Friday, 5 February 2016

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet - Becky Chambers

When Ashby, Captain of the Wayfarer, takes on a new clerk, not all of the crew think he's made the right decision. Rosemary is young and inexperienced, and this is her first time off her home planet of Mars. But Rosemary is efficient and friendly, if reserved, and does not take long to settle in among the Wayfarer's varied crew. And if she has some secrets she'd rather keep in her past, well, doesn't everyone?

The Wayfarer is not a military ship, nor a diplomatic one, or a rag-tag bunch of crooks evading capture. It's a construction ship whose main job is to build wormholes. The latest job is the biggest yet: a tunnel from an unknown part of the galaxy, to aid an alliance between the Galactic  Commons and a somewhat volatile and dangerous tribe. But first, they have to get there...

As the title suggests, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is the story of a journey, a character study of a small cast in a confined space (with the occasional stop along the way.) I enjoyed it as a leisurely read, taking my time over the book, and enjoying getting to know the characters and the universe portrayed. The different species are really diverse, not with just one "hat" to mark each one out as different, but with a wide variety of cultures, appearances, beliefs and language styles. This is not an Earth-centric setting; the Humans (from Mars and from the Exodus Fleet outside the Solar System - Earth is all but deserted) are fairly new additions to the Galactic Commons. Dates are measured in tenday periods, which add up to Standards (and I'm pretty sure a day is not the twenty four hours of Earth. Why would it be?) The universal language is Klip. As well as five humans: the Wayfarer's crew includes Sissix, of the very tactile reptilian species Aandrisk, the ship's doctor and cook known as Dr Chef, who is Grum, a near-extinct people who change gender over the course of a lifetime, Ohan, a Sianat Pair, short-lived joined species (comparable to Star Trek's Trill) who are always described in the plural. And Lovey, the AI, who tends to get overlooked but is a much-valued and loved part of the team. 

What struck me as remarkable in Small Angry Planet was that this really is a civilian ship. When did you last see an unarmed spaceship in science fiction? Star Trek's Starfleet may claim not to be military, but follows a strong naval tradition, and its exploration starships are heavily armed with phasers and photon torpedoes, which are regularly used. Star Wars is full of lightsabers and blasters. Battlestar Galactica and her fleet are engaged in a desperate fight for survival against the Cylons. Firefly's rebels are armed and fight dirty. But the Exodan humans are pacifists, and Ashby refuses to allow weapons aboard his ship, even for self-defence. It struck me as shocking and sad to realise that violence is taken for granted even in the Utopian futures, and Small Angry Planet is revolutionary just by not arming this tunnelling ship. And it shouldn't be. But being unarmed doesn't always protect them

What happens when the Wayfarer reaches its destination, while tense, twisty and shocking, is not really the point. It's about the journey, both the long physical voyage in space, and the changes in each of the characters as they change and grow, confront secrets, challenges and dilemmas. They don't always make the right decisions. Some choices will reverberate past the end of the book. 

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a really fresh, intelligent and fun science fiction novel. As Stephen King's 11.22.63 affected the way I view time-travel, so Small Angry Planet set a new standard for space-travel stories. And there is a sequel on its way later this year. I usually prefer stand-alone stories to series, but Becky Chambers' universe and characters are too vast, too rich, to be contained within 400 pages. It feels as though we've only just scratched the surface.

Monday, 1 February 2016

January mini-reviews: The Tree of Seasons, Galaxy Quest, Pride

I took a trip to nearby Ryde a couple of weeks ago to explore the big bookshop there, and spent a good hour browsing all the rooms and nooks (and being plunged into darkness at one point when the electricians didn't see me hiding in a corner.) I'm sure I've written about Ryde bookshop before. The front part houses the new books, and then you go through a door to the labyrinth behind: three stories of second-hand books: genre fiction and travel at the back, general fiction lining the halls and stairways, and several rooms for children's books and non-fiction of every genre imaginable. I always feel that you can get lost in "L-Space" in a shop like that, take a wrong turning and you might end up in another bookshop in another town. After much deliberation, I bought A Place Called Winter new, and a couple of science fiction novels. 

On the way back to the bus stop, I wandered into a charity shop where I found myself confronted with another name from my childhood: my first celebrity crush, Boyzone singer Stephen Gately, with whom I was embarrassingly besotted during my early teens (don't judge me!) Although I hadn't thought of him for years, it still came as a shock in the autumn of 2009 when Stephen died at the age of just 33. (You might remember  that marking another landmark in the "how low can they go" history of the rag known as the Daily Mail when they published a really hateful article insinuating that instead of suffering the hitherto unknown heart condition diagnosed by the coronors, Stephen basically Died Of Gay.) Anyway, he was writing a children's book at the time - I read somewhere that he was very much against the use of ghostwriters, although the book was ultimately finished off for him from his notes and probably edited a lot - and it was this book, The Tree of Seasons, which I found in the Cancer Research shop on a 2 for £1 deal.

The Tree of Seasons is a rather charming fairy tale, evoking the feeling of endless summer found in Enid Blyton, Narnia, The Hounds of the Morrigan and others. Three siblings, Josh, Michael and Beth Lotts, go exploring in the forbidden woods behind their great-aunt's house, and find within a tree a portal to four magical kingdoms, each controlling a season of the year. But all is not as it should be; the ruler of the autumn kingdom has been overthrown by an evil witch whose influence is spreading out into the world beyond. It is up to the Lotts children to stop her. The plot is a fairly conventional story of the genre, a McGuffin-hunt, with good and evil characters, peril and unlikely friendship. But the world-building is immersive, atmospheric and poetic, the book a joyful celebration of nature. 

On the subject of famous people I like dying, 2015 was a notorious year, with the loss of Leonard Nimoy, Sir Terry Pratchett, Sir Christopher Lee and the actor who played "Gilbert Blythe," Jonathan Crombie. We're only at the end of January but already 2016 is almost matching last year, adding David Bowie and Alan Rickman to that list within about three days of each other, and yesterday I woke up to the news of TV and radio personality Terry Wogan's death as well, all three from cancer. My local radio station has been playing even more Bowie songs than usual, and of course that week I rewatched one of my favourite films from my teens, Labyrinth. It was harder to choose just one of Rickman's films to remember him by: Harry Potter or Robin Hood? Die Hard or Sense and Sensibility? But I went with Galaxy Quest, the affectionate Star Trek spoof described by George Takei as "a chillingly realistic documentary," in which a once-great sci-fi cast, who relive (or endlessly suffer through) their glory days on the convention circuit, get mistaken for real-life space heroes by a race of aliens in desperate need of help. Rickman's performance as the self-loathing thespian (who is never without his alien prosthetic headgear) is a thing of beauty, the film is gloriously quotable, poking fun at all that is ridiculous about the likes of Star Trek, while also celebrating what has made it endure for half a century. As an  honorary entry in the Trek canon, I'd rank it second only to The Wrath of Khan (tied with The One With The Whales.)

After Ellie emailed me to tell me she'd bought and watched one of my more recent favourite films, Pride, I got so excited about her discovering it for the first time that I needed to rewatch it again. And again (twice in two nights.) I could quite easily reach the end and go straight back to the beginning yet again, if I didn't stop myself. It's quite rare for me to find a film so good I don't want it to end; no matter how good a movie might be, normally once it's passed the 90 minute mark I tend to find my attention wandering a little until the climax. Pride is one of those British comedies about unlikely people achieving big things against all the odds, like Billy Elliot and The Full Monty. It's set during the miners' strike of 1984-1985, and based on true events, when a group of gay men and women from London pledge their support for a Welsh mining community. Strong friendships are built between these two very different groups of people. The script is spot-on, uplifting, with a ready wit, and acted by a stellar cast of big names, such as Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy and Paddy Considine and relative newcomers like Ben Schnetzer, George MacKay and Faye Marsay. It is an absolute joy to spend a couple of hours in the company of these warm-hearted characters.* We see them grow and change as we become acquainted with them, from activist Mark Ashton, to still-closeted young Joe ("Bromley") to Bill Nighy's character Cliff, on first appearances a rather uncomfortable, stern gentleman but who, we come to discover, has a poetic soul, a deep abiding passion for the coal that is at the heart of his homeland, and secrets he's held for decades. Imelda Staunton as matriarch Hefina is magnificent (she must surely banish any thoughts of Professor Umbridge in this role.) Andrew Scott, who you might know as the gleefully evil Moriarty from the BBC's Sherlock, shows a contrasting subtlety in his portrayal of gentle bookseller Gethin, while Dominic West plays Gethin's partner Jonathan, a flamboyant but not cliched actor with secret battles of his own. The film ends with captions of "What happened next," a bittersweet mixture of sadness and triumph, and one simple sentence about Jonathan is particularly sweet.

Pride was an instant addition to my top films of all time; it is perhaps as close as you can get to the perfect film. It tackles difficult subjects with an illusion of ease, is by turns moving, inspiring, and hilarious. You'll laugh, you'll cry tears of sadness but more of joy and mirth. The ultimate feel-good film. Oh dear, I might have to go and watch it again.

*because, although many are based on real people, some of whom were interviewed in the extras and extraordinarily well cast, by nature of being written into a drama, they are characters nonetheless.) 

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Sunday Summary: January in review

The last month has been a fairly quiet one after the madness that is working the Christmas season in retail, and now I get some recovery time in my first holiday since the beginning of November. Next Saturday is the London Bookshop Crawl which Bex has been organising, and which I am so excited for. A big group of us are getting together to stock up on books and cake, beginning at Foyle's and ending at the big Waterstone's in Piccadilly before heading off to Pizza Express afterwards. I've met Bex and Laura before, last year, and I recently found out one of the other attendees, Hannah, also lives on the Isle of Wight, so we met up for coffee the other day to get to know each other a little, and ended up geeking out wildly about books in general, and TV and Netflix series - always a good starting point for a new friendship. And I'm very excited to meet a couple of people who I've "known" online for years but never met.

So, how did I do with my January reading?

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - Susanna Clarke
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet - Becky Chambers (In progress)
Upstairs at the Party - Linda Grant
The Drawing of the Three - Stephen King
Silence is Goldfish - Annabel Pitcher
The Rest of Us Just Live Here - Patrick Ness
Disclaimer - Renee Knight
Career of Evil - "Robert Galbraith"
Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen (reread)
Our Mutual Friend - Charles Dickens

Also Read:

The Ghost Hunters - Neil Spring (begun December 2015)
Sofia Khan is Not Obliged - Ayisha Malik
Second Term at Trebizon - Anne Digby
The Tree of Seasons - Stephen Gately

The Trebizon boarding school stories were one of my favourite series when I was growing up, alongside the Chalet School and Malory Towers books, but they were rather lesser-known than the others, marking the very end of the school story fashion. So imagine my delight when I learned that Egmont have started reprinting the books again. I found this out through Robin Steven's Twitter feed, and practically started screaming with excitement. I'm pretty sure that Miss Stevens must be at least partly to thank for this rediscovery, with the success of her Wells and Wong mysteries making old-fashioned boarding schools cool again. Yes, I do own all but one of the series already, but I actually quite like the modern-style covers a lot more than, say, the Enid Blyton redesigns which I have grumbled about before, and I'm so pleased that a new generation will get to meet Rebecca, Tish, Sue and the others. I've no intention of buying second copies of all of the books, but I do need to show my support of the reprint, don't I? (Plus one or two of my old editions are very battered.)

February To-Read Pile

Note: I don't expect to stick closely to this list, what with the bookshop crawl expected to add at least another half-dozen books to my shelf, but these are some of the books I'd like to read in the not-too-distant future:

Left over from January:
  • The Rest of Us Just Live Here - Patrick Ness
  • The Drawing of the Three - Stephen King
  • Upstairs at the Party - Linda Grant
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - Susanna Clark
New or re-entries:
  • A Place Called Winter - Patrick Gale
  • The Book of Strange New Things - Michel Faber
Books I want to reread soon:
  • The Charioteer - Mary Renault
  • American Gods - Neil Gaiman. 
American Gods was on my shortlist but not read on Bex's last Rereadathon (are we going to do another one this spring?) With the work apparently coming along nicely on the TV adaptation, and the casting of Ricky Whittle as Shadow, (not someone I know, but he looks the part more than any other actor I've seen suggested) that book has made its way back onto my to-read list. I've read most of Gaiman's books several times, and American Gods seems to come out every two or three years or so. It's time once more.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Sofia Khan is Not Obliged - Ayisha Malik

Sofia has recently decided to commit to a life of celibacy. Her sister is due to get married, one of her best friends is about to marry a man who already has another wife, and her family just will not stop badgering her about when it's going to be her turn. But she's just broken up with her boyfriend, who wanted her to move in with his interfering family. One day, after an unfortunate incident on a London Underground train, she finds herself commissioned to write a book about Muslim Dating...

It's unusual to find a protagonist in mainstream fiction these days with a strong religious faith (of any religion.) If you do, it's either downplayed, showing the characters indistinguishable from anyone else but for a few words or rituals. And when religion is explored in depth it tends towards an anguished crisis of faith. And in particular, Islam gets fogged to the outside view by ignorance, misinformation and fear. Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged shows us an insider's view, an ordinary British Muslim whose faith is an integral part of her life. She chooses to wear the hijab (much to the dismay of her mother) and her working life brings its own challenges in finding a quiet place to pray five times a day. She is also loud, stubborn, witty, likeable and intelligent, an occasional smoker and lover of lemon puffs and chocolate hobnobs - a likeable and relatable character.

I picked up Sofia Khan at work when unpacking the new books delivery, and knew after looking through a few pages that I had to buy it. By the time Sofia shouts at a racist about terrorists not wearing vintage shoes, she had become real to me: I could see her, hear her voice, I needed to know her story. Despite her determination to stay single, Sofia ventures out into the dating world for "research" for her book, with its perils and pitfalls. But the most significant relationships come into her life through other means: the American with whom she has a hilarious bantering chemistry, the former fiance returns, and then there is a slower-building friendship that may become something else. Given the genre - the romantic comedy - it's inevitable that Sofia will find love somewhere, but it is not a straight-forward conclusion. Along the way, Sofia falls under pressure to please her family who just want to see her happily married, but is she making the right choices, and if not, how will she know?

Sofia Khan is a cheerful read, and had me giggling every few pages, but also made me feel for her sorrows and dilemmas in her quest to find happiness for her friends and family as well as for herself. She doesn't always make the right decisions, and with mistakes come consequences that are not easily brushed away. Sofia's family might not understand her choices, but what they do have, beneath the bickering and nagging, is love, which shines through the inter-generational conflict, in a wonderfully rounded and believable cast of characters. My only complaint about this book is that one of the promising new friends was written out of the story about halfway through and barely warrants a mention afterwards. But there were so many other great characters to spend the rest of the book with.  I came away from this book feeling as though I'd made a lot of new friends in the Khan family, and in Sofia's closest circle, Hannah, Fozia and Suj, Katie at work, and Conall (not Colin!) the grump next door who has hidden depths.

I'm really excited for Sofia Khan, which I'm hoping will be one of 2016's big debuts. It's been chosen by WH Smith travel stores as part of their Fresh Talent promotion, so this ought to help to make the book one of the big new hits of 2016. I want to get people reading and talking about Ayisha Malik and Sofia Khan, and good news - there is a sequel in the works. I can't wait to see what happens next.

You can read an interview with Ayisha Malik about Sofia Khan at the New Statesman here.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Bout of Books 15: Saturday, Sunday, Wrap-Up

Bout of Books

Apologies for the lack of any posting yesterday. I'd fully intended to write my last long-overdue post from last year on Friday to schedule for Saturday, but then Hamilton happened, and I was somewhat distracted. And yesterday I've been at work, which is getting nice and quiet again. While everyone else has been groaning about going back to school or work after their holidays, I've been thinking "hooray, it's the furthest point of the year from the pre-Christmas and post-Christmas madness!"

Saturday and Sunday's reading:


I've begun my reread of Pride and Prejudice. It's been a long time since I've read that. It could even be my least-red Jane Austen book because I know it so well from all the million and one adaptations and stories inspired by it, the quintessential rom-com. So coming back to it, I'm reminded anew why it is one of the best-loved books of all time. Despite being written 200 years ago, it's very modern in characterisation and in Jane Austen's sharp and spiky observations. I would not like to get on her wrong side!

But I'm also cheating on Pride and Prejudice with another rom-com, which I unpacked at work yesterday: Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged, which could and probably already has been described as "the Muslim Bridget Jones." I idly thumbed through that book and by the time I'd read about the titular heroine shouting at a racist about terrorists not wearing vintage shoes, I felt as though Sofia was standing right there with me. I could see her, I could hear her voice, and I wanted to know her better. It's a really refreshing read after the darkness of the two thrillers I've read this week, laugh-out-loud funny, and it's the first read of 2016 that I'm going to be pushing at everyone to read. On Thursday I had a customer come to me for "recommendations of romantic comedies," which I had trouble with because it's not really a genre I read very often. If only he'd come in just a few days later! So, mysterious stranger, if by some unlikely chance you're reading this: READ SOFIA KHAN! 

And on that note, I will go and continue doing likewise.

Wrap-Up (Monday 11th January)

I didn't quite manage to read the four books I'd aimed for, partly because of engrossing myself in Hamilton on Friday, and then last night I got caught up in "just one more episode" of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 instead of finishing my book. I followed a couple of new blogs, and said hello to a few of my old favourites, but overall, once I got back to work on Wednesday, I didn't spend so much time interacting with other bloggers or doing challenges or twitter chats as I would have liked. Something to work on for the next readathon, I think. On the plus side, I've written more blog posts in the past ten days than I did for the whole final quarter of 2015.

The final stats:

Books finished: Disclaimer, Silence is Goldfish, Career of Evil
Other books begun: Pride and Prejudice, Sofia Khan is Not Obliged
Total pages read: 1460 (averaging 208 and a half per day.)
Best reading day: Tuesday with 433 pages.
Worst reading day: Friday with 92 pages
Favourite book: Sofia Khan is Not Obliged, even though I haven't finished it yet. Look out for a fangirling review later this week.
Least favourite book: Disclaimer. 

Friday, 8 January 2016

Bout of Books 15: Wednesday-Friday

Bout of Books

Hello all. I've been at work for a couple of days so decided not to write readathon updates in my free time, but devote the time to actually reading over my lunch breaks and evenings instead. My third book of choice was Career of Evil by "Robert Galbraith" (who I think we all know is J. K. Rowling.) I don't think it was quite as good as The Silkworm, which followed detective Cormoran Strike as he looked for clues to a murder within the victim's manuscript of a novel, but it still did not disappoint. Career of Evil is another really dark thriller, with moments of pitch-black humour which make way for an investigation into a trio of very, very unpleasant characters. Although the suspects in this novel were limited to three, Rowling - sorry, Galbraith - keeps you guessing right to the end, "It must be this one," "Nope, here's a clue that says it can't be..." and when at last Cormoran Strike reveals the incriminating evidence, we find that, once more, the clues were there if only I hadn't overlooked them. Clever. Meanwhile, all I could do was watch helplessly, as Robin Ellacott, Strike's assistant, made some of the biggest mistakes of her life...

After the darkness of Career of Evil and Disclaimer earlier this week, it's time for some comfort reading, and I fully intended to spend today re-reading Pride and Prejudice. But life had other plans, and instead I got somewhat distracted listening to the soundtrack of the Broadway musical Hamilton which nearly everyone on the internet has been raving about for the past few months. I'd been trying to resist the hype, not being a fan of hip-hop or US political history, but I succumbed and have spent most of the day listening to it instead of reading. I'm not going to become completely obsessed with the show, but I did enjoy the songs, became emotionally involved in the fates of the characters (some of which I knew a little about, most of which I did not) and have had the whole thing in my head ever since. It piqued my interest in Alexander Hamilton and the early years of the USA as a nation, gave me a hunger for more knowledge on the subject. A couple of bloggers I follow, Sarah and Alley are taking part in a readalong of Hamilton's biography, and although I've no plans to join in the reading, I'll certainly be stalking their #Hamalong posts, which may have played a part in persuading me to give the show a chance. I'm glad I did, even if it did disrupt my readathon.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

A Little Life - Hanya Yanagihara

One of the books shortlisted for 2015's Man Booker Prize, A Little Life appeared to be the favourite to win but ultimately lost out to Marlon James' History of Seven Killings. Hanya Yanagihara tells the story of a group of friends living in New York, starting out as college graduates beginning their careers, and seeing them through several decades. Charismatic but unpredictable artist J.B. and architect Malcolm, but really focuses on kind-hearted actor Willem and most of all Jude, who never speaks of his past, and is something of an enigma. The first section gave a very relatable depiction of people in their late twenties still trying to figure out what it means to be an adult.

Yanagihara uses an interesting mixture of narrative voices: first and third person, with a touch of second as well, to give a variety of perspectives of Jude's "little life." When shown from Jude's own point of view, he is not named - which can prove a little confusing when he is only identified with a shared pronoun "he," although for the most part it is kept fairly straightforward. This technique indicates his lack of self-regard, self-importance or even sense of a personal identity. Jude and his friends are a tight-knit circle but not an exclusive friendship. As the years go by, relationships between the quartet change, get strained and fixed, drift apart in adulthood but always share their bond. Yet J. B. Malcolm and Willem can't figure out what to make of Jude, no matter how much they love him, for he never speaks of his past. And it emerges he has a very good reason for not wanting to speak about it.

A Little Life is an emotional rollercoaster, between the heights of the love of the people in Jude's present, and the crashing lows, all the different kinds of self-destructiveness that comes as a souvenir from fifteen terrible years of his childhood. You come to really care about these people, feel their sorrows and their frustration when Jude just won't admit he needs or deserves help. At other times, you revel in the relief and joy that things are finally going well - but always, hanging over your head, is the threat of another relapse. And every so often, Jude reveals a hint of the trauma in his backstory, and it's harrowing stuff, but for the most part I think, tactfully handled.

However, near the end of the flashbacks, I found myself questioning how plausible that every adult in Jude's life for fifteen years was a complete monster. Of course I know there are some really evil people out there - but for one kid to encounter so many, everywhere he went, and no one else, brought me out of the novel to ponder if perhaps Yanagihara had gone a little over the top with Jude's tragic backstory. Then, with one shocking plot twist in the last hundred pages, I felt more and more fearful of the ending. The love and goodness of Jude's friends and adopted family wasn't enough to keep the book from leaving a bad aftertaste. The penultimate section of the book would have been a fine and satisfying note to end on, although as hard as I tried to resist the fact, the ending was always inevitable. But how I wished it wasn't. It's been nearly two months since I began writing this review, and over that time, the dismay and disbelief from the last hundred pages or so have been my lingering impression of the book, quite overshadowing all that impressed me through the majority of the book. A Little Life is a book that stays with you long after you put it down, which is a point in the favour of any book, surely. But it's a shame that what I remember after I finished the novel was not the same as what drew me back to its pages through the reading process.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens


You can't beat a good Star Wars film for the ultimate cinema experience. When those words flash up on-screen: "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away," and the triumphant theme music blares around you in surround sound, with the narrative crawling up the screen: this is what the movies were made for. To watch a new Star Wars movie like that: it feels a little like living through a moment in history, a nostalgia for a time before I was born. And yes, I know I have experienced this before, but those were episodes I and III, and we don't talk about them.

Admittedly, I'm not a Star Wars obsessive. I love the films - the original trilogy, that is, I have no strong feelings about the prequels which I regard as an optional extra - but I wouldn't be able to tell you the names of many character not named in script, and I haven't read any of the Expanded Universe novels. A decade ago I argued in favour of the series in a Wars vs Trek debate with one of my friends; now I have turned to the Dark Side as this blog has documented. But it doesn't have to be an either-or thing. Star Wars is magnificant, magical storytelling at its finest.

In the promotional material for The Force Awakens, fans across the world were asking the same question: "Where's Luke?" We knew that Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher were all signed up to reprise their most famous roles in the new installment, so what was the big secret? Had Luke, dear, eager, pure Luke Skywalker turned to the Dark Side? What a punch in the gut that would be. Or perhaps, almost more unthinkable, he'd actually died in the time since Return of the Jedi and would only appear as a Force ghost...

All became clear from the start of the opening crawl. "Luke Skywalker has vanished." Well played, J.J. Well played. Out-of-universe, we'd inadvertantly been asking the same questions as the characters in-universe. Where's Luke?

Luke, who turns up only at the very end, stouter and bearded and oh so sad, and Leia - now General Organa - appear really only as cameos in this film (much like Leonard Nimoy as the elder Spock in the 2009 Star Trek reboot.) Han Solo has a bigger role,but the focus is solidly on the next generation of characters. There is Poe Dameron, the star fighter pilot in Leia's Resistance to the First Order, the new baddies. Then there is Finn, formerly known as stormtrooper FN 2187, who has defected from the Dark Side and just wants to get away, but keeps on being drawn back to danger on the planet of Jakku. Finn is lovely character, fearful yet brave, with some great moments when he tries to be all chivalrous and rescue Rey, who is quite capable of saving herself, thankyouverymuch. Rey is a resourceful, rather angry young woman who was abandoned on Jakku as a child and left to fend for herself as a scavenger on a junkyard. And it is she who is at the heart of The Force Awakens; she who fills the ordinary teenager-turned-hero role originally held by Luke (and isn't it great for little girls to have a hero of their own?)

And as for the villains. Out of the ashes of the evil Empire has risen the First Order, overruled by Supreme Leader Snoke (a giant hologram of a creature) but the face of the villains is unmistakeably Kylo Ren, who proved to be a far more intriguing and multi-faceted character than I could have imagined. I saw his image in the promotional material and said, "Seriously?!" J. J. Abrams had replaced the most iconic baddies of all time, Darth Vader, with another tall dude with a cloak and a bucket on his head?

But that's the point. Kylo Ren idolises Darth Vader - conveniently ignoring the fact that he'd switched back from the Dark Side in the end - and of course he's never going to be as impressive, or live up to Vader's memory. He is powerful with the Force, but unstable, unhinged, lacking in self-control. There's a wonderful moment where one of his minions (no, not a little yellow squeaky banana-man! Despicable Me has ruined that word forever) comes to Ren with a look of terror on his face, to confess a failure to recapture the adorable droid BB8, with its map of "where to find Luke Skywalker." Being used to Darth Vader, the minion - and the viewer - is prepared for a ruthless and speedy death. Instead, Ren turns his lightsaber onto his expensive and complicated machinary. Where Vader was cold, Ren is hot-headed, immature, dangerous yes, but not fully-grown into his power.

And Kylo Ren does have a lot of power. How could he not? For before he wore the mask and took on the name Kylo Ren, he was simply Ben. Ben Solo, son of Han and Leia, nephew to Luke, grandson of Darth Vader himself. As a trainee Jedi, he turned on the rest of his class and slaughtered them all, it seems, causing a devastated Luke to disappear to an unknown planet. But what could have happened to turn the son of our heroes to the Dark Side? What kind of parents were Han and Leia? Could they have done anything to prevent his fall? Ren's commitment to the Dark is not absolute; we see him wrestle with the temptation to turn back to good, and his mother believes there is hope yet. And Han, the cynic, though he suspects Ben is lost forever, reaches out to him nonetheless. They meet on a bridge (it is always a bridge) and Han urges his son to come back with them. That would be interesting, wouldn't it? To have the bad guy in the midst of the Resistance, with his parents, striving to come back to the light. That would have been an interesting Episode Eight plot. And it looks, for a moment, as though Ren is tempted. He falters. He expresses his inner turmoil and anguish over "what must be done." And then I had another horrible dawning realisation, as Ren handed over his lightsaber. It looked awfully like he was begging Han, his own father, to kill him, to put him out of his misery. There would be a painful struggle, but I didn't believe Han could do it. He's not as hardened as he wants you to believe...

But as it happens, he was saved from having to make that agonising decision, once Ren activates his lightsaber just as it's directed at Han's heart.

I did not see that coming. I should have seen that coming, but I did not. I fell for it. I fell for that manipulative piece of work and gaped in disbelief as Han reached out to his son, forgiving him even for his own murder, and tumbled off the bridge into the darkness. Well. That made things much more interesting! And we see that there is more to Kylo Ren than the wannabe villain emo kid with a bad temper. Can there be any coming back from this?

I'm pleased to be able to conclude that Star Wars has recovered from the disappointment that was the prequel trilogy, and is back up to a high standard. My only criticism, bringing it down to four stars instead of five, is the amount of repetition, visual and plot, from the original movie. Instead of the Empire there is the First Order. Instead of the Death Star which can destroy a planet, there is the Starkiller Base, which looks an awful lot like a planet-sized Death Star which can destroy an entire solar system in one go. And, once more, it is taken out by a fleet of ace pilots. You get the Big Bad murdering the mentor figure in front of the fledgeling Jedi. All this seems very familiar. But Han Solo highlights some of these similarities with disdain: "So, it's bigger." It's very safe ground to return Star Wars to its former glory, and if the plot takes the shape, it is a classic shape of storytelling: the hero's quest. Already it fits into the canon as if it were always part of the story (a feat the prequels never managed) and, as my friend Paul said the other day, it's good to watch a Star Wars film without knowing what was going to happen next. Roll on Episode VIII!

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Bout of Books 15: Tuesday

Bout of Books

Today's Reading:

After the doom and gloom that was Disclaimer yesterday, today I'm reading a young adult novel from Annabel Pitcher, author of My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece, which I listened to as an audiobook and loved, and Ketchup Clouds, which I found disappointingly forgettable. Thankfully, Silence is Goldfish is impressing me so far, with lyrical prose and a bright, imaginative and passionate protagonist in Tess Turner. Tess is an outsider, and at least inside her mind she has a strong yet introverted personality. She knows what she likes, and yet she's under pressure to fit in at school. Being around people makes it harder to be yourself when you're an introvert, harder to be confident when the bullies are taunting you, and when her father keeps on giving her conflicting advice about whether she ought to fit in or stand out from the crowd, it is hard. But she tries, to please him, until the day she reads something he's written about her that brings everything she tried to be, everything she thought she was, crashing down around her.

Challenge: Would You Rather...? by Writing My Own Fairytale

Would you rather...
Lend books to someone who dog-ears pages or lend books to someone who reads with cheesy Cheetos fingers?
Dog-ears, but only paperbacks, and nothing specials.
Be able to meet one character of your choice or meet one author of your choice?
Well, I met Neil Gaiman in 2013, so that's accounted for. So I suppose the obvious answer would be to meet Anne Shirley and be kindred spirits with her in person as well as through the pages of her books.
Never be allowed in a book store again or never be allowed in a library again?
This is an evil question. I could never give up bookstores, so I'll have to say library, but that would also be a big gaping loss. You can take more chances on library books, because you don't lose anything if you don't like or don't read a book you borrowed. And yet... I just couldn't live without bookshops.
Have to choose one of your favourite characters to die in their book or have to pick one of your favourite couples to break up in their book?
Usually I find couples are more interesting when they're not actually together, so as long as they're both decent characters and both get to stick around, I don't really care if they break up (with a couple of exceptions.) Then again, if it's a really good death scene, it can be satisfying even with the loss of a favourite character. But yeah, I'm not that bothered by romance. It's usually a thing to be endured for the sake of the rest of the story.
Be required to read Twilight once a year for the rest of your life or The Scarlet Letter once a year for the rest of your life?
I've never actually read The Scarlet Letter, so I can't really answer that one. I have a lot of problems with Twilight but it is perfectly readable and I did enjoy it on my first reading, until I stopped to think about it critically. So that wouldn't be a major hardship, and I quite enjoy snarking about it.

Tuesday's Stats

Books read: Silence is Goldfish
Pages read: 363 so far
Running total for the week: 2 books finished, 651 pages.
Favourite read of the week so far: Silence is Goldfish
Today in six words: book hermit catching up on reviews
When I wasn't reading I was... sleeping in, scheduling reviews for when I'm at work from tomorrow.

Monday, 4 January 2016

Bout of Books 15: Monday

Bout of Books

Much as I love the Christmas and New Year festivities, it's always good to get back to the calm and quiet of normality afterwards, and the Bout of Books readathon is a good cushion between the holiday (not that I had a holiday, I worked extra instead, but that's just part of working retail, and I'm used to it by now) and the rest of winter stretching out before me.

My Readathon Goals:
  • To read a minimum of four books from my pile.
  • To write update posts on the days I'm not working (Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Sunday) and to spend my free time on my working days not on the internet, but engrossed in my books. 
  • To write and schedule my long-overdue review posts, so that I'll update the blog with something every day this week. (I've had a half-written review of A Little Life in my drafts folder for about two months now!)
  • To spend time getting to know new blogging friends as well as the old ones. That's where I tend to fall down during readathons. 
  • Unrelated to the book-pile, I also have a comic to read, Jen Campbell's  latest poetry booklet from her 100 poem weekend of last year, and to read over the first-draft-so-far of my novel-in-progress, which I want to get back to writing after the readathon. 
Monday's Reading:

I've kicked off the readathon with Disclaimer by Renee Knight, the big thriller of the moment. It's Waterstone's Fiction Book of the Month, WH Smith's Read of the Week, and is supposedly "the new Girl on the Train," (which in turn was the new Gone Girl, which was the new Before I Go To Sleep.) 

The book opens when Catherine, a successful film-maker, discovers that the book she's reading is based on her own life, on a dark secret from many years previously. But who could possibly know these things she's kept hidden all this time, and why publish it now?

Disclaimer has a fascinating premise, a good hook that keeps you turning the page, and yet I'm finding it somewhat frustrating that the author is clearly withholding information. Naturally, withholding information is a crucial element of a thriller, but in this case, the point-of-view characters know all the facts while the reader does not; you don't get to find things out with them. You watch the story unfold but are unable to fully experience it with the characters. It's still successful in making me want to read on, and know more, but I feel the hand of the author through it all.

6PM Update: It's difficult to talk about thrillers without giving details away, but I'll do my best. I'm now about two thirds of the way through Disclaimer and have spent about the last seventy five pages getting rather angry with the characters and also the book. When we finally get around to seeing the secrets revealed in the book-within-a-book, I felt cheated and rather disgusted. The Big Reveal was no revelation at all - Catherine's secret was disappointingly obvious. And yet. We have to remember that the book based on Catherine's life was a fictionalised account reconstructed by a third party. An even more unreliable narrator than the ones we've encountered so far. With a hundred pages left to go, I'm coming to realise that things are be as we've been led to believe after all, and that our protagonist is more sympathetic than I had thought.

8PM: In the end, I can't say that reading Disclaimer was an entirely enjoyable experience. The final twist was shocking, brutal in its description when at last we find out what really happened twenty years previously, but also did not come as a surprise. It was an uncomfortable read,throughout,  a raw examination of the damage done to relationships by pain and grief, festering secrets, lack of communication and trust. And the last revelation on the final page will bother me for a long time.

I'm not sure I can pick up another book straight away; I need time to ponder and digest what I've been reading today, so I think I'll spend my evening in the company of the fabulous Agent Carter in her search for justice.

Monday's Stats:

Books read: Disclaimer
Pages read: 288
Running total for the week: 1 book finished (288 pages)
Today in six words: Gripping but uncomfortable book of secrets.
When I wasn't reading I was... cleaning, and later watching Agent Carter.
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