strange_complex: (Sebastian boozes)
This year, I watched most of the ITV series, saw the movie and visited the set of both, not to mention reading the author's first novel. So it seemed like about time I sat down and read the book.

It's brilliant. Every line of it resonates with a profound love of the English language - and it's a testimony to the way the ITV series made use of this that as I read, I heard not only the lines they actually used in Jeremy Irons' voice, but those they did not as well.

I did find the prologue hard going because of all its military jargon. There were several sentences I had to read twice before I could even guess at what they meant. I'm pretty sure the same would have been true of some of the Oxford sections, too, if I hadn't happened to have been there - and indeed specifically to Christ Church - myself. Otherwise, though, it is seductively easy reading; suffused with the sunshine and passion and luxury which make up the story. I only wish I had known about this site, which would have helped me significantly in the military sections.

My view of the plot hasn't changed significantly since I commented on it after watching the film, although I'm more fully aware of the changes they made for the cinema now - and all the more baffled by them, too. I also find almost all of the characters fuller and more complex now, and generally feel greater sympathy for them too. I should note that I actually read the revised version published in 1960, in the preface of which Waugh states that the book is "re-issued with many small additions and some substantial cuts", so that I will have received a slightly different impression of the whole than I would from the original edition (some notes on the sorts of changes that were made are here).

Brideshead probably isn't a very good guide to the general tenor of Waugh's novels - it's certainly far more self-consciously epic and weighty than Decline and Fall, and I enjoyed it more probably for those very reasons. (And enough to devote one of my new icon-spaces to it, too!) Waugh himself appears to have been somewhat ambiguous about it, considering it to be both his greatest achievement and something of an embarrassment at different times. But, in their different ways, I've heartily enjoyed both of his books that I've read this year, and intend to come back for more.

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strange_complex: (Tom Baker)
Read online at the BBC Classic Doctor Who website.

Science Fiction fans often express concern about why it is that more women don't seem to be interested in the genre. I know they do, because there was a panel to that effect at Mecon 11 in the summer.

Unfortunately, this book is a prime example of the reason why. Apart from Romana and a tea-lady who makes a brief cameo appearance in chapter 2 before being blown to smithereens, all of the female characters in the book are crazed dominant-yet-also-subservient femdroids who turn out to be modelled on the inner workings of K-9. In fact, the total lack of any plausible female characters for the entire duration of the novel even gets the writer into plotting problems towards the end of the book. Realising that the Metralubitans at the centre of the story are in the position of needing to rebuild their society from a small pool of people after surviving a catastrophe, the Doctor has to turn to their President and ask, "Premier, there are females down in your dome, aren't there? Real ones, I mean?"

Dear Gareth Roberts: here is a clue. If you want your readers (and especially your female ones) to find Metralubitan society plausible enough for them to either a) believe in its ability to regenerate itself or b) care, write both sexes into that society in the first place. Don't just suddenly assert that they are there when the plot demands it. Gah.

The world moves on, though. Since writing this, Roberts has proved himself capable of better things, especially in regards to his Sarah Jane Adventures scripts. So my annoyance is more directed at the fact that this is such a common failing in SF contexts in general than it is against him personally. But it is disappointing, and lets the book down considerably.

Which is a pity, because on the whole this is a pretty decent story. The ending gets a bit contrived and hand-wavey, and winds up with Roberts writing himself into corner which nothing but a literal Big Red Button can get him out of. But the essential set-up of a war between two rival parties who actually rather like one another socially, the basic conceit than most human(oid)s are sufficiently vain that they can easily be manipulated into non-sensical and immoral behaviour via a bit of flattery, and the comic touches (especially the parody of Marxist revolutionaries) were all well worth reading. Plus the Four!love was most satisfying, and came complete with a nicely-realised Romana II and a charmingly unhinged K-9 into the bargain.

In short, then, basically good fun, but with a Russell T. Davies-style ending and an apparent failure to register the existence of half the human(oid) population. If you love Four, you should definitely read it.

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strange_complex: (Alessandro tear)
I re-read the first edition of this book a month ago, and in the course of checking background details about it for my write-up, found out about this new version. Having been very impressed with the original, I of course ordered the new edition straight away.

Retitling )

Presentation )

New material )

Changes to the existing text )

Anyway, in summary this book perhaps isn't as much of an improvement on the previous edition as I'd hoped for, but since the previous edition was already excellent, this remains a great piece of work which I'm glad I bought. It's an extremely pleasing testimony to continuing interest in Moreschi that a revised edition was commissioned, and I'm sure that interest in itself is a clear testimony to Nicholas Clapton's efforts in recording and presenting his story. Three cheers for both of them.

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strange_complex: (Chrestomanci slacking in style)
Bought with the book token I won for participating in the Flash Fiction challenge at Mecon.

This is another sequel to Howl's Moving Castle, and for me a better one than Castle in the Air. Not to say the latter is bad, of course - it's just that this one has more of Howl, Sophie and Calcifer in it, returns to the gingerbread fairy kingdom setting of the first novel which I liked so much (though we're in High Norland now, not Ingary), and has a heroine I can relate to more easily. Actually, there's room to get cynical about just how relatable that heroine is: she's a sheltered daughter of Respectable Parents, who thinks she likes nothing better than escaping from the world into a good book, but actually turns out to be rather more competent and capable than she thinks when circumstances require. In other words, she is DWJ's primary readership with all their fantasies fulfilled. But for all that, she's so likeable and three-dimensional that you can't help but forgive the manipulation and fall for her all the same.

As the title implies, the book centres around a magical house (specifically, the cottage of High Norland's Royal Wizard) where space folds over itself in surprising ways, and from which you can get almost anywhere in the kingdom if you know exactly the right way to turn. It made me realise, actually, how particularly good DWJ is at architecture. There's hardly a single one of her books in which a castle, a mansion, a cottage or a hotel doesn't play a central role in the plot - and as a reader, I can see all of them in rich detail. I would recognise Chrestomanci Castle, Stallery Mansion, Hunsdon House, Derkholm or the Hotel Babylon, Wantchester. And the same goes for the landscapes around them, too. It isn't overblown, but the details of them seep into your mental picture bit by bit as you read - and I love that.

I was slightly distressed in this book to find that four characters ended up being turned into animals and then killed by dogs. OK, so they were evil, and lubbockins, and planning to take over the kingdom - but I'd rather hoped they might at least be imprisoned or exiled or turned into stone or something, rather than actually murdered. It wasn't quite what I expected from the Howlverse. Other than that, though, it's a delightful read, with all sorts of brilliant characters. And it seems I've read enough DWJ books now that I even nearly managed to guess the ending. I can't really say what I guessed or what was actually correct without creating spoilers - but suffice it to say that I was right to think that the little dog, Waif, would turn out to be More Than She Seemed.

In short, highly recommended. If you liked Howl's Moving Castle, you'll like this, but even if you haven't read it, this still stands alone very effectively.

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strange_complex: (Mariko Mori crystal ball)
This was an example of what some people (including someone else who read it) call a 'book ghost' - i.e. a book you read as a child, and of which you later forget the title and author's name, but which never entirely leaves you, haunting you with key scenes and characters that you can't quite place. Since the last such book to float up from the depths of my childhood memory turned out to be Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones, and prompted a massive love affair with her many books when I re-read it, I took myself seriously when I kept having persistent flash-backs to a mysterious castle full of strange people, and a vision of a far-off magical land inside a glass marble. Thankfully, in this Google- and eBay-sponsored age, it was the work of about ten seconds to track those memories down to a specific title, and bag my own copy of it.

Having re-read it, I can see why it appealed to my childhood self. It's about an ordinary girl called Emma who one day steps through a hole in a fence to find herself in a huge garden, face-to-face with a strange and intriguing girl called Cassandra. Cassandra (who prefers to be known as Sandra) is lonely and desperate to make friends - but her family turn out to be sinister, dangerous and not entirely human. Despite the friendship which has grown between them, in the end it proves impossible for the two girls to be part of one another's worlds. Sandra's family disappear as suddenly as they had arrived - leaving nothing behind but the marble I'd remembered in the first place.

It's perhaps not as great a work of children's literature as I'd hoped, and certainly not up to DWJ standards. But it's definitely worth reading. It does some nice things with the genres of magic, science fiction and Greek mythology (specifically the Atlantis story), and addresses social gulfs in much the same way as Brideshead Revisited does. I suspect it may also be the origin of my habit of capitalising Hokey Concepts in my writing today, since Sandra has quite a lot to say about True Friends who Never Let You Down. And I'm certain it was where I first learnt the term 'folly' in the sense of a whimsical and functionless building.

The odds are that if you like children's fantasy literature, you've already read this. But if you haven't, it's worth a go.

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strange_complex: (Alessandro Moreschi)
An indulgence re-read, undertaken partly just because I love it so much, and partly with an eye to the fact that it will be the 150th anniversary of Moreschi's birth on November 11th this year. Besides, re-reading it gives me a reason to actually review it here - something I've kind of meant to do ever since the first time around. That, however, was back in the autumn of 2005, shortly after I'd got hold of Moreschi's recordings on CD at last, and was going through a massive process of joyous discovery. At the time, I wasn't yet in the habit of reviewing everything I read on my LJ, and somehow, I just never got round to it.

Of course, I'm reading it in a rather different way now from the way I did three years ago. Then, I was discovering Moreschi for the first time, and Clapton was my guide. In the intervening time, I've systematically hunted down and read almost all of both the primary and the secondary sources which Clapton used to write the book. I've made myself into an amateur Moreschi expert - and it's been a wonderful journey.

From that perspective, though, I am actually all the more impressed with this biography now that I return to it. Considering that its author trained as a musician and musicologist, not as a historian, it is really very well researched and presented. He's made good use of existing works, like Buning's thesis, but he's also made really valuable contributions of his own that have allowed him to add a lot to Moreschi's story. Above all, this has clearly included extensive research among the Vatican archives, which contain all sorts of primary documents about the activities of the Sistine Chapel Choir, including many in Moreschi's own hand.

There are perhaps a few refinements which could be made. There are stories and sources which haven't quite made it into the book: for instance, the delightful anecdote from the time of 1902 recording session when some of the cotton wool used to pack the wax master discs caught fire, and the 'male sopranos' present (which must have included Moreschi) ran for the door, where they got jammed together, and which appears in Fred Gaisberg's memoirs. Clapton also follows Buning on the subject of Moreschi's death certificate, which I've griped about before: though he does include slight reservations on the topic which Buning did not.

But you can't include everything, and what is here is wonderfully rich, involving and detailed, especially considering how little relevant primary documentation is now (or ever was, in fact) available for reconstructing Moreschi's story. Every page overflows with a deep fascination and respect for its subject: and as someone who feels much the same way about Alessandro Moreschi, I can't help but approve. In any case, it appears that Clapton has taken the opportunity to improve upon his original publication. In the course of visiting his website to check details for this post, I found out that he's just released a revised and expanded edition of it, now titled Moreschi: The Angel of Rome. I've just ordered it.

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strange_complex: (Rick's Cafe)
Read mainly while in Vienna.

This would be the third Hardy novel I've read in my life: the other two being Tess of the D'Urbervilles for A-level, and Jude the Obscure when I first moved to Oxford. The trajectory of the title character is much the same in all three cases: they make a foolish mistake in early life, appear to bounce back from it, enjoy a period of happiness and / or prosperity, find to their cost that their early mistake is not so inescapable as they thought, and finally die in ignominy and despair. This is, of course, a classic tragic plot as the ancient Greeks would have recognised it: much the same happens, for example, to Sophocles' Oedipus.

Some people find this sort of stuff depressing, but personally I love it. If there's one thing tragedies certainly have it is Romance. Like a crumbling ancient ruin, they speak eloquently of the vanity of human endeavour and the transience of life and worldly success: and the lapsed Goth in me can't get enough of that. Hardy's tragedies, though, have a lot more to them than forehead-stapling. I remember being struck when we read Tess at school by how cleverly he wove symbols and metaphors out of the landscapes which his characters move around: and this was very much true again here. His well-defined secondary characters, observations of human nature and rich vocabulary only add to the pleasure.

Around the time I started reading this book, I found out that Ciarán Hinds had starred as the eponymous Mayor (Michael Henchard) in a 2003 TV adaptation of the story - I think because I also saw Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day around the same time, and was browsing through his IMDb page in the wake of that. I haven't seen the adaptation, but just knowing that made me see the character of Henchard with his features all the time I was reading - and in my brain at least, he put in an excellent performance!

So, just as watching Brideshead has made me all the more determined to read the book, reading this has inspired me to hunt down the TV series. It's all good.

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strange_complex: (Girly love Alma Tadema)
I really enjoyed this book. In fact, I think it's been the most enjoyable work of fiction I've read so far this year. I don't know if it's because I tend to read books in a broadly fantastical genre, because most of the books I've read recently are by men (a look back over my books read 2008 tag tells me I've only read two books by women so far this year, one of which was non-fiction), or because Muriel Spark is just that good, but the depth of character and psychological insight in this book really leapt out at me. I can't remember the last book I read in which the characters were explored so thoroughly, or the nuances in their dialogue so skilfully revealed.

I'd seen the film (obviously), so knew the basic story, but the genius here is really in the telling. The structure is only partly linear, in that the main line of the story does trace the developing relationship between Miss Brodie and her 'gels' over the course of their school career, but there are regular flash-backs and flash-forwards along the way. The emphasis is not on finding out 'what happened', but on how and why.

One thing I wasn't expecting was the heavy lesbian subtext which revolves partly around Miss Brodie herself, but above all around her young pupil, Sandy. Sandy shares an intense friendship with another pupil, Jenny, which is mainly based on a shared interest in finding out all about sex - heterosexual sex, of course, and from a faintly repulsed theoretical perspective rather than a practical one - but still, emerging sexuality is what binds them together. Meanwhile, in class she gazes at Miss Brodie's chest and deliberately gets ink on her blouse so that she will be sent to the Science Room for 'beautiful' Miss Lockhart to remove it. Later on she develops an enormous crush on the mere idea of a female policewoman who questions Jenny after she has had an experience with a flasher.

In the end, Sandy outgrows Miss Brodie, coming to despise her for her hypocrisy, her manipulations and her air of self-satisfied superiority. Part of the process of breaking away is that Sandy takes an increasing interest in psychology, which enhances the natural 'insight' that Miss Brodie has already identified in her, and gives her the terminology to label Miss Brodie 'an unconscious Lesbian'. At face value, her judgement tells us something about why Miss Brodie has always presented herself as daring, avant-garde and at odds with the establishment, and has tended to conduct her affairs with men so peculiarly dispassionately. But given the way Sandy's own character has been built up, it's also very easy to draw the same conclusion about her - and thus to see her entire relationship with Miss Brodie as one of (initially) direct sexual attraction, later developing into jealousy and rivalry.

Nothing so explicit is ever offered in the text - instead, Sandy rejects both sexuality and the austerity of Miss Brodie's preferred Calvinism altogether, and ends the story as a Roman Catholic nun. But for the reader who wants to see it, it is very much there. And a quick Google into Muriel Spark's biography once I'd finished the book revealed that this isn't so very surprising after all. She was of a generation who kept such things discreet, but her relationship with a sculptor named Penelope Jardine certainly seems to have been one that was 'deeper and warmer than ordinary friendship' (as Wodehouse put it).

Anyway, lesbian subtext or no lesbian subtext (though it's got to be said, it is always a bonus), this was definitely a winner with me. Do feel free to recommend other books in a similar vein (by Muriel Spark or otherwise) in the comments.

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strange_complex: (La Dolce Vita Trevi)
This is the first of Waugh's novels I've ever read, and also the first he wrote (it seeming sensible to start from the beginning). I had no idea what to expect really, but the answer is very engaging and readable prose, carrying the reader through a collection of vivid characters and colourful anecdotes all loosely centred around the figure of Paul Pennyfeather.

Pennyfeather is entirely passive throughout the book: he makes no decisions and takes no direct actions, but simply bobs about like a cork in a storm of other people's plans and misdemeanours. Waugh is quite explicit about this, too, devoting several pages to the subject in the middle of the book. "Paul Pennyfeather," he declares, "would never have made a hero, and the only interest about him arises from the unusual series of events of which his shadow was witness."

It's actually a great narrative device, since the characters around Paul seem to drop whatever reserves they might have had and bubble over into exaggerated versions of themselves, in order to fill the personality vacuum which surrounds him, so Waugh is able to draw people and events in a slightly overblown comic style without it seeming too ridiculous. But for all that, Paul does emerge as a stronger and more definite character at the end of the book.

At face value, he comes full circle, and returns to another fictional Oxford college (called Scone this time), to continue with the degree he'd originally been expelled from in the first chapter. But whilst at the beginning he seemed to be at Oxford simply because it was What One Did, by the end there is much more of a sense of identity and purpose about him. It's almost like a "no place like home" message in the end: he's been through all sorts of amazing adventures in the meantime, and had some wonderful and not-so-wonderful experiences. But the end result of it all is actually that he discovers he really did want to do what he'd only vaguely drifted into in the first place. It's quite poignant, really, under the light-hearted veneer.

I definitely enjoyed this, and will be looking out for more Waugh in the near future. I'm tempted by Vile Bodies (because of Bright Young Things) and Brideshead Revisited because of the Granada TV series and the new film - but having just visited Castle Howard, where the latter two were filmed, I think the pendulum will swing in favour of Brideshead.

And that brings me up to date with book reviews at least for the time being. Just one Who audio and three TV stories to write up...

strange_complex: (Doctor Caecilius hands)
As far as I can remember, my total experience with Doctor Who novels before this one consists of:
  • One Target novelisation read when a child, I think involving Cybermen overseeing human slaves working in a quarry. I can't remember which Doctor was in it, but if anyone has the slightest idea what I'm on about, do let me know. Unhelpfully, I shall add that the slave-masters may not even have been Cybermen (but I'm pretty sure they weren't Daleks).
  • State of Change, a Virgin Missing Adventure in which the Sixth Doctor and Peri visit ancient Rome and find that all is not as it should be, read in my early 20s when a friend who was both a prominent member of OUWho and a fellow Classicist lent it to me.
With that rather minimal background, I suspect that launching into Lungbarrow was probably the Who novel equivalent of picking up A Brief History of Time after having read the Ladybird book of Space and maybe a GCSE Physics text-book. Certainly, there were a lot of allusions to Who continuity drawn from other novels which were completely lost on me - particularly regarding the companion character, Chris Cwej, and somebody called Roz whom he occasionally referred to. It also doesn't help that the events of the novel move backwards and forwards through time quite a lot without it always being clear that this is happening, while there are long dream-sequences towards the beginning and end of the story in which it becomes rather difficult to keep track of who is seeing and experiencing what, and who is an active participant in the events being described rather than merely a passive observer.

For all that, I'm glad I read it. It seems to be the novel that is referred to most often in fannish debate forums, so at least I know what all the fuss regarding looms is about now. It was also generally an enjoyable read. I liked the portrayal of early Gallifreyan history and the sense of atmosphere about the Lungbarrow house - although I did think that maybe there were slightly too many scenes of people wandering about trapped in its oppressive corridors and wrangling with one another over ancient feuds. I wouldn't say it was great literature, and I noticed a higher proportion of typos and spelling errors (e.g. 'populous' for 'populace') than I would expect in a professionally-produced publication, but it was imaginative and absorbing all the same.

Brief thoughts on the concept of canonicity, with Lungbarrow spoilers )

If you'd like to read Lungbarrow yourself, it is available in full on the BBC's Doctor Who ebooks page. But I can't help but suspect that if you did, you'd have found that out already. ;-)

strange_complex: (Christ Church Mercury)
This was given to me by [livejournal.com profile] mr_flay, and I'm very grateful to him because it is ace. It's a murder-mystery story set in Oxford in the late 1930s, and has as its central characters Richard Cadogan, a poet who has come to Oxford for inspiration, and Gervase Fen, a professor of English literature at the fictional college of St. Christopher's. It is also the third in a series of novels featuring the character of Gervase Fen, but that didn't really seem to matter in terms of following this one.

The style is very pacey, with all the action taking place over a single twenty-four hour period, and making full use of all the little quirks and charms of Oxford along the way. The story is generally light-hearted, while still featuring two murders and a number of rather unpleasant characters, and generally escapist, while still remaining realistic. I won't give away exactly how the toyshop of the title is able to move, in case anyone wants to read it for themselves - but it isn't, as I'd first assumed, by magic.

Crispin is also very adept at playing around knowingly with various different literary genres as the mood suits. I was just thinking how very much a description of an indoor funfair sounded like something out of Brighton Rock vel sim., when I was greeted with the following sentence:
"Like a scene from a Graham Greene novel, Cadogan thought as he peered in: somewhere there must be somebody saying a 'Hail Mary'"
Similarly, I fell headlong for the red herring - only to have one of the characters say much the same to another seconds afterwards. Oh well.

And finally, you may think I have such a one-track mind at the moment that I'm seeing it everywhere - but I couldn't help but be struck by how much Gervase Fen reminded me of the Doctor in Doctor Who. It's not just that he is the brilliant yet eccentric mind who leads the chase around Oxford after the murderer, with Cadogan trailing in his wake asking confused questions. The description of his physical appearance also bears some resemblence to the Tenth Doctor, while his mode of transport is a beaten-up old sports car which enters the novel in a cacophony of unhealthy engine noises before tearing, out of control, across a college lawn, backfiring, crashing into a rhododendron bush, and finally shuddering to a halt after being hit on the engine with a hammer by Fen. TARDIS? I think so.

I'm not the only person who has noticed this, either. On looking up Edmund Crispin after reading the book, I found that Who novelist Gareth Roberts has described The Moving Toyshop as "more like Doctor Who than Doctor Who", and cites Crispin as an influence on his own novel, The Well-Mannered War - a rather pleasing coincidence, since I have just finished reading Lungbarrow in my lunch-breaks (review to follow), and that is exactly the novel I planned to move on to next. What I failed to find out in my searches, though, is why the publisher's details at the front of The Moving Toyshop say that it is copyrighted to someone called "Jean Bell" - not the author's real name (which was Robert Bruce Montgomery), or anyone that I can see was in any way connected with him. If anyone can shed any light on that little mystery, let me know.

Anyway, I would recommend this book to anyone, but I would upgrade it to compulsory reading for anyone who a) has ever lived in Oxford or b) likes Doctor Who.

strange_complex: (Tonino reading)
One of the things that happened when I moved into my lovely proper new house here in Leeds is that I finally took possession of all the accumulated gubbins which I had left behind with my parents when I first moved out at the age of 18. Mainly, this meant the books of my childhood and my teens - with which I am now at leisure to get nostalgically re-acquainted.

The Oz books were, in no uncertain terms, the central axis of my childhood. In fact, see this picture of me reading to my little friends on my sixth birthday? )
Well, that's an Oz book I'm reading to them - The Land of Oz, I think, judging from the colour of the spine. I had all fourteen of the original L. Frank Baum series, in lovely bright paperback covers as published by Del Rey, and read them religiously and repeatedly from the ages of approximately four to seven years old. (I had a random hardback copy of Lucky Bucky in Oz, too, but even as a child, I sneered at it and looked down upon it for not being a 'proper' Oz book). Dorothy, the Wizard, Ozma and all their little friends were fiercely real to me, and I was quite, quite convinced that the magical Land of Oz existed, if only one knew how to get there.

This all got a bit longer than is really polite to leave uncut )

strange_complex: (Chrestomanci slacking in style)
Following up from reading Saki's Reginald collection online during dull lunch-breaks last year, I've now completed his Beasts and Super-Beasts in the same manner. This time, instead of the collection being structured around a character (Reginald), it's loosely themed around the unpredictable antics of animals (the beasts) and the ways in which they either thwart or advance the devious machinations of human beings (the super-beasts).

All the things I loved about the Reginald collection are absolutely matched, and frequently surpassed, here - wicked social commentary, brilliant pacing, hilarious twists and above all a masterful grip on the rich comic potential of the English language. In fact, I'd probably recommend this collection above the Reginald one to someone who was new to Saki. Other than that, though, not much to say - it's simply a perfect example of Saki's genius, and there's no way I can do justice to that by trying to deconstruct it.

Meanwhile, I've now discovered that a number of Doctor Who ebooks are available online for free at the official BBC website - so I think we all know what I'm going to be reading during my lunch-breaks next!

strange_complex: (Pompeii sundial)
It's taken me a fair old while to finish this book: in fact, I interrupted it for The Merlin Conspiracy for a while, as it seemed a bit much back in late February, and I was in need of something lighter. Bulwer-Lytton's prose style is so famously overblown that there is an annual bad fiction contest named in his honour; and as for the florid Victorian poetry which he inserted at every available opportunity - well, reader, I skipped it.

This is not to say he's actually a bad writer. Once you attune to his rhythms and get into the highly mannered spirit of his prose, it can be marvellous fun. Check out this fantastic description of the Witch of Vesuvius, for example:
"With stony eyes turned upon them — with a look that met and fascinated theirs — they beheld in that fearful countenance the very image of a corpse! — the same, the glazed and lustreless regard, the blue and shrunken lips, the drawn and hollow jaw — the dead, lank hair, of a pale grey — the livid, green, ghastly skin, which seemed all surely tinged and tainted by the grave!" (Book 3 chapter 9)
Now that's a proper witch, all right. But an endless succession of passages like that can get a bit tedious, especially when the subject turns to long-winded musing or moralising.

Nonetheless, it was worth persevering - not least, of course, because I have now finished it just in time to see whether or not it's conveyed a legacy to the forth-coming Who episode, The Fires of Pompeii. Judging from the trailers so far available, it looks like the influence isn't going to be that direct. But then again, this novel is really the ur-text as far as fictional representations of Pompeii go, and I can certainly see traces of it in the Who audio adventure, The Fires of Vulcan now I've finished it. More on that, later...

Historical realism )

Ancient religion )

Romantic idealism )

Bulwer-Lytton and the visual arts )

Finally, because I can, and because I want to know what's come from where when reading or watching further fictional representations of Pompeii, I finish with a table summarising key story elements in the three main examples I've encountered so far:

A very big table )

Just a few more hours now till I can see how The Fires of Pompeii fits in with all that!

strange_complex: (Tonino reading)
Having previously read Deep Secret and been rather underwhelmed by it, I bought this book on the simple grounds that I had a Waterstone's voucher, and it was the only book by DWJ in the shop that I didn't already have.

On the whole, I think my reaction to it was much the same as to Deep Secret. There are lots of individual elements in it that are good, like the fearsome-yet-avuncular Gwyn ap Nudd / Grandfather Gwyn; the depiction of the society in Loggia city; the personifications of Salisbury, Old Sarum and London; Romanov's island; the midnight salamander rescue; and the string of terrified children jumping between worlds in the wake of a goat. The narrative structure of swapping between the voices of Roddy and Nick worked very nicely, too, and I loved the way Collins (the publishers) had supported this by presenting growing patterns at the beginning of each new section of their stories - Celtic for Nick and floral for Roddy - which you eventually realise will merge into the dragon-figure shown on the front cover of the book.

But somehow, despite all this, I never quite managed to care about the central characters in the same way that I usually do when I read Chrestomanci books or Howl books. Perhaps it was the shared narration, dissipating any close identification with either Roddy or Nick? Or maybe it was the very use of the first person narrative? Paradoxically, I think it may actually be harder for DWJ to portray her trademark self-realisations and personal growth convincingly on behalf of her main characters when they're actually speaking for themselves. Somehow, pointing out the moments when the characters suddenly realise how they come across to others (e.g. Cat Chant) or how they really feel about another person (e.g. Sophie) actually works more convincingly in an authorial voice, I think.

Anyway, for all that, an enjoyable and diverting read, which certainly won't stop me reading more DWJ books in future.

strange_complex: (Chrestomanci slacking in style)
It's probably a bit of a cheat to include a comic book in this year's book blog. But it's a sheaf of papers between two covers which I read, so I'm just jolly well going to.

I'm not normally much of a comic reader, although I have read and enjoyed a few in my time. And I think that meant I struggled to follow this at some points, where someone more practised with the genre wouldn't have done. Quite often the setting switched abruptly from one place / character to another, and while I have no problem at all following that sort of transition in televised Buffy, in this comic I found I often wasn't getting enough in the way of visual cues to tell me where the hell we now were, and what was going on. So I spent quite a lot of time having to flick back through the pages to pick up previous threads and work it out. Some spoilers now )

So, I've satisfied my curiosity by finding out what this was like. But I'm not a convert.

strange_complex: (Wicker Man sunset)
I didn't have great expectations of high literature when I bought this book, as I had already read the novelisation of The Wicker Man, which was written up by Robin Hardy in the late '70s. Robin Hardy may be a great director (well - actually even that's up for debate), but he's not a great writer - the true genius behind both story and dialogue in The Wicker Man is Anthony Shaffer, whose original scripts were used as a basis for Hardy's novelisation.

In Cowboys for Christ, Hardy doesn't even have Shaffer to give him a leg-up, and it shows. While Shaffer's Wicker Man script is a masterpiece of structure and symbolism, in which every individual scene is a key element building towards a subtle and complex whole, Hardy's Cowboys for Christ is just - kind of random. Stuff happens, and then some more stuff happens, and it's all happening to the same people in the same places, and indeed effect follows cause and there is a perfectly clear plot-line running through it all. But somehow the sense of overall design and purpose, of meaning to the work, is absent. There are even whole characters - particularly the policeman, Orlando - who are developed and fleshed out and given an internal life of their own, only to be completely dropped from the plot to the extent that they really never needed to be there in the first place. Why? Maybe it was conceived by Hardy as a clever play on readers' expectations based on prior knowledge of Sergeant Howie? But it didn't really work.

The writing itself is competent, but not inspired, and in particular falls foul of that basic tenet of creative writing classes everywhere: don't tell, show. The first few chapters were pretty heavy going, because they were just an endless onslaught of character back-stories - all of which could so easily have been allowed to emerge bit by bit via actions and interactions, instead of hammered out baldly and uninspiredly as they were. It's actually a great strength in the film of The Wicker Man that each character obviously has their own back-story, even if it doesn't emerge on screen. So, for example, if you pause the film while Sergeant Howie is flicking through the register in Miss Rose's school-room, you will find that each child in that room not only has her own name, but also a date of birth and a specific home address. Maybe Hardy was responsible for creating some of that when he directed the film, and indeed one of the main reasons for reading his novelisation is that it reveals more about the backgrounds of characters you're already invested in from the film. But if that same material had been made explicit in the film in the first place, it really wouldn't have improved it. The real genius is that it's there for the finding, but it isn't shoved in your face.

It was also painfully obvious that Hardy was trying to make his novel as 'accessible' as possible to a wide range of different readers, who might not all be familiar with the settings he was using. So, we were treated to sections like the following - and, remember, I am not making this up:
"Lachlan finished his brief conference and then headed for what is sometimes called Scotland's Second City, after Edinburgh - but which Glaswegians claim to be the first in both commerce and enterprise. Recently, encouraged by its nomination by Brussels as a European City of Culture, some have called it 'the Paris of the North'." (p. 21)
I mean - WT-everliving-F? Whole paragraphs sometimes sounded like they had been culled from Wikipedia, and it all reminded me rather of the recent Cassie Edwards plagiarism case.

Anyway, all that said, the book rollicked along at a fairly decent pace once it got going, and managed to arouse my sympathies for at least some of the characters - particularly the Christian evangelists, Beth and Steve, and the fiery and passionate stable-mistress, Lolly. I don't regret reading it, not least because it finally seems like the film version of the same story is actually about to move into production at last (after about five years of languishing around on IMDb as an obvious non-starter), and I will definitely want to see that. But then, I am a huge Wicker Man fanatic, and probably prepared to go to greater lengths for its sake than most would bother to. If you're the same, you'll want to read this book. But if not, don't bother.

strange_complex: (Lee as M.R. James)
This is a rather odd review to be writing, because the subject of this book is my step-great-great-grandfather, and its author is my mother. But, then again, I did finish reading it two nights ago, and I am blogging all my leisure reading again this year. So I guess I kind of have to, really!

Of course, the book itself, now that it has finally emerged into the world, is only the culmination of a project which I've been intimately aware of for many years. Origins )

My own reading experience )

A man of his time )

Naturally, I'm bound to conclude by saying that this book was brilliant, and that everyone should rush out and buy a copy. ;-) But I really did get a lot out of it, and not solely because it concerned a (step-)ancestor, or allowed me to get closer to the subject my mother has been working on for so many years. West's life gives us a genuine window into the world of a typical Victorian medic - and in this book I think my mother has done a great job of helping us to see through it. I'm deeply, fiercely proud of her achievement.

Meanwhile, in a brilliant stroke of timing, this seems like the perfect opportunity to plug once more the serialisation of West's last diary which I am undertaking to celebrate the publication of this book over at [livejournal.com profile] jamesfraserwest. The first entry will in fact appear on Friday, since West for some reason did not start writing in his 1883 diary until January 11th (more details here). I know a lot of you have friended the diary already - but if you kind of meant to take a look last time I mentioned it and never quite got round to it, or thought you'd wait until it started up properly, now is the time to get over there and hit that add button! It's very much worth reading, and since it runs out in April when West enters his final illness, it really is a case of add now or miss out. Hope to see you there! :-)

strange_complex: (Alessandro tear)
And so begins another year of book-blogging. With, as it happens, a monster! :-)

I'm not normally in the habit of sitting around reading other people's PhD theses even in my own subject, let alone outside it. But regular readers of this journal will understand why this particular one demanded my attention so insistently. I've known about it since I read Nicholas Clapton's biography of Moreschi, The Last Castrato, back in about December 2005 (alas, before I started book-blogging), and have always wanted to follow up what was obviously such a rich and interesting reference. So in November I finally gave in to the temptation to have the thing sent over to me from Boston (where it was originally submitted) on inter-library loan.

Big green book )

And now that I've been able to read it? Well - wow! I have a couple of gripes, but on the whole this is a thorough, lucid, scholarly and fascinating exploration of my favourite singer and his voice. I count myself fantastically lucky that it was written, and that I've had the chance to read it. The aim of the thesis is to set Alessandro Moreschi's surviving recordings in the context of our wider knowledge of historical castrati and of the medical effects of pre-pubertal castration, in order to arrive at as rigorous an understanding as possible of the mechanics of vocal production in a castrato singer, and thus of the capacities and limitations of this lost voice type which has left such a legacy in Western music. In other words, it's all about understanding Moreschi better as a musician, and about understanding the music written for his predecessors by composers such as Handel and his contemporaries better as a result. As far as I'm concerned - brilliant!

Gripes )

Biography )

More important, though, were the musicological insights I gained into Moreschi's singing. Buning examines the contemporary written evidence for his professional career, and of course also his surviving recordings, incredibly thoroughly and competently - including presenting things like spectral analyses of his voice as preserved on the recordings, and detailed examples of places on them where particular aspects of his technique and capabilities can be clearly heard. I've listened to those recordings more than any other music I have over the last two-and-a-bit years (since I first got hold of them in November '05). So much, in fact, that I hardly even need to listen to them directly any more, because every note, every swell, every ornament, every click and swish of the records themselves is hard-wired into my brain. But, thanks to Buning, I can hear new things in them again, and listen to them in a different way. Always good.

Pitch decline )

Register practice )

Michael Maniaci )

Moreschi's head voice and contemporary recording technique )

Finally, beyond the content in this thesis that was specific to Moreschi himself, it was just great to read someone really writing about the castrati rigorously and thoughtfully, and actively seeking to question some of the existing orthodoxies about them. As I've indicated before, most of the available books on the castrati are pretty second-rate, really, and it would be nice to see someone publishing a worthwhile, scholarly full-length study which didn't just peddle the same old over-romanticised lines. Ultimately, I didn't really agree with Buning's final conclusion regarding the relevance of his findings for performance practice, which was that since countertenors cannot possibly sound anything like castrati, we should be using women to sing the roles written for castrato singers on stage instead. As Buning showed, women don't sound anything like castrati either, and besides I happen to rather like the sound which countertenors produce in its own right. But I did very much agree with his reasoning about why the issue matters: Western music is full of pieces which were written specifically for castrato singers, taking special account of the unique qualities of their voices, and seeking to show it off to best effect. If we are to understand, and make best use of, that music, then we must understand properly how the original voice functioned. Alessandro Moreschi is the man who can show us.

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