Wednesday, 30 January 2013

book review; blackout & all clear by connie willis

Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis
Genre: Historical, Sci-fi
Rating: 8/10
Goodreads 1 & 2
Oxford in 2060 is a chaotic place, with scores of time-traveling historians being sent into the past. Michael Davies is prepping to go to Pearl Harbor. Merope Ward is coping with a bunch of bratty 1940 evacuees and trying to talk her thesis adviser into letting her go to VE-Day. Polly Churchill's next assignment will be as a shopgirl in the middle of London's Blitz. But now the time-travel lab is suddenly canceling assignments and switching around everyone's schedules. And when Michael, Merope, and Polly finally get to World War II, things just get worse. For there they face air raids, blackouts, and dive-bombing Stukas--to say nothing of a growing feeling that not only their assignments but the war and history itself are spiraling out of control. Because suddenly the once-reliable mechanisms of time travel are showing significant glitches, and our heroes are beginning to question their most firmly held belief: that no historian can possibly change the past.

Before we start: This is a review for both Blackout and All Clear as they tell one story - I can't see any reason for them to have been split in to two books other than the logistics of length!

This is a really hard review to write because there's a pretty big disconnect between my head and my heart as to how good these books are! It's a testament to how much I respect them that I'm going to front-load this review with the criticisms so that, provided you read to the end, your lasting impression is positive!

I have a fair few minor criticisms but three big ones. Firstly, these books could do with some serious editing - you could easily do away with a couple of hundred pages by getting rid of extraneous plot and by merging some chapters together. Particularly in the middle (i.e. the last 100 pages of Blackout and the first hundred or so pages of All Clear) certain conversations about retrieval teams and drop sites were really repetitive. Similarly, I appreciate the need for plot twists and false leads there were just too many - the Bletchley Park side-plot in particular served little purpose other than fattening up Mike's story.

Secondly (and arguably more problematically) I have to agree with Elizabeth Wein's assessment that there is a lack of any real sense of home. The whole story is about these young historians trying to get back to their home in the future but that future is barely mentioned let alone described. Having lived in Oxford it struck me that the Oxford of 2060 presented here could actually be Oxford in 1940 - the descriptions are all of the old colleges, the Bodleian (which isn't even a single building!) and of crazy cyclists. There was never enough sense of difference - there's supposed to be 120years difference in time yet the historians seem to have little trouble adjusting to historical mannerisms and behaviours, the only adjustment difficulties presented are about accents and driving old cars! Also, it struck me as odd that the historians are presumably in their early twenties having just finished undergraduate degrees but not once do they mention their parents! The only people of the future they seemed to be concerned about are Colin and Mr Dunworthy.

Finally, as a historian myself, it really irked me that the actual purpose for them being there (i.e. studying history!) was never really addressed! At no point did anyone take any notes or refer to history books, there was no mention of methodology (whether there purpose was to experience or observe) or specific questions (were they trying to fill in gaps in the historical record or add more detail to existing narratives?) Such questions were never going to be a core plot point but it's huge oversight to completely dismiss their purpose in being in the past in the first place.

In spite of all of these problems though I have to say that I really really enjoyed this story - I can't believe that I've never come across time-travelling historian fiction before because I pretty much love everything about the concept and its potential narratives! (My kingdom for similar stories about Queen Victoria and Suffragettes and inter-war Britain!) The short chapters and changing POVs meant that my interest level rarely dipped (and even when it dropped in the middle of chapters the end of chapter cliff-hangers were enough to keep me reading). One of the highest praises I can give is that the books are both long (together they total about 1400 pages) yet I read them both in just over a week which is really good going for me! There were enough 'events' to keep the plot moving and the books were crammed full of period detail (though sometimes they could be a little superficial). There was a real sense of tension throughout as I kept feeling one-step ahead of the characters only to have that pulled out from underneath me!

Like I said at Goodreads, I'm not sure that this story would help to convert anyone to WW2 fiction who wasn't already a fan of the genre. It's also worth saying that although the time travel element technically affords it's classification as sci-fi that aspect plays a very small role here. However to those already enamoured with WW2/historical fiction and who want a really engrossing story (as opposed to in-depth character development - this is no Code Name Verity) I can't recommend these enough!

Sunday, 27 January 2013

book review: the fault in our stars by john green

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Genre: Contemporary YA
Rating: 6/10
Diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer at 12, Hazel was prepared to die until, at 14, a medical miracle shrunk the tumours in her lungs... for now.
Two years post-miracle, sixteen-year-old Hazel is post-everything else too; post-high school, post-friends and post-normalcy. And even though she could live for a long time (whatever that means), Hazel lives tethered to an oxygen tank, the tumours tenuously kept at bay with a constant chemical assault.
Enter Augustus Waters. A match made at Cancer Kid Support Group, Augustus is gorgeous, in remission, and shockingly to her, interested in Hazel. Being with Augustus is both an unexpected destination and a long-needed journey, pushing Hazel to re-examine how sickness and health, life and death, will define her and the legacy that everyone leaves behind.

This book was fine. I didn't love it, I don't hate it, I'll send my copy to my sister... It made me laugh, Hazel was a fine protagonist and it's a romance between teens with cancer so safe to say it tapped the emotions. Beyond that though, I was pretty apathetic.

My biggest problem was that there was little that surprised me: the plot ran the way you expected it to, there was little controversial in its themes or messages, and the 'insightful' quotes have been all over Tumblr since the book was published which undermined their emotional punch.

The only thing that did surprise me (and my favourite thing in the book) were the discussions about stories and the nature of fiction. The themes of heroism and quotes about infinities were nice enough but the section that intrigued me most was the meeting with Van Houten in Amsterdam. I was really disappointed that he resurfaced later in the book for it undermined his whole 'message'.
We are speaking of a novel, dear child, not a historical enterprise....this childish idea that the author of a novel has some special insight into characters in the's ridiculous. That novel was composed of scratches on a page, dear. The characters inhabiting it have no life outside of those scratches. What happened to them? They all ceased to exist the moment the novel ended.
Get rid of the cancer deaths etc. and write me a YA book with this interaction at its heart. One of these days I'll be able to talk about His Dark Materials and how, in my opinion, 'Tell them stories' is one of the greatest ideas in children's literature. Until then give me children's/teen lit which discusses the importance of stories, how reading is a two-way process and how the stories we create for ourselves are just as important as the one's we're presented with.

Friday, 25 January 2013

50 musicals challenge: pitch perfect, easter parade, swing time

2012 was a pretty rough year so for 2013 I wanted a 'challenge' that was fun and that I'd gladly keep up with so as well as trying to read 50 books this year I'm also going to watch 50 musicals! It's no secret that I LOVE musicals but I've hardly seen any of the classics and honestly, I can think of no better way to ~broaden my cultural horizons~ than by spending afternoons watching pretty people in lovely costumes sing and dance! At first 50 seemed like a sensible number - just under a movie a week - but I'm already wayyy ahead of schedule so the number might change! Primarily I'm using this as an excuse to go through all the classic Hollywood musicals that I've never seen so I won't include animated musicals (unless I've not seen them before) but if you think I'm going to let the year pass without rewatching High School Musical 3 then you're sadly mistaken! Every couple of weeks I'll make a post reporting my progress and a running total and links to previous discussion can be found in the permanent page. If you have any particular recommendations or want to discuss all things de-lovely get in touch here or at Twitter!

01 - Pitch Perfect (2012)
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Brittany Snow, Rebel Wilson
Rating: 8/10
Beca, a freshman at Barden University, is cajoled into joining The Bellas, her school's all-girls singing group. Injecting some much needed energy into their repertoire, The Bellas take on their male rivals in a campus competition.

It's not classy (we're now living in a post-Bridesmaids world!) and the characters are all under-developed but that's not really the point! The a-capella singing is awesome, the soundtrack features some great mash-ups, the love-interest is kind of delightful and who doesn't love Anna Kendrick?!

Taster: The Riff-Off

02 - Easter Parade (1948)
Starring: Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Ann Miller
Rating: 7/10
On the day before Easter in 1911, Don Hewes is crushed when his dancing partner (and object of affection) Nadine Hale refuses to start a new contract with him. To prove Nadine's not important to him, Don acquires innocent new protegee Hannah Brown, vowing to make her a star in time for next year's Easter parade

If Pitch Perfect is a bawdy romp of a musical then Easter Parade is a joy in the opposite sense! It's innocent and charming and everything you want on a Sunday afternoon. The singing is lovely, the dancing is astonishing (The opening number 'Drum Crazy' is particularly brilliant) and the costumes are beautiful - what I would give to be able to wear the emerald dress Judy Garland wears in 'Better Luck Next Time'!

Taster: It Only Happens When I Dance With You

03 - Swing Time (1936)
Starring: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Victor Moore
Rating: 8/10
A performer and gambler travels to New York City to raise the $25,000 he needs to marry his fiancée, only to become entangled with a beautiful aspiring dancer.

Not perfect (the gambling plot line is strange and the Astaire's blackface for his big dance number doesn't sit well with modern audiences) but not far off. It contains some lovely music (most notably 'The Way You Look Tonight' quite possibly the most romantic song ever written!) and the dancing, as ever is wonderful.

Taster: Never Gonna Dance

Monday, 21 January 2013

film review: les miserables

Les Miserables (2012)
Director: Tom Hooper
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried...
Genre: Musical/Drama/Romance
Rating: 7/10

In 19th-century France, Jean Valjean, who for decades has been hunted by the ruthless policeman Javert after he breaks parole, agrees to care for factory worker Fantine's daughter, Cosette. The fateful decision changes their lives forever.

I've been meaning to write this for a week but my feelings are incoherent and rambly and tend to involve lots of gesturing and wailing! Trying to get my thoughts down in list form is probably the way to go! As a disclaimer I should probably say that whilst I'm very familiar with the music and knew the plot before I saw the film, I've never seen the musical or read the book.

The Good

  • Eddie Redmayne - WHO KNEW HE COULD SING?!?! His rendition of 'Empty Chairs at Empty Tables' was really something. A+ for you sir.
  • Anne Hathaway was pretty spectacular. (Though I'd listened to a review earlier in the week which commented on how her bright white Hollywood teeth somewhat undermined the illusion of her destitution (and botched dentistry!) and that was a really distracting thought to have bouncing around my head while she was singing!)
  • The cinematography was beautiful. My favourite shot was probably that of Enjolras hanging out of the window but the whole thing was very aesthetically pleasing.
  • The boys at the barricade! 80% of my feelings were for you! (Eponine had 15% and everyone else can share the rest!)

The Bad
  • Russell Crowe wasn't absolutely terrible but really wasn't up to par. The movie was guaranteed to draw in huge audiences so I don't really understand this casting choice.
  • The editing was horrible. If you're filming a musical you either need to edit the film in time with the music or reject its influence altogether, this tried to do both and it didn't work at all! The street scenes in 'At the End of the Day' were particularly horrible.

Overall, I was underwhelmed. I tend to be a bit ridiculous with musicals - I cry at everything and was fully expecting to sob from start to finish but this version of Les Mis just didn't push those buttons. For whatever reason I just wasn't all that invested in the Valjean/Javert dynamic (during one of their duets I really wished that they'd be quiet because there was some really pretty orchestration going on!) so everything I cared about was in the second half and seemed a little rushed. The film was beautiful and the music was wonderful (minus Russell Crowe) but it just didn't click somehow.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

book review: this is not a test by courtney summers

This Is Not A Test by Courtney Summers
Genre: Paranormal YA
Rating: 6/10
It’s the end of the world. Six students have taken cover in Cortege High but shelter is little comfort when the dead outside won’t stop pounding on the doors. One bite is all it takes to kill a person and bring them back as a monstrous version of their former self. To Sloane Price, that doesn’t sound so bad. Six months ago, her world collapsed and since then, she’s failed to find a reason to keep going. Now seems like the perfect time to give up. As Sloane eagerly waits for the barricades to fall, she’s forced to witness the apocalypse through the eyes of five people who actually want to live. But as the days crawl by, the motivations for survival change in startling ways and soon the group’s fate is determined less and less by what’s happening outside and more and more by the unpredictable and violent bids for life—and death—inside. When everything is gone, what do you hold on to?

I'm not particularly familiar with the zombie genre (I think Shaun of the Dead might be the only thing I've seen/read on the subject!) but I'd read such good reviews for this that I was willing to give it a shot. I really wanted to like this book and the elements were all there - traumatised female protagonist with a complicated past, a group of mismatched teens thrown together by circumstance etc. - but it just didn't work for me.

If I had to describe the book in one word it would be 'grey'. There can be no doubt that this story is bleak and the tone leans towards suppressed anxiety as opposed to chaos/mania. I know that a lot of reviewers enjoyed the slow-burn pacing of the novel as the book focussed upon the day-to-day life of the teens stuck in the school, to me however, the book couldn't seem to decide whether it was driven by plot or character and as a result neither were done satisfactorily. The reader is thrown in at the deep end, there's no explanation for the zombie crisis, the early chapters skip forward in time with no description of how the Sloane etc. came to be at the school and the characters are all presented without commentary. At first this seemed to fit a story of zombie apocalypse - the reader, just like the characters themselves, was disoriented and unsure how to process their surroundings. BUT, this style continued throughout and, for me, really undermined an excellent premise. Trapped in the school the book turned to its characters to develop the story but without any back story or discussion/description of their lives before, the characters (with the exception of Sloane) were shells - Harrison and Trace in particular were disappointingly developed - and as a result I didn't become emotionally attached to any of them. Sloane was less superficial but her perspective, shaped primarily by her initial suicidal intentions and later bleak outlook, did little to infuse the story with any life. I have a feeling that the third act was supposed to deal emotional blow after emotional blow but rather than being devastated I was left non-plussed - accepting the group's fate as coolly as Sloane herself.

By no means was the book bad, it simply didn't live up to my (quite high) expectations. On the positive side I really have to praise Courtney Summers for the way she dealt with sex, using it here to demonstrate the potential for physical relationships to be distinct from romantic ones. Teen sex isn't over romanticised here but is shown to be an important and natural form of intimacy. I also appreciate her desire to present such a desolate narrative and her willingness to embrace the darker aspects of experience.

Overall, This Is Not A Test had plenty of the right elements for a very compelling story but the execution felt flat as the characters were never fully developed and any tension remained firmly under the surface.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

book review: gone girl by gillian flynn

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Genre: Psychological Thriller
Rating: 7/10
On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s clever and beautiful wife disappears from their rented McMansion on the Mississippi River. Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but passages from Amy's diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media—as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents—the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter—but is he really a killer?

I don't tend to read thrillers but was persuaded to read this by the sheer number of times it cropped up in the Best of 2012 lists. Sexy, wry and deeply, deeply twisted, this is definitely one of the sharpest books I've read in the last few years. I'm not sure that I enjoyed it so much as I was greatly engaged by it. The characters (particularly Amy) are hugely compelling and the pacing and plot are expertly crafted. I'm always on the look out for richly complex female protagonists and this definitely delivered on that front. Beyond that there isn't much more I can say without spoiling anything. It's a brutally insightful look at relationships and the question of identity in the twenty-first century that will make your jaw drop and your skin crawl and for that it deserves much of the praise lavished upon it. It left me a little awestruck and very unsettled; whilst I can appreciate it, I didn't particularly like it.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

before we begin.

It is fair to say that the last few months have been hard. Nothing particularly traumatic happened but I've been having a tough time. My cousin got married in the autumn - I'm thrilled for her happiness but it exacerbated some family issues. In September I moved from York to Exeter and it's fair to say that it has been hugely disappointing.The course was always going to be torturous as I tread water before being able to begin my PhD research but worse, I was lonely before I arrived and being here has done little to ease that. On top of all that I've been having a crisis of confidence about my academic work. So all around, not the greatest time.

In a session in late November my counsellor suggested that my problem was low self-esteem; that I ceaselessly soak up criticism whilst repelling any positive feedback or compliments. Not only do I hold on to all this negativity but I repress it. On the train home the next day, my mind spent the three hours running through a film reel of all the opportunities, situations and relationships that had collapsed because of my low self-esteem; my conviction that no-one can understand or like me for who I am and that I could never be successful beyond academia. I think that sometimes there's a tendency to perceive low self-esteem as being merely self-pity, a call for attention but I cannot explain how corrosive it has been; it has worked its way into every aspect of my existence and controls my life in ways beyond measure. I've always been shy and quiet but at 24 I struggle to maintain (let alone initiate) conversations with strangers, I share little of myself even with my closest friends and have become an expert at compartmentalising my personality.

My crippling social anxiety doesn't simply follow me around in 'real' life either. I've been a part of internet communities since I was about 13 - I started out at a ER fanboard and then moved through LJ and Tumblr with everyone else - and whilst these communities have always been a part of my life, my active engagement with them has always been a little subdued. I've mostly been a reader, I comment on the odd post and have dabbled in fanfiction and fanart but it has never amounted to much (apparently I have an artistic mind but little talent!). The thing is, that I am constantly blown away by the wit, intelligence and creativity of the people I follow around the web. I want nothing more than to be friends with them and to engage with them casually. But I don't say anything because I am my own worst enemy.

Which brings us to this here blog, a project of sorts. I joined those ER fanboards wayyy back in the day because I had a ton of feelings (largely over Carter and Abby's budding relationship which I will never get over despite the later seasons!) that I wanted share. Over time the feelings haven't gone away, the idea that I have something to say hasn't disappeared but I've become so self-conscious that I barely know how to express them any more. I've come to hate my own voice - I don't trust it not to say anything stupid or ridiculous and I don't trust that people will respond with anything but derision. In a way this blog is my way of trying to force myself to get over that. I'll write about the movies I watch and the books that I read and try to share some of the joy that these things bring me and maybe people will read and respond or maybe they won't but if I post enough maybe I'll at least begin to trust my own mind again. It's a lofty project perhaps and one which I'm sure I'll neglect from time to time but there are worse ways to spend my time than making giddy posts about YA heroines and movie romances.