torsdag 7 december 2017

Class: A curate's egg of a Doctor Who spin-off

Doctor Who spin-offs are a bit of mixed bunch. For my own part, I gave up on Torchwood about half-way in the first series, as I didn't care for its grim tone or outlook (I'm a fan of Captain Jack whenever he's in real Doctor Who, though). The Sarah Jane Adventures was a great series, however, and a pleasant surprise. The only thing I found strange about it was the level of scariness. Judging by the age of Sarah Jane's sidekicks, this series was supposed to be suitable for kids slightly younger than Doctor Who's target audience, yet several of the adventures were actually more frightening than the average episode of the parent show. True, nothing beats the Doctor Who double episode"The Impossible Planet" in terms of scariness, but I do think The Sarah Jane Adventures managed to trump "The Silence in the Library" when it comes to nightmare scenarios which tap specifically into childhood fears. Heck, it even has a nightmare-themed episode, which certainly frightened me. For the nerdy adult Doctor Who fan, though, The Sarah Jane Adventures was a delight.

So last year, when a new spin-off series was announced which was to take place in Coal Hill Academy (the school where Clara used to work, and before that two companions of the very first Doctor), I was optimistic. It seemed to be closer to Sarah Jane than Torchwood in its premise; also, unlike most people, I really enjoyed the Doctor Who episode where the Doctor goes undercover - very unconvincingly - as Coal Hill's caretaker in order to neutralise an admittedly lame alien threat. A school environment is mostly fun in a fictional context, and Class also promised to use the "cracks in time and space" gambit which my geeky self usually enjoys. Admittedly, even before watching it, you could see  a problem with the setup in the story: the series starts off with a guest appearance from the Doctor where he entrusts a bunch of teenagers to police the aforementioned cracks in time and space centering on Coal Hill. I know the Doctor is hardly Mr Responsible, but come on: these are teens! Why on earth would he put that amount of responsibility on their shoulders?

Regardless: I was prepared to buy into the whole teenagers-as-savers-of-the-world concept if the series turned out to be as good as Sarah Jane. Sadly, though, I was badly disappointed in the first episode. The kid protagonists were a bunch of stereotypes: the friendless good girl; the cool guy and football player i.e. jerk; the chippy prodigy; and the neat-looking uncool boy who turns out to be gay - and an alien prince. There was also something forced about the show's multicultural agenda. Doctor Who has as diverse a cast as they come, but it takes care to provide worthwhile, non-stereotypic parts all round; the characters' personalities aren't defined by their skin colour or sexuality for that matter. In Class, it felt as if the show was trying too hard to get the right-on mixture right and cared more for outer attributes than character content. Ram, The football-playing cool kid, is from a Sikh family; Tanya, the fourteen-year-old girl bright enough to take classes with the seventeen-year-olds, is black; and Charlie (his cover name), the gay extraterrestial, hooks up with a Polish boy. It felt a bit like one of those jokes with people of different nationalities: "There was an Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman..." Tanya's chippy comments didn't improve matters. I know she's supposed to be a fourteen-year-old - albeit a bright one - but her two sneering references to "white people" in the space of one episode didn't exactly endear the character to me (and yes, one was in connection with Downton, but try to believe me when I say that this wasn't my main problem with it).

The Doctor, for his part, acted most un-Doctor-like, and not just because he left a handful of school children with a dangerous mission. What's more, he condoned the fact that the sarky Physics teacher Miss Quill, also an alien and a sworn enemy of Charlie's people, was kept as a slave to/protector of the young prince. She is hindered from causing any harm to him or to anyone by a worm-like creature operated into her head who would do damage to her brain if she tried anything. I don't care how belligerent the Quills as an alien race are, that's just barbaric - also, the fact that Miss Quill can't use a gun kind of makes it harder for her to help the kids fight alien threats.

The series did pick up, though, and the protagonists became fleshed out and less stereotypical. This has happened so much lately (see also Game of Thrones) that I just have to wonder: why start out with a stereotype at all? I know a character in a TV drama generally needs time to become interestingly layered. Nevertheless, why use something so unpromising as, say, a football-playing school bully as a starting point? If the characters can't be complex from the word go, can they at least be a little different?

Nonetheless, the characters shaped up, and by the end I could vaguely see the point of all of them. Good girl April was my favourite among the kids, especially as it turned out she had a dark side. But the highlight of the series was Katherine Kelly's acid Miss Quill, well deserving of the starting credits' "and" spot (if an actor's name comes last in the starting credits and is prefaced by "and", it basically means "if this person leaves the show we may as well cancel it"). There were some neat sci-fi ideas - for instance the "metaphysical engine" which could take you into different species' ideas of the afterlife and creation myths. The finale proved to be a mess, however: overly grim (come on, two parents of protagonists slaughtered just like that?) and too reliant on the prospect of a second series. As it turned out, Class was cancelled, and the story left up in the air.

I can understand why the powers that be didn't continue with this series. It was hard to see who the target audience was: would the kind of cool teens the show seemed to be hoping to attract tune into a Doctor Who spin-off in the first place, and if they did, how would they react to random alien killing of fond parents? From a nerdy adult perspective, I resented attempts to get down with the kids and a certain finger-wagging tendency. It wasn't as dour as Torchwood, though, and I enjoyed some of it - but it's not a patch on The Sarah Jane Adventures, not to mention Doctor Who.

torsdag 23 november 2017

Shape up, Littlefinger - or, on second thoughts, don't

My attempt to catch up with the Game of Thrones phenomenon is trundling along. I'm now half-way through season two, and I admit it's an improvement on season one, not least script-wise. It's sharper overall, and Tyrion's lines are funnier, so Peter Dinklage gets more to work with. Also, as this is the season where the actual "game of thrones" starts in earnest - a number of would-be kings are fighting each other for the throne, or more properly speaking two thrones - the stakes are higher. The characters are fleshed out and on the whole well-acted, not least because the series is full of British thesps for some reason (not all of them have very rewarding parts, though).

However, much remains the same. The script can still be ponderous, with enigmatic monologues that neither bring the story forward nor illuminate the characters to a great extent. The villains are still reassuringly, plot-functionally vile. Joffrey - now king - behaves predictably nastily in every single scene where he appears. Charles Dance in armour has shown up by now and looks a treat, but is no threat to my peace of mind so far. As Tywin, the head of the devious Lannister clan, he is introduced skinning an animal while talking about family honour, and then spends most of his time warlording. That's hardly shrewd villainy of the Tulkinghorn class - any thug can fight. In one episode I recently watched, Tywin did recognise at one glance that the disguised Arya Stark is actually a girl dressed as a boy. Now that's more like it. If, before long, he also twigs that she happens to be the lost sister of his enemy, he might still be going places villain-wise.

The one I should be rooting for most among the numerous GoT cast, though, is Lord Baelish, aka Littlefinger, who's not really that much more villainous than most of the rest of the characters. One pleasing feature of this series is that it doesn't put bravery and heroism above intelligence - Tyrion gets by on his wits, and he's easily one of the most likeable protagonists. Baelish, for his part, is a political survivor and schemer who'll ally himself with whoever lets him stay in power. Now, I truly love political schemers, but for the second time in a relatively short time period I find myself underwhelmed by a character who, on paper, looks tailor-made to be an object of my villain-loving affections. First, it was George the dishy banker in Poldark. Now it's Baelish, who somehow fails to gives me that "wow, he's like the Joseph Fouché of Westeros" feeling.

Maybe it's because I don't really get where they're going with this character, and it's not an enigma I find especially intriguing. Aiden Gillen certainly looks the part as Baelish - like Machiavelli, only handsomer - but I can't make out the way he underplays it. Now, I realise I'm spoiled at the moment in the villain-snarling department, but shouldn't a back-story monologue full of seething resentment be acted with a little bit of, well, seething resentment? Also, Baelish is saddled with one of those unrequited passions that have lasted a lifetime, where his loved one has never given him a word of encouragement. It's a ticklish motivation to carry off - if you've been stuck on one chick since boyhood without getting anywhere, even a villain-sympathetic audience like myself will sooner or later wish you could just get over it and find another girl - but Alan Rickman nailed it as Snape in the Harry Potter films. In contrast, Baelish's supposed devotion to Catelyn Stark never quite convinces. Honestly, you have to be able to do the Wounded Villain Heart Routine - if there were a Bachelor's programme in being a good villain, this would be second-semester stuff. Maybe my tastes are too unsubtle, but if Baelish is supposed to be a man who buries his bitterness beneath layers of bland courtesy I, for one, can only see the bland courtesy.

But that's fine. I confess that I still enjoy Game of Thrones partly because I don't care too much about the characters. Though more fully realised than in the first couple of episodes, they still retain a certain chess-piece quality, and I'm fully prepared for them to be taken off the board at any moment. Perhaps it's because I read reviews of the series beforehand; although, luckily, I don't remember who will die, I remember that a lot of the main characters are heading for the chop, and also that one character will eventually be castrated and kept as a slave. Most likely, it's some defence mechanism that keeps me from getting too attached to anyone that may be heading for a gruesome fate. So much for raising the drama stakes by throwing in random killings and maimings - but I'm not complaining, as long as my heart remains un-squeezed.

onsdag 8 november 2017

Sarah Waters to the rescue

Finally! For the first time in what seems like ages, I read a book I really liked and didn't either give up on or have to struggle to finish. (This is not counting the odd re-read of a Christie or similar.) Sarah Waters can usually be relied on to supply a well-written yarn - Fingersmith was a page turner, and The Paying Guests was also a good read, though I had problems with Affinity. Nevertheless, the odds were rather stacked against The Night Watch, as far as I was concerned. For one, it takes place during and immediately after World War Two and contains descriptions of London during the Blitz - not exactly the cosiest of settings. (I'm not too fond of World War stories at all, to be honest.) Second, the structure of the novel makes it rather melancholy, as I've already mentioned. It opens in 1947, where we first get to know the book's four protagonists: Kay, Helen, Viv and Duncan. They're not doing great, but then again they're not doing terribly, either. Then the story jumps back to 1944, and finally to 1941, in order to show us how these four characters ended up the way we find them at the beginning of the novel. This means that the characters are stuck with the ending they're given at the end of the 1947 section: nothing that comes afterwards will improve it.

I found I could take this better than I anticipated, though. The end of the 1947 section isn't that bleak; for two of the characters the light at the end of the tunnel is already hinted at. As for the other two, it's not too hard to imagine that life will go on for them as well, and that they will put past and present heartache behind them eventually. Perhaps partly because of the way the novel's narrative is laid out, it is easier than usual to take into consideration that the book's end point is not the end of these characters' lives. Not that we know anything more about their lives, since they're fictional, but you get my drift: somehow, in this context, the "open ending" works.

I didn't mind the war setting, either. The descriptions are very atmospheric, and even I did not get fidgety as the reader follows Kay - a lesbian ambulance driver with a touching gentlemanly streak - on one of her rounds. Kay is the most likeable of the four protagonists, and the strongest of the storylines concerns the love triangle between her, the love of her life Helen, and her ex, the glamorous Julia. The siblings Duncan and Viv, with their questionable taste in men, are somewhat less interesting, but you are swept along with their stories anyway thanks to the high-quality prose. Nevertheless, I was always glad when the novel returned to Kay and Helen. I can't help thinking that men get rather a raw deal in Waters's novels: I've yet to encounter a truly attractive one. Julia may be a femme fatale, but you can see why Helen would fall for her, although it's a terrible idea. The objects of Viv's and Duncan's affections, on the other hand, remain unimpressive.

As for the backwards-in-time structure, it doesn't give you that wow-how-clever feeling you can get from a good Doctor Who episode involving time tricksiness, but it has its merits. You're more interested in what happens in 1941, at the start of the characters' stories, once you've got to know them. As a beginning of a novel, the 1941 section might have come across as a bit slow. The most interesting section of the novel is the middle one, set in 1944, and the preceding 1947 section serves a good springing-board to it.

After The Night Watch, I'm seriously considering giving up on Drood altogether, in spite of the Dickens connection. If you can find something you truly enjoy reading, why struggle on with a book just because you can't put your finger on why you don't like it much? For now, I'll put Drood on ice a little while longer: it's still a bit too early to dump it in the charity-shop bag.             

onsdag 25 oktober 2017

The Buccaneers - costume-drama yawnfest

Perhaps it is good to be reminded that everything period-related from the Nineties - which I fondly remember as The Golden Age of costume dramas - really wasn't that great. I've recently made my way through The Buccaneers, the 1995 TV adaptation of a novel by Edith Wharton, and my goodness it was tedious. When I saw this as a teen (I must have been at least 18) I had no problem getting through it, which means that as usual I've had qualms about whether this drama is actually that bad, or whether it's just me who've become "dumbed down" or dangerously dependent on villain kicks (no villains in this one - not even of the B-list variety à la poor George Warleggan). It was the same thing when I watched Parade's End, for instance. But this time around, I didn't have that many qualms, because the drama was so clichéd it couldn't possibly contain any high-brow wisdoms which my befuddled brain may have missed.

The story is easily told. Connie, an American-Mexican girl with a rich father, marries a penniless English peer. Shortly afterwards, her three equally situated friends come and visit her for an English season. They all end up married: only one of the marriages, between the least rich girl and a self-made Englishman as cheerfully vulgar as she is, turns out happy. (One likeable thing about this drama is that it shows some sympathy for the Sir Richard Carlisles of this world.) The luckless girls who hook up with English noblemen all regret it. Connie and her husband are estranged in no time, partly because her dad won't fork out a dowry. They both play around and he gets syphilis. Virginia St George marries Lord Seadowne, who continues to hold on to his long-term mistress and makes it pretty clear from the word go that he regards his wife as a cash cow. Things become strained when her father suffers a financial set-back, then look up slightly when said father regains his fortune. Virginia's younger sister Annabelle/Nan snags the first prize from society's point of view by marrying a duke, but their marriage proves to be the most miserable of all. And all the time she's in love with a poor, handsome young man from a once-great family, determined to make his own way in the world, who shares her love of poetry.

Yes, really. I suppose there's a bit of a Tolkien problem with this plot, inasmuch as you can't be accused of using clichés if you invented them. At the time when Wharton wrote her novel, it presumably felt new and fresh when someone cast a critical look on the heiresses-for-titles trade between the nouveaux riches in the US and the old British aristocracy. That we have seen so many versions of this tale since then - and most of them a bit more nuanced - is not Wharton's fault. Still, I wonder if the novel's characterisation can really be as black and white as in this adaptation.

Consider Nan's marriage. Her husband, the Duke, essentially behaves like a boy who never properly grew up. He doesn't consummate their marriage for ages, and when he finally does he becomes violent. He belittles her and shows no interest in his tenants' woes when she nobly points them out to him. He's still under his mother's thumb (not such a bad thing because she's pretty sensible on the whole). He's a closet homosexual (which doesn't really chime in with the whole "lost boy" theme, but there we go). He won't let his sister/poor relation marry someone who's beneath her, even when it's her last chance to get married at all. He has a heavily symbolic interest in clocks: see, he can understand these machines, but not the workings of a female heart.

In contrast, Nan's love Guy makes his own fortune doing engineering work, then comes home to Give The Oppressed A Voice by going into politics. He positively reeks sensitivity, and is played by the almost aggressively good-looking Greg Wise (Willoughby in the Sense and Sensibility film with Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson - in real life he ended up with Thompson, and good for him).

Sooo, hidebound, complex-ridden childish Duke vs poetry-spouting Greg Wise? Hmm, I wonder whom we are supposed to root for here? What's remarkable is that even when the dice are as loaded as this, Nan still ends up sounding irritating as the Dowager Duchess is trying to piece together some sort of compromise while she can only go on about what she "wants" and "doesn't want". And surely the estate's steward is the right person to talk to if you have concerns about the tenants' drainage?

I have some sort of dim recollection of the novel being an unfinished one, which would explain why the TV drama ends more daringly than other repressed-high-society yarns from the same period. Guy and Nan run away publicly, and he makes a speech in Parliament about abolishing the House of Lords (!). Even if these flourishes weren't in the original, though, there's still enough to make you wonder how this could be an adaptation from a book by a prestigious, high-brow author.

Let's take the Duke's clocks as an example. My first reactions to the introduction of this theme were, predictably, "What's wrong with liking clocks?" and "I, for my part, think that hobbies which require dexterity should be encouraged in a man". Villain-fancying flippancy aside, though, there is a contrast between how the clock hobby ploy is used in Downton and The Buccaneers which isn't to the latter's advantage. The Duke's hobby is considered an oddity, while Thomas's interest in clocks in Downton is a humanising trait and something Fellowes takes the time to make understandable. Thomas being the son of a clock-maker (with whom he doesn't get on, as is later unsurprisingly revealed) and having grown up with clocks explains why he should view them as "living things" and, maybe, one of the few consolations in an otherwise frosty home environment. No grand back-story speech is needed: the information is lightly sketched in, but effective. It's not the only instance when I feel that Fellowes rather trumps The Buccaneers when it comes to characterisation - and considering that we are talking about an enjoyable middlebrow costume drama vs an adaptation of an Edith Wharton novel, he's not really supposed to do that.           

torsdag 19 oktober 2017

Baffling bestsellerdom

So there we are: another book I've not been able to finish. Finding Drood heavy going, I was looking for a comfort-blanket read to balance it out with and ended up testing an impulse-bought Nora Roberts novel, The Next Always. I've seen two TV adaptations of Nora Roberts books and only remember them very dimly, but I do remember liking them. One I think centred around the classic plot of three daughters and an inheritance, the other was a reincarnation story where it turned out that the hero in the contemporary romance was a reincarnation of the girl in the historical one: a sweet and funny twist. So while I was expecting a fair amount of clichés (and I'm not very sensitive when it comes to clichés in English, which is why I shamelessly use expressions like "a fair amount"), I did not expect to be bored.

Before long, I was stumped. What was going on here? I didn't really think that Roberts would turn out to be "the world's greatest storyteller" as the cover boasted, but I did assume that there would be a story of some kind. But no, not a sight of one. The novel concerns three brothers Montgomery who are renovating an atmospheric old hotel in a small American town. One of the brothers, Beckett, has his eye on Clare, a woman he's loved since they were both teenagers and who has now moved back into town, a widow with three boys. He finds her attractive. She finds him attractive. Eventually, they both twig that they're in with a chance with each other and hook up. There's zero dramatic tension: Beckett's family and Clare's friends are cheering them on from the sidelines. They belong to the same set, they're both unattached, and naturally Beckett is great with the three delightful boys. Instead of introducing any hurdles for the main romantic couple to jump over, the novel is full of pointless conversation concerning the hotel renovation. It's not even all "interior design porn" describing the various rooms, though that part of it is bad enough: we also have to read the brothers' discussions on problems with the building work and suppliers. Elsewhere they're bickering about whose turn it is to buy the pizza and beer. We follow Clare through an excruciatingly detailed account of an evening home with the boys: for pity's sake, I as a reader don't have to be there when she helps one of her sons to pee! At first I thought: "Oh well, I wanted a comfort blanket, and it doesn't get much more comfort-blankety than this". But after more than a hundred pages of meandering plotlessness I'd had enough and gave up. A Nora Roberts novel should not be the kind of book you feel you have to finish out of a sense of duty.

So what kind of genre is this anyway, and what is its appeal? I suppose it falls into the category of "quotidian cosiness". After a long row of grand epics, I myself can long for a narrative where the protagonists can consider stopping their emoting for a moment and making themselves some tea and toast. Seeing characters of a whodunnit or a contemporary romance in an everyday setting, making observations on situations that you recognise from your own life, can be very relaxing and satisfying. But there has to be more to a story than that. You can't just have tea-making scenes, or their equivalents. Roberts captures the tone of easy, everyday dialogue fairly well, but if you want to listen in on these kinds of conversations, you might as well eavesdrop on fellow visitors at a café. Here, there is no drama, and nothing at stake.

It made me wonder whether it's possible for an author to like his or her characters too much. Normally, I prefer writers who have a real affection for their characters. Roberts obviously likes the three Montgomery brothers, and their mother, and Clare, and her three boys, and her best friend. The problem is, she seems to think the readers will like them so much too that they will be happy just to hang out with them, even when not much is happening. And maybe there are a lot of readers who feel that way about the characters in The Next Always, but I wasn't one of them. The Montgomery brothers are the tousled-haired, dog-owning kind of heroes who are good at carpenting, their enthusiastically interfering mother has a sixth sense for what is best for them and the hotel, Clare's sons are charmingly boisterous, everyone gets how great small-town life is (at least everyone nice), and it's all apple-cheeked and homespun and dull.

In my despair, I've started reading The Night Watch by Sarah Waters instead, although with its gentle melancholy it's not what one could describe as a comfort blanket. It's beautifully written and precisely observed, and the characters are just likeable enough to be interested in, but not (so far) so likeable you'll end up heartbroken if things go wrong for them. I think I will actually be able to finish this one. When I will summon enough strength to get through Drood, though, is anyone's guess.      

torsdag 5 oktober 2017

Once Upon a Time season 7 wish list

Well, you were warned. Tomorrow, lucky US viewers will be able to tune into the season 7 premiere of Once Upon a Time, so I had better get my pre-season blog post out there before anyone is in a position to say "nope, that's not going to happen... and not that either". When we Swedes get to see this season of Once is anyone's guess. However, I'm hopeful that it won't be that long, and that either the obscure channel which usually sends the newest Once episodes (and which I only discovered when they were half-way into season 6, hence the long DVD wait) or Netflix will take pity on me.

I was excited about this season even before I'd seen the last one. The set-up promises to resemble the one for season 1, which I still think is the best. In season one, hard-bitten Emma Swan was visited by Henry, the boy she gave away for adoption at birth, whose mission was to take her to his home town Storybrooke and make her believe that its inhabitants were in fact fairy-tale characters living under a curse that only she could break. In this season, an adult Henry is visited by a daughter he doesn't remember, who in her turn has to convince him that fairy tales are real and that he and the most of the other inhabitants in the part of Seattle where he's living - Hyperion Heights - are victims of a new curse. Among the cursed Hyperion Heights residents are the three characters who've made it over from the original six seasons: Henry's adoptive mother Regina aka The Evil Queen from Snow White, his stepfather Captain Hook, and last but not least his grandfather Rumplestiltskin. However, the curse has given them new identities, and they don't remember who they really are, nor do they remember Henry (presumably - although with Rumple, you never know).

I really liked the original premise where the series protagonist has to be made to believe in a completely bonkers concept which then happens to turn out to be true, so I'm glad that this plot element is back, as well as the contrast between flashbacks in a fairy-tale realm and life "in the real world" where there's no magic. Once magic entered Storybrooke (not that I think it was a bad move to bring it - of course not) plot-lines tended more and more to hinge on convenient magical objects which could bring about all kinds of wonderful things but which for unknown reasons had never been used before, nor were they used again when the plot no longer required them. This time around, the characters will have to rely on their wits to stay out of trouble - luckily, some characters have more wits than others.

So what are my wishes - which, as they're not magic, I hope won't misfire - for Once Upon a Time season 7? (I wont even try to predict anything with this notoriously unpredictable show.)

More characters from real fairy tales We will see new versions of some fairy tales already covered by Once in this season - like Cinderella, as Cinders is Henry's love interest and her wicked stepmother Lady Tremaine is the new villain (yay - I always thought she'd make a great Once baddie!). Fair enough: as there are countless versions of the Cinderella story, I can see how there can be more than one Cinderella in the Once universe, though how there can be more than one Alice in Wonderland beats me. I do hope, however, that the show will take the opportunity to introduce characters from fairy tales we haven't seen yet. There are so many great fairy tales out there crying out for a Once spin: Frau Holle, The Six Swans, The Wishing Table... Heck, they haven't even done Puss in Boots yet.

What I hope we won't see too much of are fictional characters who have nothing to do with fairy tales. I don't mind the odd Kafkaesque bureaucrat here or Cuckoo's Nest-inspired nurse there, and Doctor Whale in Storybrooke was such a hoot that I can forgive him for turning out to be a Victor Frankenstein whom Mary Shelley would surely not have recognised. But season six went overboard with a slew of non-fairy-tale-related characters like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the Count of Monte Christo and Captain Nemo. If they had been included because the writers were great fans of the original novels I'd have understood it better, but the characters seemed to be based on vague, popular-culture conceptions of what they're supposed to be like rather than their actual book counterparts. I know enough of the Count of Monte Christo to be able to spot that the Once version neither had the same back-story nor the same personality as the original. In which case, why include him? I'm not one to object to random Rumplestiltskin scenes, but I'd rather see him get his claws into, say, King Thrushbeard than Dr Jekyll or Edmond Dantes.

A little less Disney ABC studios, where Once Upon a Time is aired, is owned by Disney, which means the series can include plenty of references to the classic animated Disney films. Which is fine - I'm a huge Disney fan - but it can become a bit much. I'm not sure including characters from Frozen and Brave in season four and five respectively was a good idea, for instance: Elsa and Anna are charming in their own film, but they fared rather worse when confronted with the regular Once crew who had three full seasons of character development under their belt. As for Merida, she seemed perpetually out of temper.

It will be interesting to see what Once makes of Tiana from The Princess and the Frog, who will appear in the new season. I actually have no idea what fairy tale The Princess and the Frog is supposed to be based on: not the brothers Grimm's The Frog King, at any rate. In this tale, the princess not only does not kiss the frog, she hurls him to the wall - and that's when the curse lifts. (Which in its turn makes the story ideal for a Once take - who could have cast an impish curse like that...?) I like Disney's Tiana a lot, but I'm wondering how they will preserve her endearing workaholic doggedness in a new, non-New Orleans context. Having said that, since we are going to have Tiana, I certainly hope Dr Facilier turns up too.

Good use made of the Storybrooke squad The original heroine Emma may have left, but as long as Rumple and Regina are still on board, Once Upon a Time lives on to fight another day. For Regina, I would dearly like to see a lasting love interest this season. Yes, I get it: she's a strong, independent woman who doesn't need a man to get her happy ending, etc. It was still a little sad that she was pretty much the only one - OK, she and her luckless villain-fancying sister Zelena - not paired up at the end of season six (not that I thought the death of Regina's bland love interest Robin Hood in season five was much of a loss). Regina could also use a little stronger storylines than she's had past seasons. For much of season six, her bad alter ego the Evil Queen - set loose by Dr Jekyll's serum - got to have more funny lines and meaty scenes than her "weak tea" better half Regina. The Queen even fitted in a sizzling affair with Rumplestiltskin/Gold (Belle was AWOL as per usual and threatening to keep his kid from him, so yeah, he was allowed). The resolution to the split personality plot line was a bit of a muddle: suddenly there were two Reginas, with equal parts of light and darkness in them, when the most satisfying conclusion would surely have been to merge the two halves together again. Never mind: maybe confrontations with Lady Tremaine will bring out the old sass and fighting spirit in Regina. As she said herself at one time: "I get antsy when I don't know who to hate".

I've not been a great admirer of Captain Hook (aka Killian Jones - no, I don't know why he's not called James either) so far, on account of his tedious feud with Rumple/Gold, aka "the Crocodile". It feels wrong, though, that there is a version of Captain Hook I don't care for. Also, I can see that the character has potential: he has some funny lines and moments ("My daughter has just lost everything""Well, aren't you mum of the year"), he and Emma are sweet together - though the series wallowed a little too much in their romance for my personal liking - and he sometimes does well out of plot-lines which don't include crocodile-hunting, such as the touching back-story involving his revered older brother Liam. My wish for this season, then, is that Hook and Rumple will finally bury the hatchet in earnest, and Hook will be given something better to do with his time. Judging by one trailer, the two enemies will end up as colleagues in their cursed Hyperion Heights lives. Hook, now a cop, shakes hands with Rumple who purrs "We'll do great work together". They're bound to fall out sooner or later, I guess, but any scene where an oblivious Hook gushes puppyishly over his wonderful new boss would be most welcome.

As for Rumple, I'll take anything I'm given - I'm sure his new cursed persona will be as brilliant as his other incarnations, though I will miss Mr Gold and his natty suits. And surely Lady Tremaine will be the lucky woman who gets dark-sorcerer neck-kissed this season? Come on, she's handsome, she's determined, she's temperamental, she knows her way around a curse - it's bound to happen. It's not that I don't hope that domestic bliss with tiresome Belle still waits further down the line for Rumple when he's de-cursed, but for my money, she can wait a good while yet.

lördag 30 september 2017

Famous authors as characters (and narrators)

I haven’t had much luck in my reading of late, but after 50 pages of Drood by Dan Simmons I’m cautiously optimistic. Perhaps it’s partly due to my low expectations which were easy to exceed. For a long time, I passed Simmons’s novel by on my book-buying sprees, as the reviews had given me to understand that it  1) had horror-story elements  (and I don’t like horror stories) 2) was sneering about Dickens. In the end, though, immersing myself in yet another Dickens-themed tale proved too tempting, and besides the novel is acclaimed and can be seen as an Ambitious Book Project. After a lot of trying out of potentially soufflé-light reads which failed to give the proper comfort-blanket feel, maybe an ABP is exactly what I need.

I wasn’t wrong in my prejudices – Drood does have horror-story elements (though I’ve been able to stomach them so far) and it is sneering about Dickens. The sneeriness is largely a consequence of its narrator, though, who – supposedly – is Wilkie Collins, Dickens’s friend and protegé. Collins in this version is deeply envious of his older and more successful friend, and this colours everything he says about Dickens as a man and as a writer.

I find I can bear attacks on Charles Dickens’s character surprisingly well. Few people would contest that he behaved like a pig towards his long-suffering wife Catherine, for instance (though there are actually those who do). I have no problems in imagining Dickens as a difficult man; I admire him as a writer, not as a wonderful specimen of human kindness and philanthropy. Consequently, criticism of his writing is much harder to take, but in this context we needn’t credit the clearly biased narrator’s musings on the subject.

If anyone comes out of this set-up looking less good than he should it’s Wilkie Collins, and since I really like his books I think it’s a bit of a pity that he has to play the role of “Salieriesque rival” – as the blurb will have it – in Drood. I’d have preferred a fictional, envious sidekick to Dickens. Maybe the real Wilkie Collins’s position as young friend, colleague and reluctantly admitted almost-family member (Collins’s brother married Dickens’s daughter, a match Dickens didn’t care for), as well as an opium addict, is what makes him ideally placed to be the narrator of this book. I’ll take the liberty of seeing  Collins in Drood as fictional in substance, however, as I would like to think that the real Wilkie was a great deal less small-minded than he’s described as here.

One thing that makes it easier to imagine Drood Wilkie Collins and the real Wilkie Collins as separate people is that the narrative style in Drood doesn’t resemble Collins’s style at all. Again, this raises the question of why Collins is the narrator when he doesn’t even sound like Collins: on the other hand, we are spared cumbersome pastiche, which makes the novel a far more interesting read. I like Wilkie Collins’s style when he is the one using it, but I can imagine that it would not fare well in the hands of another author, especially as even the original can become a bit knotty at times when Collins insists on explaining every detail of his plot in order to make sure that there are no holes in it.

Another author whom you pastiche at your peril is Jane Austen. I’ve lost count of the times I wished that an Austen-themed novel – sequel, prequel, retelling, you name it – was not written in a supposedly Austenesque style. Austen managed to be pithy and amusing in spite of the regency feel of her prose. Modern authors, however, seem to use regency expressions in order to make the prose more genteel and circumspect than it need have been. This, in my view, is to misunderstand what makes Austen such a good writer – and it often makes for a boring read, too.

I’ve had mixed experiences with Stephanie Barron’s series of crime mysteries where Jane Austen is the narrator and sleuth. I remember enjoying Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor as a cosy manor-house mystery, and I liked the salaciously gossipy Jane and the Barque of Frailty (what it blithely presents as a known fact about Castlereagh even Wikipedia finds hard to credit). On the other hand, I can’t remember anything about Jane and the Wandering Eye except that I found it surprisingly heavy going, and recently I felt the same about Jane and the Man of the Cloth. In the latter case, I was also irritated by Jane’s crush on mercurial man of mystery Geoffrey Sidmouth, whom I found eminently resistible and notably underwritten, as if the mere idea of a moody squire with his own code of honour etc. should be enough to set hearts a-flutter. The books are written as pastiches on Austen’s style – it’s supposed to be extracts from her diary – and this simply weighs the narrative down, as do the faux-scholarly footnotes. Even if the real Jane Austen’s family does play a part, I was still left wondering why the heroine had to be Austen. There’s not much about her writing in the “diary extracts” (admittedly, what there is I enjoyed). The characters and plot of the book don’t connect to Austen’s novels in any interesting way. Surely, any plucky regency lass would have done just as well as protagonist, and would have been more likely to be susceptible to crushes than the level-headed Austen.

I’ll give this series a couple of more chances – after all, I’ve already purchased a few of the books in it. Man of the Cloth and Wandering Eye are early books, and maybe the mysteries pick up pace as the series moves along. But on the whole, I wonder if famous authors may have one thing in common with villains – they’re better off being depicted in novels at one remove, by someone close to them rather than supposedly in their own words.