Saturday, June 25, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'A Jane Austen Education'

The Book: A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter

The Author: William Deresiewicz

How I Found It: As ever, the book received several glowing reviews from Janeite bloggers whose opinions I trust.

The Review: Oftentimes, men aren't Austen fans. It's just hard for them to see what's so great about stories primarily about young girls finding their way in the world. Oh, there are exceptions. There are men like the ones that frequent the same Austen sites I do, and there are men like my stepdad, willing to sit patiently through every Austen adaptation I could find a few years back. But there are also men like my prom date, who forged valiantly through half of Pride and Prejudice on my recommendation before he confessed to me that it just wasn't for him.

William Deresiewicz was one of those men. He was twenty-six and being forced to read Emma for one of his graduate school classes, determined not to like it. He was sarcastic and sullen, a rebel who often spoke or acted without regarding the feelings of his friends. He was the youngest of three kids and infantilized by both parents, to the point that he knew almost nothing about living on his own. After Emma brought him to a painful revelation about how he treated others and how he should view the world, Jane Austen was the one who showed him the light and helped him grow up.

Emma - Everyday Matters: Deresiewicz starts his book with an examination of the book that made him love Austen. I'll admit that Emma is my least favorite of the six novels, mostly because I find Emma to be an insufferable snob, but it was enlightening to read about how Emma's snobbishness is exactly what made Deresiewicz realize how he was treating others. "Emma's life finally became real to her, and in reading about her life I felt mine finally becoming real to me. ... Reading Emma, being asked to take the lives of characters like Harriet Smith and Jane Fairfax as seriously as they did themselves... made me finally begin to take my own life seriously." (33) It was sad but somehow uplifting to read about Deresiewicz coming to the painful revelation that he wasn't connecting with others the way he'd thought. The good thing is, he realized he had to change and actually took the initiative to do so.

Pride and Prejudice - Growing Up: It's really an eye-opening experience to see Jane Austen through the eyes of a man. Now that I think about it, I read a book two summers ago (Two Guys Read Jane Austen) that tried to give a man's point of view on the subject, but it was written by two older men reading Jane, men who'd already done their growing up and figuring out who they wanted to be. Deresiewicz might be writing as an older man, but he's sharing the experience of his younger self, and it's truly fantastic to read about.

I had to laugh when he talks about being in love with Elizabeth Bennet, about wanting to wring Darcy's neck for hurting her and Jane. Men are just as susceptible to crushing on Austen's characters! That was nice to know. I could really relate to Deresiewicz's depiction of university life (reading while brushing your teeth, eating ramen, walking down the street--all of which I've done), and his examination of what Austen had to say about growing up really hit home with me. … my father was wrong: you can’t learn from other people’s mistakes; you can only learn from your own. Austen was making her beloved Elizabeth miserable because she knew that that’s what growing up requires. For it is never enough to know that you have done wrong: you also have to feel it.(60) I cheered for him as he made the decision to move to Brooklyn, away from his father's attempts to do everything for him.

Northanger Abbey - Learning to Learn: Here, Deresiewicz examines Austen as a teacher, helping readers to form their own opinions by expanding their horizons, not telling them what to think. His emphasis is on Mr. Tilney and his relationship with Catherine, and can I just say that I now have a newfound appreciation for Mr. Tilney? Northanger Abbey is so slight and sometimes silly that often it's just the one I think of when I think of being amused, but now I realize how profound it really is at times, and how Mr. Tilney is just awesome. (My friends at Austenblog realized that some time before I did, however.) "Now he was inciting her to speak, then pretending to misunderstand her, even at the risk of looking like a dunce, in order to force her to fight her way back to what she really meant--and thus, to figure out what she really thought in the first place." (90) Deresiewicz compares Tilney to his most-loved professor, imparting a sense of how effective teaching can be if a professor is doing more than just imposing their own ideas onto a student.

As a college student, wow, could I see what he was talking about. (And he is spot on; I had a good laugh at his bit about college students hunting for symbolism and foreshadowing and Christ figures, as that was exactly what I was taught in high school by How to Read Literature Like a Professor.) He also examines Austen as an aunt and mentor to her young nieces and nephews, and it was touching to see how active a role she took in helping them make decisions and become better writers. Again, I'm impressed at Deresiewicz's willingness to recognize his own flaws and make the effort to change. This was certainly a useful insight into the world of being a professor, and it makes me appreciate the efforts of all the wonderful professors I've had thus far.

Mansfield Park - Being Good: It's no secret that I am an unashamed fan of Mansfield Park. I love Fanny, I love Edmund, I love the whole entire story. I champion this book like nobody else. So it was nice to see Deresiewicz gradually coming to appreciate it and recognize the very things I find wrong with most pro-Crawford arguments I see: that the Crawfords are master manipulators, with very few genuine feelings about Fanny and Edmund. Indeed, it was the Crawfords who made Deresiewicz realize that people in his social circle were not people he should have wanted to spend time with.

Deresiewicz compares Fanny's life at Mansfield Park to his own experiences as the less-privileged friend among the rich Manhattan socialites he met during graduate school. He was the friend that was looked to for funny stories, to be a constant source of entertainment for people like the Crawfords, people with no inner lives, no ability to be entertained by intellectual pursuits, and above all, little ability to understand those without their privileges. "Mary was not just advertising her wealth, she was displaying an ostentatiously metropolitan insouciance in the way she handled it. People in London, she was saying, don't dirty their hands with the details. They snap their fingers, and the world jumps." (134)

With experience, Deresiewicz came to recognize how flawed the Crawfords truly were and how really listening to others, just as Edmund listened to young Fanny, is key. I didn't quite agree with all of his sentiments at the end of the segment (I don't think Austen meant us to dislike Fanny as he asserts, and can't quite see why he'd say that given the pains he takes to point out that Austen has much in common with Fanny), but I really appreciated his take on the novel and how it helped him recognize he was being used.

Persuasion - True Friends: This chapter and the next were more about Austen's side of things than Deresiewicz's, but the book was still worth reading for the insight in his statements and his perspective on the novels. I especially enjoyed this chapter because it gave me an opportunity to revisit Persuasion--the second of Austen's novels I read, and one whose adaptations I've only seen once or twice apiece, so one that's definitely fuzzy in my memory. Deresiewicz discusses the revelation that true friends are ones who are honest, ones who point out your mistakes even if that might hurt your feelings. He examines the relationships between Anne and Lady Russell, Anne and Mrs. Smith, and Anne and the naval officers, in particular.

I hadn't really considered, when I first read it, that by having Anne seek the company of the naval officers instead of her own family, Austen was putting forth the idea of a family of one's own choosing. It was certainly an idea that's come up in my college literature courses, but mainly in discussions of newer novels, so it was surprising to look at Persuasion from this angle. Then there is Deresiewicz's examination of Austen's idea of true friendship--that the best friends are the ones who are honest. "True friends do not shield you from your mistakes, they tell you about them: even at the risk of losing your friendship--which means, even at the risk of being unhappy themselves." (194) It's definitely a lesson worth keeping in mind, given how many of us undoubtedly hesitate to tell our friends the truth for fear of hurting their feelings. Perhaps, Deresiewicz is telling us, we should consider how much more those feelings would be hurt if we were to witness them making mistakes without saying anything.

Sense and Sensibility - Falling In Love: Lastly, Deresiewicz discusses his experiences with dating in his late twenties to early thirties, and how he learned what a relationship really consists of: not perfect harmony, but occasional disagreements; not a perfect match of interests, but enough differences to be able to teach each other something. It's entertaining for me to read this now, when a few months ago, I watched the 2008 Sense and Sensibility with a friend and ended up giving a discourse on just why I felt Marianne and Willoughby wouldn't have lasted if they had gotten married: they were too similar, with little else in common besides loving fun and poetry, whereas Brandon could better understand Marianne's depth of feeling, and had experience and culture that Marianne could learn from. My friend looked at me a little while later and said, "You know, I'd never thought of it that way before."

"True love, for Austen, means a never-ending clash of opinions and perspectives. If your lover's already just like you, then neither of you has anywhere to go." (237) It was really nice to see Deresiewicz coming to recognize that conflict was necessary in a relationship, that a whirlwind romance wasn't the ideal match he thought it was, that the supposedly unromantic Sense and Sensibility actually had some reasonable points to make about love. I was a bit disappointed he didn't dwell more on Marianne's relationship with Brandon (it gets barely a few mentions), but given that this was the final chapter, it was basically a culmination of all of Austen's lessons, not just the ones to be gleaned from Sense and Sensibility.

This review is already far too long, so I will close it by saying that this book is just perfect for seasoned Janeites and newcomers to Jane alike. It was everything I hoped it would be, and I came out of it really charmed by Deresiewicz's perspective on Austen and how he had taken her lessons to heart. I got this from the library, but as soon as it comes out in paperback, I'll surely be getting a copy of my own to read again. It's a fast read and one I will definitely be recommending to my Jane-loving friends!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'True Grit'

The Book: True Grit

The Author:
Charles Portis

How I Found It:
I saw the 2010 film version and became curious about the source material.

The Review: It's funny to read this so soon after The Ruby in the Smoke. Mattie and Sally would get on well, I think. They're both girls ahead of their time, with good heads for numbers. They're both out to avenge their fathers' blood, despite their ages (Mattie's 14, Sally's 16). They both face down their fathers' killers, pistols in hand, with unflinching bravery. They've both got some pretty firm ideas on men and marriage, and a certain kind of nerve. In the great pantheon of kickass young heroines, I'm sure that Mattie and Sally are getting on like a house on fire.

"People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father's blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say that it did not happen every day." (11)

Ain't that the truth? Mattie Ross is out to find Tom Chaney, the coward who shot and killed her father and robbed him of his mare and two gold pieces. In Fort Smith, Arkansas, she is told that Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn is the meanest marshal around, pitiless but also a slightly pistol-happy drunkard. Before long, an arrogant Texas ranger named LaBoeuf has showed up, telling Mattie that he is looking to apprehend Chaney as well. Mattie is determined to punish Chaney for his crime and does not want LaBoeuf interfering, but she is left with little choice. Soon, she, Rooster, and LaBoeuf are pursuing Chaney, who has taken up with Lucky Ned Pepper's gang, through the Indian Territory.

Dialogue. I've said it before and I will say it until the end of time: dialogue makes or breaks a story for me. If I can't hear a person actually saying something, I lose faith in the story's ability to be realistic. On the other hand, if I can hear it perfectly in my head, I'll likely end up really enjoying the book. Maybe it was because the 2010 film version hewed so close to the book's dialogue, but I could really hear it, even if Portis rarely indicated who was speaking, even when the conversations went on for pages. Each character had a very distinct voice and even a sense of humor. A gem I really loved:
[When we first meet Rooster, he is being questioned by a prosecutor about his role in the death of several criminals.]
Goudy: The gun was pulled and ready in your hand?
Cogburn: Yes sir.
Goudy: Loaded and cocked?
Cogburn: If it ain't loaded and cocked it will not shoot.
Goudy: Just answer my questions if you please.
Cogburn: That one does not make any sense. (53)
Not to mention that Rooster and LaBoeuf were comedy gold. LaBoeuf's arrogance about his role as a Texas Ranger is priceless. This exchange was a favorite of mine:
LaBoeuf said, "I reckon I must have the wrong man. Do you let little girls hooraw you, Cogburn?"

Rooster turned his cold right eye on the Texan. "Did you just say hooraw?"

"Hooraw," said LaBoeuf. "That was the word."

"Maybe you would like to see some real hoorawing." (95)
Humor, as evidenced in the two examples above, wasn't something I was really expecting, even though I'd laughed at the film, and it came as a pleasant surprise. Not to pun on the title, but the story is often gritty--I've not read many other books where someone has their fingers chopped off and then gets stabbed in short order--and the moments of humor were welcome and often had me laughing out loud.

The characters were very distinctive and I wanted to see them succeed. I've already waxed a bit about Mattie, but she's definitely one to remember, whether as a young girl or as the adult narrating the tale. She's determined, prickly, and maybe childish at times, but certainly braver than most adults, witnessing violence without flinching and haggling successfully with a horse trader who makes every effort to rook her. Cogburn is, of course, a drunk and morally ambiguous, but he respects Mattie as the one paying him and even shows some affection for her once or twice, making him not such a bad guy. LaBoeuf is just hilarious, as I said above, going on about lapping water from hoofprints and other tactics of the Texas Rangers.

I'm surprised as ever at the pacing, but in the end, I think it worked well. When I saw the 2010 film, I was surprised at how Chaney and the gang didn't really come in until maybe half an hour to the end. Reading the book, it takes half the novel to settle affairs in Fort Smith and actually go on the road to find Chaney. In the end, though, it's more about Mattie than the hunt for Chaney. We're meant to see that this is a girl ahead of her time, a girl who's the exact opposite of both her parents: she's proactive and has business sense, the opposite of her mother, prostrate with grief and hardly able to spell 'cat,' but also the opposite of her father, a pushover whose kindness leads to his death.

The 2010 film (I've yet to see the John Wayne version--sacrilege, I know) stuck very close to the book in terms of dialogue and characterizations, and only added a scene or two extra. Hailee Steinfeld is absolutely perfect as Mattie, and it's duly impressive for being her first performance (I hold firm about her being robbed of the Oscar). Matt Damon managed to project LaBoeuf's cockiness exceedingly well, just as he should have. Jeff Bridges mumbles a bit too much as Cogburn, but he embodied the morally ambiguous, frequently drunk Cogburn really nicely. His lines led to the biggest laughs (the cornbread scene is a standout).

Overall, the book is well-plotted, well-characterized, and well-paced, and I'm definitely glad to have read an apparent classic of American literature, with a heroine who deserves to be widely known. I think this is a great pick for high schoolers and adults alike, a good, action-filled summer read.

Monday, June 20, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Violets of March'

** This review will contain spoilers. **

The Book:
The Violets of March

The Author: Sarah Jio

How I Found It: The cover and synopsis caught my eye as I browsed Borders, and my local library happened to have a copy.

The Review: I wanted to like this book. Really, I did. The cover was so pretty, and it hit two of the stock tropes I really love: stories taking place partially or entirely in the 1940s, and a mystery surrounding an old book, letter, or diary. I was powerless to resist it. I guess now I'm wishing I had. This book didn't irritate me quite so badly as Willow, but it left me with the same feelings I had about Water for Elephants: standard prose, characters with no personality, and no real emotional attachment to the story.

Emily Wilson has just gotten divorced from Joel, her husband. She's been suffering from terminal writer's block ever since she wrote her first novel, a smash hit. Seeking a place to heal, she decides to head to Bainbridge Island, the home of her eccentric great aunt, Bee. While staying in Bee's house, she comes across a mysterious red leather diary dated 1943, a diary that contains the story of a love triangle between Esther, the diary's author; Bobby, her husband; and Elliot, her ex-fiance, the man she still loved even while married to Bobby.

Emily doesn't know who wrote the diary, but it seems to be the key to figuring out why Bee and her best friend Evelyn won't talk about Esther, or why Bee is uncomfortable with Henry, another resident of the island, and Jack, the man Emily is beginning to be interested in. As Emily begins to dig deeper into the mystery of the diary, she realizes its contents may have more bearing on her own life and family history than she thought.

To start with, Jio had a problem with not giving details. There are things I like to know about my protagonists. A little about their lives would be nice. We know that Emily has a best friend named Annabelle, but not how or why they became friends. We know that Emily wrote the bestselling Calling Ali Larson, that it was turned into a movie, but absolutely nothing about the book's plot. (That just seemed silly, since Larson is obviously Bee's last name as well, so it seems there would be some relation there. Alas, no clarification is ever given.) We know she keeps writing paragraphs of an allegedly sucky second novel, but not what that novel's about.

Then there's the flashbacks. Emily remembers Evelyn because when she was younger, Evelyn arranged a shopping trip for Emily to get the shoes she so desperately wanted. That was sweet and fun to read about--except that the flashback stopped as soon as Evelyn told Emily they were going shopping, and the event and its outcome were never mentioned again. Did she get those shoes after all? I want to know! Often, a lack of details like this could have been solved with an extra sentence or two, but Jio never did that.

Besides that, Emily really didn't have a personality. Her old boyfriend tells her at one point that any guy would be lucky to have her, but I just couldn't see why, and that's not exactly a good thing. Much is made of her mother preferring her sister over her, but honestly, that's the only distinct thing I remember of a character I just spent 293 pages with. Emily was so bland that she faded into the wallpaper. Actually, I had the same problem with Nicholas Sparks' The Notebook; his supporting characters in early days were little more than cardboard cutouts. Luckily, he seemed to have rectified that in the later books of his I'd read, so hopefully Jio will be able to do the same in the future.

The story of the past was painfully predictable. I kept reading because I wanted to see if I was genre savvy enough to pin it down successfully, and I was. During their engagement, Esther sees Elliot with another woman in Seattle, a woman who hands him an apartment key. Esther bets lover; I bet real estate agent. I was close--it was a friend selling him the apartment. One for one. Esther sleeps with Elliot after she's married to Bobby. I bet she'd get pregnant. She did. Two for two.

Not only is the story predictable, but Emily is incredibly dense for not recognizing that it's about her own grandmother. It doesn't occur to her to ask someone Bee's real name, which would have made it obvious who the Frances in the diary was. Plus, once she asked Evelyn who Esther was, Evelyn started going off about how Emily's grandmother used to love starfish. Gee, I wonder what the connection is between Emily's grandmother and Esther!

In the end, the story sank under the weight of its own contrivances. Esther "somehow" escapes the car wreck that supposedly claimed her life; the fact that it's not clearly defined how makes it obvious that it's manufactured so as not to be too much of a downer. Emily's copy of the book Years of Grace, scrounged from a free book bin at a Tahitian hotel, turns out to be Esther's. Really? Is there only one copy of this book in the world? The last twenty pages or so left me shaking my head at how obvious the story's construction was.

To top it all off, Jio's writing style was a weird mix of plain prose, words no one would use when a plainer alternative was available, and repetition. There's this passage, which taught me an awesome word, but a word that was entirely replaceable: "I walked up the creaky steps that led to his front porch. I hadn't noticed the cobwebs in the windows, or the catawampus doorframe, so jagged and splintered" (259). I looked up catawampus wondering if it was some kind of obscure wood or flower or something, only to find that it's a synonym for askew. So why didn't Jio just say "askew," instead of using a word that's so obscure my browser is telling me it's not a word? Then there's page 277, where Jio uses variations of the word "grin" four times in one page. There are shiny things called thesauruses out there. I think Jio should probably invest in one.

Overall, this book was cliched, poorly characterized, and badly written. The plain prose makes it a fast read, I'll give it that, but the story just wasn't worth it. I can't say I recommend it all, really, just that I'm grateful it's a library book and not something I spent my money on.

Monday, June 13, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Shadow in the North'

The Book: The Shadow in the North (The Sally Lockhart Mysteries, Book 2)

The Author: Philip Pullman

How I Found It: My interest in the film adaptations of The Ruby in the Smoke and this book, the second novel of the quartet, led me to read the books.

The Review: Philip Pullman. Oh, Philip Pullman, damn to the depths your ability to get me invested in your fictional characters, only to throw some heartwrenching twist in that makes me cry even as I'm turning the pages. As I said in my review of Ruby, I love how I can read these books now, at 20, and be taken right back to my fascination with Pullman's works that I had at age 12. He is truly an author whose works transcend whichever age they were meant for.

It is the year 1878, and Sally Lockhart has defied Victorian sensibilities and gone into business for herself, working as a financial consultant and a partner in Garland and Lockhart, the photographic business introduced in the first book. Sally is faced with two dilemmas: a visit from a client who has lost all her money after Sally told her to invest in shipping, and the pertinacity of Frederick Garland, who would like Sally to marry him.

Each problem has thrown Sally off balance. The first is a true puzzle, as Sally believes that the firm her client invested in might have sank its ships deliberately--but why, since there's no evidence of insurance fraud? As for the latter problem, Sally simply cannot say yes. The law states that a married woman would have to give over her money and property to her husband, and Sally is not ready to cede any control over to a man, not even one she trusts as much as Frederick.

Meanwhile, Sally's friend and Frederick's partner in the detective business, Jim Taylor, has come across a puzzle of his own. The magician Alistair Mackinnon is being pursued by murderous thugs, and he claims to have witnessed, via his psychic powers, a murder. A medium, Nellie Budd, seems to confirm this in a trance. Somehow, the sinking of the Anglo-Baltic ships and the murder are related, and both trails seem to lead back to one person: the powerful industrialist Axel Bellman. Sally, Frederick, and Jim are determined to reach the core of the mystery, but Bellman is an intimidating foe, and before the case is over, Sally will have endured losses greater than ever before.

To begin with, I can say that my, is this book complicated. I was reading part of it while driving with my mother, and I had to recite the connections and clues aloud just to straighten them out in my mind. It got a little easier towards the end, when everyone's motives became clear, but it was a real headache at times! I can see how young readers would probably get lost in the maze of names and motivations.

But oh, if it's not absolutely worth it for the characters. Sally is an amazing heroine, self-assured and thoroughly modern, and she is not quailed by threats to her reputation and even threats from hitmen. One of my favorite scenes in the book as well as the movie is when Axel Bellman tries to threaten her by spreading subtle hints that she might be a prostitute. Sally never caves, and even tells her landlord shame on him when he believes it. Having a ruined reputation in Victorian times would be a disaster, but Sally never lets that stand in the way of her pursuit for justice.

The other three important characters here are Frederick Garland, Jim Taylor, and Axel Bellman. Frederick gets more screentime than he did in the first book, and his relationship with Sally teeters on the edge of something more. The relationship between them is really well done; in my opinion, it's just as or maybe even more emotionally involving than that of Will and Lyra, the lovers from Pullman's The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. He is shown to be a competent detective with compassion for the people who end up involved in his cases, as well as someone who, though he might fight with Sally and say the wrong thing in the heat of the moment, loves her dearly. Jim, my favorite from The Ruby in the Smoke, is even more hilariously endearing here. He grumbles darkly about the Lyceum Theatre not accepting his melodramas for production, carries around brass knuckles to beat the villains with, and displays a tender attachment to Frederick and Sally that's really on display in the last fifty pages or so. And there's Bellman, our villain. He is not as outright dastardly as the last book's Mrs. Holland, but he raises the stakes so much higher.

(An extra special shoutout to Chaka, Sally's massive dog. Chaka pretty much made the book for me! Sally believes him to be one of the only people she really loves in the world, and Chaka proves himself to be truly devoted to his mistress. He is the most badass dog I have seen in most of my literary experience!)

I think I liked this blend of Victorian potboiler and modern sensibilities even more than the last one. Sally is older now and dealing with more adult problems--running a business, receiving marriage proposals, and defending everything she loves. It's even easier to relate to this Sally than the first book's, at least to me, someone who's just about her age. Philip Pullman's choice to incorporate modern issues in a Victorian context makes the reader better able to understand and invest in the situations, and it certainly worked for me!

The movie version was just as good, and I can't decide if I liked it better than the first. (I will say, however, that apparently one crucial scene was cut by PBS, and it was a bit irritating. The Sherlock DVDs restore the cuts made by PBS, but apparently they hadn't implemented this practice a few years ago. Oh, well, off to scour Youtube.) Billie Piper gets a bit more to do, action-wise, as Sally, and she's really dazzling in the final confrontation with Bellman. She's the perfect mix of self-assurance and emotional vulnerability; as odd as it sounds, her connection to Chaka gives us one of the first glimpses behind her mask of confidence is someone who feels very deeply. Jared Harris, as Bellman, was a good match for her strong will. He reminded me (granted, in a substantially less creepy way) of Bjurman in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Harris struck a nice balance between affable and outright evil.

JJ Feild and Matt Smith played off their partnership well, and there were little touches that made the movie for me. Feild's facial expressions as he hooked up Nellie Budd to the wires of the camera in an early scene perfectly captured Fred from the book. He and Billie Piper played their confrontations and love scene exccllently; I could buy into both completely. (Look at one of the opening scenes, when Frederick calls out Sally for leaving Rosa's wedding to meet with a client. Doesn't it sound like a modern quarrel?) And I laughed out loud when Mackinnon turns to leave the office after telling his story and Jim is scoffing in the background and mockingly wiggling his fingers in a parody of spiritualism. Matt Smith can be a goof, but it worked so well here. I especially liked the movie's choice to have Jim be active in the final confrontation at the factory; his leg is broken in the books, but here he is the one who goes after Sally and makes sure to get her out alive.

Some changes and cuts were made to the material, but not that many, and besides the utterly baffling choice to remove that one crucial scene (saying which scene would spoil it), the adaptation was very well-done and one I'd definitely watch again in the future. I wish the BBC would have adapted the other two books; the plans appear to have fallen through, but I would have loved to see more of the cast embodying these adventures. As it is, I'm taking a short break from Sally, but I'll be getting to The Tiger in the Well and The Tin Princess soon enough, I'm sure! The book and film adaptation earn another set of high recommendations from me!

Monday, June 6, 2011

In Which Trai Mini-Reviews 'Lyra's Oxford' and 'Doctor Who: Dead Air'

Time for some mini-reviewing! These two works were very short--one was a novella Pullman wrote for His Dark Materials fans; the other was an exclusive-to-audio Doctor Who story narrated by David Tennant. Basically, they both qualify as novellas, not substantial enough to warrant a full review.

Lyra's Oxford, by Philip Pullman: When we last saw Lyra Silvertongue and her daemon Pantalaimon, they were back at Oxford after being separated from the love of Lyra's life, Will Parry, a boy from our world. (It's a long and complicated story involving parallel universes. In short, Lyra's is a steampunk version of ours.) Lyra is at Oxford to learn once more how to read the alethiometer, since she lost the grace that enabled her to read it before, and she is older but still the same impulsive, adventurous girl she was at twelve or so.

Lyra and Pan are on the roof at Oxford when they witness Rani, a witch's bird-formed daemon, being attacked by a flock of starlings. They shoo the starlings off and learn from Rani why he has been sent to find them. His witch is ill and the cure can only be obtained from a local alchemist, and Lyra and Pan must bring him there.

This novella will really only make sense if you've read the His Dark Materials trilogy, but you don't need to remember much about it in order to enjoy the story. I read the books eight years ago (eesh) and I pretty much caught on fine with what I remembered.

There's really not much to say about it, I suppose. It was short and sweet but nothing really substantial. It's got a small adventure for our heroes to go on and it's a nice reassurance that Lyra is getting on fine even after losing Will to the whims of the walls between the worlds. It's a slight story and everything is wrapped up nice and tidy in, say, 25 or so pages. The bonus material is cute (a postcard from the past of The Amber Spyglass' Mary Malone, a time table for a cruise that's supposedly drifted through the walls between universes) and little more. Since there's not much substance, there's not much else to say other than that fans of the trilogy will enjoy it, but do what I did and get it from the library. Unless you're a real completist, I don't really think it's necessary to shell out the cash for this one.


Doctor Who: Dead Air, by James Goss: For my first Doctor Who audiobook, I decided to start small. It's only an hour long, and I figured I'd listen to it to see if I could handle an audiobook (the other times I've listened to them have usually involved me losing focus) and if I'd actually like the feeling of the story being read to me, instead of reading it myself. I can say now that I really enjoyed the experience; David Tennant is a good reader and it just really felt like the Doctor was telling a story.

"Hello, I'm the Doctor, and if you can hear this, then one of us is going to die. If I'm lucky, you're listening to this on the boat ... Of course, if I'm not lucky, you're listening to this somewhere else, perhaps even at home, in which case it's too late. It's already escaped. And it's the end of the world."

The Doctor has landed on the boat Radio Bravo, a pirate radio station in the 1960s. It is staffed by Layla, Jasper, and Tom-O (not sure of the spelling on that last, given the format; I'm assuming it's spelled as it sounds), and they are in deadly danger. The Doctor is tracking the Hush, a weapon implied to have been made by the Time Lords during the Last Great Time War in order to defeat the Daleks. The Hush silences and devours any source of noise, and it just needs the boat's transmitter in order to escape and be beamed all across the world to bring destruction. The Doctor can't stop it alone, and it's up to him and Layla to track and defeat the Hush before it kills them and the rest of the world.

Given the nature of the monster, this story was perfectly suited to audio. The creepiness amps up as the sound distorts at various points in the tale, usually as the Hush has done something dreadful. I kept flinching whenever it happened, so it certainly worked on me! (Keep in mind I was listening to this while walking in broad daylight, so it wasn't like I was listening in the dead of night!) It's a loving ode to pirate radio and good ol' cassette tapes. Think Pirate Radio (aka The Boat That Rocked in the UK) if the Doctor were on board.

The Doctor himself felt perfectly in character, something that was probably helped along by it being narrated in the first person by David Tennant. I particularly loved the instance where Layla and the Doctor have been reunited after the Hush's attempt to mimic the Doctor and manipulate Layla into fixing the transmitter, and Layla observes upon their reunion that she should have known it wasn't him, because the Doctor is so full of himself and the Hush's mimicry wasn't. That's the Doctor I know: conceited, yeah, but sweet and brilliant besides. We really get all of him here. The side of him that's sorry, so sorry when someone dies. The side of him that's a thrill seeker and really finds the hunt for the Hush fun, even when he shouldn't. And then, at the very end, the Oncoming Storm, the very dangerous, threatening side of him that only tends to come out when his companions are threatened. Oh, we do not want to have that.

The other characters were well-done if a bit flat; I excuse most of my normal concerns about this due to the fact that the story was only an hour long. Layla is given the most to do, and she was quite fun--I loved her easy acceptance of the Doctor's reveal that he's an alien, and how it caused the Doctor to reflect that he really should give medals for that sort of thing. I really enjoyed and chuckled through the early banter between her and the Doctor. Jasper and Tom-O were basically there to give us Red Shirts to worry about, but I did get the sense that the crew of Radio Bravo was a family and could see why the Doctor would really care about keeping them safe. Since the story was so short, I liked that it skipped over the expository bits about the TARDIS, the Time War, etc.--the Doctor just handwaves it away by assuming the listener would already know it. The little bits of metafiction made me giggle, although it takes a creepy turn at the end, as the Doctor is sure that no one would listen to the tape all the way through to the end (thus ruining his plans) after his warnings, and if they did, they're just stupid, aren't they? Well, mark me down as happily Too Dumb to Live!

It was a little story, but I enjoyed how it slotted into the Whoniverse. It takes place in Ten's final year, when he's traveling alone after the events of "Journey's End", but the previous companions weren't ignored; there were some sweet remembrances of Donna and another (presumably classic series) companion whose name I didn't quite catch. The implication that the Hush was a weapon in the Time War gave me chills and really lent credence to the fact that yeah, the other Time Lords aren't exactly good guys when it comes to winning the war. I really recommend this one to Who fans who just want a little more of the Tenth Doctor, or who want a deliciously creepy listen. It's fun but still scary: what more could you want?