Review: Mansfield Park – Jane Austen

2017:81
4 of 5 stars
Published in 1814

The next in my effort to read all of Jane Austen is Mansfield Park. This is the story of Fanny Price, one of the many children of a younger of three sisters, the one that married for love and now struggles to feed the children and pay the bills. Because she married against her family’s better judgment, she has had no contact with her sisters for many years but reaches out to ask for help in desperation. The other two sisters decide they should take on one of the older children, a daughter, and so they do. This is Fanny, of course, who is moved away from her home and beloved brother William to Mansfield Park where her aunt and uncle, the Baronet and Lady Bertram reside.

Fanny is homesick and miserable but makes friends with the younger of the two sons, Edmund, who treats her affectionately and looks out for her, at least some of the time. The two Bertram sisters more or less leave her to her own devices most of the time. Fanny is generally treated all right but is never allowed to forget she’s not their equal, a poor relation dependent on them, and is kept in the background, running errands and keeping her aunt company for her keep but Fanny is a quiet girl and seems happy enough. Things change when she’s about 17 and new neighbours, the Crawfords, Mary and her brother Henry, move to the area.

Talk about setting the cat among the pigeons! There are romantic entanglements, jealousy, scandal, and flirtatious games being played. Through it all, Fanny watches with an objective eye, the Crawfords are “society” and are shallow and insincere, they corrupt those around them but only Fanny seems to see it. She stays true to herself even when she is rejected and banished as ungrateful but never fear, Fanny gets her happy ending.

I like Mansfield Park a lot. Most of the characters are great fun, in that they’re not all upstanding, honest and stout hearted. Many are by and large devious, haughty, shallow, naive, self absorbed, shrewd and snobby. They aren’t horrible to Fanny mostly but they never let her forget that she should be grateful for the advantages they have provided for her and very surprised when she is shown to have integrity and a mind of her own, as most of Jane Austen’s heroines have, even if some of them are easily swayed from the straight and narrow path on occasion.

As with most of Austen’s books, it has been filmed. My favourite is the movie released in 1999 starring Frances O’Connor as Fanny and Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund.

Official trailer here.

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Review: The Skin of a Lion – Michael Ondaatje

2017:80
2.5 of 5 stars
Published 1987

I’m not sure what I can say about this book. As far as the prose goes, it’s written beautifully, very lyrical. The plot is a bit loose and felt a bit disconnected for me. It more or less follows Patrick Lewis through much of his life, hopping from childhood to various parts of his adult life, the things he did and the things that happened to him. There didn’t seem to be a lot to connect each section, as far as Patrick’s motivations at times.

It starts with the building of an aquaduct in Toronto in the 1920s. The workers are mainly immigrants. Several nuns stumble onto the unfinished bridge and one falls off, to be rescued by one of the immigrants. Each of the two characters do appear in the book later on but one seems to be only a support character and the identity of the other isn’t revealed for some time. They do have connections to Patrick Lewis who gets involved in other industrial projects that build the city including tunnels under the lake.

He also gets obsessed with finding a missing millionaire, finds love and affection a couple of times and some of his actions seem to happen for no discernable reason that was obvious to me. But I don’t always pick up on these things and if the story isn’t pulling me in, I tend to skim at times. It didn’t really feel like a story with a beginning, middle and end as such. Apparently, a few of the secondary characters are also in Ondaatje’s The English Patient. I read that a long time ago so I don’t remember aside from one name that sounds familiar.

Don’t take my low-ish rating too much to heart. It might be that I wasn’t in the right mindset to read this. I can appreciate the prose and the flow but it didn’t feel like a “story” to me.

Review: Hag-seed – Margaret Atwood

2017: 79
5 of 5 stars
Published 2016

I recently blogged about the Hogarth Shakespeare Project, modern writers creating novels retelling some of Shakespeare’s popular works. Hag-Seed is my first foray into an attempt to read all of them. Hag-Seed is a retelling of The Tempest and one of Canada’s top star writers, Margaret Atwood is the author.

Felix is the Creative Director of a theatre festival similar to the well known Stratford Festival in Ontario but his visions for his productions are definitely unusual and edgy. He is unceremoniously fired just as he was about to put on a production of The Tempest and his assistant has usurped his position. The other thing you need to know about Felix is that his small daughter, Miranda (named after the Tempest character) died a few months before the start of the book and he is completely devastated. Felix simmers alone in a rented shack for a few years with his memories, ghosts and anger then finds himself teaching theatre to inmates in a prison while biding his time plotting his revenge against those that brought him down. All the pieces fall into place eventually and he moves ahead with his plans while putting forth a production of, you guessed it, the Tempest!

As in The Tempest, Prospero/Felix gets his revenge, Miranda finds her Ferdinand, bygones are allowed to be bygones, spirits are freed. The story continues after the night the play is performed, because Felix has to be set free just as Prospero must be.

It’s an interesting take on the original. The characters don’t all mirror the ones in the play but the themes, revenge, grief and perhaps madness, certainly do apply here.  Leave it to Ms. Atwood to turn the tale on its ear so well! If the rest of the Hogarth series is as good as this one, it will be a real treat to read through them.

 

Review: The Thirst – Jo Nesbø

2017:78
4 of 5 stars
Published 2017

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson started me on a trail of books by mainly Norwegian and Swedish crime writers with a few other Scandinavian ones thrown in as I discovered them. Jo Nesbø is one probably my favourite. Most of his books have Detective Harry Hole (“Hooleh”) as the protagonist. Harry is deeply flawed, an addict and a brilliant cop, focussing particularly on serial killers.

Harry keeps trying to get out of the police business but keeps getting drawn back in to help his old colleagues. In this, the 11th in the series, Harry is lecturing at the Police College where his stepson is also attending classes. As always, there’s a murder and then another one and soon, Harry is coerced back in to help solve the crime.

Harry is married to his Rakel and is happy and almost second guesses it. He still dreams about the one that got away, the one killer he didn’t manage to catch, Valentin Geritsen. In the blurb for this book, they mention the new crimes as harkening back to Harry’s nemesis and that’s the name of one of the books. The new crimes are even more grisly and the serial killer is given the nickname  of Vampire Killer. Harry plays cat and mouse with him but even then, tries to pull away from the investigation due to Rackel having a health crisis but it’s in his blood. It’s not really a spoiler to say that the killer gets caught this time around but maybe there’s more to it than that. Harry certainly has a nagging doubt and sure enough, the twists just keep on turning.

Some familiar faces return. Followers of Harry will remember some of the details of their personal lives. There’s an exciting confrontation at the end, but which is becoming a somewhat regular occurrence in these stories. I wonder if this series is reaching it’s natural end and I’m sure the author is getting tired of trying to keep Harry’s world tense and exciting, trying to make the usually bloody endings with a fresh flavour of inventiveness and gore.

I wonder if Harry’s mixed feelings about staying away from the police force and getting dragged back in all the time are reflective of Nesbø’s with the character. Surely he must be to the point of wanting to write about someone different and I think it shows a little. I still very much enjoyed The Thirst. While I’d miss Harry, I’d also not want him to become a shadow of his former self so if at some point Nesbø gives Harry Hole a fitting ending, moving on to something else, I’ll go with him. He’s a talented writer and the translator seems to be spot on in keeping the book’s intended atmosphere alive.

Very much looking forward to the first American film made from a Nesbø novel this fall, The Snowman starring Michael Fassbender as Harry Hole.

Movie review: IT (and other Stephen King meanderings)

It might seem odd to post a movie review to a Reading themed blog but it’s a movie that was made from a book. “IT” is a 1986 novel by the horror writer Stephen King. It’s a big, chunky book that has two parts, one taking place in 1958 with a group of early-teens fighting an entity called Pennywise and then the second part some 25+ years later in the early 80s with the same group as adults returning to their home town of Derry to confront Pennywise again. Pennywise appears as a clown at first, to lure in children then it changes to represent the innermost fear on which it feeds. It may maim or kill and is terrifying. It lurks in the sewers, or in dark corners of old, abandoned houses, never out in the open sunlight. The kids are friends but are often bullied by the stronger and more popular children. They find strength in their bond as the Losers’ Club and that’s what gets them through this nightmare, both as children and as adults.

The book was made into a tv mini-series in the 80s starring British actor Tim Curry as Pennywise the clown and he was excellent, though for me, the best part of it. It was good, better because he was in it, but not great, as I recall.

The new remake of IT was quite good. I haven’t read the book since the 80s so I couldn’t say whether it followed it well or not but it only focussed on the part to do with the kids, not the adults years later like the original mini series did. It was set in 1988-89 which would bring the adult part forward to present day if there is a sequel planned, and it seems like there might be.

All of the child actors they cast were very good, which is unusual really (in my opinion). For me, there is always at least one or more that irritates me. Not all of the kids themselves are likeable but then that’s not down to the actors, just the character and I would think the actor must be doing a good job if he’s making the character annoying! The one playing the girl in the group was especially good. She’s Sophia Lillis and she’s got talent. She’s also really pretty now at the age of about 15. She’s going to be a stunner in 5 or 10 years. She kind of reminds me of Deborah Messing from Will and Grace. Talent and looks will take her far in Hollywood. Watch that space.

The man that played Pennywise the clown in this version is Bill Skarsgård from the Swedish family of actors. You’ve seen his father Stellan in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and his brother, Alexander, was in True Blood. We’ve only just seen Bill lately in a creepy series called Hemlock Grove. Excellent stuff with vampires, a werewolf and lots of other creatures. Tim Curry played the original Pennywise but Bill did just as good a job, I think.

Since this movie was all about the kids and their experience, it went into more detail about the lives of most of them and about their fears which is what the entity feeds on. Their parents are not major characters and only appear if it contributes to either the child’s state of mind or to their personal fears. If they do make a second movie about the adults, it should be interesting.

IT is on my list to re-read. Perhaps it would be a good October/Halloween book! I read a lot of Stephen King’s books back in the 80s with a few more in the past 10 years. I haven’t read the Dark Tower series so won’t be going to see the new movie out that’s based on them. Quite often, movies and mini-series based on King’s books have fallen flat which is a shame. Few seem to be able to really grasp the spirit of the book. Even The Shining with Jack Nicholson seemed to miss the mark a bit for em. Nicholson is great but his personality is so huge that it kind of takes over a bit. The Shining was one of the movies that was better received than most, however.

I wonder if part of the problem is that the King novels are usually so thick with lots of detail and that’s hard to translate into a film. By losing so much detail, you lose a lot of the plot and it doesn’t hang together as well. The movies then rely on effects and scare tactics rather than leading you into the situations more slowly where the creepy and scary bits then have more of an impact. At least, for me. In fact, it’s a general opinion that the best adaptations of King’s work have come from his short stories (Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption) with a few exceptions (Misery and the original version of Carrie were excellent adaptations from novels. You might think mini series would be better, giving more time to expand on the detail and the original IT wasn’t too bad at all but The Stand, one of my favourite books, really dragged. I loved the more recent novel 11/22/63 but I didn’t enjoy the series made from it, either. In my opinion, James Franco did not suit the lead part and they changed too much of it.

The new IT has managed to get past the details problem, probably by splitting the book into two movies, I guess. At the end, there’s a screen with “Chapter One” displayed, indicating there could be a second chapter. Hollywood loves sequels so it’s likely. If they do as good a job as they did with this one, it should be worth seeing and I would definitely recommend the movie we saw last night!

Another work in the making is a new limited 10 episode series that Hulu is producing called Castle Rock. King fans know Castle Rock is one of the towns that appear in a number of his books along with Derry, both towns in the easternmost U.S. state of Maine. Wikipedia describes the series as “The series is set to explore the themes and worlds uniting King’s entire canon, while brushing up against some of his most iconic and beloved stories. ” So far, Sissy Spacek and Bill Skarsgård are among two actors already cast, both of them being actors that have played in Steven King movies (Sissy was Carrie). It might be interesting, this “mash up” as it were.

Stephen King’s wife Tabitha is also a writer and I’ve read two of her books which were not horror based. His son Owen is now writing and collaborating with his father.

I do remember liking IT as a novel. My other favourite King books include 11/22/63, Christine, The Stand, The Shining, and The Dead Zone and Mr. Mercedes. Are you a fan? Which of King’s books or adaptations are your favourites?

Tis the season for free short stories


Heads up, readers.

Do you love short stories? I’m not an avid fan but I do like them now and then. Penguin Randomhouse has a great program where you can receive free short stories in your inbox in installments. Stories in the past have been written by a number of different authors, some very well known like Mona Awad, Yaa Gyasi, Jay McInerny and even Margaret Atwood. Each time they offer this, the stories are taken from books of stories by that author. It’s a sample and I suppose they hope you might buy the whole book.

The short story is divided into four parts and you will receive one part each day from Tuesday to Friday for three months. I did this last year. Some of them I liked though one or two weren’t to my taste. Everyone’s different, right? If you think you might like this, go to the website and sign up. You can read a little bit each day or save the four parts for the weekend and read the whole story at once. 

Book to Screen – The Snowman

Jo Nesbo is the Norwegian author of a series of crime novels about detective Harry Hole (pronounced Hoo-leh). Harry is a deeply flawed man, an alcoholic and a brilliant detective, especially when it comes to catching serial killers. In an interview that you can find on his website, Nesbo describes Harry as “an innocent with problems, becoming more and more like the criminals he hunts, gone to a darker , he’s on his way to hell”

The interview was recorded about the time The Snowman (#7) was released, which was 4 novels ago and at that point, Nesbo says there will not be a film made but it seems that over the past few years, he’s changed his mind or he’s finished with Harry novels. That was his other point, no movie until he’s done with Harry.

I really enjoy the Harry Hole novels and I’m excited to see that there will be a movie made from one of them, The Snowman. They’ve picked Michael Fassbender to play Harry. Not a bad choice, he’s fairly tall at least and Harry, in the books, is about 6’4″. Fassbender doesn’t have a face like 40 miles of rough road like Harry does, though, which is from all that booze, cigs and stress but I’m sure they can manage to make him look rumpled and worn around the edges. The trailer (see below) seems to show him looking fairly rough but he’s still a handsome man, Michael Fassbender and I always picture Harry as a man that might have been good looking in his youth but whose years swimming in the bottle and tangling with serial killers all show on his face.

So. The Snowman. I’ll copy my review here:

This is the third Jo Nesbo book i’ve read and I’ve read them all out of order. This one falls in between the other two I read and even though the killer from this book is revealed in the first one I read, The Leopard, I couldn’t remember exactly who it was at first. Even when I did, and was looking for clues, the story was so well crafted that I second guessed myself once. Inspector Harry Hole is on the trail of a serial killer who ends up being called The Snowman. He kills women who have children mostly. The women go missing and most of them were never found both in the past and in the present until the Snowman leaves a head of one woman atop a snowman in the forest.

Harry’s ex-girlfriend Rakel and her son Oleg are still weaving in and out of his world. He manages to stay off the booze most of the time and goes off on his own to investigate things which frustrates his superiors to no end. His new partner, Katrine Bratt is sharp and may have an agenda of her own. The climax would be a visual thriller if they filmed it. I like the Harry Hole books and I like the way Nesbo constructs his stories.

As I wrote above, I read Harry #8, The Leopard, before The Snowman but with enough distance between them that I didn’t remember who the killer was. It’s been enough time again, five years, that I can’t think who it is off the top of my head now, either! I do think I’ll try to reread this before seeing the movie though I’m actually reading the latest Harry Hole book, The Thirst, now. I would recommend reading his books in order because on occasion, he’ll mention something in a subsequent book that might spoil one of the previous books if you haven’t read it yet.

The movie, which is released in October, was filmed in Oslo and Norway and the trailer looks fierce: