24 December 2011

Happy Christmas

Happy Christmas! 
(Or Happy whatever you are celebrating/doing this December).
Thank you for reading.

I've not been very good at blogging just recently, my apologies.
I intend to blog more in the new year. I'll try and keep up with what I'm reading, even if the posts aren't as long or rambly as they have been (I know how fascinating my rambling is).
As I have some time off work over Christmas and New Years I'll try and finish some of the half-done blog posts I've gpt saved up. And maybe I'll even start some of the ones I've been thinking about.

16 December 2011

Recent Reading

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde
This is one of the weirdest and most inventive fictional worlds I have ever read. And I read a lot of fantasy.

In many respects the plot of Shades of Grey is a familiar one. Naive inhabitant of a seemingly-utopian rules-based society learns more about how things really work and his faith in 'the system' is shaken when he learns the Dreadful Truth. We've all seen/read this story before, but I'm sure that it's never been done quite like this.

Shades of Grey is set in a world where people can only see one colour -or none at all. Greys -whose vision is entirely monochrome- are the labouring classes. The rest of society is made up of Reds to Purples who vie for position in a society that is base on which colour you can see and how well you can see it.
As if this premise were not interesting enough, the book goes on to create a very strict society based on rules that sound like they were taken from a 1950s manual on being a Thoroughly Good Chap (and might have been as for all I know). T
hen there are the tantalising hints about the Previous (I assume this refers to us) who existed over 500 years earlier before the Something That Happened. It becomes clear that the people in this setting are physically different to us in various strange ways.

There are so many rules in this world, many of them strange, most of them absurd. Fforde's protagnist, a young Red called Eddie, is a bit of an ingenue who discovers the seedier side of his society when relocated to the fringes with his dad. His reaction to those who bend or break the Rules tells us a lot about him, and about the society that supposedly lives by them. All this worldbuilding is told through the character interactions and the plot events with Fforde's trademark wit, meaning that the exposition becomes fascinating and leaves you wanting more.

8 December 2011

Scary Trains

In my job I see a lot of book covers.
I know that, proverbially-speaking, people aren't supposed to judge a book by its cover, but the fact of the matter is that they do. So if you are in the business (or in my case, the service) of promoting books the cover is pretty important.
There are thousands of books in the library, many of those are fiction and -despite what people think- my job does not involve reading all/most of them. However it does involve making recommendations, often about books I have not (or don't particularly want to) read. Being able to look at a book and quickly get an idea of what it's like and who it might appeal to, is very useful. I also have to make displays of attractive and interesting-looking books that people will want to pick up and take away.
From a professional point of view I do have to judge books by their covers.

Recently I noticed a new book cover from the prolific James Patterson (a man who must keep an army of co-writers in his garage).
Here a man is being chased by a scary train, which may or may not be on fire.
I haven't yet had a chance to look at the book itself to check whether the front of this train is actually on fire, or just lit to look like it is (I'm guessing it's the latter).

That James Patterson cover made me flashback to 2009.

In 2009 the following 2 books were published within a couple of months of each other. I saw these covers every working day for the better part of six months.

It's not just me, is it?

I discharged a copy of the Patterson book yesterday and found that the train is not on fire. It just has fiery front lights.

30 November 2011

Why I Love Fantasy

The main reason that I haven't done this post before is that it was so obvious I didn't think of it.

I have loved reading since before I can remember (according to my mother - obviously I don't remember). I love narratives and I think that informs my mindset and way of looking at things. I've loved fantasy fiction since I was a child.

I love imaginative ideas. I love things that are larger or weirder than real life. I love reading about the impossible, the new and the downright strange.

I'm quite excited that fantasy seems to be on the rise in television and film. I think we've reached a technological point where fantastical concepts can be conveyed on screen with more ease than ever before. I'm looking forward to what could get made in the next decade, and I hope we will see high quality storytelling as well as high quality visuals.

Fantasy has it's traditions as any genre does. It can be familiar or derivative, and it certainly has it's share of stereotypes, which are often all that outsiders see. Plenty of good fantasy subverts and plays with the established stereotypes, and a lot ignores them in favour of something completely different.

Escapism is part of the appeal, getting away from the grind of ordinary life -though that applies to a lot of realistic fiction too.
I enjoy a bit of escapism, but for me the appeal of fantasy is more than that.
It's the delight of letting your mind explore realms of the impossible and getting a glimpse at the power of human creativity. I love seeing the brilliant, crazy, hilarious, ridiculous, monstrous things that people can come up with.

I like fantasy that's wild, strange, powerful, fun, or even all of those things.

Great fantasy transports you, it makes you think, and it takes your breath away.

28 November 2011

Recent Reading

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin 
This was an interesting and absorbing read.
This secondary world fantasy is set in a world where gods are trapped in human form and a powerful, tyrannical family uses them as weapons to rule the world. The story is told from the point of view of Yeine, a mixed-race woman who is summoned to the palace of her maternal grandfather after her mother's death. Despite having been a tribal leader in her supposedly-barbaric northern home Yeine is unprepared for the cruelty and scheming of her mother's family and their divine servants.
The book addresses an issue that has been around since ancient times (and is exemplified by the Iliad). How do you create characters that are powerful gods and yet are understandable to your readers? Jemisin's gods are trapped in human form as punishment after the Gods' War. They are massively powerful beings, but not only are they trapped in human form, they are slaves to the family who rule the world in the name of their enemy.
Yeine is not an ingenue, but she is understandably inexperienced and must keep herself safe in a dangerous new world, while trying to find out the truth about the life and death of her beloved but aloof mother. She was an easy character to identify with and her behaviour was understandable if not always particularly smart.

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
This excellent book won the Newberry Medal, and I'm not surprised.
The story is set in 1979 and is told from the point of view of a twelve year old girl called Miranda. At first Miranda is writing about her life to a mysterious correspondent. Miranda details her family relationships as they prepare for her mother to go on a TV game show. There's also a lot about Miranda's friends at school, her closest and oldest friend Sal has distanced himself from her for the first time since they were toddlers and Miranda must branch out and make new friends. The ordinary parts of the story work well because Miranda's voice is honest and opinionated and easy to understand and relate to.

Miranda starts receiving cryptic notes, and odd things happen. There's the Laughing Man, a tramp who lives under a mailbox and shouts out strange things. Someone steals the spare key to Miranda's apartment, but only takes a shoe. Miranda and some school friends get a job making sandwiches for Jimmy, the idiosyncratic sandwich shop owner. There's Marcus an odd, unsociable but brilliantly intelligent kid who discusses the mechanics of time travel with a baffled Miranda.

The mystery plotline initially reminded me of other young adult mysteries I've read, strange messages are a popular focal point for such books. As well as enjoying the character I found that the plot hooked me and reeled me in. It was soon apparent that this was a very different sort of mysteries to others I had read and along with Miranda I was desperate to find out the truth.
I shall be strongly recommending this story to any young people who want an interesting read.

23 November 2011

Recent Reading

City of Dreams & Nightmare by Ian Whates
I'd been aware of this book for a while and finally got round to reading it because I was going to see Ian Whates talk at a local event. Sometimes it can take me a while to read a book, even if I have seen it a few times, because there are so many other books. This is a very slight downside of working in a library.
The book is an urban fantasy (as may be obvious from the title), but one with science fictional sensibilities as well. It's set in Thaiburly, a city carved into a mountain. Tom is a street-nick from the City Below, a cavern underneath the main city through which flows the river Thaiss, it has the port and most of slums and gangs. At the start of the book Tom is climbing up the Rows that make up the rest of the city, with the conditions becoming more luxurious and wealthy the higher he goes. Most of the way up he witnesses something dreadful and flees back down. Once in the City Below he must travel back to familiar territory with Kat, a young woman with a dangerous past. The other main character is Tylus a slightly unfortunate member of the elite Kite Guard, who is sent down to the City Below on the trail of a street-nick lad who's been accused of murder. Though Tylus's time as a Kite Guard has been marred by errors and awkwardness he is inflated by what seems like a special promotion and his journey to the City Below gives him the opportunity to prove himself.

The setting is very well realised and the supernatural is clear from very early on. Although initially the book seems more like a fantasy there are definite science fictional elements, especially strange, advanced tech, that become more important as the plot progresses. I enjoyed the mysteries and suspense in the plot and found the characters engaging.
Having spoken to the author while I was reading I found I had extra insight into some of the final scenes, which was pretty cool and added extra depth to my reading experience.

There is No Dog by Meg Rosoff
This interesting teen book asks what if God were a selfish, lazy 16 year old boy? Bob got the job of God because no one else wanted it, Earth wasn't a glamourous project and no one really knew what to do with it. Bob had some really interesring ideas to start with, but then he kind of lost interest in the whole creation, well except for the pretty girls. And Bob has just noticed assistant zoo-keeper Lucy.
I've not read a Meg Rosoff book before -not sure why- so I don't know how it compares to her other work. I found the premise really interesting. The characters were mostly likeable, and those that weren't likeable were understandable. The interactions between the cast of characters, which seemed to increase throughout the book, worked well. The plot threads were set up one and came together by the end, and yet...
I found myself vaguely dissatisfied as I was reading. Something about the book didn't quite work for me. Possibly I had different expectations of it, though I couldn't tell you what they were. It was an OK read, but I found that the story soon became stuffed with characters and plot thread. I didn't quite know how the things would come together and I found that my bemusement kept me from properly immersing myself in the book.
I think this was a good, interesting idea and the bulk of the story was well done, but I didn't like it as much as I had thought I would. I would recommend this to the right person (my job requires giving recommendations for all sorts of books whether I've liked -or even read- them) but it's not a personal favourite.

19 November 2011

The Girls' Guide to Surviving the Apocalypse

I've been contributing a few blog posts over at a new (but already very popular) blog.

The Girls' Guide to Surviving the Apocalypse

There are all sorts of posts about who to have in your team, how to use gardening for long term survival, how to look good whilst you are surviving, which weapons you should choose and suggested music for the apocalypse.
There's all sorts of stuff covering all kinds of interests. You should go and have a look because some great ladies are contributing and it's growing all the time.

I've done 4 posts so far:
How to Destroy Humanity: A Guide for AIs - see how best a powerful AI can kill all the humans
Ancient Apocalypse: Zombies - you may be surprised to learn just how old the idea of the zompocalypse is.
Cutepocalypse: Undead Ducky - I follow instructions in a sewing book to create the cutest undead creature you ever did see.
Apocalypse Friends - ever wondered how each of the Friends characters would cope in the event of the Apocalypse? Well I did and the resulting post is pretty well thought out, if I do say so myself.

13 November 2011

Downton Abbey from drama to soap

Last year the first series of Downton Abbey saw a great, new character drama come to British television. It was the only reason I had for watching ITV (besides Back to the Future, Quantum Leap and Poirot - most of which are repeats anyway). I think the only reason I didn't blog about the first series at the time was because that was around the time my laptop stopped working.

The first series was a strong, character-based drama which really made us care for all those involved, even when they were at odds with each other. The programme, much like its Edwardian setting, was stately and reserved on the surface but full of interest and emotion underneath.

Though the series was framed by dramatic historical events, the sinking of the Titanic and the start of World War One,* it was most successful when it was about the characters. The most dramatic event of the first series (a socially inappropriate sexual encounter followed by a sudden death) was actually rather overblown and unintentionally got kinda funny -well I was weirdly amused by it anyway. As ridiculous as that plot seemed at first, it earned its place because the ongoing fallout led to plenty of great complications and interpersonal drama, which is the lifeblood of the programme.

Then we have the second series, which finished last week.
Being set during the First World War I suppose it had a fairly serious and dramatic backdrop to work against. A maid training to become a secretary and power plays between footmen and valets are not the things any programme set between 1914 and 1918 should be focusing on. A variety of war issues were introduced: the young men joining up; the older man being made to feel useless; the women pitching in to help; the young aristocrats rolling up their sleeves and mucking in even as the older ones try to shield their servants from conscription.

Unfortunately some of the character moments were somehow lacking and the plot, rather than being character-driven, seemed to rely upon a series of unlikely events. There were still very good performances and I felt the same about most of the characters, but events took a turn for the melodramatic and I found myself unable to take parts of it seriously. Below are some examples of the ridiculousness.
  • The unrequited love (which is unrequited on both sides, for no good reason) became a love triangle. This meant there were a lot of longing gazes and significant looks and people being awfully noble. Then the third part of the love triangle offered to back out, but she got killed off anyway so that the guy didn't have to make an ignoble decision, which was very unfair on her as she was the more deserving girl.
  • The middle sister (who is treated as though she is both ugly and socially inept, even though she isn't) starts helping with the war effort on a farm. After driving a tractor for what seems like a day (but is actually several weeks, or even months)* she ends up becoming friendly with the farmer and they kiss in the barn. Then she stops having to go to the farm and... well that's it. I think it was meant to show us that she can be likeable, but I never thought otherwise. All the mean stuff she did in the previous series was a direct result of her elder sister being bully.
  • A long-lost heir appeared. He was rescued from the Titanic and got amnesia and lived as a Canadian and got very badly burned in the war. Except it turns out he was probably a fake, and then he disappeared. And all this episode-long storyline goes to prove is that poor Edith (who is treated with nothing but pity by her family, for no real reason) is gullible, and that Julian Fellowes has been taking plotting advice from US soap operas.
  • The most cunning character (a man who managed to get invalided back to Blighty & put in charge of his former colleagues) spent all his savings on black market food, only to discover that the dodgy bloke he met in the pub had sold him substandard goods. It's like you can't even trust criminals! Seriously, this guy was the best schemer in the whole show, but apparently his IQ was damaged along with his hand. Incidentally he was keeping his black market stash in a shed with big windows.
  • The heir to the estate doesn't die in the war (though his much healthier-looking subordinate does die, of white makeup and coughing), but is paralysed and unable to have children, which leads to worry about the succession again. Until he miraculously recovers the ability to walk, which first manifests as he is heroically saving a dropped tea tray. He is improbably mostly recovered and able to walk quite well few months later. Though in fairness it might have been longer than that, it's hard to tell.*
  • There is an inappropriate and confusing near-miss dalliance between the lord and a maid. I'm not sure why this happened, except that her ladyship (who is normally loved by her husband) had been a bit stupid and self-involved just recently, presumably so that we wouldn't judge the lord too much for kissing a maid. Then the lord got very angry at his daughter for wanting to marry the chauffeur, even though she was conducting her socially-inconvenient relationship in the most reasonable and honorable way she could.

Don't get me wrong, there were some plotlines I really enjoyed and I'm looking forward to seeing continued next year. However I hope that next series, without having to go up against the First World War, the programme will go back to being a little more sensible.
Either that or they need to introduce a scandalous young cousin to be a Bright Young Thing and/or a flapper and have the roaring twenties invade the house in the form of ridiculous hats and people doing the Charleston. I can almost see the shocked disapproval on Maggie Smith's face, and I think that's the one of main things that kept me watching this series.

* Time in Downton moves very strangely.
The entirety of the First World war passes in about four episodes, meaning it's roughly a year per episode. A baby conceived part way through one episode, is big and thriving, despite greatly reduced circumstances, by the next episode. However the characters' relationships don't change in the time between episodes, and they seem to return to conversations they must have had months, or even a year ago. It must be the anti-Narnia because despite all the time that's passed it is never, ever winter.

6 November 2011

Recent Reading

The Swordsman's Oath by Juliet E. McKenna
This is the second book in the Tales of Einarinn and I continue to be impressed. My views on the first book The Thief's Gamble can be found in a post from early September.

Like the previous volume this book is told mostly from the viewpoint of one character, with the deeds of other characters in other places told in third person. The narrator character is Ryshad, a character who appeared in the previous book. I liked being able to see the same characters again from Ryshad's point of view, it gives them all more depth. It was also interesting to see Livak from the view point of a friend and lover, as I'd experienced many of the events of the previous book from inside her head.

The setting -already a realistic and detailed world- is expanded as the action moves from the main continent (which is akin to early-modern Europe) to the Aldabrashin Archipelago. The Archipelago has more of an Eastern feel, though it's different enough to our own world that it felt original, it was certainly different from other fantasy settings.
I also liked that parts of the book took place in a period long before current adventure. As a history fan I liked seeing the juxtaposition of two time periods, and I'm impressed by McKenna's craft that she was able to create and convincingly convey such a sense of history in an entirely fictional setting.

The plot took a few unexpected twists and turns (I certainly never expected the Aldabrashin section), but never did the sequence of events feel contrived - except where powerful characters were pulling strings, of course.

I've already ordered the next book, and I'm looking forward to reading that as well.

I've gotten a bit slow at writing reviews again, my apologies. I've got a few posts that I want to do and I will try and get them done before December arrives and buries me under Christmas-related stuff.

21 October 2011

Summer Wars

I wouldn't particularly describe myself as an anime fan.
I've watched and enjoyed a few anime series and films, and I like Studio Ghibli. I know many people who are far more interested in, and knowledgeable about, anime than me, so don't feel I can claim a 'fan' title.

So, as an interested not-quite-fan I just want to say that Summer Wars is absolutely amazing.
It really is an excellent film and I'm definitely putting it on my Christmas list.

Summer Wars
It's about Kenji, a high school maths genius who agrees to accompany Natsuki to her great-Grandmother's 90th birthday celebrations as a favour. Once in the busy bustle of her family's ancestral home he discovers that Natsuki has told everyone he is her fiance. Shy, good-natured Kenji goes along with it and finds himself overwhelemed but delighted by Natsuki's big, noisy family. Meanwhile there's trouble in Oz (the colourful cyber-world that stands in place of the internet within the setting of the film) as a dangerous hacker is causing mayhem on an international scale. 

So much about this film was good. I liked the way Oz was designed and shown on screen, it was realistic and understandable as an online 'space' where people can completely design and fully use their own avatar. Showing a virtual world is something that can best be done in animation and it's clear the makes of this film knew exactly what they were going for. As a virtual platform that combines chat, gaming,shopping, learning and infrastructure it is a wonderfully varied and flexible setting for animators to design and work with. The action switches between the real-world Japanese setting and the bright, fantastical online world - where the consequences and stakes are high enough to be vital to the offline world as well.

The characters were great. Kenji and Natsuki and her big family all felt very realistic. I loved the stern but loving figure of the great-Grandmother, the aunts/cousins who were doing all the cooking and organising. I really felt for the characters, both those primarily involved in the plot and those on the periphery, who still had their own personalities and concerns. The family as a group felt big and warm and comfortable and I found that it reminded me of some of the best families in Diana Wynne Jones books.

The storyline was interesting and though some plot lines were foreseeable other bits were unexpected and the whole thing was full of emotion. The way it encompassed the massive and international down to the personal and intimate all in one story was excellent. There were a couple of times -during sad bits- when I was truly close to tears, but there was also plenty of warm humour. Then at the end I felt such a strong rush of emotions. It's good when you watch something like that.

I strongly recommend this film. Even if you don't think of yourself as an anime fan it's a wonderful piece of storytelling.

Various anime I've seen have convinced me that if the apocalypse involves either small, cute, fluffy creatures or big, gestalt monsters the Japanese will be the only nation prepared for it.

19 October 2011

Recent Reading - Rivers of London

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

Very much enjoyed this urban fantasy police procedural, I expected to as I've heard mostly good things about it.
Set in London (natch) this book is about Peter Grant, a young mixed-race police officer who takes a witness statement from a ghost while guarding a crime scene. This surprising incident leads to him being placed in a very specialist division of the Metropolitan Police force, which deals with the supernatural and consists of Peter and his superior officer Inspector Nightingale.

The book was an amusing and exciting read, it dealt with some pretty nasty killings and unpleasant magic and while certain plot points were as I expected there were twists that left me surprised and keen to read on.
I liked the modernised take on mythology with the various rivers that flow through London being personified, mostly by black women. The comparison between the white, country dwelling Father Thames and his streams and tributaries and the black, urban Mother Thames and her daughter-rivers was interesting. Like Mike Shevdon's Sixty One Nails this is an urban fantasy which includes the countryside and acknowledges its difference to the city without making it out to be scary.
I very much enjoyed this book, though I did find the scenes which involved rioting and fire eerily prescient.
Also the front cover with all that densely-packed writing was distracting and fascinating. I don't usually mention cover art much, but in case I was very impressed.

16 October 2011

Why I Love Good Omens

I was first given Good Omens for my 16th birthday.
My father says he first read Lord of the Rings when he was 21 and he has reread it regularly ever since then, I can think of several occasions from my when I saw him reading it.* That is what Good Omens is like for me. I have read and reread it so many times that the book is looking distinctly worn. Were it on the shelf at work I'm sure my boss would consider selling it and getting a better looking copy.

I love those moments that I read then immediately reread, sometimes numerous times, just to play the dialogue and expressions and reactions through in my mind until they're as clear as they can be, as though I'm actually watching or directing them. I pretty much only do this with dialogue between main characters, usually when there's humour behind the conversation. There are quite a lot of moments in Good Omens that I do this with, especially conversations between Crowley and Aziraphale. In fact I'd pretty much got a scene-by-scene of their entire drunken conversation in my head before I was in my twenties.

I suspect reading Good Omens is partly why I like Queen.
At 16 I still liked a lot of mainstream music (later working in a clothes shop, and influence from the heavier tastes of friends, would spark a growing appreciation of rock) but I was rarely passionate about music. I knew Dad liked Queen and had heard several of their songs, but we were not a very musical household and it had mostly been in the background. Good Omens was the first book I've read that had a soundtrack. The references to the Greatest Hits of Queen are often sarcastic and at first I thought that the authors didn't like the band. Then I realised that the lyric quotes and the jokes were a sign of appreciation. When I heard certain Queen songs I associated them with Good Omens and though I'm sure Queen would have been a part of my developing musical tastes anyway, I'm sure that association helped. When I hear that bit in 'Bohemian Rhapsody' I still often think of Crowley giving a strangled scream and punching his foot to the accelerator of the Bentley just as the song seems to explode.

Good Omens was in some ways my bridge from Pratchett to Gaiman.
When I first read Good Omens I'd read a lot of Discworld (though being a teenager -and a fairly innocent one- I didn't get all the jokes). I think I had read Neverwhere at that point and Neil Gaiman had been recommended to me by a friend from the Youth Theatre group I attended, as a good author who co-wrote with Terry Pratchett. I remember making a list of things to buy in town and borrow from the city library:
Never ware
Neil Gaiman
I needed to buy some socks and I had never seen Neverwhere written down. I remember this because later that day my sister saw the note and assumed Neil Gaiman was a designer/brand of socks that I'd been warned against.
Initially I noticed all the Pratchetty bits of Good Omens -the footnotes, the way Death spoke, some of the description, characterisation and jokes, which chimed with what I'd been reading in Discworld. After a few years, during which I read Sandman, American Gods, Stardust and various short stories, I reread Good Omens and noticed the Gaiman-ness -the GK Chesterton references, the speculations about the nature of the divine/demonic, some of the description, characterisation and jokes.

I like that when rereading I still pick up on things I missed before. This doesn't happen every time but it happens enough that I'm still surprised and delighted. Some of it was jokes I didn't get at first due to still being young and innocent (the Coitus Interruptus Award for telemarketers was suddenly amusing - although I later wondered how they knew), others were references to things I hadn't experienced or didn't entirely get until they had a chance to sink in and become ingrained in my worldview.

These are all reasons why I love Good Omens and if you don't really know what I'm talking about I suggest you find a copy and find out. You won't regret it.

* I must say I do not have much love for Lord of the Rings, though I can appreciate its importance to the genre. My dad read The Hobbit to me when I was 8 and I remember enjoying that -though I don't seem to recall the ending, so I think we must have got interrupted. I tried to read LotR when I was 15 and got most of the way through Fellowship but at that point the films were coming out so it just easier to watch.

10 October 2011

Recent Reading - Lud-in-the-Mist

I honestly am reading, I'm just being slow to post about it again.

Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees
This picture bears almost no relation to the story.
I really enjoyed this fantasy written in the 1920s by one of those little known/recognised early female writers that need a higher profile than they have.
It really wasn't what I expected, not quite sure what I expected but I imagine my expectations were coloured by all the modern fantasy I read. The book was written before Tolkien set the stage for traditional fantasy tropes. So what do you call something that predates the traditional? I have no idea, and I'm not sure I'm knowledgeable enough to answer that, but it actually felt different to a lot of other books I've read.

The story is set in the country of Dorimare, which borders Fairyland. The capital Lud-in-the-Mist was ruled by a rational-minded mercantile upper class who relied on trade and put their faith in the law. As the fanciful and magical have no basis in law the upstanding citizens of Lud-in-the-Mist disregarded the neighbouring land, it's mischievous inhabitants, and dangerous exports. So when entrancing fairy fruit starts affecting the great and good of Lud-in-the-Mist it takes a man with a fanciful frame of mind to solve the problem.

The protagonist Nathanial Chanticleer is a rich older man, upstanding citizen and Mayor of the capital - a very different sort of hero to most fantasy novels. This is more a midlife crisis than a coming of age story, though that perhaps sounds uncharitable. It's made clear that though he seems like any other respectable Lud citizen, Nathaniel Chanticleer has always had a wistful, introspective side that doesn't fit with his peers.

The book has a rich descriptive style that you don't tend to get so much nowadays, and while there is a lot more telling (as opposed to showing) than I'm used to, it works fine in a period piece. The humour is mild and wry, the fantastical elements are mostly hinted at and are made mysterious rather than overt. I had expected to see more of fairyland, but the impact of magical encroachment into the tight-laced Lud society worked well.

There's a strong comparison between the country and the town. The country folk stuck to the old superstitions and, in this book, were proved to be right, while the townfolk consider themselves more sophisticated and enlightened. However it's made very clear that their insistence in dealing only in the rational and understandable blinkers them and leaves them unprepared for things outside their ken.
It also felt as though the fairy fruit, contraband magical food which is referred to only euphemistically, is an analogy for all sorts of disruptive influences within society. The most obvious parallel is with drugs, as the fruit must be smuggled into the country and distributed in secret. I'm sure that a reread would bring other themes to mind.

I enjoyed reading Lud-in-the-Mist as I was interested to see the kind of fantastical story written before Grandfather Tolkien, and because it worked well with my general enjoyment of fairytales and the mythic. The country of Dorimare -fictional though it may be- is rich in history and folklore and the references to traditional tales, songs and images felt very nostalgic even though they were inventions of the author.

9 October 2011

Writing News

 My short story 'Lupa di Roma' has been published by Title Goes Here Magazine in their October Web Edition (1.10).
The web editions are free to read so I encourage you to go and have a look.

I am very happy about this, and also very pleased with the way the story was described in the editorial. I doubt any description I'd written would have sounded nearly as impressive.
Apparently I've written Mythpunk. I didn't mean to, but as the story is based on the Roman foundation legend I guess it fits the subgenre.

8 October 2011

Doctor Who - The Wedding of River Song

I finished this series of Doctor Who the same way I'd started it, watching in a hotel at a UK convention.
There were some definite differences in the circumstances, I was in Brighton not Birmingham. I was in the hotel lounge with about a dozen other people watching on a large TV, rather than watching with hundreds of people in a big room with a projector screen. Still the parallels framed my viewing of the series.

Emotional Response
Shiny and fun. Lots of CGI and world creation that reused material (Romans, Winston Churchill, pterodactyls, that beard) from the last few series and other Whoniverse shows. Obviously going for impressive visuals, which succeeded.

Amy & Rory are sweet again, and this time Rory's switch is turned to brave.
Rory doesn't get much of a character arc, he's a compassionate man who loves his wife and seems to get killed a lot. His characterisation can be described as:  Rory Williams: Everyman Hero/Bumbling Coward [delete as appropriate to episode plot]. It's more a pendulum than an arc.

Blue head-in-a-box guy is amusing. If you're just a head in a box then it makes sense you'd be snarky.

And the robot tesselect thingy is the decoy, as was guessed by my colleague after 'Hitler' (the Flesh Doctor clearly being a red herring). This is good in terms of creating a happy ending, though it's not surprising or suspenseful.

I think we all knew what The Question would be. What's hiding in plain sight more than the title of the show?

Intellectual Response
What's happening now? I'm intrigued but this broken history (which actually feel more like an alternate world, because it clearly has it's own rules and processes and continuity) feels little tangential.
Broken time means all of history happens at once - kind illogical, shouldn't it be a palimpsest of time periods rather than an entire alternate world with all it's own stuff. But I shan't quibble too much on this point. Because...

It's taken a month (real time), goodness knows how many months (in-show time) and an alternate world (plot line) for me to discover that yes, Amy was actually very upset and pissed off that her baby was kidnapped.
I know such emotions should be a given, but in TV if a character doesn't display some emotional continuity (even if it's done subtly or in the background) then we can only assume that they don't care and neither should we. The way it was handled it seemed as though the team needed to give Amy a reason to dispatch the baddie and it suddenly occurred to them that maybe the whole baby-stealing thing had ticked her off a bit. If a TV show is going to hit the reset button fair enough, but don't do it three weeks in a row then suddenly expect the viewer to buy an emotion plot arc a month later simply because it's convenient again.
All I was asking for was a quick scene between Amy and Rory at a quiet moment, or even just a concerned/comforting line of dialogue to let us know that actually these characters are suffering. I can understand if they're resigned to let events take their course, but shouldn't we be able to tell that they're putting a brave face on it. I mean even if you want to all ignore the emotional characterisation (and I'm not sure why you would) from a plot POV the disappearance of Melody was supposed to be 'the farthest the Doctor will fall' or some such melodramatic gubbins. To have the cause of the Doctor's Great Fall routinely ignored by everyone later just leads to disappointment.

So I don't really get how the Silence (whoever they were) engineered both a psuedo-Time Lord (if that's what they did) and a fixed point in time (which is definitely what that was because we were told repeatedly). Also if the Doctor's death is a fixed point in time then surely if he doesn't actually die then it's not a fixed point in time?
Apparently a shape-shifting robot getting broken is in fact the event at the centre of that particular fixed point in time. Obviously we all knew that the Doctor would get out of it somehow, but this kind feels like cheating. All the timey-wimey stuff that was supposed to be a result of the Doctor's death and it actually happened because a very fancy robot got broken.

So what did River tell the tenth Doctor just before she died if she doesn't know his name? What's so special about his name anyway?

Why were Amy and River working with Madame Kovarian in weird-time world, they have every reason to hate her (assuming River knows who she is) and suspect her?

River was brain-washed/raised to be a psychopath, is that all just fixed now? Why?

And finally...
Why did the TARDIS go to Amy's house just before it exploded?
That was the one place/time it shouldn't have gone, River clearly didn't mean for it to go there, but she couldn't stop it. I'd assumed someone hijacked/hacked it somehow and it was all part of the Pandorica Opens/Big Bang stuff, but the whole thing seems to have been forgotten. Apparently the internetz have decided the TARDIS went there of it's own accord, but why would it go somewhere that would lead to it exploding?
I've been wondering this for over a year! I assumed it tied into the wider plot as it was the main question left over from last year, but it just seems to have been ignored.

4 October 2011

FantasyCon 2011

This was our first Fantasycon and second full convention. We went to all the days at Eastercon, but had to leave in the evenings to get the train home, meaning we missed out on some of the party atmosphere. This time we were staying in the con hotel, so had no excuse.

The weekend saw surprising and unseasonable heat. As a coastal town and famous tourist trap Brighton has a very definite season (I've been there off-season - at which point it's mostly just a town by the sea). Having a mini heatwave two weeks after the season ended clearly threw local businesses off. It also meant the the town was heaving with people over the weekend and most of the rooms at the hotel became uncomfortably warm.

We mostly went to panels and sat in the bar, or else wandered along the seafront and beach. We utterly failed to go to any readings, signings or launches. I think next time we go to a con we need to pay more attention to who is doing what and look into what books we might like to get.

  • Quiz - Our team ended up having the least points (despite receiving a comedy point for our ridiculous answers). It seemed that we mostly couldn't remember the answers until we heard them later, so we figured we'd be amusing instead. I mean Lanhkmar/Birmingham, Rand al'Thor/David - it's all basically the same, right? Best thing about the quiz, and it's real point, was that we met a couple of people who we ended up spending quite a bit of time with throughout the con. New, fun people to talk to are always good.
  • Trends in Fantasy Panel - This was a very interesting and largely amusing panel, and probably my favourite panel. The discussion mostly covered traditional/epic/secondary world fantasy with some mentions of paranormal, but little about urban fantasy. There was much discussion of how trends came about and whether they were a reaction against 80s tropes. The panel was moderated by Juliet E. McKenna, who is becoming a convention favourite of mine.
  • Rise of YA Panel - This discussion was interesting, especially considering my work with teenage readers. It was good to hear another library worker pipe up during the discussion. I agree with Stephen Deas's that the books have always existed, it's just the label and the market have been created by publishers/booksellers. I can kinda see why Sarah Pinborough thinks YA might be a barrier to kids reading adultbooks - personally I tend to refer to them as teenage books because that's what we call them at work. I think that's better as it means that as most kids want to read about characters older than themselves they'll probably move on to adult books of their own accord when they feel like they want to be treated as adults.
  • Comics Panel -Very interesting and I was glad that the issue of women in comics was brought up (and nicely explained) as it's a key topic just now. There was a woman in the audience who clearly loved superhero comics, but was nearing the edge of her tether in regards to how she was treated as a female superhero comic fan. My heart really went out to her, she clearly felt very strongly that her passion for something she loved was being sorely tested. I actually said something (which sounded far more eloquent in my head I'm sure) about superheroes being the main thing people think of when they think of comics, and also about the popularity webcomics. The answers were roughly what I expected, but it was nice to hear what professionals thought.
  • People - I met some great people. Several who I'd spoken to on Twitter before, some entirely new. It was just great to chat with people. I also found it incredibly interesting to hear authors/writers talk about their books and writing. I'm not used to talking about writing with people I don't know well.I'm usually pretty reserved about it, but clearly I'm missing a trick as it was great to just hear about it. Later, when I'd sobered up, it gave me plenty to think about.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Earring - My husband got me a great piece of jewellery that looks like a dragon twined round my ear, and it was the first time I'd worn it. I got plenty of compliments, comments and someone took a picture.If you can't wear an ear-wyrm (which is my name for it) to a fantasy convention where can you where one?

  • Heat - it was so, so hot. I do not do well when I'm too hot. I'm like a microprocessor, I need a certain temperature to operate at a full efficiency.
  • Check-in - we had to queue for an hour to check in, meaning that I didn't go to a reading I'd meant to go to. It got to the point where I was quite excited just to be able to see into the lobby.
  • The Hotel Room - our hotel room was air-conditioner adjacent. Meaning that even if we turned ours off (not that we could given the heat) the unit just outside the window would hum us gently to sleep anyway.

  • I remember dancing energetically to incredibly cheesy music, mostly from the 70s I think, at the con disco. All around writers and publishing people danced like mad things.
  • Me and a guy (didn't see his name badge) pointed Brian Aldiss towards the the reception & agreeing with him that the hotel was indeed built like a maze. The guy then said that the previous night he'd heard someone make a reference to God Complex, and that was how he could tell he was at an SF convention.

3 October 2011

Post Con Post

Just a very quick post to say that I had a great time at Fantasycon. It involved a lot of travelling and more sunshine than I am accustomed to in autumn (or indeed summer sometimes). There will be a more detailed post on that soon (hopefully by Wednesday).

I'm also going to write up the Doctor Who finale and Lud-in-the-Mist. I plan to get all this done by the end of the week, though goodness knows if that'll actually happen.

I guess what I'm saying is... Watch this Space.

27 September 2011

Doctor Who - Closing Time

This contains spoilers and I'm writing this on the assumption you've seen the episode.

I watched this with my mother-in-law who hasn't watched any recent Doctor Who. She said the show had changed a lot and then asked us if it was usually that trivial. All we could say was that it varied. Obviously this was (mostly) a light episode before next week.

It seems that the BBC had heard, but failed to understand, my lack-of-baby rant. Yes, there was a baby in this episode, but not the one who was abducted. Is this a sign once and for all that the Doctor has no intention of trying to find his friends' baby? Seems likely, especially as they don't seem too bothered about having her back. Well what parents don't want their unplanned infant to be raised by antagonist kidnappers?

Emotional Response
Oh look, a shop. Well the Doctor does love a shop, and also Rose was from a shop. When's someone going to point out the role shops have in all this, hmm? Also, why is a cyberman in a ladies' fitting room?

James Corden is funny as Craig, I don't know why people disliked him. Craig is a funny, likeable character and Corden is good at playing him. It was nice that he was nervous and overwhelmed about the baby, though you notice how TV mums never seem to be like that? The chemistry between the characters is very strong, Matt Smith is an actor who works well with others.
The Doctor speaks baby again and it's a lot of fun. I like that the baby named himself Stormaggedon, his attitude does explain that very judgmental way that babies look at you.

I was confused when the Doctor was working in the toy shop then seemed to know a woman in a clothes shop. Then I realised it was one big department store, that wasn't clear earlier, I thought it was mall. He makes a pretty good toyshop worker, though seriously how did he get a name badge saying Doctor?

Look it's Rory and Amy, do they live near here?
And now some kid seems to have been allowed to go autograph hunting in the middle of a shoot, not professional BBC. Oh, actually it seems Amy is now a perfume model on an ad campaign with a slogan that's weirdly meaningful to the characters (though in fairness it's not that weird for a perfume slogan, usually they just string words together). Well what young girl doesn't go around getting the autographs of perfume models? Rory and Amy fail to see the Doctor despite the little girl pointing in his direction. This whole bit is kinda surreal, and I don't even know what it's for. Seriously what's this bit about?

The Doctor keeps brooding every few scenes, rather spoiling the comedic tone. Obviously we need to remember that he is weighed down with concerns, though goodness knows what they are and why he isn't doing something about them.

Cybermen are not so impressive when there aren't many of them. Why do they want Craig as cyber-controller? I see no particular reason to choose him over any of the other homo sapiens they find. Also I must say there seems to be remarkably little of the sawing and cutting that there's been every other time cybermen convert people.
I was a bit confused that Craig didn't know about cybermen since they invaded the country (or London anyway) a few years ago. Then my husband pointed out that the universe got rewritten so that might not have happened.

So things are all wrapped up nicely, Craig's house is thoroughly cleaned (lucky sod) and the Doctor has a cool cowboy hat. Except there's these randomly staring kids in the street. Seriously what's up with these kids, were they in the toy shop earlier? Did their mothers not teach them it's rude to stare?

Turns out the staring children were a baffling link to the bit at the end.
More on that below.

Intellectual Response
Well that lady who was left on her own is clearly dead, also I suspect she's breaking some kind of lone working policy. Surely she should have checked the shop was empty before letting the other staff go?

Craig has a baby now, how long has it been since The Lodger? It's not easy keeping track in a time travelling show. Craig's worries over being a father are understandable as everyone seems to treat him like a large man-child. Sometimes bumbling dad characters can be a bit too ridiculous, it seems unfair that men should be generally painted as useless idiots (what if I want to be a useless idiot?). That said I find Craig endearing enough to pull it off.

The Doctor speaking baby reminds me of the first Mary Poppins sequel novel Mary Poppins Comes Back.
In the book the Bankses have another baby called Anabel and Mary Poppins can understand her. At first Anabel is very poetic and speaks of fire and wind, but Mary Poppins smiles indulgently and knows that it won't last -it never does. Later Annabel has forgotten all the grand stuff she said before and is only concerned with baby-stuff like sleeping and eating and being comfortable. I rather guessed that Stormaggedon would come to identify himself as Alfie by the end.

The Doctor's upcoming death is hanging over this episode, but I don't understand why. He's a time traveller why does he need to go to his death now? I thought the Doctor who was killed was a good 100 years older, surely he should have plenty of time left?

So the saving the day with love ending was cheesy as hell, but at least the Doctor tried to explain it away with techno-babble (in proper Sci-Fi TV the day is always saved by techno-babble). It still isn't as cheesy and dumb as everyone being cured by hugs and so I can forgive it.

The bit at the end
I'm doing this bit separately because it didn't feel like part of the episode. Those staring kids acting as witnesses and the creepy song had no part in what had just happened.

I think I'm supposed to be excited and intrigued by the bit at the end, but I'm just confused and kind of annoyed. My barrel full of questions have been routinely ignored for almost a month and now I'm just having information clumsily thrown at me. Information that just creates yet more questions. It's just a way of getting me to watch next week, and I was always going to watch next week (I mean possibly not on the day cos of Fantasy Con) because I want some bloody answers!
It's a reminder that there's only one episode to go and I need far too many answers for one episode to easily provide.

It just strikes me as bad storytelling to have created a lot of ongoing plot that is just left dangling and unimportant for weeks only to be (presumably) concluded in a big rush at the end, which will probably be disappointingly jumbled. I realise that the episodic nature of the show and the writing is probably the main reason for this, but the lack of continuity on something that should be so important to the characters just makes them seem a bit stupid.
The whole eyepatch lady thing from the first half of the series worked because it was a thread that ran through multiple episodes, it was something to look out for, something that kept us in intrigued. When some of the content of those earlier episodes was related to the unfolding plot you could see things coming together and that was fun. In this half of the series it seems like nothing is coming together, it's been stalled and has just been restarted. Overall the last three episodes -good as they were on their own- have felt like little more than filler and wasted opportunity.

I was going to sum up what I knew of the ongoing plot so far and try to slot the bit at the end into that. However thinking about it just makes me confused.
So instead I'm going to quote a song that sums up nicely:

Hey, what's going on?

26 September 2011

Fantasy Con 2011

I'm going to Fantasy Con this year for the first time.

I'm very much looking forward to it. I've met various friendly and interesting people on Twitter who will also be going, so if nothing else it'll be good to put faces to names. I'm hoping that as well as attending some interesting panels and events I'll be able to have some good conversations with other fantasy fans.
While Eastercon back in April was my first convention, this will be my first convention away from home. I'll have to pack my suitcase, bring snacks and take a long train journey, but it'll be nice to be staying right there where the action is.

I realise I haven't done a Why I Love post in a month. I could blame Doctor Who as I've been trying to post episode reviews each week before the next one is on TV. Really though I think I got excited and burned myself out. I came up with various posts and posted them all one after another without coming up with a long term plan. From October I'll try and post one at least once a month, but I don't think I'll manage it once a week. Obviously I need to go out there and find more stuff to love.

24 September 2011

On Stranger Tides

On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers

This is the third Tim Powers book I've read and I really enjoyed it, although perhaps not quite as much as the other two. It's the inspiration for the new Pirates of the Caribbean film -except that it isn't. Disney bought the rights after the first Pirates film as there were various similarities between the book and the film franchise. Though the film shares similar elements the plot won't be the same (I've not actually seen Pirates 4, but I feel pretty safe in saying this), and the characters certainly won't be. For a start here are no mermaids in this book.

John Chandagnac travels to the Caribbean to claim his rightful inheritance from a scheming uncle. On route the ship is taken by pirates -with help from fellow-passenger and deranged academic Benjamin Hurwood. John is forced to join the pirates or forfeit his life and so he is taken to the New Providence Island pirate settlement and renamed Jack Shandy. Jack ends up travelling with the fearsome Blackbeard, the sinister doctor Leo Friend, Hurwood and Hurwood's daughter Elizabeth to the Fountain of Youth.

The way that the supernatural occurred in the book reminded me of both The Anubis Gates and Declare. It was like Declare because there were powerful, spiritual beings in existence that knowledgeable humans had to work with - though in this book they were based on voodoo (or vodoun) rather than middle eastern mythology. It was like The Anubis Gates because it suggested that magic was inimical to technology and had gotten progressively weaker over time. I liked this because it felt as though all the books took place in the same world, and given the well-researched settings and characters, it all felt like secret history.

While there is a fair bit of darkness in all the Tim Powers books I've read I found some of the elements in On Stranger Tides a bit more unpleasant. I suspect it's because the one villain was entirely immoral and his plan involved a nasty, incestuous sexual element. Another villain had a plan that may have seemed romantic at first, but was simply sinister and unpleasant and probably would've become incestuous. The other villain was fearsome pirate Blackbeard, so that's quite a rogues gallery to be going on with.
This leads me to Elizabeth Hurwood, the main female character and a woman who seemed to have everyone after her for all the wrong reason. She was kept captive by her father throughout the book, her ability to act for herself obliterated by a restrictive diet designed to keep her weak. She was seen as a vessel for the lusts, schemes and magical power of many of the male characters. Jack, who is the hero and the one man who desires her without wanting to use her, loves her and wants to do right by her. This was probably the best deal the poor girl was going to get, though I felt that the strength of feeling between Elizabeth and Jack was based on little time sent together - though this is very often the way in fiction so I can't particularly fault Tim Powers for that.

Overall it was an excellent, intelligent book full of high seas adventure, suspense, thrills, intrigue, magic, nastiness and puppetry.

Related Stuff:
My review of Declare is in Hub Magazine and my less coherent ramblings can be found in an earlier blog post. I also have an earlier blog post about The Anubis Gates.

19 September 2011

Doctor Who - God Complex

There will be spoilers.

Emotional Response
So this was an intriguing episode, not really scary though, which I think was meant to be the idea.
The creepy hotel with the fears in rooms was a nice concept, and the mystery of what's going on and why certainly kept me watching. Tailoring each room for a different person makes a lot of sense, but as there's no room with my fear in I wasn't afraid. We knew there would be scary-thing behind each door, so none of it actually was scary.

The start was funny, especially Rory's "we're nice" and the Doctor's reaction to the chair leg.

The Doctor likes Rita cos she's smart, she's probably doomed. Though goodness knows it's funny that he fires Amy because Rita's smarter, Amy hasn't been too bright recently. Then he suggests Rita should come with him, she's SO doomed, she might as well be wearing a red shirt. Her death was sad and all, but so predictable that the emotion was lost.
It was sad that other characters kept dying too, but it was obviously going to be that kind of episode, so it wasn't that sad. I mean the Doctor said "No one else dies." At that point all the non-recurring characters were setting off the doom-o-meter. I can understand trying to tug on our heartstrings by killing the likeable characters, but if that's obviously going to happen we won't put much effort into liking them.

Plenty of that Who-staple running around corridors. Not sure how they kept finding each other and the dummy room again though.

The ending was kinda confusing, I didn't really get much idea of who built the place and locked the Minotaur up and how people got there. Also seems that if the Minotaur didn't want to feed off people it should have been able to just stop and die. I don't know. It was just 'oh look a spaceship, that was why mumblemumblemumble'.

I'm also not quite sure what's happening with Amy and Rory and the Doctor at the end. Obviously Rory's glad to get back to normal life, and he gets a great car, so win for him (also he hasn't died in ages, so really he's doing pretty well). Amy -who has been a bit of a flight risk when it comes to normality- is obviously a bit freaked by the Doctor leaving. Not sure about the Doctor, though. It feels like a build up to something (which it almost certainly is) but I don't get the internal reasons why.
I did like that their front door was TARDIS-coloured.

Intellectual Response
So Room 101 meets Greek Mythology - except there wasn't really enough Greek Mythology. I was waiting for references to Theseus, or Ariadne, or string, or something, but they didn't come so that was kinda distracting. I mean the whole hotel-is-a-labyrinth thing is fine and fits the theme, but I was expecting more (then again I suspect that's just me).
I'm glad they called the creature a Minotaur, rather than the Doctor coming up with some fancy alien name for it that means nothing to us (like with the Carrionites in the Shakespeare episode a few series ago). Of course it did look fairly alien and not much like a man with a bull head, but sometimes a silly alien word is just the Doctor showing off and the writers wanting to try and stick (loosely) to SF.

Rita was a great character and you can see why the Doctor liked her, I liked her and thought her presence was valuable - but so clearly dooming her to death (however dignified) meant I didn't want to invest in her. New Who has gotten a bit too comfortable in it's tropes and it really spoils the suspense.

The main creepiness wasn't the rooms but the way the people who were praising him started speaking. Creepy, death-culty zeal sends shivers down the spine. Not quite sure why fears or bad dreams (and which was it, because those aren't necessarily the same) are related to people's faith? I mean it seems as though there would be other ways to summon people's faith than scaring them, but possibly I missed something, or maybe it's a function of the broken holodeck.

If the TARDIS is supposed to translate alien languages how come only the Doctor can understand the minotaur? I mean the Doctor translates all the plot relevant stuff so I'm not sure I see the point in hiding it's speech. I guess it was a way of keeping the minotaur more animalistic.

The Doctor calling her Amy Williams at the end seems like he's giving up claim to her, which is a bit problematic. I guess it's because he calls her Pond normally and he's distancing himself. I can't see there being any ownership issues from Rory, he's not the sort.
I can see why the Doctor's distancing himself, we've had two episodes in a row showing the bad side of Amy's faith in him, but I have no idea what he intends to do next.

Amy mentions her daughter, which was a confusing surprise. So she acknowledges River (and Mels/Melody?) as her daughter, but doesn't have any actual concern about her. It's a bit bad really. I mean she doesn't ask the Doctor to look for her, just to see if he runs into her, like it's all a bit of a joke. After total silence on the subject this seems a bit flippant.

The episode was a good one, although I don't think it hit all the beats it was aiming for. I liked the idea thought didn't feel as moved as I would like. Found the end a bit confusing.

When are we getting back to whatever it is that we've been ignoring/forgetting about for the last few weeks?
I have loose plot threads going back a year and I'm becoming increasingly worried that there are too many gaps to fill. I like having standalone episodes, but ignoring great flapping loose ends and canyon-like gaps just makes the characters seem a bit stupid, especially when there's nothing stopping them investigating.

15 September 2011

Doctor Who - The Girl Who Waited

The preview of this episode looked intriguing and I was really hoping it would be good. Happily I was not disappointed.
This will be pretty spoilery, though this is very much a standalone episode so I won't be mentioning anything to do with ongoing plot threads.

Emotional response
This was a damn good episode!
The divergent time streams and resulting exploration of time paradox feels much more like sci-fi than usual.
Rory and Amy are finally doing stuff, not just wandering around reacting to stuff. Obviously there's some reacting, but there's also lots of doing and that's good.

Older Amy is pretty cool, you can tell she's Amy but with a hard and lonely life. Her swirly fighting at the end is just fun and great. She's tough and confident but in a totally different, more grounded, way to River. In fact it's hard to picture older Amy and River in the same scenes, they belong to different kinds of stories.
I felt so much for older Amy, life has generally been unfair and disappointing for her. The interactions between her and Rory (and to a lesser extent her and younger Amy) are so touching but also sad as she's obviously doomed.

Rory's care for unconscious younger Amy was lovely to see, so sweet. This is another time when Rory is great and they are an excellent couple.
Oh, the bit at the end when older Amy and Rory talk through the TARDIS door was so, so sad!
Probably good that younger Amy was (conveniently) unconscious for that.

Intellectual response
Finally an episode that feels more like SF than usual. Exploring the possibilities of time travel and paradoxes really uses the potential of Doctor Who.
I like that this episode explores the emotional impact of time paradox. Coming adrift in time, away from your loved ones, is an odd kind of separation with a wide variety of implications and repercussions.
The Doctor is conveniently removed from the bulk of the action due to a time traveller quarantine, and after the initial explanation acts as a remote adviser. This means there's even more space for interactions between Amy (both of them) and Rory. For the first time this series the two companions are allowed to take centre stage.

The white, white place with the white, white robots felt like some that would be designed by Apple. iParadox? Very institutional and shiny and uniform. Also appropriate as it's a place that provides endless distraction. It's good that we get to see the grimier backstage areas and the scary needle faces of the robots.

Older Amy has been abandoned by her friend and loses her husband, and so her confused, guarded-but-tender feelings for Rory when he finally shows up are absolutely understandable. Her desire to survive even if it means denying her younger self a better future, could be seen as selfish, but perhaps it also shows her fighting spirit. She hasn't survived the robots all this time only to be winked out of existence. It's sad because we know that will eventually be her fate (let's face it they weren't going to keep making Karen Gillan wear that make up).

Rory is excellent too. After the initial shock he is so understanding and accepting of older Amy, and no doubt feels horribly guilty that she was on her own so long. She's older now but she's still his wife and he still loves her. He refuses to choose between the Amys when given the choice, and continues to preserve both versions up to the last minute when the Doctor forces his hand.

Ah yes, the Doctor. I felt he was being particularly harsh when he described older Amy as not real. She was obviously real, she was a person with feelings and history and her own existence. I can understand the desire not to allow a time paradox into your time machine, that's just good sense (probably). However the Doctor didn't have to be so dismissive of her. I'm assuming he did it to force Rory's hand and make him accept the choice, still it didn't feel like something the normally life-affirming Doctor would say.

Um, nothing that I didn't cover with more passion last week.
Still no Melody concern, but this episode was so good I wasn't too worried about that.

13 September 2011

Yes to Gay in YA

Earlier today I found out about two YA authors who were told to change the sexuality of a character via Juliet E. McKenna's blog.

I read quite a few teen books for work as I help run a teenage reading group. In fact I was at a discussion and making recommendations only a few hours ago.
As I read the above posts I realised I could think of quite a few good books about homosexual teens. These were books that covered a variety of genres and explored relationships between friends, families and couples. Most of the books I can think of are American, so it isn't as though the US market for YA publishing is devoid of this kind of diversity.
As the article says the existing books need to increase their profiles so that agents and editors can see that haven't a gay character isn't toxic to sales or approval.

Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan
"There isn't really a gay scene or a straight scene in our town. They all got mixed up a while back, which I think is for the best! And whether your heart is strictly ballroom or bluegrass punk, the dance floors are open to whatever you have to offer. This is my town."

This is a book about relationships and high school romance, regardless of sexuality. Paul lives in a very accepting and open environment (one which the adults at work who read this book found a little unrealistic, although the teens didn't have a problem with the setting). Paul is best friends with a girl called Joni, however their friendship is under stress due to Joni's new boyfriend. Paul himself is trying to keep away from his ex, Kyle, and is falling for new boy Noah.
The only character who faces real problems because of sexuality is Tony, who comes from a different town and has religious parents. The group of friends help Tony to be more accepting of himself and do not understand the way his parents treat him. Tony's parents are portrayed fairly, they are worried parents who want to do the best for their son and Tony explains to his friends that their strictness is a sign of their love for him.
An enjoyable and mostly lighthearted read.

Ash by Malinda Lo
This fantasy book is a different take on the Cinderella story. Ash grew up near the wood and like her mother she is able to see the fairies who live among the trees. Ash ends up living as a servant in her stepmother's house in the city, but even then she is still able to contact the mysterious man from the woods who grants her wishes, for a price. She also meets Kaisa, the King's Huntress, a woman who inspires her to escape her dreary life and follow her desires.

This story is clearly inspired by the fairytale but is also very much it's own thing. The setting feels European, but a bit more modern than the traditional pseudo-Medieval fantasy world. The wish granting man from the woods is a far cry from any fairy godmother. He is cold and aloof and his wishes are only granted with a strict price. The death of Ash's parents and her attachment to her childhood home are strong factors in her story. Her uncertainty about what she wants from her life and her slow acceptance of love make Ash a more realistic figure than the normal Cinderella-type character.

Huntress by Malinda Lo
I read this back in July and mentioned it in an earlier post on this very blog. For my full review click here.
I believe it is the only book in this list that features mostly non-white characters. The setting is based on Chinese history and it seems safe to assume that all the human characters are south east Asian.
Technically it's a distant prequel to Ash, set in the same world- though I find it hard to understand how a society based on feudal Japan would turn into a society that feels like early-modern Europe. There are some details in common but the two books feel different enough that they could be standalone. I suspect the story involves aspects of fairytales, although to me it mostly felt like a quest fantasy with a well-written romance plot.

Hero by Perry Moore
Thom Creed is used to being an outsider, his father is a widely hated ex-superhero after his failure to prevent a disaster. Thom doesn't want to disappoint his father, who lives in disgrace and was also abandoned by his wife. However Thom is not only gay, he also has a superpower and wants to join the League that spurned his father. Thom secretly tries out as a superhero and joins a junior team and must try to keep all the different parts of his life from colliding.

This is a story that works very well as a piece of superhero fiction. It addresses both official, super-powered heroes and unpowered, unofficial vigilantes. There's all the mystery, secrecy, action and danger you would expect from a well plotted superhero story. Told from Thom's point of view the story addresses two different ways of living with a secret. Thom has both his sexuality and superpowers to worry about, as well as recurring family problems and dangerous superhero politics.

11 September 2011

Recent Reading - an abundance of Quentins

The Magicians by Lev Grossman
This novel takes a very adult look at children's fantasy tropes, especially the likes of Hogwarts and Narnia.
Quentin Coldwater is a gifted teenager who discovers a magical world after finding a dead body at his Princeton interview. Quentin passes a difficult and perplexing set of tests and gains admission to Brakebills, the only magical college in North America. The book not only charts Quentin's four years at Brakebills -including the friendships, romance, magical tests and dangers- but the period of aimlessness and wasted twentysomething years that come after.

There is little that's glamorous about Quentin or his life, and magic isn't shown as a panacea for human problems, in fact it may be the opposite. It's a very modern fantasy, but isn't an urban fantasy. It encompasses both primary and secondary worlds, but isn't quite defined by either. It's a very personal story and we see Quentin warts and all as he comes into adulthood. While there's little sensawunda, there is a fair bit of action, which takes place between descriptions of everyday life which are familiar in their mundanity, even if it is a magician's version of mundanity.
Grossman has managed to write a fantasy that responds to and engages with the magical thinking present in so much of the rest of the genre, and this makes it refreshingly different.

Entirely coincidentally the next book I read also starred a Quentin.

Paper Towns by John Green
This is another great book from the author of the excellent Looking for Alaska.
Quentin Jacobsen has always loved his neighbour Margo Roth Speigelman. They aren't really friends by the time they reach their final year of high school so he is surprised and excited the night she knocks on his window and takes him on a late night prank spree. Then Margo disappears on one of her trips, her parents say they won't let her come back home this time, and Quentin finds himself investigating the hidden life of Margo Roth Speigelman.

This is a great book by turns funny, insightful, intriguing and poignant. It includes poetry by Walt Whitman, crass humour, a sense of dread, and an exploration of how we relate to people. It's nice to see a book in which a girl who is the object of the main character's affection is shown to be both more and less than he expects her to be. Quentin realises that he put Margo on a pedestal and discovers that not only did he fail to understand her, but so did everyone who knew her. Everyone has their own version of Margo, and none of them can explain her. The book played with my expectations at every step and I honestly wasn't sure how it would end.
This is a great book and I would recommend John Green's books to any teens (or indeed adults) who want an interesting, entertaining and also meaningful read.

7 September 2011

Doctor Who - Night Terrors

This will contain spoilers.

Emotional response
Oh a scared child, well I can relate I'm still a scaredy cat.
Of course the Doctor will come and help -and not just leave while the mystery's half solved and a child is lost and still in danger! (My objection to the end of Day of the Moon started intellectually but over time it's migrated into the emotional too.)

Anyway... this looks suitably creepy and it's in a mundane and downbeat sort of setting. Reminds me of Fear Her -which I seemed to enjoy more than most (I quite liked the Isolus - I felt sorry for it)- but in darker way. That poor kid is so freaked out and the way he moves so hesitantly and carefully is good acting.
When you're a scared child you just want to curl up in a ball and remain motionless with your eyes screwed shut. Of course that's not so good from a televisual point of view.

The mansion is confusing change of scene, we totally guessed it was a dollshouse, obvious really.
Oh those dolls are so, so creepy! And you just knew they were going to move and be evil!

Mean landlord is really a lonely soul with only his dog for company. It's a misleading if comforting view of a bully.

Aargh! The scary dolls turn people into more scary dolls! There's no stopping the things! Of course the second it happens to Amy we know it's not permanent, so that's OK.

Some good lines and some funny scenes in the flat. Feel bad for the dad, a strange man shows up, at first is helpful, then won't leave. Then the mean landlord shows up and is threatening. Then he discovers his son isn't really theirs and his life with the kid has been a lie constructed by an alien cuckoo. Incidentally I totally said cuckoo way before the Doctor did, and figured that the kid didn't know what he was.

All better by the time mum comes home and everyone's having a jolly time in the kitchen. Though possibly the Doctor should have provided more info about the care and feeding of an alien child.

That was a creepy episode with a nice ending.

Intellectual response
Rory and Amy are unimpressed by  location but they are on a planet in history, you'd think they could step outside their own perspectives a bit.

Daniel Mays and Matt Smith have good chemistry together, not surprising they're both good actors (Mays was best thing in Outcasts). The dad is clearly fearful of many things, including nasty bully landlord, an adult fear. Briefly thought maybe the kid was a somehow a younger version of the dad - oh no turns out kid's an alien. One of the main problems with Who is that that's pretty much always the answer. It can ruin the fantastical aspects of the show, whilst still being fairly poor SF as there's little exploration of the alien itself. The Doctor just says what it is and what it does and that's that. I think that's the tricky thing with having such a knowledgeable/powerful character.

Also there seem to be a fair few aliens just drifting about the universe looking for places to belong. I still like and feel bad for the little Isolus, but we don't even get to see what a Tenser(?) is, so really the Doctor might as well have said 'magic kid'.

The dollshouse thing was obvious after the wooden copper pan, and the point rather laboured by Rory and Amy refusing to open curtains or think about their location and the stuff they found there (that lantern was clearly oversized but there was no comment).
If you want to see a really good example of this kind of situation read The Magicians of Caprona by Diana Wynne Jones, I won't say more to avoid spoilers but it's very well done.
Not really sure what Rory and Amy are actually doing. I guess they're just there to run from the dolls, which are creepy enough on their own anyway. Also what happened to the old lady? I assume she ended up in the dollshouse, but then we don't see her. Is she a doll?

It was a creepy episode and provided decent enough chills and discomfort to contrast with familial scenes. The inclusion of other people besides the TARDIS crew and the family made it seem like a wider problem, though not as serious as in Fear Her. Not impressed by Rory and Amy though, they seemed fairly unconcerned by a mission to help a scared child - though given recent events I guess that's perfectly normal.

It feels like something's missing, what could it be?
Oh yeah. The baby!

Seriously these people lost their baby and they don't seem to give a damn. In a kid-based episode they seem unconcerned by anything other than their own safety. It's just cold.
In Fear Her Rose was all for investigating the disappearance of children that weren't related to her at all. However Amy and Rory seem content to forget they even had a kid (unplanned and unexpected though she might have been). I realise they know some of her backstory as River/Mels, but surely they also know that she had to die (possibly many times) to get to that point? And I realise logically-speaking that interfering with Melody's timeline could mess a lot of things up, but surely as a parent you would rail against that, sensible as it might be.

Of course we all know babies are a right pain on TV shows, they don't do anything dramatic, they don't have dialogue, they're unpredictable as performers and they take up a lot of time and attention. I suppose this is really a very convenient way of having your main characters have a child without actually having to worry about all that icky, boring, domestic, un-televisual child-rearing stuff. Possibly I'm being very cynical here, but I must say I'm hard pressed to find another reason.

I appreciate that finding Melody can't be the focus of every episode, Doctor Who is an adventure show and being too baby-focused would put people off, I get that. But shouldn't there at least be a scene where Amy and Rory comfort each other, or discuss their loss, or at least act as though they're aware they have a child? Their husband and wife chemistry was good, but so far their parental instincts are just dreadful.

4 September 2011

Doctor Who - Let's Kill Hitler

So a week behind I'll admit. I did do a Doctor Who related post about how I watch it, something which I think is worth mentioning in light of how I'm reviewing.

I think my main fear in the run up to the new Doctor Who episodes is that the amusingly-titled Let's Kill Hitler would just be a fun romp without answering any questions or progressing the ongoing arc.
Not that there's anything wrong with fun romps, they 'e obviously fun, but in a programme that's set up so much plot I find myself impatient for answers. The start of the series proved that the show has no problem halting plot for fun (as seen in that pirate episode) or leaving large plot holes between episodes (if anyone can tell me what actually happened between Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon I'd be fascinated to know).

As it turns out the episode was a fun romp full of plot relevant stuff, and many questions. This will contain spoilers, just warning you.

Emotional response
This was a fun episode.
It started with Rory & Amy contacting the Doctor via crop circle. A new character appeared, was given a hurried backstory that showed the early relationship of Amy and Rory. There was lots of running around, there were fun one liners, there was a shape-shifting robot/justice ship with a shrink ray! Posh people had their clothes stolen and ran out of a restaurant in their undies. Hitler was mocked, Rory punched out a Nazi, River was being cool! What more could we possibly want?
There was peril, the Doctor was killed (again, what is that about) but not for definite. We found out a lot more about River/Mels/Melody's story. It's all a plot, but who is plotting and why? Mystery and intrigue abound.

Intellectual response
This was fun and had some cool ideas, although it didn't entirely make sense and afterwards I find I still have many questions.
I liked that Rory and Amy are contacting the Doctor in order to get more information about their missing baby. Of course that got interrupted by the arrival of Mels, who I assumed would be River until she got out of the car -it was a very River-like entrance. (You can imagine how pleased I felt when she regenerated.) I liked Mels, I wouldn't be surprised if she were the only black kid in the village, I grew up in a rural village and there were less than 5 children at the village school who weren't white. Killing Hitler is a bit of a time travel fantasy, and also a rookie mistake, it's easy to see why this impulsive, trouble-prone girl has decided on this.

I liked the justice ship/robot, it was a neat idea. I also liked that those shooty death robots basically seemed to be antibodies. I'm hoping that in the future I can use this episode to explain my auto-immune condition and make it sound cooler. Of course it'll only work if someone has seen the episode, but I'm willing to give it a go.

Hitler was there but mostly as a background. He was more set dressing than a plot point or character. I suppose taking Hitler seriously immediately stops all the fun romping.

The Doctor turning up in a suit immediately reminded me of the last program I saw with Matt Smith in 1930s Berlin, of course that was Christopher and his Kind so I had to banish thoughts of loud, enthusiastic man-love.

Having River unaware of who she is and annoyed by everyone knowing more than she does is a nice turnaround to her enigmatic, knowing smile. IShe acted a bit immature, though she had been an irresponsible twentysomething just moments before. This also means that the Doctor/River relationship isn't going entirely in opposite temporal directions.
Well at least we now know why River doesn't regenerate in the library. Also interracial regeneration seems to be possible. There's still a chance Paterson Joseph fans.

Thing is, thing is... I don't know quite what's happening. It's all crazy and fun but I feel like I'm missing something. It didn't feel coherent as a story, more a set of fun things on which to hang some reveals.
One of the people I was watching with hasn't seen New Who, and commented that it must make more sense if you'd watched previous episodes. It was a good point, this was very much not a self-contained episode. It purported to give is answers, but really just raised more questions.
Lack of answers in TV is one of the things that has put me off series before, usually American series which do tend to do drag things out more. Then again this plot (or parts of it) has technically been going on for two series, so I think it's fair to say that it is being dragged out.

How does Mels know who Rory and Amy are? Has she seen them since she was a baby? She seems to have a lot of info as Mels, but not much as River? She must have regenerated again, right?
Why would a time travelling justice robot try to kill people before they've committed their crime? They aren't trying to prevent anything and they seem to have pretty accurate files, so surely they should know what time they're meant to strike?
Why was River created/brainwashed to kill the Doctor and how does that work?
Why aren't Amy and Rory a bit more curious about their daughter/best friend? Seriously, wasn't that why they initially contacted the Doctor? It seems as though whenever an issue about missing Melody comes up the answer is 'Oh well she's River, so it'll all be fine' and everyone just accepts that!

I have more questions, but I won't go on.

Overall it was a fun episode, but it was definitely one of those that didn't hold up to thinking.