Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins

I've just finished reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. It's been a while - since Deathly Hallows was released, actually - since I literally haven't been able to put a book down. I had to read it from 8 AM in bed till 2 PM and couldn't stop even when having lunch. I'm sure you all know the premise and are all aware of the raving reviews and all the buzz surrounding it, but just in case :

Katniss is a 16-year-old girl living with her mother and younger sister in the poorest district of Panem, the remains of what used be the United States. Long ago the districts waged war on the Capitol and were defeated. As part of the surrender terms, each district agreed to send one boy and one girl to appear in an annual televised event called, "The Hunger Games." The terrain, rules, and level of audience participation may change but one thing is constant: kill or be killed. When her sister is chosen by lottery, Katniss steps up to go in her place.

It's difficult to talk about this book without giving anything away. I cried and laughed before reaching page 20. It's a fast-paced, horrifying story with a strong heroine you can root for unreservedly. I was mesmerized, it's a great adventure novel with wonderful, well-fleshed characters. It's this great balance that makes everything work. It's a book that had me thinking about so many things in the world right now. I know I wanted to read the sequel (will be released in September) the minute I reached the end. Some twists were so original the whole time I was thinking "now if someone has something to say about that, this trick will silence him". The few times I wasn't quite sure about a characterization or a plot development, Collins introduced something else just afterwards that would make me feel stupid for even doubting it in the first place. I can see the political aspect of the story developing in the sequels as it got hinted at in the first volume, that would be terrific, it's got so much potential for being a great dystopia that says something relevant about today's society, The Hunger Games already had some of that. Spoilers :I can see Katniss, Gale and Peeta lead the revolution against the Capitol and bring it down - we'll learn more history about the 13th district. Reminds me of His Dark Materials. I hope we'll see more of Cinna, he was a great character and there's more to him than meets the eye, I think he could help them a great deal starting a new revolution. Same goes for Haymitch, although he isn't so obvious. I hope Katniss falls for Cinna actually, although I love both Gale and Peeta very much, it'd be nice if she could feel at home with somebody outside the triangle, and refreshing. Hope to see more cooperation between the districts, perhaps starting with Rue's district 11 since they know what Katniss did for their tribute.
Don't let Stephenie Meyer's recommendation scare you off it. It's really good storytelling and it deserves all the praise it got (and it got quite a lot).

Friday, January 30, 2009

I Write this Sitting in the Kitchen Sink

This has got to be the best picspam ever. It took me an hour to enjoy the whole of it properly. Do yourself a favour and go see it.


CJ: 25 years ago, half of all 18 to 24 year-olds voted. Today it's 25%. 18 to 24 year-olds represent 33% of the population but only account for 7% of the voters. Think government isn't about you? How many of you have student loans to pay? How many have credit-card debt? How many want clean air and clean water and civil liberties? How many want jobs? How many want kids? How many want their kids to go to good schools and walk on safe streets? Decisions are made by those who show up! You gotta rock the vote!

I've heard some wonderful news a few days ago : one of my favourite TV shows, American Dreams, has had three flawless seasons and was cancelled in 2005 but only the first season has made it to DVD so far. We've been waiting for 4 years to get the two following seasons that aired but were never released on DVD. And recently, the powers that be decided to make it happen soon. I'm beyond thrilled, this has been the best news of 2009 for me so far. It's so frustrating having to wait to see the episodes properly. It was a quality drama that depicted the life of a Philadelphia-based family in the 1960s, each of its members experiencing the changes of that era. Looks like the timing's right for this highly anticipated release ! The DVD cover looks a bit cheesy and makes it sound like it's all pure fluff but trust me, it's a drama, it just so happens that American Bandstand is prominently featured and is practically a character unto itself. I love this show so very much. The storylines are genius and you feel for all the characters. It's got some amazing musical moments (the main character, Meg Pryor is a regular dancer on American Bandstand, and everyboy knows 60s music is the best) and there are several contemporary stars doing covers of famous songs - on the background civil rights, football, a great friendship and great love stories. It's got everything.

I watched the 1999 adaptation of Mansfield Park and have to agree with the rest of the world : it's a rather entertaining movie but bears little ressemblance to the original source material. In fact, I liked it not because it's a faithful adaptation (the director didn't just use the novel but also Jane's letters and other writings, so Fanny has a lot of Jane in her (she writes) but because it's a pretty good commentary of the book. There's one much debated line in Mansfield Park that explains that Sir Thomas Bertram owns a plantation in Antigua and Fanny at some point asks about slavery. Rozema, the director, chose to show just how much Mansfield Park the estate was financed by slavery - the result is certainly food for thought and quite well-spotted. It's more an adaptation of the subtext of Mansfield Park, really.

There is a pretty good article in The Guardian entitled "Science fiction: the genre that dare not speak its name". It's about something we've always known I think : some books that are clearly science fiction are not labelled as such and manage to be classified "general fiction" or worse "literary fiction" or "literature" when they owe so much to the genre. Genre fiction has always had this problem. Up until last year, I didn't read "genre fiction" at all, I was solidly on the side of general fiction with its absence of labels. Or so I thought. One of my favourite writers was J.K. Rowling who so far has only written fantasy, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is a solid work of fantasy as well. Angela Carter whom I discovered last year, has written fantasy (The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories) and science fiction (The Passion of New Eve) which I loved, yet you won't find Angela Carter in the science fiction section of the bookshop. Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials was one of my favourite reads last year and it's a grand work of fantasy. I don't like genres at all, they're not very useful. I started a long post about what my thoughts on the topic but it got out of hand and I'll probably never post it. I dropped any sort of tag system on my LibraryThing (except the decade or century of publication which means nothing for the likes of Georgette Heyer for example, who cares if she wrote in the 50s there's not one single thing pertaining to the 50s in her books) due to my frustration with labels.

It's completely unrelated but, as much as I know you've already seen it ten times, I can't help but post the cover to a new book coming out in April :

"Pride and Prejudice and Zombies -- Pride and Prejudice and Zombies features the original text of Jane Austen's beloved novel with all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie action. As our story opens, a mysterious plague has fallen upon the quiet English village of Meryton—and the dead are returning to life! Feisty heroine Elizabeth Bennet is determined to wipe out the zombie menace, but she's soon distracted by the arrival of the haughty and arrogant Mr. Darcy."

I think the creepiest thing is that I actually want to read it. Will keep you posted. The phrase "it's so bad it's good" comes to mind. No, really, it's horrible. Or fun. Oh please let it be fun.

In other news, I finished, a little too quickly, La Prisonnière, the fifth book in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu by Proust. Proust has always been a comfort read to me - his books read like a long poem and I for one don't understand his reputation. His writings are crystal clear and contain so much truth. La Prisonnière is no exception - I place it high up there with the first two volumes. I just love him, he makes me see the world in a whole new way, and makes me appreciative of all it has to offer.

I discovered an excellent singer recently, Cesária Évora, who is Cape Verdean. In fact the story's a bit complicated : when I watched The Sisterhood the Traveling Pants 2 (don't laugh - I watched it for Amber Tamblyn and it had a gorgeous score composed by Rachel Portman), one song that wasn't on the score really caught my attention. Problem was, it was so subtle and was so much part of the background (only a guitar could be heard, no lyrics or singer or anything) that it wasn't referenced on even one website. I watched this precise scene again yesterday, months after watching the movie for the first time, eyes closed, speakers pressed upon my ears, concentrating very hard to distinguish the tiniest sound of a voice or even better, lyrics. I didn't catch anything but the guitar definitely reminded me of the little Cesária Évora I knew so I hunted this particular song on her albums - really without any hope, out of the billion of songs it could be - and finally found it : it's called Tiempo y Silencio and is available on her "São Vicente di Longe" album. Of course, in the process, I ended up listening to all the albums I could find and she's a true gem. Her songs are deeply moving, even the ones you can dance to (and there are quite a lot of those), and her voice is unmistakable. Here's the album São Vicente di Longe :


Wednesday, January 28, 2009

All the Delights of the Season

A very good Emily Gilmore picspam can be found here, enjoy :


I have lots of things to talk about. First of all, I've already talked about it but it's now official : Emma by my favourite writer Jane Austen will be adapted for TV in a four-hour miniseries and will be broadcast this year. The screenwriter is Sandy Welch, who is responsible for the amazing North and South (2005). She also wrote the script for the 2006 version of Jane Eyre and although the story has never been one I like, I must admit it's a very good version and it is a solid favourite among fans as well. I'm so happy Emma is being adapted again because I've never liked the two versions I've seen (the Miramax one released in 1996 and the ITV one broadcast in the same year, by the way, who else thinks it's strange we have two adaptations of the same book the same year? And it looks like next year we're going to have yet another adaptation of Wuthering Heights of all books, the size of their hubris, I swear). I truly love Emma and I can't wait for the adaptation. I know anybody who cares wants Richard Armitage to play George Knightley. Well, let me add to the general plea. A girl posted her ideal cast here and I agree with all her choices. I admit it would be terrific to see Lucy Griffiths star as Emma and be reunited with Richard Armitage (she played Marian in the BBC version of Robin Hood and had some kind of love story with Richard's Guy, and their characters need some closure -I didn't watch the series, I think it was corny, I just watched some clips here and there) and Kimberley Nixon was superb as Sophy in the wonderful Cranford but Carey Mulligan has been one of my favourite actresses for quite some time and she's been amazing in everything she's done, I think she'd make the best Emma. Time for me to rewatch my DVD of North and South !

John Thornton (Richard Armitage) and Margaret Hale (Daniela Denby-Ashe) in North and South (2005)

I've watched so many movies these past few days it's hard to keep track. My favourites were Libeled Lady (1936) and Love Crazy (1941) which I both watched for Myrna Loy and William Powell. They were hysterical. Libeled Lady is about

Warren Haggerty who is the chief editor of the New York Evening Star. He keeps on delaying his marriage with Gladys because of problems his newspapers must face. When it is filed a 5 million dollars claim by Connie Allenbury for having printed she is a marriage-breaker, he organizes the unconsummated marriage of Gladys and the don Juan Bill Chandler. The goal is to catch Connie alone with a married man...

The dialog is excellent and two scenes are among my all-time favourites (the fishing scene and the proposal scene). Amazing performances. Love Crazy is just WILD :

Steve and Susan Ireland are about to celebrate their 4th wedding anniversary by re-enacting their first date. When Susan's meddling mother interrupts and injures herself. Steve is left to take care of her and when he meets an old flame in the elevator--Susan's mother takes the opportunity to break-up their marriage. She convinces Susan that Steve is cheating on her-Susan files for divorce. Steve has one solution to save his marriage...Pretend he is insane.

William Powell cross-dressing, an excellent elevator scene, some of the funniest lines I've ever heard and my dear Myrna brightening the corner where she is. The cast of supporting characters was excellent too (the mother-in-law especially). That was so good! I've also watched Borzage's Little Man, What Now? (1934) :

A young couple struggling against poverty must keep their marriage a secret in order for the husband to keep his job, as his boss's daughter has a thing for him.

It was pure Borzage and it was a delight to see Margaret Sullavan on the screen, she's so effortlessly talented. In all of Borzage's movies, people are rich because they're in love, money's got nothing to do with it. It's utopia at its best. Naturally, I also watched The Thin Man (1934) which shows great potential coming from Loy and Powell who are both excellent, but less mystery, more Nick/Nora and more witty lines, a little silly supporting music and a more carefree and risqué attitude like in Libeled Lady would have made me happier. I think their pairing works best in fast-paced romantic comedies. I'll watch the rest of the Thin Man movies, though, because I love them.

I also watched some more contemporary movies for example Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (2008) , a teen romance.Watched this for Kat Dennings and Michael Cera as I have a crush on both of them, and for obvious reasons I've just explained (yes, the title of the book it's adapted from is a reference to the couple of The Thin Man). It was okay, had a good atmosphere but some scenes were gross and it was pretty shallow. Without a very unnecessary subplot (one of their friends is drunk and is missing in New York, so they spend the night trying to find her, and while drunk she does some pretty disturbing things) it could have been a feel-good movie, mostly because of the leads who really look like they're having fun. I loved the idea of falling in love via mixtapes (i.e. the other person's taste in music), it was very sweet. Finally, I managed to watch Dead Like Me : Life After Death (2009). It felt great seeing the cast again (although with no real Daisy and no Rube it doesn't feel the same). The plot was so-so (Reggie's storyline was terrible - she falls for a boy who already has a superpolar girlfriend and the boy has an accident, so was Cameron's), the best part was George's. Yet, continuity mistakes (how come nothing "from above" happens to them? The reapers messed everything up) but almost the same feel as the series, although it wasn't as philosophical and deep, which I terribly missed. You can tell it's not Bryan Fuller, it was too conventional.

Now to the wondrous world of books. Bibliovore made a very useful post about the ALA Youth Media Awards that award the best children's and YA books. It's a huge list, and I want to read many books on it. Congratulations to Neil Gaiman who is so far, along with Terry Pratchett, my favourite new (to me) author this year and who won the prestigious Newbery Medal for The Graveyard Book (which I still have to buy and read, hurry up Sibylle). Sir (!) Pratchett won a Printz Honor for Nation (same goes, I'm behind on everything) so my congratulations to him also! By the way, I bought two books that seem to be very popular right now, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and Graceling by Kristin Cashore (who's got a pretty good blog). If last year somebody had told me that I would buy and read so much fantasy and YA this year, I wouldn't have believed it. Who knew I'd be talking about Discworld, Shadow, dystopias and seven kingdoms? But then who knew I could love some (not all) rock, also? Life sure is full of surprises!

I finished an excellent biography of Georgiana Cavendish (née Spencer) that was truly inspiring. Amanda Foreman's Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire is a absorbing book about a wonderful woman. In her introduction, Foreman makes sure we know that even though Georgiana's life was incredible, she was not ahead of her times, she was very much a woman of her times. It's hard to believe. Georgiana was a great unacknowledged politician who was passionate about Whig politics which she defended on the street, working hard to get the votes of everybody who could cast his. She knew she was right to want the power of the king to be at least counterbalanced by a legislative power. Georgiana realised at the end of her life that the next challenge would be to have women equal to men in the public sphere, knowing that she was "a politician without a vote" as Foreman puts it. The duchess set the tone in fashion and she was an exceptionally loyal friend and loved more than she was loved, and never by halves. She wrote what sounds like a truly surprising book coming from a Duchess, The Sylph in which an innocent country girl learns to live the life of a fashionable person but not without its many trials with the help of a cruel man who is violent to her and all women whom he meets. The girl is ultimately saved and marries properly. Georgiana's real problem was with money. She was constantly in debt and none of her friends could trust her enough to lend her any money. It seemed to me reading the biography that she wasn't entirely conscious of what money really meant. Although she knew the amount of money she didn't have, it didn't seem to have any significance to her, they were just numbers.
I personally loved reading about the many famous people Georgiana was friends with, for example she was a close friend of Marie-Antoinette and the Comtesse de Polignac - I read Antonia Fraser's excellent and comprehensive biography of Marie-Antoinette last year and it was immensely interesting comparing the two lives. The style of the book itself made for a very easy, highly readable account of a very interesting life. That's the difference, I think, between good biographies and unreadable ones. Foreman sure knows how to select compelling events in a designated year and when she quotes passages from letters they are never long and are in clear prose. I really enjoyed reading this biography and I'm even more sure now that the movie The Duchess is really a blink-and-you-miss-it account of Georgiana Cavendish's life. Her love affair with Charles Grey is about 10 pages long in a 400-page book. Foreman doesn't think Georgiana's life can be reduced to her relationship with a single man, and I applaud that. The woman was a full being and deserves better.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Wuthering Heights - Episode 2

Flat is the first word that comes to mind. I gave my lenghty opinion on the first part on this same blog so I'm not going to say it again as I have the same issues with it.

I was shocked to see the little time given to Hareton and Cathy's relationship, and more specifically to the absence of such a relationship. The made it seem as if Cathy had always been in love with him which is so not true to the book. I've already talked about this in my first post so I'm not going to repeat it but really, I was hoping for something more.

Catherine and Heathcliff stole the show, as was expected. It disappointed me very much as the book doesn't only focus on them. Poor Nelly, she didn't have much screen time although she's one of the main characters in the novel. The whole thing was too simple and wasn't nearly as crazy as the book, one scream of pain, however powerfully done, does not craziness make. The gothic was barely here, Catherine's ghost made but a short apparition and I couldn't find any difference between the supposed moor and any other country landscape. The music could have supported that but all we had was a score which I agree was beautiful but was only supporting the love story. I disagree. Wuthering Heights is more than that, Bram Stoker used Heathcliff as an inspiration for Dracula. Well, he sure couldn't have used Tom Hardy's Heathcliff for that, all the characters looked very much grounded in reality when it's a novel of excess and surfeit.

There's no questioning the actors' talent, they were all excellent in portraying the characters, it's the script and TV restrictions that are to blame. A longer, more passionate adaptation would have been refreshing and would have introduced new people to an original, shocking story. There was barely anything shocking in what we were shown and I for one won't be buying the DVD.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

This and That

Before I forget, here's another Lorelai picspam :


EMILY: And what about me confuses you, Lorelai?
Well, so many things. I mean, for example, why can't you keep a maid in this house? I mean, there must've been a thousand women who've gone through here in the thirty-two years that I've been alive, and not one of them could stick it out.
And this is what we need to discuss right now?
LORELAI: These are women from countries that have dictatorships and civil wars and death squads and all of that they survived, but five minutes working for Emily Gilmore, and people are begging for Castro.

I'm still reading Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman, it's really good. My holidays have proven to be more hectic than I thought they would. I still managed to squeeze in some DVD time as I watched my brand new DVD of Lilies (I talked about it here) which was even better than the first time, if that's possible. I laughed and cried my heart out. I also watched my brand new copy of Miss Austen Regrets which was so good and intelligent, a real gem with wonderful performances and a great portrayal of my favourite writer. I finished to rewatch for the nth time the first and second seasons of Gilmore Girls, which remains my favourite show. And Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was everything I remembered it to be and more. I also made a discovery as I saw Christmas in Connecticut for the first time today. I've always admired Barbara Stanwyck and this movie has the right balance of humorous moments and a great romance. It's the story of Elizabeth Lane who writes cookery and domestic books about her life in a farm with her husband and her baby. The thing is, the real Elizabeth Lane lives in a flat, can't boil an egg, isn't married and doesn't have a baby. One day, she's told a soldier who knows all about her supposedly very domestic life will come to her house to have a proper holiday. Hilarity ensues. The idea that an unmarried woman who earns her own living needs somehow to be fixed and live up to the domestic ideal she helped creating is repulsive but if you can get past it, it has some great dialog and Stanwyck delivers a great performance as usual.

Let's see... I was thrilled when I heard the news about Universal releasing some of their pre-code movies, following in Warner's footsteps. I still have some catching up to do as I haven't bought any of the box sets yet (perhaps if I won the lottery) but I saw some of the movies and they're as surprising and refreshing as you might expect.

That's about it ! I'm closing this with the catchy Everly Brothers.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Les Chansons d'Amour

I started a post about Louis Garrel but I quickly realized that all my sentences started and ended with "Les Chansons d'Amour", so I might as well do a Les Chansons d'Amour post. It's my favourite of his movies (I really like La Belle Personne as well, but Les Chansons d'Amour owns my heart If you want my opinion, forget Ma Mère and Dans Paris).

He is one of my favourite actors and Les Chansons d'Amour is one of my favourite movies, for numerous reasons. It's a movie, as the title suggests, about love. The director depicts the life of young people who are full of life falling in and out of love, in and out life. Ismaël lives with Julie in a Parisian flat in the 10ème arrondissement and they both start to feel the routine of their love life to be too much to bear (this is what the song Inventaire is all about - Je ne trouve plus rien de neuf à te dire). They invite Alice (played by Clotilde Hesme) into their flat to spice it up a little and see if they can reconnect. After about 20 minutes, Julie dies suddenly. It takes humility in an actress for her to leave a movie in which she's a lead after only 20 minutes. Ismaël, brilliantly portrayed by Louis Garrel, has to move on and he does so better than Julie's family. On the surface, he seems to have forgotten all about his girlfriend when everybody wants him to remember and talk about his suffering.
This movie is so much a part of me it's hard to talk about it. I have perhaps never felt so close to fictional characters before. It takes place in Paris, not in an idealized Paris (although the language used is a bit more posh than the one I use) but the real Paris filmed here as in a documentary. I've lived in Paris all my life and seeing the city I've always known being the background of such a hopeful story brought me more than I can express. It simply feels like home.

Il faudra bien que tu t'avances si on veut combler la distance entre nous

The movie was shot during the presidential race of 2007, about 4 months before the election in May (it was shot in January) and everywhere there are subtle references to the political context, how could there not be? Ismaël and Alice work for a newspaper and that's what made the headlines in January 2007. It takes intelligence to make a movie about youth in 2007. Absolutely nobody before had ever targetted youth as the cause of all evil the way Sarkozy did during the campaign. The movie feels so contemporary and makes a beautiful statement. It's a little bubble of resistance in itself.

As-tu déjà aimé pour la beauté du geste?

Later, Christophe Honoré, the director, would do a movie called La Belle Personne (starring Louis Garrel again, but also several actors who already worked with him on Les Chansons d'Amour, including Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) inspired by the book La Princesse de Clèves by Mme de LaFayette after he heard the same president despising this 17th century novel (the first historical novel, at least in France) in one of his speeches as too literary and too difficult for the common man. Honoré's answer was a movie in which the plot of La Princesse de Clèves is easy to relate to and even the common man can find echoes of it in everyday life.

Je suis beau, jeune et breton, je sens la pluie, l'océan et les crêpes au citron

The songs used during the movie are all excellent, the lyrics are sophisticated, sexy (Je n'aime que toi), sometimes lyrical (Ma Mémoire Sale) - I've never been fond of musicals but here it works beautifully, it never feels forced. The actors, wo aren't professional singers, do a great job with the songs composed by Alex Beaupain, and the music is splendid. By the end of the movie, Ismaël embraces his feelings for Julie but realizes he feels more alive than he's ever felt with somebody else, Erwan, brilliantly portrayed by Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet. Ismaël lets it all go and gives in to love. This movie is a tribute to love, a tribute to hope, to moving on and making each day count.

Aime-moi moins, mais aime-moi longtemps

From left to right : Louis Garrel, Chiara Mastroiani, Clotilde Hesme, Ludivine Sagnier, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

These Old Shades - Georgette Heyer

Under the reign of Louis XV, corruption and intrigue have been allowed to blossom in France, and Justin Alastair, the notorious Duke of Avon and proud of his soubriquet 'Satanas', flourishes well. Then, from a dark Parisian back alley, he plucks Leon, a red-headed urchin with strangely familiar looks, just in time for his long over-due schemes of revenge on the Comte de St Vire. Among the splendours of Versailles and the dignified mansions of England, Justin begins to unfold his sinister plans - until, that is, Leon becomes the ravishing beauty Leonie...

I finished These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer just this minute. I'm a bit disappointed as Friday's Child (my introduction to Heyer) was way funnier than this one in which all the humour relied on the discrepancy that is present when a lady is being unladylike. I couldn't warm up to the hero or the heroine either, she's too grateful towards him to ever have anything to say that's not related to him.
It's such drivel but I don't feel too guilty reading her books either, because she's got a great sense of the period and I always end up learning something anyway.

I feel Heyer writes heroes we're supposed to fall head over heels for but doesn't really bother to make her heroines strong or have a mind of their own. I liked the end of the book as Léonie still speaks the way she's used to despite being scolded throughout the book for it, but it doesn't erase the fact that she treats the Duke like a god when he barely does anything to deserve her gratitude. Perhaps I haven't chosen the right books - I'll read Devil's Cub (which is the sequel to These Old Shades) when I have the chance.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The best things in life are free

I try to watch at least one movie everyday when I'm on holiday. These past few days, I decided to focus on Ernst Lubitsch as he's one of my favourite directors.
The Love Parade is a 1929 musical starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. I didn't have high hopes for this one as I don't seem to care much for musicals and I find Chevalier's acting quite painful. Well, it still managed to disappoint me. I cannot believe it was nominated for six Academy Awards (so they were blind back then too, good to know). It has Lubitsch's sophisticated touch but I think I could have done without this particular movie. There's so much forced acting everywhere and the songs are very forgettable.
Luckily enough, I watched Ninotchka for the first time not long afterwards and it restored my faith in the director. Garbo/Douglas is a really good pairing that works beautifully and it's full of memorable one-liners that I found hilarious.

Ninotchka: We don't have men like you in my country.
Leon: Thank you.
Ninotchka: That is why I believe in the future of my country.

The whole movie is based on the constant distanciation between funny situations and Ninotchka's practical response to them. It's full of propaganda : Ninotchka, because she's Russian, is depicted as very cold and strict compared to the carefree French but the movie was released in 1939 so I find it surprising - I would have expected this kind of stereotype during the Cold War, not in 1939. It's interesting. The movie is definitely the kind I would love to own on DVD. You can watch the movie on YouTube here.

Peeps by Scott Westerfeld was disgusting (it's all about parasites) but compelling and very interesting. The whole idea that vampirism is in fact an illness that can be scientifically and rationally explained is scary as hell and original. I loved what Westerfeld did with Darwin's theory of evolution, it feels like a direct example of what this theory implies. This book should be in every school's library, it is hugely readable science and the plot was good, the characters believable. I wanted to know more about them. Definitely an author I'll keep reading.

I thought I had seen Neil Gaiman at his best in Coraline and Stardust but obviously I couldn't have been further from the truth. American Gods is impossible to sum up accurately but the best I can say is that it follows Shadow, a man who's just been released from prison, on a journey across the USA where he will meet gods, ghosts and common humans alike. This book is of epic proportions : Gaiman talks about everything and everyone in it, from a chapter dedicated to describing a slave's journey to America to Shadow's own personal quest for peace. It's a very compelling book. Not only because the characters are hugely interesting and depicted warmly as is always the case in Gaiman, but also because it challenges the reader. Some passages are particularly apt to explain why the book won the Bram Stoker award for horror fiction. I feel - it may be presumptious - that thanks to this book I have a better understanding of what the USA is all about. How timely that I should have finished this book the day before an inauguration that seems to carry so much hope and be the theatre of so many myths embodied by one single man. On Martin Luther King's day. The last sentences of the book struck home in a way they could only have struck home yesterday.

May history be made. Happy inauguration everybody !

Wuthering Heights - Episode 1

I finally managed to see the first part of the new adaptation of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, starring Tom Hardy as Heathcliff and Charlotte Riley as Catherine and broadcast on PBS in the USA. It will be broadcast on ITV in April in the UK.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first part. I've read the book and I like it as an object of analysis, not so much as a story, but still.

I loved the two leads, they do a really great job portraying the characters, although I'm afraid they toned down Catherine's personality a little too much for my taste. It does make her more likeable but it isn't true to the book. Same goes for Heathcliff (I for one think Tom Hardy's gorgeous, which certainly doesn't help as Heathcliff doesn't have that effect on me at all) who I thought had his fair share of intimate moments with Catherine that gave us a pretty good glimpse of what she saw in him.

I kept focusing on what they had changed during the first 30 minutes, then I managed to get over it. I'm really disappointed in the fact that they didn't keep Nelly's narrative, and Lockwood's diary, that was crucial in my opinion. How often do you have a servant narrating such a story ? How often does a respectable gentleman come across as stupid ? Emily Brontë questions class very much in her book and it is practically absent here. Perhaps they thought the audience wouldn't understand since we don't live in such a system anymore - I still think it's a mistake not to take advantage of the different filters offered by the book. Here, the notion of truth is not questioned (in the book, since the story always comes filtered by at least one character, Nelly or Lockwood, even Isabella at some point, truth is very much an issue : how much do they tell us, how much do they keep from us ?) Here, nothing is as ambiguous.
Besides, Cathy Linton appears as much less stubborn than she does in the book - in the production she follows Heathcliff first and hears Nelly's warning afterwards, in the book she goes as far as Wuthering Heights on her own despite being warned beforehand. Again, mistake, although she didn't deserve what happened to her afterwards, Cathy is no angel. I liked Hareton, although we didn't see much of him. Cathy isn't as rude to him as she is in the book, again, mistake - notion of class, people. I hope they'll show more of that in the second part.
Another issue of mine had to do with the total absence of nature : where on earth is Brontë's romanticism in this adaptation? Where's the Gothic? We barely saw the moor, there's absolutely no gothic element whatsoever (problem with the timeline here, perhaps that'll be shown in the second part), it lacks supernatural, Wuthering Heights the house feels too much like yet another victorian house when it is the exact opposite. Too much realism.

I hope the second part will be wilder and transgressive. It's a difficult book to adapt, I even think it's impossible but I think the production has potential and despite my many issues with it, as I said, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Here's hoping to less likeable characters, more passion and more craziness. Wuthering Heights is a very subversive book and so far the production has toned it down just like it did for Hardy's Tess. What is it with ITV and the BBC that they can't take dark stories and adapt them as such ? We're in 2009, it's time to wake up. So no, the audience probably won't like the characters but then they weren't created to be likeable anyway, and no, the audience probably won't consider it as a feel good period drama that's nice and cosy and can be watched with a cup of tea. But really, what's the problem in that ? Would it be too much to ask for a challenging story once in a while ?

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Back to Normal

I can't believe how much I missed this journal. Midterms are over, I'm now on holiday and can finally update it properly.

First of all, I would like to link to this very good post written by Ronni on her journal. I don't have enough knowledge of YA fiction to write something relevant about it as I barely read any but I love her ideas on it and what she says about Twilight reflects my opinion about the series. I don't think I focus on one genre but I understand why she's angry at writers who completely destroy the genre(s) she cherishes when being reactionary and just plain stupid. It really doesn't do any service to YA fiction and it sure isn't a good example of what the genre has to offer. Ronni has read YA and fantasy for quite some time and I trust her completely in her recommendations. You should, too. A short excerpt :

"Twilight is, in its essence, a story about teenage female sexuality, sans sex. (It is, as the author of the article writes, a ‘1000-page treatise on the art of foreplay’.) And yet Meyer’s extreme preachiness - her ‘true love waits’ abstinence-only views, her extreme pro-life didacticism - is not merely wrong, it is dangerous."

In other news, I would like to officially say that I'm over Persephone Books. I have always had my issues with them from day one but I've decided I've read enough to have an idea of what they publish. Greenery Street is just about the silliest book I have ever read and I struggled to finish it. No substance, horrible characters who are nonetheless loved by the author- the very philosophy of Persephone disgusts me to no end. As far as I'm concerned they've reprinted some excellent books but most of what they publish is rubbish and I totally understand why these books were "forgotten". What's the point of bringing them back into print? Greenery Street tells the story of Felicity and Ian who move in a little flat on Greenery Street once they're married. I wanted to slap Felicity so many times in the book I lost count. I've never met a more stupid girl in my life. At some point, she and Ian have an argument about her spending too much money (she buys an expensive dress she knows she can't afford and then at home thinks it's really a horrible dress and doesn't put it on even once) and Ian explains to her that she can't do that or they'll have problems with the bank. Felicity says nothing, doesn't apologize, lies saying she doesn't remember anything, blames money "which spoils everything" (that's right, just talk about light things when you're in a couple and nothing serious, that's always worked) and guilts Ian who doesn't want to make her cry even if she acts like a spoilt child throughout the whole book. I loathe her. Later on in the book, Ian wants to sign a petition that will make life better for them (can't remember what it was about but it wasn't very big) but when Felicity hears that the petition was initiated by one of their socialist neighbours, she convinces Ian that he cannot possibly sign it. Ian doesn't care about the politics behind the petition and wants to sign it anyway because it will change something in his life, but she insists saying that if he doesn't even know what socialism is (she thinks about murder and plans to Kill the Rich, whatever that means), then he can't be one and can't sign a petition initiated by a socialist. They leave it at that, Ian doesn't sign the petition and life goes on in endless descriptions of how "lovely" everything is since they moved in. There's even a story about their owning a child slave, to make it even more appalling.
That added to the racism in many of the books they've reprinted, the so-called "essence of femaleness" supposed to be associated to linens, flowers and pretty things. I can't stand it anymore. Persephone, you and me, we're done.

Luckily enough, I also read some excellent books these past few days. I didn't it do it on purpose but there were all fantasy books. The first one was Mort by Terry Pratchett, which was insane. I chose this one because I read a lot about which Pratchett book one should choose to start with and Death's story arc was the most frequently mentioned, along with the Witches' one. I chose Death's, because I found the concept original and I wasn't disappointed. I read it in one day as I couldn't put it down.
Here's the summary :

Although the scythe isn't pre-eminent among the weapons of war, anyone who has been on the wrong end of, say, a peasants' revolt will know that in skilled hands it is fearsome. For Mort however, it is about to become one of the tools of his trade. From henceforth, Death is no longer going to be the end, merely the means to an end. He has received an offer he can't refuse. As Death's apprentice he'll have free board, use of the company horse and being dead isn't compulsory. It's the dream job until he discovers that it can be a killer on his love life...

It was outstanding, definitely a favourite. This book has everything, it's hilarious and touching at parts - I thought the end was incredibly well-written, and the last few lines were so good. I think I was smiling all the way through my reading, when I wasn't laughing. It makes references to everything and there's always something to laugh at - at some point, Death goes to a bar, gets drunk and talks about his loneliness. There is a passage in particular that I found very good. Mort has to kill a witch called Goodie Hamstring and she knows it and surrenders to her death quite willingly. She seems him coming, greets him, and closes her shop, making sure that everything's in order, they sit down and look at the sky and watch the sand drop in Goodie's hourglass. This is such a poetic moment, and Pratchett manages it beautifully. What I loved most about this book is that it's incredibly compelling and the story really sucks you in, it's an adventure, and yet an adventure that is not without its purpose. It's full of life and humanity.

I found the same qualities in Neil Gaiman's Stardust, and I understand why the two authors wrote a book together. Gaiman's main quality isn't humour but in both Coraline and Stardust I found what I also found in Pratchett, a deep generosity. They are both able to create incredible characters that are excellent because honest and touching. I don't have any other words, both authors in their books seem so human. Does is sound strange because they write fantasy ? I don't think so. At least, it shouldn't. Stardust is clearly a fairytale for adults. Here's the summary :

There is a way into Faerie, beyond the fields we know, and it lies in a village called Wall, somewhere in the early Victorian era. Every nine years there is a fair on the other side of the wall, where Faerie sells its wares to the mundane. Farmer Duncan Thorne had his moment of mad love with a witch's bondservant; Tristan, his son, turned up in a basket nine months later. Now Tristan is old enough to fall in love, and promises Victoria a falling star... This is a fairy story in the tradition of George MacDonald and Hope Mirlees; a book of passion and terror and wit which reminds us that Faerie is not a safe place, or a fair one. And at its edges there lurk other stories--Neil Gaiman's work in comics and television has previously shown his capacity to evoke mystery and glorious magic by telling us just enough and no more, but he excels himself here. Charles Vess's illustrations, (Vess collaborated with Gaiman on key episodes of The Sandman), have charm and occasionally more--the stars dance, Pan looms from the forest, a witch queen rides a chariot driven by goats and Tristan journeys by candlelight leagues at a step.

Let's get this out of the way right now : Gaiman's prose is impeccable. His poetry fits the genre of the fairytale completely. Tristran is one of the best characters I've ever met - he's kind and sensible, although foolish at the beginning, he is very likeable. Violence and sex are introduced alongside unicorns and falling stars. Just like traditional fairytales before they were toned down. Gaiman is very special.
I saw the movie the day after I finished the book and it's one of this rare instances of an adaptation living up to the original source material. It's beautiful and although I saw the differences between the two (the movie is way funnier, the book explores more themes) the spirit remains. The casting is superb and every actor seems dedicated to the project. I was enchanted.

I also read Beauty by Robin McKinley, who seems to be a favourite among fantasy fans. It's a "retelling of Beauty and the Beast" (this is the subtitle). I really liked it, although not as much as the other two. It had some interesting twists (I liked what she did with the Beast's famous library - it contains books that "have yet to be written", Beauty picks up a collection of poems by Robert Browning for example) and the writing style was clear. I need to buy her Damar books, which are very popular.

In other news, I've been obsessed with the Puppini Sisters for quite some time and the obsession grew recently. Their music is great, their clothes are great, and they're witty, sexy, funny. Just look at these lyrics from their original song Jilted, taken from the superb album The Rise and Fall of Ruby Woo :

Hmmm I've been jilted again
He packed his bags and left whistling a happy song
I jumped through hoops to keep that man
Oh how did I get it so wrong?

I tried new positions
I learned his friends names
I made myself sit through football games
Oh, Been jilted
Been jilted again

Please watch the video clip, it's hilarious. I love them, they're incredibly talented. I want them to take over the world. Also, I desperately want to see them perform live.

And two picspams to finish : one of Lorelai Gilmore, my role model (please please watch Gilmore Girls) :


RORY: I printed up some sample invitations for you. I made them on my computer.
RORY: All you have to do is pick out a quote for the front page, and I'll print 'em up.
LORELAI: "We have buried the putrid corpse of liberty." Perfect!
RORY: Mussolini it is.

And one of Rose Dewitt Bukater, for obvious reasons (i.e. Kate, you rock). And this is the time I choose to admit that yes, I love Titanic.


ROSE: I'd rather be his whore than your wife.

Now, will my computer freeze ? Let's find out !

The Reader's Dozen (Almost...)

MarcyJo did that on her LiveJournal and I thought it was a good idea. The rules were to choose our 12 favourite books. If the books are part of a series, we were to list our favorite book in that series, not all of them. And we were to try not to cheat. I failed. I picked 16 because I can't choose, and I picked two books by the same author. But I didn't pick more than one in a series ! Here are my sixteen favourite books in alphabetical order. Bear in mind that when I list one book in a series, I adore the whole series.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen/The Hours by Michael Cunningham/A Room With a View by E.M. Forster/My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann/Atonement by Ian McEwan/Sula by Toni Morrison/Miss Charity by Marie-Aude Murail

A l'Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleurs by Marcel Proust/The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman/The Tiger in the Well by Philip Pullman/Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith/Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild/Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters/Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Back in a flash with tons of things.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

This and That

Have you seen the lovely new commercial for the Miss Dior Chérie perfume, directed by Sofia Coppola ? I really love her movies and she doesn't disappoint here. The song is Moi je Joue by Brigitte Bardot, from when she was great (changed a lot since then, and for the worst).

Last, but not least, a hilarious quote from Gilmore Girls 5x11 Women of Questionable Morals, which I've just watched again :

KIRK: (runs into Luke's diner) My girlfriend's the whore! My girlfriend's the whore! (runs out)
LORELAI: Great, now I’m not even the town whore.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Round About a Pound a Week, Children Who Lived in a Barn, Placebo

Round About a Pound a Week was very interesting and humbling. I wish they had included a chart with what these figures would mean today, but I managed to get a pretty good idea of what it was worth in the end (which isn't much !)
Pember Reeves writes beautifully and it never felt tedious, it's quite cleverly organized, too. I love her ideas and as the Persephone website says, it is definitely "relevant to today's Britain". The preface did say that it hadn't changed much since it was published, it's appalling.

The Children Who Lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham is the story of five siblings whose parents have gone to look after their grandmother and have left them alone to take care of themselves. The eldest is but 14. It was published in 1938. 70 years later, I found the book really terrifying at times - how on earth can people let this happen ? The children manage even though it's very tough and I felt sorry for Sue, the eldest, more than once. Some characters were complete stereotypes - the parents - and I missed the characterization a writer like Noel Streatfeild for example, would have brought. I enjoyed the book, though, even though it sounded completely unrealistic at times, some details were lovely and some lines very funny.

I gave up on Deadwood and Weeds because I want to rewatch as many of my DVDs as I can before going abroad for a year. I won't be able to take my DVDs with me so I might as well enjoy them while I still can. Nothing much to report, my midterms are dangerously close and I'm focusing on those right now. Nevertheless, I always manage to squeeze in some reading/watching/listening hours even in the busiest of times, and I've recently discovered an album by Placebo thanks to a fanmix. Unusually for me I discovered their newest album first (I usually go chronologically), it's called Meds and was released in 2007, and my favourite song is Post Blue (the one from the fanmix), but the whole album's very cool.

I leave you with a picture of Louis Garrel, as a teaser of things to come.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

"Run mad as often as you chuse, but do not faint"

Have people forgotten that Jane Austen is the complete opposite of sentimental ? That everywhere in her books, sentimentality is laughed at ? I'm currently doing a Masters on Humour in Jane's Northanger Abbey and Persuasion for just this purpose. Makes me sick sometimes to read the kind of paraliterature involving the author or her work. Sugary relationships and no humour. Look at the adaptations ! As much as I love the one done for Northanger Abbey (ITV 2007), has anyone really READ THE BOOK ? The best line in it is, I think, the following (of course cut from the script) : "I must confess that his affections resulted in nothing better than gratitude, or in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought". I'm not even talking about the insult that is the BBC adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. Jane laughed at romanticism in any form, it's just plain cruel to try and force sentimentality in a work that simply is the opposite. Stop thinking that Jane Austen is your personal Barbara Cartland in period clothes. Jane is one of the funniest writers I've ever read and looking at bestsellers today, I wonder if anybody has ever read and understood her. To all the fainting heroines, the sparkling heroes and the so-called perfect Darcys and marble bodies, to the authors and screenwriters who try to make us think swoon should be of national importance, to all the readers who think so too, I say reread Jane Austen. And catch up.

Extract from The Common Reader, Virginia Woolf (1925)

"It is probable that if Miss Cassandra Austen had had her way we should have had nothing of Jane Austen’s except her novels. To her elder sister alone did she write freely; to her alone she confided her hopes and, if rumour is true, the one great disappointment of her life; but when Miss Cassandra Austen grew old, and the growth of her sister’s fame made her suspect that a time might come when strangers would pry and scholars speculate, she burnt, at great cost to herself, every letter that could gratify their curiosity, and spared only what she judged too trivial to be of interest.

Hence our knowledge of Jane Austen is derived from a little gossip, a few letters, and her books. As for the gossip, gossip which has survived its day is never despicable; with a little rearrangement it suits our purpose admirably. For example, Jane “is not at all pretty and very prim, unlike a girl of twelve . . . Jane is whimsical and affected,” says little Philadelphia Austen of her cousin. Then we have Mrs. Mitford, who knew the Austens as girls and thought Jane “the prettiest, silliest, most affected husband-hunting butterfly she ever remembers “. Next, there is Miss Mitford’s anonymous friend “who visits her now [and] says that she has stiffened into the most perpendicular, precise, taciturn piece of ‘single blessedness’ that ever existed, and that, until Pride and Prejudice showed what a precious gem was hidden in that unbending case, she was no more regarded in society than a poker or firescreen. . . . The case is very different now”, the good lady goes on; “she is still a poker—but a poker of whom everybody is afraid. . . . A wit, a delineator of character, who does not talk is terrific indeed!” On the other side, of course, there are the Austens, a race little given to panegyric of themselves, but nevertheless, they say, her brothers “were very fond and very proud of her. They were attached to her by her talents, her virtues, and her engaging manners, and each loved afterwards to fancy a resemblance in some niece or daughter of his own to the dear sister Jane, whose perfect equal they yet never expected to see.” Charming but perpendicular, loved at home but feared by strangers, biting of tongue but tender of heart—these contrasts are by no means incompatible, and when we turn to the novels we shall find ourselves stumbling there too over the same complexities in the writer.

To begin with, that prim little girl whom Philadelphia found so unlike a child of twelve, whimsical and affected, was soon to be the authoress of an astonishing and unchildish story, Love and Freindship, which, incredible though it appears, was written at the age of fifteen. It was written, apparently, to amuse the schoolroom; one of the stories in the same book is dedicated with mock solemnity to her brother; another is neatly illustrated with water-colour heads by her sister. These are jokes which, one feels, were family property; thrusts of satire, which went home because all little Austens made mock in common of fine ladies who “sighed and fainted on the sofa”.

Brothers and sisters must have laughed when Jane read out loud her last hit at the vices which they all abhorred. “I die a martyr to my grief for the loss of Augustus. One fatal swoon has cost me my life. Beware of Swoons, Dear Laura. . . . Run mad as often as you chuse, but do not faint. . . .” And on she rushed, as fast as she could write and quicker than she could spell, to tell the incredible adventures of Laura and Sophia, of Philander and Gustavus, of the gentleman who drove a coach between Edinburgh and Stirling every other day, of the theft of the fortune that was kept in the table drawer, of the starving mothers and the sons who acted Macbeth. Undoubtedly, the story must have roused the schoolroom to uproarious laughter. And yet, nothing is more obvious than that this girl of fifteen, sitting in her private corner of the common parlour, was writing not to draw a laugh from brother and sisters, and not for home consumption. She was writing for everybody, for nobody, for our age, for her own; in other words, even at that early age Jane Austen was writing. One hears it in the rhythm and shapeliness and severity of the sentences. “She was nothing more than a mere good-tempered, civil, and obliging young woman; as such we could scarcely dislike her—she was only an object of contempt.” Such a sentence is meant to outlast the Christmas holidays. Spirited, easy, full of fun, verging with freedom upon sheer nonsense,—Love and Freindship is all that; but what is this note which never merges in the rest, which sounds distinctly and penetratingly all through the volume? It is the sound of laughter. The girl of fifteen is laughing, in her corner, at the world."

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Noel Streatfeild

In December 2007 was broadcast a beautiful adaptation of Ballet Shoes, a book written by Noel Streatfeild and published in 1936. This classic of children's literature is a gem that introduced me to an amazing writer. She wrote 23 books for children and 16 for adults and was very prolific till the 70s but it seems to me that she is now unjustly forgotten. Her stories never give in to sentimentalism - the characters in her children's books have an artistic gift or lack any artistic gift but want to succeed and need to succeed because they need the money to help their guardians. It it the case of the Fossil sisters in Ballet Shoes but also of Sorel, Mark and Holly un Curtain Up and of Rachel and Hillary in Wintle's Wonders. The rationing imposed by the Second World War are depicted through the crumpling of ballet skirts, children who repeat their lines, auditions to get a part that will pay for a proper dress.
It is perhaps the family portraits Noel Streatfeild does that are the most interesting aspect of her works - without realising this small revolution it seems, she describes in 1936 that of a family that is one not because it is conventional (the Fossil sisters have all been abandoned by their parents but don't seem affected by it), but because it is made of affinity and mutual tenderness (a family has nothing to do without a few chromosomes in common). Brilliant. It may be interesting to notice that the adaptation of Ballet Shoes is, in this regard, very convervative : in 2007, a final wedding (completely absent from the book) is still needed to recompose the traditional family pattern. We can say it happened after the girls decided what they wanted to know with their lives and therefore this marriage isn't for them but rather for Sylvia who finally thinks about herself after having thought about raising children for such a long while.
The minutiae of Streatfeild's depictions that have to do with showbusiness are among the best, if not the best, I have ever read. The characters in Noel Streatfeild's novels are not all endearing, sometimes they're quite the opposite - after all, it's children we're talking about. If their language is refined, they are often cruel towards one another but we care nonethelees because of the disarming proximity with which Noel Streatfeild deals with her story. It is perhaps more obvious in her adult book Saplings, published in 1945 and reprinted by the delicious publishing company Persephone Books (it is her only adult book still in print today). Streatfeild described the everyday life of a common family - the characters' psychology is rich and captivating, be it children's or adults'. And then one day, the father dies in battle. But their lives must go on, despite the feeling of abandon their all experience. Tony's feelings, before the cataclysm are best expressed by this sentence (he is twelve when he says that) :

Wars, and all that were attached to them, were passing inconveniences, but they did not change the pulse of his world.

Ballet Shoes, 2007, from left to right : Nana (Victoria Wood), Posy Fossil (Lucy Boynton), Petrova Fossil (Yasmin Paige) and Pauline Fossil (Emma Watson).

The adults are so precisely depicted and women's roles are not confined to the smiling posters encouraging the troops - they have a sexuality, take the initiative, try to make ends meet. Once again, a lot is asked of children - each and every one of them has a part to play in the household, a part even more important now that the adults are upset with the war and its human and material deprivation. School starts, and trivial crises (not having the same uniform as everybody else because the suitcase was packed in a hurry, for example) take extreme proportions. Streatfeild's world can best be summed up, undoubtedly, by these words in Saplings :

We're at war, and everybody, even children, must do their bit.

I recommend this website dedicated to the author and this forum where fans meet and discuss this impressive writer.

Friday, January 2, 2009


Now that was a strong start for 2009 ! I really liked Garth Nix's Sabriel. Here's the summary provided by Amazon :

Sabriel attends Wyverley Girls College in Ancelstierre (Nix's version of normal) and has recently graduated with runaway firsts in every subject. But her particular school has certain extra-curricular activities, like the learning of Magic, because of its proximity to the Wall which marks Ancelstierre's border with the Old Kingdom. Over the wall, life is very different and the use of magic is commonplace. Then, on the edge of death, Sabriel's father, Abhorsen, sends her a cryptic message that means she must venture into the Old Kingdom and calm the storm that is brewing there, and which will surely multiply at her father's passing. Refusing to accept his fate, Sabriel inherits the tools of her father's trade and his name. Her new duty is to lay the disturbed dead back to rest with the help of seven powerful bells worn across the chest. Sabriel seeks her father's slayer in a mammoth journey that is hindered by dark magic, monsters-a-plenty and shadowy unsubstantial evils.

As usual with fantasy, the setting of Sabriel takes some getting used to but thankfully Garth Nix's clear prose helped me a great deal when I tried to visualize exactly where it took place. I liked that it took place in our world - albeit in the past - but with a twist. At the beginning and at the end of the novel, the setting is Wyverley College that has enough of reality to be a pretty good bridge for the characters and the readers and I think this mixture worked extremely well. The heroine is instantly likeable - she's 18 at the beginning of the novel, a prefect, with a strong sense of what's good. Not to the point of being merely yet another perfect girl we're supposed to identify with, on the contrary, she appears very real and honest. When she meets Touchstone -another very likeable character - she toys with the idea of having a relationship with him, but then thinks about all the trouble she would have to go through, including contraception, and drops the idea. I like that Garth Nix's characters have a sexuality, are round, not flat, that even in extraordinary circumstances they can still be full beings. Sabriel gets angry when Touchstone can't remember his past but her reactions are always sensible and can be fully justified. This is a heroine I'll remember.
The plot itself is of course grounded in fantasy and uses some well-known devices belonging to the genre (magic, of course, fate is discussed, the heroine has to learn about her world so we can learn with her, she has to go on a journey to save the last help she could have) and yet, I was very impressed by Garth Nix' twists on the genre : I loved the depiction of Sabriel practising Necromancy, that was very imaginative. Death is almost a whole character onto itself in this novel, and that was a welcome change, it was quite simply very interesting to learn about this world. The obligatory explanatory passages were gripping and never felt artificial, mainly because they didn't end up being monologues that took full chapters - Garth Nix took pains showing the protagonists' different reactions to the news throughout the whole book rather than throwing five pages of notes at us. I think this also helped fleshing the characters, especially Sabriel and Touchstone.
The book kept me interested throughout - I thought about His Dark Materials quite a few times, the writing is that good, no wonder Pullman wrote the blurb of the book, calling it a "winner"- and I very reluctantly put it down when I had to. It's a great story that was exciting and I am really looking forward to the sequel.