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Friday, March 30, 2018

Reading/Watching Log #27

Thanks to my co-workers I'm devouring a whole bunch of graphic novels, as well as slowly-but-surely making a dent in my TBR pile, which includes some of my favourite childhood authors: Robin Klein, Terry Deary and Patricia Wrede. As for my nightly viewing experiences, it's been all about the female protagonists: a zombie trying to do the right thing, a monarch trying to do the dignified thing, and a red-headed dreamer.

The Bench by Christophe Chabouté
My comic-book loving colleague is continuing to ply me with graphic novels to read, and that didn't let up in March. The Bench is a simple enough premise: a bench sits beneath a tree in a public park, silent and solitary as the days, seasons, years go by. Occasionally someone stops to sit down: a homeless man, a down-on-his-luck busker, a gaggle of elderly ladies, a graffiti artist, a park maintenance worker, a cancer patient, a woman trying to read her copy of Barbara Cartland in peace...
Only the reader is privy to each of the stories that come and go, and the way they intertwine with each other to produce friendships, romance, revelations or fresh outlooks on life – all without a single line of dialogue across its three hundred and twenty-seven pages. And as with all the best stories, it eventually comes full-circle.
Saga: Volume 2 and 3 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
My newfound interest in graphic novels (courtesy of the guys at work) continues, with me making headway into the sci-fi/fantasy epic Saga. Involving two star-crossed lovers from opposing sides of an intergalactic war, it deals with such hefty themes as family, survival, war, death – all the stuff you'd expect from a comic book series called "Saga".
Alana and Marko are looking for a safe place to raise their newborn daughter Hazel, but their love affair and subsequent marriage has caught the attention of their superiors on both sides of the conflict. Along with bounty hunters tasked with killing them and bringing in their hybrid daughter for experimentation, these volumes also introduce a couple of journalists who are picking apart the cover stories that each side has concocted to hide their union.
As twisty and clever as the story is, I don't think Saga would be half so popular if it wasn't for Fiona Staples's incredible artwork, which captures everything from emotional nuance on a human face, to outlandish sci-fi creatures and locations. If it ever becomes a film or television series, it's going to be a damn expensive one if they want to capture all creativity that Staples brings to the page.
Games by Robin Klein
Robin Klein is a master at capturing the dynamics between teenage girls, whether it's the Melling sisters in the All in the Blue Unclouded Weather trilogy or the one-sided rivalry between Erica and Alison in Hating Alison Ashley. Things like jealousy, insecurity, peer pressure and the desperate desire to belong are captured in all their agonising glory.
Even without knowing that this was a Robin Klein book I probably could have guessed just from the premise: Patricia is invited by the two most popular girls in school to a cabin in the outback for the weekend, only to become increasingly frazzled by their mind-games and power-plays (not to mention the increasing evidence that the cabin is haunted). It's a psychological thriller for pre-teens, and Klein depicts the spitefulness of the girls toward each other to an almost uncomfortable degree of realism.
True Detective/Mystery/Spy Stories by Terry Deary
Long before Horrible Histories, Terry Deary was amusing me with his "true story" series, which included detectives, mysteries and spies (also horror, which introduced me to the Amityville Horror, which subsequently scarred me for life at the tender age of ten. Seriously, what the heck was this doing in a children's book??)
In any case, it was fun revisiting the stories as the man has a great knack for spinning a yarn. All of the tales are fact-based, whether it's the Lindberg baby kidnapping, the Culper ring or the disappearance of Mrs Greaves, but most of them come without clear answers – they are largely mysteries after all. Each one ends with a "fact file" that presents the evidence of each case, and incredibly evocative illustrations by David Wyatt (damn, I love his work).
Jigs and Reels by Joanne Harris
I love reading Harris's novels; they're so full of sensory description that you can almost see, smell, taste and feel what she's describing – so it's to her advantage that she sets most of her books in exotic locales that involve people eating delicious food.
But this short story collection is more interested in ideas than the five senses, and two subjects she frequently returns to are the sexualisation of children and the marginalization of the elderly.  There's also some room for urban fantasy and science-fiction, not to mention a couple of horror stories (as she mentions in her foreword, people are so used to recognising her as the author of Chocolat that they forget she also wrote The Evil Seed).
So there's not much of a unifying theme here; it's really just an opportunity for her to gather all her short stories into a single collection. Had I not already been a fan of the author I probably wouldn't have picked it up, but you can definitely see Harris's distinctive style throughout.
Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede
It seems a little mean to pick on such a harmless and funny little book, but Dealing with Dragons has aged in a strange way: by now the idea of a headstrong, independent princess who rejects social mores and never wants to get married is a cliché. From M.M. Kaye's The Ordinary Princess to Pixar's Brave, at this stage I feel that a traditional princess who defends her desire to fall in love and have babies would be the truly subversive story.
In this case the princess is Cimorene, who runs away from home after her parents forbid her from learning any useful skills before secretly organizing her engagement to a dolt. She ends up in the cave of the dragon Kazul, and before long is making friends with other "kidnapped" princesses and investigating the odd comings-and-goings of several wizards in the area. Along the way, Wrede takes the time to poke fun at fairy tale conventions and characters.
I kinda get the feeling that she made it up as she went along, which certainly isn't a bad thing, but it lends the story a sense of randomness that doesn't really lead to a satisfying tale. Wizards apparently melt if you throw dishwater and lemon over them? Umm, okay.
Throne of Elves (2016)
Have you ever wanted to watch a film that's a perfect storm of fantasy clichés? Well, there's always Throne of Elves. Based on a Chinese MMORPG called Dragon Nest, the movie came to my attention through Tumblr (where else?) which had some very pretty GIF sets of the computer-animated scenery.
Let's see, you've got the devil-may-care hero who's in love with the winsome elf princess, whose stately-and-wise older sister is marrying the formidable I-disdain-all-humans elf lord, who then has to team-up with the aforementioned hero's clique (short inventor, burly blacksmith, pair of fantasy-dogs) to save his betrothed from the evil dominatrix villain and her army of the dead.
Name it and it's here. There's a wedding, a magical macguffin, a kidnapping, an ambush, a break-up, a get-together, flying ships, evil laughter, young love, a dark prophecy... To quote Ron Burgundy: "I'm not even mad. That's impressive."
iZombie: Season 2 (2015 – 2016)
A return to the show with the weirdest premise ever: medical student Liv Moore is turned into a zombie and finds a way to manage her condition by taking a job at the morgue and eating the brains of the bodies that arrive during the day. As well as meeting her dietary needs (without fresh brains, she reverts into the mindless zombie of your typical Hollywood film), doing this also gives her a new lease on her (un)dead life. With every brain she eats, she absorbs the thoughts and memories of its original owner, allowing her to solve murders by presenting herself as a psychic to a local police investigator.
Yeah... it's pretty batshit. And yet once you wrap your head around this concept, the show itself is pretty entertaining. Rose McIver is no Tatiana Maslany (who would have added accents, gestures and facial tics to each and every new personality) but she has a lot of fun with the various traits she takes on each week, and her supporting cast is equally amusing – right down to the bad guys.
Speaking of which, the show is thankfully aware of the moral conundrums it raises, and makes no allowances for murder, kidnapping, blackmail or drug-dealing. If you're a bad guy, you may have daddy issues or shades of grey or endless reams of sob-story justifications, but the bottom line is that if you hurt other people – you're a bad guy, and will be treated as such by the heroes. It's kinda depressing how refreshing I find this attitude.
Thunderbirds Are Go: Season 2 (2016 – 2017)
I diligently watched the first half of season two (for nostalgic purposes and the fact that Angel Coulby voices Kayo) only to completely forget that the second half had aired! So now I've finally caught up. On the whole the show is fun without being spectacular: there's certainly no such thing as character development or overarching plots here, so the best way to enjoy it is to just consider each episode a standalone adventure in which International Rescue has to use ground-breaking technology and problem-solving to save someone in need.
For me the highlight is definitely the Weta Workshop miniatures (which are seriously stunning) as well as Angel Coulby as Kayo and Rosamund Pike as Lady Penelope (especially since the Tracy Brothers are largely interchangeable). But you'd be surprised who they manage to get as guest-stars: Mark Gatiss, David Tennant, Jenna Louise Coleman, Jack Whitehall, Ruby Wax – even Emilia Clarke, the mother of dragons herself!
There's a freaky coincidence in one episode that involves a London skyscraper that catches fire and has to be evacuated, a scenario that bears more than a passing similarity to the Grenfell Tower fire in June last year (understandably, this episode wasn't aired) but for the most part the show is totally inoffensive fun. International Rescue exists for the sole purpose of helping people. There is seemingly no such thing as war or disease or poverty in the distant future. The good guys are good and the bad guys are bad, each utterly without moral ambiguity. And as I've said a number of times these past few months, that's exactly what I want right now.
Anne With an E (2017)
I think we're reaching the end of entertainment's need to make everything "dark and gritty", whether it be SupermanStar Wars or Power Rangers – but apparently there's still time for a dark and gritty Anne of Green Gables. Yes, you read that right. This is a version of L.M. Montgomery's book that includes Anne getting viciously beaten, suffering PTSD symptoms, being sent away by Marilla after she confesses to losing the amethyst brooch, and scraping together a living by reciting poetry in a train station.
Also, Matthew nearly shoots himself in the head after a heart attack, the Cuthbert farmhand is violently mugged, Ruby Gillis's house burns down, and the town bullies operate at Stephen King levels of sadism.
I have absolutely no idea why anyone felt the need to make these changes (the show also involves Anne getting her first period, Josephine Barry as a closeted lesbian, a feminist mother's group and the girls at school shunning Anne for discussing sex in metaphorical terms*) and I was genuinely afraid the incident in which Anne accidentally gets Diana drunk would end with her getting assaulted on the way home. (Heck, there's still a chance for them to throw in some sexual molestation considering the season ends with Marilla renting out rooms at Green Gables to the men who mugged Jerry the farmhand).
Okay, it's not all bad. The casting and cinematography is wonderful, and when the story does stick to Montgomery's script it does a bang-up job of  dramatizing what was only spoken about in the text (seriously, you'd be surprised at how many of Anne's misadventures are actually narrated in hindsight by means of telling Marilla about them after they've occurred).
*Obviously I'm not offended by any of these things; I just can't fathom why they were deemed necessary in an adaptation of Anne of Green Gables.
The Crown: Season 2 (2017)
Watching The Crown is like soaking in a hot bath: the performances, the production values, the subject matter ... you don't have to be particularly invested in any of the characters or their situations, you just have to sit back and let it flow over you.
The standalone nature of each episode is both a pro and a con. On the one hand, you can select any episode at random and get what feels like a mini-movie. On the other, the lack of an episodic arc means that some characters (even the Queen herself) are constantly dropping in and out of the spotlight, often leaving their subplots and development dangling. For instance, I was interested in the state of Margaret and Tony's marriage, but after their centric-episode, they're barely present for the rest of the season.  
Claire Foy is obviously the stand-out, with a million different ways of emoting strong feelings without shifting a single muscle in her face (and I trust you've heard the controversy about how she was paid less than Matt Smith). She's got a poker face for when she has to put up with trying Prime Ministers, which is totally different from the poker face she wears when she's faced with rumours of her husband's infidelity.
It's easy to forget that acting is a legitimate art-form until you see the profound chameleon qualities of a good actor. Seriously, few things are more disconcerting than watching Yara Greyjoy trot into a room wearing a peach blouse and sweetly offering around a tin of homemade toffee.
I'm not entirely sure what the real royal family thinks of this (if anything – there's no guarantee that they're watching it) but I think the show's strength is in capturing the ordinariness of the people who are involved in the historical momentousness of the events taking place around them. This is the crown, but it is also just a family. It's an impossibly strange truth to consider that amidst things like Philip's surliness, or the Queen Mother's fustiness, or Margaret's desperate search for happiness, these people have front-row seats to history. They're constrained by their roles, forced to be people they're not, denied what they want and struggling to be what everyone else expects.
And there's so much to look forward to! Margaret Thatcher, Princess Diana, and the attempted kidnapping of Princess Anne in particular...


  1. The Queen reportedly enjoyed the series, but thought some parts "too heavily dramatised".

    1. Wow, so she IS watching it??!

    2. It's alleged by British tabloids, but there are other members of the Royal Family who are *definitely* watching it (Prince Edward, Princess Eugenie, Zara Tindall) so it seems probable she's seen it, yes.

      And the Queen is definitely a massive Doctor Who fan, to the point that Michael Grade was turned down for a knighthood because he was the BBC executive responsible for cancelling the original series.

    3. Wow, you learn something new everyday. (That said, I always suspected she had seen the Helen Mirren movie "The Queen"), which I know was written by the same guy as "The Crown."

      Speaking of which, it's gonna be interesting to see how he'll avoid repeating himself when he gets to that event.

    4. Oh, and is the Beeb's adaptation of "Ordeal by Innocence" (delayed from Christmas) on your radar? Looking forward to seeing what you make of it.

  2. Didn't even know it was out! I'll look it up.