Monday, July 25, 2011

9. Paper Towns - John Green (2008)

She was quiet for a moment, and then she walked right up to the glass and leaned her forehead against it. I hung back, but then she grabbed my T-shirt and pulled me forward. I didn't want our collective weight on a single pane of glass, but she kept pulling me forward, and I could feel her balled first in my side, and finally I put my head against the glass as gently as possible and looked around.

For me this excerpt perfectly encapsulates the personalities of Margo and Quentin, as well as their unusual relationship. Since childhood Quentin has loved his mysterious and forth-right next-door neighbour Margo, but she never seems to notice him. That is until one night of revenge and adventure lead to Margo's disappearance and a trail of clues seemingly meant for Quentin alone.

Starting out I wasn't sure if I liked this book. Margo was infuriatingly aloof (however I guess that's the point) and obviously troubled, and yet Quentin remained pathetically acquiescent to her wishes. It got better once Margo left (that sounds a bit harsh doesn't it) as the mystery surrounding her disappearance culminates in a well-narrated and tangible fear that she has come to harm, while highlighting the interesting emotional journey that Quentin and those others with ties to Margo go through, especially in how the former views the world, himself and his idolisation of Margo. In exploring the act of desertion, John Green similarly attempts to explore the internal motivations of the individual, successfully navigating the reader through various emotions and ideas that leave one examining themselves by the end.

Some of the characters were very odd and a bit two-dimensional but what held this book together for me was Quentin and his determination to find Margo. Oddly I found this book more satisfying before the very end because of the agreement that Quentin had come to within himself, and while I still find Margo annoying, I appreciate her humanness and how imperfect she is, juxtaposed with the miraculous vision that Quentin has in his head.

Final verdict - Not hugely realistic perhaps only because I know no one who talks quite like Ben, but thought-provoking with interesting themes and a strong main character.

3 stars

8. Austenland - Shannon Hale (2007)

"Girls! Look who is here at last. Miss Amelia Heartwright. Miss Heartwright, may I present Miss Elizabeth Charming and my niece, Miss Jane Erstwhile."
    The three ladies curtsied and bowed their heads, and Jane noticed how natural and elegant Miss Heartwright's curtsy seemed. She had clearly been here before and come back for more, one of Mrs. Wattlesbrook's ideal clients. She would know the system, the players, the language and the customs. She would be a formidable foe.

For many fans of Jane Austen and its various screen adaptations, Austenland is an enticing title. However, while I am a fan of the screen versions, adaptations of the novel kind invariably end up sounding more like fan-fiction, and can be a bit...well icky, especially if one of the aspects of Jane Austen you enjoy is its wholesomeness and, simply put, lack of touching. You could argue either way whether this puts a focus more on love or lust, personality or looks, but in Austen novels anyway it is definitely the heroine's character that wins the man over, and I like that. So understandably being a bit hesitant of a book called Austenland, not helped by the back cover blurb including 'For the woman with everything except a Mr. Darcy of her own, an invitation to Austenland,' I began this Shannon Hale novel hoping for the best. In fact I might not even have heard of it if not for JJ Field from the 2007 adaptation of Northanger Abbey being cast as the novel's hero in it's very own indie flick. But we'll get to that later.

So the basic plot of Austenland revolves around 30-something Jane (of course) who is bequeathed a holiday to the secretive Pembroke Park where guests can experience authentic regency England, complete with Austen-worthy romance. Despite being a fan of cheesey films and rom-coms, I am very suspect of chick-lit, usually because of how unrealistic, silly and unsatisfying I've found it to be so far. A bit ironically then I ended up loving Austenland, while the majority of the reviews I've read on have been completely opposite. In comparisons both to chick-lit and Shannon Hale's other hugely popular novels, many found Jane to be unrealistic, the premise contrived and the storyline cliched. Looking at Austenland as a whole I can understand these reviews as it is cliched in the way it assimilates certain stock scenarios and events, but despite this I thought Shannon Hale's narrative was original and incredibly funny. I laughed out loud very often and found Jane to be relatable in her worries, her determination, her self-assurance and humour. I will be the first to say that this book is utter fantasy and completely unbelievable, but isn't that the same with Jane Austen novels? It is despite social and financial status that Austen's heroines find their happy endings. Shannon Hale retains much of the same wholesomeness and fun found in the original novels, while giving it a modern twist that was both amusing and endearing. It is a world where you are as pretty, witty and composed as you'd like to be normally and yet still remaining, like Jane, slightly awkward, nervous and using odd words like "huzzah." My favourite line so far? '"Argh," Jane arghed,' page 18.

Perhaps you need a particular sense of humour to love this novel as much as I do, but on the off-chance that you are such a person, I recommend this book to you. And yes please try and force this onto all of your female acquaintance just as I did to my sister, who enjoyed it immensely and now quotes Miss Charming at every turn.

4 stars

Regarding the film adaptation - this is currently being filmed in England and the lovely Miss Hale is blogging from the set on a wonderfully regular basis. The cast includes Keri Russell, Bret McKenzie, JJ Field and Jennifer Coolidge. It is being directed by Jerusha Hess (Napoleon Dynamite) and produced by Twilight's Stephanie Meyers. An interesting mix if ever I saw one.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

7. The Fry Chronicles: an autobiography - Stephen Fry (2010)

Now there I sat, three years later, fiddling with my prize pipe and contemplating a betrayal of the smoking cause. 'Betrayal' and 'cause' are perhaps hysterical and self-important words to use, but smoking to me was a cause; it had always symbolized in my mind something enormous.
The word 'chronicles' in the title is very apt as it does indeed chronicle Stephen Fry's life from slightly lost teenager, through his university years and into his first bout of success (although with a surprising lack of "celebrity" despite this). I found this book to be an incredibly honest, albeit slightly plodding journey through a very interesting time in Stephen Fry's life, interesting because it always is to see where someone started off before they become that big name in shining lights. The narrative is doused quite liberally with self-effacement and self-deprecation, which became a bit tiresome around the half-way mark, although I couldn't help but feel at the end that it proved even more how we're all just human, and that no matter how successful one becomes it does not mean you somehow inherit self-assurance, confidence or even happiness. I see that sometimes "normal" people can become bitter if a celebrity doesn't seem content or is seen to be excessively humble and self-deprecating, like they're just being smug in an indirect way about their success. Hugely dissimilar to such a person, I liked the way that Stephen Fry appreciated, and was even surprised by every opportunity, how he always tried to do his best whether personally or professionally, as well as how he accepted his mistakes and took his fair share of the blame. Whether seemingly excessive or not, Stephen Fry is utterly personable in his writing, and although this book is a very personal account of a portion of his life, he remains relatable, funny and endearing throughout. If you're a fan, I highly recommend this autobiography, although I might not bother if you're not already interested in the man. But isn't that always the way with autobiographies. I look forward to the next installment. 
 3 stars

6. Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) - Jules Verne

CHAPTER 10 - Interesting Conversations with Icelandic Savants

Dinner was ready. Professor Liedenbrock devoured his portion voraciously, for his compulsory fast on board had converted his stomach into a vast unfathomable gulf. There was nothing remarkable in the meal itself; but the hospitality of our host, more Danish than Icelandic, reminded me of the heroes of old. It was evident that we were more at home than he was himself.
    The conversation was carried on in the vernacular tongue, which my uncle mixed with German and M. Fridrikssen with Latin for my benefit. It turned upon scientific questions as befits philosophers; but Professor Liedenbrock was excessively reserved, and at every sentence spoke to me with his eyes, enjoining the most absolute silence upon our plans.

This book is special to me as I bought it on our last day in Pisa before we traveled to Paris via Milan. It then accompanied me on many walk-abouts around Paris, London and then finally on my train trip to Leeds. When I look at it I am reminded that I attempted to read it on the way back to London but was too sad and nostalgic after seeing my friends for the last time to pay much attention. Since my return home I haven't touched it at all until about last week where I made the effort to finish it. Personally I found the scientific jargon broke up the narrative flow despite the beautifully crafted structure of Verne's prose. But Verne meant to educate his readers, so I still find this aspect of his novels an interesting and integral part of the novel (This first part written about 2 months ago, the following completed today). It is not his fault that I am not familiar with science. In fact I am possibly his target audience. And yet, while I say that it interrupted Verne's otherwise beautiful lines, the latter is what remains with me after turning the final page, that and the great sense of adventure, of wonders found and lost, of secrets too incredible to fathom but ones you know to exist. Out of the characters I have a particular respect for the formidable guide Hans, that gentle, silent, uncomplaining and resourceful man. He's just cool and knows how to build a raft! We tried this once as kids - we even had the help of plastic barrels - but it's not as easy as you'd think.

Also something that I've come to realise recently is that I am a massive snob when it comes to classics, believing them to be always good because they have stood the test of time, and let no one ever think them otherwise. I kid (mostly), although I hope this never biases me towards newer books. Journey to the Centre of the Earth however, I think deserves to be up there, because it truly is a very fine book, both in content and narrative style.

3.5 stars.