Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Transformers - spoilers

I don't know whether I actually am going to spoil or not, but I thought I would put it in the title line so I don't feel inhibited.

Only motherhood would have taken me to the Transformers movie. The minions were insistent, especially minion 2, who calls them Transpooormers and has already trashed the Shazz autobot his doting grandmother bought for him a fortnight ago. Which was how I found myself in a very sparsely populated cinema. Our fellow audience were all male, and all over 18, which I found disquieting. First of all, what were they doing on a Tuesday afternoon watching a movie based on a kids' toy? Secondly, why did they need mounds of cheese-covered nachos? Was that a clue to the nature of the movie?

I have to say that it was better than I'd expected. All the reviews I read gave the movie one star. I suspect that most of them would have given it no stars if that had been an option. But there were some good actors in there - Julie White, who has enlivened both Desperate Housewives and Six Feet Under, and John Turturro. I hope this helped them both pay the rent, and I am grateful to them for turning up and pleasantly surprising me. And there is a story with some coherence. And Shia LaBeouf gets to have a fantastically stupid name again - not as palindromic as Stanley Yelnats, but Sam Witwicky was fine as stupid names go. The heroine was very kick-assy: she was a trainee car thief who could hotwire a towtruck and drive for miles in reverse at highspeed, thus allowing a busted transformer to play his part in the hellish battle between good Autobots and Decepticons.

My own personal measure for a movie is whether it sends to me sleep. It's a problem I first encountered when I was pregnant with minion 2: we went to see the 2nd LoTR movie and I dozed off somewhere between Ents, Orcs and Riders of Rohan. The next thing I knew, Aragorn's horse was giving his unconscious rider mouth to mouth resuscitation, a scene I definitely don't remember from the book. Since then, I've snoozed off in many a summer blockbuster. Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and 3, the Batman reviver, Spiderman 3 and most recently The Simpsons Movie. So I consider a movie reasonable if it doesn't send me to sleep. And yanno, Transformers kept me awake the whole way through. There are certainly holes in the plot, there's an ending wider than the Grand Canyon begging to bring on Transformers 2 and 3, there is the cheesy music, there is the endless crashing and bashing and total confusion of which bot was which in the big fight, but there were also some genuinely funny moments and some reasonable one-liners.

The main thing about Transformers that I liked was that it did what it said on the tin. It was about Transformers. The cars and planes and helicopters and trucks and tanks transformed. I had two mesmerised kids who came out saying that they had a good time. On that basis, I am prepared to rate Transformers considerably higher than say, Stanley Kubrick's last movie, Eyes Wide Shut, or the Da Vinci Code, which took a pig's ear of a book and made a pig's behind of a movie. It wasn't art, but it was honourable entertainment. Well, as honourable as you can get when made in conjunction with Hasbro...

Sunday, July 29, 2007


I started reading a Mills & Boon this afternoon, and by about page 23, I wanted to hang the heroine upside down with chains and leave her dangling in a disused post-office depot until I realised I had stolen the MO of a serial killer from Bones which I watched for the first time last night. I can't wait to start with series 1, which is sitting downstairs on DVD waiting for my full attention. That David Boreanaz, wow, hasn't he grown up since Angel. It is great to see him all grown up and acting a human, although I will always miss that angsty vampire schtick.

Back to the M&B heroine. I'm sorry, but the writer broke just about every rule that I've ever come across (actually, she didn't head-hop, I'll give her that, but it would have been a relief if she had left the dead zone that was Jessica's brain), from telling not showing to using dialogue that would have looked immature coming from my thirteen-year old students.

Sigh. I wonder if M&B/Harlequin just thought , oh wow, this is another winner from Fifi La Lamebrain, or whether her editor thought, this is a crock, but she's a guaranteed seller, let's see what cow's excrement the readers will buy.

I bought it because I'm looking for something to kick-start the total lack of writing that has afflicted me for the past month. Usually, I have to read something really good or something really bad and it fires me up and I dive into action. And the definite sense that a quick cash injection would be good. Now, I have that, but then I went and won €27 on Euromillions, so the cash hunger has dwindled somewhat. No, I mean that, €27. Not €2700 or €27,000 or best of all, €27,000,000. Somehow, winning any money on the lottery is a disincentive to getting on with the serious business of writing.

As is the chaos of unpacking (yes, yes, I know I moved 3 months ago, but we had over 300 boxes), which continues. Those of you who know me will also know that I have done very little of the packing or unpacking. The hero with whom I live has done 99.9999% of the nasty stuff, and I've played around with clothes and books and DVDs.

Not to mention the guests. We've had houseguests for most of this month, and they aren't conducive to writing either. I've been reading some interesting things, to do with research (sweet-crazed singing nuns in Bologna monastery try to bribe local bishop into letting them compose their own masses) and my own sense of inadequacy in the face of science (the zippy, funny writing of Natalie Angier in her latest book, The Canon) but every novel I read makes me feel like Goldilocks testing the wrong chair/porridge/bed.

Despite the incessant downpours helping the beautiful Belgian countryside remain fresh, I am experiencing a dry spell, and it's getting me down.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

HP and the Deathly Hallows

It's good - yes, there's some clunky writing, but it lives up to the hype. That's all I'm saying about the book.

But I do want to respond to all the critics who demand to know why adults read children's books.

I started reading children's fiction as an adult 16 years ago, when I received a reading list as part of my PGCE course: I'm an English teacher and we were required to read a selection of the books available to 8+ readers, from The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler to Wyndham's The Chrysalids. And I've been reading children's books ever since. I read them to discover what children could and should be reading and now that I'm a mother, I read them to see what my own children are exploring.

Since starting out down this road, I've found that on the whole, children's books are more satisfying than much adult literary fiction, and most adult genre fiction, where plots can be all too predictable and characters cardboard cut-outs. There is enormous variety in children's writing, there is great scope for imagination and most importantly, there is an acceptance of the structures of story-writing with no games and post-modernist irony.

There are adult writers who also achieve this with intelligence, wit and flair. And there is certainly plenty of dross out there in the world of children's fiction. But there is greater consistency in children's fiction, and there are real giants currently writing - more than I can name amongst adult writers: Pullman, Fine, McCaughrean, Wynne Jones, Sedgewick, Reeve, Stroud leap to mind immediately.

No, JK Rowling isn't in the immediately memorable list: the HP achievement is a stand-alone. She's not the best stylist, the borrowings can grate as often as they amuse, but she has created a world and a group of characters who resonate with us, who are right for our time, even though she has placed them in an unlikely boarding school world. And more than that, her moral code is simple: love one another. Do not kill. That's it. For these times, where we love to gloat at failure, where so many of us respond to the confusions of modern life with violence and extremism, Rowling's compassion and fundamental decency are refreshing and encouraging alternatives.

One final comment: I think the final film will be the best.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Road of Bones - spoilerish

I didn't mean to finish reading this last night, but I had only about 50 left to go when I hopped into bed and it was too compelling to stop. I haven't read the other books shortlisted for the Carnegie, but if they were as gripping as this novel, it must have been a difficult choice.

I've enjoyed everything I've read by Anne Fine, but Road of Bones is different - there is humour, but it is a very dark humour, voiced by Yuri, Fine's fascinating protagonist. But the predominant tone is anger: Fine's anger as well as Yuri's understandable increasingly chilling rage at the system that has rendered his family helpless and made his world relentlessly harsh.

It comes as no surprise to discover that Fine read Anne Appelbaum's incredible book Gulag, but there are two other books that Road of Bones reminded me of: Tzvetan Todorov's Facing the Extreme, and the People's Act of Love by James Meek, which was my favourite read for 2006.

Todorov's exploration of the moral and philosophical impact of both the Nazi concentration camps and the Soviet gulag system should be essential reading for all of us. It is the closest I have come to understanding the nature of the evil within humans that allows us - sometimes encourages us - to dehumanise one another. The point Yuri reaches at the end of Road of Bones is one of the most interesting resolutions - if it can be called that, because really it is a starting point - that I have read in any fiction, and especially in children's fiction. I doubt that JK Rowling has had the time to read Fine's novel, but if she had, I wonder if it gave her pause for thought when contemplating the finale for Potter and his friends at Hogwarts. I know, I know, she's known the outcome right from the start, but Fine has created a marvellously ambiguous and provocative ending to Road of Bones which really does deserve examination by all those who want to tie up the loose ends too tight.

As for PAOL - it is the setting and the character of one of the key characters that were evoked by reading Fine. Also moments of description of the great vastness and cold of Siberia.

On a totally different note, I recently wrote a paean about my husband. I don't often do this kind of thing, I find it causes you to pay and pay and pay, but this is a man who volunteered to have a hot pink bedroom and encouraged us to buy what have to be the most expensive curtains known to man. So here is a picture in honour of the hot pinkness.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Alatriste and Harry Potter

Just watched two movies, both of which were gripping in their different ways.

Alatriste is the most expensive Spanish movie ever made, and you can see the money up there on the screen. Based on the Alatriste sequence of novels by Arturo Perez Reverte, the movie follows the life of Diego Alatriste, soldier of fortune in the turbulent period between 1620 and 1645 when Spain was fighting in Flanders and then France.

The big draw is that Viggo Mortenson, formerly known as Aragorn, son of Arathorn, plays Alatriste, supported by various interesting but little known Spanish actors. The drawback to the movie is that it crams the events of seven novels into a little over two hours. This means that the film is necessarily episodic and although primary threads are followed through and tied up, the knots can be a little cursory and superficial.

The film is visually stunning: it recreates moments from Spanish art, primarily using Velazquez as a source, so you see the court, including Las Meninas, striding about, the surrender at Breda rendered into tableau, a hunting scene featuring Felipe IV which could be a tapestry and so on - the colours, the costumes, the architecture make this a visual feast of a film. But (ah there's always a but) film conventions don't quite live up to the subtlety and complexity of the literary conventions that Perez Reverte uses and breaks. The novels are swashbuckling but melancholy, which works well on the page but somehow doesn't on the screen. The ironies and dramas of an authentic life which Perez Reverte creates don't quite blend with the romantic images depicted on screen, especially when juxtaposed with the extreme realism of the battle scenes which are exceptionally gruesome (the first time I've ever really understood how much effort goes into stabbing someone to death). There's a struggle in the film between the desire to achieve verismo and the truth on which Velazquez touches and giving way to the slash and swash of the image we have of men in big boots and bigger hats challenging each other to duels. That said, this is a movie absolutely worth seeing.

And today's movie was HP and the Order of the Phoenix, which was non-stop engagement. Again, a fully-realised world, although I do find the clothes that the Hogwarts students wear when in mufti implausibly unfashionable and increasingly curious (weird knits and a lot of tank tops), but in this movie, we saw the students in action - the scenes where Harry teaches defence against the dark arts are delightful - and they do well. I'm not going to spoil any further, but this is my favourite Potter film so far, and Imelda Staunton demonstrated once again her incredible range and versatility. Daniel Radcliffe also begins to come into his own - in fact all the Hogwarts regulars were on very fine form, perhaps because David Yates really worked on them - I didn't feel there were any missteps.

So what are you waiting for - get out there and rent Alatriste on DVD and get yourself down to the cinema for a dose of Phoenix.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Those elusive 500 words a day

I believe in the Graham Greene approach: 500 words a day gets you to 100,000 words in seven-eight months if you genuinely do your 500 words a day. But what happens when those 500 words prove elusive?

At the moment, I haven't written my 500 words a day for 7 months. OK, I've studied, written two assignments, sat two exams, written more exams, marked exams, taught, travelled and moved house in the interim, but really, it doesn't seem like much of an excuse. I keep saying I'm in the middle of research, but I'm reaching that point where it is impossible to hold back. I have to give up all the fiddle faddle with the outlines and the character sketches and get going.

When I know what I'm doing and where I'm going, 500 words takes me around an hour. So not a great deal. And I do know where I'm going, mostly, but I feel like the kid watching all her friends jumping 15 metres into the sea and just not able to summon up the courage to jump. I'm teetering on the edge, and I know it will be fine when I hit the water, but at the moment, it all seems a bit too frightening and I've got that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I keep thinking of worthwhile projects: making a movie with my older son (Dr Who and the Daleks meet the dinosaurs)... sort out the photographs for the birthday present I'm getting ready for my husband ( a book of before and after pictures of the house we've just renovated and moved into), all the reading I have to do before the summer is over to be ready for the next academic year, all the tidying and sorting and ironing I should be doing.

But my plot is all revved up with plenty of places to go, my characters are beginning to burst out of my head and it's time to get back into the discpline of 500 words a day.

It doesn't work for every one, it doesn't even work for me all the time, but ultimately it's the one that gets the book done.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Two of my favourite things

Literacy and Longing in LA review

Bleagh! £10 down the drain.

I'd heard of Book Lover/Literacy & Longing in LA, so when I saw it in at the Heathrow Borders as one of those airport exclusives, I succumbed. How I wish I hadn't. Maybe it's just too trivial after a heavy duty tour through Daniel Dennett, or maybe it is just a really excruciating novel.

Where to start - the heroine is a pain in the ass. I too would love nothing better than to sit for days in my bath (my new bath, which has a tap which makes Hollywood-movie quantities of bubbles, in my sexy bathroom with black tiles and silver venetian blinds) drinking wine and reading books, but oh, yes, I have a family, a mortgage, a job and friends. Dora spends her shrinking trust fund on Botox, has one friend, who seems only to be a friend because our delightful protagonist can look down on her, and thanks to the trust fund, doesn't seem to think she needs to work. The moment I really knew things were bad were when the writers used a conversation to give us an idea of Dora's appearance, and the dreaded Dan Brown technique of likening a fictional character to a movie star was wheeled out - in this case, our girl has an uncanny resemblance to Nicole Kidman, fancy that! As a writer, I am totally happy to use visuals for inspiration: my latest hero had more than a passing resemblance to French hottie Gaspard Ulliel - but that's in my head, not on the page. On the page, you work at building up the character's complete presence, not the lazy short-hand of referencing this year's A-list celeb.

Then the writers (yup, it's co-written - I've read other collaborations that worked - hell, I've written a collaborative novel that was published, but something should have warned me off this collaboration) substituted plot and character development for name-checking every book they've read. Since they are both in their 30s, they have around 60 years worth of reading to their credit, and I have to give them credit, they didn't entirely waste it, since they do manage to namecheck the best children's book ever, Where the Wild Things Are. But then Dora pronounces that Austen doesn't cut the mustard because her characters are upper-class, revealing Dora's (and/or the authors') fundamental ignorance and complete sense of humour bypass.

And I really did not appreciate the 10 page reading list at the back of the book giving me useful information for the name checks such as "Buzz Aldrin, astronaut, Miguel de Cervantes, author, Charles Dickens, author, Voltaire, playwright/poet..." Ermmmm, what about giving your readers the credit for knowing who these cultural icons might be off our very own personal bats, you patronising smart-arses?

The two main male characters have enormous aubergines up their derrières: Palmer is a slick arriviste with a hunger for status symbols and no plausible reason for showing the slightest interest in the heroine, while Fred has Loser tattoed across his forehead from the start: the setup for his complete dudness as a signficant other is signposted from his first manifestation on the page. Both characters are thinly drawn. In fact, no one is thickly drawn, so the whole thing is a bit like drinking a cocktail diluted by melted ice.

Plot - not so much: Dora throws her books at the wall. Now, here's a quibble. If this Dora woman is a lifelong reader, how does she come to have only enough books for an hour or so of throwing them at the wall? Granted, much of her library seems to have been left in her husband's garage (btw, he seems to live in both a house and an apartment complex...the copyediting could have been a little more thorough), but even so. There was a time when I did not have every single one of my books with me, but even so, it would have taken a lot longer than an hour to chuck them all at the wall. Which brings me to another quibble: no book lover would throw books at the wall. Dora is a poseur. It looks like a cute set-up, because Dora's mother is an alcoholic, and Dora is clearly an addictive personality using books to self-medicate. But there's the hitch. Bookaholics don't join BA and take a 12 step programme to debook themselves because being a true reader means understanding what the books mean, and the glib observations, banalities and trite conclusions reached by Dora/the authors reflect a complete failure to understand books. Pretentious claptrap about the Homeric echoes in The Wind in the Willows does not make for authentic, genuine response.

With aspirations to quality fiction of the Elinor Lipman variety and to sales of the Helen Fielding quantity, Book Lover was a promising punt, but the weak characterisation, plotting and general unfunniness make this a very missable book.