If you’d told me that I would consider not buying a book because it had Colin Farrell on the cover when I was thirteen, I would have told you that you were mad. Ballykissangel, Falling for a Dancer… I was young, leave me alone.
Anyway, it did nearly put me off buying a copy of A New York Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin which had been released with the poster from the new film, starring the aforementioned Colin Farrell (I’m over it) and Jessica Brown Findlay, but I was intrigued by the blurb which promised:
One night in New York, a city under siege by snow, Peter Lake attempts to rob a fortress-like mansion on the Upper West Side. Though he thinks it is empty, the daughter of the house is home . . . Thus begins the affair between this Irish burglar and Beverly Penn, a young girl dying of consumption. It is a love so powerful that Peter will be driven to stop time and bring back the dead; A New York Winter’s Tale is the story of that extraordinary journey.
Who doesn’t like a love that defies death? But despite the blurb, that’s not really what you get. It’s more than that, and less than that. It builds to the point where you’re invested in the lovers, then spits them aside and moves on with the story. A bit like life I suppose.
Helprin is a fantastic writer and has created a vast and imaginative magic realist epic. The book is original, the writing nuanced and many of the minor character are more clearly realised than the main characters in the majority of the bestsellers you will find in bookshops. The problem for me that it slipped around between genres in a way that didn’t add to the story but detracted from it. Audrey Niffenegger showed us that you could have a masterful time-travelling love story, I don’t see a reason why you couldn’t have a time-travelling love story which leads to a quest, but for a reader to engage with a quest story they need to understand what the characters involved are hoping for, what they want or need to achieve. I loved the first three-quarters of this book, but it lost me towards the end as the characters began to run around in a desperate attempt to do something fuelled by a secret knowledge that the reader just didn’t share.
It’s a magical read for the most part, but the plotting towards the end was more than a little lacklustre.
“I have a theory that selflessness and bravery aren’t all that different.”
This weekend I read the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth. Yes, the whole trilogy. I had a seven hour train journey back from Edinburgh to look forward to after a work thing, my brain was a little frazzled and I’d nearly finished A New York’s Winter Tale so I decided to pick up the first book in the series as something “light” for my journey. Something light? Books should carry addiction ratings.
There are plenty of people out there who looked down their noses at the stories and criticized the writer. Yes, there are editing mistakes that you could point out if you were feeling picky- times where Tris’ memories change between books, the whole Jonathan/George Wu name change thing. And of course, plenty of fans flipped out at the ending. I’m not going to give away any spoilers, but I will say that these responses miss the point.
Divergent, Insurgent and Allegiant are a brave and powerfully written series of books which hold a mirror up to Roth’s concerns about our society and the way it’s headed. Genetics and science aside, I think that a world where people’s identity is defined by the groups that they belong to, their worth weighed up by how well they fit into those groups and society’s widespread suspicion and prejudice towards those who are other or don’t belong is something that everyone can recognise and would be wise to fear. I think it makes the books highly relevant and worth reading.
The author’s unflinching commitment to the brutality of her storyline is impressive and hammers home the cruelty of society both at the micro and the macro level. All the characters are flawed, all of them are human, most of them think that they are right. I like that Four recognises and admires Tris’ strength. I like that she recognises his. I love that their relationship is based on mutual admiration and that there is so much emphasis placed on the need to respect each other. I like that the novels show that life is about the choices you make, both good and bad, and how identity stems from these and how you move on from them.
Yes, people will dismiss it as “just” YA fiction, but there’s a reason that the books are so addictive. There’s a truth and a power in what Roth writes, and I think that everyone could take something away from these books, regardless of their age or “sophistication”. It’s a strong work of speculative fiction.
For 163 years the Family has patiently awaited rescue from the sunless planet they call Eden, hardly daring to stray far from the landing circle where their common ancestors Tommy and Angela landed on the planet so long ago. The 532 members of the Family, all descended from these original ancestors dream of a return to the planet they’ve heard about in the legends handed down through the generations, a planet where the whole world is made as bright as the insider of a whitelantern flower by the sun in the sky, and they will return there, if only they follow the rules and make themselves worthy to return to Earth. As the family grows larger and food grows scarcer, teenager John Redlantern tears the Family apart, questioning the meaning of the stories they’ve been told and searching for new ways for the Family to survive…
Dark Eden by Chris Beckett, winner of the 2013 Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year has all the ingredients of an intelligent and assured work of Science Fiction, is a clever reimagining of the Adam and Eve story on a sinister alien world which explores the nature of humanity through the figure of John Redlantern, a righteous rebel in a society which never took a bite of the forbidden fruit of knowledge. Oppressive and terrifying in its credibility, it explores a society stunted by its vague adherence to the rules written down by “our mother and father”. Genetic disorders are rife as a result of inbreeding, formal education has long been abandoned and innovation is seen as a threat to tradition.
The plot is genuinely compelling as you become caught up in the events building up to and following on from John Redlantern’s expulsion from the Family, but for me the most interesting aspects of Beckett’s new world were the cleverly imagined language shift which sees the nascent development of a new grammar system and a new vocabulary which takes account of the Family’s very different environment (especially the conflict between older and younger members of society when it comes to words relating to chronology- older members preferring concepts such as years, but younger members referring to wakings and wombtimes which are a more measurable concept in their sunless world) and the bastardization of Earth history which sees the family believing that Hitler killed Jesus, and some members of the Family looking to Hitler as a positive role model in times of conflict.
It’s an interesting read for anyone interested in dystopian fiction and narrative. John Redlatern’s habit of considering how his present actions will be interpreted by future generations and the pointed counter-analysis of his character by Tina Spiketree add an extra dimension to a genre which has often been accused of flat characterisation.
Cover design nerds will appreciate the clever effect that has been used to make rainbows play across the cover- I hadn’t seen this done before, is it a special laminate or foil?
I love Oxford in the rain. Even a little drizzle seems to clear the streets, and if you head off into the city’s many alleyways during a decent downpour it can feel as though you have the whole place to yourself. I got caught out in a thunderstorm while walking between talks at the literary festival today, and had a great time taking touristy pictures in the moody, semi-empty streets. I was pleased to warm up in front of the open fire in Christ Church College’s Great Hall after a little too long taking pictures in the hail and the rain- I was soaked through!
The Radcliffe Camera in a thunderstorm
The Oxford Martin School which hosted “Is the planet too full?”
The Norrington Room at Blackwells Oxford- effectively the world’s best book cave
Drying off from the thunderstorm in front of the fire in Christ Church College’s Great Hall
A full shot of the Great Hall, which Potter fans might recognise as Hogwarts Hall from the films
Tourists sheltering from the thunderstorm under the Bridge of Sighs
Christ Church College Quad
Christ Church College Quad in the thunderstorm
The Bodleian Library luring in unsuspecting passers by…
School children enjoying a talk about the most deadly inventions in the Blackwells festival marquee
The Vaults Cafe looking inviting…
Entrance to the Great Hall at Christ Church with vaulted ceiling and Narnian style lamposts
Last night I went to see the film adaptation of Markus Zusak’sThe Book Thief and I loved it. Granted it took me about an hour to stop crying, but I really liked it and was impressed at how true to the book it remained. I’m usually the first person to cry foul if someone has messed around with a book I liked, and despite one major niggle I thought it was a fairly faithful adaptation. My thoughts below, but be warned, there are spoilers.
A huge number of film critics have slammed The Book Thief movie, criticising what is seen as mawkish sentimentalism, an insufficiently harrowing representation of the horrors of World War 2, using Death personified as a narrator and criticising the fact that the cast speak with German accents in a mixture of English with the odd bit of German thrown in. To all of which I say, okay, but did you read the book? The New Yorker Review went as far as to cast doubt on the plausability of the street being bombed… to which I refer you to history books about the allied bombings of Stuttgart. Anyone who wishes to try to reduce WW2 to all Germans bad all Allies good may find their efforts hampered by some of the work of bomber command but I leave that up to GCSE History teachers to explain.
It may be fair enough to criticise the film as being Oscar bait, but honestly, considering that it is an adaptation of what is ultimately a book for younger teenagers which found success as a cross over novel, exactly how harrowing do you think it’s appropriate to be? There were some fairly violent scenes depicting Kristallnacht with hauntingly beautiful music sung by a Hitler Youth choir, hauntingly beautiful until you read the translation of the lyrics and realise that it’s another example of Nazi propaganda designed to indoctrinate very young children into striving for the Aryan state from a very young age. I actually found it incredibly effective at looking at the war from a child’s perspective. Liesel (played brilliantly by Sophie Nélisse) is aware that people who are members of groups that Hitler disapproves of disappear. Her communist parents have disappeared one by one, and though she isn’t aware of the horrors of the concentration camps, she loves her friend Max and fears for what has become of him. I thought the scene where a group of Jewish men were being marched through the town and Liesel runs among them looking for Max was actually more convincing in the film than in the book. In the book, she finds Max and they are both beaten. You can imagine that worse might have happened to Max if this really happens. In the film, she doesn’t find Max in the crowd, every man she sees could be him, and she runs through them promising that she will not forget until she is beaten by a Nazi officer. There are critics who have poured scorn on the moderate actions such as these that individual characters take to code that they are “good Germans”, but the film very clearly demonstrates the real world consequences that actions like these would have had at the time- a family on the verge of poverty because the father refuses to become a member of the Nazi party, conscription to the army if you showed sympathy towards the plight of a neighbour considered “undesirable”, the risk that you yourself will be considered undesirable and taken away. It’s easy to say that the characters should have done more, but I wonder if many who watch the film will think the same as I did- would I be brave enough to do that? Do I oppose injustice in my far safer world?
As I mentioned earlier, there is a change from the book that irritated me. When the bombs drop on Himmel Street in the book, Rudy is killed in his sleep and Death’s description of collecting his soul is heartbreaking:
He lay in bed with one of his sisters. She must have kicked him or muscled her way into the majority of the bed space because he was on the very edge with his arm around her. The boy slept. His candlelit hair ignited the bed, and I picked both him and Bettina up with their souls still in the blanket. If nothing else, they died fast and they were warm. The boy from the plane, I thought. The one with the teddy bear. Where was Rudy’s comfort? Where was someone to alleviate this robbery of his life? Who was there to soothe him as life’s rug was snatched from under his sleeping feet.
There was only me.
And I am not too great at that sort of comforting thing, especially when my hands are cold and the bed is warm. I carried him softly through the broken street, with one salty eye and a heavy, deathly heart. With him, I tried a little harder. I watched the contents of his soul for a moment and saw a black-painted boy calling the name of Jesse Owens as he ran through imaginary tape. I saw him hip-deep in some icy water, chasing a book, and I saw a boy lying in bed, imagining how a kiss would taste from his glorious next-door neighbour. He did something to me, that boy. Every time. It’s only his detriment. He steps on my heart. He makes me cry.
The Book Thief- Markus Zusak
In the film adaptation he stays alive long enough to half tell Liesel he loves her before dying in front of her. That annoyed me because it felt like a “film moment”, a betrayal of the book for no real narrative reason. It was a crude attempt to tug the heartstrings and the film would have been better without it. It was like someone had spent a bit too long in the fan fiction forums.
In spite of that, I really think it was a good adaptation of The Book Thief. If you enjoyed the book, I think there’s a very good chance that you will like the film, though it’s not as good (these things rarely are) it’s by far one of the better film to book adaptations I’ve seen and the younger cast member are enchanting.
Have you ever read a book that you can feel is soaring way over your head, but you’ve loved it anyway? I just had one of those moments reading Vellum by Hal Duncan from The Book of All Hours series.
Fragmented, erratic and brilliant, it flips forward and shuffles back through time to narrate the gathering of the unkin, angels and demons, as they fight for the rule of the Vellum, an infinite universe of which the world we know is a tiny fragment. Twisting through time and across multiverses, characters’ lives are revealed to have extended beyond the borders of a typical human span, linked to archetypes dating back to classical myth and ancient Sumer.
It’s incredibly clever, like a cyberpunk epic sprung from the dust of ancient myths (though apparently the correct generic categorisation for that is New Weird, you learn something new every day…) and while you do need to pay attention to fully keep a grip on the novel’s ambitious scope, it’s certainly worth it. I just need to dig out a copy of the follow-up, Ink.
While some of the fans reactions quoted in the article above are pretty funny, I can kind of see where they are coming from, because surely the great thing about Harry Potter was the concept of friendship? To reduce it to a retrospective, Harry should have gotten “the girl” (aren’t Hermione and Ginny more than just “the girl/s” dangled as rewards for the conquering hero/es?) risks devaluing some of the core values of the series.
I was a bit annoyed when JK Rowling came out with her retrospective “Dumbledore is gay”, not because it isn’t great for Dumbledore to be gay, but because it is and if she wanted to address his sexuality, she should have done it in the books. To come out with the revelation as an after-fact made it reductive, with it appearing as something of a quest for publicity. At least that might have been an attempt to do something positive though, to come out and quibble about something as fundamental as the Harry/Hermione/Ron friendship group erases some of the magic of the series.
The P-38 WWII Nazi handgun looks comical lying on the breakfast table next to a bowl of oatmeal. It’s like some weird steampunk utensil anachronism. But if you look very closely just about the handle you can see the tiny stamped swastika and the eagle perched on top, which is as real as hell.
I take a photo of my place setting with my iPhone, thinking it could be both evidence and modern art.
Then I laugh my ass off looking at it on the miniscreen, because modern art is such bullshit.
Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock– Matthew Quick
Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is the kind of young adult fiction that every young adult should want to read, by which I mean it doesn’t feel “aimed” at young adults at all. It doesn’t deal in “themes of teenage angst” and the “friend who changed everything” trope but addresses raw, intense pain without shying away or compromising. It is, in short, a book for anyone who liked Thirteen Reason Why but felt that The Perks of Being A Wallflower was just a little patronising, and more than a little overrated.
Quick’s narrative is brilliant and convincing, and we inhabit Leonard, recognising that, despite his intelligence and self-knowledge which make him seem older than his years, that he is a vulnerable and flawed teenager who has been badly damaged, and emotionally neglected by his parents. The novel opens on Leonard’s eighteenth birthday as he sits alone (his vacuous mother away in New York and has forgotten his birthday) and lays out his plan to kill his former best friend with his grandfather’s WWII trophy before turning the gun on himself. Before he does though, he wants to give you a thank you present to his four friends: his elderly neighbour, a brilliant violinist at his school, an evangelical Christian who looks like Lauren Bacall, and his holocaust studies teacher. Each interaction makes Leonard’s dark secret and tragic plan clearer to the reader, and prompts a gut sinking feeling as Leonard avoids each life line thrown his way, or burns his bridges to avoid deterring himself from the mission he has laid out.
There are moments of the book which you could argue aren’t especially original or subtle. Leonard’s fixation on Hamlet, for example, might be something we would expect from a teenage boy contemplating suicide but I would argue that this too is a strength of the novel. Leonard is in so many ways exceptional and different, that this common touch makes him seem that little more human, even while his theatrical flair makes him seem otherworldly.
I recommend this book to everyone, but a word of warning- it deals with some very difficult themes and issues that some may feel are not the remit of “young adult” fiction and you shouldn’t expect a happy ending.
Quick holds his nerve and doesn’t sell out. I look forward to reading more of his work.
Gabrielle Fox, a psychotherapist, returns to work following an accident which has left her wheelchair bound and finds that one of her charges will be Bethany Krall, infamous following the brutal murder of her mother whose previous psychotherapist left under something of a cloud when she began to believe that Bethany was responsible for a string of natural disasters. However, Gabrielle begins to suspect that there is more to Bethany than meets the eye as she successfully predicts the dates of a superstorm which hits Rio de Janerio and an earthquake which reduces Istanbul to rubble.
On the whole I really enjoyed this book as a thriller, which aims barbs at climate change deniers, megacorporations and religious fundamentalists in a manner reminiscent of Margaret Atwood. The characters of Bethany and Gabrielle were both in turns an engaging mix of vulnerability and aggression, lashing out at the world in the few ways left to them.
Something which troubled me about the book were the ways in which Gabrielle referred to herself as no longer being a woman, having lost her unborn child and feeling below the waist in a car accident (and there are a few heavy-handed Frida Kahlo allusions to reinforce this, lest you should forget…). I get that it’s an element of characterisation and doesn’t represent the author’s views and all that, but I found this a troubling way of expressing the characters loss of identity, as though genitals, reproductive ability or sensation in the nether regions are what code you as a woman… especially odd with the way the novel plays out, but this might just be me struggling with this.
It took me a little while to get into the language which for some reason felt very American, which isn’t a criticism of American English, just a surreal feeling when you’re trying to get into a book set in the UK. Ultimately though this transatlantic vibe worked quite well, and allowed the audience to find the spread of Evangelicalism and Evangelical celebrity across the pond all the more convincing.
If iceaggedon and the UK floods have put you in the mood for a novel which is a hybrid of psychological thriller and natural disaster prophecy, then this is a great book for you.
Other than reading, one of my favourite things to do at Christmas is to curl up on the sofa watching re-runs of old Sherlock Holmes films and adaptations. You’d be surprised how many you can find and in the past my father and I have managed to fill at least three days of viewings with Sherlock Holmes re-runs with a bit of canny channel surfing, much to the consternation of my little sister. I’ve even managed to hook my boyfriend on the stories to the point that we now have quarrels about which of us is Holmes and which of us is Watson. I am clearly Holmes, as you’ll be able to see from the following exchange:
Me: Elementary, Watson.
Boyfriend: You’re Watson, I’m Shakespeare.
Anyway, I digress. If you have a Holmes fan in your life, or want to introduce a loved one to the Sherlock Holmes stories, the following are great gift ideas:
I am a huge fan of the Penguin Clothbound Classics series. They look amazing and if, like me, the reader in your life is constantly berating themselves for having failed to read a particular classic, they’re a great gift. Even if you’re buying for someone whose favourite book is The Hound of The Baskervillesand has read it a thousand times, they’re sure to love this beautiful edition which will be cherished by Holmes veterans and Sherlock newcomers.
In the unlikely event that, like myself and my boyfriend, you and your loved ones are arguing over which of you is Watson and which of you is Holmes, you can settle things once and for all by treating them to a The Hound of The Baskerville personalised classic which lets you swap the characters’ names for those of your choosing. A word to the wise, my little sister got me an Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland personalised classic, and the recipient gets to choose the characters on the internet. If settling disputes like me and the boyfriend, intercept the pack and do this for them then give them the finished book.
If your Holmes fan is, like me, a big fan of the BBC adaptation Sherlock which stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock and Martin Freeman as Dr John Watson, then they probably can’t wait for the new series to be released. Help them catch up with this box set of series one and two. It is coming soon, it is, it must be. And I still can’t figure out how he did it.
If your Holmes fan already has the Sherlock box set, firstly congratulate them on their well-maintained DVD collection, then consider leading them in the direction of the Elementary box set which stars Johnny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu as Dr Joan Watson. I know what you’re thinking, I expected to hate it as sacrilege too. But I actually really enjoyed it and will buy pre-ordering for my father and hoping that it comes in time for Christmas. This shopping game is afoot.