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Archive for the ‘Discussions – Spoiler Alert!’ Category

I’ve recently watched the three episodes of this new TV series. I’m a fan of Robert Harris’s Enigma, which is set at Bletchley Park, and of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, which also deals with code breaking, so I was looking forward to seeing how the writers would pick up the Bletchley themes in the early post-war period. But overall I was disappointed, and again found reading was a more satisfactory experience than watching.

The series opens with a group of young women doing some code breaking during the war at Bletchley Park. It then moves to 1952. One of the group, Susan, now married with two children, believes that she can see a pattern in the murders of a number of women which the police have not so far connected. She puts her theory to the police, but they find nothing where she suggests they look for another body. So she turns to her Bletchley Park friends to help her prove the connection – and find the murderer.

There are some nice visual effects in the series. Those I liked best were the shots of the ‘Enigma’ rotor machines, whose signals were decrypted at Bletchley Park, and the ‘Bombes’ working away on the decryption. The setting was, as usual in British period dramas, well done, with food, clothing and hairstyles, buildings, transport and so on all looking authentic. Social attitudes, such as the condescension shown to women, also ring true. But as in so many TV crime series, an initial good idea and a well rendered setting don’t make up for a weak plot.

Because the plot is very weak. And I’m not even sure about the initial good idea. For a start, though 80% of the staff who worked at at Bletchley Park during the war were women, as far as I can ascertain, few if any worked as code breakers. They were, as might be expected, employed in administrative and clerical positions, filing, and what we would now call data entry. Harris has got this right in Enigma. Hester Wallace was recruited because she won a crossword competition – and this was indeed one method of recruitment of code breakers. But to her frustration, she finds herself working at routine and boring tasks, while her less able male colleagues get the more interesting jobs. The code breaking mathematicians in Cryptonomicon are all male; the ‘demure girls’ are ‘obediently shuffling reams of gibberish through their machines, shift after shift, day after day’. That there should be a group of young women actually breaking the codes, as we see happening at the beginning of the series, defies belief.

The way the group arrives at conclusions is never made clear. There’s talk of patterns, and drawings with arrows on them, and it’s apparently mostly a process of elimination, though how they handle a large amount of information without the mechanical help available at Bletchley is not explained. One of the group, conveniently, has an extraordinary memory, but that alone doesn’t account for how they arrive at their findings. It is simply glossed over.  They also decide on the sort of person who might have committed the crimes on the basis of their Bletchley experience, though Bletchley’s role was to break codes used in communications, not the identification of individual spies. And I don’t think that factor analysis – a phrase Susan murmurs at one point – was ever used at Bletchley. I could be wrong, of course.

Then there is the element of coincidence in the story. Spoiler alert. Look away now if you don’t want to know anything about what happens. At one crucial point, Susan is going in search of information from a hospital about a former patient; it just so happens that the person she is looking for is there at exactly the same time. Really?

Having said I this, I note that other people don’t agree with me. Variety, an entertainment trade paper, thought it was ‘smart, addictive and situated in a fascinating historical moment’ – though it doesn’t say what was so fascinating about 1952.  And a second series is being made, so it must have captured a sizable audience. Come to think of it, I watched all three episodes. But it’s annoying to watch something called ‘The Bletchley Circle’ only to find it has nothing to do with what actually went on at Bletchley Park.

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The Gift (2002) is the first book of what was initially conceived of as the Treesong Trilogy, but grew into the Pellinor Quartet; it just goes to show how stories can take on a life of their own. This quartet fits squarely into the fantasy genre, and reading The Gift (called The Naming in the USA) reminded me of just how much fantasy writing draws on common themes and even plot devices. In this review I’m going to mention some of these and may reveal rather more of the story than I usually do; if you don’t want to know what happens, look away now.

As a young girl, Maerad is sold into slavery with her mother, who has since died. She sees no hope of escape. But one day a stranger, Cadvan, perceives that she has the same sort of magic power he has, though she doesn’t know it. He is a Bard, one of a number of people who have ‘the Gift’, which gives them certain powers, the most important of which is ‘the Speech’. ‘It is the source of our Knowing and much of our might,’ Cadvan explains. He decides he must take Maerad to Norloch, the most powerful School of the Bards, and the book covers the difficulties and adventures they have getting there.

A number of themes in this book are found in other fantasy literature. Two other stories in which a young person finds they have magic powers immediately come to mind – the Earthsea Quartet, which I reviewed earlier, and the Harry Potter books. Harry Potter shares with Maerad a degree of maltreatment before their powers are discovered, though living under the stairs might not be in the same league as slavery. Still, both are a version of the Cinderella story. Magic power is innate, but young wizards have to learn to use it. The older wizards – or Mages or Bards -Ged in Earthsea, Cadvan in the Pellinor stories and Dumbledore in the Harry Potter stories – have all at some point flirted with the Dark, and have to live with the consequences. The younger generation must learn responsibility too; these are all coming of age stories.

In the best fantasy tradition, Croggon has created an imaginary world with its own landscape and people, language and history. Cadvan serves the Light, but must contend with the forces of Darkness. At some time in the past, an evil Bard, known as the Nameless, conquered the earth, and imposed the Great Silence. He was subsequently overthrown, but now evil is creeping back, and Cadvan believes that the Nameless has returned. Some Bards have been corrupted; to those who can see, they look skeletal.

Sound familiar? There are certainly similarities to Voldermort and the Death Eaters in Harry Potter, and echoes of the Force and the Dark Side in Star Wars.  The return of a previously defeated Dark Lord with a group of evil and powerful acolytes also strongly recalls Sauron and the nine Nazgul in The Lord of the Rings. In fact it was of Tolkien that I was constantly reminded when reading The Gift. In addition to these general themes, there are some quite specific plot similarities. Cadvan and Maerad pass through a deserted underground city and find themselves in a hidden woodland realm, ruled over by a queen with magical powers. She has kept her people secret and safe, but now sees the coming of the two Bards as a sign that her land cannot hope to remain so if the Nameless prevails. This is very similar to the position of Galadriel, whose power has previously kept her woodland realm of Lorien secret and safe, and for whom the advent of the Ring means doom. There is also a calculating and ambitious Bard who betrays the trust of other Bards; he thinks he can beat the Nameless at his own game, just as the wizard Saruman does in The Lord of the Rings, and with the same result.

But over and above these similarities, some of the language is deeply reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings. Just a couple of examples. Galadriel says to Frodo: ‘Do you not see now wherefore your coming is to us as the footsteps of Doom?’ The Queen says to Cadvan and Maerad: ‘It may be that the doom we all fear will overtake us, no matter how we struggle against it.’ At their parting, Galadriel gives Frodo a star glass: ‘It will shine still brighter when night is about you. May it be a light to you in dark places when all other lights go out.’ At their parting, the Queen says to Cadvan and Maerad: ‘And Light blooms the brighter in the darkest places.’ Gandalf says of Saruman: ‘He will not serve, only command. He lives now in terror of the shadow of Mordor, and yet he still dreams of riding the storm. Unhappy fool! It will devour him.’ And the Bard Nerlec says of the ruthless Enkir: ‘But in his arrogance he has forgotten the might of the Dark, and it has eaten him up, even as he thought he directed its ways. Cunning fool!’

Some of these similarities are probably inherent in the fantasy genre. Most fantasy stories are a quest involving a battle between good and evil. Many involve young people coming to terms with magic power, either their own, or that inherent in some object, like Frodo’s ring. The language of these stories is often stately and a little archaic – such words or phrases as ‘doom’, or ‘fell’ (as in horrid) or ‘it is written’ come naturally. But I think in this case Croggon is consciously paying homage to Tolkien, who is, after all, the master. The story as it unfolds in the other books of the quartet doesn’t follow the story of The Lord of the Rings; Croggon creates a fantasy world that is fully her own. Read them and see what you think.

You can read more about this Australian writer and her other three Pellinor books here.

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I think The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is one of Agatha Christie’s cleverest books, so I was interested to see how it has been translated onto the TV screen in the latest film version, starring David Suchet as Poirot. Unfortunately I can only give it five out of ten.

I can only explain my misgivings by revealing the plot, so if you don’t want to know, stop reading now. However even if you do know who done it –by watching the TV version, or seeing it here – I think the book is still a pleasure to read because the plot is so cunningly handled.

As is typical of all Agatha Christie’s Poirot mysteries, there is a murder and a group of suspects, all of whom have something to hide and some motive for killing the victim. Poirot, by noticing more than the police, and by drawing inferences no one else has thought of, succeeds in identifying the true criminal.

In this book, however, there is a departure from the norm in that it is related in the first person by Dr Sheppard, a friend of Ackroyd’s. He takes the place of Poirot’s usual rather obtuse foil Hastings, in that he accompanies him during the investigation and is privy to all that Poirot discovers about the motives and opportunity of all the suspects. Sheppard seems to be a typical country doctor, bluff and well-meaning, and has no apparent motive for killing Ackroyd. The reader trusts him, and the information he conveys – or at least I did. But this is Christie at her cleverest, using the trick of the ‘least likely person’. Poirot works out just how and why Sheppard did it, and confronts him. The first person account turns out to be a confession. Much of the narrative takes on a new meaning when read from the perspective of Sheppard’s guilt.

So how did the TV series manage this piece of masterly misdirection? Well, it didn’t really. Sheppard is just another character, albeit one who has the ear of Poirot, and unlike others, no apparent motive for the crime. There is a written confession, but it only shows the unnamed murderer to be malicious and vengeful, quite unlike Dr Sheppard in the book. And it doesn’t say what happened. That is left to Sheppard at the end. He is accused by Poirot, and then explains how he did it. This is the opposite of the book, where Poirot explains to Sheppard how the murderer must have done it, and that only one person – the doctor – fits the bill. His triumph is much lessened in the TV series. Dr Sheppard is still the least likely person to be the murderer, but the ‘it can’t be him, he’s telling the story’ factor is completely lost. The misdirection is less complete.

There are some other changes, such as characters left out, which reduces the complexity of the plot, and characters added, as in the person of the series policeman, Inspector Japp. Being TV, there also has to be more action, so there is another murder – quite unnecessary to the plot in my view – and a rather contrived shoot-out at the end.

Having said all this, David Suchet makes an excellent Poirot and the TV version is still beautifully done in terms of period and setting. It makes pleasant watching on a Sunday evening.

It is hard to see how the book could be translated into film in a way that is completely faithful to the book, particularly given the constraint that this is an episode in a series. And it’s true that the experience of reading a book and watching TV are different, and require evaluation on their own terms. I might have scored it higher as a program if it had not been based on a book I like. But I can’t help making the comparison, and coming down in favour of reading the book.

You can find out more about the fascinating Agatha Christie here, and more about the TV series  here.

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These are some comments on the novel, rather than a proper review, and I am conscious of not fully doing it justice. If you don’t want to know what happens, don’t read further. I also have to declare a personal interest in this story; I have identical twin daughters.

Niffenegger has taken on two plot elements which are often difficult to handle, and has done so, in my view, with only mixed success. These elements are ghosts and twins. Too often both of these are used to prop up a weak plot, as where the truth is revealed by supernatural forces, or where a convenient twin turns up at the last moment. Niffenegger hasn’t fallen into such obvious traps, but nevertheless I find the story in part unsatisfying in relation to both twins and ghosts.

The notion of identity is something Niffenegger plays with throughout the book: twins swap identities, have difficulty separating identities and finally a twin’s identity is taken over by her mother. As a parent of identical twins, I find it challenging that Niffenegger tackles the problems twins may have in establishing separate identities. ‘When we were young we hardly differentiated between ourselves,’ writes Elspeth. I think this is true of many identical twins, and is likely to cause them problems as they grow up and seek close relationships with others. But I nevertheless think for Valentina to deny her identity by planning her own death – even with an intended resurrection – to escape from the dominant identity of her twin beggars belief. Other twin behaviour seems equally unlikely. The idea that Elspeth and Edwina could think they had fooled Jack into believing that one was the other is far fetched. That he did know, but never said anything, is plain silly. The plot requires that one identical twin gives birth to another set of identical twins. Perhaps I am being over technical here, but there is no hereditary propensity for identical twins to have identical twins – it is a random occurrence. The probability against it happening in succeeding generations is huge. But this is never acknowledged.

Certainly the ghost of Elspeth is a character in the story rather than a plot device, and I’m happy to accept a ghost as a character. I like that Niffenegger makes her a bit different from how she was when she was alive; Robert says she seems to have lost some of her humanity. This helps explain her jealousy of Valentina’s somewhat ill-defined relationship with Robert. He warns Valentina not to trust her; ‘Her ideas have other ideas hiding inside them’. But did she always intend, with an ‘indecipherable mixture of triumph and remorse’, to take over Valentina’s body? This is never really made clear, leaving her as a character not fully developed.

The mechanics of the ghost world don’t bear too much examination. Does everyone who dies become a ghost? If so, where are they all? Or is it something reserved for those buried in Highgate Cemetery? Are they all able to materialise? Or is it only ‘strong’ ones like Elspeth? I find Valentina’s realisation that she is happy as a ghost completely unconvincing. I think her ‘happiness’ is there for the sake of balancing the plot, not because it is a credible human (or ghostly) emotion.

I enjoyed the references to Highgate Cemetery; Niffenegger’s passion for the place is infectious. However I was less impressed by the pun on ‘cemetery’ in the title that links the cemetery with the so called symmetry of identical twins. ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ is taken from Blake’s poem Tyger: ‘What immortal hand or eye/Could frame thy fearful symmetry?’ Aside from one reference to a tiger, I didn’t see an acknowledgment of this, the only epigraph being from The Beatles. Maybe this is fair enough; the book feels to me like something you might get from mixing the world of the Romantics with the world of Pop.

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Possession is the story of two romances, a twentieth century one, and a nineteenth century one. It is one of my favourite books.

Ronald is a young research associate working on the life and writing of a nineteenth century poet, Randolph Ash. He finds a fragment of a letter from Ash which suggests the beginnings of a previously unknown relationship between him and a female poet, who Ronald soon discovers to be Cristobel La Motte. He meets Maud Bailey, a feminist academic who is working on La Motte, and together they discover letters between the two, revealing their growing passion. Interspersed with the modern account of discovery, we are treated to some of what actually happened between Ash and La Motte. There are of course complications in both romances. Roland already has a girlfriend, Val, and Maud is avoiding relationships with men after an unhappy experience with one of Roland’s colleagues. Ash is married, and La Motte lives with a woman companion, and it has been assumed till now that she was a lesbian. And there is Cropper, the American collector of Ash memorabilia, who gets wind of the existence of the letters, Leonora, the feminist academic, and a whole cast of supporting characters. Together, they make an intricate and satisfying story.

This was a book, Byatt says, that had been germinating in her mind for years. ‘When I first recognise a thought as the germ of a novel or story, I form a shape, or file, in a corner of my mind, to which I add things that seem to belong to it, quotations, observations’. She had a rich background from which to accumulate such ‘things’. An acknowledged expert on the works of Iris Murdoch, she had also read and written widely on the thought and literature of the nineteenth century. She was intimately familiar with the work of Austen, the Brontes and George Eliot. She had also written about more popular romances, such as those of Georgette Heyer and Barbara Pym.

Over a number of years, Byatt added new ideas about ‘possession’ that her novel should contain. There would be ‘relations between living and dead minds’; did the scholar ‘possess’ knowledge of the writer, or did the writer ‘possess’ the scholar’s imagination? This question determined that the story would take place in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Then she had the idea that the word ‘possession’ involved both ‘the daemonic and the economic’, so the book could include Victorian ideas about spiritualism, but also twentieth century realities about physical ownership of literary artefacts. ‘Possession’ has a sexual meaning suggesting male dominance; feminism of course had to play a part. Then there was the fascinating fact that the love letters of George Eliot had been buried with her, and there were now proposals to dig them up; something based on this would add a Gothic touch. And there were the letters between the poets Robert and Elizabeth Browning; much of the nineteenth century story would be told through such letters, and also poems. She wanted there to be a ‘detective’ element, so the twentieth century characters would be trying to find out about the nineteenth century ones. Byatt believes that ‘the pleasure of fiction is narrative discovery’, so the book must tell a compelling story. And ‘It should learn from my childhood obsession, Georgette Heyer, to be a Romance’. 

The book is sometimes called a ‘pastiche’; it contains a mixture of ordinary modern narrative, mostly from Roland’s point of view, nineteenth century style narrative, letters, journal entries, a fairy story, poetry and chunks of feminist literary criticism and theory. The story provokes questions such as when is a writer copying, when is it legitimate for an author to step outside the story, and even what is the nature of fiction? Ash’s poetry is an interesting example of the role of the writer. The poetry is a copy of the style of Robert Browning.  Byatt initially agonised over her ability to copy effectively. When she began writing it, she says ‘I found I was possessed – it was actually quite frightening – the nineteenth-century poems that were not nineteenth-century poems wrote themselves, hardly blotted, fitting into the metaphorical structure of my novel, but not mine, as my prose is mine’. La Motte’s poetry is modelled on that of Christina Rossetti – though more ‘fierce’ than her’s. Some people don’t read the poems, and the story can be followed without them. Byatt’s American publisher initially suggested that they be abridged for the American edition, but they weren’t, and American readers don’t seem to have minded.  Most readers feel the poems, and all the other different forms and the questions they raise, add to the pleasure of the book.  

One of the times when the author intrudes into the story is in a Postscript. This tells the reader something about the nineteenth century lovers’ situation that the researchers never found out, and makes for a happier ending to their story – at least from Ash’s perspective. Some commentators don’t like this; they say it is unrealistic, possibly even meant to be a fantasy of Ash’s in his last illness. Others say it is a forced ‘happy’ ending, just because romances have to have happy endings. But Byatt makes it clear that she intended to let the reader into a secret at the end; ‘There is a nice irony about this’ she says; ‘- the writer and reader share what the critics and scholars cannot discover’. 

Sometimes Byatt’s fascination with ideas can be a bit overpowering, but I don’t think this is the case here. Possession is a deeply satisfying story, and a most worthy winner of the Booker Prize for 1990.

A film has been made of the book, in which, unaccountably, Roland has been made an American researcher. Despite its good cast, (Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart, Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle), the film disappointed. But see it anyway.

 Here are AS Byatt’s own comments on Possession:

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This is not a review – which usually plays fair and doesn’t tell you what happens – but rather a discussion of just what does happen in this story. So if you don’t want to know, look away now, as they say when announcing the score on TV sports programs.

This novel was very popular in America when it was published there in 2002. I’ve been reading it now because the film version directed by Peter Jackson has just been released, and I’m always interested in the relationship between books and the films made of them – though that’s a discussion for another day.

After I read the book, I looked at a couple of reviews (below) and was interested to find that they were diametrically opposed: one very pro, the other at best lukewarm. I’m afraid I’m in the ‘at best lukewarm’ camp. Here’s why.

The idea of having the main character, Susie Salmon, already murdered and observing events from a sort of heaven is clever. It’s different – I can only think of one short story from the point of view of a ghost (‘On the morning after my death I rose as usual’ – Faithful Jenny Dove, by Eleanor Farjeon). It’s fine to expect readers to suspend disbelief; after all, Jackson’s previous Lord of the Rings trilogy certainly does that. Mixing fantasy with real life is more of a challenge, but I certainly never objected to it in Harry Potter (though I do wonder about some of the inconsistencies in magic – for example why not just let all members of the Society of the Phoenix use a summoning charm to equip themselves with AK47s? Just kidding.) 

In terms of the structure of the story, this device allows Susie, the ‘I’ character, to see, hear and know things about the past of all the characters in the story. This does away with the problem of how the ‘I’ character is made privy to everything that happens. What Susie observes is the breakdown of her family in its grief and despair at what happened to her, and the escape of her murderer. She also observes the ongoing life of her family and friends as they struggle in their different ways to deal with their loss.

This reads in part like a story about the impact of tragedy, and this is what most critics seem to have liked, calling the story ‘poignant’. I thought it was both very sad and very plausible. I just don’t think it was all that well done. Fourteen year old Susie comes out with statements that are meant to be profound, but don’t make much sense to me, like ‘I had only been hurt by hands past all tenderness’. What does that mean? The family and its grief seems most of the time to be one dimensional, the stereotypical happy American family, now made stereotypically unhappy. Anne Tyler does that sort of thing better – see her Ladder of Years, for example.

The story also has elements of crime thriller about it. We know from the beginning who the murder is, but will he be caught? Susie’s father knows instinctively (how?) who is responsible, but can’t prove it. Susie of course knows, but though she can occasionally be seen by people who are still alive, she can’t communicate with them. So there is some tension built around this theme.

But when Susie does finally make it back to earth in someone else’s body, but somehow recognisably herself, it isn’t to comfort her family with the knowledge that she is in a better place, or in the interests of justice in identifying a mass murderer. It was at this point that I realised the story was a romance. Before she died, Susie had the beginnings of a crush on another student.  She has followed his progress for some years. And now she wants to have if off with him!  And that’s what happens. Girl meets boy, there are obstacles to romance –ie like she’s dead – but love overcomes all, if only temporarily. It’s a teenage fantasy!

I suppose a book could be a meditation on loss and loneliness, a story about the destruction wrought on survivors by violence and tragedy, and a teenage love fairy-tale all at once, and still hold together as a story. But for me, this wasn’t it.

I could also provide a long list of the details that annoyed me. But here are just a few.

If Susie’s heaven was what she imagined she wanted, what sort of heaven would her murderer end up with?

How come no one saw the murderer digging a quite large underground space in a corm field overlooked by a school and lots of houses?

Why couldn’t the police trace the murderer through the sale of his house? Did he not collect the proceeds?

Since Susie could apparently look into anyone’s present or past, why did she choose to look in detail at some characters, but not others? And often their thoughts or circumstances had no impact on the outcome of the story. Some of it just seems like padding.

I can’t help wondering if the book was popular because it suggests that death is not annihilation, and that people find comfort in that thought, so that belief replaces the willing suspension of disbelief on which the fiction is based.

Here are some more reviews:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2002/aug/17/fiction.alismith

http://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/14/books/what-remains.html?pagewanted=1

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Tyler

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