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Sunday, December 31, 2017

Reading/Watching Log #24

This is my final reading/watching post for the year, and there was a lot to get through: picture books, crime dramas, graphic novels, Norse mythology, Eighties horror, a couple of Christmas specials and an extremely divisive sci-fi blockbuster to cap it all off. 
Yes, I have seen The Last Jedi, but my review is going to be a while yet. I'm still processing the whole thing, and... well, have you seen the fandom? We're at the point where the slightest appreciation or negativity about the finished product will result in a screaming meltdown, and I really don't want to deal with that right now. 
But as they say, this is no longer the Golden Age of Television but the Diamond Age. There are so many astoundingly good shows out there to enjoy, filled with top-notch performances and high production values. The only problem is the sheer volume of it.

A Dignity of Dragons by Jacqueline Ogburn
Collective nouns are a lot of fun, and I learnt quite a lot of them in my time as an English tutor (my favourites are a cloud of cats and a murder of crows) but this picture book is accords similar words to fantastical creatures. As such it features a flash of firebirds, a grapple of griffins, a confusion of chimeras, and (as the title states) a dignity of dragons.
There are mythological creatures from all over the world, and although some of the nouns work better than others (I'm with Bruce Coville, who coined the term a glory of unicorns) there's inspirational wordplay here to get your own creative juices running.
If you follow me on Tumblr you'll know that I recently discovered Nicoletta Ceccoli, an artist who paints incredibly adorable fairytale children with a dark – almost macabre – streak to them. Her work is easily googled, and she provides perfect illustrations here: whimsical but a little creepy too.  
Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez
Here's another graphic novel whose cute illustrations belie a much darker story. Sandy is a little girl attending a convent school, who escapes every night into her vivid imaginative world. She has notebooks filled with drawings of all sorts of strange creatures, but doesn't get much attention for them until she's approached by the new girl on the playground.
The reader catches on much quicker than Sandy that there's something off about this girl, but Sandy is too delighted by her admiration to notice. As things get progressively more sinister, Sandy realizes she has to find a way to save herself in a story that on some level is about artistic integrity and protecting your own work from appropriation.
Some of the artwork is unsettling in the same way the pink elephant sequence in Dumbo or the illustrations in Alice in Wonderland are unsettling: bright and colourful, but with a definite edge to them. The story itself is a little undercooked (we never really know what the antagonist wants or why) but the illustrations are lovely enough to enjoy on their own.
Broadchurch by Erin Kelly
I'm not sure why I picked up the novelization to the ITV show – maybe I missed it? That said, only the first season is really worth a tie-in novel, and it was fun to revisit the case (as dark as it was) in a new medium. Having worked from Chris Chibnall's script, Erin Kelly fills in some of the loose threads that were left hanging in the show (namely the fight between Danny and the postman) and adds a couple of new surprises (particularly a surprise mourner at Jack Marshall's funeral).
It's ... fine. What's really missing is the atmosphere the show managed to create in bringing the village of Broadchurch to life: the wide-shots and the negative space were essential in setting this show apart from all the other crime dramas, and naturally it can't be replicated in print. But hey, it's still a good story and I got through it in two sittings. Not bad for a summer read.
The Glass House Game by Catherynne Valente
I generally love Catherynne Valente's work for its sheer imaginative force (though her prose just teeters on the verge of purple) but this one left me a little cold. It wasn't until afterwards that I found out the imaginary world depicted here – one that's explored by Charlotte, Emily, Bramwell and Anne Brontë (yes, those Brontës) was one actually concocted by the siblings in their early childhood. Valente takes all the trappings of what they called Glass Town (including cities called Angria and Gondal) and shapes them into a story in which the siblings get caught up in their own fictional world. It's certainly not bad, but a lot of it felt incredibly weird and random until I was clued in on the fact that it was all conceived by four children back in the 18th century.
And Valente herself is perhaps caged in by someone else's creation: she can't add too much of her own invention, and has (I'm assuming) set herself the task of including as much as possible of the Brontës' literary game into a brand new story. It's not unreadable, but it definitely feels more like a passion project than a book in its own right.
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
Norse mythology has never been my favourite body of myths – I'm not sure why, perhaps it's just because I was introduced to them much later than the Greek and Egyptian ones. There's a lot more emphasis on world-building than on godly antics, and they contain some ideas that are so outlandish it's difficult to wrap my head around them (not sure why, it's not like the Greek stories don't have some truly bonkers elements).
Given the regularity with which the Norse gods turn up in Gaiman's fiction (most obviously American Gods) it seemed just a matter of time before he retold some of the original tales. Here he relates them with a sense of grandeur but also his trademark sense of humour, from the Creation of the world to Ragnarok, with all the adventures of the gods and goddesses in between.  
Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray
My project of "catching up on series that I started but never finished" is finally drawing to an end – at least the first phase of it is; since starting most of the authors who I've been following have published more material in their respective book series. This is the sequel to The Diviners, which follows a number of young people in 1920s New York with preternatural gifts, who pool said gifts together in order to solve occult mysteries. Last book it was a serial killer back from the dead, this time around it's a strange sleeping sickness that uses people's dreams against them.
It's a pretty solid formula, but Bray's secret weapon is the diversity of her core characters – not just in abilities but backgrounds too.  There's Memphis (black, healer), Sam (Jewish, invisibility), Henry (gay, dream-walker), Ling (Chinese/needs leg braces, talks to the dead) Theta (abused wife, fire-starter) – all of them face supernatural dangers, but also the day-to-day threats of racism, misogyny, homophobia and ableism. It's never preachy or in-your-face, but an inextricable part of each character's life.
They're easy to read (quick pacing, short chapters) but also really long, which means you get a light but involved reading experience. Bray obviously did a lot of research into the Roaring Twenties, and really immerses you in the New York of that era: the good as well as the bad.
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
Storytime: I watched this movie when I was a kid – probably in single digits, and way too young to be watching horror. But watch it I did, and it made such a huge impression on me that I remembered so many details: the tarantula, the ruby ring, the hall of mirrors, the woman on the Ferris wheel, the tattoos on Mr Dark's hands, the line: "two kid-sized coffins" – even things like Miss Foley's hand moving through the bead curtain.
Watching it again so many years later, it was fascinating to see how my memories of an extremely disturbing movie matched up against the realities of Eighties' special-effects and some rather stilted child actors. In my mind it was frightening and eerie and sophisticated, but watching the scenes with adult eyes reminded me of how much things can change after they've been swilling about in your imagination for over twenty years.
Which isn't to say it's a bad movie – in fact it's based on one of the all-time best plots I've ever heard of, the kind that feels so ancient and archetypal that it's like you've always known it. A carnival rolls into a small American town and delights all who visit it, as there all their deepest, darkest desires come true. A war veteran gets back his missing leg, an elderly woman reclaims her youth, a lonely old man gets attention from beautiful women... but of course, it all comes at a terrible price.
Only two small boys discover what's truly happening, but in a world of disbelieving adults how on earth can they convince everyone else of the danger? Especially when the carnival's leader Mr Dark realizes they know too much and begins to hunt them down...
It's such a wonderfully dark and macabre tale, one that taps into our fascination and fear of travelling carnivals (for all I know, it's the story that started the Circus of Fear trope) as well as the old Deal With The Devil and Be Careful What You Wish For narratives. What more could you want? I can't wait to get my hands on Ray Bradbury's novel.
The Lost Boys (1987)
Another Eighties films I had to revisit after watching Stranger Things 2. It's a weird one; a horror/comedy mashup that involves two brothers moving with their divorced mother to live with her father on the California coast. As they start to integrate themselves into the community, older brother Michael gets caught up with a biker gang of punks, while Sam befriends two comic-book nerds who insist the place is crawling with vampires.
Hijinks ensue, especially with the presence of Kiefer Sutherland's character. Having watched his performance here, suddenly the otherwise-random inclusion of Kali's gang in Stranger Things makes a lot more sense. The whole thing is also wonderfully, unabashedly Eighties. I mean, there's a shirtless guy with a mullet who plays a saxophone at a rock concert whilst pelvis-thrusting. Amazing. 
Saving Mr Banks (2013)
The conflict at the centre of this movie is a fascinating one, simply because it's so rare: two artists fighting over how to best adapt a bestselling book. It's about artistic integrity and selling out and sentimentality versus cynicism, and it all plays out between P.L. Travers and Walt Disney: two forceful personalities on opposite sides of the spectrum.
Travers is dour and scathing, Disney is charming and folksy. The former doesn't trust the latter one bit when it comes to adapting Mary Poppins for the big screen, certain that he's going to make her creation frivolous and whimsical (which as it happens, is exactly what occurs) but has no choice given her financial difficulties. Likewise, Disney has to play along with her demands while she's still holding the unsigned contract above his head.
That the film has taken dramatic liberties is obvious enough, for one only has to read the original novel to discover that the film’s core premise (that Travers tried to “save” her own father through writing fiction) is a total fabrication. No such subtext exists in the novel; in fact, Mr Banks is barely a character in it. It gets a little bit meta-textual in that case, considering the adaptation of the adaptation process is just as made-up as the book on which the whole thing is based. Who exactly are we meant to side with, Travers or Disney? After watching this for the second time, I'm honestly not sure.
The Crown: Season 1 (2016)
For someone who professes not to be a monarchist, I certainly end up watching a lot of monarchy-inspired dramas. In between seasons of Victoria I caught up on the first season of The Crown, detailing the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.
Surprisingly enough they skip the war years and her initial romance with Prince Philip (you'd think that would be prime material for dramatization) and begin with her wedding. Things like her father's death, her coronation, her sister's romance with Peter Townsend and the family's relationship with Prime Minister Winston Churchill are covered, and especial attention is given to the ongoing family feud between herself and her uncle Edward, who abdicated the throne in order to marry Wallis Simpson.
Whereas Victoria is essentially a costume drama, The Crown is a deliberate attempt to depict the lives of the royal family as accurately as possible. Though the private conversations are naturally the work of the writers' imaginations, every time I thought dramatic liberties had been taken it turned out the events skewed pretty close to reality.
But its real strength is in exploring the relationship between power and gender. Few people on earth are in the position Queen Elizabeth currently holds, and the show delves deep into what it means for a woman to hold this type of power, from Prince Philip's complaints of emasculation to Elizabeth's comment that: "I have the sort of face that if I stop smiling, everyone says 'isn't she cross!'" The show is filled with fascinating little insights just like these, making it well worth the watch.
Killjoys: Season 3 (2017)
It's always weird to catch up on a show in a matter of weeks that others have spent several years watching. Killjoys is also at the point in which a simple summary is nearly impossible, so dense has its world-building and character development become. Let's just say that three intergalactic bounty hunters are trying to solve a mystery concerning super-soldiers, green plasma, regeneration powers, and a woman who looks exactly like our protagonist.
We finally get an answer to that last puzzle, though it's incredibly bizarre to say the least. I'm still trying to wrap my head around it, though it does give actress Hannah John-Kamen a chance to play two characters: the snarky, smooth Dutch, and the unstable, child-like Aneela. It's not quite Tatiana Maslany territory, but she still does a great job in the dual roles.
At this point the plot is nearly impenetrable, but as always there's lots of snappy dialogue and a fantastic supporting cast (Pree is particularly wonderful this season, with Fancy a close second). And now that my binge-watching is complete, I get to watch season four on a weekly basis. Like a peasant.
The Shannara Chronicles: Season 2 (2017)
Urgh. As it happens, I like the books upon which this show is based, despite the earlier ones being straightforward Tolkien knock-offs and the later ones never straying far from your standard fantasy conventions. But whatever charm the books had is completely obliterated by this adaptation, which contains nothing that's even remotely original, from the plots to the characters to the dialogue to the world-building.
Every single fantasy cliché is packed in: not one but two secret heirs to different thrones, everyone going on random vision quests, broken swords that have to be re-forged, a secret daughter no one knew about, villains chanting in weird languages – even a Terminator-esque journey to the past in order to meet a character's parents. There are stock lines like: "I know you're still in there" to a possessed friend and "your father would be proud of you" to a surrogate daughter, and even the shock-value deaths aren't all that shocking. Most of them are just random and stupid, especially since most of the characters that die were the show's most interesting figures.
The show also leans heavily into the dystopian aspect of the novels, clearly trying to ride the coattails of The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner, but it was only a minor detail in the books and leads to some insane tonal dissonance on-screen. In a story that's a standard swords-'n-sorcery lark between the goodies and the baddies, this show depicts giant spurts of blood, gruesome decapitations, extended torture scenes and no less than three children who are brutally murdered – twice in front of screaming parents.
I guess I gotta give them credit for committing to Amberle's death at the end of last season (it would have been easy enough to find a loophole and resurrect her) but the trio of Wil, Amberle and Eretria is missed this time around, especially since the two surviving members barely spend any time together (Eretria doesn't even have a reaction to Wil's apparent death, even though the books depicts them as getting married and starting a family).
There are some cute shout-outs to book readers here and there: characters such as Cogline and Garet Jax show up (even if they have little resemblance to their book counterparts) as well as mentions of Armageddon's Children and Heaven's Well, but it's hard to figure out who this show is actually for: it's too unfaithful for fans, too derivative for newcomers, too gruesome for kids and too simplistic for adults – and more than that, just altogether badly written.
Doctor Who: Christmas Special (2017)
That was a fairly low-key goodbye to Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor, with a plot that barely registered (did anyone even care about the glass lady or the WWI soldier?) and which instead relied on emotional beats to get its point across. For Steven Moffat, that's frankly a miracle. He's not going to go out on one last convoluted puzzle-box plot or complex time-travelling shenanigans or even a huge assembly line of past characters – just Bill, Nardole and a cameo from Clara (we all knew he wouldn't be able to resist one last retcon and restore Twelve's memories of her).
But there was a nice atmosphere to the whole thing, from the return of David Bradley as the First Doctor (who of course played William Hartnell in An Adventure in Space and Time, the dramatization of how Doctor Who first came to be broadcast) to the realization that it was all taking place in the hours leading up to the Christmas Armistice. Just this once, the Doctor didn't save the day – instead it was simple human decency.
And of course, the big drawcard was our first glimpse (or I suppose second if you count the promotional reveal) of Jodi Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor. Even as a casual fan I felt the significance of the moment, and of course I'm going to have to come back for more.
Victoria: Christmas Special (2017)
Jeez this was boring. It wasn't just me, right? A bunch of irrelevant subplots woven together in which nothing really occurs and no one develops in any significant way. It's Christmas and ... some stuff happens.
I appreciated Albert's introduction of Christmas trees to England, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that Sarah Forbes Bonetta and Albert's ice-skating accident were actually based on true events – but it's all wrapped up in such mawkish gift-wrapping that it was impossible to have any emotional reaction to it. As usual Albert is the voice to reason to Victoria's irrationality, and everyone learns a valuable lesson about how slavery is bad without any attempt to depict the full extent of its horrors or the British Empire's complicity in its existence.
Costumes were nice though.


  1. I had *real* problems with Moffat's writing of the First Doctor. Not least because it's a bit rich of the man responsible for the Ponds not giving a toss about their baby or "squeezed into a skirt that's just a little bit too tight" to take the Sixties to task for casual sexism.

    Still, David Bradley is now doing Big Finish stories with the rest of the Adventure in Space and Time cast, so he may yet get to portray a version of the First Doctor written *vaguely* appropriately...

    1. Yeah, I have to say Moffat has contributed a lot of good stuff to the show, but I'm EXTREMELY grateful that he checked out BEFORE the debut of the first female incarnation of the Doctor.