Thursday, July 28, 2005

Of Clock-filled crocodiles and the reccos of fleas

With this week being as hectic as it has been, I’m amazed I had time to read anything that wasn’t college related. But I did, I read The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith.
I liked it. Not too heavy, funny, touching, etc. Most of my reading is centred in Europe (yes, I’m very ashamed of this) so it feels refreshing to be reading something from somewhere else. Even if the author is English.

There’s the thing though. If I was reading this as an authentic account of life in Botswana, I’d probably be better off with a book by an author who was actually from the country. Luckily, all I’m really in it for is entertainment. And it’s charming.

“Charming”. It has always annoyed me the way books about Asian, African and South American countries are written in this charming, simple, childish style, somewhat akin to magical realism when you read it. (Though magical realism is not particularly simple or ‘childish’.) Try using that style on a book about the streets of London. (Hmm. That would make a pretty good book) Maybe I’m hyper sensitive, but it always seems patronising to me. With this book, though, I didn’t feel that. It was like he knew it was irritating, and was purposely mocking the style. Was he? I’m not smart enough to know.

But yes. It was a great read. I will read the other books in the series. And a big thankyou to Jai for the rec. (And no, the mention of Fleas in the title does not refer to him, but a member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers who also liked this book)

Friday, July 15, 2005

The new Potter - *squeal!* - and spoilers.

I have only ever owned one of the HP books (A hardback copy of The Goblet of Fire that was rather mistreated) and had decided not to buy any till the whole series was out and I could get a boxed set or something. Then on tuesday I was outside the Corner Bookstore at Eatopia and saw the "Book now, get 20% off" poster. I'm weak.
So I'm on my way to collect my copy of the book - Supriya and I will be doing a sort of interactive review in this post. Feel free to jump in.:)


Two powercuts later, I'm here to interact. And say what? Should this review have spoilers? Does it even matter when, after having read the book, the two things that preyed on everyone's mind these last two weeks - who the half-blood prince is, and who dies - are actually not the two biggest surprises or, indeed, the two most important things about the book?

To keep things general in a cursory verdict, before the details: Harry Potter has expanded. The first few chapters are marvellous proof of the fact. It's not that plot and characterisation develop wholly new aspects so much as what we could sense as subtext, the stories that JKR refrained from telling to complete the picture, are being filled in now. Consequently, growth.

-- Supriya.


It's been two days since I read the book, and I've calmed down.


Perhaps not.

First - I'm having these glorious images of a Tony Blair cameo in the movie version of this book.

Second - Spinners End = Best Chapter Ever. The fox! (Tolkien?) "Cissy"! Snape and Wormtail living together! SnapeSnapeSnapeSnapeSnape!

Anyway. What I liked about this is the amount of background information that has finally been given us. Voldemort's story is the major thing, but there's also little things, like Dumbledore's explanation of how underage magic is controlled in wizarding families (this has been worrying me since book 2).
What bothers me a little is how completely new concepts and characters are introduced - Scrimgeour, horcruxes, etc...when something plays a significant role in a Rowling book (Minister of Magic and the only means of defeating Voldemort - that's about as significant as it gets) they've always been introduced in a relatively innocent role a couple of books earlier.
Anyway, let the predictions for the next book (and squeeing over this one) begin!


I think I'm calm too, except when I think of Snape and Dumbledore and have a little readgasm all over again.

My biggest grouse with this book is how well-adjusted everyone suddenly seems to be after the befuddled, massive, emotional train-wreck of OotP. This is, of course, because Harry’s talked himself into growing up over the holidays. He communicates better, obeys orders and, as if to make up for his pig-headedness throughout book 5, actually reports everything important - and many things not - to Ron, Hermione and/or a teacher. At some point I was almost about to pine for the fucked-up brat that I’d learnt to live with.


Because, dude. New and improved Harry? Throws old whiner Harry way out of the field. You might miss his emotional upheavals and how easily he can be hurt by the world, but it’s very likely you won’t. He’s still vulnerable, but he’s no longer insecure. This is a series that is no longer dithering and stalling and hemming and hawing; it’s going places, and fast. Naturally, it may trip up on those little details like factual consistency and, oh, polite punctuation. But surely one has learnt not to expect those.

Given that, it’s surprising how heavily JKR lays on the new locations and information and points of view in the first quarter of the book. Or not; this is no expansion of plot. It’s subtext becoming text. So you have explanations for the Ministry’s liaison with the Muggle world in the first chapter and then, you have. Slytherins. Lots and lots of yummy, sharp, two-faced, and – hold your breath – three-dimensional Slytherins. Yes, I mean Draco. Everyone expected it, everyone predicted it. And JKR did it, thankfully. Chapter Two was already being touted as The Best Chapter Ever in certain circles on the morning of the 16th, and in terms of how much it gave to the reader, I might be inclined to agree. There was Bella-Narcissa-Severus tenshun, ‘nuff said. Actually: There was Bella-Narcissa-Severus tenshun and also, JKR cannot infodump subtly, ‘nuff said.

More things I didn’t like: Wayyyy too much yayl0veomg! at the end, not so well-constructed. I don’t think writing romance is one of her strong points, and I can understand her choppiness; romance is not really so much of a priority when, you know, everyone’s fighting a war, no matter what Mrs Weasley says, and it’s a delicate balance between exploring relationships and creating 300 extra pages to an already big-ass book.

As for the 'ships themselves: I don’t mind Bill/Fleur and - here I lose all literary credibility but – I actually don’t mind Remus/Tonks, but to pile it on so heavily in the last chapter did not work for me. Ron/Hermione is so much subtext it’s all but text, and I actually think she’s handling that better than most, although it did drag a lot and there were times when the Ron/Lavender farce got a bit too unfunny for me. Harry/Ginny was good, courtesy bitchy!strong!Ginny, although it was rather abruptly sketched out – did JKR not want to spend too much time on it, or did she just assume that no one really needed to have it built up?

I also liked Ginny because she was one of the few women in this book not sniffling, whining, or losing sleep over boyfriends. Well, there’s always Minerva McGonagall. If you want.

I also suppose it was tough for her to bring in new magics and theories, but I wanted more. The horcrux aspect was simplistic, but then what about HP’s magic isn’t? And it clicked, which was good. The Inferi – zombies, basically – didn’t matter much.

And, to state the obvious: Tolkien would totally kick JKR’s ass in a Dead-Marshes-writing-contest.

Back to the characters: what goes for Harry goes for Dumbledore too. After being the grim puppeteer of OotP, Albus reprises his role as superhero, Christ-figure and the guy with all the best lines. It’s not so much of a surprise, since the earlier books have put him in the super-mentor humourdaddy position before, and he has a history of power. This, then, is good!Albus raised to the power of ten; flawed but ultimately self-aware, and a hero every step of the way. His last scenes in the book may not be the best fantasy ever written, but if anyone has cared a whit for anything over the course of these books, they will care for the implications of what he does, what he means, in them.

As for Snape, what can I say? If everything else in this book has been about fulfilling expectations, then Snape has indeed been about JKR exceeding them. Always one of her best-written characters, Snape is now the one who has escaped the confines of good and evil as the books know them. I can’t read him as a traitor, but if he was – it really wouldn’t matter. His killing of Dumbledore and last fight with Harry prove that he has been doing all along is what is necessary, and the final outcome of his calculations will only decide whether it has been necessary for him alone, or for the side he’s on. And yet, there’s little coldness to him. He’s still the touchy, grumpy, jealous, nasty fuck he’s always been. The series has done some growing up in this book, but Snape has become its George Eliot: one of the few things that actually exists for grown-ups.

Voldemort. Ah, Voldie. I missed seeing him in this book. Oh, he was around constantly as Tom Riddle, which I confess was one of the things that I most anticipated about HBP, and we did get to find out more about his wizarding family, which I was very satisfied with, on the whole. I’d have hoped for him not to be such a maniac/sociopath as a child, but I’m not complaining; madman he is and will remain. The Hitler parallels grow that much more obvious, I think. I really enjoyed his presence in the book, even if he wasn’t quite the subtle tortured villain I was hoping for. Thumbs-up for gapfilling.

Draco, as for Draco. Well, his story arc went the way it was expected to go, in a ridiculously overdone “we love the sound of our own exposition before we kill each other” Draco-Dumbledore scene, and. Well. Thank heavens there was no miraculous redemption. I like my snivelling Draco, tall and pale and burdened though he may have grown. (Incidentally, so much about this book was fanfic. There was Sirius’ will, lots of Slytherin machination, and there was tall and pale Draco who cries secretly. I’m like, hahahahahaha.)

As a general first half of the stuff to come in book seven, I’m rather chuffed. I miss the spontaneity and structural tightness of the early books – and CoS, to which this is a parallel, has always been my favourite – but then, so does everyone. We cope.

She may still be laying on her ‘all you need is love’ moral a bit thickly, but the grey area between good and evil is coming out into the open, and that has made all the difference. That is what makes Book Seven worth waiting for, and wait I, at least, will.

-- Supriya.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

the master - colm tóibín

" The Master" was last year's Booker favourite, and having finally read it, I know I'd have chosen it over the eventual winner, another book featuring Henry James (in a lesser capacity) myself. In a competition where each book seems to be chosen primarily for its display of style and writerly skill - and were that the only crtierion, Cloud Atlas would be really tough to beat - it stands to reason that, when each work is some form of tour de force in its own right, an overall measure comes into play, that takes into account things like, oh, how the book makes you feel, perhaps; or how far the writer's succeeded in accomplishing what he set out to do. In both cases, I'd grant my vote to "The Master." (I'm talking like these were the only three books in the running - does anyone even remember the names of the other two?) Both this book and "The Line of Beauty" are intensely psychological, self-absorbed books, but it is Tóibín who infuses his story with a rarer and more profound quality than Hollinghurst's authorial intelligence: authorial compassion.

In "The Master," Tóibín recreates some of James' own heavily elliptical, allusive style by constructing his story as a bunch of disconnected episodes set between 1895 and 1901. James' play has failed miserably in London, against his expectations, and, deeply mortified, he retreats further into himself. The next four years him will bring him more success; a slew of brilliant novels, a house of his own, and a headlong tumble into TS Eliot's deadly April cocktail of memory and desire.

As the novel walks us backwards and forwards through cities in which James has spent his life observing people, making friends, developing relationships but never seeing them through, it manages to create a subtle but accurate impact on the reader as the private life of the man who wrote Portrait of a Lady and The Wings of the Dove. Tóibín manages to create a psychological verisimilitude without ever focussing too sharply on the painful details of James' sexual crises (reviewer's note: yay!), his failure to save his friends from death and decay, and his social obligations. The moments of palpable dramatic tension (a young Henry sharing a bed with Oliver Wendell Holmes, his scattering of Constance Woolson's clothes in the ocean) are balanced by clear, calm reflective ones. You can only marvel at the lightness of touch it takes to create those, to make them sober and dark without being clumsy and heavy-handed. The Master is as much of a biography as Finding Neverland was a biopic; it's job is to pull threads from its subject's life together to fashion a plot out of mere story, and the gentle, meandering way in which connections are established and reinforced is both original and poignant.

If I was forced to pick a flaw in the tapestry, it'd be the sudden, inexplicable introduction of the subject of the occult (Henry's brother William and his wife were known for their interest in it) which isn't adequately resolved. But then, as James' work itself shows time and again, there's not much about the human condition that is.

Tóibín is no James, and I think he knows it: his language and basic tropes are all simple enough. James, after all, was not a character out of his own books, but a human being who wrote extraordinarily complex stories. In setting out to portray that man, Tóibín accomplishes an elegant, quiet novel that might just inspire a reader to read more of him - and more of James.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

The Moon Riders - Theresa Tomlinson

Been wanting to review this for a while. It's supposedly a book for *young adults*, in that the print is large-ish and there's no explicit sex. Other than that, I can't help thinking it was written for an audience far more mature than last year's movie Troy.
Is this historically accurate? I haven't a clue. It's fiction...whether it is based on reaonably reliable sources I cann't be sure; I'm not really an expert on this period of history. It is set in the years leading up to the Trojan War. The protagonist, Myrina, belongs to a nomadic tribe whose members are expert horse breeders and horse riders. At the age of fourteen she meets and befriends Cassandra of Troy when her father sells some horses to king Priam. Around the same time, she also joins the Moon Riders (the Amazons). Cassandra runs away with the Moon Riders, and so the Amazon women are dragged into the Trojan war.
Tomlinson doesn't give you much detail about the later stages of the war. Cassandra has a few uncomfortable dreams about a huge horse, but that's about it - she prefers to concentrate on the siege (the years that were left out of the movie so that Achilles could stay young and pretty) and assumes her readers will know what came next. That's rather a compliment when you're young - to know that an author actually credits you with being well informed. Though Tomlinson is English, and if I remember right we did the Greeks in third or fourth year.
Characterisation starts off rather simple - the story is told mostly from Myrina's perspective and a fourteen year old sees things differently from a twenty-something year old. As Myrina matures, so does the novel. Fourteen year old Myrina sees Paris as spoilt and annoying. Adult Myrina sees a weak, guilty man, very deeply in love.*
Achilles and his men kill most of Myrina's tribe, she wants to kills him, but he is still shown as an honourable man in battle. Helen is in love, but also retains her instincts of self-preservation, and is not portrayed as a bitch for doing so.
And she doesn't spare you the violence/sadness. People are dying all over the place.

I would have liked to read this about seven or eight years ago. Reading a book as an adult means you judge it by adult standards, which is a bit unfair. Though I think I prefer *childrens* books anyway. This made me cry, which proves it's certainly very effective.

*Again, compare this to Paris in Troy. Was the character written that one-dimensional deliberately, or was it the magic of Orlando Bloom?