Archive for December, 2013

The Hunger Games

Posted: December 22, 2013 in Book reviews

As so often is the case, I was late to the party, but finally, five years after it was published and more than 18 months after I saw the film adaptation, I’ve finally read the opening book in Suzanne Collins’ best-selling trilogy.

And on the whole I rather liked it.

I did have a bit of trepidation before reading it. Not because it’s Young Adult fiction, and not because it’d been hyped to betsy. No, my main concern was down to having seen the film. After all I’d know what was coming, right?

And it turned out I did, because the film in hindsight now seems surprisingly faithful to the book. The big surprise was how little it mattered. In spite of knowing the story I enjoyed the book nonetheless.

Collins’ prose is sharp and her story telling well-paced. The book is a real page turner, even to someone who knew the story, so I can only imagine how engrossing it must be if you came to it cold.

Katniss is a great heroine, and the decision to do the whole story from her perspective is an interesting one. On the plus side it makes the danger seem more real, and we get Katniss’ visceral reaction to what’s going on around her, almost as if it were we who’d been chosen as tribute and thrown into a world we didn’t understand. This also means our understanding of the motives of other characters is the same as Katniss’. We don’t know if we can trust anyone, because she doesn’t know if she can trust anyone.

Of course the downside is that we only see the things Katniss sees, and because she spends a large part of the games hiding, this means that most of the tributes’ deaths occur off screen as it were. This isn’t to say that I wanted to read about the gruesome deaths of a bunch to kids, but it does make it hard to engage with anyone else, and with a couple of noticeable exceptions the tributes are a bland, faceless bunch, and on the whole it’s hard to mourn any of them, with one clear exception.

One problem I had with the film was that the world building seemed thin, and though still a bit of an issue, we do learn more about the world of the Capitol and the Districts in the book, and additionally the first person narrative means we only know what Katniss knows, which is another plus point for the choice of perspective as it handily explains any gaps in our understanding of the world.

The book isn’t without flaws. There are quite a few contrivances, the biggest one being the good fortune that, not only is there a bow and arrow available to the tributes, but that Katniss gets hold of it—though at least it isn’t quite handed to her on a plate, still it might have made more sense if she’d had to fashion her own weapon. Also the love triangle never engages because Gale is just some guy we met briefly at the start, so it’s hard to imagine anyone but Peeta as a romantic interest for Katniss, and at times the world seems a trifle too simplistic.

But when it comes down to it the big test of a book if whether or not you enjoy it, not necessarily whether you agree with every choice the writer made, and The Hunger Games was a book that, once I started reading it, I didn’t want to put it down, and I can’t wait to read the next two books. In fact my only quandary is whether to go see the second film before I read the book, or wait for the DVD!

A few months ago Britney Spears released a new song entitled ‘Work B*tch’. Now I’m unashamedly a fan of Ms Spears, but even if you’re not, even if you hate the song, it features an important mantra that writers everywhere would do well to take note of.

And, though it is relevant, it’s not the titular “work B*tch” that I’m referring too. Whilst the notion that if you want a Lamborghini and want to live in a big mansion you’ve got to work for it isn’t a bad one, obviously hard work alone doesn’t necessarily result in bestsellerdom, million pound advances and six figure movie deals.

Rather it’s the following lyric that I think is more relevant.

“Work it hard, like it’s your profession”

For many people writing is seen as a hobby, something you potter about at, but I think if you entertain any notion of actually making a career out of it, then you have to treat it like a job, even if it currently doesn’t pay the mortgage.

This means being disciplined, it means setting aside writing time every day if you can, and it means that once you finish a piece of writing you work hard in editing and proofreading it, in polishing it to as high a shine as you can.

Now this might make it seem effectively like you’re working for free, like you’re volunteering in a charity shop, but if writing is what you want to do then you have to treat it like it’s your profession, even before it becomes your profession, and really it shouldn’t matter whether you’re going to be paid £5,000 by a publisher, or you’re going to be lucky to get $10 and a contributor’s copy!

Anyway, stop reading this, you have writing to do, so get to work b*tch!

Thor: The Dark World

Posted: December 4, 2013 in Film reviews

Directed by Alan Taylor. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston and Christopher Eccleston.

Whatever else you might think about the Marvel film franchise, you have to admire its unstoppable, juggernaut like nature. We had Iron Man 3 earlier in the year, following on the heels of Avengers Assemble, Captain America and the first Thor film. In 2014 we’ll get the second Captain America film plus Guardians of the Galaxy and in 2015 Avengers 2. Phew! Eventually they’ll run out of steam, but it doesn’t look like happening any time soon.

Before we scoot into the future however, there’s the little matter of the second Thor film.

Building on events from both Avengers Assemble and Thor, The Dark World opens with Thor battling insurrections amidst the nine realms, whilst his adoptive brother, Loki languishes in a dungeon beneath Asgard. Meanwhile Jane Foster is trying (and mostly failing) to get on with her life in the absence of her hunky blonde man God.

Something in the depths of space is stirring however, something that will draw them back together. That something is an army of Dark Evles led by Malekith (Eccleston) who are on the trail of an ancient weapon called Aether which they want to use to unmake the Universe. Quite how they plan to exist in this unmade universe is never made clear, despite quite a lot of exposition at the start (which is fairly superfluous given that much of it is explained again in dialogue later).

After Malekith’s army attacks Asgard, and they suffer a very personal loss, Thor and Loki join forces to exact vengeance, with Thor having the extra incentive of wanting to save Jane from a horrible fate. But can the hammer swinging hero trust his witticism swinging brother, and will they ever get their car keys back?

Marvel really do have these films down to a fine art now, and after two previous outings Hemsworth and Hiddleston play their characters with practiced ease. This isn’t to say either is remotely complacent, they give it their all, and if Hiddleston is clearly (yet again) the star of the show, that is no insult to Hemsworth. In other hands Thor could be a hulking lunkhead, but Hemsworth plays him just the right side of noble pastiche. He’s big and monosyllabic and utterly heroic, but he carries himself like a man well aware that he’s the straight man to Hiddleston’s comedy gold, and Hemsworth still manages to inject a bit of dry humour into Thor, making him a hero we can root for, even if he is a little harder to empathise with than either Tony Stark or Captain America.

After the exposition heavy start the film takes a little while to get going, but once it does, like Thor’s hammer in flight, it’s nigh on unstoppable. It isn’t high art, it isn’t going to win any Oscars, and set against the magnificent Avengers Assemble it all feels a little small scale (even if all of reality is at stake) but it’s funny, action packed, and if the finale that sees Greenwich attacked by alien hordes is less epic than most of New York being laid waste to, frankly it at least makes a refreshing change.

As before Marvel have excelled themselves with the casting. Eccleston might look like he’s taking it all a bit too seriously, whilst Sir Anthony Hopkins looks suspiciously like he’s daydreaming about spending his paycheque, but both give solid performances. Portman gets more to do than last time, and the benefit of a good actress in the role is that Jane isn’t just a two dimensional damsel to be rescued. Idris Elba returns as Heimdall, and much like Portman gets more to sink his teeth into, although you can’t help thinking he’s still underused, which could be said about Jaimie Alexander as Lady Sif and the rest of Thor’s Asgard buddies. Stellan Skarsgård is back too, although he seems to have forgotten his clothes… and it’s nice to see Rene Russo back on the big screen.

It isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, and as enjoyable as it is you can’t help feeling that it’s just a placeholder, keeping us invested in the characters until they can join up with the rest of the Avengers again, but whilst it’s all a little forgettable after you leave the cinema, whilst you’re sat there watching it it’s hugely entertaining, and I’m not sure you can ask for more than that.

Can we maybe have more Loki next time though? Pretty please!

I’ll Catch You

Posted: December 1, 2013 in Book reviews

by James Kellerman

I guess it was the name Kellerman that drew me to this book, though it wasn’t until after I bought it that I discovered that Jesse Kellerman is the son of American novelists Jonathan and Faye Kellerman. Now I’ve been a big fan of Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware novels for many years, so I was interested to see what his son’s work was like.

I think it would be fairest to say “Very different”…

I think there really is a rule that says you shouldn’t trust any book that doesn’t actually tell you what it’s about, or any book that feels the need to talk to you about how great it is, especially when it’s one that doesn’t tell you what it’s about.

The blurb on the back of the book is as follows:

We want to tell you more about this novel. We wish we could explain how spectacular and absolutely unexpected it is; how it will burn itself onto your brain for ever. But we could never do it justice. The only way you’ll understand it is to read it.

Really I should have put it back there and then…

Perhaps the worst thing about this book is that, initially at least, it’s very interesting. The hero, Arthur Pfefferkorn, is a creative writing teacher and frustrated novelist, a man who wrote one critically acclaimed literary novel many moons ago but has never been able to follow it up. His estranged best friend however is the immensely successful author of a series of spy thrillers under the pen name of William de Vallée.

When William dies Arthur attends the funeral in LA. After spending the night with the widow (a woman he’s loved for decades) Arthur finds an almost complete manuscript for William’s latest thriller. Without thinking Pfefferkorn takes the manuscript home with him where, after changing the names and combining it with a partial story of his own from many years before, he produces a hybrid thriller that becomes an instant best seller.

Suddenly Pfefferkorn is as rich and successful as he’s always wanted to be, but as you might imagine this is where things start to go very wrong…in more ways than one.

Up until this point the book’s actually quite enjoyable. Sure it’s hard to see where exactly it’s going, but Pfefferkorn’s journey from loser to winner is artfully done, and if the tone of the novel had remained the same I’d probably have given it a tentative thumbs up. Nothing earth shattering, quite a comfy thriller, but diverting enough.

Unfortunately once Pfefferkorn becomes a bestselling novelist the story takes a left turn into crazy town, and a slow burning literary thriller suddenly becomes a 1960s Mission Impossible/Flint/Man from UNCLE style spy thriller, only with all the verve, coolness and fun sucked out of it. Suddenly Pfefferkorn is on his way to the ridiculously monikered, utterly made up country of Zlabia, a place divided into Communist and Capitalist halves where we’re subjected to terrible poetry and myriad discussions on the subject of moustaches and root vegetables.

Now don’t get me wrong, the fact that the book shifts tone to a comedy romp isn’t a terrible idea, what’s terrible is the execution, and you really have to wonder what the author was thinking. It isn’t funny, and it isn’t much of a romp, in fact it’s a bit of a slog, and by the time I’d made it to the pretentious, existential ending I was ready to throw the book out of the window.

From now on I’m sticking to the elder Kellerman’s work!