Thursday, 5 April 2012

Bella and Edward? Really?

At the moment I'm reading 'Bitten by Twilight: Culture, Media, and the Vampire Franchise'. I got it out of the library hoping it would be useful for my children's essay. It hasn't been, so far, but it's still an interesting read, although some of the chapters I violently disagree with.

Anyway, I've come across something so interesting that I've had to stop reading and write a blog post about it. The editors of the book did some extensive research into the fans of the Twilight books, and found that women who identify with the relationship of Bella-Edward over all the other couples in the Twilight books, are statistically more likely to be dissatisfied with their own relationship, do not see themselves as feminists, and would prefer a partner to be "protective, possessive, chivalrous, and intensely attracted to them" (page 151). In contrast, women who prefer the pairing of Alice-Jasper, or Carlisle-Esme, reported to be more satisfied with their own relationship, and "were more likely to express a preference for relationships that are supportive, mutually reliant, and less possessive".

What is scary is that 55% of adults and 49% of teens surveyed would prefer to have Edward and Bella's relationship, compared to 18.9% of adults and 28.3% of teens opting for Alice-Jasper, and 18% of adults and 8.7% of teens preferring Carlisle-Esme.

This makes it pretty clear cut on what makes the Twilight books so attractive, doesn't it? And it's not comfortable reading. Teenagers (and indeed adults) no longer see themselves as feminists? They would actively prefer to be in a relationship whereby possessiveness is a mark of how attracted their partner is to them? And a relationship with an equal is seen as undesirable? No wonder feminists despair over the success of Twilight, but they shouldn't worry about the adverse effect it's having on teenage girls. They're already there. Twilight simply taps into this worrying state of affairs.

I'm also concerned about all these women who are so obsessed with a fictional character that they compare it to their own relationship and find it lacking. One interviewee says, "My ex at Halloween time was like, 'What do you want to dress up as, do you want to be Edward and Bella? And I went, 'Honey, you're not Edward.'" It suggests that women have an ideal in their minds of a perfect, unattainable male, and when they do find a partner, he simply cannot live up to their ideals. Mind you, if they're looking for the possessive controlling type, it's no wonder that once they find this, it leads to a less than perfect relationship.

Ah well. I asked Marc which Twilight couple he most identifies with. Like most men, he's rather embarrassed to admit he likes Twilight, so he was somewhat evasive with his reply: "I like the cute girl with short spiky hair and the guy who was in the civil wars."

"Go on give me their names I know you know them."

"No I don't I've forgotten!"

Me? I've always loved Carlisle: the sweet, caring doctor. And I'm married to a sweet, caring teacher. Who doesn't complain too much when dragged to see the Twilight films!

Sunday, 25 March 2012

The Hunger Games

I'm a fan of a website called Sofabet. It's a site dedicated to unravelling the intricacies of reality TV shows, trying to second-guess what the producers of the show are thinking in order to garner votes, so Sofabet can make suggestions on who best to place money on. I particularly enjoy their deconstruction of the X Factor; how whoever opens the first live show is always in the bottom two the next night; second and third aren't much good either, as most of the TV audience are still watching Strictly Come Dancing on BBC. This year they carefully go over the entire thing to show how the producers originally favoured Janet and The Risk (certainly wanted a group to finally win, and certainly not another boy), but had to change their minds drastically as Janet turned out to not be the little sweet shy girl, and the numerous changes to The Risk began to look just a bit silly. A far-fetched, but brilliant, conspiracy theory suggests that Little Mix was in fact plan A all along, ever since a girl no bigger than a size eight was put in a group with size zeroes, in the hope that this would generate some online bullying leading to tears and a sympathetic VT just prior to their best performance of the season (ET)!

I'm also rather addicted to The Apprentice. There is something so delicious about watching people with huge egos suffer humiliations as they gradually realise that they're not as smart as they thought they were. When someone you love to hate finally has Lord Sugar's finger pointed at them, the sense of satisfaction is palpable. Of course, perhaps you wouldn't hate them quite so much if the producers of the show didn't give them quite so much screentime. Or pick moments of utter buffoonery, while cutting the circumstances which might make such comments or actions not quite so absurd.

Reality TV is utterly addictive. And the producers of such shows are very, very far from stupid. In fact they are geniuses. They can make the watchers think and feel exactly what they want them to think and feel. They are being manipulated, and they don't even realise it. Of course the X Factor is fixed. But not the votes themselves; they're dead accurate. It's fixed in a way which makes people vote a certain way, unknowingly being played with. And that is brilliant.

The decision made by the filmmakers of The Hunger Games to show the Game-Makers in action (yes, the point finally emerges - sorry) was very clever, but I don't think it went as far as it could have done. Yes, the fire which chases Katniss is used as a way to detour her away from the edge of the arena. The touchscreens allowing them to put in extra trees and monsters where and when they were needed was great, and uncomfortably reminiscent of the touch screens used by the X Factor judges when discussing contestants - casually moving their pictures around. But it could have gone further than that. I would have liked to see the Game-Makers actually reviewing footage, deciding which is best to show to the TV audience, clever editing, manipulation. Similarly, I would have liked to see the residence of the Capitol watching. The line from the book, "I was still in bed!" ranks somewhere in the top ten most despicable comments in children's literature, and it would have been good to see that; a family of spoilt Capitol citizens watching children killing each other over their TV dinners, discussing with their friends the 'best' bits, placing bets on the winner. It would have been a good contrast with the citizens of the districts, compulsorily and grimly watching as their children are killed in front of them. But more than that, it would hammer home how much the Capitol loves this show. It is, to them, reality TV, and is viewed in much the same way as our society views X Factor or The Apprentice. And that is what is so scary about The Hunger Games: it isn't that far away from our own society.

In a way, it's a shame that the filmmakers were limited by a 12A rating, because it means the violence is glossed over. In a way this is effective; we see glimpses of fists pounding and swords swinging, giving the impression that we're seeing everything, but no actual blood. What we do see is dead children lying on the ground after the initial bloodbath, and the pictures in the sky are genuinely moving. The boy with ginger hair particularly sticks out in my mind, quite an accomplishment for a character with no lines. But had they not been limited by the rating, we could have had blood flying and limbs being slashed off...only for it to be edited out by the Game-Makers to make it palatable for the Capitol audience. To keep them safely removed from the horrors they endorse every year.

I'm unsure of how I feel about the decision to show District Eleven revolting. In a way it made sense, and was beautifully done; the three-fingered salute to Katniss followed by a man I presume to be Rue's father leading a soon-squashed rebellion. But on the other hand I absolutely love the moment in the book when they send Katniss the bread; a quiet moment of grief-stricken support to another district. I'm also a little unsure of the likelihood of a district rebelling when they still have another tribute, Thresh, in the arena; surely they would have been scared that the Capitol would take revenge on him as a result of their actions. Actually, this exact scenario should have been included in the film, but I guess the filmmakers didn't think of it either! It would have been a better death scene than simply seeing his picture in the sky. Yes, I know that's all we get in the book, but film wise it lacked satisfaction. This is probably because they cut down his conversation with Katniss about Rue to a single line, so the image in the sky didn't have quite the same emotional impact.
While we're on the subject of Rue and Thresh, there was a brilliant second in the training sequence where she's climbed up to the ceiling, and he seeing this has a lovely expression - half exasperated, half smiling. Moments like that where there's no dialogue but the audience know exactly what's going on in the character's minds are very cleverly done.

I do think some of the nastier aspects of the book aren't quite as hard-hitting, probably because Collins describes them in a very flat, matter of fact way which actually makes it even sadder. For example, I never got the impression that people in the districts are actually starving; things are grim, certainly, but never to the extent where children are dying and young women are prostituting themselves. Likewise, Katniss' mother's depression is merely hinted at. I suppose again it comes down to - oh yeah, 12A.

I wouldn't want you to read this review and think that it's a bad film simply because I'm complaining about deviations from the book or pointing out where it could have been better. It was still a fantastic film, and far better than the much-mentioned Battle Royale. Jennifer Lawrence quite simply is Katniss. I was a little worried about Josh Hutcherson, as his previous movie roles hadn't left me particularly inspired, and Peeta is my favourite character. But actually he was really good too. The girl playing Rue only really needed to show up and look cute, which she managed with aplomb. Cato was just the right amount of arrogance; his realisation at the end that he had been lied to his entire life, that winning was not going to be the easy ride he thought it was, was a nice touch, but did it have to come at the expense of him sobbing over Clove's body and begging her not to leave him?

I think the thing that works best about the book, and the film, is that it leaves you with two vital questions. The first one is the same as any dystopia; it asks what you would do if you found yourself in the arena. But the second question should be considered in light of the fact that we are perfectly happy to watch candidates on The Apprentice wreck their professional lives, even if that was not their intention at the time. We're happy to watch X Factor contestants humiliate themselves on live TV, usually unwittingly. Clever producing, remember? So the question about The Hunger Games is; and be entirely honest, now: would you watch it?

Monday, 9 January 2012

CHERUB: People's Republic

After twelve books about James Adams and a further four covering the world war two founding of CHERUB, it would be easy to accuse this series of becoming stagnant.  It is to Muchamore's credit therefore that every book has shared the same high level of excitement, fast pace and intricate plotting.  At the same time, the reader has watched James Adams go from twelve-year-old recruit to adult secret agent; this journey from childhood is as satisfying to read as that of Artemis Fowl, say, or Valkyrie Cain. 

I know many readers didn't like Shadow Wave, and it's easy to see where they're coming from.  James meeting his father is a mere footnote.  The mission isn't exactly a fitting end to James' career.  It's Kyle's mission, with James as his backup.  This is the reason I actually liked it, as Kyle was always my favourite character.  I loved the flashback sequence, and the temper tantrum from a thirteen-year-old James over Arsenal's defeat was among Muchamore's more hilarious writing:

'He laughed even more as he heard James slamming his door, and crashing around in his room, slagging off Mo, Meryl and reserving his most special contempt for Cristiano Ronaldo.'

Of course, Muchamore is an obsessive Arsenal fan, so it's good to know he can basically laugh at himself!

It was also good to see retired, and almost-retired agents coming up with their own mission instead of something that's been meticulously examined by the CHERUB ethics committee.  It made a nice twist: using their training for their own ends...

Even so, were I being a sceptic, I could ask, what next?  How long can Muchamore continue with the franchise, and indeed, how?

 Well; by introducing a brand new recruit, naturally, and beginning all over again with his story.  People's Republic was released in summer 2011, and feels like a reboot of the series.  Ryan Sharma is quite different a character to James, possessing a touching uncertainty about his abilities and a sweet concern for other people which James often lacked. He still possesses the charisma needed to retain a reader's interest through (why not?) twelve books chartering his career.  I prefer him already.

There's appeal for Muchamore's young female readers too in Ning, whose escape from China to England is both exciting and tragic, with an ultimate feel-good happy ending.  I love that Muchamore never actually intended to write strong female characters, wanting instead something for the boys to bounce off, but he's ended up doing just that.  I'm not sure how many thirteen-year-olds could make this illegal, highly dangerous journey that Ning manages, especially when James was having tantrums over football at this age, and in making the character female, it shows that Muchamore seems to be writing for girls as well as boys now.

There's already the well-developed secondary characters he writes so well, who I look forward to learning more about.  Special mention goes to Doris, who is already favourite character to several people on a certain Internet forum:

'"Why have you still got the bloody yucca plant?" Ryan asked.
"I'll find a new pot for it when we get back to campus," Alfie explained. "I'm thinking of calling it Doris."'

One thing I'd like to mention: the front cover.  It shows an orange/red shirt jumping away from what looks like an explosion, which instantly asks many questions.  A red shirt, involved in a mission?  How is this happening?!  Then at the end of the book you realise that it is, in fact, a paint balling session, on campus.  Oh.

(I'm being snarky.  It was a lovely scene, showing Ning being accepted by her new friends in CHERUB, and by extension, her new life.  It reminded me of the end of Class A, where James realises that CHERUB is his home; where he belongs.  It also has the funniest moment of the book:

'"Are we playing or yapping?" Alfie asked. "Doris is expecting me back by ten."')

A more serious niggle is the sheer amount of typos, mistakes and inconsistencies.  There's at least two per chapter, which makes me wonder, in the rush for a speedy publication, was this book copy edited at all?  Or, y'know, proof read?  All of this points to the fact that Hodder clearly need to hire me for this role...

(At least they show that my copy is a first edition.  And it's signed.  And dedicated.  Snigger.)

People's Republic is the first in a trilogy.  I'm highly excited about Guardian Angel, which is due out this summer.  I also wonder if Muchamore has the ending for book three written out on scrap notepaper...

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

I can still remember my first viewing of the original Planet of the Apes.  It was relatively late – well, everyone else had gone to bed – and I don’t think I was much older than twelve.  This meant I was young enough to not actually notice the hammy Charlston Heston (teeth!) acting; the pretty naff special effects; the 60’s William-Shatner-has-just-discovered-something-shocking! style soundtrack.  But most importantly, I was young enough to not know anything about the ending.

These days it’s right there, on the DVD cover, which rather spoils it for newcomers, doesn’t it?  Or perhaps the age of the average DVD buyer means that the twist can already be guessed halfway through the film, anyway, as Marc rather superiorly informed me.  But I’ve always been a little dense when it comes to twists.  I hardly ever see them coming.  Which means my twelve-year-old self was gazing, utterly shocked, at the final shot of the beach with the statue in the background:  You mean he was on Earth the whole time?  Really?  OH MY GOD THAT’S SO CREEPY!!

 Then I turned the TV off and crept up to bed, where I lay awake thinking about it.

A few years later I watched the sequel, which sucked.  And a few years after that, I watched the Tim Burton version, which also sucked.  I think my main problem with the franchise since the first one is that there’s nothing surprising about them; nothing that makes your jaw actually hang open, with a fantastic I-didn’t-see-that-coming! feeling, while everyone around you also attempts to digest what has just unfolded before their eyes.  It’s something which requires a very clever filmmaker to achieve.

I wasn’t too interested when I heard about Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  Like I said, I was pretty fed up with the entire franchise.  But then I decided to go see it, as a result of two things.  The first thing was my brother-in-law raving about it.  This in itself wouldn’t have persuaded me – he also thought that Wolverine was the best film of 2009.  But then I read the Empire review, and decided that maybe it was worth checking out.  Even so, I went in with my expectations pretty low.

 Well.  It’s not often that I come out of a film thinking that perhaps, just maybe, it’s worthy of the fabled five star rating.  It’s not often that I come out of a film totally satisfied with it, either; no glaring plot holes; no bits I wished had been cut; nothing, in fact, that I would change about it.  Perhaps I need to see it again to make sure, but for now, I feel fully justified in saying that Rise is almost certainly a five star film.

The plot is actually pretty simple.  Scientists are experimenting on apes in order to find a cure for Alzheimer’s.  These experiments make the apes more intelligent, especially one, called Bright Eyes (yes).  Disaster befalls the facility and it has to be shut down, all the apes killed except for one – Bright Eyes’ baby son, Caesar.  He is taken home by James Franco’s character, and basically raised as a son – matters complicated by the fact that Bright Eyes’ genetic mutation seems to have been passed onto her son.  After protecting his foster grandfather from a vicious neighbour, Caesar is impounded, meets other apes and plans a rebellion.  It’s a credit to the fantastic Andy Serkis CGI that by this point, the audience really does think of Caesar as almost human, and that this impounding is utterly unfair as he was behaving merely as any boy would to protect a beloved grandparent.

Once impounded his story really starts – he realises that he has been pampered, treated as a member of the family, while other apes are not.  They are treated horribly – Franco’s character is misled as to the true nature of the place, and Caesar wakes up to the reality of his situation with a nasty bump.  He also has to find a way to deal with the other apes, who aren’t necessarily good guys…

One of the things I loved about this film is how closely related it is to the original.  I absolutely loved the oblique reference to the lost ship of the original film.  I also liked how the characteristics of the different apes are similar.  So we’ve got the smart orang-utan Maurice (question: can they really be taught sign language?); the peace-loving chimpanzees; and the brutal gorillas.  While the terrifying Buck is absolutely loyal to Caesar, he still needs to be kept on a tight leash.

 So let’s get to the moment when the collective jaws of the audience hit the floor.  This is what I loved about the film; just one genuinely brilliant moment, when you can’t quite believe what you’ve just seen.  And the build up to it was brilliant, too.  While Tom Felton might well have been Draco Malfoy, one thing he certainly is not is Charlton Heston; and his rendition of ‘Get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!” made the cinema grin in an ironic way; yes, I suppose they had to get it in somewhere.  But then, with the next bit, you actually could have heard a pin drop.  Very, very clever filmmaking, creating a scenario right up there with a twelve-year-old staring at the Statue of Liberty on the TV screen, late at night.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Kevin Brooks 'Naked'

The thing about book-selling is that there are few things more embarrassing than not being able to recommend something to a customer.  It’s like that scene in You’ve got Mail when Meg Ryan goes into the big soul-sucking chain bookshop and she overhears a customer trying to find something and the poor bookseller she’s collared has no idea what she’s on about.  A while ago it occurred to me that my knowledge of teenage fiction was a little lacking, so I started reading a rather large amount of it.  Then I discovered that contrary to my certain previous convictions, I was actually starting to like it!  But that’s another story.  Of course, now I never get asked about teenage fiction.  Now it’s all recommendations for eight year olds! Anyway, something I hadn’t got around to yet was Kevin Brooks, so when a proof came in of his new book, Naked, I said yeah, I’ll read it, maybe even review it if I like it.

 I was being flippant.  As it turns out, I like it very much.  It’s a fantastic read and definitely makes me wonder if I now have absolutely any excuse not to pick up a copy of IBoy or Black Rabbit Summer.  Mind you, the subject matter of this one – music – is one I’ll always read about, no matter the author, so it was kinda sold to me anyway, wasn't it? 

It’s the story of a fictitious punk band in 1970’s London who conveniently enough start their band just as punk is beginning to take off.  The scene is painted in painstaking detail, including everything from a popular shop hangout to Jordon, the model who basically created the look.  We see Sid Vicious bouncing around like a lunatic, and that’s before he even joins the Sex Pistols.  And we are told that Naked are a band who are contemporaries of the Pistols.  They are, in fact, better than them.  And, had things not ended in tragedy, they could have been far, far bigger.

Music is, after friends and family, probably the most important thing in my life.  There are few things more beautiful; few things that can evoke such a strong reaction, bring to mind past experiences, or simply being just lovely for its own sake.  I can be sitting on the bus in a wet and drizzly traffic jam and have tears spring to my eyes simply because of something that’s coming out of my headphones.  Similarly, there’s something imminently satisfying about nailing a very difficult piece of music – or actually being told that you’re pretty good!

Paradoxically, there are few things I hate more than a bad piece of music.  Well, bad is relative, I suppose, but there’s certain types of music I can never get on board with.  One of these is the late-seventies punk movement.  And the annoying thing about this is that I probably should.  Without it, I’m sure the pop-punk stuff myself and my friends listened to when we were eighteen wouldn’t have come into being.  We certainly wouldn’t have come up with the idea of black clothes, pink hair and dog collars by ourselves.  But the difference, I think, is that the attitude has changed.   The stuff we listened to was fun.  It didn’t take itself too seriously, and was mostly about growing up and teenage problems (until our – whispers – nu-metal phase, but the less said about that the better…everyone did it, ok…).  But seventies punk was about getting angry – even if you didn’t actually have anything to be angry about.  I guess I find that irritating.

Which is why Curtis Ray, Naked’s central character, is so very, very annoying.  The funny thing is, since the story is told from the viewpoint of Lili, his girlfriend, he doesn’t start out as annoying.  At first the reader sees him exactly as she does – someone who is very, very cool.  He has long hair, an earring and a leather jacket!  He plays the guitar!  He is, in fact, the person who everyone fancied at school.  So when he asks her to play bass in his band, she readily agrees, and the reader automatically thinks that this is going to be a very sweet love story between two young musicians.

Well, not so much.  The start of the relationship is a little disappointing – for the reader and for Lili, who realises immediately that there’s a difference between imagining falling in love, being with somebody you’ve dreamed about, and the reality.

“It just changed things so much.  It changed the way I saw Curtis.  It made me realise that – in one way, at least – he wasn’t any different to other boys.”

It soon becomes clear to the reader that Curtis is far fonder of music than he is of Lili.  Not that he should be judged too harshly for this – I was always more interested in music than I was in boyfriends.  But there are also hints that she doesn’t quite live up to his expectations of what his girlfriend should be.  She doesn’t dress as ‘extremely’ as he would like.  He certainly spends too much time drooling over girls half-naked in bondage gear.  He also slowly but surely becomes a drug addict, which is horrible to read about – there’s been far too many musicians over the years wasting incredible talents in this way.

Something that Brooks taps into extremely well is the very reason why seventies punk is so irritating to me – the fact that many of these musicians actually had nothing to be so rebellious about.  Curtis comes from a middle-class family.  He is passionate about punk music – there is absolutely no doubt about that – but he believes he doesn’t belong because of his background, and perhaps he has a point when you consider the Sex Pistols’ working class roots.

“It was almost as if he resented the fact that he hadn’t been born poor, so he didn’t really have anything to rage against.  He knew, deep down, that his rebelliousness had no cause, and he blamed his parents for that.”

So when the reader is introduced to William Bonney, it’s like a bit of fresh air – for both Lili and the reader.  He’s from Belfast.  His working-class – yet initially happy – childhood was blighted by horrendous conflict between Loyalists and Republicans.  When we meet him, both his parents are dead, and he, his brother and stepmother Nancy are living in this country slightly illicitly.  He actually has something to be angry about – but he never is.  While he will use violence when the band is threatened, and while he is IRA-sympathetic, he absolutely abhors the idea of harming innocent people.

“Part of me still believes in what my dad believes in, that it’s a war, and that we have a right to fight back…but the thing is…I don’t want anyone to get hurt.  I don’t want anyone else to get killed.  It’s just not right.”

There’s also the fact that while he is a natural musician, and loves the punk scene almost as much as Curtis, he loves his family – and, eventually, Lili – more.  While Curtis spends his band earnings on drink and drugs, William would rather spend his on paying Nancy’s rent.  It’s this conflict between his two interests which leads, eventually, to the end of the band – and tragedy.

If there is one criticism I would make with the book, it’s that of Lili’s character.  I’m afraid she suffers from Bella Swan syndrome.  I don’t actually know anything about her, other than her own terrible home life, and the fact that she likes music.  Which means she’s defined by the men she dates, really.  She never mentions other friends – or other interests – which is a shame as it means that, as a character, she’s rather one-dimensional.  But it’s still a fantastic read, and I would love to see a film made out of it.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Young Adult Dystopia

Something which has been showing up on my radar quite prominently recently is the volume of young adult dystopia available right now.  I am certain this is not a recent phenomenon, but it's something I'm finding myself reading more and more of.  It's science fiction, which I don't usually enjoy reading as much as fantasy (which is funny, as generally I prefer science fiction on film and TV more than when fantasy reaches these mediums!).  But there isn't as much (or, indeed, any) techno babble as there is in 'adult' sci-fi literature, which might be part of the appeal.  There's also the fact that unlike 'paranormal romance', the romance is secondary to the main plot.  It's there because it needs to be - teenagers are going to fancy one another - but the plot is always first and foremost the study of how human society might be in the near future.  And it's never a bright, shiny, happy place.  It's always dark, gritty, depressing.  And for some reason, it's very, very popular.

I, for one, absolutely LOVE it.  I would worry about what this says about my personality, but since I'm definitely not alone in this, I won't spend too much time fretting over it.

I think Suzanne Collins with The Hunger Games trilogy probably does it best.  The plot is simple - children are forced to participate in a yearly gladiatorial arena until there is one candidate left alive.  The entire thing is broadcast to the nation.  It's war meets reality TV.  And there is nothing, with the exception of the very end, which isn't bleak about every single page.  The only thing I didn't like about the plot is the unprecedented reaction provoked by the main protagonist Katniss volunteering to take her sister's place in the arena: surely anyone would do this for a younger sibling, yet we are told this has never happened before.  But this really is nitpicking, and I should apologise.

One thing Collins does exceptionally well is the romance.  It's utterly believable.  Katniss has two boys (almost, although it is never a love triangle - so prosaic!) competing for her attentions, yet there is never any doubt over who she will end up with.  It is stated that this will be the person she can't live without.  Peeta has kept her alive, but more importantly, has kept her sane.  He has endured countless horrors for her.  More importantly he is her exact antithesis.  Where she is filled with uncontrollable anger, he is calm, controlled and serene, despite the despicable society he is forced to live in.  Her immediate response to anything is to fight: he strives to find other solutions.  There's nothing romantic about their relationship; it's nothing less than a mutual necessity for survival.  They are meant for each other in a way which makes Bella and Edward seem like a couple on their first date.

The Hunger Games is very obviously an evil society.  But dystopian fiction works just as well when on the surface, everything seems good and right.  I recently finished Matched by Ally Condie.  Suzanne Collins doesn't do subtle.  Condie does, and to brilliant effect.  It's a society where the main feature is that the government decides who you should marry.  You're matched with someone because you share every element of compatibility possible, based on every statistic available.  I am not in any way endorsing arranged marriages, but this does make a lot of sense.  Generally, the society does seem happy.  The main character, Cassia, is happy with her match - more than happy.  It's her best friend, Xander, the one person she knows the best.  He is good natured, easy going, and can make her laugh.  But then she begins to develop feelings for someone else.

The trouble is, arranging (or controlling) marriages is not the only thing decided by the government.  The characters are also told where they should work, how many children they can have, how much they should eat, even when they die.  Even things like art and music are controlled - there are a hundred types of every sort, and this is the only choice available.  It is utterly prohibited for Cassia and Ky to fall in love - and yet they still do.  It is slow, delicate, subtle - it has to be - and yet utterly moving.

The interesting thing, is eventually Cassia uncovers the truth - the government meant for her to fall for Ky over Xander.  It was all a horrible experiment using real people.  It is tragic, and yet, it makes you think - isn't this saying that yes, actually, you can find your perfect mate using statistics?  Is the society right all along? 

I'm looking forward to Crossed, the sequel, out in November, mainly because this is going to be narrated by Ky as well as Cassia.  It'll be good to read a different perspective on things - especially someone who was treated perhaps rather worse by the society than even she was.

I also read (a few months before publication!) a proof of Veronica Roth's Divergent, and then (very nicely) gave it to a friend & colleague to read.  It's been compared to The Hunger Games, but this certainly is not accurate, and I would strongly advise against buying it on this basis.  I think it actually owes far more to Harry Potter.  Society is divided into four factions, each based on a particular virtue, and children choose at the age of sixteen where they want to be.  For some, this means choosing the same faction as their parents and continuing life as normal.  For others, it means being true to who they are (or think they are), and choosing to go elsewhere, leaving everything they know - and indeed love.

It's a pretty neat concept.  You can see the Harry Potter similarity, where children also have to decide at a young age where they want to be in society, which often conflicts between who their family is, and who they want to be as individuals.  (What, you thought the sorting hat chooses the houses?  I don't think so.  I think in most cases, the young witches and wizards choose where they want to be...)  It's also a good read as Tris goes through her Dauntless training - they seem to have confused bravery with recklessness and physical prowess, and the new recruits do not have an easy time going through initiation.

The second part of the novel sees Tris and her love interest, Four, discovering a plot within the society - one faction is supposed to venerate intelligence but actually craves power, and manipulates Dauntless in order to destroy another faction - that of Tris' parents, who are currently in charge of the government (who else would be best to rule than the selfless?).  That's a clever set up - especially as Tris' brother is a member of this faction.  There's also a fair amount of tragedy and violence before the end.

I'm not sure how dystopian Divergent actually is, though.  The society does seem to function relatively happily.  Problems only start when a few people get power hungry.  Also: is it saying that intelligence - especially en masse - will lead to evil?  Should we be keeping an eye on those Ravenclaws?

One of the great things about being a bookseller is the chance to have a look at proof copies.  And so I'm going to tell you all about Legend, the debut of a new author called Mary Lu, which is out in December.

There are times, very, very rarely in the book publishing world, when very, very exciting things happen.  A book is snapped up by an agent.  It's then not only auctioned, but an auction which is highly contested!  Film rights are purchased by the producers of Twilight before the book's even published!  And, what is more, it is very, very heavily marketed.

Of course, it helps matters when the author is 'highly promotable'.  And as you can see, Marie Lu is, ah, very, very promotable.  She's also smart in a way which leaves most people wondering if they should even bother leaving the house.  She's set up a Legend facebook game!  And, from what I can deduce, an online forum where you can ROLEPLAY within the Legend world!  Even though the book isn't even out yet!!

This has happened before.  Didn't The Left Hand of God receive an extensive marketing campaign?  And yet, it is actually pretty rare for me to stop reading a book after the first few chapters simply because I'm bored by it, as I did in that case.  But Lu is clearly a very, very smart person who can easily promote her own material.

It doesn't matter.  It's going to be huge either way.

And deservedly so, certainly.  It's a great read.  It's not the best thing I've ever read, and there are better books out there which didn't recieve an extensive marketing campaign, but I would say it will probably live up to the hype.  Apparantly it is 'loosely based on' Les Miserables, but since I have neither read nor watched this, I can't comment.  It follows the basic premise that North America (question: are there any dystopias set in the UK nowadays?) has become a Republic, tightly controlled by the government, in a near constant war with an enemy simply referred to as 'the Colonies'.  There are also hints that the past has been forcibly repressed, and that it is, indeed, a myth to many people now.

The government also forces people to sit a trial at the age of ten, which determines their entire future.  How well you can advance in society is entirely dependant on how well you do in your trial.  June is a young prodigy.  From a wealthy family, she passed her trial with the highest possible score - almost unheard of.  She has also been somewhat brainwashed - she has been spoon-fed a tale of the glorious Republic she lives in, and even her acts of rebellion against her teachers are all to the good of her society.

However, she is a slightly tragic figure in that her parents are dead, and she is being raised by her older brother, Metias, a young man who also (appears) to support the Republic wholeheartedly, but manages to be caring, considerate and absolutely doting on his younger sister.  It is clear that everything in his life is devoted to caring for her, and it does bring a lump to your throat.

Meanwhile, Day, a young Robin Hood type justice seeker, failed his trial.  He was, like other failed candidates, sent to a work camp - or rather, this is the story told to his family, and indeed to society at large.  We are given hints as to where he was really sent before the reveal at the end - a particularly unpleasant scenario, if a little unoriginal (hint: Eoin Colfer had the same idea.  Along with lots of other authors).  Day is also from a poor family.  Funnily enough, it's the lower classes who are most likely to fail their trial.  Did we mention that June is from a wealthy family?

The story opens with Day finding out that his brother is possibly dying of the plague, an illness which crops up from time to time - among the working class.  The wealthy are immunised.  He plans a raid on a hospital in order to find some cures.  While escaping, he is stopped by a young soldier...called Metias.  Now, everything Day does to target the Republic is to cause chaos and confusion.  He never kills people.  He hurls a knife - at Metias' shoulder - and runs away.

June is informed that her brother is dead.  She is told to examine the body, and she cannot fail to notice the knife - sticking out of his chest.  She is then graduated from school early and told that her first assignment is to track down Day.  She readily agrees.  However, on this assignment she and Day both discover truths about the society they are forced to live in.

An especially effective writing method is the use of dramatic irony.  I love it.  I think it makes for fantastic reading.  The reader knows that Day cannot have killed Metias.  However, June is convinced that he did.  Why wouldn't she be?  And the reader believes she is absolutely right to want revenge against the person who took away everything she holds dear.

However, you also know that she's been manipulated and manoeuvred into her first assignment.  While it might stretch the imagination to believe that a sixteen year old new recruit would, as her first job, be told to track down someone who has spent years evading the Republic, you need to remember that the Republic probably doesn't really expect her to succeed.  They've spotted an opportunity to use her (and how horrible is it that, in her grief-stricken state, they expect her to examine the body?).  And who knows, she might pull it off.  Prodigy, remember?  It brings to mind a sixteen-year-old Draco Malfoy given an impossible task by Voldemort: what has he got to lose?

Part of the joy of reading Legend is that you know the twist.  The fun part is watching the characters come to realise it.  You also wonder who did kill Metias, and I have to admit, this one, I didn't see coming.

So: great set up.  I'm already looking forward to reading the next one, although it's probably too early to ask for a proof before a book's even been written!  I'd be interested in learning more about the Colonies, who are referred to but never appear on screen.  I'd also like to see more of the rebels, an organisation mentioned but never really seen on page.

I'd tell you to go out and buy it, but there's no point.  You'll probably see it everywhere.  And in a few years, you'll probably go and see the film.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

X-Men: First Class

Despite being a science fiction and fantasy fan, I am not a reader of comic books. The only ones I do own (and indeed read) are of the Buffy variety. While it would doubtless be something that would interest me, I have just never summoned the enthusiasm necessary to start. This is very odd, because I enjoy the films, especially the X-Men films. I even liked Wolverine!

Purists might complain that this is rather like professing a love for the Harry Potter films without reading the books. Actually, they would be right. Unfortunately, I don't care.

I loved First Class. I thought it was the best of the lot. But funnily enough, I don't think I would have enjoyed it quite so much if I hadn't seen the earlier ones. This is a shame for the film makers, who have called it a 'reboot' to, I suppose, justify the continuity problems (more on that later). Because, although I'm sure newbies will like the film, they won't get this feeling: the indescribable satisfaction that comes from the knowledge that, yes, James McAvoy is a young Patrick Stewart; and, what is more, Michael Fassbender is a young Ian McKellen! They've achieved something which the fans of Star Wars believed was promised to them by the prequels, especially with that trailer, 'Anakin Skywalker, meet Obi-Wan Kenobi', but was never...quite...delivered. (Don't get me wrong. I like the Star Wars prequels. I think they're on a par with the originals. But I was never a big fan of the originals anyway. But I understand that the 'original' fans were somewhat annoyed, and so my point remains.)

I will be honest. I've been a little bit in love with McAvoy ever since he played that dude with the horns and a nerdy scarf. But I can be objective, and say that yes, his portrayal of Xavier made me believe that Patrick Stewart is capable of using the word 'groovy'. It's also the simple Britishness of the man I love (question: what was his family doing living in America?). The scenes set in Oxford were gorgeous - although they just cut out my place of work (all right, it was on the other side of the road). This is a man who uses his knowledge of genetics as a chat up line; worries about disturbing his hair when he first uses Cerebro; but is also capable of a head-masterly seriousness, combined with an ability to bring out the absolute best in others, because he is, first and foremost, a teacher. In this regard McAvoy is following in the footsteps of Patrick Stewart - a wise move, since he got it dead right (Stewart should have been cast as Dumbledore, but Xavier is definitely cut from the same cloth. Can you just imagine Dumbledore actually stopping time in order to teach his wayward fire-obsessed pupils a lesson?). The 'training' scenes were an absolute joy to watch. Yes, they were cheesy, but not clich├ęd. The split screens were a throwback, but a clever one.

"Hit the target and not me, there's a good chap!"

Fassbender is, easily, my favourite character from Inglourious Basterds; he was brilliant with what little screen-time he had.

"Well, if this is it, old boy, I hope you don't mind if I go out speaking the King's."

It's funny that there's scenes in First Class that wouldn't have looked out of place in Inglourious Basterds, but without the grim humour Tarantino excels at. Both the bar and bank scenes were brilliantly done - all justified anger with undercurrents of almost disturbing menace. When you consider how Magneto is played by McKellan, it's astonishing that Fassbender gives the character such sympathy. Here is someone you can almost root for. Almost.

His scenes with McAvoy are, really, the whole point of the film, and they're beautifully done. Here are two people whose backgrounds could not be more different, but both have access to a remarkable power; who have to forge a friendship if they're to be the 'good guys' in this entirely new world.

"More tea, vicar?"

I think my favourite scenes were when they were tracking down all the 'mutants', mainly for a cameo which actually made me squeal with excitement; enough so that my objection at it did not seem to matter: namely, that someone who has lived in a concentration camp WOULD NOT have given up so easily, no matter how many 'Go fuck yourself!'s were growled at him. It's best, I think, not to go down the road of, 'But they could have made such a difference to his life!'

Quibbles are very, very minor. Angel, for example. I didn't really 'get' why she would have changed sides so very easily, especially after one of her friends is killed. I also don't quite understand Mystique. While she was played very, very well by Jennifer Lawrence, now making me even more excited for The Hunger Games, I don't really see why she has such a problem with who she is. She has probably the coolest power out there, and yes, her real appearance is a little on the bizarre side, but it's not like she's stuck with it, unlike some others. In fact, who's to say that is her 'real' appearance? Surely whichever skin she's most comfortable in (mentally as well as physically) should be the reality? While we're on the quibbles, let's mention the discrepancies: if that really is Storm during the excellent Cerebro scene, she'd be quite a bit older by the start of the first film than Halle Berry really looks. Also, I'm fairly sure Xavier wasn't in a wheelchair for the flashback at the start of X-3.

However, quibbles are not something I'll focus on. It's a great film, and I'm already looking forward to buyinthe DVD.