strange_complex: (Vampira)
On the way back from the 2010 Fantastic Film Weekend, fresh from having seen The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, I remarked to [ profile] ms_siobhan and [ profile] planet_andy that in recent decades people had managed to make vampires, werewolves, ghosts and witches sexy, but I couldn't see how it could very well be done for zombies - what with all the rotting flesh, brainless lumbering and so forth. "Aha!" said [ profile] ms_siobhan. "Actually I've got this book at home where somebody has done exactly that. It's a high-school zombie romance - would you like to borrow it?" So I did.

It's still a slight exaggeration to say that this book makes zombies sexy as such. But it does manage to make them sympathetic and teen-romantic. The basic set-up is that some recently-deceased teenagers (and only teenagers) have started coming back to life for no reason that anyone is very clear about. It happens pretty much straight after death, so there are no half-rotten corpses clambering out of graves. Rather, the people come back - but they aren't the same. They are pale, and slow of movement and thought, but surprisingly strong and resilient to injury. Some of them are rejected by their horrified families, but others are accepted and put back into high-school. And the book deals with everyone's responses to this - embarrassed friends, concerned adults, bullying jocks, and fascinated strangers.

Mainly, the returned teenagers are treated as a metaphor for any outsider or minority group of the reader's choice. Polite terminology has been developed to describe their condition - 'living impaired' or 'different biotic, rather than 'undead' or 'zombies', although some of them choose to adopt and reclaim that term. A research institute called the Hunter Foundation has been set up to try to find out what is going on, and particularly why it is that some of the returned teenagers have almost the same capabilities as their living peers, while others do not. And those who have been rejected by their families have set up their own hide-out in an abandoned house, where they hold all-night parties and develop their own subculture.

Meanwhile, the main plot focuses on a living goth girl called Phoebe, who knows what it is like to be treated as an outsider herself, and becomes fascinated with a living-impaired football player called Tommy. Tommy keeps a blog (available as a real-life spin-off) in which he chronicles the life of an undead person, and the violence and murders being perpetrated against them - yet never reported in the news. But as their friendship grows, and touches on becoming a romance, this culture of violence draws closer and closer in on them, until it has terrible consequences for one of Phoebe's oldest friends.

It's a sweet story, and I certainly enjoyed it - though more simply as a high-school story with a supernatural slant than as anything hugely challenging or ground-breaking. But there are aspects of it which feel unsatisfying, and particularly the sub-plot with the Hunter Foundation. All sorts of hints are dropped that this may be more sinister than it appears, as living impaired kids disappear off for 'testing' and are never seen again, but this is never resolved, and seems simply to be dropped in the last few chapters of the book. Then again, there are apparently two sequels, so maybe the story of the Hunter Foundation is picked up and continued there?

Anyway, it won't change your life, or indeed probably make you squirm with pleasure over the delightful possibilities of the English language. But if you're up for a high-school zombie romance, then this is exactly the book for you.

(See, told you I had this one ready-written. And that is 2010 done - woo-hoo and yay and hoorah!)

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strange_complex: (Augustus)
(Yup, this is me still catching up on 2010 book reviews. The good news now is that there is just this one and another I've already written to go, and then at last I can make a start on 2011! You know, one day before the year ends. Thankfully, the 2011 reviews shouldn't take too long themselves, as I have been so miserable about my huge reviewing back-log this year that I have only read five books. :-/ I'm really looking forward to getting those written up, and being able to return to a more enjoyable regime of instant, enthusiastic reviewing pretty much straight after I've watched / read things. Oh, and sorry for the pedantic page numbers in this review - this one is related to my work on receptions of Augustus, so I may need to be able to return to this review and cross-check details quickly and easily in the future.)

This particular book was recommended to me by my very good friend [ profile] hollyione, on the grounds that it would be relevant to my interest in fictional portrayals of Augustus, and tap into my love of the Art Deco era as well. It manages to tick both boxes by presenting a retelling of the fall of the Roman Republic, transposed to the world of high finance in the 1920s and '30s. The role of the burgeoning Roman Empire is taken by America, where Paul Van Zale as Julius Caesar dominates Wall Street, while Egypt with its fading power and strange ancient customs is represented by England - and particularly the Norfolk Broads - where Dinah Slade struggles against hostile half-siblings and financial hardship to preserve her crumbling ancestral home, Mallingham. I'm sure there are some parallels I didn't spot, but as far as I could work it out (and because no-one else seems to have placed such a list on the internet), these are the equivalencies which I recognised )

Howatch's approach to reception )

Cornelius Van Zale, aka Octavian )

Dinah Slade, aka Cleopatra )

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strange_complex: (Cicero history)
(This is another instalment in me trying to catch up on unwritten book reviews from 2010. I took a few notes on this one at the time, but they're pretty sketchy, so this review is probably quite unbalanced.)

After reading the first of Harris' Cicero books, Imperium, and being pretty underwhelmed by it, I resolved not to bother reading any more in the series. But I guess the prospect of the young Octavian (later Augustus) appearing in the final volume proved too much of a temptation. Eventually, this series is going to come under the remit of my interest in receptions of Octavian / Augustus, and I want to be ready when it does.

In the meantime, this instalment mainly covers the year of Cicero's consulship and the Catilinarian conspiracy in 63 BC, but Harris also follows up on the consequences of all that for Cicero in the form of his exile in 58. The title of the book, which refers to a purificatory sacrifice performed once every five years, thus refers to the span of time which it covers - though I'd personally have preferred the much prettier alternative term, quinquennium, myself.

Most of my impressions of the first book held true for this one as well. Tiro remains an effective narrator and Terentia a surprisingly-plausible (if minor) secondary character, while the politics is generally deftly handled. But most of the characters are fairly two-dimensional, and the events described lack emotional weight.

Catiline's conspiracy did make for a slightly more exciting narrative than the previous instalment, while I felt that the smells, sounds and topography of the city of Rome were nicely evoked. As for Harris' Pompeii, it was pretty clear that he had written this book, too, with a map of late-Republican Rome in front of him, and had thought carefully about how the spatial relationships between (for example) Cicero's house and the Forum would affect the behaviour of his characters, as well as how the experience of being in the city would change with the seasons and the time of the day or night. I also recognised direct echoes of several of the relevant primary sources, including Plutarch's Caesar and Cicero's own Pro Rabirio, Pro Murena and In Catilinam I, all of which were very effectively used.

But Harris remains fundamentally second-rate as a novelist for me, and for all his (obvious) careful research, a fair few historical errors crept in as well. I noticed that Cicero's daughter, Tullia, was "all veiled and dressed in white" for her wedding (so what of the famous flame-coloured veil?), while the senate seems to have regular daily meetings and a parliamentary-style recess (in fact, it met in this period on an ad hoc basis, whenever summoned by one of the magistrates). I also felt that Cicero seemed far too well aware in advance of the potential consequences of his decision to have Catiline's supporters imprisoned without a proper trial. I can see how his concern would serve as valuable dramatic foregrounding for what does happen later on as a result of this, but I'm pretty sure he just thought he was being decisive and heroic about it at the time, and I would have preferred to see his shock and humiliation at being completely unexpectedly attacked for this by Clodius instead.

In short - not a complete and utter waste of paper, but to be honest I'd still recommend just reading Plutarch's Life of Cicero instead.

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strange_complex: (One walking)
Right then. This is me trying to catch up on unwritten book reviews from 2010. Today, that means reviewing a book which I read last April, and took no notes on at the time. So that's bound to go well...

I've only read a couple of Target's Doctor Who novelisations before, so I'm not intimately familiar with the genre. But my understanding is that they were usually (though not always) written by the same person who produced the original television script, and basically aimed to present the same story for fans to enjoy a second time in a context where home video was not yet the norm.

This one is indeed written by the original script-writer, Donald Cotton, although at a distance of twenty years from the original time of broadcast. And presumably that means even he could not have rewatched the original story when preparing the novel, since it must already have been destroyed by then. Rather cleverly, though, he actually integrates his own distance from the original broadcast into the novel, by having the whole thing narrated in a first-person format by 'Homer', himself looking back over events which he had witnessed some forty years earlier. This means that any deviations from the story as broadcast instantly become excusable - they are simply the effect of Homer's faulty memory. And that in itself fits in beautifully with Cotton's general approach of treating the Greek myths as garbled versions of real events which I commented on in my review of the TV story.

That same approach is at work throughout the novel, too - mainly as applied to the same ideas and events, since the plot is pretty close to the original broadcast story, in spite of the time-lag before it was novelised. But the device of inserting Homer as a character into the story does allow Cotton to be a bit more explicit about what he is doing. At the end of the novel, Homer reports that he later wrote up what he had witnessed at Troy as The Iliad, but explains that he left any references to the Doctor and the TARDIS out because 'the public expects' the gods instead. The implication is that what we have just read is the 'real' version of events, and that they were consciously altered to better suit the conventions of the literary genre when the epic poems were composed.

That said, I didn't find the use of Homer as a first-person narrator entirely satisfactory. For one thing, it means that he needs to witness every event of the broadcast story, on both the Trojan and the Greek sides, in order to be able to recount what happened. Cotton tries to make this work by merging him with the character of Cyclops from the original TV story - a sort of mercenary go-between, who is sent from one side to the other on spying missions. But that isn't really enough to explain the extent to which Homer seems to rush back and forth across the plain of Troy from one camp to the other. The reasons why he might do so began to seem awfully thin and unconvincing before very long.

Cotton also seems to have been rather ham-strung by the fact that the one thing everyone 'knows' about Homer is that he was blind - which is a real problem in a first-person narrator. He seems to have decided to handle this by having Homer blinded, first in one eye, and then the other, during the course of the story. This is mildly clever on one front, since he loses his second eye just before Achilles is killed and Troy is sacked, offering one explanation for why neither event is included in the Iliad or the Odyssey. But it also means that we have to believe that he carries on rushing back and forth between the two camps after having had one eye poked out with a marlin-spike by Odysseus about two-thirds of the way through the novel - which doesn't seem entirely credible, for all the character's references to being in terrible pain and fear as he does so.

Anyway, in the novel, Homer remains behind with Troilus and Cressida-Vicki after the departure of the TARDIS crew and the end of the TV story, so that his narrative is able to tie up a few loose ends which the TV broadcast could not. He relates how the Greek forces carry their booty (including Helen) down to the shore and sail away, while he himself leaves with Troilus, Cressida-Vicki and the other surviving Trojans to found a new city - via, of course, a brief detour to Carthage. And at the very end of the story we discover who the mysterious visitor to whom he has been relating this whole story in an olive-grove actually is - the Doctor, unrecognised by Homer because of his blindness, and come back to catch up on the aftermath of his own adventure. I like the idea of the Doctor in those odd, quiet moments of his which we never see on TV, mooching through time to relive former adventures - and especially to find out what happened to former companions after he had left them behind.

All told, I enjoyed reading this, and certainly felt that it had something more to offer beyond the TV broadcast version of the story. But it's hardly a great work of literature, and given how little and how slowly I read, I don't think I'll be rushing to work my way through the other Target novelisations any time soon. If I do read more, though, I will definitely continue to select from the early historical stories, mainly for the little extra insights they can provide into how the script-writers / authors were thinking about the programme's approach to the past in this period (as I'm very aware is discussed explicitly in the introduction to The Crusaders). Indeed, I already have Marco Polo lined up for that very purpose. :-)

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strange_complex: (Chrestomanci slacking in style)
This is normally the time of year when I look back over the books, films and TV which I have consumed over the past twelve months. Previous posts in this series can be found at the following links: 2009, 2008 and 2007.

Unfortunately this year I am at a bit of a disadvantage in looking back over the books I have read in particular, as I have completely failed to keep on top of reviewing them. I knew I'd got behind, but have just looked at my books read 2010 tag, and it turns out that I have only actually managed to review three books this year, with the most recent written up in February. I am also behind by one film review and two Doctor Who reviews - although in both of those cases that represents a much smaller proportion of the total. I've been actively focusing on clearing the backlog of film reviews during December (I managed six - not bad), and was going to get on to the books and Doctor Who after that, but never quite made it.

Nevertheless, I am going to write up an overview post now anyway, in keeping with my normal practice, even though not everything I'll be looking back over has actually been written up here yet. And I do want to get on top of the unreviewed material, so that is a little goal which I am setting myself for January - try to write up my unwritten book, film and Doctor Who reviews for 2010, while doing my utmost to avoid accruing any more. And maybe also learn to write shorter reviews, so that this doesn't happen again in the future. Although I do believe that I resolve something of the sort around this time every single year, and I never manage it - so I may as well just accept the status quo.

Books )

Films )

Doctor Who )

Other television )

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strange_complex: (Me Art Deco)
This was recommended to me by [ profile] glitzfrau because of my fascination with the 1930s, and I thank her for the pointer, because it was a lovely read. As the title would suggest, it presents the diary of an upper-middle-class Devon housewife, whose name we never learn - though this page makes pretty clear that the account is largely autobiographical.

We follow the diarist's life for a year as she struggles to run an evidently quite large house on the edge of a country village, navigating her way between financial disasters, servant problems and the demands of her social position. It's light-hearted and comically told, but at the same time presents a precisely-observed and often very poignant picture of English society in the 1930s. Moral codes, aspirations and social hierarchies are all deftly laid out and gently mocked - but only ever in a fondly self-deprecating way that brings a wry smile to the lips.

The diarist's world is also almost exclusively feminine. Her lifestyle is, of course, financially and socially supported by her husband, Robert. But allowing for that basic set-up, neither Robert nor any other man has very much influence at all over the day-to-day experiences of her life. Robert generally falls in line with the diarist's plans and activities happily enough, offering the occasional brief comment, but content on most occasions to nod, smile and fall asleep behind his newspaper. Meanwhile, the diarist has a busy self-directed life full of female friends, WI meetings, local community activities, visits to London, reading, writing and household management. For all her proclaimed self-doubts, she comes across as a highly autonomous character, who is fully in control of her own life.

Interestingly, the book also presents a critique of what must at the time have been the stereotypical face of proto-feminism. This comes with the arrival in the village of Miss Pankerton, an Oxbridge 'blue-stocking' with very fixed ideas about how the modern woman should aspire to behave. She swans into the diarist's world brandishing her artistic leanings and intellectual credentials, and tells her that she strikes her "as being a woman whose life has never known fulfilment", that she has "no right" to let herself become "a domestic beast of burden", and that she (Miss Pankerton) is "determined to scrape all the barnacles" off her. Meanwhile, the diarist fumes inwardly at being told how she should behave, and Miss Pankerton is quietly shown to be rude and narrow-minded without the diarist ever dreaming of spelling out any such thing. Before long she has realised that her efforts are wasted, and huffily removed herself from the diarist's society.

In other words, what we are shown is a conflict between an ostentatious but rigidly-defined form of female emancipation, and a sort of quiet, pragmatic feminism which just boils down to doing what makes you, personally, happy. Judging from synopses of some of E.M. Delafield's other books, it's pretty clear that she knew perfectly well that not all women are happy in the context of marriage, and nor do they have the luxury to pursue their own interests while someone else supports them financially. Nonetheless, it's interesting to see that she feels able to offer a critique of a model of feminism which in itself demands that women adhere closely to a particular set of pre-defined ideals.

My edition of The Diary of a Provincial Lady came bundled into one volume with its three sequels; and I rather like the sound of Consequences, too. So you may just have started something here, young Glitzy!

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strange_complex: (Urbs Roma)
Though obviously of relevance to my subject, I view this as part of my leisure reading. In August, [ profile] nwhyte established [ profile] reading_gibbon, an LJ community based around reading weekly chapters from Gibbon's magnum opus, and discussing them in a reaction post. I decided that this was a golden opportunity to get better acquainted with one of the seminal works of Ancient History as we know it today, so have been reading and commenting along as we've read. We intend to read all six volumes in due course (so there's still plenty of time to join us if you'd like!), but given that each volume was originally published sequentially as an independent instalment, I think it is reasonable enough to treat volume I as a 'book' and write up an overview reaction here.

My previous exposure to Gibbon has included a short selection of extracts (mainly from chapters 1-3) released as part of Penguin's 60s Classics series in 1995, and occasional choice extracts quoted by more modern scholars. A typical example of the latter tends to run thus:
"Famously, Edward Gibbon, inspired by the secularist thinking of the Enlightenment, blamed Rome's fall in part on the fourth-century triumph of Christianity and the spread of monasticism: 'a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers' pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes, who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity'." (Bryan Ward-Perkins (2005), The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, p. 40).
This had given me a rather warped idea of the nature of Gibbon's work, though. In a context like that, the quoted extract is bound to be one in which Gibbon is articulating an argument, but when I began reading him properly I was surprised to find that (in volume I at least) the ratio of argument to narrative in his prose is much lower than I was expecting.

This shouldn't really have been a surprise, though, if I'd thought about the state of Classical scholarship at the time when Gibbon was writing. A generation before him, people still didn't really see any point in trying to write narrative histories of the ancient world. They thought that, since ancient writers like Thucydides and Tacitus had already done that, then all you needed to do if you wanted to know what had happened was to read them. Instead, most publications about the ancient world tended to be uncritical compilations of what the ancient sources had to say on particular themed subjects, like Basil Kennett's The lives and characters of the ancient Grecian poets (1735), or (illustrated) encyclopedias like Bernard de Montfaucon's L'Antiquité expliquée, et représentée en figures (1719-24). This was antiquarianism, and its adherents were concerned to catalogue and admire the ancient world, but it had not yet occurred to them to criticise or analyse it.

Gibbon represents the emergence of a quite different approach. He is one of the first narrative historians, and as such takes a more critical view of his sources than his predecessors in an attempt to achieve a more or less comprehensive and reliable account of ancient actions and events. So of course his text needs to contain a great deal of narrative before he can get on to making any arguments, because nobody before him had really tried to write a continuous account of the period he was dealing with. He is doing that for the first time, and setting out to analyse the factors which gave rise to the behaviour and events which he is describing. It is a truly monumental achievement, especially when viewed in the context of the time when it was produced.

He is almost deceptively modern in his approach, in fact. Sometimes I found myself criticising him in our weekly discussion posts for taking sources at face value - but of course that is exactly what most of his contemporaries were doing, and I'm always quite happy to make due allowance for them because of the scholarly context in which they were writing. It is just that Gibbon is for the most part so far ahead of his contemporaries that I sometimes forget when he was writing, and expect him to meet standards which plenty of Classical scholars were still not meeting in the earlier half of the twentieth century. Some sources were not as easily available to him as they are to us now - there were no systematic catalogues of coins or inscriptions, for example. But considering the tools at his disposal, he was actually doing an amazing job. He tried to draw on coins and inscriptions when he could, and overall his use of literary texts is actually pretty thoughtful and perceptive.

Of course there are things which reflect the climate of his time, though. Like most white men of his day, Gibbon was both racist and sexist, in ways which also map very closely onto the attitudes he was encountering in his sources. He also clearly believes that it is possible to know exactly what happened in the past, as long as the sources are read carefully enough, since his prose lacks the phrases such as 'probably', 'may have', 'this suggests', etc. which modern historians use to signal the fact that they are merely offering a plausible interpretation, rather than a definitive and irrefutable account of events. But that too was a practice which was only seriously challenged in the 20th century, so it is no great surprise to find him subscribing to it.

Meanwhile, his overall prose style is, to me, the biggest reason for reading his work. He uses more commas than most modern readers will be used to, and some editions of his work (though not all) preserve antiquated spellings. But once you've got the hang of all that, his prose is rich, stylish and extremely readable. In particular, he has a brilliant line in very precise and biting sarcasm, as well as a rather amusing tendency to use his footnotes as a vehicle for snarks at contemporary fellow-scholars. Plenty of examples of both have been nicely picked out by [ profile] nwhyte in the [ profile] reading_gibbon community, so I will leave interested readers to browse through them there.

I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have made it through the entirety of this first volume without the weekly posts to keep me supplied with targets to aim for as I went along, so I'm very grateful to [ profile] nwhyte for putting that system in place. Whether I'll make it through the entire six volumes, I don't know - I fear I may lose interest after the fall of the western empire. But I'm definitely staying on board for the time being.

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strange_complex: (Girly love Tadé Styka)
I really enjoyed this. It was incredibly readable, very cleverly structured, and less mannered than Fingersmith (the only other book of hers I've read). I mean, don't get me wrong - Fingersmith was also really good, and did an excellent job of parodying and subverting the tropes of Victorian literature. But it felt like a pastiche as it did so, and also inherited some of the cloying gloom of the source genre. The story and characters in this seem more genuine and easier to care about by comparison, and the whole feel of the novel is fresher and lighter - despite the inherently dark setting of London in the Second World War.

It is certainly a very vividly-told story, with lots of small details about people's mannerisms and the settings the characters inhabit, which really bring them alive and speak volumes about them alongside their main actions or dialogue. And the depth of the research that has gone into it is very obvious well before you get to the long list of acknowledgements at the back - but never feels like it is being crow-barred in or weighing down the story.

Its most unusual feature is that the three main chunks into which the story is divided are presented in reverse chronological order. First we meet and get to know the main characters after the war in 1947; then we wind back to 1944 to see what was happening to them during the later part of the war; and finally a shorter section rounds off their stories with another step backwards to 1941. Over the course of this, it becomes clear that people who know very little about one another have actually been moving in and out of the peripheries of each other's lives for years - you can trace a circle of connections between all four of the main characters, but they are only ever aware of isolated pairs of links.

The format of course creates opportunities for all sorts of backwards and forwards resonances through the story, which the readers experience in the opposite order from the characters. There is a sort of inversion of knowledge and understanding as the novel goes on - in the first part, all sorts of little details which are clearly significant to the characters are puzzling to us, but by the end of the novel we can see the full implications of small events which seem unimportant to them. And the different periods in the main characters' lives are linked together by repeated themes or motifs - damaged buildings for Kay, tea and sandwiches for Helen, windows for Duncan, toilets for Viv - which we see occur in starkly contrasting situations as their stories unfold.

Obviously, this being a Sarah Waters novel, lesbian characters are strongly featured - but she seems to be branching out a little here. Of the four main characters, two are lesbian women, but one is a gay man and the fourth is a heterosexual woman. Perhaps in keeping with the step forward she has taken in time, the lesbian characters are also much more secure in their sexuality than Waters' Victorian women usually are (as far as I can tell anyway - I only know Tipping the Velvet and Affinity through TV adaptations). This is not a novel about women (or men) discovering their sexuality, but about them living with it.

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strange_complex: (Default)

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