Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Book Review: The Lions of Al-Rassan

Title: The Lions of Al-Rassan 
Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
Year Published: 1995
Genre: Historical fantasy

I was desperate for a standalone historical fantasy set somewhere other than in ye olde generic medieval European village, and I picked this one up on the basis it was set in an analogue of Islamic Iberia. Knowing nothing about the author, I could only hope that the book did its setting justice. Not one chapter in, I knew I’d made the right choice when I stumbled upon the words “urine flask”.

Full of rich and evocative detail, The Lions of Al-Rassan is a sweeping epic about the lands of Al-Rassan and (former) Esperaña. The Asharites, who conquered the peninsula in years past, have splintered after the fall of the khalifate, and the once united Al-Rassan is now a collection of warring city-states. In the north, three Jaddite kingdoms have emerged after Al-Rassan’s decline. Of Al-Rassan’s petty kings, King Almalik of Cartada is on the rise, and this stirs tensions throughout the entire region. It is in this volatile environment that our story begins.

To describe the plot would be to spoil the novel – even the events of the blurb don’t happen until a good way into the book – so I will only say that it involves political manoeuvrings both at court and on the battlefield. Kay moves masterfully between matters of state and matters of the heart, allowing you to follow the broader history of Al-Rassan as well as the personal journey of its protagonists. There are battles, quiet family moments, verbal smack-downs and daring escapes. The balance between all these different elements is done so well, the transitions so natural, that it’s all a joy to read. Overlaying all of this is an almost painful sense of poignancy. The transience of power and greatness is a recurring theme. The fall of an empire is mourned even as it is celebrated and wars are inescapable even before they begin. In my opinion, this exploration of war, politics and human nature is really what sets The Lions of Al-Rassan apart from your typical fantasy novel.

The book features a large cast of colourful characters, though the story largely revolves around three. The first is Jehane bet Ishak, a Kindath physician and owner of the aforementioned urine flask. As a “neutral” and relatively apolitical figure, we are introduced to the Asharite/Jaddite conflict through her eyes. The others are the legendary assassin/poet/diplomat Ammar ibn Khairan of Cartada and renowned military leader Rodrigo Belmonte of Jaddite Valledo. Our trio develop deep friendships in a time of unrest, and one of the most interesting aspects of the book was how their personal, religious and political affiliations influenced their relationships and vice versa. As I feared, however, a dreaded love triangle did emerge – though thankfully not as the focus of the novel.

All three are improbably super special awesome and yet, shockingly, remain likeable. In fact, so many people in this book are so super special awesome that it beggars belief. Despite this, I found it hard to dislike most of the characters in the book. Kay allows you to relate to those on different sides of the conflict and I believe that this help balances out the Sue-ness to some degree.

If you’re a fan of historical fiction, I’d recommend The Lions of Al-Rassan to you with reservations. There are barely any fantasy elements in this story, with the closest thing to “magic” being a boy’s (rarely used) psychic abilities. The focus, rather, is on politics and people and a world that is ours but not. Kay draws heavily from Spanish history but refuses to be bound by things mundane as ‘facts’. It’s fantasy after all, and Kay has been able to pick and choose all his favourite bits and shape them into whatever story he wants. However, being so close to history, Kay’s Al-Rassan may seem overly simplistic. For example, the Asharites, Jaddites and Kindath are quite overtly analogues of Muslims, Christians and Jews. The relationship between these three groups is surprisingly complex and layered – when compared to other fantasy worlds – yet as soon as we compare these dynamics to real life it feels like history-lite. Adding to this historically superficial feeling is the sizeable number of tropes and clichés (action girls, a masked carnival, prostitutes with hearts of gold) as well as the improbably advanced state of medical knowledge evinced throughout. Similarly, some of the characters – particularly the women – and their interactions and values feel very, very modern. Again, this is fine if you read the book as a fantasy, but it sort of falls apart if you’re trying to picture an historically sound 11th century Spain.

The writing itself is very descriptive, drawing a rich picture of Al-Rassan’s sumptuous palaces, lively cities and crowded markets – which, funnily enough, are a refreshing change from ye olde forests and castle towns. At the very beginning, all the various terms, characters and historical references might feel overwhelming, but it gets a lot easier once you become familiar Kay’s world. The writing style is a little on the dense side, and the author seems to like telling us about some event upfront, then going back and describing how things got to be there. For this reason, I found it easy to put down the book at times – I enjoyed the read, but didn’t always feel compelled to read on.

The Lions of Al-Rassan wormed its way into my affections very quickly. I really loved reading about an Islamic-influenced world and I was also glad at how richly that world was developed. Further, the story and its characters are vibrant, and this, in addition to all your favourite tropes, lends some fun to what otherwise could have been a dry and serious piece of historical fiction. Granted, the cheesy bits made me roll my eyes at times, but being in the perfect mood for this, I found myself charmed overall. There is a lovely, bittersweet mood that suffuses the book. Despite seemingly endless warfare, Kay paints a vision where the common bond of humanity offers hope for the future. If you’re after something different from the usual fantasy fare, definitely give this one a try.

Alex’s Rating: 4.5/5

Friday, 22 November 2013

Book Review: Fragile Things

Book Review: Fragile Things
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year Published: 2006
Genre: Science fiction, Fantasy, Short stories, Poetry

I have praised Neil Gaiman for his creativity (MirrorMask) before and I have no doubt his imagination contains so much more. Fragile Things is the perfect example of how grand and endless his imagination is. Comprising of short stories and poems, this book will make you decipher the stories yourself and test your own imagination.

Confession: I don’t like Neil Gaiman’s full length novels.
I have tried dipping into American Gods and The Graveyard Book, I love the concept but hate the added little mundane works between the storyline. I’m a straight to the point and move along kind of reader. But give me his short stories (Fragile Things), TV episodes (Doctor Who), graphic novels (Sandman) and movie adoptions of his novels (Stardust) any day and I can guarantee you I will love them…. well none have failed me yet. Except Coraline the movie, I don’t like stop-motion.
Yes, I’m annoyingly picky like that.

Fragile Things bring snippets of  mysterious and brilliant, short stories into reality. There is no beginning and there is no end.
Imagine waiting for a friend on a street corner, minding your own business. You notice a man across the street leaving a book on a chair then walking away. You wonder why he left the book. Did he do it on purpose? Who is he? Then your thoughts trail to, what is in that book? Is it important? Was it left for someone else? How long will it take for someone to notice the book lying there? From there it leads to, who will pick it up? Would someone randomly take it? Will it be thrown away like trash?
You are even tempted to walk across the street to look at the book yourself in hope maybe it was left for you but you think better of it and decide not to. This insignificant event will be forgotten. But what if it was significant, maybe not to you, but to someone or something else?
These are the questions that Neil Gaiman leaves you with at the end of every short story. Under the book Fragile Things, our world is bigger, more dangerous and much more mysterious.

Personal favorite is ‘Other People’. Not wanting to ruin the story, it involves the afterlife of someone who has lived an ‘evil’ life. Evil can be found in any type of person and punishment may not be as simple as physical pain. Gaiman does a fantastic representation of what goes around comes around… in a more literal sense. How he gets these ideas in his head, we may never know.
There is also a sequel to American Gods following Shadow to Scotland, poems and a Sherlock Holmes story involving alien invasions.

Fragile Things' many story lines are short and unfinished allowing the mind to run wild. The writing is simple and unspecific to a point. Naturally, I loved it.

There is something for everyone in Fragile Things. For the readers who prefer a tale with a beginning and an end, I will not recommend this book. For the over imaginative readers out there, this book will set your mind off in all directions.
The next time you see that man, there’s definitely a lot more too it than accidentally leaving a book.

Terri's Rating: 4/5

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Book Review: Switch Bitch

Title: Switch Bitch
Author: Roald Dahl
Year Published: 1974
Genre: Short stories, Erotic humour

Dark, funny and always bizarre, Roald Dahl’s short stories usually climax in some sort of terrifying, karmic twist. Switch Bitch is a collection for four such tales, where sex is the word of the day and the word of the day is sex.

In ‘The Visitor’, we are introduced to Uncle Oswald, a pompous, hedonistic womanizer who finds himself stranded in the Sinai Desert. He is rescued by the wealthy Mr Aziz, who takes Oswald to his desert palace where temptation awaits in the form of Aziz’s wife and daughter. The story begins a little slowly, but the atmosphere – the sense of entrapment – and Oswald’s morally dubious character are built to wonderful effect. By the end of it all you’re not sure whether to feel bad for the poor bastard, though you’ll definitely be amused at his expense.

Next comes ‘The Great Switcheroo’, wherein our narrator fancies sleeping with his neighbour’s wife. A plot is hatched: each man learns the other’s “routines” so that they can impersonate one another and swap wives for a night. The ins and outs of this horrible plan are carefully detailed and the tension is built up masterfully. Mr Horrible Husband’s comeuppance proves to be very satisfying. Serves him right.

The third tale, ‘The Last Act’, was my least favourite. It tells the story of Anna as she deals with the loss of her beloved husband. Unlike the protagonists of the other tales, Anna seems like a genuinely sweet person – or at least someone who isn’t an intentional asshole – and her fate just feels depressing. Without the bite of ‘justice’, this story comes across as more dark than darkly funny. Further, it lacks the hook of a high-concept premise and is considerably less exciting, with the story feeling directionless for the most part. For these reasons, ‘The Last Act’ doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the collection and creates a bit of mood whiplash.

In ‘Bitch’, we have another of Uncle Oswald’s adventures. This was perhaps my favourite story. The premise is certainly novel: a scientist invents a perfume that fills men with uncontrollable lust. The development, testing and eventual ‘use’ of this dangerous substance are detailed meticulously, with the scientific jargon adding to the realism and hence the suspense. It’s (relatively) fast-paced, action-filled and light-hearted compared to the other stories. To me, it was also the funniest of the lot.

If you only know Dahl as a children’s author (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, Fantastic Mr Fox and so on), a collection like this might take some adjusting to. If you’re worried about ruining your childhood, know at least that the sex scenes aren’t explicit. The raunchiest of them happens in ‘Bitch’ and that one is full of hyperbole; generally, the sex scenes serve to humour rather than titillate. Know also that sex isn’t exactly the key feature of all these stories, but rather, more of an excuse of a theme to justify bringing these stories together. Both surprisingly and unsurprisingly, these stories were first published in Playboy. So there you go.

Dahl’s trademark wicked, twisted humour are present in all four tales, which are also fun to read for the puzzle-solving aspect of their characters’ conundrums. Tense and tightly plotted, each story is easily read in one sitting. There’s a somewhat ponderous yet comfortable feel to the writing style here – necessarily different from Dahl’s children’s books – which may factor into your enjoyment of these stories. It took me a while to get into ‘The Visitor’, for example, since it started off so slowly.

A further warning: these stories were written in the 60s, and they do feel a little dated (wives are synonymous with housewives, for example). That said, I still found them incredibly readable. Recommended for someone appreciative of dirty jokes and after a quick, clever, twisty read.

Alex’s Rating: 4/5 

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Movie Review: Tired of Kissing Frogs (Cansada de Besar Sapos)

Title: Tired of Kissing Frogs (Cansada de Besar Sapos)
Director: Jorge Colón
Year Released: 2006
Running Time: 100 minutes
Classification: R
Genre: Romantic comedy

Generally speaking, you don’t watch romantic comedies for their ability to broaden your worldview. What you want is a fun and wish-fulfilling love story that can make you happy (until you go home alone and realise that you have absolutely no one – no one at all – and that you are so, so lonely and the only thing that can numb your pain for now is a tub of ice-cream, eaten in front of the TV, cat optional). With this in mind, I sat down to Tired of Kissing Frogs with low expectations, curious as to how a Mexican romcom would differ from the usual (English-language) ones. To my surprise, the film 1) adhered to the typical (Western) romcom tropes – including the stupid ones – and 2) was shockingly, painfully dull.

The premise of the movie is your typical silly romcom premise: our heroine Martha (Ana Serradilla or Mexican Natalie Portman) catches her boyfriend cheating on her and dumps his ass. Having been thusly burned, she joins an online dating service called “Cansada de besar sapos” and decides to “act like a man” – that is, become a ~playa. Of course, Martha goes on dates but doesn’t actually sleep around – we can’t have a slut as a heroine after all – and on the side she strikes up a friendship with cute waiter/aspiring actor Xavier (José María de Tavira). And, well, guess what happens. Go on, guess.

In addition to this set-up there are the usual romcom staples: Andi (Ana Leyevska) is Martha’s sassy best friend and colleagues Joaquin (gay and wry) and Daniela (kinky and ditzy) serve as comic relief. Add in a “crazy” scene where Martha and Andi have to dress up as strippers and you have all the ingredients for a romcom. Yet somehow, the recipe doesn’t quite work.

Mainly, I think it’s the pacing and the script and the entire logic of it all. Things happen so slowly that you can see all the events – the breakup, the dating montages, the misunderstanding – lined up before you long before they come to pass. It’s no fun when you get to the scenes either; they’re already tired by the time they arrive, having come at you with the speed and subtlety of an approaching street cleaner. Another consequence of this is that you find it really easy to spot all the irrational, nonsensical situations in the story (such as the whole playa thing) without losing track of or being distracted by what’s going on on screen.

I’m pretty tolerant of dumb premises, but in this case, everything is so workman-like and clichéd that it all comes across as bland bland bland. The story and the dialogue are so stock standard that it feels like a checklist for a romcom rather than a romcom itself. During the parts where they needed character or relationship development or whatever, there’d often be some sort of montage with a song. You get the feeling that the writers put in a montage and a song whenever they didn’t know what to write. Not surprisingly, there are a lot of montages and a lot of songs.

Worse, quite a bit of it is poorly edited. I normally don’t notice these sorts of things but by golly I noticed it here. Not only are the montages poorly put together (the music changes can be abrupt) but you also become actively conscious of the different cuts. It’s clumsily done and there are times you notice things like the colours or lighting or “look” being different between shots. The bright side of this I guess is that I have a newfound appreciation the work done by editors and continuity checkers.

Not even the novelty (to me) of its Mexican origins helped alleviate the dullness. Like the cast, the city setting is stylish, pretty and strangely vanilla, with nary a cultural quirk to be found. Had the dialogue been in English I could have easily believed that we were somewhere in the US or Britain.

I mean, I guess they tried. The performances aren’t bad and the actors do what they can with what they’re given. Ana Serradilla brings a liveliness and likeability to Martha and there are some genuinely funny moments throughout. There’s also a realism to the story and romance, particularly towards the end, and this lends a sense of freshness to the movie. As a result, the relationships seem real and relatable.

The flip side of this of course, is that realism is boring. If I wanted to know what ~real life~ is like, I’d just go outside. Sometimes, I wondered if it was the realism that made the movie feel way longer than it was, but then I’d remember the “crazy” shenanigans near the beginning and remember that that was boring too. Just because the characters are doing wild things doesn’t mean the movie itself is wild. The most intriguing thing I found about this film was its lesson in how much technology had changed between 2006 and today. Needless to say, that’s not a good sign.

Alex’s Rating: 1.5/5

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Book Review: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

Title: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
Author: Jeanette Winterson
Year Published: 1985
Genre: Contemporary fiction, Lesbian fiction, Bildungsroman

The 1991 Introduction to Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit describes the novel as experimental, threatening and comforting all at once. The book is said to offer “a complicated narrative structure disguised as a simple one”. It “exposes the sanctity of family life as something of a sham; it illustrates by example that what the church calls love is actually psychosis and it dares to suggest that what makes life difficult for homosexuals is not their perversity but other people’s. Worse, it does these things with such humour and lightness that those disposed not to agree find that they do.” The Introduction also tells us that “[i]n structure and in style and in content Oranges was unlike any other novel” and that its story “has broken down many more barriers than it has reinforced.”

Oh, and did you know? The Introduction was written by the author herself.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, she may very well be right about all of these things, but there’s still something off-putting about it all – she brings to mind that guy you know who spouts his opinions as fact and worse, is somehow always right. My impression of the author, from reading the Introduction, was one of great arrogance. Sadly, this impression was to colour my subsequent reading of the book.

That said, I started off liking Oranges a lot. It’s a semi-autobiographical account of the author’s upbringing in a fiercely evangelical Pentecostal family in the UK. The narrator Jeanette has been adopted because her mother wishes to dedicate a child to God, meaning that Jeanette is essentially raised to become a missionary. Her childhood exposes her to her deeply religious mother, her mother’s friends and enemies, and the beliefs of her church. The author has a light touch with her words, using clear language – sorry, that is to say, a “beguilingly straight-forward syntax” – which gives a real child-like innocence and freshness to the book. There’s a quirkiness and humour that touches everything as well – for example, her mother’s vendetta against Next Door, the episode where Jeanette goes deaf and everyone thinks she’s filled with “the Spirit”, and Jeanette’s confusion at her teacher’s failure to appreciate her craft project, which involves cross-stitching the words “THE SUMMER IS ENDED AND WE ARE NOT YET SAVED.”

About halfway through the story, the narrator reveals herself to be a lesbian. Since I’d heard this novel described as “that orange lesbian book”, I wasn’t surprised; what did surprise me was how suddenly it came about. Her childhood is pretty much asexual then bam, she’s attracted to the ladies. That fact that 1) homosexuality is mentioned and 2) the cast is mostly female (indeed, Jeanette’s father is almost a nonentity) doesn’t count as foreshadowing, not really. When her sexuality emerges, Jeanette doesn’t even question it. She accepts her “Unnatural Passions” pretty easily and only shows confusion and anger when, surprise, surprise, the people at her church do not approve. The way it’s written is in character, I suppose, but I’d expected a little internal conflict or reflection at least, given her religion and all. Whatever the case, it doesn’t happen.

As the book goes on, it veers a bit into magic realism with the appearance of an orange demon. I found this a bit jarring and unnecessary, almost as if it had been put in for quirkiness’ sake. The book also incorporates within it various asides and allegories which carry a distinct fairy-tale mood. I found this charming at first, but over time, they increased in both frequency and abstraction. The chapter ‘Deuteronomy’ is just the author philisomaphising on the nature of history. I found it all a bit excessive and the further I read, the more I was reminded of the Introduction. There’s so much ~symbolism~ (with passages reflecting on themes like perfection, change and so on) that the latter part of the book reeks of self-indulgent literary pomposity. The high (low?) point for me comes on p110, with these profound words:

It is the nature of stone to convert bone.
At one time or another there will be a choice: you or the wall.
Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
The City of Lost Chances is full of those who chose the wall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men.
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

At this point, I had to resist the urge to throw the book across the room.

I mean, this sort of thing might be your cup of tea, and more power to you. It certainly isn’t mine. For me, the value added by these sorts of passages is but a candle to the giant sun of the author’s ego that shines through the same. Perhaps things would have been different if I’d never read the Introduction, but I’ll never know. As it is, it feels like the author added these bits chiefly to show how intellectually enlightened she is. The story could have easily worked without them. And frankly, for a novel with “interests [that] are anti-linear” that’s meant to be “read in spirals”, I didn’t find the structure all that amazing (it’s pretty much chronological with allegorical asides inserted) – nor was it particularly groundbreaking: there are plenty of modernist novels that have weirder/awesomer timeline/point-of-view shenanigans going on. To all those kids who have to analyse this for school: my heart goes out to you poor sods, it really does.

As for what remains of the actual story, well, we see Jeanette dealing with the fallout that comes from her lesbianism being revealed. I’m not sure if she becomes more unlikeable because she actually does unlikeable things (especially with her bitterness towards her ‘first love’), or because I was biased against her due to all the heavy-handed symbolism in the narrative. The book ends somewhat abruptly and I would have liked to see a more rounded finish. This is not to say there has to be a resolution as such, but the way it’s written feels like it was cut off partway through a chapter. Then again, maybe I just failed to appreciate the “spiral narrative” of the book.

I cannot fault the writing; I really enjoyed the style, which was simple and elegant with a pleasing rhythm. I also enjoyed the story of Jeanette’s life, with its humour and quirks and its observations on the church. It was engaging and fun, with a real sense of warmth. After a while though, the symbolic crap started to cloud over everything else, and having read the Introduction, my impression wasn’t so much “Woah mind blown! Deep author is deep!” as it was “Wow, can you get any more pretentious?”.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is indeed a threatening novel. If you happen to be in the same room as me while I’m reading it, you must accept the implicit threat of bodily harm caused by my throwing of the book. Don’t worry too much though, it’s less than two hundred pages and I have weak arms. And more likely than not, I won’t be throwing it – as I said, it’s a mostly enjoyable read.

Alex’s Rating: 3.5/5

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Book Review: Pull of the Yew Tree

Title: Pull of the Yew Tree (The Chronicles of Crom Abu #1)
Author: Pauline Toohey
Year Published: 2013
Genre: Historical fiction, Drama, Romance

Set in 15th century Ireland, Pull of the Yew Tree tells the story of three rival clans: the Fitzgeralds, the O’Byrnes and the O’Tooles. Brought together in an uneasy alliance, they must deal with local Irish rebels, the English conflict between the Houses of York and Lancaster, each other and themselves. Amidst this political minefield, there’s also a love story: Jarlath Fitzgerald and Ainnir O’Byrne fall swiftly and deeply in love, but events conspire to keep the two apart.

There’s so much happening during period of history that it’d be easy to lose track of what’s going on and who everyone is, especially if you (like me) know next to nothing about the War of the Roses. However, the author narrows the focus down to a couple of conflicts – some political, some personal – so by and large it’s easy to follow. One thing I liked was how the author included a character list at the beginning to indicate which characters were fictional. The blurb sort of makes Pull of the Yew Tree sound like a dramatic retelling of historical fact, but it’s more historical fiction than anything else. At any rate, the book is mostly about Jarlath and Ainnir (both fictional), so if you’re after a young, passionate and aching sort of romance in a historical setting, this could be the book for you.

The characters and their relationships with one another are easily the best part of the novel. They all have distinct, vibrant personalities and it’s hard to not sympathise with them. The Jarlath/Ainnir romance felt really fresh to me; I normally dislike “love at first sight” kind of set-ups, but in this case, it felt natural. Both characters can be somewhat stereotyped – Jarlath as the loveable rogue turned brooding hero, Ainnir as the feisty young princess – but they make a very lively pair and it’s hard not to like them. I will mention that I think their main problem could have easily been resolved with a few conversations, but I’ll give it a pass for now. You want them to find their happy ending and I found myself reading the book for the romance rather than the political intrigue.

On that note, if you’re after some juicy political intrigue, you might be somewhat disappointed. Since the focus is on the Fitzgeralds and the O’Byrnes, there’s not much on the other Irish clans, and the Yorkist/Lancastrian conflict remains largely distanced and strangely separated from the smaller scale conflicts at hand. Personally, I would have liked more intrigue. As it is, there’s only enough to show that conflicts exist, but not enough to give them meat. The politics feel superficial even when they come to the fore – for example, (spoiler) when Jarlath goes to England, I didn’t really get what he was actually doing there and why, other than some vague sense of fighting for York (/spoiler). Similarly, some of the characters’ reasons for doing things don’t quite feel fleshed out. We have some characters change their minds or make decisions all in the space of a few paragraphs, where the change seems to have come about because the plot required it, rather than because of any deeper sort of motivation.

The broad-strokes approach to historical fact allows you to fill in the gaps as you please, which may or may not be a good thing for lovers of historical fiction. I’m no history buff myself, so I can’t say how accurate the book is. The only thing that caught my eye was the presence of “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” in Earl Thomas’ library – “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, I’m assuming, being a translated version of the 14th century classical Chinese text of the same name. I mean, I guess it’s not physically impossible for such a thing to exist in the library of a 15th century Irish Earl, but it is highly implausible, so, if you’re a history pedant, you might want to take note.

Most of the narration is written in neutral prose, with the occasional foray into lyricism. The best examples of this come in the rich descriptions of the setting, with its rolling hills and green forests, and the various literary and mythical references to figures like Tristan and Isolde. While I appreciated a pretty turn of phrase here and there, I wasn’t sure if they were always used to best effect. Sometimes they added to the atmosphere, other times they felt like dead weight cluttering up the story. Overall, however, I thought the descriptions were done nicely, and that the author evoked a sense of place very well.

For me, the main problem with the writing occurs in some of the dialogue, which sometimes gives the impression of Ye Olde Englishe – and not in the Shakespearean way, but the way where it feels like someone is trying to give an impression of Ye Olde Englishe. At other times, the dialogue was a bit more modern or neutral, which I preferred, and which was more consistent in tone with the rest of the book. At other times still, there was a bit of “show your research” going on, and gratuitous facts were added, sometimes in an almost textbook tone. The narration, in third person, also jumps from character to character, sometimes between paragraphs, and this confused me more than once. There were a few times where we get inside a character’s head and the next paragraph begins with “Eyes looked to the sky” or something similar, where it turns out that said eyes belong to the narrating character. I’m not sure if I just got used to it or whether it evened out, but I noticed these things less as I got towards the end.

I’d be lying if I said I never judge a book by its cover, and I totally judged this book for its use of Papyrus (though I’ll hasten to add that my dislike of Papyrus has no bearing on my rating). A word of warning: the cover image may give you the impression that the book is Young Adult, but I wouldn’t quite say it falls into that category, given the loose references to sex. The book also has a nice velvety feel and is without a doubt the nicest feeling book I own. My other cover-related complaint concerns the publisher’s logo on the back, which looks suspiciously like it was created using Microsoft WordArt, the likes of which you may remember from PowerPoint presentations circa 1998. Now, I understand that it’s an independent publisher, that there may be budget constraints, and that it’s not related to the actual content of the book itself, but this sort of thing projects a lazy and unprofessional sort of image, which is not a good look for either the publisher or its authors.

Pull of the Yew Tree is Pauline Toohey’s debut novel, and I get the sense she’ll only improve over time. Parts of the book fell a bit flat for me – namely, the “nakedness” of the plot and the occasional changes of heart or events that didn’t quite convince. Another problem for me was the patchy writing, though as this is a debut novel, it seems like the sort of thing that will even out in future. For these reasons, there were times I didn’t want to pick the book up again after having put it down. The strength in this book lies in its characters, as well as the atmosphere the author is able to evoke; hopefully the next book in the series will demonstrate stronger writing and delve further into the politics underlying the setting.

Alex’s Rating: 2.5/5

(Disclaimer: I received this book for free through Goodreads’ First Reads.)

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Book Review: Cat's Eye

Title: Cat’s Eye
Author: Margaret Atwood
Year Published: 1989
Genre: General and literary fiction, Contemporary drama

Elaine Risley returns to Toronto for a retrospective of her paintings. As she navigates her way through the city, she ruminates on her past – from her carefree childhood and tortuous experiences at school through to her adult life as an artist. Cat’s Eye is the sort of story where it’s less about what happens next and more about immersing yourself into the memories of the narrator, experiencing, for a while, life through the eyes of another.

Elaine’s early childhood evokes both joy and melancholy. It’s an almost idyllic time, where the Risley family travel around WWII-era Canada and most of Elaine’s time is spent running and playing in the woods with her brother Stephen. However, there is a pall over the whole proceedings, for we know it won’t last.

Elaine’s troubles begin when the family settle in Toronto. Introduced to the world of little girls, she finds herself partaking in their rituals and eventually becomes a victim of bullying. The author captures very well that particular brand of nastiness that can come from young girls, which makes this portion of the book especially painful to read. It’s realistic, distressing, and potentially triggering for those who have undergone similar experiences in real life. Worse, Elaine thinks of her tormentors as her friends. She notes that 
“[h]atred would have been easier. With hatred, I would have known what to do. Hatred is clear, metallic, one-handed, unwavering; unlike love.”
The cruelty of children – and, as we later discover, of adults – is something against which Elaine is powerless. We want to save her, but as readers, we’re as impotent as she is. It makes you wonder: what would you do if your child were in this situation? The only consolation is that with Elaine as a present-day narrator, we know her suffering, at least, has an end.

When Elaine enters adulthood she takes control of her life. A consequence of this is that the book becomes much less stressful to read. At the same time however, I found myself losing sympathy for Elaine. While she does things, the reasons behind her actions are sometimes not explored; it’s as if a veil has suddenly been drawn between her and the reader. Elaine the adult is strangely passive; her affair with her professor, for example, is something that sort of happens to her, rather than a relationship in which she actively participates. I also didn’t really get a sense of why she becomes an artist and nor did I “feel” her art. Her surreal paintings, though obviously related to her past, are never explained directly. I can understand why she paints Mrs Smeath, for example, but I would’ve liked to know how she made the more particular artistic choices, like why she chose to paint Mrs Smeath in various states of undress, why she chose to paint her former lovers nude, why she painted those lovers with a woman (herself?) bearing a glass sphere head, and so on. It’s not that these things have to be explained – and some may prefer that they aren’t – but the deliberate opacity between art and artist is something I found frustrating given how deeply Elaine’s experiences are previously described.

Elaine’s relationship with the sexes is an important aspect of the book. To put things simply, Elaine sees boys as her “secret allies” and prefers the company of men. Her childhood goes some way to explaining why she doesn’t like other women and it’s easy to understand her callousness towards Cordelia as an adult – yes it’s mean, but it’s also human. What’s annoying though is the fact that Elaine – well into adulthood – seems aware of her prejudices, yet continues to lump all women into various categories of “other”.

Pictured: Elaine Risley

The strangest part of this is how she joins those meetings of female artists. It’s hard to fathom. If she dislikes women and finds it so hard to relate to them, why join at all? It’s unclear whether she’s trying to be part of the “sisterhood” or whether she’s there to promote her art or whether it’s something else entirely. When we’re introduced to the group, Elaine is already there, telling us what she thinks of the others. There’s nothing about why she’s there in the first place. Again, I found this lack of information – this lack of why – frustrating rather than pleasantly intriguing.

I can’t help but see the whole situation around Elaine’s retrospective as reflective of Margaret Atwood’s own experience as a poster child for feminism. Elaine rails against a journalist’s attempts to elicit some sort of feminist interpretation of her paintings, but in the end, accepts that other people will impose their own meanings on things, appropriating her art to their own ends. It’s an interesting critique and as valid as it is, in this particular case I feel as if Elaine’s irritation is largely self-inflicted – she pretty much lets these misunderstandings happen (those arty farty painting titles don’t exactly help), then complains about being misunderstood.

Cat’s Eye isn’t exactly an enjoyable read, but it’s worth reading. The book is achingly tender and at times outright painful. If you’ve had an “ordinary” life of first world problems, you’ll probably find something here to remind you of your own childhood – anything from the sort of bullying described to schoolyard games of marbles to the collecting of silver cigarette papers (for the purpose of making some future amazing thing). There is a haunting, nostalgic quality to the narrative, especially when it comes to descriptions of Elaine’s family. The novel is beautifully written and vividly detailed, with narration so eloquent that it seems a pity Elaine’s not a writer. Whether or not you like Elaine, whether or not you agree with her actions, it’s hard not to be touched by her experiences. Cat’s Eye is the sort of book that reaches into your chest and squeezes. Recommended.

Alex’s Rating: 4/5

Sunday, 14 July 2013

TV Series Review: Merlin (2008)

Title: Merlin (TV Series 2008)
Creators: Julian Jones, Jake Michie, Johnny Capps, Julian Murphy
Original broadcast: 2008-2012
Series length: 5 seasons, comprising 13 x ~45 minute episodes per season
Status: Complete
Classification: PG
Genre: Historical fantasy, Family, Action/Adventure, Comedy

Man. Where do I even begin?

This show. This show. I invested five years of my life in this show and what started out for me as light-hearted squee morphed into some sort of rabid hate-watch towards the end. The finale made me so mad that instead of sleeping I spent a night rolling angrily around in bed. When I finally fell asleep, I woke up the next day, still mad.

So yeah. If you’re looking for a rant, you’ve come to the right place.

(Review behind the cut. Warnings for foul language and major spoilers, including the finale. For those who haven’t seen the show but are thinking about it, they’re the sort of spoilers you’d want to know about before you decide to watch. Trust me.) 

Monday, 8 July 2013

Movie Review: Monsters University

Title: Monsters University
Director: Dan Scalon
Year Released: 2013
Running Time: 104 mins
Classification: G
Genre: Animation, Family and kids, Comedy

The most anticipated prequel has hit the screens, Monsters University!

Monsters University is the story of how Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman) meet before Monsters Inc. If you don’t know who Mike and Sulley are and have no idea what Monsters Inc. is, then you must go, now, watch Monster Inc. then come back to this review.
If you have seen Monsters Inc. go re-watch it anyway.

But first, Blue Umbrella, the most recent Pixar short played before the movie is brilliant and is completely new to the design of Pixar. If anyone can make people feel for inanimated objects, Pixar can. 
Back to the review.
Monsters University did not leave me disappointed and is exactly what I thought the movie would be. I wouldn’t say it was the best but definitely is on par with Monsters Inc., if not, then a little less only because it uses the same characters in Monsters Inc. so doesn’t feel original – which it shouldn’t feel, since Monsters University is a prequel to Monsters Inc.  

The start of the movie is just too cute. Little Mike is sooo cute to the point I felt disappointed when older Mike gets off the bus in front of the University. This movie is purely about chasing your dream and not giving up. Mike is inspired to be a Scarer and will do what he can to be one. The storyline is very cliched. It has your usual jocks, cheerleaders, punks and losers. Both Mike and Sulley have to prove their worth by joining forces with the members of the Oozma Kappa fraternity (the losers) to win the Scare Games. The only thing not cliched about this movie is there is no love interest which is a plus. There was no room for it.

Monsters University has all the ‘Pixar’ needed to make it a funny family film. If you have seen Monsters Inc. you will love the guest appearances in this movie. As for the new characters, I found Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) terrifying and I use the word terrifying because I don’t like anything that has more than 4 legs. Eeuuggghhh……
The character designs of the Dean and Art (Charlie Day), a member of the Oozma Kappa fraternity was the most interesting. I may not like insects, but for the role of the Dean, an insect was the most appropriate. As for Art, he is just all furry with tree trunk legs and tiny arms. A little bit awkward appearance-wise but the most mysterious and funny of them all. As for the other Oozma Kappas, they were ordinary. I understand that’s the point but their unique abilities were awkward. It made the last competition unconvincing even though Pixar did its best to illustrate Oozma Kappas' weaker potentials. I felt more towards the Oozma Kappas as a group rather than them as individuals.

There is some character development in this movie, mostly focusing on Sulley… and Randall has some screen time. It’s not a very successful development when most people know how Sulley and Randall will be in the future. The focus of this movie is on Mike and I loved it. In Monsters Inc. I favoured Sulley over Mike. I found Mike bossy and a little selfish. In Monsters University, he’s still a little selfish but it was driven by his dream. He might be bossy towards the Oozma Kappas, but he never gave up on them and did his best to help. This is typical of the main character in college films but having believed Mike was bossy and selfish, it was nice to see it wasn't the 'true Mike’.

My favourite part is the end of the film and how they become Scarers. It’s not what one might think it would be, but it proves hard work does pay off. There are funny scenes but I preferred the story itself. The funny bits were a bonus.

I’ll definitely be re-watching Monsters University again and may even follow that with Monsters Inc. True to a Pixar film, I’m sure there are a lot of Easter egg surprises in the film I have missed. I enjoyed Monsters University and recommend everyone to go watch it, just remember: relax and enjoy. Mike and Sulley will always be the lovable monsters they are.

Terri’s Rating: 4/5

Note: There was one fault I found. I may be wrong but in Monsters Inc. as Mike and Sulley walk to work, I’m quite sure Mike mentions he met Sulley.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Movie Review: Despicable Me 2

Title: Despicable Me 2
Directors: Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud
Year Released: 2013
Running Time: 98 minutes
Classification: PG
Genre: Comedy, Kids and Family, Animation, Action/Adventure

(Note: this review contains spoilers for Despicable Me (the prequel))

2010’s Despicable Me stands out as one of the more original kids’ films of the last five years. In that movie, evil genius Gru (Steve Carell) attempts to steal the moon. Because of plot reasons, Gru adopts three little girls. Because it’s a kids’ movie, Gru relinquishes his villainous ways to become a good father. All in all, it’s a pretty cute film, full of laughs and “awww”.

Understandably then, you had to wonder where they’d go with Despicable Me 2. It necessarily lacks the villainous glee of the first movie, which is both good and bad: good, because it means there’s character development; and bad, because it’s not as original. In the sequel, Gru has his hands full being a parent and intends to start a business making jams and jellies. All seems well until he is suddenly kidnapped by Lucy (Kristen Wiig), an agent from the Anti-Villain League. Apparently, someone has created a chemical that turns its victims into mutant purple killing machines. The AVL “recruits” Gru in the hope that his expertise in villainy will enable him to uncover the identity of the villain responsible. Personally, I liked that they made Gru an “ex-villain” rather than a sudden, all-out hero.

Like the first movie, there are plenty of laughs to go around, whatever your age. The humour ranges from slapstick, mostly played out by Gru’s adorable Minions, to send-ups of stereotypes, like the improbably tough Mexican wrestler villain El Macho and the fitness freak blonde girl with whom Gru goes on a date. I actually laughed out loud a lot during this movie, which is more than I can say for most comedies.

From the promotional materials and from the moment she shows up on screen, you know that Lucy is Gru’s designated love interest. Gru’s daughter Margo (Miranda Cosgrove) also gets a love interest in the form of the dashing Antonio (Moisés Arias). Sadly, the romantic plot developments in the film felt exactly like that: they were moments I felt I had to endure in order to get to the rest of the story and were only palatable when intertwined with comedy, like when Gru goes all overprotective dad over Margo’s new boyfriend.

The animation is cute and colourful and I found myself admiring Gru’s home décor more than once. The 3D is used effectively: I liked that I was able to look into the sets, rather than at them, particularly in big, busy locations such as the mall. If you want to get the “most” out of the 3D, then you may want to stay for the credits as you’ll get to see some Minions shoving stuff at you through the screen.

Conceptually, Despicable Me 2 is “less” than its predecessor: the villain protagonist angle is gone, a predictable romance plot has been added and there’s less interaction between Gru and his kids. That said, I think I liked this film more. While Gru’s relationship with his daughters is more static, there are still plenty of heart-warming “family” moments of the kind that made the first movie so memorable. There’s also a greater sense of chaos compared to the very plot-driven prequel and I’m pretty sure it’s funnier as well. The cute little Minions also get to play a bigger part, which, admittedly, may or may not be a good thing, depending largely on whether you’re a parent who’ll now have to fork out on Minion toys (now available at a store near you).

Despicable Me 2 is a fun, funny, fluffy family movie and a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. It’s no masterpiece of cinema, but with the current crop of movies out right now you could easily do worse.

Alex’s Rating: 3.5/5

Monday, 1 July 2013

Book Review: The Fallen Series

Title: The Fallen Series

  • Book 1: Fallen
  • Book 2: Torment
  • Book 3: Passion
  • Book 3.5: Fallen in Love
  • Book 4: Rapture

Author: Lauren Kate
Year Published: 2009 - 2012
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy, Romance

Fallen, the first book in the Fallen Series: A young girl named Lucinda “Luce” Price, is sent to Swords & Cross Reform School after being accused of murder. There she falls into a love triangle between the sweet-talker Cam and the cold, mysterious yet handsome Daniel.
It is like any YA romance. Luce is torn between two boys and spends most of her time worrying about them and the rest avoiding floating dark shadows only she can see – it is a fantasy novel after all. Of course the real storyline is why Luce is drawn to Daniel (cold mysterious boy) even though he actively distances himself away from her and what is he hiding.

To be fair, a friend told me the entire story before I read this series. I found the storyline typical in the way of the 'early' romance, but refreshing when it came to YA fantasy. If it wasn’t for knowing what was to come I don’t think I would have continued to book 2. Fallen lacked depth in all the characters and I didn’t care much for them even though the book ended with the intention of the reader wanting to know why and how.    

*Warning spoiler*
Book 2, Torment, felt like filler. There was no need for it and nothing happens. This book was only written to enhance the danger Luce has on her life (which isn’t much) and was like a tip toe in cold water before jumping into book 3.
At the end of book 1, we find out Daniel, Cam and most of the Swords & Cross students are fallen angels. They were banished from heaven centuries ago because Daniel had broken the rule and fell in love with Lucinda. In every 'Lucinda life time', Daniel, being an angel can not die, will meet Lucinda and fall in love with her again and again. When Lucinda realises the truth she bursts into flames, most of the time in Daniel’s arms, and is then reborn again with no memories of their past life…. yep, I dig the whole reincarnation thing, just not sure about the spontaneous combustion...    

Essentially in Torment, Daniel leaves Luce at a school for Nephilim (angel half breeds) and then goes off to form more secrets and make more mysteries.

Passion is by far the most interesting book of the series. Luce travels back through the centuries to her past lives in order to escape the present, and to learn from her past. It is mentioned quite often, every life Luce arrives at, there is a lesson to be learned. Besides from Daniels devotion to her, I don’t see the lesson. I don’t understand why Lauren Kate, the author, continues to write it when there is no obvious lesson.
Many of Luce’s past life stories are bittersweet and romantic. It is these stories that are most memorable. Luce also has the ability to take over the body of 'past life’. I hate it. Every time she does it, it feels like she's depriving ‘her past self’ (technically not her) from Daniel…. very selfish.
Overall, Passion deals with mostly the travelling and Daniel trying to find her. The main storyline may be simple, but I enjoyed the minor stories in between the travelling…
What can I say, I am a romantic-ish person.
Fallen in Love sets during a particular time in book 3. It focuses on the one place and time with most of the characters. It’s not great and there is no need to read it. I suggest skipping over and heading straight for Rapture.

Everything merges in Rapture, with the biggest question answered and a double twist. The answer to the question is predictable, the double twist was unexpected. I like part of the twist but had trouble believing the second as it damaged the reputation of a well known angel. Rapture contains more action and expands on the bigger picture. There is a small quest, some deaths and some 'baddies' thrown in there to keep it interesting. Then there is the end where everything sort of falls into place with one or two unexplained things (which maybe left for a spin-off)? 
The end is predictable but is the best and appropriate for angels who fall in love.

The one smart detail Lauren Kate had in the books was to name God 'The Throne'. The Throne, in the novel, is selfish, vain and unfair. But by using the name The Throne, it is less likely to be compared with.......God. And she had The Throne as a woman. (Thumbs up from me, not that it really matters.)

This series could and should have been shortened to keep it more interesting but then again I personally like fast-paced novels. There was a good base storyline which could have been written better. Did I enjoy the series? Some parts. Will I recommend it to readers? Only to people who love YA romance. So if you like YA romance, I say go for it especially if you think reincarnation is romantic.   

Terri's Rating: 2.5/5