Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Return to Pemberley

Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen is one of my all-time favourite novels. The characters are so familiar and beloved to me as I have read the novel many times and viewed every possible adaptation.  As such I have sworn I would not go near any attempted sequel or 'inspired by' works which follow the Darcys after their marriage or have them fighting zombies.  

But then, late last year, renowned British crime writer P D James put me in a pickle when she published Death Comes to Pemberley (2011). Taking up the story six years after Elizabeth and Jane Bennet married their beaux, Elizabeth Darcy is preparing for a ball at Pemberley when her disgraced sister Lydia arrives screaming that there has been a murder on the estate. Darcy heads out into the night to retrieve the body from the woods. And so begins the mystery of who committed the crime. To say too much about the plot would spoil the story for others. 

The characters from the original novel are joined by some interesting new faces (and visitors from other Austen novels).  It was lovely to read about the odious Lady Catherine de Bourgh and I laughed out loud at Mr Collins' condescension. James writes of these characters in keeping with Austen's style. For example, when Mr Collins 'began by stating he could find no words to express his shock and abhorrence, and then proceeded to find a great number, few of them appropriate and none of them helpful' (p162). While I loved these parts, I must say I wish there were more of them and would have written the narrative differently to allow more interaction and witty banter between the peripheral characters and Mr and Mrs Darcy. 

I understand that in Austen's times there would not have been a detective, and that crimes were investigated by local magistrates. So there is no Poirot, Miss Marple or James' own Dalgleish, to find the clues and solve the crime. However, the mystery element is surprisingly weak given that James is such a master of the genre.

James is clearly an Austen fan. This is a homage in which she tries, and largely succeeds, to capture the language, wit and spirit of Jane Austen. The first twenty plus pages are a summary of Pride and Prejudice which was a helpful refresher but also a bit perplexing as I would imagine no one would approach this novel without having read (or at least viewed) the original story.  Where she fails, in my opinion, is in her characterisation of Elizabeth, who lacks the spunk and wit of the original character and fades into the background of this story. Elizabeth seems to have lost her lustre in marriage and motherhood - which is dreadfully disappointing.

It would be easy to be overly critical and bag this book as a failed attempt by James to inhabit the world of Austen. But as a lightweight holiday read I must say I enjoyed my return to Pemberley. I'd suggest that readers leave their assumptions behind and just take pleasure in the book for what it is.

Monday, 27 August 2012

You win or you die

George R. R. Martin's epic series 'A Song of Ice and Fire' begins with his 1996 bestseller A Game of Thrones, popularised by the recent HBO series of the same name. While I have seen the first two seasons of the show, reading the first novel was an exciting adventure and my expectations of the novel were exceeded as soon as I began Martin's incredible book.

Winter is coming. Summer has lasted many years and the cold winds signal a shift that will bring years of chill to the Seven Kingdoms that make up Westeros, the setting for A Game of Thrones. A fantasy of epic proportions, this story features violence, sex, power, intrigue, tyranny, loyalty, betrayal and drama, with a good dose of humour thrown in.

The writing is rich and literary, and Martin is able to successfully inhabit the voice of each of the characters. From a seven-year old boy, to a teenage girl, to an elderly man - Martin has authentically created their world and enabled the story to be told in third person from the perspective of various characters: Eddard 'Ned' Stark; Bran Stark; Catelyn Stark; Sansa Stark; Arya Stark; Jon Snow; Tyrion Lannister; and Daenerys Targaryen. There are other brilliant characters to love or hate: Cersei and Jaime Lannister;  King Robert Baratheon; Joffrey Baratheon; Viserys Targaryen; Lysa Tully; Ser Jorah Mormont; Theon Greyjoy; Hodor; Ser Petyr Balish; Benjen Stark; Khal Drago, and many more.  Tyrion Lannister is clearly a favourite of mine and he stands out among the crowd despite his diminutive stature.

The saga is complex, alternating between different locations across diverse landscapes. Starting at Winterfell, the Stark kingdom in the North, moving to the frigid Wall, the richness of Kings Landing and across the Narrow Sea to the free cities of Essos. The action moves along at a cracking pace and the novel is definitely a page-turner for all of its over 800 pages.

I enjoy watching fantasy but have never been a big fan of reading this genre. But Martin changed this for me, as he has created an intelligent, gripping saga which draws the reader in. At times the shift in point of view was bothersome as just as I was engrossed in someone's story I was transported to someone else's tale and had to wait until the character I wanted to follow to reappear. But I got used to this style and I still admire Martin's ability to carry the story along using these very different characters to describe the action.

The 'Song of Fire and Ice' series was clearly ripe for filming and I am so glad it has been made into a series by HBO. The first season (2011) covers the action in A Game of Thrones and is an extraordinary adaptation of the book. Clearly all involved in the project have great admiration for the source material. The production is classy with no expense spared to create sets of the scale and gradure needed to depict the settings of the novel. The casts is uniformly excellent with brilliant performances all around.

I have since watched the second season (2012) and look forward to reading the next two books in the series - A Clash of Kings (1999) and A Storm of Swords (2000) before the third season airs in early 2013.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Retelling an old tale

Philip Pullman, best known as author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, contributed to the Canongate Myth series with his 2010 novella The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. The story is a retelling of the life of Jesus Christ with a twist - in this tale Jesus has a twin brother named Christ.

The two brothers are raised by Mary and Joseph and the events in their lives parallel the story commonly known from the Bible, starting with the nativity through to the passion of Christ. Jesus was the favourite son and Christ was always second-best. Sibling rivalry in childhood gives way to distinct differences of opinion as the men age. Jesus is portrayed as the good man with a moral core and Christ wants to bring about organised religion under a centralised, hierarchical church. Christ watches from the wings and, as his brother gains followers, creates a record of Jesus' ministry allowing Christ to merge with Jesus.

When first published the novel generated a lot of controversy, largely because Pullman is a well-known atheist and he challenges the story of the life of Christ. But I suspect that few protesters read the book as its contents are hardly worth protesting over. Aside from the twin twist, the story is not anti-Christian at all. In fact the central message I took away from the tale is that Christ had a lot of good, well-meaning ideas which are better left outside organised religion.

Pullman has clearly done his research and tells his revised version of events in an interesting way, but the story lacked something for me and was a bit of a disappointment. I kept waiting for something to happen which never did. I thoroughly enjoyed His Dark Materials and had expected Pullman's impressive story-telling abilities to be applied to this tale and anticipated that this would be more of a satire. While there were some compelling passages and clever ideas present, I found the novel lacked wit and was ultimately quite boring. Pullman is an extraordinarily gifted writer and I do look forward to his next endeavour.

Mayhem in Panem

Mockingjay (2010) is the final instalment of The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. The story follows on from the end of the previous book and takes the tale into a new realm, away from the manufactured arena of the games and into a real battle for survival for all citizens of Panem.

Note: Potential spoilers ahead for those that have not read the previous books in the series.

War has broken out, with the rebels in the Districts rising up to counter the oppressive Capitol. Katniss Everdeen, the champion of the Hunger Games, has been rescued by the rebels and becomes a symbol of the uprising - their Mockingjay. Desperate to kill President Snow, who has caused her such heartache and suffering, Katniss leads a small band of warriors deep into the Capitol.

This book was frustrating in parts because of Katniss. It seemed like she was always in a hospital bed somewhere recovering from injuries, taking medications to help her cope, and trying to stay emotionally removed from what was happening around her. While it is understandable that she is suffering from post-traumatic stress, she comes across as weak and it makes for a boring read when the protagonist is apathetic. Katniss' lack of emotion sucks some of the life out of the story, particularly  in terms of her romantic triangle with Peeta and Gale. As a symbol of a revolution, she could have been more charismatic.

If she had more time to write and wasn't in such a rush to capitalise on the success of the first two books, Collins could have strengthened this story and made it more compelling. She could have opted for a bolder move, and perhaps changed from first person narrative to writing from other people's perspectives. With Katniss suffering so greatly from her time in the arena, other characters could have provided insight and moved the story along. Collins should also have taken more time to flesh out this story as significant events are mentioned in passing and we are not allowed to feel how Katniss and other characters react to these events. The ending is not fairy-tale happy, which was fitting for such a dystopian story. But it could have been better executed as the resolution felt extremely rushed.

Overall, I enjoyed this trilogy despite its flaws and I particularly liked the direction this story moved in. It is a great holiday read, and a story that makes you want to read on and find out what happens to the characters.

See also my reviews of the other books in this trilogy: The Hunger Games and Catching Fire.

The fire ignites

Catching Fire (2009) is the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy. The story begins where the first book ends, and this review may contain spoilers for people who have not read the first two books in the series...

Katniss Everdeen, the heroine at the heart of the story, returns home to District 12 after her victory in the arena to find that she and her family have been moved to the Victors' Village. As she tries to settle into her new environment, she struggles with her feelings towards Gale and Peeta.

On the eve of commencing a 'Victory Tour' of the districts, President Snow visits Katniss and warns her that her actions in the arena have sparked unrest in the districts. He tells her that she must prove her love for Peeta in the arena was genuine and use the tour to quash any rebellion. But movement has begun in the districts and Panem's security forces have rolled in. President Snow announces the 75th Hunger Games will be the Quarter Quell in which all victors of past games will be in the reaping meaning Katniss may need to go back into the arena.

As the second book in the trilogy, Catching Fire is a bit of a bridging story leading up to the conclusion in Mockingjay (2010). In some aspects it is a bit of a repeat of aspects of the first story, but new characters are introduced which add to the tale. The pace is slow at the start, but becomes picks up as the action quickens in the arena. It is predictable in parts but overall quite enjoyable.

Katniss remains an interesting heroine. She is deeply flawed, trying to understand herself and her place in this dysfunctional world.  This novel also allows us to learn more about Haymitch, Peeta and Gale, which gives them greater depth and fleshes out their backstories.

The book ends in a cliffhanger which may frustrate readers who do not have the third volume handy. My advice is to have Mockingjay close by to start as soon as you finish Catching Fire.

See also my reviews of the other books in this trilogy: The Hunger Games and Mockingjay.