Wednesday, 20 May 2015

My holiday: Places I went, people I met, books I bought.

Last week I finally ventured up north to York, a city I've been intending to visit ever since my sister went with her then-boyfriend and told me how much she liked it. I booked myself into a nice bed and breakfast about a mile or so out of the city centre, and spent my first couple of days being a proper tourist. I visited the Minster (where, unlike in Sunday's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, the statues were very still and well-behaved) the Castle museum, and took a bus tour around the city. The lady before me in the queue very kindly gave me a token for a free tour bus ticket, for which I was very grateful!

 York is a lovely city, although it took me a while to find my way around. It's full of history and narrow lanes, with so many little independent shops and cafes. Particular highlights were the Minster Gate bookshop, which had so many interconnected rooms of second-hand and discounted books. My best friend and I have a theory that these sorts of second-hand bookshops are connected by some sort of "L-Space," and if you take a wrong turning you might end up in another bookshop in a faraway town. It was that sort of bookshop. I also fell head-over-heels in love with the Little Apple Bookshop, which is only small, but packed full of interesting things, quirky books, funny and geeky gifts, postcards and badges and more. The staff were really friendly. Laura, there was a lot of Moomin merchandise there - in fact, there was a lot of Moomin stuff all over York!

My favourite cafe was called Lucky Days, which made the most delicious butterscotch toffee cake, and had an unusual loyalty scheme: you can have your own mug and personalised hook on the wall, and with your loyalty card, if you roll a six, your cake costs only £1. I was rather sad to admit I was only in town for a couple of days, so wouldn't be able to take them up on the offer, but what a lovely idea!

Of course I bought a few books in York, but I kept it down to three, so that I could go mad when I met up with Ellie and Hanna. From the Minster Gate bookshop, I bought Jo Walton's What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton, a very appropriate book after the rereadathon, as it is all about Walton's rereading of classic science fiction and fantasy books. From the Travelling Man comic book store I bought Through The Woods by Emily Carroll: a collection of sinister fairy tales in graphic novel format, and from the Little Apple bookshop, I came away with The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories, which is what it says on the cover: one- or two-sentence stories, illustrated, that make you stop and think. A lot of them are poetry as much as story.

On the Saturday, I took the train over to Chesterfield to meet up with Ellie and Hanna and, of course, hit the bookshops and everywhere else that sold books. I'd met Ellie before, a couple of years ago, when she had her shop in Bakewell, but it was great to have her on the other side of the counter going quite mad with the book-buying. I am in awe! Hanna, too, is lovely and so much fun to go shopping with. I've met a few bloggers this year for the first time, and they're exactly the same in person as you'd expect after getting to know them through their blogs and other online places (in other words - awesome people!)

Picture nicked from Hanna's Instagram as I left my camera behind
and forgot to charge my phone the night before. Silly Katie.
We started off in the charity shops, thinking how frustrating it is when you find something awesome for a pound or two when you've just bought it full price. Ellie suggested Robin Ince's Bad Book Club, and Hanna recommended HhhH, which I've seen about the place, and read her and Charlotte's reviews, but had never got around to picking up for myself. Hanna rectified that!

We found a bookstall in the market, which, as well as selling the usual second-hand paperbacks, also had some books so new and in good condition that they couldn't possibly be used copies. Stephen King's Mr Mercedes was only £2.50. 2.50!!! I had been resisting this since its paperback release - only about a month ago - as I've already got three unread Stephen Kings, and had even ignored the various half-price offers I'd seen on it, but £2.50 was too ridiculous. So of course I bought it. Hanna also handed me The Vintage Girl by Hester Browne, which was my train read back to the Isle of Wight - a really cosy, feel-good novel, a romance but not overly mushy, with people and settings that feel real and homey.

We took various cake breaks in town, and I introduced Ellie to the CEX store, which she had never been into before. That is where I tend to get most of my box sets from nowadays: they sell second-hand DVDs as well as cameras and other technical stuff, and if I don't know if I'm going to like a film or series but want to check it out, CEX is the place to go! And I came out with three seasons of The IT Crowd as well as the new film Pride which Den of Geek has been raving about.

We ended up at the Waterstone's store, where I bought myself a new copy of Good Omens in the fancy new hardback edition. I also picked up Tigerman by Nick Harkaway, which I remembered someone fangirling about online when it was new. With my "read three, buy two" rule for 2015, that left one more book to choose, but there were so many possibilities I couldn't decide. Should I go for the next Geek Girl book, or a thriller, such as Disclaimer? Or maybe some non-fiction, or one of the book club choices? In the end I decided to go for The Peripheral by William Gibson, which Hanna drew my attention to with a comparison to Ready Player One, which I loved.

With my seven books, (or ten, if you include the ones from York) I was actually the most restrained person in the group. Apparently we got some strange looks in the cafe when we piled up our purchases on the table! Still, ten extra books were quite enough to try to pack into my suitcase for coming home to the Isle of Wight.

Monday, 4 May 2015



What I've been re-reading:

I kicked off this week's re-readathon by finishing off The Lord of the Rings, which I've had on the go since the beginning of the year. The idea was that I would read one chapter before bed each night, and also one in the morning on my days off work. However, I would get sidetracked by my other reading, or watching DVDs in the evening instead, so I'd left Frodo and Sam wandering around Mordor for about a month. I always seem to read the last few chapters all in one go, once the Ring has been destroyed, and thus it was today. I saw the celebrations in Gondor before work, and the journey back to the Shire and beyond this evening, although I did not read all the appendices this time.

Thoughts on today's reading:

It struck me how anticlimactic the "Scouring of the Shire" scenes are, after the epic adventures, battles and hardships our heroes had experienced throughout the book; how relatively easy it was for them to overthrow the bullies who had taken over the Shire. Even Saruman is a petty villain at the end. It goes to show how sheltered the hobbits were in the Shire, and how helpless, and how much Frodo, Sam, Pippin and Merry grew in the year or so they had been away. But though the destruction is fairly minor compared with the horrors of Rohan, Gondor and Mordor, it hurts more because it is home.

What else I've been up to:

I worked a short shift this afternoon - though it was so quiet that it did not feel short at the time. It was a bank holiday - where was everyone? I also did some ironing and tidying at home, and spent some time filling in pages of my Ready, Set, Novel! and 642 Things To Write About workbooks. Now I'm going to put on a couple of episodes of Battlestar Galactica before bed. I watched the initial miniseries in February, and took just over a week to watch the first two full-length seasons. Things are looking very grim indeed on New Caprica...


Today was a day off, so after doing some laundry and cleaning my room, I buried myself in Alan Moore's masterpiece Watchmen. Even though it's a graphic novel, it is far from being "light" reading; to get the full benefit, you have to pay attention to the details in the pictures as much as the words, and so it will take just as long to read as any other 400-page novel. On my second reading I was able to pick up on a lot more clues and symbolism hidden in plain sight - such as Rorschach's other identity, right there from the very first page - and subtle foreshadowing, as well as paying attention to the writing; the way that one scene ties in with the next. Last time around, I didn't really pay much attention to the pirate story, being more interested in the main plot, but today I read the "Tales of the Black Freighter" story observing how each panel of narration from the comic-within-the-comic has close parallels with whatever else is going on around the reader.


Today's reading

I was at work today, so haven't done a huge amount of reading, but I began The Universe Versus Alex Woods during my lunch break. The character of Alex was just as lovable as I'd remembered, but where, on my first reading, I felt that he came across as very young for seventeen, today, starting the book (which begins at the end of the story) and knowing how Alex got to the point where we first meet him, I recognised that actually he shows great maturity and calmness in an extraordinary situation.

When I got home, I finished Watchmen and, even knowing what was coming, still felt the full impact of the villain's shocking revelation: (spoilers)
"Do you seriously think I'd explain my master-stroke if there remained the slightest chance of you affecting its outcome?
"I did it thirty-five minutes ago."

Rereadathon challenge

Bex asks:
Do you have a book that you read over and over (or one that you collect multiple copies of)? Why do you read it so much? What is it that keeps you coming back to it?
My friends and regular readers will know which book I've selected here! I've written many times about my love of L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables. My parents bought me a hardback containing the first two Anne books when I was eight years old, and it was love at first sight. I believe Anne Shirley was the first fictional character I encountered who not only felt like a real person, but who felt like a real person like me. I was drawn to Anne because, like me, she was chatty, scatty, accident-prone and had a vivid imagination. As a little girl, I loved reading about the scrapes she got into, and as a teenager I grew to identify with the bittersweet nature of change. But ultimately I return to Anne as a comfort read; her optimistic outlook restores faith in humanity when I'm feeling jaded, without being as cloying as, say, Pollyanna, or as moralistic as What Katy Did. Avonlea and its residents feel like a timeless safe place, a retreat from a cynical world, with people I know so well that it comes as a surprise to discover some of them only appear in one or two books, and as supporting characters at that. When winter turns to spring, and daffodils start to appear; when I see blossom on the trees: that is when I feel closest to Anne.

I have three copies of Anne of Green Gables: the original large hardback, the 100th Anniversary paperback - for my handbag - and a spare, second-hand paperback that doesn't matter so much if it gets damaged. Three seems a sensible number - any more, and I'd have to start collecting in earnest and buy all the copies! Also pictured: the entire series, the colouring book, the journal, an exercise book and matching pens, the address book, the VHS of the 1985 adaptation (abridged) and the DVD (full-length.) Not pictured: a poster which was sent by Sarah as part of my Ninja Book Swap parcel, and the 1970s BBC Anne of Avonlea, which is not nearly as good as the 1985 Anne, but fills in the gaps in the story omitted from The Sequel, which I do not own. Apologies for the blurry picture.

Thursday and Friday

Yesterday was Election day in the UK, and after work, and after I'd voted, I hid myself away in my room, ignoring the world. I shut down my computer and switched off the internet connections on my phone, because I can only handle a certain amount of politics before I feel angry, depressed and disgusted. While waiting for it all to be over, I read a bit more of Alex Woods, which I finished off around lunchtime today. It's my dad's birthday, and we had fish and chips. I've been off work today - now it's a quieter time of the year there are not a lot of overtime hours available. Alex Woods was just as funny, heartwarming and philosophical as I remembered. I've now moved onto When God Was A Rabbit, which I had forgotten a lot about. Judging from the first few chapters, it is considerably darker than I recall. I'd thought of it as a cosy, quirky family saga, but there's quite a lot of angst beneath the poetic narration! 

Although I enjoyed Sarah Wiman's When God Was A Rabbit on my second reading, I found it, oddly, slow-going in the first half, and simultaneously quite busy. Often I enjoy the scene-setting childhood chapters of a family story as much or more than the main plot, but I found myself growing a bit impatient. The second half held my attention better, but the tone shifted awkwardly from overwhelming tragedy to lucky but unlikely coincidence. Sometimes it felt a bit contrived. However, the novel shone in its depiction of the events of September 11th, 2001, the terror, confusion and incomprehension of the unprecedented terrorist attacks on New York City. 
Saturday and Sunday

If you work in retail, and agree to work weekends, you can't expect ever to be taken off that shift! So it was quite a luxury for me to only work a half-day yesterday. I spent the morning reading To Kill a Mockingbird, one of those books that demands to be read every couple of years or so. In the evening, I had the house to myself, so I watched the film of Watchmen. That is definitely a story that improves with every reading and/or viewing. I had seen the film before, but a long time ago, and before I read the book. My initial judgement was that it was okay, with a very memorable opening sequence: a montage of scenes from twentieth-century history, in a world where superheroes were real, set to Bob Dylan's "The Times, They Are A-Changin'." I think the film is best watched after reading the book at least twice, when you know the story well enough to appreciate all the little details of world-building, and how faithfully they have recreated the book, frame by frame. I felt that the ending was a little weaker than the rest of the film, possibly because it's changed from the book. Admittedly, on my first reading - after seeing the film - I thought the book's ending was weird, over the top and unnecessarily complicated. On my second reading, I realised that was entirely the point, and that the clues were spread throughout the novel, leading up to the shocking finale. Admittedly, to recreate that well for film, you'd probably end up with a movie at least three hours long - I believe there is an extended cut that length already. As it happened, I was astonished when we reached the final act, already. It was two and a half hours, long, but it didn't feel it. Usually I lose concentration at about the 90-minute mark of any film, but this time Watchmen sustained my interest throughout.

This morning I had a mild case of anxiety out of the blue, and with no discernable cause, so I took myself, my book (To Kill A Mockingbird) and a cup of tea off to the park before lunch. I initially planned to try to finish the book today, but I think it is a novel to take one's time over, not to rush, so instead I shall take it into the Bout of Books readathon next week. This is one of my favourite book-blogging events, but this week I'm going to participate only through Twitter and possibly the occasional Instagram post. I'm on holiday (hurrah!) and going up to York for a few days at the end of the week. I've never been to York before - can anyone recommend anything that I must see or do while I'm up there? On Saturday, I'll also be going over to Chesterfield to meet up with Ellie and Hanna (and, naturally, do some book shopping!)

Stats for the Rereadathon:

Books read from: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - J. R. R. Tolkien
Watchmen - Alan Moore
The Universe Versus Alex Woods - Gavin Extence
When God Was A Rabbit - Sarah Winman
To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee
Pages read: 1380
Favourite reread: Watchmen
Favourite quote: From Watchmen:
Laurie: "But... if me, my birth, if that's a thermodynamic miracle... I mean, you could say that about anybody in the world!"
Jon/Dr Manhattan: "Yes. Anybody in the world. 

But the world is so full of people, so crowded with these miracles that they become commonplace and we forget...

I forget.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

April in Books/Rereadathon

April in Books

I didn't write one of these monthly recaps in March, in which I read an extraordinary number of books, exceeding my usual 8-10 books in a month. I worked my way down my entire to-read pile for March, except for one unfinished book which went back to the library, and more besides, including several Discworld rereads after the death of Terry Pratchett.

So I began April with high hopes and a towering to-read pile. Unfortunately, due to a monster migraine which lasted ten days, I got very few books read in the first part of the month, and most of my library pile was returned unread. (They'll still be there if I decide I want to read them after all in the future.)

Saplings - Noel Streatfeild
The Bookman's Tale - Charlie Lovett (returned to library unread)
Y - Majorie Celona (returned to library unread)
Reasons She Goes To The Woods - Deborah Kay Davies (returned to library unread)
White Is For Witching - Helen Oyeyemi (in progress, to be finished today)
The House At Seas's End - Elly Griffiths
Terra's World - Mitch Benn
Lock In - John Scalzi
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki And His Years Of Pilgrimage - Haruki Murakami

Not Pictured:

Geek Girl - Holly Smale
Gravity - Tess Gerritsen
Love Alters - Edited by Emma Donoghue
A Slip of the Keyboard - Terry Pratchett

Additional books read in April:

Geek Girl: Model Misfit - Holly Smale
Dexter's Final Cut - Jeff Lindsay
Needful Things - Stephen King

So, although April did not come close to matching March's bookish madness (in which I read 13 full-length books, 3 Penguin minis and about 200 pages of another) I still came away with a very respectable 9 books, and over 3000 pages! 

For May, I have not set myself a full to-read pile, although I do really want to read Lock In and Colorless Tzukuru Tazaki, two books I bought in hardback/trade paperback when they were new last year and which have been sitting on my shelf ever since. Do you ever look forward to a book so much that you put off reading it because it might not be the right moment to appreciate it fully? That's me with those two.


Starting from tomorrow, I'll be taking part in the Rereadathon hosted by the lovely Bex at An Armchair By The Sea, taking a week out from shrinking the to-read pile in order to revisit old favourites, or books I've read once and loved, but not got around to reading again. I've given myself a shortlist, but am not expecting to read more than three or four books on the pile.

To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee. An all-time favourite. I've read it a few times, and it is one of those books everyone needs to read. It is as important as it has ever been, and with Harper Lee's second (first? It was written before Mockingbird) novel being released in the near future, the time seems right to reacquaint myself with the Finch family.

Before I Fall - Lauren Oliver. One of the first books I reviewed on this blog that was not a children's classic. I found this book quite by chance in Foyles when it was first published, and wrote about it a while before it set the internet buzzing. I recommended it to everyone, and intended to revisit it regularly, but haven't picked it up since. Let's see if it lives up to its first impressions on a second reading.

When God Was A Rabbit - Sarah Winman. A quirky book about a family. I remember loving it, but have forgotten a lot of the details. 

The Universe Versus Alex Woods - Gavin Extence. One of those books that changed the way I look at the world. Sadness and humour side-by-side, which is a strange, unsettling combination but very reflective of life, don't you think?

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - J. R. R. Tolkien. I've been rereading this since the beginning of the year, but keep getting sidetracked by other books. I've left Frodo and Sam wandering in Mordor for about a month, probably ought to rescue them, poor souls! So near, and yet so far. I'll either finish the whole thing tomorrow morning, or read a chapter a night, perhaps one each morning.

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth - Chris Hadfield. I bought this for my friend for Christmas a couple of years ago, and borrowed it from her. Recently I found it in The Works for £5 (hardback) and would like to reread: it's a fascinating insight into what it takes to be one of the world's leading astronauts, and life in space, but also comes with many lessons that can be applied to us ordinary mortals with our feet on the ground.

The Martian - Andy Weir. One of last year's favourites; it took a while to get started but ended up a nailbiting, edge-of-your-seat (and often humorous) thriller as you accompany stranded astronaut Mark Watney through the ups and downs in his mission to survive on Mars long enough to catch the next shuttle home, against all the odds.

Watchmen - Alan Moore.  A closer look at what life might really be like if superheroes were real. What sort of people would choose that lifestyle, and should they be trusted with the responsibility? Much more than a simple comic book; Watchmen is a dark masterpiece.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Sunday Summary (19/4/15)

I was making plans for this post as I walked home from work yesterday evening; it was going to be a Five Things That Made Me Happy This Week theme. Then I logged onto the internet to find that Death had visited yet another one of my "safe" places, a story world which shaped my very being, this time taking Canadian actor Jonathan Crombie, who was best known as Gilbert Blythe in Anne of Green Gables. It seems Mr Crombie passed away this week from a brain haemorrhage at the age of 48. (Younger, I could not help observing, than Gilbert was in Rilla of Ingleside. That's not right.)

It's not easy for someone to satisfy me as the romantic love interest of a story which has had my heart since I was eight years old, but as soon as I saw Crombie as Gilbert, there could be no other. ** I only knew of Mr Crombie from that one role, but what a role it was, and how well he fitted it! I had fantasies of bringing him and Megan Follows back to the world of Anne if ever I was to finish my screenplay of Rilla of Ingleside and get it turned into a miniseries. And of course, my condolences go out to his family and loved ones.

But onto happier subjects. Despite the best efforts of Royal Mail, my Ninja Book Swap parcel finally turned up this week, and in fact its sender was the same person I'd sent my parcel to: Sarah in Ottawa. I have to say Bex and Hanna did a wonderful job of pairing us up; Sarah is brilliant; I follow her on Tumblr, and she is one of my favourite posters on there. *waves fangirl flag.* She sent me two books: The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane, and The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. I can't wait to read them, and because they came from overseas, they are different editions to the ones I've seen in this country and very pretty! Also included in the parcel were a postcard, a cardboard Bookmobile - she's studying to be a library technician - which is on my bookshelf, a Book Nerd badge (which I've added to the collection on my favourite customised bag) and an Anne of Green Gables poster! (Have I mentioned how much I love Anne? Maybe once or twice? A week? Since I was eight?) Thank you so much, Sarah!

On Friday I went over to Southsea to see a touring production of Return to the Forbidden Planet, which is a rock'n'roll musical loosely based on Shakespeare's The Tempest and set in space! In 1999, when I was thirteen and in my last year of middle school (because we used to have middle schools on the Isle of Wight) this was our school play, and it has so much nostalgia for me. If I looked back at my diaries (which I have long since destroyed) I suspect that I'd find it was a difficult time of teenage angst, the pains of unrequited crushes and being a relatively unpopular kid, but my abiding memories of that summer are of long sunny days, an innocent time, and not being quite so lonely as I would be in high school, when my little group of friends ended up going our separate ways. Ours was far from being a perfect production. We had a parent in to play Prospero, the lead, and adult musicians (including my dad on the guitar.) One of the leads could not sing, could not act, and could not even be heard, and was probably cast in a prominent role entirely due to being the biggest boy in the school. But it was the most fun I've had in a school play, even just being in the chorus, shoved off to one side of the stage, and I was madly in love with a boy called Sam, who had long eyelashes and danced with me once out of pity at a school disco. Even now, if I hear most of the songs on the radio, they automatically make me smile: "Teenager in Love," "Great Balls of Fire," "Good Vibrations" or "She's Not There," to name but a few.

But none of this could compare to sitting in the King's Theatre and hearing the songs combined with mangled Shakespeare, dreadful puns, ...enthusiastic... accents. This felt like the proper context for these songs. The cast were magnificent, especially those playing Cookie, the ship's cook with an unrequited crush on Miranda (daughter of mad scientist Prospero) and the robot Ariel (a combination of Ariel and Caliban from the original Tempest). The music was played by the cast, a very multi-talented group. And the casting of "Chorus" - the pre-recorded narrator - was a stroke of genius in the context of a rock musical about space: Brian May from Queen.

Watching Return to the Forbidden Planet from the audience, I realised how much I hadn't quite appreciated as a chorus member. I still knew the songs inside out (although this [production had a couple of substitutions, as well as reinstating one or two that had been on the soundtrack cassette I have since, regrettably, lost, but which we had not used. But the plot still managed to surprise me in some places, where I had not been present for the acting rehearsals, or our cast had played things differently (and, I suspect, slightly bowdlerised) or the things I'd simply forgotten. And now I have sixteen years' extra Shakespeare knowledge and two of Star Trek fandom. I played a mental game of "identify the original quote" throughout the show, and was astonished that the "Live long and Prospero" line I'd thought was an ad-lib in the school play, was in fact in the script. I suppose you couldn't not put it in. All in all, I had an evening of tremendous fun and nostalgia, boogieing away to my heart's content in my chair by the end. I can recommend going to see Forbidden Planet if it comes to your town.

* and, if you insist, also in "The Continuing Story," if you wish to acknowledge that one's existence. As far as I'm concerned, it occupies the Pit of Oblivion alongside Star Trek Generations and the live-action Thunderbirds movie. Or would, if any of these things existed!

**The webseries Green Gables Fables, which is a modern-day vlog adaptation of Anne does a pretty good job with its casting too. I was slow to be won over to GGF, but somewhere along the line I came to love it, and to love the new generation of fangirls to discuss the Anne books and adaptations with in the sort of minute detail that I love. This was, after all, why I started this blog in the first place.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

In Memoriam: Leonard Nimoy. Best of Spock

The world is quick to move on, it seems. Last month, the science fiction and fantasy community lost two of its most beloved legends almost at once. As a longterm Discworld fan and new but ardent Trekkie, it was one blow after another. When a public figure dies, there is an outpouring of grief for a day or two, but the world keeps turning, and soon goes back to normal for most of us. As a fan, I wouldn't want to claim a greater share of a grief that belongs to the bereaved friends and family. But I would like to take a little time to pay my respects to someone I admire.

For some reason, I've found it harder to get my head around Leonard Nimoy's death than that of Terry Pratchett, despite having been a fan of Discworld for at least half of my life, while only discovering Star Trek two years ago. And the publication of April's SFX and Sci Fi Now magazines, with their memorials of both men in one issue, made me sad all over again (as well as muttering like a mad person in the supermarkets that it's just ridiculous for one issue of a magazine to contain two important obituaries.) So here's my lengthy, slightly belated tribute to Mr Nimoy in his most famous role, as well as a few others. I would prefer not to have to write any more of these posts in the near future!

I am aware that my Star Trek review posts tend to get a little unbalanced and fangirlish when it comes to Spock.  My love for the Vulcan science officer came as a huge shock even to myself. Why would a cold, emotionless alien from a cheesy '60s science fiction show capture my affections so much? Of course, it is all down to the way Mr Nimoy played the role, his skill as an actor to portray a character with huge depth of emotion hidden beneath the surface, subtly revealed through a raised eyebrow, or the delivery of a line. His friendship with the Enterprise's Captain, James Kirk, based upon respect and loyalty, and with the Chief Medical Officer "Bones" McCoy, which is characterised by bickering, provide the series with its emotional centre. Leonard Nimoy brought so much heart to the role of Spock that what could have been a two-dimensional character has become one of the most beloved nerd heroes, not just of the Star Trek series, but of all fiction.

 My top twenty Spock moments mark the evolution of the character, and are not a bad place to start if you want to familiarise yourself with Star Trek's original series and characters.

1. "The Naked Time" (S.1) Not to be confused with the Potter Puppet Pals video of the same title. The Enterprise's away team brings back an infectious disease which exposes the crew's most hidden, suppressed sides to themselves. Sulu neglects his duties to enact his swashbuckling fantasies. (This is one of Sulu's finest moments.) Another crew member succumbs to his horror and despair about exploring space's furthest reaches. Nurse Chapel declares a long-held love for Mr Spock, who in turn breaks down from the strain of a lifetime of controlling every emotion, regret for being unable to show love, even to his human mother. This early episode gives a deep insight into the inner life of the Enterprise crew.

2. "This Side of Paradise" (S.1) A magic - sorry, sciencey - plant brings out a softer side to Mr Spock, enabling him to fall in love, climb trees and disobey orders, to Captain Kirk's dismay. The effects are only temporary, of course, but at the end of the episode Spock reveals, matter-of-factly, "For the first time in my life, I was happy."

3. "The City on the Edge of Forever" (S1.) One of the best all-round episodes of the entire series, with a solid storyline, time-travel, a moral dilemma and heartbreak - but what I like best about it is Kirk and Spock pretending to live a normal life in the 1930s, sharing an apartment while trying to find a way back to their own time.

4. "Amok Time." (S2.)
Concerning... biology. Vulcan biology. The biology... of Vulcans.
Spock acts very strangely, and it is revealed that he must mate or die. But when he, Captain Kirk and Dr McCoy beam down to Vulcan, Spock and the Captain are matched in a battle to the death... This episode shows a rare glimpse beneath the emotionless mask that is not influenced by outside factors.

5. "Mirror, Mirror" (S2)
In which Captain Kirk and some of his crew find themselves in an alternative universe, aboard a scary version of the Enterprise. In place of the peaceful Federation is a ruthless empire. Shipboard discipline is brutal. And Spock has a beard!

6. "Journey to Babel" (S2) Introducing Spock's parents, Sarek and Amanda. Spock is faced with an agonising dilemma when forced to take command of the Enterprise at the same time that Sarek falls gravely ill. Presenting a new insight into Spock's dual nature.

7. "Friday's Child" (S2)
In which Dr McCoy has to deliver a baby. It's his episode really, but Spock gets a couple of wonderful moments at the end, responding with bewilderment to what the captain calls "an obscure Earth Dialect" ("Ootchy-wootchy-kootchy-coo".) And his response to learning that this baby will be named after the Doctor and the Captain could so easily be misinterpreted as jealousy or indignation, if those were not emotions. "I think you're going to be insufferably pleased with yourselves for at least a month. Sir!"

8. "The Trouble With Tribbles" (S2.)
If "The City at the Edge of Forever" was the best dramatic episode, "The Trouble With Tribbles" is the best comedy, in which the Enterprise is overrun with cute and fluffy creatures which multiply faster than you can blink. Spock picks up one of the tribbles and observes its soothing effects on the human crew members. "Fortunately," he says, a hypnotic glaze spreading over his face, "I am immune." No one is convinced, and he puts the tribble back in a hurry.

9. "A Piece of the Action" (S2)
In which Kirk (enthusiastically) and Spock (reluctantly) play at being gangsters, and are hilarious.

10. "The Enterprise Incident" (S3)
The only season 3 episode I'm featuring here - there were a few good episodes in that series but for the most part the stories vary between mediocre, hilariously bad, and tragically bad. But in "The Enterprise Incident" Spock goes undercover aboard a Romulan ship and seduces its beautiful commander. Underhand, yes, but you do get the impression that they have a lot of respect for each other even when Spock is exposed as her enemy.

11. Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Spock has been away from the Enterprise from years, desperately trying to rid himself of all emotion and be a true Vulcan. He fails, and returns, but is colder and more distant than ever. But as he mind-melds with a computer, he finally comes to value emotion: joy, love and friendship alongside the logic his people hold so dear.

12. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
"I have been, and always shall be, your friend." Spock sacrifices his life to save that of his ship and crew, and breaks everyone's heart in the process.

13. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
Thankfully, he doesn't stay dead - as if the title didn't give that away! Kirk and his crew steal the Enterprise (and blow her up) rescue Spock's body and return it to Vulcan to resurrect, though with no guarantee of success. Dressed in his ceremonial Vulcan bathrobe, he walks towards his friends with no sign of recognition, but slowly his memories return to him as he is reunited with his Captain. "Jim. Your name is Jim," he realises at last. His friends gather around him, he raises an eyebrow, and you know he's going to be all right.

14. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (the one with the whales)
The Enterprise crew find themselves in 1980s San Francisco, and Spock and Kirk exchange their starship for a public bus, where an obnoxious punk blasts music at full volume. Most of the public are too intimidated or polite to ask him to turn it down, and Kirk's request is rudely ignored. Spock, however, takes the logical course of action and knocks him out with a nerve-pinch, much to everyone else's delight.

15. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (the one with the whales) part 2
Spock attempts to fit into 20th century Earth by using "colourful metaphors." In fact, let's just count everything Spock does while wandering around San Francisco in his bathrobe and headband.

16. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (the one with the whales) part 3.
At the beginning of this film, Spock's mother is anxious when her son is unable to answer the simple question: "How do you feel?" But by the end, he sends a message back to her through his father. "Tell her - I feel fine."

17. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
Kirk, Spock and the crew are ready to retire. They have survived one final adventure, successfully begun negotiations with the Klingon Empire, and are unceremoniously summoned back to Earth by Starfleet. "Is that it?" they all think, but it is up to Spock to break the silence.
"If I were human, I believe my response would be, 'go to hell,'" he says. Everyone turns to stare at him. "If I were human," he repeats, innocently. The Captain makes his decision. "Second star to the right, and straight on till morning." A beautiful, poignant finale for this crew who served together for so long, together for the last time.

18. Star Trek: The Next Generation, "Unification." (S.5)
The original Enterprise crew may have retired from Starfleet, but it is not the end of Spock's career; he takes on the role of ambassador to the Romulans, and in this two-part episode, plays a key part in attempting to bring unity between the Vulcan people and the Romulans, who live by very different philosophies, but who have a common ancestry. His decision is seen as foolish, even treasonous, but Spock has always been a stubborn man, and age, it seems, has made him even more so. Captain Jean-Luc Picard travels to meet with Spock and give him a message from his dying father, and gets caught up in the political chaos. This episode sets the scene for the events of Star Trek: Nemesis as well as being the catalyst for the 2009 reboot film.

19. Star Trek (2009)
James Kirk is marooned on a frozen planet, is about to be eaten by a monster. Then a cloaked figure shows up and chases away the creature, before turning around and revealing his face. Yes, this is Spock, the real Spock, ancient, wise, irreplaceable. Leonard Nimoy's presence in this film made it more than well-made fanfiction, it welcomed it into the Trek universe, and he passes on the wisdom that will shape James Kirk's character and set the events back onto their correct course... if only Kirk will listen and believe him.

20. Star Trek (2009) part two.
And finally, we get to see Spock the elder and Spock the younger come face to face, in a passing on of the torch that is heartwarming, humorous and, especially now, poignant. The elder Spock advises his younger self to carry on in Starfleet, and watches from afar as the Enterprise sets off on its five-year mission. His days of gallivanting around the galaxy seeking out new life and new civilisations, etc, are behind him, and yet for another version of himself, they are only just beginning. There is a mixture of wistfulness and joy as, with Spock, we watch with anticipation of all the adventures that lie ahead, and hear him softly reciting the "Space, the final frontier" monologue that preceded every episode.

And the rest:

Now, please note that Leonard Nimoy had a very long and varied career, not only in acting, but also in directing, photography, even poetry and music. But I've only really "known" him from a fan's point of view for a little while, and as such this following list is very far from comprehensive. Still, here are just a few other roles I've enjoyed seeing him in:

Dr Mayfield in Columbo: 
It seems everyone who was anyone in the 1970s appeared as a murderer on Columbo, and it is no spoiler to announce that Nimoy dunnit in the classic episode "A Stitch in Crime." If you're not familiar with the shabby, bumbling detective Lieutenant Columbo, his investigations are not so much about "whodunnit" as "how's he going to catch them. Incidentally, this was one of the first episodes I saw as a kid, and one so memorable that when I recently walked in while my parents were watching this, I shouted out: "It's in your pocket!!!" Nimoy's character is a superficially charming, but ruthless and ambitious killer surgeon, and holds the distinction of being one of very few murderers to make Columbo lose his cool.

Leonard Nimoy as Himself on The Simpsons:
Most of what I know, I learned from The Simpsons. Leonard Nimoy made two cameo appearances as a version of himself on the show, once as a pompous celebrity guest of honour at the opening of the ill-fated Springfield monorail in "Marge Vs the Monorail," and the other narrating one of my childhood favourite episodes "The Springfield Files."

"The following tale of alien encounters is true. And by true, I mean false. It's all lies. But they're entertaining lies. And in the end, isn't that the real truth? The answer is no." This episode also introduced me to the main concept of The X-Files and agents Mulder and Scully. (I really want to watch that episode again now, it was brilliant! We used to have it on VHS but I expect it's long gone.)

Dr William Bell in Fringe:
William Bell was a mysterious figure throughout the first season of Fringe. Every mystery seemed to lead back to him, but he was conveniently out of the country whenever the Fringe agents wanted to speak with him. Until the very last scene of the season one finale, when Agent Olivia Dunham is transported into a parallel universe. A figure appears in the shadows, and a familiar gruff voice speaks. And I fell out of my chair.

Dr Bell appeared for a few episodes in season two, before apparently being killed off in the season finale. But death did not stop him, and nor did Leonard Nimoy's retirement at the age of 80. Anna Torv took on the role for a few episodes, and they even wrote one episode as an animated hallucination, allowing them to use Nimoy's voice without him appearing on-screen. By season four, Nimoy was un-retired enough to return once more as the ultimate Big Bad of the season.

Spock Doll Action Figure in The Big Bang Theory:

It seems as though E4 only have a couple of Big Bang Theory episodes on repeat, because every time I switch it on, I see either the episode with the table or the episode with the Spock toy. Penny buys the boys Star Trek transporter toys, and after a dream encounter with his Spock doll, Sheldon opens and breaks his friend's toy. That night, Tiny Spock confronts Sheldon once more, urging him to own up.
Tiny Spock: "If I told you to jump off the bridge of the Enterprise, would you do it?"
Sheldon: "Ohhh! If I got onto the bridge of the Enterprise, I would never ever leave."
Tiny Spock: "Trust me, it gets old after a while."
I guess if E4 do keep showing the same episodes all the time, this isn't a bad one to see over and over.

Spock vs Spock:

I hate car adverts, but I can't resist this one, which is a nerd's delight, with Zachary Quinto issuing a challenge to Leonard Nimoy: last one to the golf club buys dinner.

Leonard on Twitter: 

I am very selective about which famous people I follow on Twitter or other social media; they say it is best not to meet your heroes, or see too much of their private selves. Leonard Nimoy was the only Star Trek person I followed on Twitter. Not the busiest of social media users, his comments would be brief but wise and made me smile to see an update, always signed off with "LLAP" ("live long and prosper," of course.) His account was full of fond memories, love for his family and fans, even offering to be an honorary grandfather to anyone who needed one, and later, when he was diagnosed with the lung disease which would kill him, was full of advice and encouragement for everyone trying to quit smoking. His last update, a few days before he died, was poetic and poignant, but perhaps go some way towards helping to understand the mystery of death that seemed so straightforward when I was younger and only gets more confusing.

And finally:

Because, when the announcement came of Mr Nimoy's death, more than one of my friends shared this video on Facebook and got this song firmly lodged in my head for over a week, now I am going to inflict it on you. Ladies and gentlemen, please allow me to present the, um, classic song, "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins."

I have only been a fan for two years, but it has been an honour. Thank you.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Sunday Summary: Migraines, steam trains and Shakespeare... IN SPACE!

Well, here we are on another Sunday afternoon, and LOOK! THERE IS A SHINY YELLOW THING IN THE SKY! (Which reminds me, I have a machine full of soggy washing that needs to go out on the line - which I'm sure you really don't need to know about.) I've had a bit of a rough week, with the migraine to end all migraines - it started up on Good Friday and lasted at least a week. At some point it probably stopped being a migraine but even now there's just enough residual effects to say, "Get used to me, this is your head now." Thanks, brain.

So last Saturday, the day before Easter I had to take the day off from work, meaning that I inadvertently had the whole bank holiday weekend off, though I couldn't really enjoy it, being tucked up in bed, unable to sleep, but also unable to read or watch DVDs or do anything that involved looking at things. 

Monday I was a bit better, and me, my sister, two cousins and one cousin's fiancee went out to the Isle of Wight Steam Railway for the day. When my mum was growing up, her family owned an old train carriage, which had been turned into a holiday chalet called Sunny Siding, and lived in a field near the sea. I never got to visit it as a holiday home, as it was sold back to the railway when the farmer wanted his field back, and it spent a long time being restored, with added disabled access (subtly hidden in the period design) and went back on the rails in the early 2000s, with a big family outing for the official opening. Unfortunately I was off on a university visit that day. But my cousin's fiancee Libby is a big steam train nerd (she will fit right at home in our family) and so we spent a lovely bank holiday at the steam railway centre at Haven Street, which also had a falconry display, my sister got to hold a tiny little owl called Chive, and there was a very attractive man working there who was dressed as a pirate for reasons I was unable to determine. Then, after our train ride (in the family carriage, naturally) it was off to the local carvery for a very late lunch or perhaps early dinner. 

Me, Jenny, Stewart and Jeremy
What else I've been up to:

Mostly sci-fi magazines, rather than books, thanks to the aforementioned migraine, though I was most displeased with Morrison's for displaying them under "Men's interest." Fortunately, the other shops' magazine departments are - mostly - displayed by subject rather than gender. I also read the second Geek Girl book by Holly Smale - how has it taken me so long to read this brilliant series? - and finished Tess Gerritson's Gravity, a thriller set on the International Space Station. There is a high body count, but a satisfying resolution, although perhaps best not read when you're ill. Also, the main character is called Emma Watson, so of course I pictured the actress, if a bit older and with an American accent.

Watching: Dabbling about on Netflix, watching odd episodes of Buffy. I also caught part of the new Thunderbirds Are Go! The original Thunderbirds was the first of many obsessions when I was seven, and I'm very suspicious of any remake, especially when they've made the famous puppet characters into brightly-coloured CGI and (possibly) killed off Jeff Tracy! What I saw did not fill my purist heart with confidence, but I'll watch a few episodes properly before making any judgement. It can't be worse than if they were to make a live-action adaptation, make Alan Tracy a teenager and focus all the attention on him. Which of course would never happen. Nope.

Looking Forward To: going to see Return to the Forbidden Planet in Portsmouth. This was going to be tomorrow, but I realised that the only way home would be by taking the midnight car ferry, arriving on the Island at 1AM, which would be fine by me, but I'm going with Judith who starts work at 7AM the next day. So we changed our tickets to Friday, which has an earlier showing. I was in a school production of that show when I was in year 8 and have such fond memories. Whenever I hear any of the songs on the radio or in a shop, it lifts my mood right up. If you're not familiar with it, Return to the Forbidden Planet is Shakespeare's The Tempest... IN SPACE. With rock'n'roll! It'll be great to watch it from the audience this time.

Other Doings: You may be aware that colouring has suddenly become an acceptable pastime for adults, just in the last few months, largely thanks to the Secret Garden colouring book by Joanna Basford. It is recommended as "art therapy," a way of de-stressing and taking your mind off things. I can confirm it really works; Friday I woke up feeling very miserable and lonely. That day my Anne of Green Gables colouring book arrived, which I had ordered through Hive, and I spent the rest of the day (and also yesterday evening) colouring in the pictures. It's got an abridged version of the story, not just pictures, and I love it. It was Anne of Green Gables, it existed, therefore I had to have it.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Star Trek (2009)

Everything I knew about Star Trek before I watched the 2009 film for the first time:
  • Captain Kirk was in charge of the Starship Enterprise, and was a bit of a womaniser
  • Leonard Nimoy was Spock, and irreplaceable, an utter legend. 
  • George Takei was Mr Sulu. 
  • Scotty beamed people up. 
  • Uhura was an enormously significant character, a black lady in an important and interesting role in 1960s TV. 
  • I did not know of the existence of Dr "Bones" McCoy, or Pavel Chekov, or Nurse Chapel.
  • Vulcans had pointy ears, severe straight fringes, and lived by logic over emotion.
  • Other alien species included the Klingons, who had a fully-formed language and whose spaceships were called Birds of Prey, and also Romulans.
  • Spock dies in Wrath of Khan. (I did not know, then, that he would return, but I did know that he has been, and always shall be, Kirk's friend.)
  • "To boldly go where no man has gone before."
  • "Set phasers to stun."

This is where it all began with me. Until early 2013, I was quite comfortable with my nerd status, but I held that there were certain lines which, once crossed, marked the point of no return. I was not into Dungeons and Dragons. I was not into Star Trek. But my friends were organising a trip to see Into Darkness when it hit the cinemas, and the trailer intrigued me, so I thought I ought to give myself a bit of insider knowledge of the Star Trek universe, so that I could understand what was going on. The 2009 reboot film seemed like a logical place to start, not requiring decades of catching up with the series and the original films, but just one film. Who was I kidding? Not even myself, I think. I knew as I sat down to watch Star Trek on TV that this was going to be a big deal. How big, though, I had not conceived.

It took me most of the pre-credits sequence to understand what was going on. I was thrown straight into an attack by Romulans on a Federation starship, full of chaos and explosions and J.J. Abram's traditional lens flares. The Romulans spoke of Ambassador Spock, and a young Starfleet officer named Kirk is rapidly promoted to Captain. But the Spock the Romulans seek is old, and the Captain Kirk is not James Tiberius, but his father, George, who sacrifices his own life while his wife gives birth to their child. Among the chaos, the special effects are breathtaking, but do not draw too much attention to them; my brain just accepted what it was seeing. And the music is beautiful, a simple but haunting theme as the titles flash up.

This film introduces the key characters and concepts of the Star Trek universe simply and concisely. The twelve-year-old Kirk stealing his stepfather's car gives an insight in what we can expect from this character: a rebel, brave but reckless and arrogant. (More on this version of James Kirk later.) Meanwhile, on Vulcan, a young Spock is bullied by his peers, and a few short scenes with him and his father Sarek establish the Vulcan philosophy of logic which covers a passionately emotional nature, as well as Spock's unique conflict between his human and Vulcan halves. 

I thought I knew what to expect from Spock, and did not expect to warm to such a coldly logical character. Wow, I thought, with some surprise and glee, when Spock confronts Kirk for the first time in his trial for cheating at the Kobayashi Maru test. Spock's a bit of a jerk! However, I did not like this Kirk at all, and enjoyed watching the animosity between them. But it is that inner turmoil between his two natures that makes Spock such a fascinating character, and the more he suppresses any human emotion, the more you sense it beneath the frosty facade. Zachary Quinto gives a marvelously nuanced performance here, and is solely responsible for sending me back to the original series, which made me fall utterly in love with the character who piqued my interest from his first, contemptuous, "live long and prosper," in response to insults from the Vulcan Academy. Several days later, on a quiet shift at work, I realised I was being haunted by the look on his face as he watched his mother plummet to her death. Oh dear, I thought, This isn't such a casual interest after all. (Oh Katie. Do you have any casual interests?) 

With the audacious decision to destroy the planet of Vulcan, J. J. Abrams and his crew of storytellers demonstrated that this Star Trek is no mere prequel. Spock spells it out: the Romulans came through a wormhole in time, and by doing so, changed the course of history enough to create an alternative universe. Anything can happen. Nothing and no one is safe. It certainly adds a sense of suspense to the film, because it doesn't have to seamlessly join up to the original series. And with this plot twist, Star Trek hooked my imagination, went from interesting to something clever and extraordinary.

After being a bossy, shouty brat one too many times, Jim Kirk finds himself marooned on a frozen planet - rather an extreme punishment, I can't help thinking -  where he encounters a most unexpected and familiar figure: his nemesis Spock, as an old man, played, of course, by Leonard Nimoy, the biggest legend of the entire franchise. Even as a brand new not-quite-Trekkie, I recognised this as a Really Big Deal and fangirled accordingly. This Spock has changed a lot - which old fans will have watched through the original series and films - to become a wise, warm and calm presence, at peace with his dual nature, and a little bit mischievous.
(Old Spock: "He inferred that universe-ending paradoxes would ensue should he break his promise." Young Spock: "You lied?" Old Spock: "Oh... I implied.")
Although Chris Pine's Kirk is the main protagonist of this Star Trek film, really it is Spock who is at its heart: the old and the young. It is a perceived wrong by the old Spock that sets the events in motion, a tragic sequel to the "Unification" episodes of The Next Generation in which Spock attempts to form peace between the Romulan and Vulcan people, and from Star Trek: Nemesis, at the same time as being a sort-of prequel. And as well as being integral to the plot of the film, Leonard Nimoy's presence marked a link between the two universes, the old and the new series. Yes, the series that began nearly fifty years ago, is still (boldly) going strong. This passing-on of the torch gains an extra layer of poignancy now, seen after Mr Nimoy's death. The supporting cast are pretty wonderful, bringing warmth and humour to the story. Simon Pegg is an inspired choice as Scotty, with his comic timing and expression, and clearly a lot of joy to be part of this project. And oh, Karl Urban, who plays Doctor "Bones" McCoy, is DeForest Kelley all over again. The likeness is really quite uncanny in some places. John Cho's Sulu is the quiet, self-assured helmsman - even if he forgets a rather crucial stage in warp-speed travel on his first day. And Anton Yelchin, while not an awful lot like the original Chekov (apart from the character's youth and accent) is altogether sweet and endearing.

Perhaps Star Trek is a little bit longer than it needs to be, with action sequences that make me lose concentration towards the end - but this is a minor criticism, and one that I'd apply to most films these days. For the most part, it is an edge-of-the-seat adventure with an interesting plot, evoking a breathtaking longing for space travel. By the time the elder Spock gives the traditional "Space, the final frontier" monologue, I had a big goofy grin on my face, feeling as though I was coming to a home I didn't know was mine. This was where it began for me, two years ago. And I'm very glad it did. I came very late to the party, and now I'm here to stay,

There are, however, a few factors which, though they did not spoil the film for me, must be discussed, and by "discussed," I mean "ranted about at great length." So if you want to stop reading here, I'll put in the very first teaser trailer in here. Oh, what must it have been like to be a long-term Star Trek fan and see this in the cinema, wondering what can this be? before the dawning thrill of realisation? I'm sorry not to have been able to experience that first hand. But it's a beautiful teaser nonetheless.

And now, the rants.

First of all: I do not like Chris Pine's version of James T. Kirk. We get told that Jim Kirk is a genius, but we don't really see any evidence of that. He'll come out with some impressive knowledge once or twice, but his character is not that of suitable officer material. He's a cadet at Starfleet Academy, he is arrogant and rebellious and shouts over everyone else. Kirk has always been a bit arrogant, and one to decide whether or not to follow orders, but at least in the original series he had some wisdom and an air of authority. This young Kirk just comes across as a brat.

And then there's his way with women. There is a fine line between smarm and charm. For all his faults, the original Kirk, played by William Shatner, mostly fell the right side of that line. Chris Pine's version, however, is so far through smarmy that he is repulsive. At least in the original series, he shows a genuine interest in whichever lady is his love interest of the week. This young Kirk, on the other hand, is that guy who hangs around in bars, hits on women who are clearly not interested, and even if he's trying to show an interest, his ulterior motive shows through. He wants the pretty women to be interested in him. What a creep. It feels to me that this version of Kirk is based upon the idea of Kirk the Ladies' Man, rather than the actual character. I suspect that the different eras in which the stories were made does not help matters. In the 1960s, Star Trek would show the courtship, and perhaps there might be a tasteful scene later on showing the lady brushing her hair in the Captain's quarters. In the 2009 film, there is the opposite. We don't get to know Kirk's latest conquest, she doesn't get a character, all we get is a scene of them cavorting in their underwear on her bed. Oh, and then Uhura comes in and strips down to her underwear, as you do, as if to confirm the tired old stereotype that Star Trek is for sad, overgrown teenage boys who can't get a girlfriend.

And on the subject of Uhura, I felt that she was a rather two-dimensional character, a Strong Female who could be interchangeable with many other Strong Female Characters: forceful and demanding, most notably in the scene where she confronts Spock, her superior officer about assigning her to the starship she wants to work on. "No. I'm assigned to the Enterprise." No doubt this was an attempt to avoid the 1960s stereotypes of what a woman ought to be like: demure, softly-spoken, sweet-tempered. But surely true feminism means to embrace traditionally feminine traits as just as valuable as traditionally masculine? Yes, the original Uhura was sweet and "girly," but she was much more than just a pretty face; she had a quiet strength, a calm authority, as well as a musical talent and a cheeky sense of humour, (remember her comeback of "sorry, neither" to a swashbuckling Sulu calling her a "fair maiden." It makes sense in context.) She was a rounded individual, and I feel that in trying to fit her into the 21st century mould of Strong Female Character, she lost a lot of her personality.

Finally, and I am not saying this because I have a "shipping" problem - after all, one of the beauties of alternative universes is exploring how a story would be different when different choices are made - but I do find the pairing of Spock and Uhura a bizarre one. It does not seem logical for this Spock, at this time in his life, when he's trying so hard to be a true Vulcan, to get involved in a very human romantic relationship. Moreover, I can't see what Uhura gets out of such a relationship. No, that's not quite true. Zachary Quinto is a very attractive man, and Spock is a wonderful character. We have established my fondness for Spock, for every version of Spock. But there is a difference between loving a complex fictional character and wanting them for a romantic partner. It must be very challenging to fall in love with a Vulcan, especially if you're a passionate character like Uhura. I can't imagine such a love affair to be fulfilling to either of them.

That being said, it does come as a relief to see someone try to comfort Spock at the lowest point of his life, when his planet is destroyed, and his mother killed. As a viewer I just wanted to give the poor guy a hug, so it was good to see Uhura stand in as proxy.

But even as grumpy as I get about these issues of characterisation, some of which only started to bother me as I got to know the original series, they don't really stand in the way of my enjoyment of the film. If you're looking for a way into the Star Trek universe, the 2009 film is an excellent place to start, accessible, exciting and lovable. But beware. Venturing across the final frontier may be a one-way journey. It certainly proved so for me.

Live long and prosper.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Murder Most Unladylike & Arsenic For Tea - Robin Stevens

There's been a rather shocking murder at Deapdean School for Girls. Unfortunately, there is no proof; between Hazel Wong stumbling upon a dead science mistress in the gymnasium and going for help, the body has vanished, leaving no evidence that Miss Bell has done anything other than resigned her post and moved away. But Hazel knows what she saw. It is up to her and her friend Daisy Wells, the founding members of the third-form Wells and Wong Detective Society to uncover the truth!

Set in a 1930s girls' boarding school, Murder Most Unladylike is reminiscent of the school stories that made up a lot of children's literature of the 20th century - Malory Towers, the Chalet School, Angela Brazil - mixed up together with the Famous Five or Nancy Drew. Robin Stevens recreates the golden age of children's books wonderfully, with dormitory pranks and midnight feasts, gym tunics and bun breaks, with a mystery to be solved without getting the police involved. But within this old-timey children's story are subjects that wouldn't have been written about in 1934, not for children - the racism Hazel, who is from Hong Kong, faces, two of the schoolmistresses having been in a relationship, and an illegitimate child showing up from someone else's past. Plus murder, of course - I don't think anyone ever actually died in Enid Blyton's writing. A dog might have got ill from eating poisoned food once or twice, but that's about the extent of it.

Daisy and Hazel join a long line of classic detective duos: Like Sherlock Holmes, Daisy is the intrepid detective whose excitement for a case sometimes overlooks human compassion. Hazel is more cautious, and the chronicler of their adventures - Daisy even calls her "Watson" from time to time. The story is a lot of fun, if verging on the ridiculous sometimes as this small private school has an unusually high body count!

The sequel, Arsenic for Tea, takes place away from Deepdean. You can't have too many murder mysteries at one school; it would be closed down! Hazel goes to stay with Daisy at her huge, if slightly faded, English country house. Daisy's birthday falls during this holiday, and her mother throws a big tea party, but as well as the family and school friends, the house has some mysterious and sinister guests. The atmosphere is terrible, filled with unspoken secrets and deceit. And then, one of the guests falls horribly ill and dies. The evidence points to poison. But who might bear such ill-will towards this guest? Perhaps it would be easier to ask who doesn't. Wells and Wong launch another investigation, but Daisy finds it is not so easy to get swept up in the spirit of adventure when her own family members are implicated in murder.

Arsenic for Tea is another instant classic of children's literature, perhaps even better than Murder Most Unladylike. It is Agatha Christie for children: a well-plotted, twisty mystery with plenty of red herrings, a limited cast of suspects, but everyone keeping secrets, even if none of them are the secrets they are suspected of hiding. But Stevens plays fair, and hides the clues within the text, if you only know what you're looking for. I actually picked my suspect quite early on and stored up the evidence against them even while they were seemingly eliminated from the list. I felt very proud of myself when I was proven right - not because the author was sloppy but because I was paying attention. An excellent, very satisfying pair of mysteries, and I hope to see a lot more of Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Sunday Summary: Miniature catastrophes and minor disappointments

Hello and good evening. I hope you've had a good week. On the blog, this week's been all about commemorating the life and works of Sir Terry Pratchett, who unfortunately passed away the other day. It's been a change for me to focus solely on one author, rather than my usual hopping between genres. From the Discworld series alone, I read an old favourite, a new favourite and one book which will never be on my favourites list - but that's okay, because there are so many excellent Discworld books out there, they can't all be the best. If you're interested in discovering the works of Terry Pratchett for the first time, but don't know where to start, Bex and Kirsti have both got good guides to the series.

Last night I rewatched the adaptation of Going Postal which Sky One produced a few years ago, following on from Hogfather (which is near-perfection) and The Colour of Magic (which I don't think I actually watched all the way through.) Going Postal is the story of a con man who is saved from the gallows under one condition: that he take an honest job getting the Ankh-Morpork Post Office up and running again. Going Postal is one of my favourite books in the series, and the Sky One production has an inspired cast, with Richard Coyle (the funny one from Coupling) as the lead, the unfortunately-named Moist Von Lipwig, Claire Foy as the equally unfortunately-named Adora Belle Dearheart, and Charles Dance as the icy, sinister Lord Vetinari. That last piece of casting in particular was sheer brilliance. However, I found that the adaptation was not as good as the cast and source material. For one thing, there was too much angst and melodrama, and not enough humour. Moist is haunted by black-and-white visions of the far-reaching consequences of his "victimless" crimes - which, yes, he needed to confront, but there was no subtlety to it. And is it the case that if TV shows a character who smokes, they have to make a Very Big Thing about it, and beat you over the head with its moral that Smoking Is Bad? Adora's smoking is presented not as a minor character trait but as a Tragic Flaw that Must Be Overcome. Is this the 21st century equivalent of the Hays code?

Going Postal is visually spectacular, and you instantly forget that this is set in a fantasy world, because it presents to you an established Ankgh-Morpork with little fanfair, and it recreates the later books' feeling of being more like Dickens' London which just so happens to contain dwarfs, werewolves, golems and banshees among its population. It just didn't quite seem offbeat enough for me. Entertaining, but the book was better.

Away from the drama in my books, tv and CD player, I had an unfortunate misadventure at work on Thursday when I got myself trapped in the lift between two floors. It was entirely my own fault, and I take full responsibility: I was taking the hoover upstairs to put away, and was a bit careless in winding up the cable. The plug got stuck in the doors, but for some reason that didn't stop the lift from moving as far as it could before shuddering to a halt. And it would not go back down again. I had to ring the bell and call for help, and it was the end of the day, we had just a couple of members of staff in and they were at the other end of the shop and didn't hear me. Eventually a customer heard me calling and fetched help. I could force the inside doors open, but the outside doors would not budge. Eventually my colleague Simon was able to reset the lift and bring it back down to the ground floor, and all in all I was only in there for maybe twenty minutes. But it is not an experience I can recommend.

Friday was my day off, and I sat outside to watch the much-hyped eclipse of the sun. It was a very British eclipse; the sky was completely clouded over, and the only difference I noticed was that the clouds turned a slightly darker shade of light grey, and it got very cold. Also the seagulls sounded very distressed when the eclipse began.

In the afternoon, of course, the sun came out and was beautiful. Judi came over after work - she works just down the road from my house, and finished at lunch time - and we set out a table in the back garden where we played Carcassonne and Trivial Pursuit (regular and Disney versions) before going indoors to watch The Empire Strikes Back. 

What have you been up to this week? Did you get a better view of the eclipse? (i.e. any view at all!)
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