Monday, April 30, 2012

Film Review: The Raven

If you are looking for an Academy-award winning calibre piece of cinema, then this is not the place to find it. However, if you want some interestingly gothic-and-gore-infused representation of fan fiction in movie form, then you have come to the right place. With the insurgence in fiction of everyone from Alcott to Austen to Bronte to Twain solving crime, why should not the inventor of the macabre be given a turn?

Hi! I'm John Cusack and way hotter than the original.

Atmospheric, dreary, dark, claustrophobic, police-procedural, inventive, gory, blood-spurted and melancholy The Raven pits the world's greatest horror writer against a serial killer inspired to copycat his most famous works: The Pit and the Pendulum, The Mask of the Red Death, The Cask of Amantillado: if you have a weak stomach or thought that life-sized representations of the stories that kept you up at night would send you over the brink, then this is not the tale for you.  However, if you are fascinated to follow the breadcrumb trail of links and clues that lead you to search the recesses of your mind to excavate what you remember from the Poe canon, then hurrah!...  this is JUST like that episode of Castle where a criminal is inspired by Richard Castle's most famous novels and crimes ....except here.... the stalwart Inspector Fields of the Baltimore PD goes straight to POE --- the greatest horror writer and the greatest inventor of melancholia.

For those of us who know about Poe's life: his mysterious disappearance, his struggle to reconcile himself with his stand-up West Point career and this wife's death with the raging blood-red circumference of his imagination, his odd eccentricities, his alcoholism and his utter despair are couched here in the capable underplay of John Cusack.  There is enough fact blended in this utter fan fiction to give it some historical weight.   Not unlike the Guy Ritchie retellings of Sherlock Holmes, 1849 Baltimore, here, is a grey and bleak world of stolen shadows across cobblestones, sleek rain-slated windows and carriages groaning under devious weight.  And, speaking of Sherlock, we remember Watson mentioning Dupin don't we? In Study in Scarlet ? Yes. Yes we do!

I am over-acting in this scene, as I do all; but look! my coat! it doth swing! 

This is very much a police procedural and the smell of ink and death and the painful re-creation of horrendous Poe inspirations are all in front of you: so, if you have a weak stomach, this is not your film.  The horror, I must say, had a more grotesque "cartoony" feel which very much left it in the realm of popular imagination.  I enjoyed how Poe was regaled and horrified by seeing his work in actual light... how he struggled with the fact that his brilliant mind was responsible for inhuman horror.  Also, the story meandered into the realm (if weakly) of what is fact and fiction and at one point do authors become characters in their own stories: borne of the weaknesses subjected by the wrong interpretation of their work.

[---Also, Edgar Allen Poe has a pet raccoon.....  and he quoths the Raven at a pub where Higgins from N and S/ Bates from Downton is the barkeep.... true story]

An entirely amusing 2 hours at the movies and the perfect ending to a road-trip weekend I took through Kingston and Prince Edward County with two girlfriends.  We chuckled a lot at some of the reprehensibly cheesy lines and at Luke Evans attempt to chew the scenery, swallow it, spit it out and chew it again (he really was terrible in this film: interesting to note that Jeremy Renner was a first choice).

So, there it is: fan fiction on screen.....

Friday, April 27, 2012

Ode to My Book

hi book, i am jubilant.... i want to write your name with pink pen in my binder and draw hearts all around it, i want to say your name over and over again in dulcimer tones, i want to look up dulcimer to see if i used it correctly in a sentence, i want to imagine our white picket fence, i want to swing with you in a hammock. by a lake. with a picnic nearby. book, there is something about you that skips my heart beat, pounds a little delightful hammer in my stomach, that makes my breath go "oop!" and catch somewhere in my throat. i equate you with sunshine and lollipops, you're a rainbow-studded,gold-embossed,skittle-taste of adoration. book, you and i were meant to be. in that epic 'casablanca' type of way. compatible? damn right we are. book, sweep me up and hot air balloon me away.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Great Adaptations IV: 2011 BBC

It’s been awhile since Great Adaptations last showed up on le blog.  However, that was because even though I watched the 2011 BBC version at Christmas, I wanted to ensure that all North American friends had the chance to view it on Masterpiece Theatre.  Since my DVD arrived last week, I have spent many an hour carefully perusing it and experiencing each minute detail which has more sternly formulated my opinion that it is the best film adaptation to date. That’s not to say that it isn’t without flaws or that it doesn’t distance itself from the text; but its choices make a lot of sense and it “feels” like Great Expectations: from the murky marshes to the clouded, cloistered cobblestones of Pip’s London, through the satined lace of young women lined like a garland at a party as Pip takes Estella’s ivory hand to the decrepitly ravished wedding feast of the irreplaceable Miss Havisham.

The characterization is deft and taut and each of these well-known personages, who could easily become caricatures so inferenced are they in our cultural psyche, are instead the embodiment of pathos and light, of humour and heartbreak: of proof that, above all, Great Expectations is a narrative borne of extraordinary acts of unwarranted kindness.

It is no surprise that I am completely befuddled and bewildered by the continual influence this particular tale has on me: how it exposes my vulnerability, my strengths, and the darker tenets of human expectation: the trajectory, and further tragedy, begotten of our wanting something more…. But this particular series drew from creaked corner into luminous light the characters I have often felt between the pages of my well-worn novel.  During the Bicentenary Celebrations earlier this year, one statistic ( which I cannot cite, unfortunately) listed both Miss Havisham and Joe Gargery as two of the 10 best-known Dickensian characters.  Great Expectations---whether having been forced on readers in high school---or having been re-visited with stylistic enterprise in the 90s or whether (fortunately) given weight  in two current adaptations ( this miniseries and the upcoming Hollywood) film or even as a funky premise for a South Park episode--- is an inescapable portion of the Western canon.   Perhaps because we can see so much of ourselves in Pip, we can see so much of what we would like to be in the actions of Joe and Herbert and Magwitch, we enjoy the Soap Operatic twists and turns linking Estella, her bat-crazy adoptive mother and the sinister Jaggers and his erstwhile maid Molly---- it’s human relations: sex, power, money, loss of money, disillusionment, odd reconciliation at its best.

There’s crime, almost murder, escaped convicts,  boat chases, whirls of balls and abusive husbands…. Who wouldn’t want this? 

As ultimately complex as the tale is and as many characters as it introduces ( some completely left out of this particular imagining: most noticeably Biddy) it is, at its core, a sleek bildungsroman pitting a young and good-hearted orphan against the sudden Cinderella-like fate that follows him to his apprenticeship years as a blacksmith in the Kent Marshes.

This adaptation has received numerous BAFTA nominations for its craft and presentation and it is quite easy to see why:  it is a tangible and delectable world that you can smell and see and touch: it is gritty and horrible, it is crusted with the mould of Satis House and encrypted in the smoke billowing from the forge and as Pip sheds his cocoon to dress in the gentleman’s clothes that propel him out into society with his lovely pal Herbert, we see the finest threads carefully woven to speak their intricate tailorship: a perfect recognition of the period and the Era’s finery.
It also includes some of my favourite performances of some of the best-loved Dickensian characters.  For my part, I feel  that this adaptation’s Herbert Pocket, Magwitch, Joe Gargery, Pip and Miss Havisham are the best I have seen.

I encourage you to spend some time in this world. I have revisited it quite a bit.  This past week, I was traveling for work and ended up steeping some tea in my hotel room and catching it again on iTunes:  obsessed? Perhaps a little; but more enamored and bewitched that a dazzling presentation has wrought from my mind’s eye to camera’s lens a kaleidoscopic Victorian world I crave to seep into time and again.

Pearl in the Sand by Tessa Afshar

Pearl in the Sand is an exceptionally readable retelling of the Rahab story from the Book of Joshua in the Bible.

Rahab is sold into prostitution in the booming and lawless metropolis of Jericho at the tender age of 15 when her farming family becomes destitute.  There, she works her way up to become the key innkeeper in the city,  having earned enough money to build her own inn within the bordering infamous walls of the great city centre.  The more Rahab hears about the one true God of the Hebrews, the more curious she becomes.  Having always been conflicted by her forced profession, she wonders if there is a God of compassion to withstand the pagan gods of the temples peppering her town. When two Hebrew spies arrive at her inn, Rahab is met with a choice: act in a great and dangerous leap of faith, or ensure her comfort and safety and wealth are retained.

Unlike most fictionalized accounts of Rahab’s famous Old Testament story, the famous portion of Rahab and the spies takes only the first third of the book.  From there, we are walked through Rahab’s joining of the Israelites, immersing herself in their faith, eyeing from distance the great battles fought between Hebrews and foes and her growing attraction with great military leader, Salmone.

Both Rahab and Salmone are the crux of the story and are both equally well-developed: their lives and budding relationship interspersed with the great canvas which highlights the many famous acts and stories surrounding Joshua: from the tumbling of the walls by trumpeting fervor, through Aichan’s sin and some of the great battles fought, to the day the sun stood still.  Joshua, a well-rounded peripheral character and sage voice offers many intriguing moments of illicit faith.  I applaud  Tessa Afshar for colouring the story in such a unique light and focusing on tenets of the book usually left un-realized in other fictionalized versions of the tale.   Afshar is very confident in how her painting and portrayal of a troubled relationship will offer a great light when mended and string a strong lineage (from Rahab and Salmone’s son Boaz onward ) to the coming of Christ in the New Testament.   Afshar’s research is evident and I was captivated by the tent rituals of the Hebrew women, the focus on hospitalization and medicine after the gory battles of the field and the day-to-day life of a burgeoning nation as it struggled to find its own place ----away from the long provided-manna and leadership of Moses, leaving the wilderness years long behind.   I must also commend Afshar’s battle sequences. They were wonderfully rendered and were very realistic.  I felt my heart pulsing as she cited almost immeasurable odds.

Great Biblical fiction can do well at extrapolating an imagined (and believable ) backstory to a few verses blatantly transcribed.  I felt deeply for Rahab and her insecurities about her impurity and her past and her desire to become worthy of the God who will save her and the new husband who obviously loves her, no matter his initial reticence to wholly embrace her past. This was a strong theme painted and very encouraging to those of us who doubt how an unconditional love could reach us.   Stronger in thematic depth and precision,  I preferred the backlight to this story to the famous (overhyped?) Redeeming Love: a grandiose re-setting of a popular tale.

The book, however, is not completely without fault.  Afshar errs at breaking tone and timbre by inserting decidedly distracting modern humour and sarcasm.  Characters are said to “roll their eyes” and some of their familiar interactions complete detract from the verisimilitude surging through so much of the book.  Indeed, I ended up rolling my eyes. Afshar was forced in these moments trying so hard to mete her characters with human warmth and frailty: but rather than eliciting a smile, they just made me cringe in awkwardness.   That being said, 75% percent of the novel was expertly penned, the dialogue ( when not straining to match the perceived need for audience humour )_ was acute and the historical detail was fascinating.

Looks like Afshar has a new release out and I look forward to seeing how she colours in the lines of another strong Biblical woman!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Interview: Sara Humphreys author of 'Untouched'

Hello !  This is not a genre I usually read or review so I was excited to try a taste of Paranormal Romance.  I am so excited that Sara Humphreys was kind enough to answer a few questions about her new novel, Untouched . Please read the interview below.  I have TWO copies of Untouched available to American and Canadian readers so please leave a comment below and I will draw two names :)

1.     The Amoveo have surprising gifts—if you could have just one gift what would it be?
  SH:That’s a tough one but I’d probably go with telepathy. I think it would so cool to be able to have secret, intimate conversations with a lover in the middle of a crowded room.

2.     You are also a seasoned actress; did your tenure in television inform the way you write fast-paced scenes? Are the two mediums very dissimilar when approached from a creative standpoint?
SH: I haven’t worked as an actress in many years but there are certain similarities from a character development stand point. I got back into writing because I craved a creative outlet. Building worlds and developing characters is something you do as an actor as well. When diving into the mind of a character, it’s important to understand where that person came from because that drives where they’re going.

3.     If you were to write in a genre other than paranormal romance, what would you like to try your hand at?
SH: I’d probably go for contemporary romantic suspense or delve into the YA pool. You never know….

4.     Ok, can I just say how much I loved a "big-boned", normal looking heroine who attracted a sexy fox (literally)! Can you speak to this empowering choice?
SH: Easily. I am a “big-boned” gal. I was at my heaviest in my early teen years—I tipped the scales at about 230 pounds but by the end of high school, I’d lost quite a bit of weight. I’ve struggled with my weight for my entire life and I’m sure I always will but I never let it stop me from going after what I wanted. I enjoy writing imperfect heroines and heroes…who the hell wants to read about someone who’s perfect?

5.     What is currently on your night-table (or e-reader?)
SH: Enraptured by Elisabeth Naughton.

6.     I loved the New Orleans portion of the setting as I recently took a vacation there and think it works well for supernatural stories laden with portentous clouds. Can you speak to how the city inspired you creatively?
SH: My husband and I have visited New Orleans several times and stayed at the Hotel Monteleone in the French Quarter.  We love it there and I feel like no matter how many times we go, we always find something new to see. It’s a city rich with history, mystery and color. In fact, we’re going back next week for a signing at the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone. I can’t wait!

7.      Finally. Casting call! Who would you cast in the film version of 'Untouched'?
SH: Plus size model Crystal Renn would be perfect as Kerry and Joe Manganiello, the hot werewolf on True Blood, would be a dynamite Dante. *sigh* A girl can dream….

My thanks to Sara for writing a spicy novel and for SourceBooks for providing a review copy.


She should be seen, but never touched…
Kerry Smithson's modeling career ensures that she will be admired from afar, which is essential since mere human touch sparks blinding pain and terrifying visions.

Every good model needs a heavenly bodyguard…
Dante Coltari is hired to protect Kerry from those who know who she is—or more importantly what she is—and want her dead because of it. Nothing could have prepared him for the challenge of keeping her safe. But, strangely, his lightest touch brings her exquisite pleasure rather than pain, and Dante and Kerry have an otherwordly connection that might just pull them through.

“Red-hot love scenes punctuate a well-plotted suspense story that will keep readers turning pages as fast as they can.”
Publishers Weekly Starred Review

Sara Humphreys has been attracted to the fantasies of science fiction, paranormal, and romance since her adolescence when she had a mad crush on Captain Kirk. An actress and public speaker, Sara lives with her husband--who is very considerate of her double life--and four amazing boys, in Bronxville, New York. For more information, please visit http://sarahumphreys.comLike her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter 

Monday, April 09, 2012

A Reluctant Queen: The Love Story of Esther by Joan Wolf

Hello friends! Happy Easter Monday! 

I read this book over the weekend and I found it ridiculously empowering---with the same empowerment I am always surged with when I retreat into one of the tales of the many, many amazingly strong women of the Old Testament.

The story of Esther and her marriage to King Ahasuerus is a popular and well-loved tale from the pages of Scripture: the love story of a beguilingly beautiful Jewish woman who hides her heritage in order to win the King's hand and his ear as she attempts to quell the plots of the King's grand vizier, Haman, who wants to initiate one of history's first genocides.  

From the beginning pages when we read of Esther's quiet life with her kind and wise kinsmen Mordecai to her unwilling renouncement of her Jewish faith in order to live by the King's Persian rules in hopes of being chosen as queen from his large Harem, this ancient world is filled with rich-tapered threads and the palpable scent of spices and mysticism.   Biblical fiction when done poorly can be ripe with redundancy; but Joan Wolf has a talented knack for creating a world and fleshing out characters often marginalized by the confines of their ancient text.  I was riveted from the moment Esther hears of Queen Vashti's untimely fate and through her first meeting with the King ( with whom she develops a completely unexpected rapport).  

Like the Book of Ruth, Esther is one of the Bible's Cinderella stories: it rewards a strong and innovative and resourceful woman and commends her for the risks she takes to save her people.  The King she is initially warned about melts into a kindly figure who shows unanticipated compassion; the villain is given just reward, and Esther and her Uncle are given the satisfaction of knowing that their Jewish relatives are saved from an awful fate.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Bible is how God used unexpected people: beautiful women, prostitutes, Moabite strangers, warriors and Queens to solidify his master plan. Esther is a strong and good-natured woman with a succinct devotion and unwavering loyalty to the right.  She deserves the sweet and slow romance which blossoms between her and the King.  She deserves the happy end to a troubled fate. 

I have already pre-ordered Wolf's retelling of the Rahab story and cannot wait to sink my teeth into more of her well-researched description.

For those who are not convicted by a religious sense, you can easily seep into this story regarding it as a powerful and well-penned chapter of political history. Wolf paints well Esther and Ahasurerus; but also Haman, the court Eunichs and servants who serve the Queen and the financially-sound Mordecai whose conviction propels Esther into the fate which secures her people and inspirationally launches the well-loved and still-practiced celebration of Purim.

Read this book!  Romantic! Historical! Colourful!  and a serene portrait of one of history's most memorable royals!

Friday, April 06, 2012

Good Friday

‎" He had the honesty and the courage to take His own medicine. Whatever game He is playing with His creation, He has kept His own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that He has not exacted from Himself. He has Himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life to and the cramping restrictions of hard word and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When He was a man, He played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace, and thought it was worthwhile.”---Dorothy L. Sayers

Thursday, April 05, 2012

'War Horse'

Last night I saw the National Theatre’s Production of War Horse at the Princess of Wales here in Toronto.  Based on the best-selling novel by Michael Morpurgo and inspiration for the recent film (my review here), War Horse is a steady and episodic tale of the love between a horse and his boy amidst the turmoil of the Great War.

Raised from a foal by Devon farmboy Albert, Joey grows spirited and special: a plough horse even though a natural, thorough-bred hunter, and a constant companion to his adoring master.   Albert’s oft-drunk father Ted breaks a promise to his son and sells Joey to Major Nicholls when the bells toll and the outbreak of England’s war against Germany commences.  Joey finds himself on both sides of the lines in France and Albert, underage, runs to join the conflict in hopes to find his Devon Yeomanry and bring his horse back with him. A powerful and resonating tale as old as time: of an animal/human bond forged greater still by absence, War Horse is a touching story.

The play itself is magnificent, ultimately because the staging is so unique and the horse puppetry (propelled by humans at first visible through the skeletal structure of the horses until they blend behind the camouflage  of imagination) is so excellent.  The sets are simplistically haunting with a scrap of paper: as if torn from a novel or a page of Major Nicholl’s sketchbook spans the back of the proscenium arch matching the action of the players with sketches evoking Devon’s spires and farm fields and, later, the tyranny of the Somme and the action in No Man’s Land.  The action of the story is often interrupted by a wandering minstrel who sings old  Northern tunes while playing a fiddle.  While this was effective when backed with the harmonized chorus of the cast, it was sometimes off-setting and distracting: as you would settled into the quiet action and disturbance of a scene only to be drawn out by a repeated ditty.  The “canned” music which offers soundtracked canvas to the story can also seem a little melodramatic: sometimes silence is indeed better.

The play develops Joey and the physically grander Topthorn as living, breathing characters whose interactions with humans form the crux of the story. Indeed, it is through the eyes of the horses forced into War that humanity is exposed: from both sides uniting to untie Joey from barb-wire to the young French girl Emilie and the conflicted Calvary-officer Friedrich Mueller bonding over their common interest in the horses.  

Why War Horse works so well as a story is that it takes a bird’s eye (or horse’s eye) view of the War while evoking all sides of the War in an unbiased and gentle way: there are characters from torn France, Germany and England all moved by their exasperated situations and extracting the emotional investment of the audience.  Often, the horses are the common denominator in this bleak world of bloodshed and horror.

As mentioned, the staging is really quite remarkable: some scenes, including the trek of the soldiers and the horses bobbing along with a multitude of ships from Dover to Calais across the channel is artistically rendered and quite breathtaking.  The pulsing nearness of a life-sized tank and the ricocheting sounds of artillery and machine guns are also present and alive.  The audience is more drawn in by the usage of the entire theatre as a space for action: the horses and players widely use the aisles to run back and forth spreading the canvas of the stage to the entire theatre. I sat orchestra just right of center and had a beautiful view aligning the action; but still far enough back to not see every wire and detail. 

The story itself is  an exercise in simple magnificence: farm boy far from home trying to reconnect a severed bond between himself and his spunky horse.  The end of the story will move anyone to tears and the well-familiar lump in your throat will recur throughout the action.

This is a wonderful piece of theatre, expertly staged.  Further, it is a lovely homage to a hard-to-tell novel by one of the strongest writers in contemporary children’s literature.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

The Messenger by Siri Mitchell

Siri Mitchell’s work is often featured here because I think (nay… I KNOW) she is one of the strongest historical voices in the CBA.  One such reason for commending her is her wide range. Unlike many authors of her ilk, she stretches boundaries by playing with narrative voice and writing well-researched books about a variety of time periods.  She is clever, intelligent, writes inspiring heroines dealt interesting hands in a myriad of historical eras and fills her prose with acute verisimilitude which reads in a flawless, effortless manner.

Here, Mitchell’s canvas is the conflicts embedded in the Revolutionary War.  Philadelphia: from its higher society to its low tavern world is peppered with spy rings, mystery, heart-pulsing tension, and cloaked faith even while humanity pits against each other.  The Messenger is divided between the voices and perspectives of young Quaker woman Hannah Sunderland and Colonial spy Jeremiah Jones. Hannah, desperate to aid her rebel twin brother during imprisonment is forced to live outside of her usually rigid and conservative realm.  Jeremiah, knows he needs the guise of Hannah’s innocence to help permeate the prison walls; but is initially unsure if this strict young woman is up to task.  Both Hannah and Jeremiah will have to test their own wills, trust in each other and step outside of their comfort zones to achieve their mutual purpose.

There is a love story in the novel; but it takes back-burner to the well-wrought tension at the forefront. Indeed, Mitchell  does well at plotting and propelling action forward simultaneously developing her characters and their growing attachment in stride.  There is a palpable sense of dramatic irony felt from the first few pages for the anticipating reader; but Hannah and Jeremiah remain realistic unsure of their growing dependence on each other.  Thus, their relationship is meted out slowly and in a believable manner.

I read somewhere ( perhaps on the thread Siri Mitchell contributed to on the Bethany House facebook page) that Revolutionary History was is not deemed overly popular in the CBA: I, however, was fascinated by this unique setting and immediately want more.  It made me want to revisit the beautiful HBO John Adams film and re-read more about our American neighbours and their hard-fought forge toward independence.  I  appreciated Mitchell’s inherent grasp of Quaker traditions: including the “thees” and “thous” implanted in dialect.  This put me in mind of Alice Henderson in Catherine Marshall’s Christy and allowed me to readily establish a narrative constant in my head when reading Hannah’s version of the story.

I also very much enjoyed the unbreakable bond between Hannah and her twin brother. I had often heard that twins can experience the misfortune of one another and that indelible invisible thread that forces Hannah to risk all to save her beloved brother was quite moving.

There is an adamant and abundant theme of grace and trusting; yet, none of the characters are “sickeningly” Christian.  In fact, Mitchell excels at penning heroes and heroines tested by faith and plagued by the doubts that withstand any time period.  None of her heroines are perfect; yet all strive to live up to the metrics of their conscience: which is all that one can ask given the frustratingly blurred line between dark and light so apparent during this time in history.

A few Siri Mitchell review from the backlogs:

I received this review copy from Graf Martin Communications on behalf of Baker Publishing Group.