Thursday, 27 December 2012

You Had to be There

Have you ever watched a supposed comedy film that started out really funny, but trailed off towards the end? Or towards the second half, in some cases? Of course you have - unless you don't watch comedy films at all or you have few enough brain cells that you'd be amused by people getting kicked in the groin. I always sort of assumed that this was because it was impossible to write enough comedy to fill, say, ninety minutes.

Then I started watching more stand-up gigs, both live and on TV/DVD. A lot of these shows are the same length, or longer, than the average feature-length comedy film. And yet they're able to keep the humour going throughout. I saw Russell Kane at the Hexagon a few weeks ago and could hardly breathe for laughing. Seriously, I had a weird pain in my side all the next day. He never ran out of material, I never got bored and needed a story (my other theory as to why comedy films stop being funny - they believe the audience needs an actually solid story.) (FYI, you can have humour and a story. They're not mutually exclusive.)

So I got to thinking, maybe being a part of the joke is important. A comedian is addressing the audience, characters in a film are pretending they don't exist. Seeing a comedian perform live is a strange thing, you laugh at things you'd never have normally laughed at because of the atmosphere. You think things are funny that normally you wouldn't. It's the same with TV shows - I can't watch comedies alone because they're just not as funny. Laughter is a communal thing. And I think maybe that's why comedy films don't always work - because the audience isn't really a part of the joke.



Saturday, 22 December 2012

ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD

Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake

Cas Lowood is no ordinary guy - he hunts dead people. People like Anna. Anna Dressed in Blood. A beautiful, murderous ghost entangled in curses and rage. Cas knows he must destroy her, but as her tragic past is revealed, he starts to understand why Anna has killed everyone who's ever dared to enter her spooky home. Everyone, that is, except Cas. Just your average boy-meets-girl, girl-kills-people story.

Eeesh. I really wanted to like this book. In fact, I did really like it. For a while. It's interesting and amusing and it was refreshing for me to read a book written from a male perspective, since probably 90% of the books I've read this year were from a female perspective. And the other ten had multiple voices. So I was really enjoying it.

Until I was about two-thirds of the way through. Okay, call me extraordinarily picky if you want (believe me, I've been called worse) but I expected the climax of a book entitled Anna Dressed in Blood to be the big showdown between the ghosthunter and, you know, Anna Dressed in Blood. That particular showdown happened around two-thirds of the way through the novel, and then the rest was focused on a totally different ghost. This did not work for me. At all. In any way shape or form. It was like the author had decided that the stuff about Anna wouldn't fill a whole book, and so they slapped on another twenty thousand words or so of the sequel idea they'd been playing around with. And it really bothered me, it ruined the book for me. Okay, so ruined is a strong word, but I certainly stopped enjoying it and can't say I liked the book because of it.

There were good aspects, though. I liked Cas, the main character, despite thinking at the start that he was oddly cynical about ghosts considering he went around killing them, and I was delighted when the cat got eaten, and I thought the writing was good. I have no complaints about the style or anything like that, except for the names. I can't stand the name Carmel anyway, and I'm getting a bit sick of this whole MC-has-a-stupid-name-so-they-only-ever-go-by-a-nickname thing. I mean, his name is Theseus Cassio. I'm sure it probably means something and is bound to be important in the sequel, but no. It's a stupid name.

Overall, I have to say that I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone. The sudden change in plot partway through the story bothered me and I'd have to warn anyone about that if they wanted to read the book, which would probably then ruin the tension for them. I don't mind a twist ending - in fact, I actually like them - but this wasn't a twist ending. This was a mess and I'm still annoyed about it even now.



Friday, 21 December 2012

My Top Five Books of 2012

Perhaps I should have done the books first, being a writer and all, but I was in the mood to write about films when it occurred to me that I wanted to do these two lists. Anyway, deciding on the books for the list was actually a lot easier for me than the films, because I've been so very disappointed by so many of the books I was desperate to read this year. I also hit the slightly major snag of most of the books I read this year not actually being released this year. So I've tried to eliminate them, though not entirely successfully. So, once again, in reverse order, I present to you my top five of 2012.

5 - Divergent by Veronica Roth
Yeah, this is one of those not entirely successful eliminations. This actual copy, however (the UK paperback) was only printed in February of this year, so it totally counts. This is a young adult dystopian, but this one felt a bit different to the others. Or maybe I read it before I got sick of all the same-y dystopian books. Either way, it was a really good read once I got into it, I tore through it and went in search of the sequel, Insurgent, only to discover it was not due to be published in the UK for another couple of months! Needless to say, I was unimpressed. What I found really interesting about this book, though, is that I enjoyed it so much while disliking or being indifferent to essentially all of the characters in it. I didn't like Tris, I didn't like any of her family or friends, even her enemies were a bit crap. The only one I came close to liking was the love interest, Four, but I started to go off him in the second book. It's strange, I didn't find the characters especially likeable or even interesting, and yet I loved the book. Funny how these things work out sometimes.

4 - What's Left of Me by Kat Zhang
I actually only read this last week, so you may well remember my review of it. Essentially, every human being is born with two souls, but one of them fades away around the time the child hits adolescense. Except for when that doesn't happen, like with Addie and Eva. And that's just not good. I've only just realised that one of the big questions I was left with after this book is why people suddenly developed two souls. As far as I can recall, it's never addressed in the book, and I found that a little distracting. It almost makes me want to strike this one from the list and slot something else in, but not quite. I did really enjoy this book. It was a stand-alone book that was so bursting with potential that there was room for a sequel, rather than being 300+ pages of setting up for a new series, which so many of the books I read this year were guilty of. I think what I liked so much is that it was such a unique concept (to me, at least) and it was great to see that, especially when it was written so well. I'll be definitely keeping an eye out for Kat Zhang's books in the future.

3 - Sorry by Zoran Drvenkar
I have literally no words to describe this book. It was just so odd. The basic premise is that four people set up a company that apologises to people. You hire them to apologise to someone you might have wronged. I can't really say anymore without spoiling it, because it's a strange and quite intricate book, but it's beautifully written. If beautiful is the right word for it. I honestly don't know what to say about it, except that it affected me quite a bit. I'm not much of a "feeler" but this book definitely struck a chord. It's not for the faint-hearted. Or anyone with a sensitive disposition. There are horrendous moments, both graphically described and hinted at just enough to unsettle you. I was wary when I discovered that it was written in German originally, and that I was buying the translation, because I have this theory that translated books lose something along the way, but the writing was razor-sharp and suited the book perfectly. Also, check out that cover. I would have bought it for that cover even if the blurb had bored me completely.


2 - The Hallowed Ones by Laura Bickle
Another very recent read, and another one that didn't disappoint. I was browsing through Goodreads - which is never a good idea for me - and came across a blurb that contained the words "Amish" and "vampires." I was sold. We actually don't see very much of the vampires in the book, it's more the threat that they impose on this isolated community and how the people deal with it. It wasn't a perfect book, there's no such thing (probably) but I very much enjoyed reading it. I'm not so sure on the idea of it having a sequel. The ending of the book (which I thought was a little rushed) definitely leaves room for one and sets up some potential plot points, but I'm not sure. I think this book would have strongly suited an ambiguous ending, I think it would have been quite fitting. Still, that won't stop me from reading the book when it comes out. I'm quite looking forward to revisiting the world and spending some more time with Katie, the main character, though less enthused about being reunited with Alex, who was a bit bland for my liking. I feel I should point out again that I really did like this book.

1 - The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Yeah, so, you remember way back up at the top of the page where I said I'd failed to keep the books on this list to ones that were released in 2012? This is the big one. I went back and forth on including it, but this is the best book I've read this year. Not only is it the best, it's also my favourite. It needed to be recognised, and I couldn't bring myself to name any other book in the top spot. This book is, if you'll excuse the pun, simply magical. I don't know how Erin Morgenstern has crafted such a beautiful, engaging and intriguing piece of prose, but it truly is spectacular. There is a multitude of characters, but never once did I get confused or forget about any of them, and - perhaps most importantly - they all played a role in the story. There wasn't a single stock character or someone shoehorned in just to deliver one piece of information. I'm not a good enough writer to explain how excellent this book is or to describe how I felt about it (I can only do that if I'm criticising something) , all I can say is that you have to read it. Don't even think about picking up another book until you've read this one. It's long, but don't be put off by that. I really don't think there is any such thing as a perfect book, but this one comes pretty damn close.

Honourable Mentions
- This Is Not a Test by Courtney Summers - a take on the zombie novel that I've never seen before and well worth a read.

- The Help by Kathryn Stockett - a beautiful book that I couldn't let myself include because it was published in 2009.

- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins - my opinions about this book and its film adaptation are splashed all over this blog, as you may have noticed, but, despite reading it this year, it too was published a fair while back. 2008, in fact.



Wednesday, 19 December 2012

My Top Five Films of 2012

So, since every website I ever visit seems to be rounding up the best stuff of the year, I thought I'd do the same. Looking back at all the films I've seen this year, it seems to me that 2012 has been a bad year for cinema. Maybe with the Olympics dominating the summer and the US Elections taking over pretty much the rest of the year, the studios decided to just not bother too hard this year. Or maybe I'm just pickier than usual. Either way, I've seen some real stinkers this year - The Bourne Legacy, Dark Shadows, Prometheus. And that's before you get me started on The Hobbit. Okay, so I haven't seen it and never will, but come on, it's the biggest movie of the year and it's The Hobbit. The Hobbit.

So, all complaining out of the way, here are my top five films of the year. In reverse order, obviously, to make it super tense.

5 - Anna Karenina
I may well be one of the only two people who actually saw this movie (and we actually saw it together) but I think it deserved a lot more attention that it actually got. I didn't know the story beforehand, the words Anna Karenina conjured up images of people in furry hats walking through snowy squares and not a whole lot else. It took me a little while to get into this film (maybe five minutes or so) because of the strange way it was orchestrated. The whole film is set up like a stage production, which I didn't expect, but turned out to be both wonderfully done and mesmerising to watch. I'll also admit that I'm not a huge fan of Keira Knightley, Jude Law or Aaron Taylor-Johnson, but there wasn't a weak link in the acting chain, and the supporting cast were just as good. If you didn't see this in the cinema then you really missed out, but get the DVD and curl up with it on a cold night.


4 - The Hunger Games
Teenagers fight to the death on television. When I first heard about this film, I became a little obsessed. I fully intended to see it and then devour the books (because I prefer to do it that way around) but then the book was a set text for one of my university modules. I read it in an afternoon. The next day, I read the second one in an afternoon. I was worried the film would be a disappointment, but I was pleasantly surprised by it. I think Jennifer Lawrence was well cast and any excuse to gawp at a Hemsworth is fine by me. I'm still not completely sold on Josh Hutcherson as Peeta, as both love interests have to have something going for them in a love triangle and he is completely outshone by Hemsworth. My only real issue with this film (other than the fact that it takes so long to get to the actual Games, but this is an issue from the book, too) is that it was edited down to get a much more financially-rewarding 12A certificate. Blood splashes or no blood splashes, I don't really think it's suitable for under-12s and the film should have been kept as it was.

3 - Silver Linings Playbook
The most recent of the films on this list, and another one starring Jennifer Lawrence. This one also has Bradley Cooper, though, so it was pretty much guaranteed a spot on this list. No, that's very shallow of me, and not really true at all. The chemistry between the two leads helped a lot, but I think the film had a strong premise and excellent writing, and would have found its way here even without the two main stars. It's a bit of a sappy film, there's no denying that, but it's also so funny. After I'd seen it, I heard it described as a romantic comedy and baulked at the idea - to me a romantic comedy is a nonsense bit of fluff most likely starring Katherine Heigl - but after some thought, I realised that this is a romantic comedy, but it's more than that. It's what all romantic comedies should be. It's romantic and funny and moving and in a short space of time you really grow to care about the characters. It swept the board at an award ceremony recently and I really hope it gets some Oscar nods. It fully deserves them.

2 - The Help
I thought long and hard about including this film, since it was technically released in October 2011 and was nominated for the Oscars this February. But I saw it - in an actual cinema - this year, so I've decided that it counts. I didn't think I'd be interested in this film, I'd already passed over on reading the book the summer before it was released because the premise - black housemaids in the 1950s - bored me so thoroughly, but then they cast Emma Stone and I started paying it a little more attention. Like Silver Linings Playbook, it is as funny as it is moving. I can't speak to the accuracy of its portrayal of life for black housemaids in Mississippi in the 1950s, but I can speak to the heartbreaking moments and the scenes that made me cry with laughter. It's a stunning film that boasts an outstanding cast and deserved a lot more Oscars than it went home with. You should definitely try to see it and then read the book. It's a very faithful adaptation, but the book explains why everyone calls Eugenia by the nickname Skeeter...

1 - Lawless
And so the very prestigious honour of being my top film of the year goes to Lawless - a film about bootleggers, based on a true story and starring Tom Hardy. And some other people, but Tom Hardy stole the show, as he so often does. It's hard to know what to say about this film, which really just needs to be experienced. It's brutal and violent and unflinching. It's also funny and kind of sweet, really. In places. The love story that unfolds between the God-awful Shia LaBeouf and Mia Wasikowska could melt even the stoniest of hearts. To be fair, LaBeouf did not spoil this film. He didn't add to it either, and I think almost any other actor could have done the job better, but he didn't ruin it. The movie does belong to Tom Hardy, though. I said it in my review of the film at the time, but I think it bears repeating now - he manages to be menacing while wearing a cardigan. A cardigan. If that doesn't make him one of the greatest actors of our time, I don't know what does. If you haven't seen this film, you need to correct that immediately. And then get cracking on the rest of the list.

Honourable Mentions
There were a few more films that I wanted to mention, but couldn't. I thought about doing a top ten, but I didn't have enough films I loved to fill one out, so here are the few that would have been in the list but couldn't quite break the top 10:

- Looper - Bruce Willis had hair and the time-travel stuff was a little wonky, but otherwise an enjoyable film.

- The Perks of Being a Wallflower - a gloom-drenched misery-fest which was also kind of great. And much better than the book.

- Breaking Dawn Part Two - a fitting end to the Twilight series, that managed to provide laughs, tender moments and, most importantly for someone who has read all of the books, a few surprises. I've never experienced an atmosphere like the one at the midnight screening, and for that reason alone, this film deserved a mention.



Monday, 17 December 2012

WHAT'S LEFT OF ME

What's Left of Me by Kat Zhang

Imagine that you have two minds, sharing one body. You and your other self are closer than twins, better than friends. You have known each other forever. Then imagine that people like you are hated and feared. That the government want to hunt you down and tear out your second soul, separating you from the person you love most in the world. Now meet Eva and Addie. They don't have to imagine.

Ooh, *shivers*. Okay, so I was really looking forward getting my hands on this book and I was not disappointed. If I'm being completely honest, it wasn't quite as good as The Hallowed Ones, the last book I read, but it's definitely up there.

I was concerned that I would struggle to keep the two girls, Eva and Addie, separate in my mind, that they wouldn't be distinct enough, but they were. I think Addie could have done with some more development, the book is told by Eva and therefore focuses a lot more on her, and I hope this is something that will be explored in later books. That's right, this is the first in a series. And it works as a book on it's own. Points galore in its favour. I was also concerned about remembering all the pairs of names - every main character has two souls and therefore two personalities - but I didn't find it a problem at all. The only one I couldn't remember was Lyle's alter ego, and I'm pretty sure his was only mentioned once in the entire book.

The thing that really stuck with me, though, was how much this book reminded me of Philip Pullman's Northern Lights, a book that I adore. The idea of the daemon, and the later determination of certain people to separate children from their daemons, was one that really struck a chord with me when I read it years ago, and one that came back to me whilst reading this book. People - ostensibly, the government - don't want two souls to exist within one body. They want to separate them, and my thoughts just kept coming back to Northern Lights. Maybe that's one reason I liked this book so much, despite the fact that at times the dialogue seemed strange to me and the teenagers sometimes seemed an awful lot older than they were supposed to and Addie just wasn't as characterised as she should have been. Because I did like this book, a lot, and I've read lots of reviews by other people that loved it. So maybe I just shouldn't worry about why I liked it so much, and just be pleased that I did. Bring on book two.



Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The End of Zombies

Ending a zombie story is a tricky beast. I'm thinking about writing one and am already worrying about how to end it (FYI, I don't even have character names or a solid idea yet, but I'm stressing over the ending). To my mind, there are only three ways to do it. Feel free to sound off in the comments if you think I'm wrong. I might nick your ideas if they're good, though!

1 - Everybody dies. All your characters, all the people who aren't your characters. Everybody. Dies. Or becomes a zombie, which is usually pretty much the same thing.

2 - They reach a safe place - military fortress, deserted island, whatever - and can live happily ever after with the dead banging on the doors but unable to get inside and start eating brains.

3 - Just stop. Pick a point and say "that's it. Done. Leave it there and let the reader decide what they want."

Normally, I'd say option one is the best, mainly because I'm not a huge fan of happy endings. Thing is, you can't really do it if you're writing in first person (putting in a stupid newspaper report or whatever at the end is just annoying - don't do it), and that's actually what I intend to do. The idea I'm circling involves letters, and who writes letters in the third person?

Option two is...well, that's not great either, and not just because I hate a happy ending. It's just so implausible that any place exists where zombies haven't gotten inside. Add to that implausibility that this magical safe place is also able to house people long term (I'm talking sustainable sources of food and water and whatever else it is that people need) and I think you're asking too much of your reader. Or thinking too little of them.

Which leaves us with option three. An ambiguous ending, done well, is a truly impressive feat. Just stopping a book with no warning or explanation or resolution...well, it's a bit of a cop-out, isn't it? Generally, when I read something that doesn't have what I consider to be a proper ending, I think it's because the author wrote themself into a corner and then couldn't think of a way out. I doubt that's true, an editor would have stepped in at some point prior to publication if it was (I hope!), but it does feel a bit like cheating. Unfortunately, it's the option I'm leaning towards right now. It just seems to fit the story if one day the letters just stop. There's no way of knowing what happened to the writer - if she survived the zombies or became one of them - and there's something about that which just feels right.

Also, I'm aware that "themself" is not a word and I do not care. It should be a word. In the same way that "irregardless" just sounds better than "regardless" even though I know it's not actually a word. While we're at it, it also bothers me that "habitable" and "inhabitable" mean the exact same thing.



Monday, 10 December 2012

THE HALLOWED ONES

The Hallowed Ones by Laura Bickle

If your home was the last safe place on earth, would you let a stranger in?
Katie is on the verge of her Rumspringa, the time in Amish life when teenagers are free to experience non-Amish culture before officially joining the church. But before Rumspringa arrives, Katie's safe world starts to crumble. It begins with a fiery helicopter crash in the cornfields, followed by rumours of massive unrest and the disappearance of huge numbers of people all over the world. Something is out there...and it is making a killing.

Okay, so something amazing happened this week. I read this book. I read this book and loved it. Seriously, it's been so long since I read a book this good, I can't even remember when it was. I've got a moderate interest in the Amish people and a very mild obsession with vampires, so this book was perfect for me. Which was troubling, because I'm going out of my way not to expect too much of books. But this...well, put it this way, it was so good I won't be lending my copy to anyone. They'll have to buy their own, and they should. You all should.

I was concerned that I wouldn't be able to connect with the main character, given that her world and beliefs are so completely different to my own, but I found Katie to be incredibly easy to relate to. Like Katie, I've never really done anything I shouldn't. I've always done the right thing, I've never made a huge mistake. And sometimes I worry that I'll regret that, that I miss out on so much because I think everything through and make the "right" decision. I felt like I completely understood Katie and where she was coming from  - despite our life experiences being worlds apart - and grew to really care about what happened to her.

Of course, no book is perfect. There were a few little things that niggled at me, like the fact that some words are italicised. I understand it was to emphasise the German words used, but it irritated me. Who doesn't know what ja means? And it was written in the first-person, and I couldn't help thinking that Katie wouldn't separate those words and feel the need to mark them as different in her mind, so why were they isolated in the text? Another slight issue was Alex, the Outsider. I just felt his character needed more, he needed as much as depth as Elijah, although obviously those depths needed to be different. There just didn't seem to be as much going on with Alex. My biggest problem with this book, though, was the ending. It was rushed. Too rushed. Honestly, I think it needed another chapter at least to unfold properly, but other than those small things, I don't think there's anything I'd change about this book.



Sunday, 9 December 2012

CREWEL

Crewel by Gennifer Albin

Sixteen-year-old Adelice is a Spinster. She can weave time and matter. But no one knows just how talented she is. Guild Ambassador Cormac Patton has taken a shine to her. The Guild demands loyalty...even in love. So Adelice's handsome, mysterious valet Jost pses a dangerous threat to her place at the Coventry. Everyone at the Guild has their secrets. But Adelice is about to unravel the deadliest one of all, a sinister truth that could destroy reality as she knows it...

Is it just me or does that description (taken from the blurb) sound like an utter mess? Not necessarily in a bad way, in a sinister and intriguing sort of way. Except the book turned out to be pretty straightforward, pretty standard dystopian fare. I know a lot of people are praising the creativity and originality of the weaving concept, but that was actually the biggest problem for me with this book. I couldn't visualise it. Maybe I skipped over an important detail, but I couldn't decide whether the weave was like actually threads when it was on a loom, or more like sparkly magic stuff. And every time I got to a part where weaving was involved, my brain would stop me and remind me that I didn't fully understand what was happening. This made it really difficult for me to get drawn into the story and as a result, I didn't really enjoy it.

Other than the weaving stuff, the book reads like so many others. Take The Hunger Games, for example. They take Katniss, a girl from a deprived background and give her lots of nice things, feed her up and make her pretty, then make her do terrible things. That is this book in a nutshell. I mean, sure, here there is a ridiculous and implausible "love" web, something that's hinted at in The Hunger Games, but Crewel...well, it was just ridiculous to me.

It's also very much a first-in-a-trilogy book, by which I mean that there isn't a proper story structure. There's no real beginning, middle or end. Stuff happens, but it just all feels like setting up for later. In the last couple of chapters, there's a sudden rush to reveal a bunch of things, presumably to make me buy the second book, but I was beyond caring at that point. Those revelations should have been knitted into the story, drip fed to me to keep me intrigued, but it really did all happen at the very end.

I know I have a low tolerance for first books in trilogies, but this book was really disappointing for me. I thought it was going to be something a bit different, but really, I feel like I've already read it several times over with different names plugged in. Which is a shame. Here's hoping the rest of the books in my to-read list are a bit more exciting!