Month: February 2012

Outlander the novel

In 2008, I listened to Outlander by Diana Gabaldon on audiobook and liked it. The audiobooks are excellent; they are narrated by Davina Porter. She does such a great job that sometimes when I am reading the books, I hear her voice for the character’s. Back in November 2011, I decided to finish what I started with this series. I read Dragonfly in Amber, Voyager, and Drums of Autumn, books 2-4 of the Outlander series, and listened to some of it on audiobook too in a very short amount of time. I also read The Exile – an Outlander graphic novel in December.
I was up to chapter 22 of The Fiery Cross (Book 5) but didn’t pick it up again until this month. It was in my Kindle which never helps since I get distracted by books from the library, by movies/tv, or life.

Since I have The Scottish Prisoner from the library, I decided I should at least finish TFC before starting another Outlander universe book.

I try not to be too spoilery in my book reviews, but with a book series, it’s even harder. I have put my thoughts on the three books under the cut, but the spoilers are very mild.

As a general review of the series, the books usually start off slowly and build up momentum so they can be hard to put down. This series’ time travel aspects appeals to me greatly, and I tend to like books about characters transplanted from one era to another in fiction. It makes for fascinating drama.

I also think there was a lot of good character and historical developments at this period of the books. The characters were in Scotland, France, the Caribbean and colonial America. I find this series to be one of the better ones I have read in the last few years. They are detail-oriented, well researched, and long. Also, I really enjoy the characters; I’ve grown quite attached to almost all of them.

There are a lot of characters in this series, but they are all mostly well written. Gabaldon also has a way of balancing her five or so main characters. Giving them each perspective. I also like how flawed each of them are, but weirdly relatable even though all of them are from a different time than I have experienced.

Unlike some books in other series, Gabaldon’s endings aren’t edge of the seat cliffhangers, but they do make you intrigued about what will happen next. The endings usually prove satisfying and also set up for future things.

Onto my mini reviews of books 5 to 7.

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Boardwalk Empire

Season 1 – I don’t watch a lot of HBO shows or have so in the past. I missed out on “The Sopranos”, “Deadwood”, “Rome”, “The Wire” and probably a couple others I can’t name now. I do plan on watching “Game of Thrones” (have season one since it aired) after I read the book(s). I know HBO shows are critically acclaimed, but I don’t always want to watch a lot of shows with violence, nudity and general darkness. I have been more open about TV dramas this year though. I have also taken on to watching more silly CW shows than ever so I guess I can even it out with serious stuff like Homeland and Boardwalk Empire.
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A study in sherlock

While I do not consider myself an aficionado of the deer stalker hat wearing detective, a Sherlockian, this is my second Holmes/Conan Doyle inspired book in a month. Also, the miniseries. I must say that I do love the Holmes stories and this anthology of short stories reminds me of the good times I had listening to the audiobooks of the canon a few summers ago. Like all anthologies, I was more engaged in some stories than others, but I really liked the majority of them. They were fun. I think mysteries take to short stories well. It’s satisfying. Not all the stories are mysteries though. A couple of them went over my head in terms of references and what the author was trying to go for. In any case, I recommend it for anyone who likes the Sherlock Holmes stories. I think this is a good companion after reading the Holmes canon or watching the tv shows.

Read February 3-5, 2012.

Short reviews of movies or series I haven’t mentioned so far in the month.

Great expectations 2011Great Expectations (2011) (01 01 2012) – This is technically a TV miniseries, but I often put these in MM especially since I saw this in one big go. I could write a whole post on this new adaptation, but I will sum it up as being dark, creepy, and very faithful to the book. The casting of Anderson and Winston was good, but did not particularly warm up to Pip until third act. I prefer the 1999 BBC film with Gruffudd and Windell for Pip and Estella though this new one had better older actors and more accuracy.

The LoversThe Lovers (1994) (02 01 2012) – A Hong Kong film starring Charlie Yeung and Nicky Wu. It was really cute the first act with a very sad ending as befits the legend of the Butterfly Lovers. I’m on a Nicky Wu kick lately because of Bu Bu Jing Xin. It was interesting to see him so young in Lovers, but notice he hasn’t really aged very much at all.

Cowbous & AliensCowboys &Aliens (27 01 2012) – I had a feeling going into this that it wouldn’t be great. I still did it because I like Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford though. These two were the only decent things about this movie. The pacing was off; it was slow and there were too many characters. I barely got a sense of the three main ones. Also, a lot of the movie felt a bit too grave. There was a lack of comic relief or rather, the film seemed to take itself too seriously. I mean, it’s a film about cowboys and aliens! Anyway, anytime watching Daniel Craig is fine by me, but not recommended as an action flick.

The HelpThe Help (28 01 2012) – I enjoyed the book and overall, I enjoyed the movie. Mostly for two reasons: the acting and the visuals. It was a very good period piece visually and very pretty. I like Emma Stone in anything, but Davis and Spencer carried the movie. Recommended if you like the book.

The Marriage Plot

I have read both of Eugenides other books: The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex. In fact, I liked the latter so much, I even own after having it seen it discounted at Chapters. I don’t really buy new books often. I have enjoyed his work. It’s really in the characters, prose and to a certain extent, how good Eugenides is about writing about gender and relationships. With TVS, the characters seem both real and mythical. That worked was definitely filled with nostalgia and a surreality. But it was in Middlesex in which I found him to be a very good writer. The characters in it were believable, good and real. In the Marriage Plot and in Middlesex especially, he deals with sex, gender, feminism, and these ideas in Western society. I don’t mean to say he is very political about it, but he shows an understanding of these topics or the awareness of it between cultures. There’s a moment in Paris where one of the main characters sees a woman (p.157):

When Mitchell looked at her; the girl did an amazing thing: she looked back. She met his gaze with frank meaning. Not that she wanted to have sex with him, necessarily. Only that she was happy to acknowledge, on this late-summer evening, that he was a man and she was a woman, and if he found her attractive, that was all right with her. No American girl had ever looked at Mitchell like that.

The book is one largely about relationships, desire, unrequited love and being in love, both good and bad: “What was interesting about being the needy one was how much in love you felt” (p 25) Which isn’t all about how love is, but it does describe the early rush of it and that neediness you feel to be with the other person.

Furthermore, Eugenides has touched on mental illness lightly before, but he tackles it much more in this book as one of the characters seems clinically depressed and the consequences on the other characters, both direct and indirect.

There isn’t a lot of plot in Eugenides books, but it’s not as slow moving as some other novels. I think like many good stories, there is actual growth or movement for all the characters, but like life, it’s not perfect. The ending was sort of meta and fitting. Maybe a bit abrupt, but somewhat realistic and showed a lot of growth in all the characters.

Read on January 3rd, 2012.

The Forgotten Garden

A friend recommended this to me, and another friend told me that it was making its way round her workplace at library too. I hadn’t really heard about this book until they mentioned it to me. I was told that it was very layered and well constructed. For the most part, I agree. There are personal mysteries to it and unlike in real life, there are pieces of the puzzle that give you almost a full picture of what happened. I’ve read so many books and seen so many movies and TV shows that I saw the “twist” coming. But that doesn’t necessarily make things bad. Even when you predict things in fiction, you can still appreciate the journey and how it makes you feel. In this case, I felt satisfied with the ending. It was a decent book. The prose was not particularly unique or provocative, but I think the strength is in the plot and construction. I didn’t feel I knew many of the characters particularly well except perhaps Cassandra. Again, it feels more plot oriented in that way. It’s not a short read, but I would recommend it to those who like reading about personal history and mysteries.

Read January 22-23, 2011.

This lists any series or seasonal shows I have watched in marathons during the month, but also whenever I want to write about shows I am watching. Smaller mini series will tend to go in Monthly movies.

Switched at BirthSwitched at Birth – Watched episodes S1x01 to S1x11 in a few days and the new episodes since. I haven’t watched any ABC Family shows since the 90s I think. I was quite surprised how much I liked this, but I really hand’t heard anything about it until the new half of the season started. I found it addictive. Yes, it has some cheesiness, but it also has some decent storytelling. I like all the characters and I think the teens on this show are better than on most other other teen/family shows. Definitely one of my regular shows now.

HomelandHomeland – The complete first season. All the critics are saying that this is one of the best new shows of Fall 2011 and I’m inclined to agree. The acting in this is stellar. I have been indifferent to Claire Danes in the past, but this drama demonstrates what an incredible actor she is. I particularly liked the chemistry she has with Demian Lewis in this; I’m still not sure what to think about the Brody character. Maybe that’s the point though. The ending of the season was depressing if only because Carrie is a Cassandra, and I hope she gets more recognition in season two. Also more scenes with her and Brody and her and Saul (ever charismatic and talented Mandy Patinkin). I love how technology has allowed it for me to easily one season of a show in a few settings. It’s actually quite intense and more satisfying since I’ll be able to see so quickly what happens next.

Sherlock S2Sherlock series 2 – I haven’t seen the new movie yet. I did set my mood by reading House of Silk first before starting this. Off the bat, I liked this more than the first series. In general, I have some issues with this modernization of the Holmes stories. The plots and some of the story characters are heavily adapted to suit the times. I do not like what they did with Moriarity for one thing. He is ridiculously petulant and over the top. The Irene Adler in this series is not in the spirit of the Adler of the books either. Though, I enjoyed Scandal in Belgravia for the most part. The thing I liked about Irene in the book was her actions were for protection and keep herself alive.This Irene’s actions were too over the top villainous. I am also not sure of what to make of the Hound of Baskerville adaptation either; I guess atmospherically it was similar? On a positive note, I do like Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch. I think the adaptation of these characters and their friendship is the best thing about the series. I like that John Watson here is more or less the Watson in the books in spirit. Sherlock here is dry and insular, but not as much as the one in the books. The finale was good too. It made me excited for series 3 which is a good sign.

House of SIlk
I have read or listened in audiobook all the Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle canon. I really enjoy the Holmes and Watson partnership. Watson humanizes Holmes and the pacing and the writing of some of the Holmes stories are fun and very good. I admit some of the later stories seem a bit forced and Study in Scarlet is a bit odd at times, but all in all, I really like the Holmes stories and their adaptations.

House of Silk is the first novel authorized by the Conan Doyle estate. I think it’s a very good adaptation of the original novels. The characterization, the atmosphere and the plotting evoke the original stories. I enjoyed myself and I think casual Holmes fans would.

It’s not a particularly long novel, but there were a number of murders before hitting the climax and the denouement. It was quite dire at times for Holmes and Watson, but it made for addictive reading. I read this book quickly which is good because it was unrenewable and due the next day.

The only thing that is markedly different is that there is slightly more social commentary about the times and the climax is much darker than Conan Doyle would ever written. It’s not unrealistic per se, but the darkness of the plot revealed at the end is more common in modern books. I did not mind this because I could have seen this happening in Holmes’s setting but Doyle probably couldn’t have gotten it published in his time.

On a lighter note, I’ll end with quotation from the book said by Holmes reflecting on what he could do if he didn’t do detective work: “I have always had a fancy to keep bees.”

Read on January 16th, 2012.

Emma 2009
How did I miss this BBC adaptation in 2009 I wonder? I watched curiously as I do with all adaptations. This is at least my fifth Emma adaptation. Discounting Clueless, the other two adaptations that one can compare this 2009 one too is the ITV one with Kate Beckinsale and the Gwyneth Paltrow version, both done in 90s.

Romola Garai can be gorgeous as seen in Amazing Grace, I Capture the Castle, and Vanity Fair, but the blonde hair doesn’t suit her here. Emma can be a really annoying character, but Romla’s Emma is the most annoying that I have seen. I think I felt this annoyed with Emma when reading the book too.

Jonny Lee Miller is Knightley. He was also Edmund in the Mansfield Park film. Actually, I think Miller was almost exactly the same age Knightley as described in the book when he made this movie, about 37. He doesn’t look it though. I think his Knightley may be the best I’ve seen.He really grew on me and the ending made me almost swoon when he admitted his love for her.

The length of the mini series means you can really see how much Knightley and Emma are suited to one another. I think Miller and Garai had decent chemistry. Also, this mini series allowed Knightley to pine more than in other adaptations I’ve seen. The romantic couple is probably the best thing about this series. I didn’t really need the attempts to make Frank Churchill sympathetic, but I did like the main shipper bits. Though it does remind me that Knightley may be too good for her. Still, I like the majority of the Austen adaptations I have seen and I will say this errs on the side of being one of the better ones.

Recommended for Austenites.

Watch 23-24 January 2012.

The Transporter
The Transporter ( rewatched 03 01 2012) – This was my third or fourth time seeing this film. I think I love it a bit more every time that I do. I do like action and crime movies, but I am picky about them. There should be some plot, some characterisation, but really I watch these kind of movies to escape. My love for this film is strange in that, I don’t care about the plot or most the characters, and only just the action done by Jason Stratham. The best things about this movie are its car and martial arts sequences. It’s the mix of car chases, hand to hand combat with and without guns (with a small dash of parkour/free running) and explosions that is so typical of French action movies. This was written/produced by Luc Besson and shot in France, but with two directors, one from France. More importantly, the other co-director Corey Yuen is from Hong Kong who specializes in martial arts choregraphy. It takes the best of both worlds and has a star who is more than capable of doing the uncut fight scenes. It is the pacing that it good in this film.

I keep watching Jason Stratham movies to see if he will ever re-achieve what he did in this film, and while he has come close (The Bank Job, The Mechanic, but I haven’t seen Crank yet), I think he is as his most Strathamesque in this film.  He is not particularly emotive in this, but then again, he isn’t actually a very good dramatic or romantic actor. I dislike the romantic component in this film because the actors don’t seem to have any chemistry with each other and to be honest, it was tacked on as if to say “We need a sex component to any action film”. Shu Qi is pretty, but not particularly sexy. I know she is considered a bit of a sex symbol in Hong Kong. But I’m not watching this film for her, the romance or its plot about human trafficking. If you watch this film purely for its action, it is very good indeed.

I haven’t seen the sequels, and having heard mixed reviews about, not very interested in doing so. Maybe it’ll marr my strange love for this film by ruining my view of Frank Martin. Roger Ebert and I have similar taste in movies, and I know didn’t like this first film, but liked T2 more.

The 39 Steps

This novel is different to the film adaptations I had seen of this novel. I rather liked the tone and pacing of it. It’s a thriller written at the time of World War I and while there are some contrivances, it’s a bit like watching a good action film, you don’t really care because you become invested in the protagonist’s adventure. There are no female characters in this book other than “extras” which is fine by me, but surprised me after I saw the movies. I read that this book was popular in the trenches of the war when it was published in 1915, and I can see why. This style of thriller writing, spies, and men who are innocent but capable, was new at the time. I quite enjoyed myself, partly because the writing made me feel I was in 1914. Richard Hannay is also a  rootable character even though he’s not exactly an everyman. I am tempted to read the rest of the Hannay books.

The 39 Steps

For a short time, I actually thought I read this book around the time I watched the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock adaptation when I was a teenager. It’s a fairly short novel so I wondered why I hadn’t read it; I must have almost taken it out from the school library. The 1935 film is one of my favourite Hitchcock films and allowed me to discover Robert Donat, who is underrated as an Old Hollywood actor probably because of his early death in the 1950s. There was a 2008 BBC TV version starring Rupert Penry-Jones which I remember mostly for being different than the Hitchcock version and for the cheesy ending. Now I understand why it felt that way since there was no romantic subplot in the original book itself. There is a girl in the Hitchcock version, but it feels a bit more streamlined into the plot. The other thing I remember a lot from the 1935 version was that they made Hannay Canadian. At the time of the movie, John Buchan was Governor General of Canada so this could have been a shout-out? It amused me more that Donat was not Canadian; you don’t see a lot of Canadians featured in old Hollywood or British movies. I had a similar feeling watching Bogie as a Canadian in The African Queen. I digress, but I recommend the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock The 39 Steps especially if you like Hitchcock but haven’t seen his pre-140s work. The movie is similar to North by Northwest and made even more classic by its black and white cinematography.

Read January 30th, 2012.

What Alice Forgot

The premise of this book made me pick it up. I like the whole, “What if you wake up and you’re older than you were the day before?” premise. It would be fascinating to see how one and the life has changed. Sophie Kinsella did a similar one in Remember Me? but that one was more light hearted. This one was also chick lit but focussed more seriously on women in their middle age. There are three narratives in this novel with three different women. The main one is Alice’s third person omniscient limited perspective. Second is her sister’s first person writing to her therapist and followed by their grandmother’s letters to an old lover. While this allows for different perspective on the whole situation and you find out more about the characters, sometimes, it’s not obvious how the three narratives are connected until much later. I found it a bit too much especially since there is a lot of jumping back and forth about people’s memories at times. I also didn’t feel I got a good sense of all these women until the very end, but the drama and the mystery of their lives kept me reading. Alice grew on me and I liked the epilogue, but this book didn’t capture me for most of the book.