Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Perfect - Rachel Joyce

In 1972, two seconds were added to time. Could this be to blame for what happened next? Eleven-year-old Byron Hemming thinks so. Byron is a bright, imaginative child, and he worries about the effects that could come of humans meddling with something so constant as time. When his mother, running late on the school run, takes them on a detour, something terrible happens, and with his friend's help, Byron hatches Operation Perfect, a plan to put everything right. But can perfection be achieved - and if so, at what cost?

Viewed from the outside, Byron's family life might appear perfect. He lives in a big house, is sent to an exclusive public school, and his father has just bought his mother a swanky new Jaguar. But money cannot buy happiness. Rachel Joyce presents the Hemming family as viewed through the eyes of a child on the edge of adolescence, narrating what he sees and leaving the reader to understand what is shown and not told. Byron's father, Seymour, lives away from home during the week, working hard to earn piles of money, shower his wife Diana with gifts which he then uses as power over her. Diana acts the part of the dutiful wife, but this fancy lifestyle is not suited to her nature. We see Diana only from her son's perspective, but her character is brought to life as much by what is concealed as what is shown: the hints and secrets of the past of which she can never quite let go.

Perfect is a very British novel, examining attitudes towards class and social mobility, and making the reader think very carefully about their own preconceptions. We see this in the aftermath of the accident, when Diana befriends Beverley from the dreaded Digby Road, who seems to be exploiting Diana's feelings of guilt for her own gain. But I didn't feel quite comfortable to accept this interpretation of Beverley's behaviour, expecting the author to throw in a plot twist that declared: "Aha! You're just as prejudiced as Seymour and Diana and the other mothers!" On the other hand, is it completely patronising to refuse to accept that a lower-class person can be a scheming, conniving piece of work just as much as a wealthy person? Either way, the relationship between Beverley and Diana is completely toxic, and as the book progressed, I felt the absolute certainty that the plot was building up to something dreadful. Rachel Joyce teases us with the idea that a conflict was resolved, more or less, before opening up another can of worms.

Between the chapters about Byron's summer of 1972 are those of another story. Set in the present day, this other story follows a man called Jim, who has spent his entire adult life in hospital being treated for obsessive-compulsive disorder and possibly other mental disorders. Jim is now in his fifties, living in a van and working in a supermarket cafe cleaning tables. His days are dictated by rituals, and he still lives in the shadow of a terrible event of his youth, which could be connected to the something dreadful of Byron's summer. It seems clear where Jim's story fits beside Byron's, if not the details of how, but somewhere near the end started to question my assumption. The story as I understood it did not quite gel, and there came a powerful dawning realisation before the big revelation came. The novel is made all the more poignant by the joining of the two halves. I cried.

Deceptively simple in style, Rachel Joyce's prose is powerful and hard-hitting, yet it is not without hope or beauty. Perfect leaves the reader with a lot to think about and to feel, concerning family, class and mental illness, the power of friendship, the nature of time and the struggle for an impossible perfection.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Sunday Summary: A storm is coming!

On this grey and windy Sunday afternoon, I have built a nest of pillows and blankets on the spare bed in my room, and here I intend to stay until the predicted storm has passed. Supposedly, this evening, the wind and rain are to be on a par with the infamous storm of 1987, and it is not just the Daily Express that is saying this, so it's wise to take notice for once. Now, I was only a toddler in the autumn of '87, and have no memories of that freak weather, but of course I've seen the pictures and heard the horror stories. My dad received a desperate phone call in the middle of the night from our next-door neighbour, an elderly woman who lived alone, demanding that he remove our fence from her kitchen window. Now, we are British, a nation famed for fussing about the weather - perhaps to compensate for the lack of interesting or extreme weather that actually hits our isles. Still, it was generally considered unreasonable to expect a man to go out in that storm at 3AM in his pyjamas, even for the sake of a fence being blown through a window, which gives me an idea of what to expect tonight. Thankfully today and tomorrow are my days off this week, and I intend to ignore the outside world as best I can. I am stocked up with books, knitting, large cups of tea and coffee, and I have restocked my Tardis-shaped biscuit jar (which is, alas, not bigger on the inside, but big enough.)

The storm comes as a fitting end to a pretty dreadful week. I spent the first few days troubled with an unusually strong anxiety, of the sort that if I couldn't think of a reason to worry, I would be worrying about what I'd forgotten. This all came to a head on Tuesday night and Wednesday, culminating in a worse-than-usual migraine. I have become resigned to the fact that, although I take two different kinds of daily medication, my migraines are always hovering around me, and I should expect to have either a vague pain, blurry vision, dizziness or dopey disconnectedness most of the time. But Wednesday, exacerbated by the anxiety, thundery weather and lack of sleep, I had to call in sick to work for the first time in over two years.

On Friday, I was greeted by my colleague with: "I hope your head is not too heavy this morning, because we've had a flood." The shop where I work has a flat roof, and seagulls insist on nesting there, which clogged up the drains, and caused the roof to leak in several different places. Thankfully, the leaks missed most of the book stock, but we had to empty some displays and put down buckets in three places to catch the drips, which are not great things to have all over a shop. We called someone out to see to the roof, and we can only hope that it'll do the job tonight.

Because of migraines and work, I haven't read a lot this week. I spent most of the week reading Perfect, my ninja book-swap gift from Ellie Warren. It is a simply-written novel, but thought-provoking and emotionally gripping. (A review is forthcoming.) I've also continued with my Harry Potter reread - or rather, I have let Stephen Fry do the reading for me, on my Prisoner of Azkaban audiobook. I'd love to get the whole set on CD - Mr Fry has just the right sort of voice and personality for these quintessentially English stories, and they are very soothing to listen to when ill, or on my CD alarm clock when I wake up. I think he is the closest thing the muggles have to a real-life Dumbledore. Finally, I started to read Slaughterhouse 5, by Kurt Vonnegut. It reminds me in many ways of Catch-22; both are American cult classics dealing with the second world war, and both have a juxtaposition of light tone on grim subject matter (though Catch-22, in my recollection, had no time travel or aliens.) It is a short book, and easier to read than the other Vonnegut book I've read, Cat's Cradle, but all in all, I think it is a book I'll be glad to have read, rather than one I will love reading. Once I've finished that, The Honey Queen by Cathy Kelly looks to be a good contrast, light and fluffy, with a 27-year-old protagonist who opens up a knitting shop. As a young knitter myself, it's good to see a bit of representation in literature.

I've also been carrying on my Trekkie adventures, and last night watched Star Trek IV: The One With The Whales, in which Kirk, Spock et al have to travel back to the 1980s. Hilarity ensues. Again, a review is to follow later in the week.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Contains spoilers, both for this movie and The Wrath of Khan

Nobody warned me about this one. I went into The Wrath of Khan with a fairly good idea of the main plot, and with detailed knowledge about the major shock event that concludes the story. Admittedly, that still did not prepare me, but at least I had an idea of what I was letting myself in for. My knowledge of The Search for Spock before watching it was the following: The crew of the Enterprise search for Spock, because he's not as dead as they originally thought. I thought to myself: this film is the one to heal all the emotional trauma suffered in the last one.

HA HA HA no.

In case you needed reminding of where we left off...
Right from the start, The Search for Spock hits you right in the feelings, by showing a nice little montage of "the story so far," opening up the old wounds once more. The Enterprise arrives home from her last mission, not in a triumphant procession, but battered and subdued. To add insult to injury, the ship is to be decommissioned and replaced with a bigger, faster, swankier model. The cadet crew has been reassigned and only a few people remain, all grieving the loss of one of their greatest officers and friends. None is more hurt by Spock's death than James T. Kirk - unless, perhaps, it is the ship's chief medical officer, "Bones" McCoy, whose mind has either snapped or been possessed by Spock himself! The reason for this is given when Kirk meets with Spock's father, who tells him that Vulcans can transfer their souls by mind-meld into another living being, when they know death is coming. Yes, this may be a cheesy cop-out plot device - written because Leonard Nimoy wasn't quite as ready to part with the character as he'd previously thought - but we'll let that slide, this once. As a general rule, I'm not a fan of stories that require a "reset button" to put things back to normal, of sequels that unravel everything that the previous installment accomplished. And The Search for Spock does not, to my mind, achieve the same classic status of its predecessor, which has already been added to my mental list of films which will require regular viewings. However, The Search for Spock has a sincerity about it that turns a clumsy plot device into a decent film.

After its emotional start, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself laughing out loud in one scene. After Kirk requests and is refused permission to go back to find Spock's body, and take it home to Vulcan... he goes anyway, with the help of the bridge crew. Scotty, Sulu and Uhura collaborate to help Kirk steal the enterprise, coming out of the background and being both hilarious and awesome. Their loyalty to their commanding officer is heartwarming, and you see how well beloved Spock is, that the bridge crew risk their lives and careers to save him without a second thought.

Meanwhile, on Genesis, the new planet created in The Wrath of Khan, Kirk's son David, and Vulcan officer Saavik, investigate an unknown lifeform, and find that Spock's body has regenerated into that of a child: alive, but empty, and rapidly aging. It is not long before the Spocklet is all grown up and suffering from Ponn Farr (um... this is to do with Vulcan biology...the biology of Vulcans) but fortunately there is a nice Vulcan lady conveniently there for him. Cue the most awkward sexy-time ever shown on a 12-rated film.

But all is not well on Genesis. The exciting new technology developed by Kirk's former lover and their son has gone wrong, and the planet is going to blow up! All that wonderful but dangerous power at the heart of The Wrath of Khan has revealed itself to be just dangerous.

Just as the Enterprise with her five-man crew arrives, they are faced with another danger: the Klingons. This proud warrior race doesn care that the Genesis technology doesn't work; all they see is a weapon, and they don't care what they destroy to get their hands on it. We've met Klingons before (even if their appearance has changed somewhat since the original series) but don't let that fool you into a false sense of security. This lot, particularly Commander Kruge (played by Christopher Lloyd) are not to be trifled with. Kruge may appear to be an entertainingly dramatic villain of the week, but all that changes when he gives the order to execute one of the three people held captive on Genesis: Saavik, the young Spockless Spock, or Kirk's son David. The tension is high. Surely, he wouldn't really do it?

And then David flings himself at the Klingon, interrupting the planned execution. For a moment, I let out my breath... but too soon.

"Admiral, David is dead."

NO! We'd hardly got to know David well enough to grow attached to him, but isn't Kirk broken enough by the loss of his best friend? How much more pain can one man endure? And then, while we're still reeling from this shock, the Klingons command the surrender of the Enterprise. Kirk and the crew start speaking instructions into the ship's computer. I recognised the sequence from a third season episode, and started shouting at the TV in horror. No! You can't do this. And I'll admit to it: I shed more tears at this point than at the death of Spock in the last film. I'd known Spock would die, and I also knew that he would return. But no one had warned me of this. For the code Kirk, Scotty and Chekov activated before beaming down to Genesis was the Enterprise's self-destruct sequence. And this time, they weren't bluffing.

To give the effects team their due, the Enterprise goes up with an impressive bang, a death scene worthy of a spaceship that has been as much a character in the series as any of her crew (and more than most.) It was as awesome and devastating as the finale of the V for Vendetta adaptation.

It's probably not much of a spoiler here to reveal that they do manage to resurrect Spock, whose absence has been felt throughout the film. Before they arrive back on Vulcan, there is a touching scene where Dr McCoy, alone with the empty body of his old colleague, confesses: "I'm gonna tell you something that I never thought I'd hear myself say. It seems I've missed you, and I don't know if I could stand to lose you again." They may spend all their time together arguing, but in some ways Spock and McCoy represent two halves of a whole, the head and the heart, emotions and logic. After all they've been through together, there is a deep affection between the two men that goes far beyond their external differences. When warned that the ritual to get Spock's Spock-ness out of McCoy's head and back into Spock's could be dangerous, McCoy doesn't hesitate. "I choose the danger!" At least this time he has warning and a chance to back out, should he so choose. Last time they were on Vulcan, in season 2's "Amok Time," Kirk agreed to fight Spock, before being told, "Oh, by the way, this fight is to the death!" (Needless to say, neither died that time.)

Dangerous it may be, but though you can't take anything for granted in the new, higher-stakes version of Star Trek, after a lot of Vulcan ritual and ceremony and holding of breath from all watching, of course McCoy and Spock come out unharmed, though Spock looks confused and almost shy walking among all these half-familiar people watching him intently. Not an enviable position, I think, when he's been mostly-dead for so long. It is when he starts speaking to Kirk, that his memories start to return, in fragments. "Jim," he says at last. "Your name is Jim." Not Captain, or Admiral, simply Jim. First and foremost his friend. And with that friendship reestablished, we know that despite all that has happened up to this point, it's going to be all right.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Top Ten Tuesdays: 10 best character names in books (and 5 worst.)

Thanks to the ladies of The Broke and the Bookish  for coming up with this feature.

When it comes to writing memorable characters, the right name is crucial. Below are my favourite names to be found in literature through the ages. (Some authors excel at coming up with names for the inhabitants of their fictional worlds, and it is difficult to choose just one, so I have added some runners-up. It would be easy to have ten names from the Harry Potter series, for example.

10. Scarlett O'Hara - Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. Not the most likeable of characters, perhaps, but her name is full of romance: huge dresses, windswept hair and a great American epic.
9. Gilbert Blythe - Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery. Just the right mixture of suave charm and best friend.
8. Caddy Jellyby - Bleak House by Charles Dickens. One of many brilliant names from Dickens (along with Ebeneezer Scrooge, Philip Pirrip, Nicholas Nickleby and the like.)
7. Effie Trinket - The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. You just know she's going to be as fluffy and insubstantial as cotton candy!
6. Granny Weatherwax - The Discworld series from Terry Pratchett. You know that this is a woman who can't be havin' with any nonsense.(See also Nanny Ogg, Nobby Nobbs, Cheery Littlebottom, Havelock Vetinari... the list goes on... and on... and on... and on...)
5. Bilbo Baggins - The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. (Also: Eomer son of Eomund, Arwen Undomiel, many of the Elvish names. Of course, the Elvish language was created to sound as beautiful as possible.)
4. Lettie Hempstock - The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.
3. Draco Malfoy - the Harry Potter series. J. K. Rowling is second only to Dickens for her skill in naming. (a sample: Albus Dumbledore, Mundungus Fletcher, Severus Snape, Dolores Umbridge, Filius Flitwick, Nymphadora Tonks...)
2. Eustace Clarence Scrubb - The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. It is a most unfortunate name, but, as Lewis writes, "he almost deserved it." 
1. Tuppy Glossop - The Jeeves and Wooster series by P. G. Wodehouse. Doesn't it just roll off the tongue? Possibly the most fun you can have with combining two words. Tuppy. Glossop.

And the worst:

5. Tris - Divergent by Veronica Roth. Sorry, Divergent fans, but I just don't like the name. It seems to be lacking something, somehow. Feels unfinished.
4. Patch - Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick. Sounds like a puppy, not a bad-boy fallen angel.
3. Fitzwilliam. Mr Darcy's first name in Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen creates the most lusted-after fictional man in the history of the world, and saddles him with the first name Fitzwilliam. Most unfortunate.
2. Joffrey - A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin. The brat didn't stand a chance, really, did he?
1. Renesmee - Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer. Try as I may, I cannot pronounce this hybrid of her grandmothers' names Renee and Esmee as anything other than "Renny-smee." Which is just ridiculous. Ick.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Contains spoilers, if of the "Rosebud Was His Sled" variety.

From the very first moments of the title credits, The Wrath of Khan promises to be the Star Trek motion picture that, um, Star Trek: The Motion Picture never was. The Motion Picture was released a couple of years after a certain other space science fiction film with the word "Star" in the title, (and many, many terrible copies) and allegedly wanted to remind filmgoers that there was more than one type of science fiction movie, being the 2001: A Space Odyssey of the '70s. The Wrath of Khan is, right from the beginning, much more user-friendly. Its title sequence may evoke the Star Wars-type crowd-pleaser, with its starry screen, and James Horner's combination of the classic series theme tune and a new, jaunty, adventurous and hummable melody, but that's not a terrible thing. Perhaps, by 1982, the bad Star Wars knock-offs had begun to die out somewhat, or perhaps the producers were less concerned about VERY MUCH NOT BEING LIKE STAR WARS, NO SIR. This new score sets the tone for the film, and does not disappoint.

The movie opens by plunging straight into an action scenario, with the crew of the USS Enterprise in the middle of a crisis. A large crisis, with a magnificent entrance hall, carpeting throughout, 24-hour portage and an enormous sign on the roof saying This Is A Large Crisis. (Er, sorry) Captain Kirk is nowhere to be seen; instead, in the chair is a young Vulcan officer named Saavik (subsequently referred to as "Mister" Saavik, though she is about as un-Misterish as you can get.) Saavik is faced with a deadly dilemma. There are explosions, and bodies strewn all across the bridge. (You may wish to observe and take note that in the new Starfleet uniforms, everyone is dressed in red.) But wait! If the melodramatic line-delivery of certain crew members did not strike you as suspicious, at the height of the death and destruction, a door opens, and Admiral James T. Kirk enters. It was all a test: the Kobayashi Maru; a test of an officer's character when faced a no-win scenario. Don't feel cheated, though. It may be a fake-out dramatic opening, but the Kobayashi Maru is something that resonates through the entire movie.

My main criticism of The Motion Picture was the under-use of the series' beloved characters. The Wrath of Khan brings them right back, recognisable but not unchanged. After deciding that the robotic life was not for him, Mr Spock has mellowed. The inner conflict between his human and Vulcan side seems to have been resolved, and he has become more relaxed and likeable. We see him express concern for his captain's wellbeing, and speaking frankly and unsentimentally about the importance of their friendship. He even gives Kirk a birthday present: a beautiful copy of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. And though he and Dr. "Bones" McCoy still have their heated arguments, the edge of cruelty that so often came into their rivalry of head and heart before, has gone.

Captain - sorry, Admiral - Kirk, too, has changed. It is his birthday, and it is making him feel gloomy - perhaps one of the Big Ones, probably fifty. Also, he has apparently had a bad perm. Still, it takes very little in the way of plot manoeuvres before he has once more commandeered his beloved Enterprise, full of new recruits, and is heading off into an epic adventure. Soon, he is reunited with two people from his past: old flame Carol Marcus (plus son who also has very, very curly hair. Hmmm...) and Kirk's old enemy and rival to the title of Largest Ham In The Galaxy: Khan Noonian Singh. Or, as he's better known:

With the arrival of Khan, Star Trek gets much darker than it has been before. Sure, the series has never been short of death, torture, betrayal and other perils, but in the series, you always knew it was going to be all right in the end. As a viewer, you never really feared for the characters' lives. James Kirk acknowledges this himself, when he admits that when he took the Kobayashi Maru test, he cheated, because he doesn't believe in a no-win scenario. "I haven't faced death," he admits, at last. "I've cheated death. I've tricked my way out of death and patted myself on the back for my ingenuity." We may joke about the fates of the expendable redshirts, and though Kirk may have suffered agonising guilt and grief at their loss, to a certain extent it's all been part of the day's work. It's fairly standard, family-friendly sort of violence. The Wrath of Khan shows a more horrifying brutality, with the gruesome use of Ceti Eels as a means of mind control, and the carnage found aboard the space station that the Enterprise did not get to until Khan had been there first. Khan, though often deliciously melodramatic, is a formidable foe, obsessed by his hatred, in a plot heavily influenced by Moby-Dick. (A book I have never read, nor particularly wanted to, but one I ought to educate myself on so that I can understand references to it in other works.)

"Do you know the old Klingon proverb that tells us
revenge is a dish that is best served cold?
It is very cold... in space."
But, for all that, The Wrath of Khan is an epic swashbuckler of a space movie, regaining the element of fun and adventure that was, if not missing in The Motion Picture, secondary to being Serious Science Fiction That We Must Take Seriously. There are battles and revenge and double-crossing, and more explosions, and action, action, action! Then Scotty has to race against time to fix the warp drive down in engineering. But, you know Scotty! He can do it! Give him four minutes to do something that requires an hour, and he'll bodge it somehow.


Chances are, you know the answer to that one. Even before I watched Star Trek, I knew how the Enterprise would be saved, and at what cost. But that did not stop the ending from being any more heartbreaking. The moment at which I saw the look of understanding and decision cross Spock's face, I flashed back to another moment in fiction. I remembered that horrified dawning realisation of what a very different character was planning, the very first time I read... now which book was it Spock bought Kirk for his birthday?

Now, William Shatner has certainly earned his reputation for overacting, which perhaps makes Kirk's reaction to Spock's sacrifice all the more devastating. Even being prepared, even knowing that the next film is called The Search for Spock, does not protect the viewer's heart from being ripped out by the friends' farewell, unable to reach each other, divided by a pane of glass. And Kirk's utter brokenness at being unable to do anything for his friend would bring a Vulcan to tears. (See Saavik in the funeral scene.)

The film does not let up in the aftermath to the famous death scene. First, witness Kirk trying not to break down as he delivers Spock's eulogy. As if that was not upsetting enough, Scotty gets out the bagpipes to send Spock off! Kirk briefly interrupted my grieving process by quoting Sydney Carton's last lines in A Tale of Two Cities - and getting the wording wrong, which caused my brain to itch. But I had barely enough time to compose myself before the famous "Space, the final frontier" voice-over begins, and it's Leonard Nimoy's voice! WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT? 

Thankfully, I know that the story is not over for everyone's favourite "pointy-eared hobgoblin," but at the time, when The Wrath of Khan could have marked the end of Star Trek, what a downer-ending that would have been. I must think myself fortunate that I have come to Star Trek late in the game, because to leave it on that note must have been unendurable.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Sunday Summary

Looking back over the last few months of blogging, I was horrified at how few book reviews I've posted. I've read plenty, but I haven't necessarily been reading analytically, with enough to say to write a full review. So I thought I'd try out a new weekly feature, where I can talk informally about my week in reading (also TV, films, book shopping and other news.)

This week has felt like a looooong one. Work has not been terrible, but I'm starting to feel a little bit run down, and finding it more exhausting than sometimes having to be friendly and welcoming all the time. Little things that really ought not to bother me for more than a moment are chipping away at my peace of mind, and I am feeling very much in need of a holiday. Perhaps that is why I seem to have acquired 10 books in the past 8 days, by various means...

Last week, I spent an evening at the home of some new friends, with good food, good company and a hysterical game of Cards Against Humanity. It is good to meet new people with similar geeky interests, especially in a small community like the Isle of Wight, where most people seem to be remarkably ordinary. Jamie and his wife Chrissie have wonderfully chaotic and geeky bookshelves - I know I've met a kindred spirit when the first book I notice on someone's shelves is a copy of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Jamie lent me a book called "Mindstar Rising," which he described as a "detective story set in the future." I look forward to reading this one. Also, some time back, my friend and I battled it out for a copy of Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl in the Waterstone's clearance. She won, but agreed to pass it on to me when she was done.

Then, of course, was my Ninja Book Swap parcel from Ellie Warren, containing Perfect and Shades of Grey (Any number below 49 or above 51.) I've made a start on reading Perfect, a story which follows an imaginative boy worrying about an additional two seconds added into the day, and the difference which two seconds can make. The chapters alternate between the boy, Byron, in the 1970s, and Jim in the present day, battling with crippling obsessive-compulsive disorder, and though it is simply written, it gives a powerful insight into a child's mind. I'm only a few chapters in so far, but as well as the main topic of perfection (if there can be such a thing,) I've noticed secondary themes about class and prejudice, and how money cannot buy a happy family. 

Thursdays are late-night opening at my local library, which was a good thing as I kept on forgetting (or being too lazy) to return my library books on my lunch break, but after work I popped in to take them back... and ended up picking up two more. I've been meaning to read Slaughterhouse 5 for a long time, (thanks to Hanna I am prepared for the sneaky aliens) so was pleased to find it in stock for once! I also picked The Night Strangers up from the "returns" shelf, which follows a family moving into a new house, to find a door in the basement locked with 39 locks... the same number as those who died in a plane crush, piloted by the father of the house. It looks rather creepy!

On Friday, I was in town with my best friend Judi, and we just happened to notice the gluten-free cake-and-quiche stall in the Farmers' market, and it would have been rude for her not to support a company that provides for her dietary needs. And once we'd gone through the market, we ended up going past the Oxfam bookshop and picking up two or three books apiece. As you do. I read the first of Iain M. Banks' Culture novels in the summer, which, if I'm honest, I was not enamoured of. I didn't want to give up on him, however. I later discovered that Phlebas is considered atypical of the series, and that The Player of Games was a better introduction to Banks' universe. I also remembered my friend Clare recommending me The Beginner's Goodbye, and once I'd decided to buy a book, what difference would another one make?

...Or another three, as it happened. I was feeling a little glum this morning, and as I passed The Works, it started to rain. Obviously, that was nature's way of telling me to go and have a look at the 3 for £5 section. As well as a present for a friend, I discovered Pretty Girl Thirteen, a book about, as I understand it, a teenage girl with a multiple-personality disorder who turns up at home after being missing for three years. I've also been feeling an itch in my brain to read another Stephen King, so From a Buick 8 completed the three.

I've acquired 10 books this week, but how many have I actually read? 

I had two books left over from my last library splurge: Heart-Shaped Bruise by Tanya Byrne, and Dolly by Susan Hill. Heart-Shaped Bruise is presented as a notebook found in a former young offenders' home, a letter-slash-diary-slash-confession of a teenage girl awaiting trial for an undisclosed terrible crime. 

Dolly is a ghost story from the writer of The Woman in Black, and is very similar in feel. Both are set in big, misty old houses in the middle of nowhere. Its setting lends a wonderfully creepy atmosphere to the story, which is a classic ghost story rather than a fully-developed novel; the sort of story that would not be out of place being told by torchlight at a Halloween sleepover. A quick read; I think I got through it in about two hours.

I made a start on Let The Right One In by John Avijde Lindqvist, a Swedish vampire story that has been sitting on my pile for well over year. Whether it was because I was reading it on my lunch break and feeling distracted, or because this book is not for me, I haven't got very far in it and am unsure whether I should continue. For now, I have put it to one side, and if I don't pick it up within, say, a month, I may bid it farewell. (It was a free World Book Day copy, so I could not in all conscience give it to a second-hand bookshop to sell, but a couple of coffee shops in town have book-swaps, so perhaps it may end up there.)

As it is autumn, which I find quite stressful at work, I decided to reread the Harry Potter books as a bit of escape at bedtime, and this week I got up to The Chamber of Secrets. I've read that series so many times, and yet I still notice odd little moments that I've never picked up on before, such as Fred Weasley dropping a stack of books on his twin brother's head (on the last page.) And, as already mentioned, I started reading Perfect yesterday. 

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Trick Or Treat Ninja Book Swap: I've got presents!

After a long day at work, which left me feeling a little bit weary of people, I arrived home to find a great big box addressed to me. Last month I signed up for Bex and Hanna's Trick or Treat Ninja Book Swap, and sent off my parcel with plenty of time to spare, but it still took me by surprise to find a great big box waiting for me with my name on it.

My gift was from Ellie of Curiosity Killed the Bookworm. As a "trick," a surprise book from my chosen genre (science fiction) she sent me Jasper Fforde's Shades of Grey. (A book which has been around far longer than that book of an unfortunately similar title.) I loved his Thursday Next books, but have not yet read this one, though my best friend loves it. I've no excuse now!

Ellie also sent me a few treats:

From my books wishlist: Perfect by Rachel Joyce
A bar of Montezuma's "Eton Mess" chocolate and some "Halloweenies" (seasonal Cadbury animals.)
A chunky ball of wool (It's all multi-coloured and so shimmery! What shall I make with it? Something toasty warm, because winter is coming. Maybe a scarf?)
And a little skull-and-crossbones tote bag (Arrr!), just the right size to take a book for a walk.

Tomorrow is my day off, which I had already planned for a duvet-day, so I shall get stuck into one of my new books and demolish some of that chocolate. So thank you Ellie, and thank you to Hanna and Bex for organising the ninja book swap.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

I didn't mean for this to happen. I only watched the 2009 Star Trek movie on TV this year so that I wouldn't be completely lost when my friends organised a trip to see Into Darkness at the cinema. But something about the USS Enterprise and her crew caught at my imagination, and I'd be at work on a quiet day and find myself staring into space, thinking about Spock and Kirk and all the rest. No! I told myself, There is a line, and once you've crossed it, once you've got into Star Trek, there's no going back. Yet I went to my friend Sam, who has always been a bit of a Trekkie and conveniently owns most of the boxsets, and borrowed the first Original Series season. I planned to watch the first Original Series, and the first Next Generation series, and maybe a few odd episodes she could recommend for me, just to get an overview of the story. And then, somehow I found myself watching all three seasons in as many months. Perhaps part of me, subconsciously, always knew I could not watch Star Trek casually, because for me there are no half measures: I am either indifferent to a story world or utterly engrossed in it. And in Star Trek, there are a lot of worlds to get engrossed in.

It was my birthday last week, and one of my presents from my parents was the boxset of the first ten Star Trek movies. (6 with the original cast, 3 with the Next Generation cast, and Generations, which features both.) I don't plan to rush through the films as I did with the series, because I have become very attached to Kirk, Spock, McCoy, et al, and though I'm excited about getting to know Captain Picard (do I need to know anything other than that he is Patrick Stewart?) and crew, I don't feel quite ready to see the Enterprise without the characters I've grown to love.

The Motion Picture opens several years after we last met Kirk and the crew. In the TV series, not a lot changed from week to week; you could watch the episodes in any order, as the status quo was always restored by the end of the story, no matter who got married, wounded or fatally ill. (Except for the fallen redshirts, who tended to remain dead, Jim! So it is interesting to come back to the 'verse some time after the five-year mission has ended. The central trio of the cast have all gone their separate ways. James T. Kirk has been promoted to Admiral, and yet his heart still belongs to the Enterprise. (I felt that there was a sort of sadness in this renowned officer yearning for his past glories.) Spock has returned to his home planet of Vulcan, where he is attempting to get rid of those pesky things called emotions once and for all. But something calls to him from among the stars, and apparently he is not as coldly detached as he'd let on. Also, he is in serious need of a haircut.

One can only hope there is a decent Starfleet barber, because Spock is not alone in needing his services. Doctor "Bones" McCoy makes his first appearance with a pretty terrible beard. For reasons undisclosed, McCoy has put his Starfleet days behind him, where he wants them to stay. It was hinted in some episodes that McCoy's life was not what he had hoped for. He did his duty as ship's chief medical officer, uncomplaining (well... often complaining, but not feeling sorry for himself) yet never really happy. I suppose his friendship with Jim (and, though he'd never admit to it, Spock) made life aboard the Enterprise more tolerable, but they have since taken different paths. It is not long, however, before the old crew are all back together - Scotty, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov are all right where we left them, and they head off out into the stars to face an unknown foe known as V'Ger, which threatens Earth. It's familiar territory for Star Trek, but the story's conclusion surprised and awed me. It was definitely a story of its era, and I imagine it would have been even more thrilling to have watched at the height of the space age in the 1970s. (This month, too, was a pretty appropriate time to watch the movie for the first time.)

I had been warned that odd-numbered Star Trek films are (to put it politely) not as good as the even-numbers. The Motion Picture was certainly somewhat strange, felt very, very different from the series, and had some strange special effects. I read that it was intended to be a 2001: A Space Odyssey for the 1970s. There are some striking similarities, notably the looooong, indulgent shots of space scenery with grand music (though no monkeys and no freaky giant space baby!) It is more atmospheric than plot-driven. Yes, it is slow, but watching it while knitting at the end of a long day, I found it almost soothing. But I felt that the characters were underused; the relationships between the central trio were strained and awkward, perhaps because they had been apart for so long.

When Spock returned to the Enterprise, you could cut the atmosphere with a knife. Instead of his usual cold disdain, Spock seemed almost angry to be there. The banter between him and McCoy fell flat. Perhaps it was that the characters had to get used to each other after a long time apart. It had been a while since Spock had been among humans and their strange ways, and maybe their illogical ways reminded him of his recent failure. But upon discovering what a purely logical existence is like, Spock acknowledges and accepts that he does have emotions, and that the Vulcan ideal towards which he has been striving his whole life is not what he wants after all. Which emotions, specifically? Which "simple feeling?" It is most unlike Spock to be so vague, but then, so is speaking of emotions as anything other than a failing of character. It is not a subject that comes easily to him, while clasping Kirk's hand and looking into his eyes... Subtext? No. Not this time.

Reading up on Star Trek: The Motion Picture online, I was not surprise to find that it is widely disliked. Its 2001-esque pacing verges on the ridiculous at times, and I really missed the depth of character from the TV series. I found it interesting in an experimental sort of way, and quite watchable for a lazy evening, but I would be disappointed if all the films were in this style. Next up: The Wrath of Khan. I have high expectations for that one. Also tissues.
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