can get to the perfect film. It tackles difficult subjects with an illusion of ease, is by turns moving, inspiring, and hilarious. You'll laugh, you'll cry tears of sadness but more of joy and mirth. The ultimate feel-good film. Oh dear, I might have to go and watch it again.

*because, although many are based on real people, some of whom were interviewed in the extras and extraordinarily well cast, by nature of being written into a drama, they are characters nonetheless.) 
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