Saturday, July 19, 2014

Why I end up liking everything J.K. Rowling writes

A few days ago I came across a bookstore, fed my incessant book greed and bought these two. Then I spent a day wondering whom I'd rather start with from my two favourite writers. 
I couldn't decide which to read first, but I went with J.K.
When I read The Casual Vacancy, I commented that we could never really know an author and their works aren't everything there is to say about them. No Harry Potter book could have made me think that was coming, and I enjoyed that new way of looking at an author I was so convinced I knew

The Silkworm has made me realize something about J.K. Rowling and my intense love for all her writing - no, I'm not a Harry Potter fan claiming I like everything she writes just because. It's how involved she is in all her works. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is probably not a story to her, but a whole world happening inside her head, into which she allows us selective peeks. That would explain the gossipy Rita Skeeter article about the Quidditch World Cup I was told she published recently. The criticism goes: it was too short a glimpse through too unreliable a narrator. I would like to believe Rowling didn't sit down to write the story for the occasion but that the occasion wrote itself - which is to say that everything that takes place from the fight at Hogwarts to the seventeen years later (and after that) does actually play out in her head, and she chooses when to let us in. I mean, I doubt all the Pottermore stories were created just for the website.

In much the same way, the world of Robert Galbraith's The Cuckoo's Calling and The Silkworm, the life of ex-Army detective Cormoran Strike, is a story inside her head. As must be the life and work of Robert Galbraith. Rethinking over it now, I don't think the pseudonym was a gimmick - I think a woman who has so many stories playing in her mind, such a vivid imagination, must have loved to write as another person, a man in fact, and enjoyed putting herself in the shoes of a first timer writing their debut book. 

And that's how I end up loving everything Rowling: be it the Harry Potter series, The Casual Vacancy or these newest mysteries, for all our expectations and suggestions - she should have stuck to Harry Potter, it is too gross, dark and full of "language", I wanted it to be magical, what was she thinking? - I don't believe she writes for us, she writes because she loves stories. And it is evident in the detail and the effortless switches of genre (though no self-respecting Harry Potter fan would say the books were just that: fantasy.)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Top Ten Favourite Completed TV Shows

For this week's Top Ten Tuesday, the topic is favourite stories that are not books. There's no point, I think, in including shows that are still ongoing, because you never how they'll turn out (and my favourite movies are too many to list.) So this is a list of TV series that I diligently watched and loved till the end. 

1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer

2. Gilmore Girls

3. The Wire

4. Friends

5. ER

6. The Tudors

7. Fringe

8. 30 Rock

9. Charmed

10. Firefly (not exactly completed, was it?)

Did you watch these? Which are your favourite TV shows, ongoing and completed?

(Update: I just read the comments; I'd always assumed few people loved Buffy, because no one I know really does - but I'm so glad to be proven wrong.)

Sunday, July 13, 2014

London's Book Shaped Benches - Why am I not there?!?

The title says it all. I don't think I've ever wished harder I lived in London. Books About Town is a project launched by the National Literacy Trust where 50 literary themed benches illustrated by local artists have been strewn across the city for summer, to be auctioned later in the autumn. These are my favourites:

The Librarian bench (Discworld by Terry Pratchett)

Earnest bench (The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde)

Peter Pan bench (Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie)

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe bench (The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis)

The Jeeves and Wooster Bench (the Jeeves series by P.G. Wodehouse)
Aren't they delightful? I borrowed these pictures from the official Books about Town website, where you'll find the pictures of all the benches. Of course, there are these pictures submitted by people who stumbled across the benches throughout the city, which are way more fun as long as you can keep yourself from turning green. 

It gets more fun: Guardian lets you vote for the book to feature on the next bench, the 51st. The choices range from the 101 Dalmatians to Adrian Mole, and Harry Potter, who needless to say is in the lead - you can change that with your vote, though I will have you know, I didn't! Anyway, are you thinking what I'm thinking? I know, this has brought me whole new ideas about bookish furniture. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Ransom by David Malouf

Reminiscent of: Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis

Summary: The Iliad begins with Achilles, the Greeks' greatest strength, refusing to fight for them, for Agamemnon, who insulted him. But he is the only one who can defeat the Trojan prince Hector. One of the greatest stories of The Iliad is Achilles' final vengeful slaughter of Hector, his darkest moments that follow, and King Priam's daring un-kingly attempt to ransom his son's body from the cruel Achilles. The unlikely meeting, of the aged father and the murderer of his son, in the middle of a Greek camp, at the centre of an unending war, makes a beautiful story of loss.

"If the last thing that happens to me is to be hunted down in the heart of my citadel, and dragged out by the feet, and shamelessly stripped and humiliated, so be it. But I do not want that to be the one sad image of me that endures in the minds of men. The image I mean to leave is a living one. Of something so new and unheard of that when men speak my name it will stand forever as proof of what I was. An act, in these terrible days, that even an old man can perform, that only an old man dare perform, of whom nothing now can be expected of noise and youthful swagger. Who can go humbly, as a father and as a man, to his son’s killer, and ask in the gods’ name, and in their sight, to be given back the body of his dead son. Lest the honour of all men be trampled in the dust.’'

My thoughts: So: did I mention I've been on kind of a Troy-high lately? I'm halfway through the Robert Fitzgerald translation of The Iliad and have been catching up on my Greek mythology; reading novels based on the Trojan war, because there's no better way to learn stuff than through stories. Last week, I wrote about The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. It's a book full of glamour and passion, but this book is the complete opposite. I'd read and appreciated Ransom by David Malouf before, but this reread has me inspired. This book is amazing. Brilliantly composed. 

The author adds character to the myth, life stories and feelings. We see Achilles in the ruthlessness that even he can't comprehend. Angry and impulsive Achilles who leaves the war, then rejoins it to avenge his friend's murder, kills Hector and mercilessly drags around his bones for days to follow. But he's burning inside; even as the Myrmidons begin to resent their leader's bold cruelty, we find him not cruel, but pitiful.

And then we see Priam, ransomed from slavery by his sister through Heracles, we meet his sons and daughters and Hecuba, his Queen. Ransom is about a King - a symbol - and about the man behind that image, a man who finally breaks through to do right by his son. In a time when all was left to the will of the Gods, we see the one man who took fate in his hands, a ruler who exercised his free will and set out to plead to his enemy, Priam who put his life in the hands of chance. Guided by Hermes, in a cart drawn by mules, belonging to a poor stranger, Priam sees the real Troy for the first time. 

And the story is also about the cart driver, a stranger who is hired to play the part of Priam's herald for one journey, an old man whose views about the world make all the difference to Priam's actions, an old man who witnesses in one night a great chunk of history and, throughout his life, even after the fall of Troy, retells it to a thousand disbelieving ears. His presence in this novella makes you wonder about stories and the true truth. It reminded me of Odysseus's speech in The Song of Achilles about how there is no telling who earns immortal fame and whose glory is lost in time.

Masterfully written, Ransom by David Malouf is packed with wit and emotion. It's 5/5, incredibly highly recommended.

In his own world a man spoke only to give shape to a decision he had come to, or to lay out an argument for or against. To offer thanks to one who had done well, or a reproof, either in anger or gentle regret, to one who had not. To pay a compliment whose decorative phrases, and appeals to vanity or family pride, were fixed and of ancient and approved form. Silence, not speech, was what was expressive. Power lay in containment. In keeping hidden, and therefore mysterious, one’s true intent. A child might prattle, till it learned better. Or women in the seclusion of their own apartments.

But out here, if you stopped to listen, everything prattled. It was a prattling world. Leaves as they tumbled in the breeze. Water as it went hopping over the stones and turned back on itself and hopped again. Cicadas that created such a long racketing shrillness, then suddenly cut out, so that you found yourself aware once again of silence. Except that it wasn't silence at all, it was a low, continuous rustling and buzzing and humming, as if each thing’s presence was as much the sound it made as its shape, or the way it had, which was all its own, of moving or being still.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Homemade Heart-Shaped Bookmarks




I have always adored these heart-shaped bookmarks, so last night I made a bunch.

The last time I made bookmarks was a few years ago and these hearts are nowhere near as cute. But they are impossibly easy to make - just glue the top half of small heart on a larger heart for the first. Or - you can paste the top half of a cut out of a heart on a same sized heart to get the golden one. Quick and useful. The golden one will highlight your page number or title! The other one, well, it'll make even Marlowe seem cheerful and that's saying something!

Do you have any DIY bookmark ideas? I could use a little something-to-do. 

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller


The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (which, incidentally, J. K. Rowling loved) is a re-imagining of the Trojan war from the point of view of Patroclus, whose minor appearance in the Iliad has the greatest consequences. (If you don't know what I'm talking about stop reading when I say, "Spoiler!")

Overall impression: I'd rate this book a 3.5 / 5. It's an engaging read, recommended to those interested in Greek or Trojan mythology. That being said, there are countless interpretations of the Iliad, and it may be unfair to expect it to do something that hasn't been done before. It's not a retelling. It rarely strays from the original, but will be a good introduction to the myth. 

Summary: As a young boy, Patroclus is one of the princes present at the time when the beautiful Helen chooses to marry the red-haired Menelaus. Along with the other warrior men, Patroclus takes the oath, proposed by Odysseus, to honour Helen's choice and defend her husband against anyone who'd take her from him. All princes present are enviably handsome, powerful and gifted, while Patroclus is a little boy, feeble, unpromising and a disappointment to his father. One day, at the age of eight, Patroclus accidentally kills a boy who bullies him, and confesses. His father, infuriated by his un-princely humbleness, exiles him to Pythia, a small country ruled by King Peleus. Peleus's son, sired from the sea-nymph goddess Thetis, is prophecized to be Aristos Achaion, the best of the Greeks. Achilles.

Ignoring all the boys who fight for his attention, Achilles chooses Patroclus as his companion. Their friendship blossoms into love. Even Achilles's mother finds Patroclus unworthy of her son, and they struggle against all odds to be together. During their apprenticeship with Chiron, king of the Centaurs, news arrives of Queen Helen's abduction from Sparta and Agamemnon's appeal to sail to Troy to rescue her. Achilles, unable to trick his fate, and Patroclus, bound by his vow, are recruited to join the Greeks. With the prophecy hanging over their heads, certain that Achilles would die in the war, after the death of Hector, the Myrmidons, commanded by Achilles, set off for Troy.

What I didn't like: Flitting tenses are annoying, but that's just me. Patroclus's narration is often maudlin and he seems infatuated with Achilles and absurdly unaware of his own potential, until the moment it's revealed to us (surprise!) that Patroclus is the best of the Myrmidons. Patroclus's descriptions of Achilles are garish and repetitive, and the love scenes are sometimes laughably awkward. At some of the key moments, the purple prose strives to invoke a reaction and we lose the profound simplicity such scenes demand.

What I liked: The Song of Achilles is aptly titled and looks at Achilles in all his glory and terror with an unbiased honesty, that only a lover can show. The story and the point of view turns the hero or the villain, as he's bound to be either extreme in most interpretations of the myth, into a person. The characters of this book are charmingly fleshed out, my favourites are Odysseus, Thetis and Briseis. The floweriness of Patroclus's descriptions doesn't extend to the dialogue, which has a good flow and gives each character his distinct voice.

The all encompassing quality of this book makes it special. It strings together countless stories of all the men of Greece and Ilium and all the Olympian gods, capturing the essence of an epic. It's clear that a lot of research went into this book, and that makes the absence of information dumps all the better. 

(SPOILER!) From the very first page, beginning with Patroclus's first person narration, I wondered what would happen after he died. It would be weird if the narrative just stopped after Hector killed Patroclus and the book ended with Hector still alive. No book about Achilles would skip his final revenge. And a shift in point of view so close to the end would be too jarring. So what Miller's done is use a risky literary device and let the unburied spirit of Patroclus shadow the rest of the war, invisibly watching Achilles's death and the fall of Troy. It sounds hard to pull off, and seems too contrived at first, but the ghost-narration is wonderfully executed and the book ends on an impossibly happy note. (end of SPOILER)

Favourite conversations:

(a young Achilles, full of hope, in spite of his godly destiny)
"Name one hero who was happy." 
I considered. Heracles went mad and killed his family; Theseus lost his bride and father; Jason's children and new wife were murdered by his old; Bellerophon killed the Chimera but was crippled by the fall from Pegasus' back.
"You can't." He was sitting up now, leaning forward. 
"I can't." 
"I know. They never let you be famous AND happy." He lifted an eyebrow. "I'll tell you a secret." 
"Tell me." I loved it when he was like this. 
"I'm going to be the first."

(Chiron, on the futility of war)
Chiron had said once that nations were the most foolish of mortal inventions. "No man is worth more than another, wherever he is from."  
"But what if he is your friend?" Achilles had asked him, feet kicked up on the wall of the rose-quartz cave. "Or your brother?  Should you treat him the same as a stranger?"  
"You ask a question that philosophers argue over," Chiron had said. "He is worth more to you, perhaps. But the stranger is someone else’s friend and brother. So which life is more important?"
We had been silent. We were fourteen, and these things were too hard for us. Now that we are twenty-seven, they still feel too hard.

(Odysseus and Pyrrhus on the randomness of glory)
Odysseus inclines his head. "True. But fame is a strange thing. Some men gain glory after they die, while others fade. What is admired in one generation is abhorred in another." He spread his broad hands. "We cannot say who will survive the holocaust of memory. Who knows?" He smiles. "Perhaps one day even I will be famous. Perhaps more famous than you.”
"I doubt it."
Odysseus shrugs. "We cannot say. We are men only, a brief flare of the torch. Those to come may raise us or lower us as they please."

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Jewel of Seven Stars by Bram Stoker

Reminiscent of: The Gold Bug by Edgar Allan Poe, The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle, The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh

We learn of great things by little experiences. The history of ages is but an indefinite repetition of the history of hours. The record of a soul is but a multiple of the story of a moment. The Recording Angel writes in the Great Book in no rainbow tints; his pen is dipped in no colours but light and darkness. For the eye of infinite wisdom there is no need of shading. All things, all thoughts, all emotions, all experiences, all doubts and hopes and fears, all intentions, all wishes seen down to the lower strata of their concrete and multitudinous elements, are finally resolved into direct opposites.

Summary: Malcolm Ross, a young barrister, is summoned by his lady friend Margaret Trelawney, when someone attempts to murder her father. Mr. Trelawney is an Egyptologist, and his house is filled with curios, from gruesome sarcophagi and mummies to ornate trinkets. 

The sudden attack on Mr. Trelawney, who is now unconscious, has left Margaret wholly distraught. Oddly, as if he has been aware of the danger all along, Mr. Trelawney has left his daughter a letter, instructing her not to move any items in his room,with an order that there always be at least one man and woman watching him at all times, night or day. On the first night, a second attack is made on Mr. Trelawney, right under the noses of the watchers, including Ross, are found discovered in a deep seemingly drug induced slumber. 

Through the course of the book unfolds the story of Egyptian Queen Tera, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Margaret, and her dream of resurrecting in a future world, more suited to a powerful woman like her. Now, fifty thousands years later, Queen Tera has been set free. It is apparent that she wants to return to her own embalmed body, which rests unsurprisingly in a sarcophagus in Mr. Trelawney's house. The question is: how much does Mr. Trelawney know and what is he hiding?

My thoughts: I was very curious to read another book by Bram Stoker,  needless to say, I love Dracula. The Jewel of Seven Stars is a curious intriguing book. But it suffers from the pesky The Casual Vacancy syndrome, and is underrated, because, well - it's not Dracula.

Of course it isn't Dracula, but you can see it's the same writer. The switching of perspectives is smooth, we slip easily into two long stories - one by an old explorer when he first unearthed Queen Tera's tomb and the other by Mr. Trelawney's friend about their journeys through Egypt. Malcolm Ross's first person narration resembles Jonathan Harker's in its deep detailed descriptions. But I love how we have a very biased view of the story, partial to the admirable Margaret Trelawney whom the lawyer never doubts. We see every character through the almost self-deprecating eyes of Ross, who gives so little away about himself - we only know of his intellect and experience through the others' easy confidence in him. Stoker is good with characters in Dracula, and this is no less.

Another truly enchanting quality of the book is its mood. The atmosphere is rich with suspense and mythical exoticness. The glimpses into the old unfamiliar culture are evident not only through the travels to Egypt but in that antique quality possessed by the Trelawneys' house and lives.

The book questions belief and experimentation, questions science and skeptics, and contrasts the knowledge of the Old and New worlds. It also has a very feministic quality, and Margaret Trelawney is a remarkable character, comparable with Mina, if in nothing other than her strength.

What the book lacks is perhaps a coherent structure. The plot is confusing, its pace inconsistent. It almost feels as if not enough work went into it. And then there's the ending - abrupt, bizarre, surprising and actually effective. I don't think Stoker ever intended for Margaret's 'connection' with Queen Tera to be a secret - but even with only thirty pages left in the book, we find it hard to imagine what might happen next and when the ending does come it leaves us aghast - in a good way, if that's possible. Think: every Stephen King ending, it's so simple, you wouldn't have dreamt a whole book would built up to that. Now I prefer such an ending to an unexpected unlikely twist. But I can see how others wouldn't. Apparently: Stoker was forced to rewrite his disturbing, depressing ending to make it more appealing to the masses. (I wish he hadn't fallen for that.) 

My copy had both endings. The first shocked me, so I tried the next. But: the alternate ending is mind-numbingly sappy, a fairy tale wrap-up so enormously disappointing, it spoils the overall effect of the book - like a delicious dessert with a bad after-taste, which makes you wish you hadn't eaten that thing in the first place.

Would I recommend this book? Yes, if you know what to expect. It's not outright horror, more a mix of dark fantasy, adventure and mystery. It's also not Dracula. If you do decide to read this, though, I'd suggest making sure you read the first ending, the one that Stoker originally intended. What you want is the 1903 version, which you can find here.