Saturday, 30 November 2013

The Moonstone Readalong - Part Two: some decidedly odd goings-on.

Contains spoilers, do not read until you've finished The Moonstone.

In the first half of this month's #readwilkie readalong, we spent a lot of time with old-fashioned steward Gabriel Betteredge and formidable spinster Miss Clack. The narratives in the second half of The Moonstone are, for the most part, shorter than the first, and there are more narrators, the most significant being Franklin Blake and Ezra Jennings.

We've already met Franklin in Betteredge's narrative; a young relative of the family who had been abroad for a long time, but whose return brought the fateful Moonstone into the house. And here is revealed a twist just as shocking to Franklin as it is to us: all the evidence points to himself as the thief! Though he has no memory of that night, he accepts on the word of Rachel Verinder that she saw him take the stone from where she had kept it. The reason for her suspicious behaviour is revealed: Rachel is in love with her cousin (hey, this is the Victorian era, after all) and is covering for him. It emerges that after an argument with the Doctor, Mr Candy, on the subject of medicine at Rachel's birthday dinner-party, Candy arranged to have Franklin drugged with opium. Perhaps it's a sign of how times and attitudes have changed (and we know that Wilkie used opium) but what would nowadays be considered a shocking act of medical malpractice is brushed off as a practical joke, a minor annoyance.

And then comes the craziest part of the story. Franklin and Mr Candy's assistant, Ezra Jennings, hatch a ridiculous plot to attempt to discover the location of the Moonstone by recreating that evening as precisely as possible. Because surely if you give a man opium a second time he will retrace his exact steps and actions as the last time he was under the influence of the drug, no? They are very reluctantly assisted by Betteredge, who is hilariously snarky and passive-aggressive in his part.

"When we took up the carpet last year, Mr Jennings, we found a surprising quantity of pins. Am I responsible for putting back the pins?"
"As to Mr Franklin's bedroom (if that is to be put back to what it was before), I want to know who is responsible for keeping it in a perpetual state of litter, no matter how often it may be set right - his trousers here, his towels there, and his French novels everywhere. I say, who is responsible for untidying the tidiness of Mr Franklin's room, him or me?"
"Speaking as a servant, I am deeply indebted to you. Speaking as a man, I consider you to be a person whose head is full of maggots, and I take up my testimony against your experiment as a delusion and a snare. Don't be afraid, on that account, of my feelings as a man getting in the way of my duty as a servant! You shall be obeyed. The maggots notwithstanding, sir, you shall be obeyed. If it ends in your setting the house on fire, Damme if I send for the engines, unless you ring the bell and order them first!"
New narrator Ezra Jennings is a character to be pitied, a good man, but an outsider, shunned and feared due to his mixed race and odd appearance. He is not self-indulgent, but makes it clear he's had a sad and lonely life; he speaks of a lady he's never stopped loving, but could never marry, he is dying of an unspecified disease, and addicted to opium, which he started taking for the pain. If your heart doesn't ache for this man, it must be made of stone!

I wasn't very surprised by the revelation of the ultimate thief; Mr Godfrey Ablewhite had not escaped suspicion, and in fact seemed to be the obvious thief back when no one really seemed to care what had happened to the Moonstone. I never trusted him from the start. This whiter-than-white gentleman, patron to all these ladies' charities and sponsor of innumerable good causes, seemed more than a bit smarmy to me, right from his first introduction. Poor Miss Clack, she idolised him so. What a blow it must be for her to learn of his hypocrisy and double life.

The Moonstone keeps you guessing right to the last couple of dozen pages, a story of thrills and twists. But did its ending live up to it? I'd been a little uncertain of where the story would end up, but in the end I'd had no need to worry. I was pleased that the Moonstone ended up returning to its rightful place - by which I do not mean in the possession of a spoiled rich English girl! The epilogue takes the story full circle to see the stone returned to the sacred statue in India, whence it had been stolen amid bloodshed by the evil Colonel Herncastle. Thank you Wilkie!

And thank you to Ellie for organising this readalong. The Moonstone was my first Wilkie novel, though I once owned a copy of The Woman in White, which I lent to a friend before reading, and never saw again. I'm very glad I decided at the last minute to join in, it's been great fun.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Night Strangers - Chris Bohjalian

Airline pilot Chip Linton's life changes forever when he is forced to crash land his plane into a lake. Had it not been for a boat disturbing the water at just the wrong time, it could have been done relatively smoothly, but instead, thirty-nine people died. Chip survived. Several months on, still devastated by the accident and suffering PTSD, he moves with his wife Emily and twin daughters Hallie and Garnet to a new home: a big, old house in an out-of-the-way village in a different state.

But there is no escaping from the past. In the basement of their new home, Chip finds a door sealed with thirty-nine bolts, and the significance of this number - the same number as victims of the air disaster - is not lost on him, and its presence taunts him. But when Chip takes an axe to the door to reveal... a boarded-up coal hole, it is his own ghosts that are freed from their prison, in an ambiguous mix of ghost story and psychological horror. The Linton's house seems to serve the same purpose as The Shining's Overlook Hotel, a dark, creepy place with a sinister past, which makes already damaged people much, much worse. Like the best Gothic settings, this house is not merely a place where the action happens.

The strangeness is not limited to the house, however. Many of the Lintons' new neighbours are not quite like other people. Many of the women spend all their time in their greenhouses tending herbs, baking vegan food and mixing up herbal remedies, and they all seem to have names like Sage, Anise and Clary. The other people in the town shun them, even fear them, though they seem friendly enough, taking a keen interest in the twins and welcoming them into their new home. But they know too much, and seem to have their own purposes for wanting the new family to join their circle, and as the Linton family spend more and more time with the "herbalists," Bohjalian evokes a creeping sense of claustrophobic dread.

The Night Strangers is a vivid, gripping read, though a very dark one. Much as you may hope, there is an inevitability that the book won't have a cosy ending. In fact, it is not until the epilogue that the outcome of the climactic scene is made clear. I found myself re-reading in case I'd missed something, but no, the last chapter left the characters' fate unclear. Half The Shining, half Stepford Wives (with a strong seasoning of magical herbs), The Night Strangers left me feeling deeply unsettled.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Signing up for another read-a-thon

Well, winter is definitely upon us. I'm writing this wearing two jumpers, fingerless gloves and fluffy slipper boots. It's cold, it's dark, it's gloomy - what better than to lose myself in books? Dana and Jenny seem to be in agreement, as they have scheduled a monster two-week read-a-thon for December, a last chance to get through as many books on the 2013 to-read pile as possible. Count me in!

The End of the Year read-a-thon will be taking place between 9th and 22nd of December, which means that even though it's a busy time of year with work and Christmas preparations, I should still have plenty of time to devour a few books - hurrah!

I won't be setting myself any specific goals for this read-a-thon. My to-read pile has doubled since the end of 2012, and I'd like to clear some of my books off in order to make room for new ones in the new year. Which these will be, however, depends on my mood when I finish the previous book. I've got all genres to choose from: crime and thriller, science fiction, horror and fantasy, general adult fiction, teen and children's books too. I've even got a couple of non-fiction books waiting to be read. (You can see my books in the side panel of my blog.) As it's coming up to Christmas, I may well also revisit some old favourite seasonal reads as well.

Readathon discussions will take place on Twitter under the tag of #readingcram, and Dana and Jenny have some awesome challenges and post prompts scheduled to inspire our blogging creativity. Bring it on!

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Sunday Summary: Adventures in Space and Time

I didn't write a Sunday Summary last week as I was busy with my Moonstone midway post. Most of my last two weeks' reading has been from Wilkie, although I took a couple of days out last week to read Yahtzee Croshaw's Mogworld. My friend Judi lent me Mogworld with the strict instructions not to look at the back blurb, so I had no idea what to expect from it. The only clue I had was that she lent it to me in response to me giving her a copy of Redshirts. Like Redshirts, Mogworld follows a group of supporting characters in someone else's epic adventure: in this case a fantastical world which bears an uncanny resemblance to a role-playing game. (My first thought was Dungeons and Dragons, but their world later turned out to be something else entirely.) Protagonist - not hero - Jim died at the beginning of the book, but a meddling necromancer brought him back as a zombie. All he wants is to die again and stay dead, but the plot has other plans for him. Mogworld was a light-hearted, easy read, not as brilliant as Terry Pratchett, but with a similar sort of eccentric British humour. I got through this in two days.

I finished The Moonstone earlier this week. Although none of the narrators in the second half managed to be as entertaining as Gabriel Betteredge and Drusilla Clack, Betteredge made another few appearances, acting hilariously passive-aggressive when coerced into a mad scheme of which he didn't approve. New character Ezra Jennings is a mysterious, rather tragic figure, a doctor's assistant who is terminally ill and addicted to opium, probably the most interesting character after Betteredge and Clack. The story kept me guessing throughout, up to a very satisfying conclusion. (I will write more about this later on this week.)

My current read is The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian, a book I picked up on impulse from the returns shelf in the library. It's a sort of psychological ghost story, an extended metaphor about how a past trauma can continue to haunt a person's everyday life. Some parts of the book are written in the second person, and this, combined with detailed, detached descriptions of an airplane crash-landing from the point of view of the pilot, was utterly terrifying, giving an immediacy to the disaster that any other narrative choice would be unlikely to capture. The story follows the pilot, Chip, and his family, as they move to a new home and try to put the tragedy behind them. Unfortunately, their new home is reminiscent in many ways of The Shining's Overlook Hotel, and the only new neighbours to reach out to the family are a group of sinister "herbalist" women who seem to have their own reasons for wanting Chip and his family in their circle.

After bidding farewell to Captain Kirk, Mr Spock and Dr McCoy last week, I made a start on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Before I actually resigned myself to becoming a Trekkie, this series was more what I expected from Star Trek. I think I was first shown a clip of Captain Jean-Luc Picard in school; I can remember which classroom I was in, round about year 8, and I cannot for the life of me remember why it was shown. Even then, I think there was something appealing about the show. I'm liking The Next Generation a lot, though I'm not in love with it like I am the original series and its crew. I don't think I want to fall in love with it. It would feel disloyal.

Also in the world of ancient science-fiction-ish TV, Doctor Who celebrated its fiftieth anniversary this week. On Thursday, the BBC showed a moving documentary-drama called An Adventure in Space and Time, all about how Doctor Who came into being in 1963. Then, last night, was the eagerly-anticipated 50th anniversary special. The episode was simultaneously broadcast all over the world, with special cinema showings and many fish-finger-and-custard parties. (A disturbing number of my friends posted pictures of this, erm, delicacy on Facebook.)

I watched the episode with my dad at home, wearing my Tardis T-shirt and Doctor Who (ish) scarf. "The Day of the Doctor" started by going right back to the beginning, using the original 1963 opening credits and starting off in the very same school where Susan Foreman, the Doctor's granddaughter, once attended as a precocious pupil.

The main theme of the episode came as no real surprise. I had been predicting its subject for as long as I'd been aware that there would be fiftieth anniversary celebrations. And about a week ago, the BBC posted a prequel mini-episode which took away all doubt. The first thing I knew about this video was what was intended to be a major surprise, announced by the official Doctor Who Twitter account with no spoiler warnings, before I even knew there was a spoiler to avoid. I was (and am) very cross to find out about that, and thought that the story deserved to be part of the episode itself, rather than a web exclusive. Though it didn't tell me more than I'd already suspected about the anniversary episode, I'd rather have gone into the story with no more than my own theories.

Although the story showed the Doctor messing with his own timeline and rewriting certain parts of the series' narrative, it was done with illusion rather than my pet hate, the reset button, so I'll let it pass. Matt Smith and David Tennant were a lot of fun to watch together - I'd forgotten how much I'd enjoyed the Tenth Doctor's adventures (when he wasn't being angsty.) And John Hurt as the other version of the Doctor, the one who his later incarnations never speak of, was a wonderful addition to the canon (even if not numbered) tormented by his choices, bewildered by his later "childish" incarnations, but lovely, hardly the villain. It's always fun watching the past and present regenerations reacting, and this episode showed all of them collaborating. Yes. ALL of themThere were a couple of nice, unexpected cameos, though I would have liked to have seen more guest appearances rather than re-use of old footage. Really, I wanted many of the people who had vehemently denied being part of the episode to have been lying, although if that were the case, it could have been quite gimmicky, sacrificing storytelling. But the storytelling was well done here.

Doctor Who was a great way to mark the beginning of a week's holiday. The last few years I've taken the final week permitted before Christmas, as a means of recharging my batteries before the craziness that is December in retail. I plan to get a lot of reading done, perhaps watch some classic Doctor Who and more Star Trek: TNG, and to get back into my NaNoWriMo project, which has come to a halt at exactly 10 000 words. 40 000 in a week is not going to happen, but if I can get back into the story, I'll be pleased. On Friday I'm going to stay with my sister in London, where I intend to get some Christmas shopping done, and also catch up with one of my best friends who lives nearby.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

 "Captain's log: Stardate 9529.1. This is the final cruise of the Starship Enterprise under my command. This ship and her history will shortly become the care of another crew. To them and their posterity will we commit our future. They will continue the voyages we have begun, and journey to all the undiscovered countries, boldly going where no man, where no one, has gone before." - Captain James T. Kirk

Excuse me for a moment; I seem to have something in my eye...

Over the past five months, I have travelled through the galaxy in the company of the captain and crew of the Starship Enterprise. With them I have visited strange new worlds, planets run by children, planets run by godlike beings, mirror universes and planets bearing an odd resemblance to the Earth of the past. Together we have defied logic, defied death, defied orders. We have fought men in lizard costumes, cooed over tribbles, been enlightened of the many, many things we never knew were "inwented in Russia," grieved for many fallen redshirts, been chased through the halls of the Enterprise by Sulu with a sword, experienced pon farr with Spock, and all in all, had a whale of a time.

 In just a short time, I've fitted in 25 years' worth of character growth, seen friendships tested and strengthened, watched a young starship crew mature and develop and age. And now, in The Undiscovered Country, it is time to say goodbye. Three months before he and his crew are due to retire, Captain James Kirk is sent on a final mission: as diplomat to negotiate peace talks with the Klingons, whose entire race looks doomed to extinction. This is a role Kirk takes on reluctantly; he has never forgiven the Klingons for the death of his son. The diplomatic dinner is a disaster. The Klingon ambassador is assassinated, and Kirk and McCoy stand convicted of of his murder and sentenced to lifelong hard labour in the mines of a frozen planet. It is up to Captain Spock and the Enterprise crew to rescue their friends, expose the conspiracy and prevent the uneasy truce between Federation and Klingon Empire from breaking into all-out war.

Like the episodes, no two Star Trek movies have been alike. We've had hard science fiction, swashbuckling epic, high-stakes adventure, time-travel comedy, and Pomposity: The Movie. Now we have a political thriller which heralds a significant change to the Trek Universe as we've known it so far. But change, this movie stresses, is to be embraced, the future is not to be feared.

The Undiscovered Country gives Kirk, Spock et al a respectful sending-off, a solid finale that combines Star Trek's finest elements: friendship,  humour and courage, a sense of adventure and a hope for the future, all woven together to celebrate the twenty five years of the show and pass on the baton.
It is heartwarming from the very beginning, when Sulu's voice-over dictates his Captain's log - for he has been made captain of the mighty Starship Excelsior - but is still bound to the Enterprise by loyalty to his former commander and comrades. Spock, in his dialogues with his protegee Valaris, demonstrates just how far he has come from the uptight young officer at war with his human side. McCoy amusingly asks what every viewer has been thinking about Kirk's irresistible appeal to the opposite sex, and Chekov claims one more thing - the story of Cinderella - as Russia's own. The one blot on the record is the film's portrayal of Uhura, who has had a long and prosperous career as a Starfleet communications officer, apparently without much in the way of the Klingon language. Overall, however, The Undiscovered Country is the perfect finale as twenty-five years of story comes to a natural ending. The film provides satisfying closure, while opening the door to other series set in the same universe. This is the end of a chapter, but not of the story.

It never occurred to me until this year that Star Trek would be a thing I could get emotionally invested in. But now it's time to move on to The Next Generation (because I have all the films in a box set and ought to know a bit about this new cast before I watch them) and I am already resenting it for trying to take the place of the original series. Kirk, Spock and McCoy, and the supporting cast feel like real people to me now, good friends. How can you replace friends with brand-new, made-up characters? How can Star Trek be Star Trek without William Shatner's infamous overacting, Leonard Nimoy's incredible right eyebrow, DeForest Kelley's huge heart and lovely wonky smile? Without the calm presence of Uhura and Sulu, the humour provided by Scotty and Chekov? Can another series really reproduce the brilliance of the one it was based upon?

No doubt I'll surprise myself once more.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

The Moonstone Readalong, part one: Betteredge and Clack

"When I came here from London with that horrible Diamond," [said Mr Franklin] "I don't believe there was a happier house in England than this. Look at the household now! Scattered, disunited - the very air of the place poisoned with mystery and suspicion."

The Moonstone of the title is a huge, beautiful diamond stolen from India by a British officer and smuggled back to England. On his deathbed he leaves the diamond to his estranged granddaughter Rachel Verinder, but is it a genuine gift and symbol of his repentence, or a curse? This diamond carries a lot of superstition, and its rightful owners want it back, at whatever cost. Then the Moonstone disappears...

The story is told by several narrators, each telling only the part of the story to which they personally witnessed, in order, allegedly, to get a rounded and accurate account of the mystery surrounding the diamond's disappearance. However, the narrators have their own biases and prejudices, and are not entirely reliable; the evidence they present varies from the conclusion they want you to draw.

Take Betteredge, for example. Gabriel Betteredge is the head of the servants in the Verinders' house, and he absolutely adores his mistress and their family. In his eyes, neither Lady Verinder nor her daughter Rachel can do any wrong. He is an old-fashioned sort of fellow, chivalrously condescending, but sweet enough to get away with all kinds of patronising attitudes without more than a raised eyebrow from the reader. His bible is Robinson Crusoe; it is astonishing what comfort and wisdom he can find in that book whenever his peace of mind is disturbed.

Betteredge's loyalty to "his" family puts him rather at odds with the detective, Sergeant Cuff, who seems too eager to actually solve the mystery of the moonstone, inconveniently following all the clues, even those which might incriminate members of the family. It amused me to see Betteredge growing more and more exasperated with Cuff as he continued in his investigations. Betteredge might not like the sergeant at all, but I thought he was a great character; a predecessor to Sherlock Holmes, and a bit of an eccentric, coming to blows with the gardener over their differing opinions about the rose garden. Cuff also made me think of Lt. Columbo; less bumbling but just as irritating to the people around him, with his inconvenient questions - and his thoughtful whistling as the pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place.

By the end of the first part of the novel, a lot of the answers seem clear, yet there is still a lot of the book still to go. After Betteredge's section, we relocate with Rachel and Lady Verinder to London, and we meet a new narrator: Miss Clack. This dreadful woman is exactly what you would expect with a name like that: a finicky, pious, interfering old maid who has taken on a mission to convert the entire country with a ready supply of religious tracts. Though rather a caricature, I couldn't help but think she must have been based on some real-life lady or ladies Wilkie must have met on his travels. I'm sure she means well, but she is so heavy-handed, bludgeoning everyone with her evangelism, seeing them only as souls in desperate need of her spiritual wisdom, rather than people who could do with a bit more earthly compassion from time to time. As a result, her effect on people that she met was both sad and funny; it became somewhat of a running joke that just a few words from her would provoke a horrified and profane reaction from each hearer. Her desperate attempts to reach her family by hiding her books and pamphlets ("Satan in the Hair Brush," "Satan under the Tea Table," and "Satan among the Sofa Cushions") in every nook and cranny made me chortle, as did her "Preparation by Little Notes" - if Rachel would not read the pamphlets, perhaps she might benefit from reading some choice passages copied out in letter format? Miss Clack's determination to get her message to its intended recipient reminded me of the barrage of owls carrying Harry Potter's first letter from Hogwarts. Poor dear; tact is utterly alien to her, and despite being hilariously awful, you can't help feeling sorry for her as her efforts alienate everyone she cares for, leaving her all alone.

Since we left Yorkshire for London, the mystery of the moonstone seems to have taken a back seat. Since Sergeant Cuff has been sent on his way, no one seems that concerned about tracking the gem's whereabouts. It is not forgotten, but seems to be treated as an unpleasantness that is in the past and not to be mentioned; that if no one speaks of the mystery, perhaps it will go away of its own accord.

Somehow, I think that's not going to happen.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Thor: The Dark World

Last year's Avengers Assemble ruined my conviction that I could not be havin' with superhero movies, that they just did not interest me. I saw it at the cinema, bought the DVD and somehow managed to watch it three times in a single week, before going out to acquire all of the prequels. Thor was entertaining enough, though quite thin on story, with some gorgeous visuals, erm... other gorgeous visuals, and some wonderfully laugh-out-loud funny parts.

But for the most part, I felt that it was a set-up for the main Avengers movie, introducing one of its heroes and its main antagonist. The Dark World takes place after the events of Avengers Assemble. Loki is in disgrace and in prison, while Thor and his Asgardian friends face a force of Dark Elves, led by Malekith, in a war which spans all of the Nine Kingdoms. The opening battle sequences were extraordinarily reminiscent of the prologue to the Fellowship of the Ring movie.

On Earth, scientist Jane Foster has relocated to London, where she can be found reluctantly on a date with a very sweet young man who just can't compare to the godlike being who swept Jane off her feet and then disappeared to fight aliens in New York and Asgard without even a phone call. Luckily, sassy intern Darcy crashes the world's most miserable date and drags Jane off to investigate some strange phenomenon. Upon closer examination, Jane gets either infected or possessed by the Dark Elves' deadly "Aether" power, but not to fear: in comes Thor in a suitably British rainstorm and whisks her off to Asgard.

Asgard is beautifully created on the big screen, an inspired combination of Norse mythology and science fiction which really shouldn't work, but does. The realm celebrates victory against Malekith, though everyone is aware that the war is not over yet. The best parts of Thor showed the Asgardian trying to adapt to an unfamiliar world; this time it is Jane's turn. This is where her lover calls home. Thor has matured since we last saw him, taking on responsibilities he hadn't been ready for until now.(There are also a few camera shots that were purely there for the female gaze, but let's appreciate this redress of the balance within the genre of comics and comic-book-movies. And Mr Hemsworth.)

The first part of the film is enjoyable enough, easy to watch, but the brilliance really starts, unsurprisingly, when Thor enlists his brother Loki. Tom Hiddleston was always going to be the real star of this film, and he is hilarious with his smart one-liners, trickery and disguises. One disguise in particular is sheer genius, and will have Avengers followers cheering with glee. Yet there is also some sadness, when you actually get to see Loki with all his illusions stripped away, and again, a little later. Hiddleston slides effortless between quick-witted snark and breaking your heart, and back again. The plot twists and turns, as you might expect if you get the god of mischief involved, with betrayals, double- and triple-crossing. Thor might have his brother on his side through necessity, but trusting him would be foolishness.

Second to Thor and Loki's banter in terms of humour comes from Jane's back-up team: Darcy, Darcy's own intern Ian, and Erik Selvig, who seems to have lost some of his marbles - as well as his clothes - after the events of The Avengers. Thor asking for directions on the London Underground also brought a smile to my face. Thor brings the film's climactic battle to London, and I have to admit it was great to see London getting smashed by aliens on the big screen for once. I appreciated the CGI much more when it was familiar landmarks being destroyed, instead of it being "Oh, look, someone's broken New York again."

Finally, let me leave you with a short video clip of Loki conducting some very important research to answer the question of who is better, Thor or Loki, once and for all.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

After the epic mission to resurrect Mr Spock and save the whales, Star Trek V sees the barely-functional Enterprise-A being hijacked by a rogue Vulcan cult leader and taken where no man really has gone before: the centre of the galaxy on a search for paradise.

The crew are enjoying some well-deserved shore leave at the start of this film. Kirk, Spock and McCoy are camping in Yosemite National Park like a group of aging boy scouts, climbing, cooking on a campfire and sleeping under the stars. The bond between the three is as close as ever, with their usual banter and bickering, but an undercurrent of real affection that they sometimes let show. I always enjoy watching the trio interact, but this time the humour fell a little flat. It felt a bit forced, perhaps a little obvious, raising a smile rather than the intended laughter. Their attempt at a sing-song was actually painful to sit through. "Row, row, row your boat?" Seriously?! The other main crew have paired up, too. Chekov and Sulu have somehow got themselves lost in the woods, much to their embarrassment, and back on ship a flirtation has developed between Scotty and Uhura. Where did that come from? It's quite sweet and amusing, but seems very out of character.

The plot itself, for all its grand efforts, feels more like an episode than that of a film, and not one of the better ones. Its final denouement is pompous and self-important, tackling grand questions of Life, The Universe and Everything in a manner almost as subtle as Shatner's acting. But the film - generally considered the worst - is not entirely without merit. Certainly it is more watchable than the episodes "Spock's Brain" "Plato's Stepchildren" and the one with the space hippies. By the time we reach the end of the film, it feels like there have been huge leaps in character development. We find out some deep, dark secrets about Dr McCoy's past, in a standout piece of acting from DeForest Kelley. Nine times out of ten, McCoy is secondary to Spock and Kirk, but when he gets the chance, he can break your heart. Spock, too, reveals some secrets he's been keeping all these years, and even Kirk has a moment or two of gloom amid the heartwarming friendship, predicting a lonely death for himself one day.

Next up is the last real Original Series film: The Undiscovered Country. The title worries me. I know its literary source.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Eleanor and Park - Rainbow Rowell

Rainbow Rowell is a name I've seen all over the book blogs the last few months, but Ellie's review of Attachments was what prompted me to buy one of her books for myself. Unable to find a copy of Attachments anywhere, I settled on Eleanor and Park instead; after all, it had been on my wishlist for a

When Eleanor steps onto the school bus for the first time, she is all too aware that everyone is staring at her. She can't help but stand out, with her wild red hair and mismatched clothes. But she doesn't stand out in a Manic Pixie-girl way; she stands out in a Carrie White way. A Katherine Edwards circa 2001 sort of way. From her very first day, Eleanor has been marked as the bottom of the food chain. That girl's just weird, think her classmates, and not in a cool way. As she looks desperately around for somewhere to sit, Park Sheridan takes pity on her. On this school bus, seats are allocated for life - or at least for the school year - and woe betide anyone who sits in the wrong place! So Park and Eleanor are stuck sitting together, and though they don't speak, they bond over comic books and music, and a friendship of sorts develops. And as Park gets to know Eleanor better, he discovers dreadful things about her life, both at home and at school.

For a moment, when I read Eleanor's reflections on "the bus situation" in her first chapter, I thought what bus situation, exactly? The other kids stared at her and wouldn't let her sit next to them. Yes, it sucks, but it's not exactly the end of the world, is it? And compared to the other things Eleanor has to deal with - poverty, an abusive stepfather ruling the house with terror, looking after four younger siblings, Carrie-style bullying from the other girls at school - it's not much. But then I remembered my own high school days, and the number 51 bus and all its horrors. Being the unpopular kid is not much fun at school, but without any adult supervision (because the bus driver barely counts) it is the perfect opportunity for the bullies to let loose on you. You're trapped in a metal can with your worst enemies for twenty minutes, and there's not a lot you can do but try to ignore them the best you can, and hope they'll get bored. Confession: I sometimes used my lunch money to catch the public bus home, rather than the free school bus. Some drivers would let me use my bus pass on public transport, others I was too timid to even ask.

At least I had a good, loving family. I was not prepared for the awfulness that was Eleanor's home life, where five siblings would huddle together in a single bedroom as their stepfather raged at their mother, trying not to alert him to their existence or do anything to make him worse. Where there was no door to the bathroom, and no shampoo, toothbrushes or much food. Where everything that would be considered normal teenage behaviour - friendships, phone calls, babysitting jobs, learning to drive, never mind dating - had to be conducted under secrecy for fear of Ritchie's anger. Eleanor's helplessness was so upsetting: thank goodness for Park. Without him, this story would be all doom and gloom - and who knows what might have happened if Eleanor had telekinetic powers! But Park's friendship and later love provide a refuge for Eleanor, a place to go where she can be happy and survive, despite everything, though always in fear of discovery. Their relationship is heartwarming, very funny and gloriously geeky as they bond over comics - X-Men, Swamp Thing, and the ongoing series of The Watchmen. I read Watchmen earlier this year and loved it, so it was great to follow the duo reading it as a serial. Also, Eleanor hates being made-over but Park wears eyeliner and looks great. There are Star Wars and Star Trek references, and this book really made me want to listen to the Smiths again. Just a few songs at a time, though. I don't want to get too miserable.

Early on in the novel, Eleanor voices my objections to Romeo and Juliet - I love Shakespeare, but hate that story, or at least, don't consider it the great romance and tragedy that everyone else does. (I know, I know, I have a heart of granite.)
"Romeo and Juliet are just two rich kids who've always gotten every little thing they wanted. And now, they think they want each other."
I've never had much patience with these young, all-or-nothing romances, and yet Eleanor and Park got to me. I think the book spoke to my inner teenager; there was a bit of longing in me as I read it. Park is an absolutely lovely boy, and the thought of someone like him falling for someone like me as a teenager was more than I could have hoped for. My feelings changed along with Eleanor's, through the growing romance and I so desperately wanted things to work out with the couple. It is a cute but not cutesy relationship, with the necessary complications of anything which involves two insecure people. These are two young people who need each other. Such a need could destroy them, but instead it strengthens them.

In Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell created two characters I deeply cared about, not just as individuals, but as a couple. This is rare for me. I don't do "shipping" and generally romance is a thing that is to be endured for the sake of the story. But this time, the romance was the heart of the story, and it made me cry. That's quite an achievement. Perhaps I'm getting soft.

Memorable quotes:

"Maybe I'm not attracted to real girls, he'd thought at the time. Maybe I'm some sort of perverted cartoon-sexual."

"She tried to remember what kind of animals paralyzed their prey before they ate them...
Maybe Park had paralyzed her with his ninja magic, his Vulcan handhold, and now he was going to eat her.
That would be awesome."

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Sunday Summary: Accidental book-buying

Hi. Somehow it's been a week since I last posted, to my shame. I've got three reviews (two film and one book) in note form, but none of them have quite made it into coherent sentences. As a teaser, here are the six-word versions.

Thor: The Dark World: Funny, epic, Loki is the best.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier: Cringey in places, not all bad.
Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell: Sweet, nerdy, much sadder than expected.

Books I have acquired

This week has been the week of accidental book-buying. Some were deliberate. I went shopping in Portsmouth with Judi on my day off, with the intention of buying some Christmas presents, looking in the outlet shops in Gunwharf Quays and stocking up on DVDs in HMV (because, after a lot of hard work from the Isle of Wight HMV staff and loyalty from the customers heroically snatching the store back from the brink of closure earlier this year, the landlord sold them out in favour of yet another convenience store, leaving the entire population of the Isle of Wight with nothing but new releases and a random selection of older, bargain DVDs in a few other supermarkets and high street shops.) I also went into the city centre, where I bought a book called The Fictional Man by Al Ewing. I had a book token left over from my birthday, and remembered being tempted by this novel the last time I'd been in that shop. Clearly it was meant to be!

After reading Ellie's rave review of Attachments, a madness seemed to come over me, sending me straight into town to search high and low for something by Rainbow Rowell, a name that I have seen all over the book blogs the past few months. I couldn't find Attachments, and Fangirl hasn't yet been published in the UK, but I came home with a copy of Eleanor and Park and a vague bewilderment about how I had come to buy it. It's the power of book blogging, people! Don't underestimate it.

On returning an almost-overdue Slaughterhouse 5 to the library, I saw Something Borrowed by Paul Magrs, sequel to the hilarious gothic-fiction-lover's dream, Never the Bride, which I read on my summer holiday earlier this year, and I simply had to borrow it, because you know you can never find a book in the library when you're after it specifically. (That, or you see ALL THE BOOKS you want to be reading RIGHT NOW. There is no in between.)

This week saw the publication of the new novel by Cecelia Ahern, an author I like to indulge in as Christmas approaches. For some reason, nearly all the chick-lit I can bear to read seems to be by Irish authors. Not that Ahern writes simply about shoes, sex and shopping; they are very feminine books but there is a magical twist and a breadth of subject matter that takes her writing out of her genre pigeonhole. The new book is called How To Fall In Love, but it is apparently more about falling in love with one's own life, rather than with another person (although I'm sure there'll be some of that, too.)

Finally, after seeing that both Ellie and Judi were reading Hyperbole and a Half, the book based on the popular blog by Allie Brosh, I found myself coming home with a copy of my own, even though Judi had offered to lend me hers. Once more, I had a vague sense of confusion. I hadn't actually set out to buy it, but, whoops, there it was, and money was changing hands, and I had another shiny new book to call my own. Hyperbole and a Half is half autobiographical anecdotes, half musings on life, covering issues such as motivation versus laziness, how to be an adult (or not), and the conflict between being a nice person on the outside and a real jerk inside, mixed in with comic stories about Brosh's dogs and childhood ("The God Of Cake" being my favourite) illustrated with childish but distinctive and expressive pictures. It also contains the frankest, most accurate description of depression I have yet discovered, heartbreaking and identifiable and yet still brilliantly funny. The book had me nodding in agreement all the way through. Check out the blog here.

Books I have read:

I finally finished reading The Honey Queen, (another example of Irish chick-lit) and thought it was fair; I enjoyed spending time with the characters within, although the unsympathetic ones were two-dimensional, but ultimately I felt the story was too gentle to really excite me. It was nice, but unremarkable, taking far more time than it ought.

I'm also enjoying the #readwilkie readalong of The Moonstone. I'm about a quarter of the way through now, still in the section narrated by the adorable, chivalrously condescending Gabriel Betteredge. Rachel, the daughter of the house, has been left a diamond with a lot of baggage by an estranged relative, but whether this jewel was intended as a gift or a curse is dubious, to say the least. Now, of course, the diamond has vanished, and a detective has been called in: the dour Sergeant Cuff, who though not credited as much by the narrator Betteredge, shows himself to be a shrewd observer. The newest servant, Roseanna, draws suspicion on herself, acting sneaky and mysterious, and with a criminal past, she is the obvious culprit - and therefore can be ruled out. Rachel herself is acting very suspicious about the whole affair, though the idea that any of the members of the family for whom he works could have any hand in the jewel's disappearance seems to be unthinkable to Betteredge. I also feel somewhat suspicious of Mr Franklin Blake, an old friend of the family, and the one who brought the jewel to the house in the first place. He seems charming enough, and there looks like there is a sort of love triangle between him, Rachel and Roseanna, but I don't quite trust him.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Sunday Summary: Wilkie, NaNoWriMo and light reading.

It's been a busy old week this week, and though I got off to a good start on Sunday and Monday by making a nest and ignoring the world in favour of books, blankets and biscuits, one week on I am only half-way through Cathy Kelly's latest book, The Honey Queen. I decided to read this one as a bit of fluff after the short but heavy-going Slaughterhouse 5. Slaughterhouse 5 was an interesting read, but one which I think I would actually enjoy more if I were studying it, reading and rereading and taking notes. Though quite simply written, there is so much beneath the surface about humanity, war, death and time, that I don't think you can really appreciate the full impact on a first read.

It's a funny thing, but I often find "light" reading to be harder work than more "literary" or bulky novels. Although I am enjoying The Honey Queen, which reads rather like a miniature soap opera, focusing on the lives of various inhabitants of a small Irish town, it seems to be taking a long time to read. I have read just over 200 pages in a week. Is it because there are a lot of characters to keep track of, or because it is a character-based rather than plot-driven narrative? Is it because my inner critic finds more to say about the writing style, or perhaps it's just not all that exciting? I don't know. It's certainly not badly written, although I do find that what Ms Kelly tells us about some of her main characters doesn't seem to tally with what she shows us. And it is a very warm, cosy community to lose myself in. But something about this book makes reading it a much more drawn-out process than logic dictates it should be.

November marked the beginning of NaNoWriMo (National novel-writing month) which I decided to participate in out of a feeling of desperation. All my life, my writing has been the thing that has most defined me, but lately I haven't written very much aside from this blog. I'm terrified that I've lost the knack or the drive or the ability, and so I'm using NaNoWriMo to re-teach myself the art of Making Things Up And Writing Them Down. I got off to a good start on Friday, but yesterday I went out for a family meal after work, and I only managed a couple of hundred words scribbled in a notebook on my lunch break. But I don't mind too much if I don't reach the target of fifty thousand words this year, as long as I keep going and create a story.

Also, on a whim, I signed up to Ellie's "Read Wilkie" readalong of The Moonstone, which I am enjoying very much, though I have not got very far into it. It's a nice, laid-back readalong, so one I should be able to fit in alongside NaNoWriMo and any other books I have on the go at any one time. This afternoon, I'm meeting an old school friend for coffee, then afterwards I'm going to see the sequel to Thor at the cinema.

Have a good week, everyone!

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (The One With The Whales)

After the emotional rollercoaster ride that was the last two installments in the Star Trek movie series, The Voyage Home comes as something of a relief. Films two to four form a sort of trilogy within the wider series, each with its own plot within a wider story arc of loyalty, sacrifice and friendship. The films differ in tone and style as vastly as any three episodes in the original series. The Wrath of Khan is a swashbuckling epic, The Search for Spock a high-stakes quest driven by desperation. Part Four, generally referred to as The One With The Whales, is utterly heartwarming, sheer comedy to be rivalled only by the season two episode, "The Trouble with Tribbles."

The crew of the Enterprise return to Earth, with a newly resurrected Captain Spock aboard, to face the consequences of all the crimes they committed to save him. Only problem is, they can't get home. Earth is under threat by a strange, alien presence which will stop at nothing to make contact with humpback whales. Unfortunately, the whales were wiped out two hundred years previously! It is up to Kirk and the Enterprise crew, aboard an unfamiliar Klingon (or possibly Romulan) ship to save the day, thus:
McCoy: "You're proposing that we go backwards in time, and find humpback whales, bring them forward in time, drop them off, and hope to hell they tell the probe what to go do with itself?"
Kirk: "That's the general idea."
McCoy: "Well, that's crazy!"
Kirk: "You got a better idea, now's the time."
After a surreal dream-sequence, Kirk, Spock and the others find themselves in 1980s San Francisco, and this is where the fun really starts. As the team try to fit into a very '80s Earth, I was reminded of nothing so much as the Back to the Future films (released around the same time.) Spock's concession to blending in with people who have never seen an extra-terrestrial consists of ripping a piece of material off his Vulcan robes and using it as a headband.

Every member of the cast gets a chance to shine in this film, and they do not disappoint. Highlights include the Russian Chekov asking random passers-by where he might find "nuclear wessels," (remember, this was during the cold war), Scotty's first attempts to use an early computer ("Hello, computer!") Doctor McCoy in a twentieth-century hospital, and Spock knocking out an obnoxious punk with a nerve-pinch, earning a round of applause from all the other passengers. Actually, shall we just say everything Spock does in this film? His logic and intelligence are as sharp as ever, but he is lovably bewildered about the social ways of humans. Fortunately he has Kirk on hand to try to guide him, and their scenes together are simply adorable, with Kirk all the while trying to get Spock to address him not as "Admiral" but as "Jim." (The scene in which Kirk and Spock argue about whether or not they like Italian food reminded me of nothing so much as an old family story about my grandparents on honeymoon, pretending to be a long-married couple!)

Unlike the last two installments, the tone is too light to really convince us that there's any real danger. The earth may be at risk, and at one point a member of the crew is considered to be fatally wounded, but we feel quite secure that, this time it will all be all right in the end. Of course the crew manage to get back to their century, complete with two humpback whales named George and Gracie. Yes, Kirk and crew still have to face trial for their actions, but considering that they just saved the world from destruction, Starfleet's idea of punishment is to demote Kirk back to the rank of Captain, and give him a shiny new starship - another Enterprise, in fact. As the shuttle approached the starship, and her name and license number (same as before with an extra A on the end) were revealed, I may or may not have been pulling some strange expressions, because I was not going to cry, not at such a happy moment. Such expressions of emotion would be illogical.

I've said before that I generally dislike the use of a "reset button" story, but once more, I'll let it pass. After all, would Star Trek be as charming if it wasn't a bit cheesy from time to time? The three-part story which began with The Wrath of Khan (following on from The Motion Picture) reaches a natural ending here, and instead of dragging it out too long, the series can pick up from the familiar territory of the Enterprise without having to invent yet more convoluted excuses to get our old friends back together.

The Voyage Home is perhaps less powerful as The Search for Spock or The Wrath of Khan, but not every story has to tear its viewers' emotions to shreds. After the turmoil experienced while watching the previous two movies, I certainly felt that we had earned a happy, fun and amusing story, and The One With The Whales is most definitely that.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Readalong: The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins

November. The beginning of the busiest time of year for anyone who works in retail. The clocks have gone back, it is dark when you leave work, but the Christmas lights have not yet gone on to cheer you up. And for many of a literary bent, it is also National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short, a project I attempt most years as a desperate bid to hold on to the part of me that neither my employers, the approaching winter, nor the people I deal with every day have claimed as their own, and try to get fifty thousand words of continuous fiction onto paper in a month. So it would be absolutely ridiculous to sign up for a bloggers' readalong on top of all that, right?

Ellie, not to be confused with that Ellie, or the other Ellie, is hosting a month-long readalong of Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone, which is generally considered the first example of detective fiction. After reading other bloggers excitedly blogging and tweeting about this readalong, I trundled along to the library after lunch, and lo and behold, there were two copies sitting there in the classics section. Surely, it was meant to be! 

And the prize for the least-exciting edition of this book goes
to the Everyman's Library edition. But it's what's inside that counts.

This is to be a very laid-back readalong, allowing an entire month to read the novel, updating once at the midway point around the 16th November, and once more at the end of the month. There will also be an ongoing twitter discussion of the book at #readwilkie.

Collins writes in his preface that this is a novel designed to "trace the influence of character on circumstance," promising a character-driven plot full of interesting, proactive people who do more than simply allow things to happen to them.

I'm only a couple of chapters in so far, but I am already enjoying the narration of Gabriel Betteridge, an elderly steward to a well-to-do family involved many years ago in a mystery surrounding a missing, allegedly cursed, Indian diamond. Betteridge is a warm, good-humoured narrator, constantly rambling off on tangents which flesh out the facts of the plot with depth of character and background, while being brought back on-topic by his daughter.
"In answer to an improvement on this notion, devised by myself, namely, that she should tell the story instead of me, out of her own diary, Penelope observes, with a fierce look and a red face, that her journal is for her own private eye, and that no living creature shall ever know what is in it but herself. When I inquire what this means, Penelope says, "Fiddlesticks!" I say, Sweethearts.
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