Friday, 21 July 2017

TV: Doctor Who, Season Ten and Beyond.

I've been reluctant to admit it, but the last few years my interest in Doctor Who has started to wane. I can trace the decline in fanaticism to the first mid-season break in season six. The series had its most ambitious, complex narrative arc to date, but splitting the season in half stalled the momentum, and giving us just a few episodes at a time for two or three years did not give me the chance to really become invested. There came a change in companion, then in Doctor. I did not warm to Clara at all; she was primarily a mystery to be solved, and her characterisation followed the narrative's requirements instead of shaping the plot.

I've rewatched the first five and a half seasons enough times that it probably wouldn't be too hard to give you a rundown of the episodes, but after that first mid-season cliffhanger, everything starts to blur together in my memory, and only the odd episodes, characters and ideas stand out: the War Doctor, Missy, the immortal girl-woman Ashildir, and the chilling puzzle-box episode "Heaven-Sent." There was still some great material, but it just did not come together as it might.




Season ten is a return to form. With a new companion comes a fresh start, and Bill's first episode was the closest thing to an introduction to the series since Matt Smith's first episode. The danger with telling the story of a man who goes here and there throughout all of space and time is that the narrative risks being untethered. This year, the writers introduced a simple yet radical new element into the mix: stability. The Doctor has a profession, a purpose, for the first time since his brief stint living as John Smith. Ostensibly, he works as a university professor, and this shapes his relationship with his newest companion into that of teacher and student. Bill Potts is a breath of fresh air into the series: being the first openly gay companion (although there has been some bisexual representation in Jack Harkness, River Song, and probably Clara Oswald) means that there are none of the messy romantic feelings that have crept across the edges of Doctor-companion relations since the 1995 film. Bill catches the Doctor's eye because of her curiosity. "Most people, when they don't understand something, they frown," he tells her. "You smile." That line gives us a better understanding of Bill than the show gave us of Clara in three years. I loved Bill instantly; she is bright, curious, good-humoured and big-hearted - and a big old nerd. She brings her savviness of science fiction into the very science-fictional world she inhabits, and she wants to know everything. Who better to learn from than a tutor whose expertise spans all of time and space?

But The Doctor's real reason for the change in lifestyle, the real reason he has settled down to academic domesticity, is what's at the heart of this series, for he has sworn an oath to guard a locked vault for a thousand years. The Doctor goes on his adventures, as ever, but always he comes back to guard the vault, assisted by his assistant Nardole. A lesser series would have dragged out the mystery of what, or who, is in the vault until the finale. The story would stand or fall by the surprise factor - and if Doctor Who had done that this year, it would have fallen, as the mystery was easily deduced by the knowledge of which guest stars were returning. Instead, it was a story all about the characters. I don't think it's a great strength to say that it was a love story of sorts, a story of hope, loyalty, and redemption.

It's a shame that Doctor Who only returned to its former glories in Peter Capaldi's - and head writer Stephen Moffat's - final year with the series, but it's best to end the era on a high. The reason Doctor Who has kept going all this time is because it is not afraid of change; there is no more sure way of killing a TV show than to keep trying to satisfy the audience's desire for more of the same. Capaldi has one more episode, the Christmas special, and next year we can expect another fresh start with Chris Chibnall in charge of the writing and Jodie Whittaker playing the Doctor. I don't know much about either of these names, but they have worked together on Broadchurch, whose first and third series seem to have done very well, and I'm excited to see what they can do given the keys to the Tardis. There are limitless possibilities; my wish is for the Thirteenth Doctor to travel with more than one companion, in a practical outfit, with pockets aplenty!


Sunday, 14 May 2017

Book to TV: Anne with an E

Here I am, right on schedule to pronounce my judgement on the latest Anne of Green Gables adaptation, Netflix's Anne With An E. In the last two or three years I've been rather pleased by the abundance of different versions of Anne Shirley, what with last year's TV movie starring Ella Ballentine, and the two webseries, Green Gables Fables and Project Green Gables. But how does Anne With An E measure up to the rest?


The Ella Ballentine adaptation attempted to hint at a darker side to the familiar story, but it is a half-hearted effort, with little more than a few flashbacks to Anne's unhappy pre-Green-Gables life to add shadow. Ballentine is sweet and likeable, but her delivery of Anne's peculiar speeches feels calculated for effect; her "depths of despair" are melodramatic but quickly shrugged off. It sticks to the story, but on a surface level; it is the child's Anne. What makes Lucy Maud Montgomery's story stand out from her contemporaries like Pollyanna and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is her deft weaving of light and shadow; the light touch of sorrow makes the joy all the more rewarding. And so, it is not necessarily a bad thing that Anne With An E does explore more darkness than we are used to, mostly in examining how a childhood of neglect, drudgery and loneliness would form a character like Anne, with a second level exploring the attitudes of cliquey, small-town people towards an unknown orphan. There is some room to readjust the balance between darkness and light in this story, but it is a delicate process, to be handled with care, if Anne is not to skew too far either way. 

Anne With An E starts off with a superb pilot episode, sticking faithfully to the first fourteen chapters of the book, at least up to the last few minutes. Amy Beth McNulty is a wonderfully lovable and believable Anne - and unlike every other version where her plainness is in name only, her Anne is "terrible skinny and homely," all eyes and teeth and elbows. Her non-stop chatter is humorous and heartfelt, with an underlying desperation to please and to be loved. She is a more traumatised Anne than we've seen before, which does not take away from her endearing Anne qualities, but rather gives them more depth. Her imagination has helped her to survive. 

There is a solid supporting cast, especially R.H. Thomson and Geraldine James as Matthew and
Marilla Cuthbert. Marilla in particular is a "Spock" sort of character: it requires great subtlety to correctly convey the amount of emotion that goes on behind the repressed, stern facade, and James plays the part admirably. However, as in several of the other adaptations, it really bothers me that Anne's initial stay at Green Gables is dependent on her good behaviour; it does not sit well with me that Marilla would hold the threat of banishment over Anne like a weapon. Diana is a sweet girl and a devoted friend, without being Anne's shadow, and the series gives a different perspective towards her and her family; there is a noticeable difference in class between the Barrys and the Cuthberts. We also get to see a bit more of Aunt Josephine, and I enjoyed seeing a new side to this cantankerous old lady with a heart of gold. Gilbert Blythe passed the test; the popular boy in class, who is used to getting the girls' attention, mischievous but with a goodness and maturity that hints at the man he will become. Not that there's any room for the lovey-dovey stuff so early in the story, although Anne already doth protest too much.

I am open to different interpretations of Anne; I welcome them. I return to the story again and again because I get something new out of it every time I read it or watch an adaptation; if it was the same experience every time, I don't think it would be alive the way that it is. So I am not going to declare the story "ruined forever!" because another person reads it differently. Some of the scenes shown in Anne With An E did not work for me, but they gave me something to think about. I did not like Anne's frank speculations with her classmates about her teacher's relationship with Prissy Andrews - it seemed more Mary Vance from Rainbow Valley, a character who I view as the antithesis of Anne. And yet there was an innocence even in her scandalous breaking of taboos that she's not even aware of, that makes the scene make sense from another angle. The same could not be said about her lying about skipping school, when the show earlier worked so hard to establish Anne's honesty.


The faithfulness towards book details and historical setting varied wildly. The team worked hard at ensuring the right sorts of potatoes were used, and that Anne's schoolbook was correct, for example, and then might utterly blow it with something utterly anachronistic; a line of dialogue, the use of pinky-fingers in Anne and Diana's oath of friendship, and a progressive mother's group being so progressive that they use the words "feminism" and "suffragette" about twenty years before their first recorded use (if Anne With An E is set in 1876 like the book; the last two adaptations were brought forward to the turn of the century.) And it felt all wrong to show characters such as Mrs Andrews and Mr and Mrs Barry - the Cuthberts' nearest neighbours! - introducing themselves for the first time, when the defining characteristic of the Avonlea setting is that it is a small rural community where everyone knows everything about everyone else's business!


The publicity for Anne With An E, back when it was just called Anne, made a big point about introducing new themes of feminism and being true to yourself - except they are themes that have been in the text all along. Lucy Maud Montgomery was a remarkable woman for her time, very unusual to have a university education and an independent career, and throughout the books Anne defies society expectations with a similar determination. The addition of the minister telling Anne that she needs to learn to be a good wife, or the boys shouting at the girls to get back in the kitchen, felt like a heavy-handed imposition on the storytelling.


After the first episode, the plot takes ever-increasing detours away from the source material. I'm the person who takes note of every digression of the 1985 Megan Follows miniseries/film from the book; it (the first story, anyway) is so faithful there is only minutiae to criticise. I'm less of a purist than I used to be; I went into Anne With An E allowing for a lot of wiggle-room in the treatment of the story. It is an episodic book, so new episodes can be slotted in alongside the familiar ones, giving Anne new adventures without derailing the entire story. I didn't sit there saying "NO, IT DIDN'T HAPPEN LIKE THAT!" but considered each alteration under the question "could it have happened like that?" Sometimes yes, the changes fitted, and other times they did not. Some plot elements, although they did vary from the book, could have been written in collaboration with L.M. Montgomery herself, albeit the older, sadder Maud who wrote Rilla of Ingleside and The Blythes Are Quotes, the Maud revealed in her diaries. Other aspects felt heavily influenced by the Brontes, Dickens and Hardy. The narrative wanders off the path, then comes back for such key moments as the cracked slate, the raspberry cordial and the puffed sleeve dress, usually framed in a new and more sombre context. 


But with every step off the path, the plot gets further away from what is recognisably Anne, and I'm sorry to have to report that by the last episode, the series is well and truly lost in the Haunted Woods. Although I had a high tolerance for the series taking liberties with the plotline and the tone, I nearly switched off halfway through the final episode, watching one particular scene with absolute horror and fury. Unforgiveable is a strong word, and at the end of the day, even Anne of Green Gables is only a story, but one character's decision, and one newly-introduced plotline for a cliffhanger, felt like a violation of something precious. By the end, the dynamic of the story has changed, and I'm not sure how Anne With An E can find its way back to the sanctuary of Green Gables. 

Friday, 24 March 2017

Ten Things I Love About Beauty And The Beast (2017)

This post contains spoilers for the new film.

Beauty and the Beast has always had a special place in my heart, since I was a little girl. Maybe it's the recognition of a heroine just as much of a dreamer and a bookworm as myself, perhaps it's the songs, the snappy dialogue, the humour. I'm pretty sure a lot of it comes from memories of my younger sister singing the opening number "Belle" and about Gaston's worrying egg habits, with great energy and glee. Whatever the reasons, I love that film, and so when I found out there would be a live-action adaptation, my wariness of remakes instantly became a thing of the past. 

I didn't quite count on just how much I was going to love the new film, though. I don't consider myself a particularly romantic person, especially when it comes to fairy tales and Disney Princesses. I knew I would enjoy the film - how could I not? I was not counting on how happy Beauty and the Beast would make me. Quite aside from the nostalgia factor came the joy of seeing a fresh take on an old favourite, adding new depth and colour to the familiar tale. I fear the new - and the old - Beauty and the Beast will become my latest obsession; I could quite happily move into the cinema for the next month or so, just to keep watching that movie. 


1. It will come as no surprise to anyone that the bookish Belle was always my favourite Disney character. Emma Watson's portrayal plays up not only her academic intelligence, but also her practical, down-to-earth nature and her stubborn independence. She sounds like a believable person, not an actress or a fluttery princess. (although that might be bias on my part, having a similar accent.)  I particularly appreciated her scenes with Gaston, when she turns down his advances with no excuses, no flattery, but a simple "no." Bravo, that girl!

2. Also, who knew Emma Watson could sing? And I don't just mean she has a pretty voice. She knows how to use it - and I think it's actually quite rare to hear such clean, clear diction, without a hint of warble or sliding from one note to another. (Actually, that goes for most of the performers, come to think of it.)

3. Many of the plot holes, continuity errors and flaws of logic that have puzzled me from the animated film are corrected in the update. Originally, we learn that the Prince was given until his twenty-first birthday to break the spell, but Lumiere sings "ten years we've been rusting..." - what kind of enchantress curses a bratty preteen like that? This time around, the time is kept vague. And then consider Belle's puzzling arrangement with the bookseller. How does he stay in business when the only reader in town treats his shop as a library? The new film sees Belle borrowing her books from the priest, Pere Robert, instead.

4. I'm aware this is maybe a controversial one - but I really appreciated LeFou's storyline. A lot of people were unhappy about the unfortunate implications of making the villain's buffoonish henchman Disney's first officially gay character, or felt that because he plays a pretty minor role it was a case of too little, too late, and fair enough. But I thought that after Belle and the the Beast, his was the most interesting subplot - yes, the slapstick sidekick gets a subplot of his own! LeFou is still a comic character - funnier, in fact, in his own right - but gets some wonderful character development in this version, as he gradually comes to realise the friend he adores is a dangerous man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. LeFou's lines in "The Mob Song" gave me the shivers: "There's a beast running wild, there's no question/But I fear the wrong monster's released..."

5. The new film re-introduced some elements from the original fairy tale that were omitted from the animated tale, notably the rose that kicked off the whole plot. No, not the enchanted rose in the West Wing. The other rose. Also of note was the naming of Belle's village as Villeneuve - after Gabrielle Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, writer of the original "La Belle et la Bete."

6. I enjoyed the details that set Beauty and the Beast firmly in mid-eighteenth century France, complete with powdered wigs and make-up (even if the setting and dancing at the beginning made me think of nothing so much as the BBC's 2005 Casanova series.)

7. More was given over to the Beast's backstory; what made him the spoilt, selfish, loveless prince that he was, and why the household staff were punished (or, at least, felt as though they deserved to be punished) as well. He still doesn't get a name though.

8. There was an added element of poignancy for the enchanted servants, who stand to lose not only their chance of being human again if the Beast fails to break the spell, but also what little freedom they still retain, as they are becoming more and more like the objects whose forms they have taken.

9. Beauty and the Beast was always the most Musical with a capital M of all the Disney animations, with such glorious set pieces as "Be Our Guest" and ensemble numbers like "Belle," "Gaston" and "The Mob Song." Seeing the actors and sets brings home that this is more than just "the live-action version of a Disney film complete with songs. It is a musical - and there are a couple more epic ballads added to the film. I've been listening to the soundtrack on repeat since leaving the cinema yesterday.

10. Call me shallow, but I'm sure I'm not alone in finding the Prince Formerly Known As Beast a little disappointing once the spell is lifted and he is transformed. With Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens in the role, there is no such disappointment.

Monday, 13 March 2017

It Can't Happen Here - Sinclair Lewis


An anti-immigrant, fear-mongering demagogue runs for President of the United States
 - and wins. It can't happen here. Right?
Written in the mid-1930s, Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here tells the fictional account of the rise of President Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, an ignorant, small-town nobody who, by playing on the fears and insecurities of white working-class America and by dividing loyalties to his opposition, manages to worm his way into the White House. And once he's in, it is a matter of weeks before he reveals himself to be an apparently unstoppable dictator.

The land of the free becomes a state of terror. Within days, the President gives himself absolute power to enact whatever legislation he sees fit, no opposition allowed. He gives guns and a uniform to his most fervent supporters and sends them back to their communities as his defenders. The press is censored and any dissenters imprisoned under terrible conditions. It's written as a satire, and is clearly intended to be very shocking - and the violence of it is. (The rapid timescale - not so much. Not in 2017. Just look at how quick another president was to sign his Executive Orders in the week after his inauguration.)

Looking at the context of the time Lewis was writing, and once more you can draw parallels. Of course, this was written in response to Hitler's rise to power in Germany - and I'm quite sure that most ordinary Germans would have thought their country too civilised for anything like that to happen, just as much as Americans. In America, and around the world, this was the time of the Great Depression. It Can't Happen Here gives a little insight into why desperate people might consider democracy and freedom a fair exchange for a bit more money, better job security and a more comfortable lifestyle. More comfortable, that is, as long as you don't make a fuss.

All this is seen through the eyes of Doremus Jessup, an aging newspaper editor who lives in comfortable circumstances in the region formerly known as Vermont. He's a liberal-minded man, wary of Windrip from the start, and gradually is drawn into an underground resistance. But what is the best way to use his power in such circumstances? If he draws attention to himself, he'll be locked up or killed, and what use is that to anyone? But if he stays safe, he's just allowing the regime to be normalised. It's a fine line.

Lewis makes it quite clear that liberal complacency is just as much to blame as the ignorance and malice that actively brings a tyrant into power. By saying "Oh, it can't happen here," people don't bother doing anything to prevent it from happening. And by then, it's too late.

And so, It Can't Happen Here is as relevant a warning today as it was when it was written; we can already see some of our nations taking the steps towards towards a future like the one represented in the book. I'd say this is an extreme version, but it's that sort of complacency that enables such systems to take hold. It can't happen here? It's up to all of us to make sure it doesn't.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

February in review

I'm not promising to do a monthly round-up every month, but as I've stopped keeping track of every single book I read, buy and borrow on the blog (because life is too short and who's going to scroll through that list except me?) and as I've actually had a really good bookish month after about three months of reading slump, I thought I'd give a quick summary of what fictional (and real) worlds I've been inhabiting lately.

So I left my job at the beginning of the month, which coincided with the re-readathon, two very excellent things to re-kindle my love of reading. Then on the 18th, was the second London Bookshop Crawl, which was a much bigger affair than last year's. Bex did a wonderful job of organising the day, and although it was a little crazy, it was a great time once more. It was good to catch up with Ellie W, Louise and Elena again, though they were in different groups; Laura was there with her tall boyfriend, and Hanna and Charlotte came down from Leeds (so I've now met all the members of our little circle.) I tried to be more restrained this year, but somehow, with loans, swaps and purchases, I still managed to bring ten books home at the end of the weekend.

I've been dabbling a bit in the Marvel comics universe, borrowing a selection from my sister's best friend: Civil War, Avengers Versus X-Men, and the very excellent 1602. I picked up the first issue of a new Avengers series, Occupy Avengers on the bookshop crawl, which followed on from some huge changes to the Marvel universe in Civil War 2, so of course I had to work backwards and borrow that one from the library to find out just what had been going on. It's all been happening in Marvel!

In February alone I read five 5-star books in quick succession (not that I usually remember to give star ratings, it's not that kind of blog.) 2 of which I have reviewed: the aforementioned 1602 and The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber, Aliens, a non-fiction book edited by Jim Al-Khalili in which a load of very clever scientists hypothesise about whether there might be life on other planets, what it might be like, where it might live and if there are any circumstances under which we might discover each other. I've forgotten most of my GCSE chemistry and biology, but I half-understood most of it, and although, realistically, I'm quite sceptical about the existence of aliens (other than maybe bugs) it made a fascinating read (and very useful should I venture into writing hard science fiction.)

Then there was Terry Pratchett's The Last Hero, which I read as part of Bex's Discworldathon, one of only (I think) three Discworld books I'd never read before. I'd been putting it off for years, because I'm not a big fan of the wizards and Rincewind sub-series, and this one essentially follows after Interesting Times, the only book I've read by Pratchett that I actively disliked. So it was a pleasant surprise to enjoy it. It's a short novel with full-colour illustrations by Paul Kidby, and its story - an elderly band of barbarian heroes seeking revenge on the gods for allowing age, decay and death - had an added poignancy after Pratchett's own demise in 2015. Plus, there was the Discworld's own twist on space travel - rocket wizardry with dragons! - and of course Pratchett's inimitable wit and truth. I reached the end feeling quite bereft: only twice more will I read a Discworld book for the first time (though I am sure I will reread my favourites many, many times over, and I haven't touched his Long Earth series with Stephen Baxter.)

And I bought a comic anthology called Love is Love from Orbital, after not buying it on the Bookshop Crawl because I thought I'd find it elsewhere. It's a collaboration of short one- and two-page stories, poems and artwork written in honour of the victims of the Orlando massacre last year, and it was very powerful stuff. A very slim volume, but it took me a while to get through because each page was beautiful and devastating. I think it broke me a little bit.

I've just finished Juno Dawson's latest book for teenagers, Margot and Me, in which Fliss, a teenager from London moves to Wales to live with her stern grandmother Margot. Fliss finds Margot's diary from the Second World War, and comes to realise that her 15-year-old self in the 1990s, and 16-year-old Margot in the 1940s had a lot more in common than she initially realised. It's a powerful book, two stories in one, and in the 400 pages, Dawson deals with bullying, being a young carer, teen pregnancy, sexuality, romantic love and practical love, compassion, grief and loss. It could so easily be an "issues" book, but instead it is all about how messy life can be, with rounded and lovable characters, and an emotional heart. It is very different from her previous book, All of the Above, and yet Juno Dawson has a distinctive narrative style that stands out from similar books in the contemporary Young Adult scene.

All in all, I've had an outstanding reading month.What about you? Have you read any of these books? What did you think?

Monday, 27 February 2017

1602 - Neil Gaiman


I'll confess it right away: most of my knowledge of the Marvel universe comes from the films, and general popular culture osmosis. I've been borrowing some of the comics recently, from the library and friends, but am well aware that I've barely scratched the surface. Even when I pick up a new series, there are so many other stories that have come before that point, and so many characters, that even though they work as stand-alones, and give the reader what information they need to know, I find myself working backwards to fill in the gaps of my knowledge.

1602 is a new story, a stand-alone graphic novel in eight issues. Set in England, at the end of Queen Elizabeth I's reign, it is peopled with some strangely familiar faces and names: the Queen's physician Doctor Stephen Strange, for example, and Sir Nicholas Fury, her head of intelligence, alongside his servant, a boy named Peter Parquagh. There are strange forces at work; storms and rumours of the end of days. Is it witchcraft? Could it be the work of Carlos Javier, master of a school for the sons of gentlemen, who are rumoured to be "witchbreed" with unnatural powers? Or does the source come from a young woman called Virginia Dare, returned from the colonies across the Atlantic with her quiet and huge "Indian" protector?

I wrote a post a year ago celebrating modern updates of classic stories, and the different ways to adapt the details in such a way as to emphasise the timelessness of the tale. In 1602, Gaiman does the same in reverse, cleverly using Elizabethan explanations and variations on the familiar characters and motifs. It was a lot of fun spotting the nods to the characters' more familiar incarnations, such as the teasing of Peter Parquagh's connection to spiders, and the blind and unmusical Irish minstrel Matthew Murdoch, with his song about "The Four from the (ship) Fantastick," the heroes of which become a part of the story itself; Carlos Javier, with his school for mutantur or "changing ones," including Scotius Somerisle and Master John Grey (whose true identity was never meant to be a secret.) Then, there is the Inquisitor, unnamed until late in the book, whose backstory is complex, conflicted and devastating. Other characters took their time for me to figure out their identity, whether through unfamiliarity or ignorance on my behalf, and the climactic revelation towards the end was so obvious retrospectively that I could have kicked myself. That twist was not, I feel, without its problems, and yet - as I so say time after time about Neil Gaiman's writing - it made so much sense on multiple levels, and left me gasping with the cleverness of it all.

1602 is a Marvel superhero tale, told as only Neil Gaiman would tell it; a glorious mixture of old and new. 20th century heroes and villains fit seamlessly alongside historical figures, obscure folklore and unsolved mysteries of the past. It is an extraordinary work of art that earns a high ranking in the canon of Marvel comics, and no doubt it will offer a deeper understanding on every reading.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

The Book of Strange New Things - Michel Faber


Peter Leigh is a man with a mission - literally! For this mild-mannered Christian minister to be selected to cross the galaxy to preach to and live among an alien race, this is the opportunity of a lifetime. But Peter leaves behind his beloved wife, Beatrice, and while he's out living the dream, Bea is trapped in a nightmare. How can a marriage survive such a distance?

In a literary culture saturated with dystopian futures, Oasis is aptly named as a seeming Utopia. It takes Peter a while to adjust to its days that are three times as long as an earth day, the peculiar regularity of the rains, and the crops and creatures that grow on the planet. The people themselves are difficult for him to connect with, at first; the way they look is hard to picture, the way they speak impossible to translate onto the page, and some of their words and consonants are pictured in symbols the reader has no frame of reference for. I was reminded of last year's film Arrival, where the linguist has to try to communicate with an alien race without any way of translating their language.

But that doesn't really matter. The Oasans are reserved, but kind-hearted, open and eager to hear Peter's message, and the work he puts in to translating the Bible into language they can understand and words they can pronounce is truly a labour of love. They open their hearts and homes to Peter; building a church together and working at the harvest. Probably this is the easiest missionary work ever. It all seems too good to be true. For the pages and chapters where Peter is alone among the Oasans, there seemed to be no conflict at all. And as someone who has studied the craft of writing, this made me uneasy. You just can't have a story without conflict. When, and how, was it going to go wrong?

That question is answered when Peter gets back to the base and reads his messages from Bea. All is not well on Earth. Every message from home brings news of some great catastrophe, whether a natural disaster, economical collapse or political chaos. And it is this dissonance that is the emotional heart of the novel. Like Peter, at first, you can compartmentalise what is happening on Earth, and on Oasis. The events are shocking, but you only hear about them from Bea, and the story you see first-hand is Peter's. And then Peter goes back to the Oasans, and you can relax a while and just enjoy the headway he is making with getting to know these people. That's what feels real.

But you just can't put your spouse to one side like packing a toy away in a cupboard until the next time you want them. They have their own lives, and a relationship must become strained if both parties are living in different realities. Tensions grow between them, as back at home Bea is overwhelmed by personal tragedy, professional struggles, social unrest and religious doubt, all things that Peter can't be whole-heartedly part of. It is devastating to read their messages (conveyed by a primitive email system called The Shoot) as they try to reach out for each other.

The Book of Strange New Things is powerful because of its authenticity. I don't know if Faber's writing was informed by any personal religious faith but Peter and Bea felt real, presented with compassion and with no impression of being seen from the outside. Both have overcome painful pasts to become a strong, supportive team at the heart of their community. Their love for each other quite literally spans the universe. And yet a love story does not end with the "happily ever after." The best relationships have their downs as well as their ups, and require a lot of work. Love is a choice, not just a feeling, and a choice that a couple has to make day after day after day. The Book of Strange New Things ends in one way just as you might hope, and yet there is a bittersweetness to the ending because it is not neat, it is not easy, and it is not over yet. But such is life. Faber has taken a gentle, quite simple tale and made of it an extraordinary examination of humanity, of what is worth living for, of faith, hope and love.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Rereadathon #5: Day 6-8 - The One That Got Away


This week has been all about returning to books we've read before, whether it's the second time of reading, or the seventy-seventh. But is there a book from your past you'd like to read again, if only you could find a copy? Maybe it's out of print, or maybe it's half-forgotten but you can remember just enough details to make you want to return to that book if only you could identify it. Feel free to tell us what you can remember, and maybe your readers can help you track it down.

The first book was, I think, called Red, White and Blue, and I read it at the age of twelve or thirteen. It was narrated by a teenage boy called Gawain (his brother was Lance; his parents had a rather romantic streak, evidently) and the same story was told in three ways on three different coloured paper. White was a school project, red was his personal diary, and blue was his fantasy novel which drew heavily from his experiences. It charted his fraught relationship with his bullying older brother, coming to terms with his mother's new boyfriend - I seem to recall he was a writer named Richard Curtis, but surely not Four Weddings and a Funeral Richard Curtis. Even Goodreads isn't helping, as I guess it's a very common title.

I read the other book a couple of years later. Both came from the teenage section of the public library. Teen fiction wasn't such a huge market back in the early '00s, and the books were rather faded and dull-looking paperbacks for the most part, and padded out with books for younger readers, such as Karen McCombie's Ally's World and the Babysitters' Club. One book  I checked out a few times was Annie on my Mind by Nancy Garden, the first  book I read depicting a romance between two girls. I'd encountered a few gay side characters in fiction - usually a boy the female narrator had an unrequited crush on - but this was the first time they got to tell their own story. I don't suppose it would stand out now, when the YA market is so far ahead of mainstream adult fiction in LGBT* representation, but that faded green paperback was important when I was a teenager.

Friday stats:

Books read from today: Kindred by Octavia Butler
Pages read: 75
Total books finished: 3
What else have I been up to?: Went to Chocolate Island cafe in Godshill with a friend, lots of pottering about doing nothing. 

Saturday stats:

Books read from today: Kindred by Octavia Butler
Pages read: 36
Total books finished: 3

Sunday stats:

Books read from today: Kindred by Octavia Butler, All of the Above by Juno Dawson
Pages read: 504
Total books finished: 5
What else have I been up to?: Designed and knitted a fair isle hat.

Final rereadathon stats:

Books read this week: 5
Pages read: 1325
Average pages per day: 165.6
Best reading day: Sunday (12th)
Worst reading day: Saturday
Favourite reread: Kindred

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Rereadathon #5: Day 5 Mini-Challenge - Bookish Collections

I've accumulated several bookish-themed objects over the years (quite aside from the books themselves.) There are several Harry-Potter bits of merchandise, for a start, and last year I finally completed my Malory Towers series in the editions that I grew up with, a quest that started back in about 1994. But today I'd like to show off my Lord of the Rings Lego sets, because, let's face it, I never really grew up.






And of course I have my Anne of Green Gables collection. Up until last year I resisted calling it a collection. I had a very sensible three copies: the big two-in-one hardback with Anne of Avonlea that my parents bought me when I was eight, the 100th anniversary paperback to keep in my bag when out and about, and a second-hand Puffin classics edition for reading in the bath or other times when it might get a bit battered. But then I discovered the little hardback with gold edges and the original illustrations and it really, truly would fit into your pocket, and how could I resist that? Then, my sister ended up with a spare copy and brought it home for me, and when you've got five copies of the same book you might as well go all out and do it properly, right? Not the whole series, of course - that would just be silly. And then there's quite a few bits of stationery as well: Notebooks and journals, address book and pens, and even a colouring book. If it's Anne, it's mine.

Do you have any bookish collections? Maybe you've got one publisher whose books look so good on your shelves that you have to complete the set, or like me with Anne you have several editions of the same book. Or maybe it's bookish tote bags, mugs, or other merchandise. If so, do please show me or tell me about it, linking in the widget below. 

Thursday Stats:

Books read from today: The Handmaid's Tale
Pages read today: 199
Total books finished: 3
What else have I been up to?: Chores.



Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Rereadathon #5: Days 3 and 4 - Different Perspectives


Hi all. Hope you're enjoying becoming reacquainted with old books this week.

One quick notice before we begin: I'll be hosting a Twitter chat tonight at 8PM (using the hashtag #rereadathon) so we can get to know each other a bit better and chat about what we've been up to. Hope to see you all there.

Different Perspectives mini-challenge.

This mini-challenge is hosted by Gee, who writes:
Today I'd like you to reflect on different perspectives that a re-read has given you, for the better or the worse. Maybe you've re-read a book and found it wasn't quite as good as you've remembered. Maybe you've re-read a book and found it was actually much better than you first thought. Maybe you've picked up on little details you missed first time around. Good or bad, I want to hear about it.
When I was sixteen, I fell into the fantasy genre in a big way. It's easy to pinpoint how and when that happened, as the first of the Lord of the Rings films was released that winter. I couldn't wait another year to find out what happened next, so I picked up my dad's illustrated hardback and zipped through it in about a week flat. Then I set off to the library - not having very much money - to see what else I could find in the genre. And one thing I learned was that epic fantasy rarely came in stand-alone novels, and there were few series that the library had in their entirety. One of the shorter ones I managed to find was David Eddings' Elenuum trilogy. The first book had a gorgeous cover depicting a beautiful queen encased in diamond. The story followed her protector knight Sparhawk as he gathered together another band of knights to break the curse and restore her to life. So far, so fairy-tale. But I loved the cast of characters, I liked the affably "misguided" villain, the sadness that he and Sparhawk had once been friends. And it was partially responsible for me starting to write my own fantasy novel at the age of seventeen.

Years passed, books upon books were read, and an English Literature with Creative Writing degree was earned. A few years ago I picked up the first Elenium book again, and to my amazement and dismay, I really struggled to finish it, this magical fairy-tale that I reread several times in my teens! Whether it was because I'd studied how to write well, or because my tastes had moved away from high fantasy into other varieties, or because I'd just read so many better books since, I got bored. The dialogue sounded stilted, the prose simplistic, and even the characters felt one-dimensional. Plus, having since read Eddings' other series, The Belgariad, I recognised that he was an author with one story, one cast of characters, who would change the names, perspective and details, but use the same shape of the plot over and over. I never picked up the second and third books - although I can't bring myself to get rid of them. There are two other series of books I fell in love with sitting alongside them on my bookcase and I'm a little afraid to reread them now, in case the same happens with them.

However, not to end on a depressing note, the opposite happened to me with Neil Gaiman's American Gods. After Neverwhere, I didn't instantly "click" with the book generally held to be his masterpiece. I quite liked Shadow's tale, and I particularly liked the relatively quiet and normal part of the book set in the cosy town of Lakeside, but the story about the war between the gods, and all the little "coming to America" stories didn't grab me. There was too much going on, too many characters to care about all of them. But there was enough that held my interest to get me to reread the book a year or two later, and this time, being familiar with Shadow's story, I was able to pay more attention to the bits around the edges, pick up on details and nuances I'd missed the first time around. I've read it three or four times now, and every time I enjoy it more; I know where I'm going now, so I can focus more attention on enjoying the scenery.





Tuesday Stats:
Books read from today: Rainbow Valley
Pages read today: 158
Total books finished: 2
What else have I been up to?: Grocery shopping, chores

Wednesday Stats:
Books read from today: The Handmaid's Tale
Pages read today: 122
Total books finished: 2
What else have I been up to?: Made the most amazing chilli! (Tom Kerridge's recipe from The Dopamine Diet book)
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