onsdag 2 augusti 2017

Goodbye to a brainy male hero

Apologies for going down the doctorish road again, but I just can't wait until Peter Capaldi's last Christmas special (which we foreigners don't get to see until well into the new year anyway) before posting some final thoughts on the Capaldi era. Whatever adventure his Doctor is going on this Christmas together with the very first Doctor (with David Bradley taking over the William Hartnell role), it feels likely that the finale of series ten is where we say a proper goodbye to Number Twelve - the Christmas two-Doctor caper being more of a lap of honour.

This series delivered all the way through. Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) continued to be a great companion, and comedian pro Matt Lucas managed to keep comic relief Nardole from becoming annoying - also, it was a nice touch that for all his apparent goofiness, he was actually more reasonable and responsible than the Doctor himself. Missy as played by Michelle Gomez was great entertainment value, as in series eight and nine, and even when she showed signs of being ready for redemption it wasn't too much or too soppy. Moffat latched on to the idea of two old friends with vastly different moral outlooks who for all that really wanted to find a way to save their friendship and ran with it. Adding another layer to this relationship, John Simm turned up again as the previous incarnation of The Master (I don't think it can be regarded as a spoiler anymore that The Master and Missy - short for The Mistress- are one and the same), who had no interest in reconciliation with the Doctor whatsoever. The dynamic between the two Masters, and between each of them and the Doctor, was a thrill to watch. And of course Capaldi was superlative throughout. Let's face it, whoever was going to succeed him would have suffered from the fact of not being Capaldi. More of this anon.

I know Steven Moffat's twisty plots can get on some people's nerves, and I do see their point. For all their cleverness, there are loose ends that never get properly tied up, and I have occasionally found Moffat too smart-alecky myself - with the overlong story-arcs for the Eleventh Doctor, for instance. But I'm really going to miss him. The finale of this series, World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls, was as gripping as ever, and full of the trademark witty dialogue which has the pleasing side-effect of making the viewer feel clever for appreciating it. (Not all of it was equally good though - that bacon sandwich conversation? For shame.) But once again, I wonder about the younger audience that Doctor Who is supposed to have. Are there any of them left? World Enough and Time was particularly grim, almost like a horror film at times. This is not what I'd consider family viewing - having said that, it works for me.

What's next, then? I must confess that the news that the new Doctor was going to be a woman did not leave me jumping for joy. However, the Master's sex change worked out all right, and I'm willing to give the Thirteenth Doctor a chance. I've not seen Jodie Whittaker in anything else that I can remember (she was in Cranford, apparently, but I don't recall her character), but judging by looks alone she's the right type for a female Time Lord - serene and intelligent-looking. Still, I can't help wondering why making the Doctor a woman was necessary. The thing is, there are plenty of engaging heroines in TV shows already, not least in Doctor Who. Strong women are all the rage, and they tend to have plenty of smarts as well. Brainy heroes, on the other hand, are harder to come by. The Doctor was one of the few who could measure up intelligence-wise with the average villain. When he tries to explain his attachment to Missy to Bill, he says that Missy is the only one who is even remotely like him. Turning the argument around, the Doctor is if not the only then one of the very few heroes I can think of who is even remotely like a villain - while at the same time trying to do the right thing. Those who claim that boys will lose a role model have a point; while far from perfect, the Doctor is a good male character who is also clever, which makes a nice change considering the more-brawny-than-brainy heroes you usually find enacted on your average playground.

Still, I'll let hero-fanciers worry about this. We villain-lovers will never be short of brainy characters to engage with. Come to the dark side: we still have clever, Scottish cookies.

torsdag 20 juli 2017

More on the subject of modern-day Austen plots

True enough, Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld proved to be a good, reliable read that I was not tempted to give up on. This novel is part of a project in which modern authors recycle the plots from the novels of Jane Austen – Sittenfeld got the fan favourite Pride and Prejudice. When I first heard about this project, I thought it was a great idea, as was the related project to let modern authors re-imagine the plays by Shakespeare. Now, after having read two of the Austen-inspired books – Eligible and Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey – as well as plenty of reviews about the other novels in the Austen and Shakespeare projects, I’m no longer that sure.

I did like Eligible, and greatly preferred it to the McDermid Northanger Abbey, but I found myself liking it the most when it didn’t follow Austen’s template. There were some welcome plot surprises which kept the story interesting. In the exposition-heavy first chapters, I was afraid that here would be another author attempting a somewhat Austenesque style – I think Lydia once accuses Liz (the Elizabeth character) of using long words to make her seem cleverer, and the same accusation can sometimes be levelled at the third-person narrator. Soon, though, the style loosens up, and the dialogue between the Bennet sisters is lively and modern (even grumpy Mary is funny). But if I enjoyed the parts of the novel that were the least like Austen best, then how important is the whole Austen conceit?

My argument for approving, in theory, of retellings of the works of famous authors is that their readers are often as familiar with these plots and characters as they are with myths, legends and fairy tales. If these classic stories can be retold to interesting effect – as they so often are – why shouldn’t the same be true of the equally classic stories we find in novels and plays by authors like Austen and Shakespeare? The problem is that tightly plotted, realistic novels like Austen’s leave less room for manoeuvre than a myth/legend/fairy tale. The characters don’t need to be fleshed out – they are already – and there are few blanks to fill in as regards the plot. What’s more, while it’s par for the course to change things around anyway you like in a story that is part of an oral tradition, in Austen’s case there is a “true” story that the modern adapter has to take account of. You can depict King Arthur in a hundred different ways: the same can’t really be said for Mrs Bennet. Authors in the Austen project are further hampered by the fact that they to a large extent keep the same names as in the original, so there can be no question of “filing off the serial numbers” and keeping the readers guessing as to which character is supposed to correspond to which in the original.

In Shakespeare’s case – and I’m reluctant to admit this as I grew up with and loved the Lamb siblings’ Tales from Shakespeare in a Swedish translation – the plots of his plays, which he mostly filched from elsewhere anyway, are rarely the issue. From what I gather from the reviews, the authors of the Shakespeare-inspired novels have had more leeway than the ones involved in the Austen project, but they don’t seem to have come up with that many fresh ideas for all that. What, Leontes in The Winter’s Tale acts like a jerk? Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is hard done by? You astound me.

Having said that, I do think there is room for entertaining and even thoughtprovoking retellings of the classics. But it’s a tricky balancing act to provide variations on a well-loved author’s themes while in some sense staying true to the spirit of the original. In the “set in modern days” retelling subgenre, Sittenfeld fares better than most, but though I liked it, it reinforced my impression that prequels, sequels and retellings from other characters’ point of view do – at least in theory – provide more scope for the author and more fun for the reader. That is, as long as they are done well.    

onsdag 12 juli 2017

Becoming unstuck in novel reading – again

It seems that half the time when I blog about books, I write about the difficulty in finishing them rather than the books I actually have read through. Do other readers have the same problem? The book bloggers I’ve come across not only appear to read at an impressive rate, but also to finish the novels they’ve started as a matter of course. Since the spring, however, I’ve had several slightly depressing “I really don’t want to spend hundreds of more pages in these characters’ company” experiences.

First, it was a sort of crime story set in late 19th century New York. The settings were glamorous, the villain passably suave, if something of a gentleman gangster cliché, but after two hundred pages there was nothing to compel me to go on, as the protagonists – a well-to-do family who gets more and more involved with underworld activities due to their own stupid choices – did not interest me one jot. A little later, I started on Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which I might eventually get through, but not for a while. The Swedish translation is lively enough, but a little of this whimsy goes a long way: it’s awkward when a novel that would make a good lunch-time read during a working week is too bulky to lug to work (700 pages plus). Unlike with Kafka On The Shore, I don’t feel sufficienly drawn into a fascinating parallel world to want to spend hours of my precious summer holiday there. Then, there was the time-travel yarn in the vein of Jasper Fforde – complete with ballsy heroine – which was sadly not as good as anything by Jasper Fforde. I know that’s a pretty high standard to hold something up to, but it’s difficult to find the motivation to go on with something that is supposed to be light entertainment but which you don’t actually enjoy. I’d rather wait around for the real Thursday Next (where is she?).

A book I really must finish, as I’m already on page 426, is Anne O’Brien’s The King’s Concubine. And, well… It’s not bad. One quoted review calls it “better than Philippa Gregory”: I’d put it on the same level as Gregory novels I’ve read, but then I’ve not always been bowled over by those. The subject matter – Alice Perrers, a maligned mistress of the English king Edward III – sounds juicy enough. There’s a love interest with villainy attributes that jollies things along for a bit. But 620 pages? The rivalry between Alice and the king’s daughter-in-law Princess Joan, of which I had some hopes after a foreshadowing encounter between the two women when Alice was still a lowly novice in an Abbey, hasn’t really gone beyond petty court sniping yet. It doesn’t help that Edward III is the kind of chivalrous warrior king the English love, i.e. dull: not like his bruiser grandfather or his father of poker and unsuitable boyfriend fame. A plus when reading a novel about an historical figure you have no previous knowledge of is that you don’t know what will happen to him or her. The problem in Alice’s case is I don’t care that much. She rises from nothing, she’s ambitious, and a hard-headed businesswoman: the novel convinces me that she has a case. I just wish it hadn’t been such a lengthy one.

My own mood may be part of the problem here. The annual summer holiday is when you finally have time to relax hours on end with a book – which means that at least my expectations of a gripping summer read are sky high. Every page wasted on padding or less-than-thrilling exposition is deeply resented, as valuable holiday time ticks by. There’s also the fact that I’m on a bit of a daydreaming high at the moment. Daydreams are great when you have to wait in queues or perform the odd menial household task, but maybe they make it harder to engage in other alternative worlds: the ones you can reach by fiction. Perhaps the doors to other magical realms remain closed because I don’t push at them hard enough, being quite content to dwell in dream scenarios of my own.

Anyway, Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld is quite pleasant so far. If I finish that one, I might be in the right frame of mind to give Alice another try afterwards.

måndag 26 juni 2017

Vinick for President

If Doctor Who, with its whip-smart dialogue, likeable characters, engaging portrayal of different kinds of relationships (friendships, romances, family dynamics etc.) and (mostly) well-written ponderings on various themes can serve as an antidote to villain pining, then surely the same can be said for The West Wing, which also contains these ingredients? Sadly not. However, that’s no reason not to watch and re-watch this excellent series. If you’re a villain-lover like me, just be sure to have something a little less high-minded to break off with now and again. The West Wing is strictly superego fare, and a villain-free zone.

In a way, I respect The West Wing for having made this choice. Many political dramas concentrate on cynicism and wheeler-dealing, but they are also rather crude. I never got properly into the original, British version of House of Cards, and nothing I’ve read about the American version has made me very keen to give it a go. The Ruthless Politician so often ends up as just a hate figure for morally minded writers to tut-tut over. There’s no depth to this trope – if you’re looking for a convincing depiction of ambition and power-hunger, something to make you think “Yeah, I’d have done that too, and that, and… whoa, maybe not that, but I can see how you could end up that way”, you’ll have to look elsewhere than political drama. Perhaps it’s because we tend to see our political opponents as either fools or knaves, rather than as people who want the best for their country and humanity at large as much as we do, even if they are totally wrong about everything. And knaves, even really shallow ones, make better television than fools.

The West Wing does occasionally belittle the heroes’ opponents, but at least they’re not portrayed as plotting the end of civilisation in dark cellars. Yes, the political arguments are often weighted in favour of the West Wing team, but at least the opposition gets a hearing and some clever lines. Intelligent, articulate and funny Republican characters such as Ainsley Hayes do a good job of balancing out the pro-Democrat bias. Those involved in the political game come across as well-meaning men and women who are doing their best to make sure the country is governed as well as possible according to their lights. I think this might be a great deal closer to the truth than, say, Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister (admittedly comedy rather than drama), enjoyable though they are.

Yes, there were times when The West Wing risked becoming a little too smug – the episode where Will recycled eat-the-rich arguments which had been comprehensively panned by Sam in the early days of the series was a memorable low point. But then it rallied with season six and seven, and the presidential race between Democrat candidate Matt Santos and Republican candidate Arnie Vinick.

Much has been said about Jed Bartlet as the idealised American President par excellence, and yes, he’s not bad. But Arnie, wow – he’s the great presidential candidate that never was in my book. Hats off to the series makers for pitting their own favourite Matt Santos – highly moral but still humorous, brainy and sympathetically played by Jimmy Smits – against such a strong contender from the opposite team. The respectable, decent, sensible Vinick avoids taking cheap pot-shots at his opponents, argues convincingly and passionately for his ideas and occasionally makes courageous political decisions in his campaign that make you gasp for awe. Oh, and did I mention he’s played by Alan Alda? Honestly, who wouldn’t vote for this guy?

Admittedly, the balance created by having strong presidential candidates for each party is partly illusory because they are both pretty near the middle of the American political spectrum (as far as I’m able to judge from my ignorant, European viewpoint). But personally, I have no problem with this. Also, it’s a great deal more even-handed than earlier election battles where Bartlet stood against a fairly slow-witted Republican whom he could easily defeat in any verbal slanging-match – while simultaneously sounding as if he was far above such things as verbal slanging matches.

Arnie has my vote – at least my superego’s. My id wouldn’t mind a bit more of a whiff from the dark cellar.

tisdag 13 juni 2017

Just what the Doctor ordered

The good old remedy against villain pining, tried and tested during my Downton period, thankfully still works. Pity that there's such as limited dose of it available. But with the first part of Doctor Who series ten, containing six episodes, I did get two whole evenings' worth of TV watching without wistful thoughts about unattainable episodes of  Once Upon a Time season six (out on DVD in August, if I'm lucky). And hey, at least the present Doctor is a brainy being with special powers and nearly unlimited lifespan played excellently by a distinguished-looking Scottish actor and... argh, brave, moral and heroic. Not the same at all, then. Ah well, moving on.

I must admit to the cynical reaction "well, someone's earning some British Council funding" when I read that the Doctor's new companion Bill (a girl) was to be black and lesbian. (Not that Doctor Who creators need any financial incentive to be right-on, and it's perfectly possible they're not taking any of the BC's buck for "portraying minorities in a positive way".) However, the cheerful, inquisitive Bill proved to be a fully-rounded character, not an exercise in box-ticking, and may in my opinion be the best companion since Donna. I found Amy vaguely irritating at times, especially the nonchalant way she treated the supposed love of her life Rory, and Clara was hard to pin down - an intelligent control freak, yes, but otherwise a little too like Amy in her young Tardis babe-ness. It's not that I disliked them, but they didn't win me over the way Donna and Martha did. Bill seems warmer, and her crush on a mysterious girl in the first episode did not feel tacked on for effect, merely sweet. Once again - as in the Capaldi Doctor-Clara pairing - I'm relieved that there's no flirty Tardis banter on the menu. Bill's the Doctor's favourite pupil and surrogate granddaughter rolled into one, and it's a relationship that shows promise. I'm less sure about the inclusion of Nardole, the comic relief from the Christmas special The Husbands of River Song. True, they've beefed up the part, but he still doesn't feel entirely necessary to the setup.

Given the Doctor's aforementioned bent towards heroism and morality, not to mention the various script-writers' more or less well-guided attempts to Tell Us Something Meaningful, it's strange that I have as much patience with Doctor Who as I do and consider it one of my favourite shows. There are irritants in this series as in all the others. I'm getting fed up with the respect-for-artificial-life argument which gets another airing in the episode Smile - are we never to be free of bloody work, if not only clones but also robots are out of the question as unpaid workforce? And would even Karl Marx be able to make sense of the clumsy criticism of vaguely defined "capitalism" in Oxygen? But even if the Doctor's claim in Thin Ice that he's never had the time for "the luxury of outrage" is patently untrue, at least he and the series as a whole don't spend too much time on it. The adventures move on and the wisecracks keep on coming. Moreover, and I think crucially, the Doctor doesn't see himself as a hero. He always carries a fair amount of self-doubt with him, fuelled by the fact that trouble turns up wherever he goes. Even if he's "mucking in" and trying to solve every crisis he finds himself in, is it possible that he's creating more problems than he's solving? In series eight, the Doctor asked Clara "Am I a good man"? The answer is yes, of course, but the fact that he asks himself the question and never takes his own goodness for granted may have quite a lot to do with it. And he does have reasons for self-doubt - as we are reminded in Thin Ice, this is a man/time lord with so many lives on his conscience he's long since stopped counting them.

Part two of series ten won't be available on DVD until the end of July (still earlier than Once), but I'm greatly looking forward to it - especially as we're promised more of Missy and a glimpse of her previous incarnation. Maybe it will finally be explained in which circumstances that particular regeneration took place, and how much loopiness was passed on to the time lady "upgrade". This series is Capaldi's - and show runner Steven Moffat's - last hurrah, and I intend to make the most of it.

onsdag 31 maj 2017

Hercule returns, but did he need to?

We're back to the theme of character-pinching. Sophie Hannah - an acclaimed crime writer in her own right - has to this date penned two new Hercule Poirot mysteries, with the approval of the Christie estate. I'm ashamed to admit I have no idea who the Christie estate are, but they needn't feel they've sold out: Hannah's crime stories are high-quality page turners and suitably whodunnity. I was left wondering, though, if the link to Agatha Christie and specifically Poirot was strictly necessary. One thing is clear: if these books - The Monogram Murders and Closed Casket - hadn't been marketed as Poirot mysteries, I probably wouldn't have read them. Hannah's other novels appear to belong to a scarier crime tradition - the psychological thriller - than Christie, and I would not have thought of looking for old-style whodunnits among her work.

Something of a psychological thriller feel does seep into these new Poirot novels, but not so much as to keep one awake at night. They're not quite classic Christie crimes, being more focused on making the crime or crimes themselves bewildering conundrums. In the first book, the detectives have to figure out how the murders could have been committed at all; in the second, the big poser is who would kill a dying man. I must admit I found the solution to the murders, with regard to motive especially, less satisfying than in Christie. Christie is often underestimated when it comes to characterisation: her characters have a believability which makes the reader swallow one surprising reveal after the other without feeling hoodwinked (there are exceptions: I do think the solution of Sparkling Cyanide was a cheat both psychologically and regarding how the murder was done). In Hannah's Poirot novels, the murder motives are a little strange and twisted. Christie's murderers have a moral blindness in common, and the motive is often something prosaic like downright greed, but the murders tend to make sense in their callous way: there's seldom anything weird about them. Though there are exceptions here as well. You can say that Hannah's mysteries have more in common with A Tragedy in Three Acts than, for instance, Five Little Pigs. However much or little they resemble Christie, they're certainly a good read.

What of Hercule, then? Hannah's treatment of the iconic Poirot is pleasingly subtle. The egg-shaped head, green eyes, little grey cells and French-isms are given an airing (yes, I know, Poirot is Belgian, but he speaks French) but take a back seat compared to his detective skills. As in Christie, when it comes to explaining the crime at the end, Poirot is suddenly capable of flawless English. His deductions are convincingly brilliant. But as his mannerisms don't play much of a part anyway, I was left wondering why these particular crimes had to be solved by this particular detective.

The question why Poirot is really needed is highlighted by the fact that the sidekick Hannah has invented for him - Scotland Yard Inspector Edward Catchpool - is both likeable and competent. Christie herself favoured the idea of a decicedly dense sidekick for her detective, based on her rather ungenerous interpretation of Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Hence poor Hastings, who is never allowed to be right about anything. I prefer Hannah's approach here. It's easier to identify with a character who isn't supposed to be a complete dunce, and as the narrator of the novels Catchpool becomes the reader's point of reference. He is a little Eeyoreish - the fact that he is firmly in the closet, which is why a well-intentioned attempt on Poirot's part to fix him up with a girl falls flat, doesn't exactly help in that regard. But the hang-dogginess suits him, and you trust his psychological insight and common sense (for the most part, anyway).

Why, then, couldn't Catchpool solve these crimes singlehandedly? Why bring Poirot into the story at all? I would say that if Poirot adds anything, it's that little extra dose of brilliance. Catchpool is intelligent, but a bit of a plodder, maybe because he doesn't have the self-confidence to trust his grey matter the way Poirot does. Then, as I've mentioned, the presence of Poirot labels the mysteries as the kind of crime novels a Christie fan will like, and that is admittedly helpful. I like Hannah's understated Poirot, and if she writes any more Poirot-Catchpool mysteries I will certainly read them. If, in time, she lets Catchpool solve a crime all by himself, I'll read that novel too.                    

torsdag 18 maj 2017

A novel about a touching friendship. Oh, and some schoolgirls

Even though I cheated and read the novel in Swedish - a Swedish paperback was available for borrowing - I'm still a bit chuffed that I managed to make my way through all 500-plus pages of Tana French's The Secret Place in comparatively short time. It was, admittedly, not that difficult a read. The setting itself lends glamour - St Kilda's, a high-class Irish boarding school for girls.

As many Swedish book bloggers have testified, crime stories (or any stories, really) set in a school or university environment have a charm of their own which is hard to describe. (Swedish-speakers may want to check out this "If you liked The Secret History you'll love..." list, for instance.) Though some books in this genre are steeped in academe, others are decidedly not, and the school/university setting merely serves as a backdrop. Yet, it adds instant atmosphere. I'm slightly puzzled about my own fondness for academy yarns: yes, I can see the appeal of university, but school? It's not as if I'd ever want to go back to my own school days. A crucial aspect of these mostly-crime-novels, though, is that the school or university in question is always tradition-heavy and upmarket: not to put too fine a point on it, posh. So we get seemingly idyllic, leafy surroundings while being sternly told that these surroundings hide all kinds of sinister goings-on. It's a classic having-your-cake-and-eating-it scenario: while we are to draw the conclusion that we shouldn't judge an institution by its pretty façade, we wouldn't really want to do without the pretty façade in question in the story being told.

The Secret Place goes easy on the academe: The Likeness, also by French, was closer to The Secret History formula than this tale of moderately study-motivated teenagers. Still, there are points in common between The Likeness and The Secret Place, especially the theme of a close-knit group of friends where a threat to or perceived betrayal of the friendship eventually triggers a murder. This time, it's four girls in their early teens who share an especially intense bond. A year after a teenage boy, who was rumoured to be interested in one of the girls, was killed on St Kilda's premises, another member of the gang - the self-possessed Holly - brings a photo she has found on the school notice board where the pupils are encouraged to unload their secrets to the police. The photo shows the murdered boy and bears the inscription "I know who killed him". There are two separate mysteries, then: who killed the boy, Chris Harper, and who put the photo on the notice board? Holly's set, as well as a rivalling gang of girls led by the school bitch, are in the frame.

Though the schoolgirls are well-described, I found myself, surprisingly, more caught up in another plot thread: that of the two coppers on the case. Holly makes contact with a policeman working in the Cold Cases unit with whom she's had dealings before when she was a child witness: the unapologetically social-climbing Stephen Moran. Stephen brings the new evidence to the inspector in charge of the Chris Harper case, Antoinette Conway (who is only ever called Conway), hoping this will be his way to get a foot in the door of the Murder Squad. Conway lets him work on the case as second-in-command on sufferance, on the clear understanding that one misstep will land him right back to Cold Cases. First, I wanted Stephen not to let Conway down so he could continue working on the case (as one of the teenage protagonists might phrase it: well, duh). Then I wanted him not to let her down, full stop. In spite of reluctance from both sides, a rapport grows between them - Stephen, who's dreamt of a classy, cultured male working partner who could help him forget his own social insecurities, is surprised at how well he gels with a chippy female inspector from a similar modest background. Stephen is the narrator of half of the story - the other half, describing what really happened the months leading up to Chris Harper's death, is sandwiched in in alternating chapters - and I found myself looking forward to the cop bits, and hoping that Stephen's ambition wouldn't lead him astray and tempt him to leave what is obviously his ideal work mate in the lurch. I suspect that we're not necessarily supposed to want the cops to uncover the murderer, seeing as the culprit is most likely a mere girl who was only fifteen at the time of the killing. Well, tough. I was all in favour of Stephen and Conway getting their chit; careers and a potentially beautiful friendship are at stake here.

It's not as if the schoolgirl part is uninteresting, and I for one was convinced by the girls' teenage mind set. If I ever brave another Tana French novel, however, it will probably be in hope of seeing more of the Conway-Moran duo.