Thursday, 24 November 2011

'One Day' by David Nicholls (2009)

Synopsis: Dexter Mayhew (a middle-class boy from Oxfordshire) and Emma Morley (a working-class girl from Yorkshire) are two students at Edinburgh University. They meet on the night of their graduation - the 15th of July 1988. They almost have sex but decide to stay in touch and become friends instead. The book then shows how Dexter and Emma's lives change and how their friendship develops over the next 20 years - by showing where they are on various July 15ths. Some days Dexter and Emma are together and some days they're apart. Dexter leaves Uni and does really well at first. He goes off travelling in Europe and Asia, moves to London, and lands himself a job as a TV Presenter. However, his shows are terrible and he ends up succumbing to women, drugs and alcohol. Emma, on the other hand, spends the next few years after Uni working at a crappy Tex-Mex restaurant in London before becoming an English teacher at a comprehensive school - and then becoming a successful children's author.

I'm still surprised that it's taken me so long to get round to reading one of David Nicholl's novels. I've seen the adaptation of his book Starter for Ten. I've seen his adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Ubervilles (the BBC version with Gemma Arterton and Eddie Redmayne). I've seen the One Day movie. Since I've seen it on so many '3for2' tables at Waterstone's and have read so many rave reviews about it, I thought that if I only read one of Nicholl's books it should probably read One Day. Now that I've read it I have to say I'm a bit surprised the reviews for it have been so glowing. Don't get me wrong! One Day isn't a bad book at all. In fact I'd say it's good, it's just not that good!

I'll get my positives out of the way first. The whole one-day format is genuinely clever and as far as I know original. I'm pretty sure that loads of writers out there must have been kicking themselves when this book came out (What a great idea! Why couldn't I have written this book?!) One Day is also well-paced and Nicholls is obviously a talented writer with a great knack for dialogue. I loved all the amusing banter between Emma and Dexter and there are some great moments in the first half of the book that I enjoyed: Dexter's very amusing and touching letter to Emma from India, Emma and Dexter's holiday to Greece, the school production of Oliver! These sections all put a smile on my face. Another reason why I particularly liked the opening section was because the characters are both still in their 20s at this point and I could actually relate to them because I'm of the appropriate age.

So where did the book fall short for me? Well, initially I really liked Dexter and Emma and I was really rooting for them to get together. However, the characters began to get on my nerves more and more and when I was around the halfway point I thought "You know what? I've stopped liking these people" Dexter and Emma are both flawed and I think this was Nicholl's intention but after a while I just found them annoying. The characters stopped having amusing banter with each other about halfway through and their conversations became increasingly bitter and nasty. So the thing that I liked most about their book, their amusing banter, was gone. Then Dexter and Emma stop speaking for a number of years and - although the 'Are You There, Moriarty?' game that Dexter is forced to play with his girlfriend Sylvie and her family is hilarious - I was finding the book a chore. Things improved when Dexter and Emma became friends again but then they became a romantic couple. You'd think I would have been pretty pleased after all that build-up but then the book carries on and if they'd had any passion or romantic intrigue or sexual tension between them before then that went out the window. Most romance novels end when their couples get together and I think I understand why. And as for the ending, well, I think it was supposed to pull on your heartstrings but I didn't even care that much. Even in the movie I didn't care all that much when Emma died and I really like Anne Hathaway. Does that make me heartless? I don't think so. 

Basically I do think One Day is a good book because it's often funny and entertaining but it has flaws too and isn't perfect by any stretch. I think I liked the movie more than the book simply because I really liked some of the actors in it but only slightly more. The One Day book is still miles better than The Time Traveller's Wife though (now THERE'S an overrated book!) because at least it's not too long and the characters are comparatively likeable. At least I didn't want to bitchslap Emma and Dexter like I did with most of the characters in that book!

Rating: 3/5

Sunday, 20 November 2011

My Future Films (2012) Top 5

One of the reasons why - Ok, I'll be honest - the MAIN reason why I'm looking forward to next year is because of the movies that are scheduled to come out. These are...

Les Miserables (Please, please, please them get this right!)
Brave (the new Pixar movie)
Star Trek 2 (J.J. Abrams' Star Trek was better than all of the Star Wars prequels combined so I'm pretty darn excited about the sequel)
The Dark Knight Rises (It's rare for all of the films in a trilogy to be brilliant but if any Director can pull it off it's Christopher Nolan)
The Hobbit (So, so, sooo excited!)

Sunday, 13 November 2011

'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' by Susanna Clarke (2004)

Synopsis: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is an alternate history of England. The year is 1806 and the country is still involved in the Napoleonic Wars. Centuries ago the north of England was ruled by an extremely powerful magician called the Raven King but he mysteriously vanished, all other practical magicians have faded away, and magic is believed to have died out. But then two theoretical scholars of magic discover the reclusive Mr Norrell, a man with genuine supernatural power. After causing the statues to speak in York Cathedral, Mr Norrell moves to London and becomes an overnight celebrity when he kickstarts a revival of magic in the country. He raises a young woman from the dead and uses his magic to terrify the French navy. However Mr Norrell is then challenged by the emergence of another magician, Jonathan Strange. Strange is the exact opposite of Norrell. Norrell is old, cautious, fussy and antisocial. Strange is handsome, dashing, arrogant, rebellious, much more naturally gifted than Norrell, and fascinated by the most dangerous forms of magic. Tension begins to develop between them. The story also contains a genuinely sinister and malevolent fairy, Norrell and Strange's involvement in the Napoleonic Wars, and the revelation of a prophecy that involves the Raven King.

I absolutely adore this book. I think it's amazing and one of the best books I've ever read, so as you can imagine I would dearly love to recommend this book to just about everyone. Unfortunately I can't really do that. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a marmite read if ever there was one and I've read equally passionate five star and one star reviews for it in the past. I think your liking of this book will depend on your expectations. If you're expecting and hoping for something that's rapidly fast-paced and full of exciting magical duels then this book probably won't be for you. However, anyone who loves this book will REALLY love it.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a very long book, it takes place over a 10 year period, and it features a large cast of characters with several different subplots. It's a complex and challenging book - but in a good way! Not only is it literary and a meticulously researched and imaginative alternate history of England, it's also a brilliant fantasy novel. There's a fair bit of social commentary and witty comedy in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell too; this book is hilarious at times! When this book first came out it was labelled as being "Harry Potter for adults!" but that's just not true. I do love Harry Potter as well of course but that comparison is completely misleading! Instead imagine if Jane Austen or Charles Dickens had written a fantasy novel: what you'd get is probably Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. The prose even echoes that with Susanna Clarke using an old-fashioned writing style that would have been contemporary at the time in which the book is set. If nothing else you will be forced to admire Clarke's ambition! Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is beautifully-written and a stunning achievement. I know that some readers out there have complained about the length of the book and that the footnotes are annoying distractions but I completely disagree! The length of the book allowed for the characters and the alternate universe to be better developed. Some of the footnotes are insanely long yes, but they add so much depth, richness and mythology to the story. They become fascinating in their own right and I loved Clarke's attention to detail. 

Another key thing that makes Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell so great is its characters. I loved the use of real historical figures - like the Duke of Wellington and Lord Byron - but it was Clarke's fictional characters that really stood out for me: the Gentleman, the mysteriously fascinating Raven King, Childermass, Arabella and the magicians themselves (despite all their faults). They're interesting, entertaining, vividly described, multi-dimensional and I actually felt that they belonged to the time period. 

So, yes, even though I think this book is magnificent I should warn you that it may not be to your taste. And if you're about halfway through this book and you're still not hooked then you might as well give up on it and find something that you will enjoy. However, if you love your big, epic literary classics and fantasy novels and are enjoying this book then by all means carry on because you'll probably love it just as much as I do! Apparently Clarke is working on a sequel too which I'm VERY excited about!

Rating: 5/5

Monday, 7 November 2011

Les Miserables (1978)

Due to a trailer that I had seen I was fully expecting this made-for-TV film to have cheesy lines, poor writing, bad acting and little-to-no respect for Victor Hugo's book. However, I was quite surprised. Yes, there are a couple of cheesy lines and some of the actors are... erm ... not great. But this film is definitely not as bad as the 1998 version of Les Miserables. This film isn't up-to-par but it's by no means horrible and there were even moments that I genuinely enjoyed. Some of the characters in this movie were done quite well. The actor playing the Bishop was good (despite his rather dodgy accent) as well as the actor who played Fauchlevant. The actors playing the Thenardiers were quite good too (even though they're only on screen for about 5 minutes). The best actor in this version though - by quite some distance - is Anthony Perkins.

Perkins is most famous for playing Norman Bates in Psycho and he plays Javert in this film. Book purists may argue that he's a bit too attractive and effeminate-looking to play Javert as he's written in the book (and back in the 1950s and 60s Perkins was an attractive man). But Perkins really gets into the part and does an absolutely superb job playing the character! For me Perkins' acting is right up there with Philip Quast's acting in the 10th anniversary concert of the musical. He's definitely the best thing about this adaptation and gives a vastly superior performance than Geoffrey Rush did in the 1998 movie. Perkins' Javert shows emotions other than anger and doesn't seem like an all-round bad guy. When Fantine dies you see a flicker of genuine shock and guilt on his face before he quickly reverts back to being all stern and cold again. Perkins' acting is also a lot more subtle than Rush's was and I especially love his acting in his final scene with Jean Valjean in the sewers. In all fairness to Geoffrey Rush I do think he's a great actor and he have would have probably been quite good in the 1998 movie if the screenwriters had actually liked his character!

This particular movie opens with Jean Valjean stealing a (giant!) loaf of bread before getting thrown into Toulon prison. He meets Javert there and exchanges many prolonged glances with him where they gaze into each other's eyes (this is unintentionally amusing!) In fact the script actually devotes quite a bit of time to Valjean's 19 years in prison and we do get lots of character-building scenes that show Valjean becoming increasingly bitter and angry over time. I quite liked this. Jean Valjean then leaves the prison but he doesn't get granted parole like he does in the book. This time he escapes from prison by falling from a rope after saving another prisoner. Well, this is how Valjean got out of prison the second time around I suppose.

Valjean then meets the Bishop, becomes mayor of Montreil-sur-Mer (only it's called Monteis sur Monteis for some bizarre reason) and meets Fantine. Now up until this point I had (much to my surprise) been enjoying this movie but I was very disappointed with how they handled Fantine's character. She gets barely any backstory and is only on screen for a few minutes before she dies. If I'd gone into this movie as a complete newcomer, and knew nothing about the story beforehand, then I think I would have assumed that Fantine was just some small, throwaway character whose only purpose was to give birth to Cosette. But an entire volume is named after her in Hugo's book! I don't think Fantine's name is even mentioned in this version! Also, the character seems borderline insane. She looks and talks like Gollum! Speaking of Lord of the Rings, Ian Holm, who plays Thenardier in this version, went on to play Bilbo Baggins in the Peter Jackson movies. Also, the actor who plays Marius in this version (Christopher Guard) did the voice of Frodo in the Ralph Bakshi version.

After Fantine's death, Valjean goes on the run like in the book. He takes Cosette away from the Thenardiers and evades Javert by hiding out in the convent for a number of years. We even get the grave switching scene. At this point the film has been running for 90 minutes and has been (on the whole) a reasonably accurate adaptation of Hugo's book. Unfortunetly there's just half an hour left to go and the film-makers then attempt to squeeze the rest of the book to fit into this 30 minute period. As a result none of the revolutionary students are even named except for Marius and Enjolras. Thankfully though this version doesn't attempt to combine Marius and Enjolras' characters together like the 1998 version did. We don't get the Patron-Minette in this film and Eponine isn't in it either (Boo!) We do get Gavroche in this movie but he's only in it long enough to be annoying and die. Funnily enough we also get Marius's grandfather Monsieur Gillenormand.

Now we're coming up to the very end of the movie. Javert jumps into the Seine (with a pretty cool somersault) and Marius and Cosette get married like in the book. Jean Valjean doesn't die though and the film ends with him happily wandering around a churchyard after the wedding. The End.

My overall opinion of this film is that it isn't too bad. Yes, the final 30 minutes are pretty bad and I hated what they did to Fantine. However, when you compare it to the 1998 version it suddenly looks quite decent! My rating is 3/5 (an extra star for Anthony Perkins' performance). If you only see this film for just one reason then it should be to watch Perkins as Javert.