Friday, 30 September 2011

The Corpse Bride

Well, this is new for me, it's a rarity for me to review anything other than books and I think this is definitely my first ever film review. I usually leave that sort of thing to my sons, who can talk intelligently about camera angles and framing shots and I-don't-know-what's. I'm more comfortable with people standing (or hopping) about on stages. But nothing venture, as they say, and you won't be at all surprised that it's RIP VI that made me take the plunge.

Anyway, after years of not quite getting round to it despite having recorded it, we finally watched The Corpse Bride. Now, this may be controversial, but I think my expectations had been a bit too high - for a start, you'd think I might have remembered that I'm not a huge Tim Burton fan - but my overall feeling was of slight disappointment. I never felt really involved with it, and OH, who was watching with me, felt much the same. We agreed that there were things we had enjoyed about it, and that it had made an agreeable evening's viewing, but not a standout one.

What were our criticisms? Well, it wasn't dark enough, it wasn't funny enough (I thought some of the jokes were quite lame) and sadly, it wasn't beautiful enough. The characterisation was too minimal - the most well-rounded character by far was the Bride herself, followed by Scraps the dog, who was admittedly very sweet. OH complained that it was too Disney-ish, me that, despite its cast of voices being largely British, it wasn't European enough (though I doubt if Burton had ever meant it to be that...). We both compared it unfavourably with other films - OH with Miyazaki's Spirited Away (which we loved), me with Coraline and Mirrormask, which we agreed to be both beautiful and dark - and that the use of stop motion in the latter two made it a fairer comparison. We were unanimous that The Curse of the Were Rabbit had been funnier and more engaging, and that we'd both enjoyed that film far more than we'd expected to.

OH gave some thought to the music, which he described as Gilbert and Sullivan for the living, and jazz for the dead. Was there anything about jazz at all, he wondered, which made it an appropriate choice? I thought that perhaps it tied into an American association of death with mardi gras, where jazz is the music of choice. The use of the piano was nice. I was impressed by the treatment of fabrics, particularly the attention given to the way skirts would slide down a staircase, a severally-repeated trope. OH said that he'd been in love with Helena Bonham-Carter ever since Room With a View, so she couldn't really go wrong for him. We both liked the dog.

We couldn't entirely agree on whether it was a good thing that the denouement had been clearly flagged so early in the film. OH thought not; I suggested that it had to be seen to be following the proper arc for what is essentially a fairytale. We established that OH hadn't remembered Tim Burton's oeuvre, so he hadn't really known what to expect anyway, and that the way in which Johnny Depp's character grew up throughout the film was quite appealing, if relatively straightforward. We concluded that it had been a perfectly pleasant film, and that we were glad we'd finally got round to it.

Did I mention that we liked the dog? 

Monday, 26 September 2011

RIP VI: Storm Front group read - week 2

 This is emphatically not how I imagine Harry Dresden...

Storm Front is a very entertaining read, and I shall actually be rather sorry to finish it next week (balance that against how eager I am to be getting on with the story, though). Here are my answers to Carl's questions:

1.  What are your thoughts on the pop culture references Butcher includes in his work, largely coming from Harry himself?
Um...gosh...were there? Perhaps, being English, I just failed to recognise them! Shall have to see what other people think...

2.  As I finished part two of Storm Front I realized that each section of the book thus far feels like a distinct act in a three act story arc. How do you compare the events in this second section of the book with what happened it part one?  Is there a mood or theme or such that you feel is embodied by part two of Harry's adventures?
This section gets really intense - we reached a real high pitch at the end of chapter nine, with Harry's visit to Bianca, and we've just got to another real cliffhanger, and another death. I don't think it's cheating to say that I looked at the start of the next chapter and the first sentence was "Have you ever known despair?" - which seems exactly right, given Harry's situation. Things are really, really bad, and there's meeting the White Council still to come.

3.  One of many things Jim Butcher demonstrates in Storm Front is a healthy sense of humor.  Share with us your thoughts on one (or more) of the humorous moments in the story thus far.
You've got to laugh at the shower scene - he's not just naked, he's soapy! And then there's an "accident" with a love potion! (I do hope in the TV series he was at least wearing a towel, I'm getting quite maiden-auntish these days.) I think we can expect that, whenever Bob's involved, things are going to go wrong, probably hilariously so.

4.  Our hero Harry had disastrous interactions with the women in his life in section two of the book (four by my count). For first time readers, were you surprised by any of these and what are your thoughts?  For those who've read the books before, had you forgotten about any of these?  If so, or even if not, share your thoughts on Harry's luck with women.
Poor Harry, I'm afraid he's going to turn out to be one of those guys women like to talk to, while they fall in love with someone else. And he's doomed, really - whoever hard of a hard-boiled hero with a comfortable domestic life?

5.  A few other popular characters have been brought up in the first round of discussion about Storm Front. What books, films, tv shows, etc. does this story/these characters call to mind and why?

I'm probably a bit short on cultural references here, but I'm not surprised that Firefly came up, because Harry has quite a bit in common with Mal (not being good with women, in particular). But Philip Marlowe's an obvious literary precedent. And I would guess that maybe there's a hint in the series title The Dresden Files that Jim Butcher might have a soft spot for The Rockford Files?

6.  For new readers, what is your overall assessment of the story thus far?  For re-readers, what have you picked up on this time that you either forgot about or don't remember seeing from  your first trip through the book?
I'm managed to forget most of the detail, which is great, because I'm enjoying it all over again. I'd especially forgotten how different the vampires are here - it makes them extra threatening, because they seem really alien. I'm curious, too, about where Harry would draw the line at using his power if it weren't for the White Council.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

RIP VI Fragile Things - week 3

I had been going to say that this was a slightly less satisfactory week for me, and that I was going to be reading other people's responses avidly, because I wanted to be persuaded that I was wrong. But, as happened in weeks one and two, the more I thought about the stories, the more I was convinced of their quality and, in the end, there was only one I had real reservations about.

'Going wodwo'
I always feel that I should like this poem more than I do: the subject matter is one that I feel most strongly about, having spent many years studying (in a non-formal way) the Green Man and associated legends. It's probably the aspect of British and European mythology closest to my heart, emerging from my childhood love of the Arthurian cycle and legends of the wildwood. Maybe that's why the poem doesn't work for me, because it's simply not intense enough - I feel that if anyone can express that visceral connection with land and forest, then Gaiman ought to be able to. And he does in American Gods, in prose. But sadly, not here, and although I like the final image which juxtaposes silence and language, my main emotion when I read it is disappointment. I shall be very interested to see what other people make of it.

'Bitter Grounds'
This could have been one of the incidental stories in American Gods, since it deals, like that novel, with the gods that people brought with them to America. I don't know a great deal about Haitian legends - somehow Vodun didn't get into the Arthur Mee Children's Encyclopaedia stories from other nations pages, and the Larousse World Mythology has an embarrassingly slender section on African legends, with nothing on the Caribbean at all. But it seems to have the right "feel", and it's one you can get your teeth into. The subheadings include quotes from Louis MacNeice and Philip Larkin, too - that's got to be good! As usual with Gaiman's stories, there are question marks - for instance, two men disappear: what happened to them? It's kind of a perfectly-formed mini road narrative, which is very cool indeed. I really like this one.

'Other People'
In the Introduction Gaiman calls this a "Mobius" story, which is a good description. It's pretty bleak, and unsettling both because it's about torture and also about all the bad things we don't like to think about: self-deception, the harm we do to other people, and both deliberate and inadvertent wrongdoing. It's effective and well-crafted, but it's never going to go on my list of favourite stories.

'Keepsakes and Treasures'
At the Edinburgh Book Festival this year Gaiman was asked about his characters - did they ever dictate the action? He answered that many of them seem to have independent existences which he just looks in on from time to time (this might be a function, I suppose, of writing a longterm graphic novel like The Sandman, or it might be why he was disposed to embark on such a project in the first place). This story is one of those occasions, because it introduces two characters who appear later in 'Monarch of the Glen', which is in turn about Shadow from American Gods...I love that he does this, and I am really hoping that he meant it when he said he planned to write more about Shadow. The two characters here, Smith and Mr Alice, are really very nasty indeed, and it's a dark story full of death, described dispassionately by a very cold-blooded killer.

I just want to add, here, that it's going to be a very busy couple of weeks for me, with lots of travelling and meetings, and I shan't have much time for reading and commenting. I'm enjoying our shared reading very much, though, so I will do my best to read everyone else's posts - it just may take me all week to do it! Fortunately, I'm going to be at home both weekends, so I can always catch up then.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Murkmere by Patricia Elliott

It's really great when something a little different comes along, and this was one of those occasions. I think I had read a review of Murkmere somewhere, though I'm really not certain. Anyway, I was looking for a book swap, and decided to take a chance on it, and I'm really glad I did.

Murkmere is the story of 15-year-old Aggie, who is summoned to Murkmere Hall from her village to be companion to the Master's ward, Leah. Aggie's mother was once a maid at the Hall, but she doesn't know what to expect when she arrives, and she finds a strange, dilapidated house dominated by the compelling Silas Seed, the crippled Master's steward and right-hand man in everything. Not only is he in charge of all the Master's affairs, he oversees the moral welfare of the servants, ensuring that the dictates of the Ministration are adhered to. At first Aggie is overwhelmed by the charismatic Silas, but gradually, as she tries to meet the challenges posed by her position as companion to the troubled, wayward Leah, she begins to question his actions and, almost despairingly, her own beliefs.

What lends this book a haunting quality is its setting in the English fenland, and its bird-inspired religion. Although there's not the technology to make it fit into the category, there's a darkly steampunk feel to it nonetheless, perhaps because we don't really know how the world came into being - there's a hint that it might be our world, changed after humans had somehow transformed themselves into the mysterious and reviled avia; the hypocritical Ministration, constantly on the watch for rebellion, certainly have resonances of the post-civil war period in England and the puritan protectorate. And the author makes clear in a brief note at the start: "The superstitions in this novel are found in British folklore", which makes it, for me at any rate, all the more powerful, harking back to first hearing of the story of the Children on Lir, and the hair rising on the back of my neck, because it seemed more like a memory than a new story. Elliott says of writing the book:
all I had at first was the image of a girl, painstakingly sewing a swanskin back together. I had to find out why. Who was the girl, and why was the swanskin in pieces? 
The winter fenland, the swans that Leah must be kept away from, the Master's painful yearning after forbidden knowledge, the Ministration's duplicity and decadence - all combine to create a lyrical, wistful novel.

There is a sequel, Ambergate, which I shall have to read. I'm sort of afraid that I shan't love it as much, because I find the sere countryside of the setting so compelling in the first, and I know that the second moves to the city. But the Ministration is tantalisingly portrayed in Murkmere, something nasty but intriguing, so I have to know more...

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

The Hanging Wood by Martin Edwards

A new Martin Edwards  book is a pleasure to be anticipated keenly, and The Hanging Wood doesn't disappoint. Mind you, I think Martin is setting up himself up as a contender for the "creative rural deaths" award, held until now, of course, by the ridiculously OTT Midsomer Murders TV series, which rarely looks at the harsh realities of country life when camp will do. This series, however, is set in the Lake District, which may look picturesque to  visitors but is inhabited by a local population who are no strangers to the struggle of farming on marginal land and its concomitant high suicide rate (I've often thought that being a farmer ought to carry an automatic ban on owning a shotgun). Because it's a tourist destination with a long pedigree, though, culture sits side by side with poverty, and secondhand bookshops and private libraries plausibly rest alongside holiday parks - and it's these last which provide the setting for The Hanging Wood, when a young woman with a history of alcohol problems contacts Hannah Scarlett's cold case team to demand that her brother's disappearance should be re-investigated. Hannah finds herself once again comparing notes with historian Daniel Kind, who is researching his next book in the desultory way possible to a successful populariser of history, a pursuit which apparently leaves him plenty of time to indulge his curiosity about unexplained deaths. He's interested in Hannah, too,  but they are both feeling a bit battered, and Hannah's ex-partner the bookseller doesn't consider himself out of the picture. Although Marc isn't as central a character as in the previous books, there's still plenty to please the bibliophile (those who read Martin's blog will know his predilections) and there's a nice comment about to-be-read piles guaranteed to make readers smile, rather making up for his incendiary plot device earlier in the series.

Not surprisingly, given the author's interest in classic and forgotten crime novels, this series is establishing a firm place amongst the best of British crime fiction, nicely but not tortuously plotted, with well-drawn characters and an excellent cast of regulars. Like the golden age classics they appeal to a wide readership, and I think they will wear well.

This book was reviewed for the R.I.P. VI Challenge.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Storm Front group read - week 1

Last week was week 1 of the group read of Jim Butcher's Storm Front for the RIP VI Challenge. I read some of this fun series, the Dresden Files, a while ago, and then kind of lost the thread, so I'm really happy to start again at the beginning (I'm a great one for starting over). Although I've got some scenes from later books in my head, I really don't remember too much of the plots by now - for instance, I honestly don't remember who makes it through to book 2!

1. What are your first impressions of our main character, Harry Dresden?

I like the way he tries to be hard-boiled and never quite succeeds. You know pretty quickly that he’s a really soft touch and doesn’t mind being one, despite all his protestations. But he’ll carry on trying to persuade himself nonetheless. Oh, and you've got to have a good coat to be a hero, and Harry takes his seriously.*

2. In the first section of the book we are introduced to a large cast of characters. Some in support of our main character and others who are involved in the multiple investigations with agendas unknown to us. Are there any of these characters who stood out to you?

I’ve fallen for Mister the cat, of course, and Bob the Skull. Bob is a brilliant way of getting round the need for a reliable source of information! But I’m always wary of animal characters – authors too often decide that it’s okay for bad things to happen to them just as you get really attached, and I do hope that’s not going to be the case here. Karrin Murphy is obviously set up to be an important character, too.

3. Did you ever watch the Syfy channel's Dresden Files TV adaption? If so did it effect how you approached the novel? Were there positive and/or negative differences that stood out to you?

I’ve got the series on DVD, to watch when I’ve finished reading the books it relates to. I am really hoping that I’ll like it!

4. Any thoughts on Jim Butcher's magic system, Harry's Watcher, and/or the White Council?

The magic is very much the old-fashioned kind: the rules aren’t so clearly defined that contradicting them will become an issue, and the reader is not going to get hung up on checking for consistency. At the same time, it’s defined enough so that the author can’t just do anything, there’s got to be an internal logic to it, and I approve of that. The Watcher is obnoxious, but believable, and the White Council fits well with our preconceptions of a world where magic is part of the nature of things. An all-powerful wizard without the constraints of Watcher and Council would get dull to read about, I think.

5. Lastly, any guess on where Dresden's multiple plot threads will lead and/or any favourite scenes the first section of the book?

I’m not going to go down the where-will-it-lead route because I’ve read Storm Front before (albeit ages ago, and I really can’t remember that much detail) but I do like the scene with the fairy Toot-toot, with both Harry and the fairy playing their roles to the hilt. And there’s something oddly compelling about the potion-making – is it because I like reading cookery books, I wonder?

I’m really looking forward to getting on with the story…

* my son's got Vash the Stampede's duster from Trigun - I'd kill to have one like it, except that I would look ridiculous, it's one of those that you need to be over six foot and incredibly skinny to wear...

Sunday, 18 September 2011

RIP VI: Fragile Things week 2

The second week of the Fragile Things group read has gone really well for me, I'm getting so much more out of the stories by reading them at such a slow pace. I usually rush at collections of stories and it doesn't do me or the book any favours, because I can't step back far enough to see each one as a single entity. This time I've read and re-read, and stopped to consider and, as a result, I have time to see far more in them than I do as a rule.

'The Hidden Chamber'
This is a nice little piece that evokes the Bluebeard story effectively, while at the same time lifting it out of the expected gothic realm. We anticipate all the trappings and are instead offered washing machines and other mundane objects (which might nevertheless be rather useful for disposing of unwanted traces). Hidden chambers have developed resonances since Gaiman wrote the story, and we've become more aware that even the most prosaic suburban settings might house hidden horrors. Gaiman's known that all the time, of course, always having seen the skull beneath the skin.

'Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire'
My favourite of this week's stories is a real gem - I love the fantastically overwritten sections with their "little" jokes, several of which I'm still chuckling over. This narrative-within-narrative is like a series of Monty Python sketches, always spilling over into farce no matter how hard the young writer tries to avoid it. Meanwhile, the "outer" story, tackling its subject with a subtler humour, reminds me of Thurber's fairytales, and I can think of no higher recommendation:
Strange, scuttling things gibbered and cheetled in the black drapes at the end of the room, and high in the gloomy oak beams, and behind the wainscoting, but they made no answer. He had expected none.
I get a frisson of delight from "cheetled"...

The two threads really flow into each other with the interjection of the raven (and don't you just love the raven?) but the story's construction remains most unusual, with two streams of "reality" which raise all sorts of questions, such as why the families were cursed in the first place, or what the "unusual circumstances" which brought Ethel the maid to the house were. I could happily have read more of this inspired lunacy, but it's a wise author who knows when enough is enough. Apparently, he shortened the title to the one given here...

'The Flints of Memory Lane'
I do like the way Gaiman resolutely keeps to something that's not story-shaped. He could have made it much more so but, as it is, it reminds us that we do from time to time see things we can't readily explain - and afterwards we may not even be sure how much of what we've seen is real. Memory is a tricksy thing at best, and if we start to question the detail of what we saw, we may end up questioning the whole experience. In such circumstances it's best not to try to make too much sense out of it, to force it into a story mould.

'Closing Time'
I've always liked the stories of M.R. James, even though they do rather fall into the category of "bad things happening for no reason" that I complained about in my last post. It's partly because they also follow the rather successful formula of everyone sitting around (in a club, or after dinner) and one speaker relating a tale, a device also used successfully by Agatha Christie and Robertson Davies - there's something about the gathering of people which draws you into the circle, yet releases you at the end to go out into the crisp, cold night and home to comfort with the other listeners - the stories are made doubly safe by that extra distancing. So this rather nasty little story reaches us at a remove, while following the proper Jamesian conventions of the club setting, the mysterious stranger and the lingering doubt about what exactly has taken place.

Friday, 16 September 2011

RIP VI: My musings on scary reading

In a recent post, Susan at You Can Never Have Too Many Books mused about reading horror stories. The questions she asked herself were picked up by Emily at Telecommuter Talk, and comparing their thoughts on the subject naturally led me to consider my own reasons for reading dark and scary tales. So I too have taken the questions Susan asked as the basis for my own musings on why I embrace RIP every year with such enthusiasm.

Why do I read scary stories?
Now, it has to be said right at the start that Susan is way braver than me when it comes to this sort of thing – I can’t really say that I read horror stories, or at least, not very often, and I’m really hopeless at horror films, but nonetheless I enjoy a good dark fantasy. One of my problems with horror is that often the bad things seem to happen for no reason, so a fantasy world in which demons or whatever are part of the fabric is more satisfying to me. I guess for many the breakdown of order in our familiar world is enough of a raison d’être, but I channel my need for this into crime fiction, which usually offers a logic for the eruption of disorder into everyday life (or enough of one for me).

Do I like being thrilled? 
Almost all my favourite books from childhood involve magic, with the characters overcoming great obstacles to win through in the end. I graduated early to H.P. Lovecraft, finding one of his collections on my parents’ bookshelf, and to M.R. James. I prefer my thrills Victorian. Or, even better, rooted in the folklore that I began to feel was an essential part of myself. 

Do I like being scared, safely in the comfort of my home? 
Yes, and I think it’s immensely important for children to learn about dealing with the sense of fear in these safe circumstances. Why else are our oldest stories full of darkness and threat if not to warn us of the real dangers of the outside world, while at the same time reassuring us that resourcefulness will get us through? (Of course, this is often demonstrably untrue, but if we didn’t believe in ourselves to some extent, we’d never leave the house!) I think A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok is going to address this, and I’m looking forward to seeing how she does so.

All that being said, I usually used to watch Dr Who from behind the sofa, and once spilt an entire cup of tea over myself when a door was opened to reveal a cyberman and I jumped violently – I knew it was behind the door, but I couldn’t help myself. So I don’t watch anything too frightening (younger son makes the decisions for me) although I have a bit of a soft spot for the sillier end of the Japanese horror spectrum. Said son has nerves of steel, apparently, and can watch the most ghastly things and gleefully murders monsters by the legion (but he was upset for days when he ran over a rabbit).

Do I like that eerie frisson of chill running over my skin when I read a particularly scary line or scene?
An early addiction was the passage in T.H. White’s The Queen of Air and Darkness where Morgan le Fay creates a magical spell in order to seduce the young Arthur by cutting the outline of a man from a corpse. I read and re-read it compulsively, with a sense of thrill I’ve rarely found anywhere since. Even then I knew that it didn’t matter whether or not the spell actually worked – what mattered was the sheer evil of doing it, both the will to dominate and the contempt for the dead man. There’s a difference, though, between reading about an evil act in a real-world setting and a supernatural one: the first produces a feeling of revulsion, and perhaps anger or grief, depending on the degree of vicariousness; the second can evoke the delicious chill, because it’s safely distanced, even when we’re deeply involved in the book or film. It’s important that we don’t really believe it can happen – and we all – except, it seems, my younger son – know how genuinely unpleasant it can be when we’ve gone too far, reading alone in the house at night, and find ourselves too frightened to sleep, and jumping at every sound. Where one draws the line is a very individual thing, I suppose: I avoid anything really frightening if I'm alone but, tucked up in bed with a hotwater bottle and secure in the knowledge that my menfolk and dogfolk (though they are even bigger cowards than me)* are to hand, it's remarkable how comforting a bit of a chill can be.

 ...tucked up in bed with a hotwater bottle? 
(with thanks to Gustave Doré)

* the dogs, that is, not the chaps.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Fragile Things - group read

Sunday saw the end of the first week of the Fragile Things read along. For a variety of reasons I couldn't post that day, and it's taken until today to have the necessary combination of time and an internet connection - I'll do better next week! But here is my brief contribution, for what it's worth.

'The Fairy Reel' - not much of a poem, says Neil Gaiman, but  I think it's better than he allows himself credit for, because it has  such a wistful, yearning quality - it reminded me of the line from 'The Vicar of Bray', "and this the burden of my song" - burden actually meaning only chorus, but here it's a real burden, a heavy heart, or perhaps, a heavy absence of heart. It carries, too, the haunting tone of my long-favourite fairy poem, Keats's 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci'. You can imagine the subject of this poem "alone and palely loitering", in thrall to a wild-eyed elfin love, and the recurring heartstrings/violin strings theme is very strong. Those long lines are effective, too, conveying a sense of relentless and unproductive motion, only broken in the last line, where the caesura signifies the cessation of movement, and release.

There was one line I pondered over at some length:
Until one day she'd tire of it, all bored with it and done with it
I felt that "bored with it" was too modern an expression, and wondered how I would choose to re-word it - but I can't. And the more I think about it, the less I really want to...perhaps because "bored with it and done with it" has a feeling of capriciousness entirely appropriate, somehow foreshadowing "long and cruel and thin" in a way I can't really articulate, except for noticing - somewhat tenuously - the assonant linking of the "o" sound, which runs through the intervening lines.

This all made me remember, as I brooded on it, of how years ago I had an argument about the usefulness of literary criticism with a friend  - he'd given it up favour of history, I was studying it at the time and struggling slightly to justify the study of a subject solely because it gave me pleasure (I too gave it up, in favour of philosophy, which some would argue was even more useless). Anyway, one of my gripes with lit crit was that the only way, really, to describe a poem is by the poem itself, which says exactly what the author means to say, and Gaiman makes this point precisely and elegantly in his tale 'The Mapmaker', which he tells in the introduction to Fragile Things, and which Carl made a particular point of encouraging us to read.

We read two other stories this week, and I don't really have time to discuss them here, except to say that the Sherlock Holmes/Cthulhu cross-over works a treat, and that I loved October in the Chair all the more for having read The Graveyard Book  since I first picked up my copy of Fragile Things. Carl talks about all of this week's reading very perceptively on Stainless Steel Droppings and I really can't add anything more, though I would like to second him when he urges us not to read too briskly through the collection, but to savour the stories at leisure.