Book 13: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire

January 29, 2009 at 2:26 am (Review) (, , , , )

This is a re-telling of the Cinderella story buy the same writer that brought us Wicked. I didn’t read Wicked but was a reluctant attendee at the musical in London and the best I can say is that it was less hideous than most musicals I have attended. I was expecting from seeing the musical that this would be fairly heavy handed when hammering home its thematic point. Which didn’t happen quite as I expected.

The wicked stepmother remains the unredeemed villain of the piece and there is only really room for the redemption of one ugly stepsister. One stepsister is mentally disturbed and is hulking and ox like physically. I didn’t really know what to make of the characterisation of this sister, I don’t know if he is being deliberately vague about the nature of her disorder (if indeed she has a disorder as such or is just traumatised by various events in their lives), or if the writer himself didn’t know.

The second sister is the one to be redeemed and in some respects she is. However  Maguire is never absolute in how he builds his characters. When it comes to Cinderella we have more of the same, one moment she a vacant, spoiled brat, the next selfless redeemer of her family. Maguire I imagine sees himself as a writer of moral ambiguities, a chronicler of flawed human characters unfortunately I don’t think he’s writer enough to do this effectively. 

While the characterisation is undoubtedly flawed its not a bad read. There is a interesting subplot with a local painter who is a splendidly whole character because for once Maguire is not trying for the grey. There are also a number of interesting period details regarding the dutch tulip crash and artistic patronage at the time that are both interesting and entertaining to read. 

If you liked Wicked you will probably like this, if you found Wicked (I know I am making assumptions based on the musical and reading this) heavy-handed don’t bother. It wasn’t great and I respect what was being attempted it just didn’t quite get there for me.

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Sorry for lack of new reviews, I suck.

January 22, 2009 at 10:46 pm (Uncategorized) ()

There will be a review up tomorrow. Sorry for the lack of new posts, life has got in the way. Reading continues but time to sit at the computer and review is short. I will catch up.

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Book 12: Split by Suzanne Finnamore

January 14, 2009 at 10:26 pm (Review) (, , , , , , )

I was perfectly ready to hate this and before starting to read it I was composing my scathing review. I was looking forward to it. It has a bride and groom wedding cake decoration split in two on the cover. This was going to be some Oprah, self help, woman finding herself after her man leaves her memoir and I was going to be mean. It turns out that they have that saying about judging book covers for a reason.  

Split is a fairly brutal account of the break up of Susan Finnamore’s marriage. It is in no way pretending to be a unbiased account. It is all about how she felt and how she choose to deal with it. It’s also about how she went to pieces. I admire how brutally honest this book appears to be. While the split was the husband’s decision she doesn’t step away from her culpability or excuse herself for some pretty poor behaviour in the course of the split. 

Finnamore’s writing is clear and unflinching. There can be a tendancy in break up memoirs to descend in to ‘Dear Diary, A boy hurt my feelings today. He’s really mean’ territory (one of the things I was hoping to mock) but Finnamore never even touches that sort of tone. She describes her hurt without sentiment. She is also writes with humour about the semi-lunacy that descends when you are in the midst of a bad break up. 

If you happen to be in the midst of a bad break up and you are not of the Oprah self help persuasion, there are some incidental do and for the love of god do not’s in the book. One of them being rid yourself of self help books (If you find that sort of thing helpful fine, personally makes me feel homicidal). Learn from someone else’s mistakes and save your self the hassle.

The wider cast of characters are colourful in a California sort of way (a transvestite driver for example) and a bit cliché (straight talking, slightly demented mother anyone?). This would bother me more if the description of the devestation that follows nasty break-ups was less real. 

I strongly recommend it for the heart broken. For everyone else its worth a read but not essential.

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Book 11: Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

January 9, 2009 at 1:52 pm (Review) (, , , )

Small Gods was added to my list on the recommendation of lovely Pajabites. As ever their taste is impeccable. Small Gods carries on in the great tradition of immensely entertaining British Science Fiction/Fantasy. I have a vague recollection of reading one or two of the Discworld series when I was a young teenager and I never went back. I was an idiot.

I can only assume that I didn’t enjoy it then because I mostly didn’t get the joke, as a teenager I definitely wouldn’t have gotten the beauty of Pratchett’s theological and political positions. It takes an amazingly gifted writer to mock the ridiculousness of religious fundamentalists without ever picking on a particular theology. He argues for secular democracy with more humor, grace and power then any political philosopher I’m aware of. 

The hero of our tale is Brutha, a novice at a monastery who has little hope of ordination primarily because he appears to be not so bright. His character grows throughout the story in a way that outlines how people grow in life (all things going well). Going from total innocent to a person of understanding and with a marvellous illustration the hardship and confusion that often accompanies that growth. 

Interestingly Pratchett explore how our leaders or those who claim to know what is best are those that know least about what is good. He give a fascinating insight in to how the minds of those who seek to lead work. He is fierce in his criticism of the manipulative and deadpan in his description of where the alternative lies. He has the grace to see that the world is never perfect and the intelligence to see what the next best thing might be in light of these leader types. 

The nature of belief and what it can bring to the world is a major theme, unsurprisingly in a book called Small Gods. I found it astonishing that while Pratchett is sometimes fiercely critical of the idea of organised religion/a religious state and those that claim to be devout but it never feels like he’s passing judgement. It takes a master of tone to manage to do that.

I know that I have talked more here about ideas then character and story but there is no way that these ideas could be covered so well without the writing being up to scratch. The characters are full and interesting and the plot moves along apace. It’s just fantastic.

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Book 10: Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

January 9, 2009 at 1:34 am (Review) (, , , , )

Good Omens is a book about the coming apocalypse written by two people. It could very easily be a total disaster. The tone could be so easily be uneven or awkward to read but it never is. It flows clearly and is very easy to read. The best compliment I can pay it is that you are never concious of it being written by two writers.

It concerns the battle between good and evil on a cosmic and local level. Moving between the machinations of Heaven and Hell and the machinations of those on earth deftly. We are drawn in to the story with an angel (Azirphale) and a demon (Crowley). They are just the tip of quite a sprawling cast of characters that includes the descendant of Agnes Nutter Prophetess, Apocalyptic Horsepersons, a few witchfinders and the Antichrist. As anyone familiar with one or both of the authors’ works would expect the characters are drawn with intellegence and wit. No character ever seems rote or one note. The good are not quite as good as they seem and the bad are not necessarily all that bad. Sometimes the underlining of how people tend to be more grey than black and white can be overdone. I would have liked them to give us all a bit more credit in terms of understanding the motivation of some of the characters.

Good Omens could so easily be a cliche. It manages though to avoid most of the pitfalls of the apocalypse tale, the worst being falling in to a by numbers telling of good battles evil, apocalypse does or does not go ahead, some hero saves the day  and we all live happily ever after. In the case of  Good Omens I’m not sure that there is a hero really or that the day was necessarily saved which for me is part of it’s brilliance. The ambiguity I was hoping for in terms of character is better realised in terms of the story.

The story is frequently laugh out loud funny. I would not recommend reading in a public place because apparently snorting coffee all over yourself is a difficult look to pull off with out looking monumentally stupid or deranged. Deadpan observations about the absurdity of people and life abound and Good Omens would be worth the read for these alone but it’s also worth the read to see a writing experiment go well. It’s not quite a as good as the best Gaiman or Pratchett but it’s still pretty good.

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The Goonies

January 5, 2009 at 1:03 am (Film, Review) (, , )

***SPOILER ALERT** If you have not seen The Goonies what the hell is wrong with you? Go watch it it and for Gods sake do not read the following.

I am assured that I was brought as a small child to see The Goonies in the cinema. I don’t have any recollection of that what I do recall is rainy Saturday afternoons spent engrossed in it. The digression from the focus of this blog is prompted by watching it on TV today despite the fact that I own it. I even missed the very start because I was having dinner. 

The Goonies is the filmic incarnation of the dream we all had as kids that we would save the day and prove ourselves to be the adventurers that we pretended to be in back gardens, playing fields, fields, abandoned building sites, playgrounds and forests (depending on where you happened to have grown up). It represents when you believed that kids could gang together and foil master criminals and your daydreams were really practice runs for when your time came. It’s the perfect adventure. 

The Goonies are a group of neighbourhood kids the likes of which (if you were lucky) you probably belonged to as a kid. A round up of misfits who were friends firstly because they lived close to one another and then because they’d been friends forever. The warmth and mockery between this group is lovingly created and rings completely true. They are awful to one another and blindly loyal at the same time.

The adventure is driven by Mikey (played by an alarmingly young Sean Astin) who insists they investigate a treasure map found in the attic of their home. He sees it as the only way that they can save their homes. He is assisted by Data, whose lunatic inventions are exactly the kind of thing you’d have tried to make as a kid. They have a wonderful Acme kit feel to them, Wiley Coyote would have ordered them (in fact I think he did have oil slick shoes). There is Chunk the fat kid, Mouth the mouth, and the older brother (played by an also alarmingly young Josh Brolin, is it ok to perv on him now when I’m older if still do now and did in a ‘he’s ever so dreamy’ sort of way when I was younger?). There is also the cheerleader girl (as there always was in the 80’s) and the nerdy best friend played with humour and just the right amount of scarcasm by Martha Plimpton, and who I wanted to be when I was younger. 

Peril in this movie comes from two directions. The first and the most frightening is the aforementioned need to save their homes. They are all going to have to move to new towns because the local rich guy has bought up all the mortgages so he can develop the lands their homes are on. There is no horror close to the thought that your parents are helpless when you are a kid. The Goonies parents can’t stop the destruction of their families’ lives. No amount of goodwill or good parenting can save them from moving out of their homes and leaving their friends. This is a less terrifying thought as an adult but The Goonies can certainly make you weepy for the time when it was the worst thing you could imagine. 

The other is the Fratellis a criminal gang headed by their mother. A truly reprehensible distortion of the mother figure if ever there was one. Responsible for the terrible damage done to Sloth, who develops a bond with Chunk and who you will love unless you are the living embodiment of brain freeze. Ultimately  they are cartoon villains and and so lack the real world threat of being made leave your home and friends. They’ll be vanquished by our plucky heroes, you know that as surely as you know the Famous Five, the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew will win. 

I have to mention the design, the booby traps set by One Eye Willy, the pirate whose treasure they seek, are blessedly rickety and look so authentically home made that as a kid they feel utterly real. The pirate ship is much cooler then anything you’ve seen in Pirates of the Caribbean, with skeleton’s of dead pirates and one or two remaining traps. It makes me wish that sometimes film makers these days would give up on their dependance on CGI and just build some cool stuff. 

As you can probably ascertain this is a film drenched in nostalgia for me and, I suspect, for many people my age. I think you can only love it a certain way if you saw it at the right age and believed it was true. I’d like to give it out to kids of 7 or 8 and make it mandatory viewing. In the world of Hannah Montana and (God help us) High School Musical this is the real deal. A proper adventure, one worth having and one worth believing in.  

The Truffle Shuffle

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New Reviews

January 3, 2009 at 10:17 pm (General) (, )

There will be a couple of new reviews up during the week. You can expect, Good Omens, Small Gods and Split.  I didn’t read as much as I expected over the break possibly because I spent alot of time either getting drunk, actively drunk or so hungover my eyes were bleeding (thus making reading difficult). Some how I’d managed to forget how much drinking is involved in an Irish Christmas, possibly due to alcohol related brain damage.

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