Friday, 30 March 2012

'Atonement' by Ian McEwan (2001)

I know that this book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Also, for the past five years or so I've had various people telling me (some of them friends with opinions I trust) that I should read this book. I wanted to check out the film adaptation too. But for some reason or other I've never got around to checking out the book until now. My thoughts? Well, I don't usually do this but I'll make an exception for this one. I'm going to apologise in advance for this review. I know a lot of people out there really love this novel and I genuinely don't wish to cause any offence. But I have to speak the truth! I hated this book! To explain why I disliked this book so much I'm reviewing it by each of its four parts.

Atonement opens with a quote from Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (which is incidentally no bad thing at all) and then the story starts properly. Part One of this book takes place on a single day in 1935. 13-year-old Briony Tallis lives at her family's country estate in Surrey, and on the hottest day of the summer she witnesses a moment of sexual tension between her older sister Cecilia and family friend Robbie Turner. Briony is confused and disturbed by what she sees and interprets this moment as an act of aggression on Robbie's part. Later that day Briony reads a filthy letter from Robbie that is addressed to Cecilia. Then she catches Robbie and Cecilia having sex. Briony comes to the conclusion that Robbie must be some sort of "maniac". When her cousin Lola is attacked and raped that night, Briony then accuses Robbie of the crime. Part One takes up about half of the book and is 180 pages long. It could have easily been told in 90! This section is far too long and is so slow-moving and hard-going and tedious! It takes Cecilia four pages to decide what dress to wear at a family dinner and Robbie spends almost an entire chapter in a bathtub! Mrs Tallis also gets an entire chapter all to herself even though she's a very minor, redundant character. We also get a very lengthy, wholly unnecessary description about some random temple in the middle of a pond. At this point I felt like screaming "I DON'T CARE! WHAT THE FLIPPING HECK DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH ANYTHING?! THIS IS SO BORING!" Yes, McEwan's book is very well-written boredom but it's boring nonetheless. Some authors have the knack of still holding my interest when they write long descriptions or go off on tangents and digressions but McEwan isn't one of them. In fact it isn't until about 150 pages in that the story picks up and we finally get a bit of suspense. This suspense lasted for about 30 pages and the story quickly got back to being boring again.

In all fairness to McEwan I do think the slow pacing of Part One was probably a conscious decision. I think he was trying to set the scene and introduce the characters - and if the characters had been at all interesting and engaging then I think the s-l-o-w pace and unnecessarily lengthy descriptions wouldn't have bothered me so much. Unfortunately McEwan's characters aren't in the least bit interesting or engaging or well-developed or endearing! They're incredibly boring! They're completely devoid of any sort of personality and I didn't care about any of them! McEwan spends an inordinate amount of time describing the physical surroundings of the characters but he seems to have forgotten that an author is actually supposed to describe and develop the characters themselves! For example: what do we actually know about Cecilia? Erm... that she went to Cambridge. That she's a chain-smoker. That she fancies Robbie. And that's about it! McEwan's characters never really felt real to me like characters in truly great novels do. I could never picture Briony, Cecilia, Robbie or any of the other characters existing beyond the pages of the book. They never once felt like living, breathing, flesh-and-blood people.

Another thing that I disliked about this book was that some of the ridiculous choices that the characters (and McEwan) made made me want to throw this book at the wall. Now I know a lot of Atonement's fans really hate Briony for the lie she told and I did think she was an irritating and weird child. I didn't actually like her. But at the same time I think McEwan unfairly demonises her. He goes out of his way to make her seem like a villain! But wouldn't most 13-year-old kids be legitimately creeped out by what she'd seen that day? Yes, Briony draws the wrong conclusions and tells a lie but because of her age and because of what she'd seen that day I can understand why she thought something sinister was going on between Cecilia and Robbie.

As far as I'm concerned the way that Cecilia and Robbie both behaved on that day in 1935 was incredibly inappropriate. Why should Briony get all the blame for everything that happened that day? Does it not occur to Cecilia that stripping down to her underwear in broad daylight might not be such a good idea? Does it not occur to Robbie that writing a vulgar, obscene letter about a woman's "c***" might not be such a good move? Oh wait! Instead of being turned off and repulsed by this letter - like most sensible women would be - the letter actually turns Cecilia on and causes her to realise that she loves him! Does not compute McEwan, does not compute! Most women would rather receive a love letter like the one Captain Wentworth writes to Anne Eliot in Jane Austen's Persuasion! At this point in Atonement it became very obvious that this book had been written by a man! Also does it not occur to Cecilia and Robbie that doing the full vertical nasty, in the family library, in a house full of guests, who could walk in at any moment, might not such a good idea?! THE FREAKING IDIOTS!!! If they were that desperate for a shag than why not sneak off to an empty bedroom and lock the door? Or alternatively go off and have sex outside? There's acres of parkland and it would be much less likely that they'd get caught! But oh no, Cecilia and Robbie are too stupid to consider those other options and they get caught in the act by Briony. This leads me to another point. Cecilia and Robbie have just realised that Briony has caught them having sex. Does it not occur to them that a 13-year-old kid, especially one from the 1930s, might be a bit freaked out by this?! Robbie's read Freud for goodness' sake! Do they try to calm Briony down? Do they offer her some sort of explanation? You know, "when a man and a woman love each other very much...", that sort of thing? No! Cecilia storms off and Robbie just stands there and glares at Briony. Briony is then left to assume that Robbie has just raped Cecilia.

Again, I didn't like or care about Briony but why should she get all the blame for everything that happened on that day? Shouldn't Cecilia and Robbie both take some of the blame as well? Well not according to McEwan. You can really tell that he sympathises with Cecilia and Robbie and wants the reader to sympathise with those characters as well. Sorry McEwan but I couldn't! To me Cecilia and Robbie were just two stupid, self-absorbed, horny idiots! And as you can imagine this did affect my sympathy for them somewhat! I didn't even feel any great love between them either. Even though McEwan keeps insisting that they're in love I never felt it.

This is yet another thing that bothers me about this book. Everything just feels so contrived. Far too many questions are left open. Wasn't Robbie questioned by the police? Didn't Robbie have a barrister? Even the most incompetent lawyer could have torn the charges apart and ripped them to shreds! Lionel Hutz could have gotten Robbie off! What happened at the trial? Wasn't there a testimony? Did Cecilia ever confront Briony about her accusations? Or did she just stand by and let her lover get sent down out without even doing anything to try to help him? If so, then why? And are we really supposed to believe - as McEwan suggests - that class bigotry and prejudice was the driving force for Robbie being found guilty? Come on, this is England in 1935 not 1835! I did not enjoy Part One of this book! OK, the final 30 pages or so of Part One are semi-enjoyable. We finally got a bit of suspense and I did have some pity for Robbie. However, that wasn't because I actually liked Robbie. I still thought he was a moron. The only reason I pitied him was because I'd have pity for anyone who was imprisoned for a crime they didn't commit! I hadn't been enjoying Atonement but I decided to carry on reading the book after Part One. The final 30 pages of Part One had given me a glimmer of hope that the second half of the book might have more to offer.

Part Two of this book is set five years after the events of Part One and Britain is now in WWII. Robbie has been released from prison and is now serving as a soldier in northern France. Part Two describes Robbie's experiences at Dunkirk, with very little of what goes on in this section having anything to do with the plot-line of Part One. I was hoping that we might get some action and suspense in this section but it's just so, so dull. There's hardly any fighting. It consists almost entirely of overly lengthy descriptions of the French countryside and of Robbie walking around with two annoying soldiers. I skim-read virtually all of this section. I just tried to pick out any important bits so I could finish the book as quickly as I possibly could before I lost the will to live. I have no idea how McEwan managed to make the Battle of Dunkirk boring but somehow he managed it! I came very close to abandoning the book at this point but I still carried on. I had given up on any hope that I might still be able to enjoy this book. I carried on reading thinking that I might get some enjoyment out of deriding it.

This brings me to Part Three. This section overlaps with the events of Part Two. In this section Briony is now 18. She's turned down a place at Cambridge, has moved to London, and is now working as a nurse. This is because Briony has worked out what was really going on between Cecilia and Robbie on that day in 1935 and now realises the full extent of her actions. She has also worked out that it must have been Paul Marshall - her brother Leon's friend - who raped Lola. Briony is now filled with guilt and shame for her lie about Robbie and is searching for atonement (yep, there is actually a reason for the book's title). Again, this section is mostly very, very dull. I just skim-read it and tried to pick out any important things as I did with Part Two. The only part of this section that I genuinely liked is when Briony has a conversation with a dying French soldier called Luc Cornet. This scene is actually quite sad and Luc comes across as a genuinely likeable character. What a shame that he's only in this book for about 6 pages! We don't get very much historical information about what life in London was like during the Blitz either. I would have been interested in that. Instead this section mostly consists of Briony thinking "I feel so bad about what I did... Sister Drummond is really harsh and makes all the nurses cry... I scrub bedpans... blah blah blah blah blah..." I also found Briony even more irritating in this section than I did in Part One. Why does Briony only care about putting things right with Robbie and Cecilia and not with Lola?! Why does Briony just let her marry her rapist?! Doesn't Briony care about Paul Marshall finally getting what he deserves?! Yes, Briony suspects that Lola knows Paul Marshall is her rapist and would just deny it if Briony came forward... but it's Briony's goshdarn responsibility to make sure that Lola does know if she doesn't already! At the end of this section Briony then goes off to meet the reunited Cecilia and Robbie. They both tell Briony that they will never be able to forgive her for what she's done. Nevertheless Briony agrees to go through the legal proceedings to clear Robbie's name despite the fact that Paul Marshall will never be held responsible for the crime.

We then come to the final section of the book. Hooray! This is Part Four. This section of the book is set in London in 1999 and it's the only part of the book which is written in first-person. Briony is now 77 and is a successful novelist. She's also approaching death but she has one more book left to publish... the book you have just read. But what about Cecilia and Robbie you might ask? What are they doing now? Well it turns out that in a postmodern, metafictional twist that Cecilia and Robbie were never reunited. Shock Horror! Briony completely made their reunion up. Robbie died of septicaemia on the beaches of Dunkirk, and Cecilia was killed by the bomb that destroyed Balham tube station a few months later. Briony was never able to atone for what she did and has written her book in order to give Robbie and Cecilia the happy ending that they never got in real life. Yep, it turns out that the whole book has been written by the unreliable narrator Briony. Now sometimes an unreliable narrator can make a story more interesting but not for this book. To me the ending was only one step away from the "and it was all a dream". But you know what? I don't actually care. If I'd truly cared about Cecilia and Robbie I think I'd have found the ending sad and moving but I wasn't bothered. In the past I've read books with tragic endings that have genuinely made me sad like Tess of the D'Ubervilles, Notre Dame de Paris and The Great Gatsby. These endings did depress me but that was only because I enjoyed those books and cared about what happened to the characters. They're excellent books. Atonement is not one of them! I don't care what the critics say. Nothing will convince me that this book is one of the great works of literary fiction in recent years. 

Again, I'm truly sorry if you loved this book. It's just that I hated it. Despite one or two good scenes I think this book is crappy. I know I probably shouldn't get so worked up about a silly book but I get worked up about these things. Anyway, I will NEVER read this book again. I really can't see myself reading any of McEwan's other books either. If Atonement is his best work then I'd hate to read his worst! It's fair to say that Atonement isn't for me!

Rating: 1/5

Monday, 26 March 2012

'The Lord of the Rings' by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954-55)

Synopsis: The Lord of the Rings is the sequel to The Hobbit. It is not a trilogy even though it's often split up into three parts. It begins in the Shire with the hobbit Frodo Baggins inheriting a ring from Bilbo Baggins, his cousin and guardian. But little does Frodo know that this ring isn't just any ring. It is the One Ring. It was forged by the dark Lord Sauron thousands of years ago to dominate the peoples of Middle-earth and is evil and malevolent. Sauron has recovered some of his old strength and has now sent out his servants, the Ringwraiths, to look for the Ring. If Sauron recovers the Ring he will regain all of his old strength and power. When Gandalf the Grey, the wizard and long-time friend of Bilbo, discovers the Ring's true identity he advises Frodo to leave the Shire for his own safety. Frodo then goes on an epic quest to destroy the Ring.

Oh, boy. Others could probably give much more eloquent, detailed reviews of why exactly this book is so awesome but I'll do my best. Well, The Lord of the Rings is basically one of my favourite books and it's one of the greatest stories ever written. It's an astonishing work of fiction and deserves all of the praise it gets. Tolkien drew from Norse mythology, his love of the British countryside and his Catholic beliefs when he wrote the book and he created this brilliantly-written, amazing, sprawling, epic masterpiece full of action and adventure. This book has so much. It's got themes of good and evil, temptation and redemption, love and hate, friendship, loyalty, self-sacrifice, courage and hope in the face of overwhelming odds. The Hobbit is a fantastic book as well of course but LOTR is the superior work, partly because it has more character development. All of the major characters change and grow from their experiences in this one. Frodo starts off as an "everyman" hero who dreams of a life full of excitement and adventure only to end up missing the simple, dull life he had once he's been deprived of it. His mental deterioration is actually quite sad and poignant, mainly because he knows he's deteriorating. Samwise "Sam" Gamgee is loyal and shy and he gradually grows in courage and self-confidence as the story goes on. Gandalf is easily angered but he is kind and he becomes more powerful. Merry and Pippin are both rather immature to start off with but they mature through their harrowing experiences. Aragorn is noble, kind and intelligent but he has a dark side to his personality that makes him human. Legolas and Gimli initially get on each other's nerves but they gradually overcome their prejudices and end up becoming close friends.

The Lord of the Rings is a classic and it always will be a classic - no matter what the haters might say. I mean, I know that we all have different tastes and it would be a pretty boring world if we all thought the same...but some of the negative responses and attitudes to this book that I've come across are absolutely ridiculous! Yes, there aren't very many female characters in this book but the female characters that are in it (Galadriel, Eowyn) are hardly weak and insignificant. Yes, none of the male characters in this book express any interest in sex but, y'know, I think they may have had rather a lot on their minds - what with the constant sleeping outdoors and the threat of Sauron and Saruman and the Orcs and the Balrog and the Ringwraiths and Gollum after all. Yes, there are different peoples in this book that have prejudices against each other but as they're mythical species that aren't human and belong in a fantasy world I really don't see how this book can be called racist. And yes, no explanation is given as to why Sauron is evil but does a reason always have to be given for why a character is evil? What would the alternative be? That Sauron was brought up in a dysfunctional family?

LOTR is an AWESOME book and there isn't a single page in it that I don't love. I even love the Tom Bombadil section in the Old Forest although I readily admit that it could never have worked if it had put in the Peter Jackson films. It would have killed the pace stone dead. The Peter Jackson film trilogy is brilliant of course. They're three of the greatest films ever made and I believe that they're three of the greatest book-to-screen adaptations ever made. But as fantastic as the films are they still can't compare with the scope and depth of the book.

Oh, one more thing - read the appendices! Don't make the mistake that I did when I first read the book! When I first read LOTR I glanced at the first few pages of the appendices and thought "Hey, the story's ended but there still seem to be quite a few more pages left. What's up with that? Oh, it just looks like boring background stuff! I won't bother then." Again, this was a big mistake. Yes, I'm not gonna lie, the appendices do consist entirely of background information but it's interesting background information! You find out what Legolas and Gimli got up to on their travels and where they eventually ended up. You get a lot more information on the Aragorn and Arwen love-story than you get from reading the main plot of the book. Unless you bother to read the appendices then Arwen just comes across as a trophy bride, something that Aragorn wins for becoming King. This is the main reason why I actually approve of Peter Jackson's decision to give Arwen a larger role in his film adaptations. His decision to have Arwen turn up to fight at the Battle of Helm's Deep would have been going too far though. The only reason why it never happened was because Liv Tyler was useless at firing a bow and arrow. Good job, Liv Tyler! You also get Tolkien's fascinating notes on the languages of Middle-earth in the appendices. I'm a Tolkien nerd and proud : D

Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Les Miserables (Original French Concept Album)

I think it's fair to say that most fans of the Les Miserables stage musical are looking forward to the upcoming film adaptation. In fact I think for many it will be less of a shock to the system to see Les Mis on the big screen than hearing this album for the first time! Even though I'm already familiar with Les Miserables I was still very surprised when I heard the musical as it first began - the original French concept album that came out in 1980. In fact this album is so different to the Les Mis show that we have now that they're almost completely different musicals!

One of these differences is the sound. This album was written in the late 70s and it really shows at times! Many of the songs on this album do actually have the more classical musical theatre sound that we're used to but other songs have much more of a pop-rock sound to them. Occasionally electric guitars are used. This 70s influence is most obvious on the song Les Amis d'ABC which sounds disco-ish and, er, groovy in places! This of course makes the song unintentionally hilarious. I just had these mental images of Enjolras and the students disco dancing in the cafe! Also, the early version of Master of the House sounds a bit too wacky for me. I'm glad that it was later changed around. This more pop-rock sound of Les Mis applies to some of the singers as well. Javert and Enjolras have a rock edge to their voices in this version and Jean Valjean is a baritone. Apparently Valjean was supposed to be a baritone for the West End production of Les Mis too until Colm Wilkinson auditioned for the role and everyone fell in love with his voice. After that the role was re-written for a tenor. Casting the baritone Hugh Jackman in the upcoming film is kind of like a return to the show's roots then in a way.

Another difference that is very surprising is that important scenes and popular, much-loved songs from the Les Mis musical that we have now aren't on this album. We don't get the Prologue with the Bishop on this album for example. This is extremely surprising since it basically sets up Valjean's entire backstory! There are numerous other examples I can mention. Valjean doesn't get any solos at all on this album. We don't get his song Who Am I? - which is again very surprising since it tells us a lot about Valjean's character and is one of the major moral dilemmas of the story. Instead we go straight from Valjean saving Fantine from being arrested and then - bang! - we're at the Thenardier's inn. Fantine's death happens off-stage. Cosette and Marius's first meeting happens off-stage. The death of the students, Valjean saving Marius by escaping through the sewers, and Valjean's encounter with Thenardier in the sewers are all off-stage as well. We're just told about them afterwards. Marius's solo Empty Chairs at Empty Tables isn't on this album. Javert's solo Stars isn't on this album. In fact Javert's character is much less prominent on this album than he is in the Les Mis musical that we have today. He only appears in about five songs, and the only song he gets to himself is his suicide song Noir et Blanc ("Black and White"). In the Les Mis musical we have now he's in about 15 songs! The story jumps around a bit as well. The Drink with Me song actually comes before the One Day More song on this album which is quite weird. And Javert dies before Gavroche on this album! Gavroche has witnessed Javert's suicide and in his final song he mocks Javert and hopes that they won't end up sharing the same "cell" together in the next world!

Many of the lyrics for the songs are very different too. In Fantine's song J'avais reve d'une autre vie (the "I Dreamed a Dream" song) the lyrics are much more shocking. Fantine has become a prostitute by this point and it ends with her singing "when they ejaculate inside me, with a pitiful attempt, they do not know that they're making love with death". WOAH!!! Can you IMAGINE if Susan Boyle had sung that line on Britain's Got Talent?! Also, in Mon Prince est un chemin ("the Castle on a Cloud" song) Young Cosette sings about her dream of a fairytale prince rescuing her from the Thenardiers. She sings that her prince is on his way. However, when Herbert Kretzmer went about re-writing the lyrics into English for the West End production, he thought (with some justification) that an 8 year old girl would be too young to be dreaming about this sort of thing. Instead she'd be imagining the loving mother, friends, toys and normal, happy childhood that the Thenardiers had deprived her of. I completely agree. And how would Cosette, who is abused and neglected, have been exposed to any fairytales? Unless she overhead Madame Thenardier reading them to Eponine I suppose. Rouge et Noir (the "Red and Black" song) is different too. The version on this album is mostly about Marius's love for Cosette and is only a little bit about the upcoming student revolution. In the musical we have today it's divided pretty much equally between the two.

Finally, in the Les Mis musical we have today we get huge, epic finales. There's the finale of Act One (One Day More) and the finale of the show: Valjean's Death and the reprise of Do You Hear the People Sing? However, the finales on this album end on a much more quiet and low-key note.

Up until now I've mostly mentioned everything that "our" Les Mis musical has and everything that this album hasn't. However, it is worth mentioning that the opposite is true in places as well. There are parts on this album that are no longer in "our" Les Mis musical. Marius reunites with Monsieur Gillenormand in this. Yes, Marius's grandfather is in this version and so is his aunt! Also, it's actually Fantine who gets the On My Own song rather than Eponine. In this version it's called L'Air de la Misere ("Air of Misery") and she sings it just after she's been sacked from the factory. Instead Eponine gets a solo called L'Un Vers L'Autre ("One After the Other"), which she sings as she watches Marius and Cosette together.

This song serves a similar function to On My Own but Eponine sounds mournful and resigned here rather than full of longing and desperation. I know that some actually prefer this song to On My Own and wish that Eponine had gotten this song to sing in the West End production. I disagree. Although L'Un Vers L'Autre has a very lovely melody I think that giving Eponine two solo songs would have been one too many. And if it's a question of On My Own vs L'Un Vers L'Autre then I still say On My Own. On My Own is unquestionably more of a show-stopper and has a stronger melody. It's simply a better song to open Act Two with. It's a shame that they couldn't have taken the melody for L'Un Vers L'Autre and placed it somewhere else in the show though.

Listening to this album was a very interesting experience even though I would say that it's definitely inferior to the show that we have now. Most of my absolute favourite songs from Les Miserables (like The Confrontation, Bring Him Home and Empty Chairs at Empty Tables) aren't on this album which I was quite disappointed about. I'm very glad that the musical got revamped for the West End! Saying that though it was still really nice to hear the songs for the musical actually being sung in French. The cast is good on this album as well with the performers playing Fantine, Enjolras and Gavroche - Rose Laurens, Michel Sardou and Fabrice Bernard - deserving special mention. It was very nice to hear Marius's grandfather and aunt on this album as well even though they're only in it briefly. Eponine's sister Azelma gets a mention in this version as well. Madame Thenardier even calls Cosette the same names that she calls her in the book: "Miss Toad", "nameless dog" and "slut". The lyrics that Javert gets in his suicide song are almost word-for-word accurate from the book, as well as the La Faute a Voltaire ("The Fault of Voltaire") song that Gavroche sings.

There isn't very much that I didn't like about this album. I only disliked its occasional disco sound, some important scenes from the book being kept off-stage, and an alteration from the book that I haven't yet mentioned. In the Les Mis musical that we have now it's the foreman who sacks Fantine from the factory - but on this album it's Valjean himself! In the "At the End of the Day" song the other women in the Factory tell Valjean that Fantine is the mother of an illegitimate child and Valjean then tells Fantine: "I don't want a story of this sort in my factory! Here are fifty francs and there's the door!" He doesn't even give her the chance to defend herself! This is just so incredibly out-of-character from the compassionate Valjean that we all know and love! And it's too much of a reversal when Valjean bumps into Fantine later on and decides to help her out. In the book Valjean wasn't personally involved in Fantine's dismissal. He was shocked and ashamed when he realised that all of this had gone on without his knowledge. But as I say, this album is still really interesting and is well worth a listen. You can hear all of the songs on YouTube. A user called "mildetryth" has uploaded all of the songs from the album - - and if you're not fluent in French and need translations this website is well worth going to: The user is called Madame Bahorel and is on the Abaisse fan website that I occasionally visit.

Monday, 19 March 2012

'Jane Eyre' by Charlotte Bronte (1847)

Synopsis: Jane Eyre is a fictional autobiography. The heroine Jane Eyre is an orphan. She spends the first 10 years of her life in the home of her cruel aunt Mrs Reed and her horrible cousins. Jane is then sent to a charitable boarding school called Lowood. The living conditions at the school are harsh and Jane's only comforts are her friend Helen Burns and her teacher Miss Temple. Jane spends 8 years at Lowood and becomes a teacher there. She then decides to seek a position as a governess. Her advertisement is answered and she journeys to a majestic, gothic estate called Thornfield Hall. The estate is being run by a kind housekeeper called Mrs Fairfax. Jane's pupil is a young French girl called Adele Varens, who is the ward of Edward Rochester. Jane spends several months at Thornfield before she finally meets Mr Rochester. Although Rochester's manners are initially brusque, Jane finds herself being quite drawn to him and a friendship soon grows between them. At the same time Jane is also discovering that not all is right at Thornfield. She can hear creepy laughing in the night and, after a number of incidents, Jane begins to suspect that the culprit is the mysterious seamstress Grace Poole. Jane's affection for Rochester grows into love and she comes to realise that he feels the same for her. The pair become engaged but, as they approach the altar to make their vows, Jane discovers that Rochester has a terrible secret. Jane is then faced with a difficult dilemma. Should she stay with Rochester and deal with the consequences, even if it goes against her morals and principles? Or should she follow her convictions even if it means leaving the man she loves? Jane chooses the latter and runs away from Thornfield. After spending a few days wandering on the Yorkshire Moors, Jane is then taken in by a clergyman called St John Rivers and his two sisters Diana and Mary. Jane becomes a teacher at a local school. A year passes before she suddenly becomes a wealthy woman thanks to an unknown uncle. St John then asks Jane to marry him and accompany him to India as a missionary. Jane is then faced with a new dilemma. Should she become the wife of a man that doesn't love her even though it would enable her to travel and find a new purpose in life? Or should she follow the calling of her heart by finding out what has become of Rochester?

Jane Eyre is an absolutely beautiful book. To be honest I don't much care for Charlotte Bronte's other novels but that hasn't altered my opinion of Jane Eyre one bit - it's still without question one of my favourite books. I love that Jane Eyre manages to work on two different levels. On the one hand it's an inspirational coming of age novel about an unwanted and unloved orphan who rises from the ashes of a lonely and cruel childhood. And on the other hand the book is a passionate gothic romance of epic proportions. The book has well and truly stood the test of the time and it has pretty much everything going for it. Jane Eyre is so beautifully written and it's just so vivid and engaging. Every time I read it I get completely swept up in its haunting, gothic atmosphere and I find every single part of the book fascinating. I know some readers out there find Jane's childhood years a bit hard-going but I'm not one of them. 

I also love Jane Eyre because Jane and Rochester are such brilliant characters and the romance between them has so much passion and intensity. Jane is a fantastic character, she's extremely likeable, and she's one of my favourite fictional heroines. She might well be reserved, calm and quiet on the surface but underneath she's burning with spirit and passion. She's also intelligent, independent, brave, sensible and moral. She stays true to her beliefs throughout and she shows unbelievable strength, courage and morality in giving up Rochester. She's passionately in love with him but she gives him up because she knows that it's the right thing to do and that she wouldn't be able to respect herself if she did otherwise. This is so incredibly inspiring! But thankfully Jane is genuinely flawed and she's by no means perfect. She has a temper. Admittedly her temper is worse as a child and Jane does learn to control it better as an adult but it's still there. Jane isn't beautiful either - both she and Rochester are in fact plain and this is so refreshing. Even today it's still incredibly unusual to have a romance novel where neither the hero or the heroine is attractive! I can't even think of any other books where this is the case! *Can you?* Even in the film adaptations of Jane Eyre the actors playing Jane and Rochester tend to be attractive. This is unfortunate but most actors do tend to be good-looking, that's just the way it goes. And then there's Edward Rochester, who I didn't actually like at first. At the beginning of the book he's moody, brusque and abrupt to the point of rudeness. If he'd stayed like that for the whole of the book then I wouldn't have liked him at all. But as Rochester gets to know Jane, and falls in love with her, he lightens up considerably and his sense of humour begins to be revealed. *Yes, there is actual humour in Jane Eyre! Granted there isn't as much humour in Jane Eyre as there is in any of Jane Austen's books but there are still funny moments. There's Jane's line on what she must do to avoid Hell: "I must keep well and not die". There's also the scene where Rochester dresses up as a gypsy woman : D* Rochester's caring and kind side is revealed as well and he truly and deeply loves Jane. And that love leads him towards redemption. I love all of the conversations between Jane and Rochester and I love the affection between them. I love that their relationship feels so real and believable. Quite simply Rochester was made for Jane. He's the perfect man for her and you end up falling for him almost as much as Jane does. Jane and Rochester's romance is full of passion and there's genuine romantic and sexual tension between them, yet the book is still completely wholesome.

What I also love about Jane Eyre is that it's a very spiritual book. I wouldn't say that the book is preachy but there are still a lot of spiritual messages that believers can take from it. There are messages about perseverance, morality, repentance, forgiveness, sacrifice, the importance of always doing good, the difference between genuine faith and self-righteousness, and the depth of God's love and grace. 

Jane Eyre really is a must-read. Every time I read it I always notice something different about it and it's just a brilliant book.

Rating: 5/5

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Pride and Prejudice (1995)

I've been meaning to write more reviews on Jane Austen adaptations but I've gotten a bit distracted by Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera adaptations. This post will be a review of the BBC series from 1995 - written by Andrew Davies - which is widely regarded as being the definitive adaptation of Austen's novel by Austen fans. This version is certainly the best P&P adaptation I've seen. Don't get me wrong though, I don't actually think this miniseries is perfect. Far from it.

Whilst I do think that the 2005 film is mostly inferior to this miniseries it did actually manage to improve upon it in some respects. The 2005 film has far better music, superior cinematography, and much prettier costumes. Some of the supporting actors in the 2005 film give better performances than their counterparts in the BBC series as well. I much prefer Brenda Blethyn and Jena Malone's performances as Mrs Bennet and Lydia in the 2005 film than Alison Steadman and Julia Sawalha's performances in the BBC series. Steadman and Sawalha are just far too over-the-top and annoying in this series! Yes I do realise that Mrs Bennet and Lydia are supposed to be silly, vulgar and annoying characters - but are they really supposed to be so annoying that you want to strangle them in all of their scenes?! I prefer Tom Hollander's Mr Collins in the 2005 film to David Bamber's in the BBC series too. Hollander's Mr Collins is pompous and smarmy but he isn't as obviously slimy as David Bamber's Collins is. In the 2005 film you completely understand why Elizabeth refuses Mr Collins' marriage proposal but you still don't think Charlotte Lucas is a complete idiot for marrying him. Also, I much prefer Rosamond Pike's take on Jane Bennet in the 2005 film to Susanna Harker's Jane in the BBC series. Pike's Jane is clearly shy and reserved but she still comes across as affectionate and warm. Pike manages to give Jane an actual personality but Harker's Jane just seems really boring. It's really hard to understand just what exactly Bingley sees in her. Also, Rosamond Pike is actually very beautiful. Harker isn't unattractive but she isn't as beautiful as Jane Bennet should be in my eyes.

Another problem I have with this miniseries is that it's sexed-up. There's the infamous pond scene for example and an implied post-coital scene of Lydia and Wickham at one point. Andrew Davies also includes extra scenes of Darcy's character that aren't in the book which I wasn't keen on at all. We see Darcy at Pemberley before Elizabeth does. We also see Darcy looking for Wickham and Lydia in London, and then being present at their wedding, before Elizabeth finds out about it! I really don't like the fact that Davies gives away some of the book's surprises to the audience before the characters get to find out about them. I suppose Davies must have thought it wasn't important and that the majority of viewers would have already read the book? Well, I know quite a few people who've seen this miniseries and have never read the book so that annoys me.  

These faults aside I still love this miniseries and it is my favourite Pride and Prejudice adaptation. I just don't think it's as perfect as everyone makes out. Overall the miniseries certainly has a lot more going for it than the 2005 film does. For one thing it has much stronger leads. Jennifer Ehle gives an excellent performance and she does a much better job at playing Elizabeth Bennet than Keira Knightley did in the 2005 film - even though she doesn't really look like my mental picture of Elizabeth Bennet. In the book Elizabeth is said to have a "light" figure whereas Ehle's figure is more voluptuous. Ehle looks too old for the role as well. I think she was only about 24 when she filmed Pride and Prejudice but she looks much older. I'd have put her down at 30. Having said that I do really enjoy her performance. Keira Knightley is beautiful and looks the right age but she giggles far too much and I found her Elizabeth annoying at times. Jennifer Ehle, on the other hand, seems to have a much better understanding of the character. Her Elizabeth is witty, intelligent and extremely likeable. Ehle does a brilliant job with the English accent for the role too. When you watch her in Pride and Prejudice it's hard to believe that she's a blonde American in real life. Ehle has genuinely great chemistry with Colin Firth as well. It probably helped that the two were dating at the time! Ehle thoroughly deserved the BAFTA that she won for the role too.

Colin Firth is great as well. He's aloof and arrogant at the beginning but over the course of the miniseries his character softens. I also loved his indifference towards Miss Bingley, his scenes with Georgiana, and his scenes with Elizabeth and the Gardiners at Pemberley. I don't find Colin Firth as attractive in the role of Darcy as much as everyone else seems too but he's still quite clearly good-looking and he does a great job with the character. In the 2005 film Matthew MacFadyen is decent but you never really see the arrogant, "pride" side of Darcy's character. On the flip side I wasn't too fond of some of the sexed-scenes that involved Darcy's character in this miniseries: e.g. him taking a bath and staring at Elizabeth through a window as she plays with a dog, fencing to get over Elizabeth, taking a swim in a pond (that doesn't even look all that clean!), and then managing to run inside and get fully dressed in time to stop Elizabeth and the Gardiners from leaving. But these scenes are Davies's fault and not Firth's. Again, both of the leads in the 1995 BBC series are excellent.

Most of the supporting cast in this series give stronger performances than their counterparts in the 2005 film do as well. Benjamin Whitrow does a far better job at playing the sardonic, witty Mr Bennet than Donald Sutherland does in the 2005 film. He nails the sarcasm and the exasperation. Crispin Bonham-Carter (cousin of Helena Bonham-Carter) does a far better job at playing Bingley than Simon Woods does in the 2005 film and is likeable and charming. Woods' Bingley comes across as a stuttering idiot! Barbara Leigh-Hunt is excellent and her Lady Catherine de Bourgh is much better than Judi Dench's. I also love Emilia Fox's Georgiana and Anna Chancellor's Miss Bingley (how cool is it that she's actually related to Austen in real life?!) All in all, the 1995 BBC series really is the best adaptation of Pride and Prejudice even if it is flawed. This series is also extremely faithful to the book and many scenes are word-for-word accurate. Since it's 6 hours long we see much more of the story than the other Pride and Prejudice adaptations show and it includes more scenes and characters from the book. It has an extra 4 hours worth of material than the 2005 film and the 1940 film. The miniseries is beautiful to look at, is funny, is mostly very well-acted, and captures the spirit of the book extremely well. I do really enjoy this miniseries. I have the DVD and I've seen it multiple times. I'm sure that they'll be more Pride and Prejudice adaptations in the future but I don't think this miniseries will ever be topped. 

Rating: 4/5

Friday, 16 March 2012

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

I've finally gotten round to reviewing the Phantom of the Opera adaptation that started all of the others off - the silent Lon Chaney version from 1925. I've been putting this review off for ages because I felt I should really watch this version a second time around before I reviewed it. At the risk of being considered a cinematic philistine I'm just not a silent film fan. On the few occasions when I have sat down with the intention of watching a silent film I've ended up getting bored and going off to do something else. Even when I first watched this film my attention span wandered at times - but when I watched this film again I liked and appreciated it much more! The Lon Chaney version is widely regarded by Leroux fans to be the best screen adaptation of the novel, and it's certainly the one that is most faithful to the story. It has almost everything. It's got Carlotta, Joseph Buquet, Box Five, the two managers, Raoul's brother Philippe, the chandelier crash, Cesar the horse, the unmasking scene (the most famous part of the film), the masked ball, Apollo's Lyre, the Persian (well, sort of), the torture chamber, the grasshopper and the scorpion, the dynamite barrels and the water... yep, it's got pretty much everything! The film isn't 100% accurate though. It's missing out on Meg and Madame Giry and the Phantom's backstory is different. The Phantom is still called Erik in this version and he claims to have been mistreated by others because of his deformity. But the Phantom didn't spend time in Persia - in this film he's a magician and a purveyor of the black arts who was sent to a French penal colony in the Caribbean for the criminally insane. He then escaped and returned to Paris. The Persian is called Inspector Ledoux in this and he's a French policeman who's been hunting Erik down ever since he got back to France. There are a couple of other ways in which this film strays from the book too but I'll get to that later.

The Lon Chaney version is a true classic and - although it's not my personal favourite Phantom adaptation - I still think it's a great film. It has a genuinely creepy and eerie atmosphere, and Lon Chaney gives a brilliant performance as the Phantom. Chaney designed his own make-up for the role and it's absolutely superb. He twisted his face around with wires, stuffed his cheeks and nose with putty, and dilated his pupils. Chaney put himself through agony for his art and to this day the make-up that he achieved for this film has never been bettered or even equalled. I think it's pretty bad when you get these modern actors who whinge and moan about having to wear make-up for any length of time, and then moan about having to sit in a chair for hours to have it put on and taken off. It's like when Julian Sands refused to wear make-up when he played the Phantom in Dario Argento's monstrous and unholy abomination. If you don't want to wear make-up then don't take on the role of one of the most famous deformed characters in all of literature!

Special mention must also go to Chaney's acting. As the son of deaf mutes Chaney had a lifetime's worth of expressing himself through mime. He can say so much with just the smallest movement of hands and his acting has a subtlety and depth that you don't usually see in silent films. His Phantom is very Leroux-ish too which obviously makes him popular with fans of the book. When you watch the film you can see why Chaney's acting was so highly regarded. Chaney even ended up directing quite a few of his own scenes in this film too because he didn't get on with the demanding director Rupert Julian. The acting from everyone else in this film is rather more hit-and-miss. Some of the acting is very bad and over-the-top in places even for a silent movie. The worst culprits for this are Mary Philbin, who plays Christine, and the actresses playing the Ballerinas.

The faults that this film has are fairly minor apart from the ending which is unfaithful to the book. We get a tacked-on, absolutely stupid chase scene where the Phantom tries to smuggle Christine out of the opera house by throwing her into a horse-driven carriage. He then gets caught and is beaten to death by an angry mob. Although I do quite like Erik's hand-grenade bluff when he's running away from the mob, this ending is upsetting and horrible for all the wrong reasons and I really do not like it. In all fairness to the film-makers, the film wasn't supposed to end in this way. When the film was previewed in Los Angeles it was even more faithful to the book. It included the cemetery scene at Perros where Christine prays at her father's grave and the Phantom plays the violin to her. Raoul then arrives and the Phantom pelts skulls at him. Raoul also gets a look at the Phantom's repulsive face. But this scene was scrapped because some of the audience members thought the skull-pelting was offensive and - with some justification - that showing the Phantom's face then lessened the impact of the unmasking scene that happens later on. The ending was also more accurate to the book. It had Christine kissing Erik on the forehead, Erik letting her go, and then dying of a broken heart at his organ. But surprise, surprise, the test-audiences didn't like that either. Times were different back then. Apart from some European films like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari there were very few horror films around back then. Audiences generally liked to see light-hearted comedies. When the Phantom gets unmasked by Christine in this film audience members actually fainted at the sight of Erik's face! In fact you could make a very good argument for the Lon Chaney version being the first true American horror movie. As a result audiences at the time weren't really prepared for this film, and they weren't comfortable with the idea of a sympathetic "villian" who redeems himself at the end. Oh no, they didn't like that at all! They thought Erik should be punished for his crimes. Stupid 1920s' test audiences! All of this makes me think that Gaston Leroux was actually ahead of his time. These days you get anti-heroes in books and films all the time but back then it seems to have been a lot more unusual.

Anyway, this film has its faults but it's still a classic - and if you're any kind of Phantom fan it really is a must-see. Although I still prefer the Andrew Lloyd Webber stage version, this film is excellent and is the most faithful screen adaptation of Leroux's book. Also, it's the only silent film that I've been able to watch all the way through without getting bored which is some achievement!

Rating: 4/5

Thursday, 15 March 2012

'The Scarlet Pimpernel' by Baroness Orczy (1905)

Synopsis: the year is 1792 and France is under the Reign of Terror, with thousands of aristocrats being captured and guillotined. But then rumours begin to emerge of a league of young English gentlemen who are risking their lives by rescuing aristocrats and bringing them across the Channel. Their leader is said to be the mysterious and elusive masked vigilante "The Scarlet Pimpernel". The ruthless French ambassador Chauvelin is determined to stop the Pimpernel by any means necessary so he blackmails Marguerite - a retired French actress and the wife of the wealthy Sir Percy Blakeney - into assisting him. But little do Chauvelin and Marguerite suspect that there may be more to Percy than meets the eye...

As soon as I heard about this book I knew I had to read it! The idea of a man who pretends to be a lazy, foppish idiot but is actually a debonair, intelligent, brave, resourceful, cunning, dashing hero really appeals to me! And Sir Percy Blakeney/The Scarlet Pimpernel is a great character. He's a bit like Lord Peter Wimsey (another fop with badass qualities). In fact Percy is so cool that I almost forgot how spectacularly uncool the name "The Scarlet Pimpernel" is. The problem with this book is that it doesn't concentrate on Percy nearly as much as you might think. The book's title is actually quite misleading, The Scarlet Pimpernel's Wife would be the more accurate title since the character that the story is most focused on is Marguerite. This wouldn't necessarily be a problem if Marguerite was a great character but she isn't. She's really annoying! No matter how many times the Baroness keeps insisting that Marguerite is the "cleverest woman in Europe", she never displays any intelligence and comes across as pretty dopey. I swear, Percy could have walked around with a giant sign that said "I AM THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL!" and she still wouldn't have worked it out. The prime example of Marguerite's stupidity is when she goes exploring in Percy's study and finds maps of the French coastline and the Scarlet Pimpernel's ring. You'd think the penny would drop at this point but noooo. All Marguerite can think is "Ooh, what could this possibly mean?" Marguerite is also annoyingly passive. Yes, she does go across to France to try to save Percy - which is admirable I admit - but she doesn't actually DO anything.

I think it's a real shame that Baroness Orczy chose to keep Percy mostly in the background and that we never get to see him or his followers in action. Some fistfights, swordfights and gun battles would have definitely livened this book up. Also, Percy is easily the most interesting and likeable character in this book. I'd much rather read about him than his stupid, feeble, annoying wife any day. Although this book is by no means bad Orczy really should have made Percy the main focus of her story. I think I might actually prefer adaptations of this book because they apparently do focus on Percy more.

Rating: 3/5

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

'Never Let Me Go' by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)

Synopsis: Never Let Me Go is a dystopian science-fiction novel in which human beings are being cloned in order to provide organs for transplants. The book is narrated by Kathy H, a woman aged 31. Kathy describes in great detail her childhood at the boarding school Hailsham and then moves on to describe her experiences of the outer world.

Since I really liked Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day I was quite keen to read this novel as well, it's another one of Ishiguro's most critically-acclaimed. Never Let Me Go is a beautifully-written book. Ishiguro's prose is simple and straightforward but very evocative. I particularly enjoyed the vivid descriptions of Hailsham and the Cottages. These settings are seemingly idyllic but the reader can always sense that something sinister is going on just beneath the surface. The subject matter is dark but fascinating and it kept me turning the pages.

However, this book is almost as flawed as it is well-written. Never Let Me Go isn't as moving and emotional as it probably should have been given its subject matter. Although I thought Kathy H. was fairly engaging as a narrator, I never really found her all that engaging as a character. I was fairly apathetic towards her - and the other characters in this book - and that stopped me from becoming properly invested in the story. There are none of the flashes of humour that occasionally lightened the mood in The Remains of the Day either. The main issue that I have with this book though is with the characters' reactions to their tragic fate. I mean for goodness sake! They're clones and are expected to keep donating their organs until they die! But the characters are very calm and accepting about all of this which I found frustrating in the extreme. Why don't they ever try to run away?! Why don't they ever try to blend in with the rest of society?! Why do these options never even occur to them?! An online review I read suggested that this is because the characters have been brainwashed to be obedient and submissive all their lives and that rebellion is very difficult for them. Now I guess that would be plausible but, still... I'd have thought that there would have been at least SOME students daring enough to rebel! The human will to survive is extremely strong after all!

Rating: 2.5/5

Sunday, 11 March 2012

My 'Elementary' Rant

I'm just going to have a bit of a rant about something, just to get it off my chest. Anyone who knows me reasonably well will know that I am a massive fan of BBC's Sherlock. In fact I'm borderline obsessed with it! It's an incredibly clever and well-written show and it features brilliant acting from Martin Freeman and, of course, the excellent Benedict Cumberbatch! I actually remember being really annoyed when it was first announced that the BBC were doing to do a modern-day updating of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. I hated the idea of Sherlock Holmes using emails and mobile phones... but they completely proved me wrong! Although they did update the stories and characters to a contemporary setting they kept all the essential details the same and direct quotes from the books are often used from time to time. The BBC's Sherlock is awesome. So you can imagine my anger and confusion when it was announced that the American channel CBS were doing their own modern day adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, which would be called Elementary and would be set in New York...

Oh wow! What an original idea! I mean it's not like any one has ever thought about doing that before and done it perfectly have they?! *note the heavy sarcasm!* Now I'm not saying that I'm completely against British shows being re-made for American audiences - and I'm not saying that the BBC's Sherlock is the be-all-and-end-all of Sherlock Holmes adaptations and that no-one should ever be able to adapt Doyle's stories again. I'm not saying that at all. But how can CBS make their own Sherlock Holmes show without it coming across as a gigantic rip-off of the BBC show? Or even the Robert Downey Jr films? They also have to make it stand out from the Sherlock Holmes-inspired shows The Mentalist and House. They're going to have their work cut out for them! For example: they can't have text messages appearing on the screen, they can't have Mycroft working for the Secret Service, they can't have Watson blogging, they can't have Holmes wearing nicotine patches... if they do then the BBC could have grounds to sue them.

So far CBS have cast Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes. Miller is actually a really great actor but I really can't see him doing as good a job at playing Holmes as Benedict Cumberbatch. CBS have also cast Lucy Liu (yes, a woman!) to play Watson. This is another thing that makes me angry. CBS have probably just cast a woman to play Watson because they're trying to get people to think that their show isn't just a complete rip-off of the BBC's show but I just have this horrible, horrible feeling that they're going to put in some romantic and sexual tension between Holmes and Watson. Of course in real life it's perfectly possible for a man and a woman to have a close and completely platonic friendship but it never seems to happen in fiction for some reason. What if they turn Holmes and Watson's relationship into a Mulder and Scully-esque romance?! That would be so wrong! In the Arthur Conan Doyle stories Holmes is asexual and he and Watson have a close, brotherly friendship (even if some fans reckon their friendship has homoerotic undertones and write slash fanfiction about them!) Having Watson as a woman is probably going to completely mess up the dynamic between the character and Holmes. Even the show's title is stupid! Who uses the word "elementary" these days?! No-one, that's who! The fact that CBS are blatantly trying to rip-off of the BBC's show makes me almost as angry as the news that Disney are going to do an American version of Miss Marple with Jennifer Garner. Yes, I am dead serious about that but I can't rant about that as well because I just don't have the energy!

The first series of the BBC show has actually gotten great critical reviews in America and has already picked up a passionate cult following out there. Also, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are both rising stars. Cumberbatch was in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, War Horse and is going to be the villain in Star Trek 2; both he and Freeman are going to be starring in The Hobbit together. Because of that I'm hoping that the Americans will see sense, will watch Sherlock instead and won't give Elementary the time of day. I'm hoping that Elementary doesn't even make it past the pilot!

Saturday, 10 March 2012

'The Remains of the Day' by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)

Synopsis: Stevens is an English butler who has dedicated his life to the service of his employer Lord Darlington and now to the service of his current employer Mr Farraday. Stevens then receives a letter from a former colleague, Miss Kenton. Stevens suspects that Miss Kenton is unhappily married so he sets out to take a "motoring trip" to visit her, and to encourage her to seek employment with Mr Farraday. Along the way Stevens begins to reminisce about his past.

The Remains of the Day is a very engaging and poignant read. There are one or two amusing scenes in it - e.g. the parts where Stevens attempts to improve his bantering technique - but it's a very sad book on the whole and the ending is heartbreaking. I think Stevens is quite an interesting narrator despite the fact that he's so reserved. You can admire him for his determination and his devotion to his duty, but the fact that he never reveals his emotions for fear of losing his dignity is just tragic.

The only real fault that I have with this book is that Ishiguro's way of holding things back and getting the reader to work out what's going on by reading in between the lines didn't really work when it came to Stevens's relationship with Miss Kenton. There is very little on the page for the reader to understand how Miss Kenton can fall in love with a man who constantly criticises her and keeps her at a professional distance. That said, I think this is a beautifully-written novel and I can definitely see why it won the Booker Prize. It's a much better book than Never Let Me Go too - the only other Ishiguro book I've read.

Rating: 4/5

'The Ladies of Grace Adieu' by Susanna Clarke (2006)

Synopsis: The Ladies of Grace Adieu is a collection of eight short stories that is set in the same universe as Susanna Clarke's novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

On my cover of The Ladies of Grace Adieu there's a quote which states that 'these tales read as if Jane Austen had rewritten the Brothers Grimm... wonderful'. That's pretty apt as a summary! Although this book is obviously very different from Clarke's other book Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - as the former is a collection of eight short stories and the latter is an epic novel - the overall atmosphere and writing-style are very much the same. It's got the 19th century style language, the blending of fact and fiction, the presence of the fairies. It also comes with great illustrations like its predecessor - this time by Charles Vess - and it has a very pretty cover (not that that should matter of course...)

I really enjoyed this book and I think that, apart from the title story perhaps, it would make for a really nice introduction to Clarke's work. Admittedly, I wasn't too keen on the 'Lickerish Hill' story and the story 'Antickes and Frets' in this book, for the simple reason that I didn't find them quite as engaging as the others. But on the whole this book is great fun and the stories are clever and amusing. I understand that most of the stories have been published before in various magazines but I'm really glad the decision was made to publish them all in here as part of a collection.

Being the massive fan of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell that I am I particularly enjoyed the title story and 'John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner', which feature the characters of Jonathan Strange and the Raven King respectively, although I did enjoy 'Mrs Mabb', 'Tom Brightwind' and The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse' as well (the latter is set in Neil Gaiman's Stardust!). However, as good as all of these short stories are, my favourite of the stories has got to be 'Mr Simonelli, or The Fairy Widower'. Mr Simonelli is a great character and I'm really hoping that Clarke will write more about him in the future! He's just so hilariously arrogant! He's a bit like Mr Elton in Jane Austen's Emma. But Simonelli is more amusing with his arrogance than Mr Elton is and he's a strangely endearing character. The Ladies of Grace Adieu is an excellent companion piece to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and Susanna Clarke is fast becoming one of my favourite authors.

Rating: 4/5

Monday, 5 March 2012

'A Tale of Two Cites' by Charles Dickens (1859)

Synopsis: After spending 18 years as a political prisoner in the Bastille, Doctor Manette is finally released and reunited with his daughter Lucie in England. There they meet two very different men. They meet Charles Darnay - an exiled French aristocrat - and then they meet the sleazy but brilliant English lawyer Sydney Carton. Both of these men fall in love with Lucie, and both end up being drawn against their will to Paris where it is still at the height of the Reign of Terror.

A Tale of Two Cities is one of only two historical novels that Dickens wrote and is set during the time of the French Revolution. If I had to describe this novel in three words then I would say that it's "a flawed masterpiece". A Tale of Two Cities is by no means perfect. I know that some readers think that Dickens's characters are '"flat" and will criticise them for displaying only one characteristic/attitude. I don't think this criticism really applies to David Copperfield but this criticism is more valid when it comes to this particular novel. Apart from Sydney Carton, and possibly Dr Manette, most of the characters in this book are rather two-dimensional. Another flaw that this book has is that the story does take a while to get going. It isn't the easiest book in the world to get into as the beginning section is quite boring and draggy. If I hadn't liked David Copperfield so much then I might have been tempted to give up on it. It isn't until Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton arrive onto the scene, about 60 pages in, that the story finally starts to pick up. From this point onwards the rest of the book is brilliant and is very hard to put down! It's dramatic, suspenseful, romantic and deeply moving.

Dickens's writing is brilliant and he really conveys the violence, terror, chaos and madness of the French Revolution. The imagery that he conjures up is absolutely fantastic. The book is balanced too, with Dickens showing the atrocities that were committed on both sides. There are no unnecessary characters in this novel either. Each one has a significant part to play in the events that take place. For example, early on in this book I automatically assumed that Dickens created Jerry Cruncher and Miss Pross just for the sole purpose of bringing some comic relief into the story. However, both of these characters end up having vital parts to play. The best character in this novel though is undoubtedly Sydney Carton. Now he is an absolutely brilliant character! When he first appears he's a sleazy, drunken, self-loathing lawyer and hardly what you'd call sympathetic. OK, he does save Darnay's life at the trial but that's only out of impulse. However we can see that he's intelligent and observant - it's he who first notices the physical resemblance between him and Darnay - and his character development throughout the story is absolutely fantastic. He becomes an extremely likeable and sympathetic character. He's become one of my favourite literary characters of all time. His confession of his love for Lucie Manette and the final 100 pages or so of this novel are deeply moving. If you fail to be even the slightest bit moved by the final chapter of this book then you're probably dead inside!

'It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I ever have done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.'

The best closing line to a book that I've ever read : )

Rating: 5/5 (even though it's flawed I really, really love this book)

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Les Miserables (10th vs 25th Anniversary Concerts)

There are two DVD concert recordings of Les Miserables. There's the 10th anniversary concert that was recorded live at the Royal Albert Hall and the 25th anniversary concert that was recorded live at the O2 Arena. The actors stand still for the most part and sing into stationary microphones rather than moving around the stage, and both concerts don't contain the entire show of Les Mis and leave out a few minor scenes. If you're a newcomer to Les Mis then you might be wondering which version you should go for. Well, I say the 10th! I much prefer it to the more recent 25th anniversary concert. The 10th anniversary concert was my introduction to Les Miserables but my preference for it isn't just down to personal bias. I can admit that the visuals and staging in the 10th aren't as slick and eye-catching as they are in 25th concert, and at times I do wish that the actors would move around the stage and interact with each other more in the 10th. The 10th anniversary concert also makes more cuts than the 25th anniversary concert does. You don't even get to see Marius and Cosette meet for the first time, and the first time you see Eponine is during the In My Life scene. Most of Turning is left out too although I actually think this is a very good thing because it's the only song that I dislike in the show and the quicker we get through it the better as far as I'm concerned. Its inclusion in the show doesn't serve any real purpose and I really dislike the lyrics. The students weren't naive schoolboys who had never held guns before! They were all intelligent, political men who knew exactly what they were doing! And they didn't die in vain! Grr! I really hope that they leave this song out in the film.

Ahem... the reason why the 10th anniversary concert is better is because of the performers. It is quite simply the greatest coming together of Les Miserables talent ever. It featured talent drawn from the West End production of Les Mis (Colm Wilkinson, Ruthie Henshall, Michael Ball, Alun Armstrong and Jenny Galloway); the Broadway production of Les Mis (Michael Maguire, Lea Salonga, Judy Kuhn and Anthony Crivello); and the Australian production of Les Mis (Philip Quast). When you watch the show you can really tell that every single performer is having the time of their lives yet they still manage to stay in character and almost every one is fantastic, even performers who play minor parts. I love the Factory Bitch who gets Fantine sacked, the prostitute in Look Down and Matthew Cammelle's Feuilly (the blood of the martyrs will water the meadows of Fraaaance!) I will now analyse why I prefer the majority of the performers of the major characters in the 10th anniversary concert. I'll score it too. A win gets 3 points, a draw gets 1 point.

Colm Wilkinson vs Alfie Boe
I know some have criticised Alfie Boe's acting in the 25th and I wouldn't have wanted him to star in the upcoming screen adaptation of Les Mis. However, I think his acting is perfectly fine for the stage version. Boe is also a technically better singer than Wilkinson and it does make for an interesting change to hear the role of Valjean being sung in a more operatic style. I do really like Alfie Boe and I think his Valjean is really good but I love Wilkinson's Valjean. He's still tied with John Owen-Jones as my favourite Valjean. Wilkinson doesn't change his facial expressions all that much and his singing isn't as technically good as Boe's but his version of Bring Him Home is so much more moving because he sings it with so much more emotion and feeling. I also love Wilkinson's high notes in Who Am I? and The Confrontation. It will be nice for us to see Wilkinson in the movie, he'll be playing the Bishop in it. Wilkinson wins.

Philip Quast vs Norm Lewis
Norm Lewis has a great voice but he comes across as being too nice to play Javert. You never really believe that Valjean, Fantine and the students are in any danger from him. Lewis's Javert talks tough but you suspect that deep down he wouldn't hurt a fly. I've seen Lewis live and he is better in the actual stageshow than in the 25th anniversary concert but Philip Quast is just fantastic as Javert! He has this certain sneer in his voice and I love it whenever he says Javert's name! He's threatening, commanding and badass but he still makes it clear that Javert has principles and is genuinely trying to do good. Javert is an antagonist. Yes, he's trying to stop Valjean from reaching his goals but he's not a bad person and he's far from evil. At times Quast has me believing that he is Javert! The only actor I've seen who comes close to matching Quast's portrayal of Javert is Earl Carpenter but they had him playing the Bishop in the 25th anniversary concert instead. Quast wins.

Ruthie Henshall vs Lea Salonga
Lea Salonga plays Eponine in the 10th anniversary concert and plays Fantine in the 25th anniversary concert. Seeing her play Fantine in the 25th took quite some getting used to! I enjoyed Salonga's performance as Fantine more the second time I watched the 25th. By then I'd gotten used to her and I thought she was very good. But Ruthie Henshall still wins for me. She makes for an epic Fantine and I loved her! She sings and acts with so much emotion and feeling. She gives me goosebumps every time I watch the 10th. Ruthie Henshall wins this round. I prefer Salonga as Eponine.

Hannah Chick vs Mia Jenkins
I like the girl who plays Young Cosette in the 10th more than the girl in the 25th. At one point a balloon explodes above Hannah Chick's head when she performs and you can see her flinch but she still carries on singing and sounds good. I like her voice more than Jenkins and other young actresses I've heard play Young Cosette too. I think it's because she's slightly older and her voice sounds a bit more mature. Chick wins.

Alun Armstrong & Jenny Galloway vs Matt Lucas & Jenny Galloway
I know a lot of people really love Matt Lucas's performance as Thenardier. His singing is very good, he is very funny and his version of Master of the House is very entertaining. However, Matt Lucas never really conveys the sinister, nasty side of Thenardier's character. In contrast Alun Armstrong strikes exactly the right balance when it comes to portraying Thenardier. He's funny, creepy and evil. His version of Dog Eat Dog is much more chilling and menacing than Lucas's. Jenny Galloway plays Madame Thenardier in both the 10th and 25th anniversary concerts but she's better in the 10th. You get the sense that she isn't having as much fun playing the character in the 25th anniversary concert, and she has better chemistry with Armstrong than she does with Lucas. Armstrong & the Galloway from the 10th anniversary show win.

Adam Searles vs Robert Madge
Robert Madge is one of the few kids I've seen play Gavroche (in the musical and in other adaptations) who isn't annoying or too young. Searles isn't bad as Gavroche but the Gavroche in the 25th anniversary concert is funnier, doesn't seem too young and has more charisma. Madge wins.

Michael Maguire vs Ramin Karimloo
Ramin Karimloo played the Phantom in the 25th anniversary concert of Phantom of the Opera and he plays Enjolras in the 25th concert of Les Mis. I do love Karimloo and he is very good at playing Enjolras but I prefer him as the Phantom. Michael Maguire wins this round. He hadn't played the character for years when he did the 10th anniversary concert and was a last-minute replacement for Anthony Warlow but you'd never know when you watch him in the concert. He's fantastic in the 10th and you can see why he won a Tony when he played the character on Broadway. He has so much passion and charisma and his voice is great. Also, I get much more of a sense of Book Enjolras from him. I get chills when he sings One more day before the storm! in One Day More and during his parts in Look Down and Red and Black.

Michael Ball vs Nick Jonas
Well it goes without saying that Michael Ball is a VASTLY superior singer to Nick Jonas! I don't even care that Ball was a decade too old to be playing Marius in the 10th anniversary concert. He does a much better job at playing Marius than Jonas does! In all fairness to Jonas, his singing isn't as bad as I thought he was going to be when it was announced that he was going to be starring in Les Mis. His version of Marius's solo song Empty Chairs at Empty Tables is surprisingly decent. However, the problem is that the rest of the time Jonas is accompanied by performers who are far better singers and have far more experience in musical theatre. Jonas gets completely outsung by Katie Hall, Samantha Barks, Ramin Karimloo and the rest. His acting is even worse. He looks so uncomfortable the entire time. He's clearly the weakest performer in the ensemble. Jonas tries his best to match the quality of his fellow performers (and is visibly struggling at times) but it's clear that he was miscast. Cameron Mackintosh should have really chosen a better singer with more experience instead of trying to pull in a younger audience by casting a famous pop star. Michael Ball wins.

Judy Kuhn vs Katie Hall
If Nick Jonas is the weakest performer of the 25th anniversary concert then Kuhn is the weakest performer in the 10th anniversary concert. Her acting is decent but her voice sounds too heavy and chesty for Cosette. I wish they'd gotten Rebecca Caine from the original London cast to play Cosette instead of her. I think I prefer Katie Hall's Cosette over Kuhn's too. OK, Hall isn't perfect and she does play Cosette as being angry with Valjean in In My Life. I'm not keen on this because I dislike angry Cosettes. They come across as spoilt and ungrateful and remind me of Claire Danes' Cosette in the 1998 movie. But overall I still prefer Katie Hall because her acting is good on the whole and her voice fits the role better than Kuhn's. Hall's soprano voice is lighter, which is lovely and nicer to listen too. I like the fact that she's blonde too. Cosette is a brunette in the book of course, but Samantha Barks (who plays Eponine in this) is more attractive than Hall and is a brunette. Because Cosette and Eponine have different hair colours in the 25th you can then justify Marius preferring Cosette because Eponine isn't his type or something. I'm looking forward to seeing Hall play Christine in Phantom of the Opera when I see it again in May.

Lea Salonga vs Samantha Barks
Vocally I don't think there's all that much to separate these two but Salonga wins out because of her acting. Some Eponines sound whiny when they sing On My Own *cough Frances Ruffelle cough * but Salonga's voice is beautiful and she brings so much frustration and anger to her version of that song. Although her voice is obviously a lot more beautiful she does remind me of Book Eponine. I also find her lines I'll sleep in your embrace at last/the rain that brings you here is heaven blessed in A Little Fall of Rain incredibly moving. Barks has a great voice and I loved her when I saw Les Mis in 2010. I'm very confident that she'll do a great job in the movie. Her acting isn't as strong and distinctive as Salonga's though so Salonga wins.

Anthony Crivello vs Hadley Fraser
Crivello and Fraser are both great in their own ways and both have different things going for them. Fraser's Grantaire comes across as being a bit more likeable and he gives a greater sense of good humour. Victor Hugo said that Grantaire's good sense of humour is the main reason why the revolutionary students put up with him. However, Crivello does a better job at portraying the sceptical, sad side of Grantaire's character. His section in Drink with Me is much more sad and poignant than Fraser's. Overall it's a draw.

10th anniversary: 24 points
25th anniversary: 7 points
The 10th wins!

Although I do think the 10th anniversary concert of Les Mis is better I will be fair. The 25th anniversary concert isn't as good as the 10th anniversary concert of Les Mis or the 25th anniversary concert of Phantom but it's still worth a watch if you're a Les Mis fan. The 25th anniversary concert is more visually appealing than the 10th and there's more movement and character interaction going on between the actors. It makes fewer cuts than the 10th anniversary concert does too. You get almost the entire show. To get more of an experience of what Les Miserables is about then I think you should watch both - but it needs to be seen live too! If you haven't seen it then go!