Review: The Manticore – Robertson Davies

2017:85
2 of 5 stars
Published 1972

I read a few books by some newer Canadian authors over the summer. Now it’s time to go back to some of the classic Canadian writers like Robertson Davies. I avoided him for many years, thinking he would not be very interesting and perhaps when I was younger, I wouldn’t have appreciated him anyway. Last year, I read Fifth Business, the first of his Deptford Trilogy. The Manticore is the second of the three. Davies’ characters are really well drawn, interesting. I remember thinking after reading Fifth Business that I wasn’t so keen on the main character but all of the others that he encountered in his “life” fairly leaped off the page.

This book continues with a character, David Staunton, who was a minor character in Fifth Business who is also from the town of Deptford. I wasn’t too keen on him, either. After the death of David’s father, “Boy” Staunton, David retreats to Switzerland to enter treatment with a Jungian psychiatrist to figure out his relationship with his father and how it affected his life. Thus we return to his earlier life and experiences and follow them through as David gets to grips with who he is.

The Jungian psychoanalysis side was a hard slog for me so there were parts where I found it difficult to concentrate. And as was the case in Fifth Business, the characters David encounters in his life are more interesting than David himself. His father might have kept him on a short leash, but David was still a spoiled rich kid with a major sense of entitlement. He is a spoiled, rich adult too. I found the book a struggle to get through.

Davies is a very good writer and he ties things all together well. His books are not light and fluffy nor would you want them to be. He tells a good story and his characters are all well written. I only rate the book lower than I might have because I find it difficult to get on with a book where I find the main character uninteresting and I also didn’t enjoy all the analysis bits. It’s ok if I dislike a character because that’s often the intent of the author. But I found David to be far too self absorbed and had no charm or mischief in him. I suppose that also was the intent and I should take in the overall story and I did, which is why I didn’t give up on the book half way through like I thought about doing. It did keep getting pushed to the bottom of the pile, though and it took awhile to get to the end. I’m glad I got through it but I’m also glad to see the end of it, if you get my drift.

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Review: Practical Magic – Alice Hoffman

2017:83
5 of 5 stars
Published in 2017

In the book Practical Magic, we met middle aged unmarried  sisters, Franny and Jet Owens who are witches from a centuries-long line of Owens witches. The Rules of Magic takes a step back into their history and tells their story right up to about where Practical Magic starts (I think, I haven’t read it but I plan to, now!)

It is New York and the year is 1960. JFK is about to be elected and the civil rights movement is underway. Life is changing for the Owens siblings, too. Sussanah Owens sets out a long list of rules for her three children to follow, knowing they are all special and knowing it will get them in trouble. She’s pretty much just holding off the inevitable. She knows, because she’s been there.

Franny and Jet and their brother Vincent spend the summer in Massachussetts with their Aunt Isabel who acquaints them with the Owens family curse. You cannot fall in love or tragedy will follow. As magic becomes a bigger part of their lives, they test the curse and find out the hard way how it has to be for them as we follow them all through the turbulent 60s for the bulk of the book and then over the next 25 years to where Practical Magic starts.

I really like Alice Hoffman’s books.  This book had a great feel for the decade of the 60s where the main story takes place, and a wonderful way to bring the reader to the heart of magic with details and descriptions that made it all feel real. The characters are all shown to be complex and relatable. The scene shifts between New York, small town Massachussetts and California.  The story is about finding out who you are and accepting that when your family is cursed, it’s probably better not to tempt fate. It’s also about love because what is life without it? Maybe the two are incompatible. Or maybe they are if you’re an Owens with imagination.

Thanks to Netgalley for a review copy.

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.

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?

Review: Fall On Your Knees – Anne-Marie MacDonald

2017: 77
5 of 5 stars
Published 1996

This is one of my all time favourite books and I was due a re-read. In this year’s CanadianContent (on Goodreads) Bingo Challenge, one of the squares was to read your favourite book. Perfect opportunity!

Fall On Your Knees is the story of the Piper family, a nice, long, chunky book covering several generations of a family and mostof the early the 20th century in and around New Waterford and Sydney, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. It starts with Lebanese immigrant Materia who marries Cape Breton native James when she was a young teen, progresses through their four daughters, beautiful and talented Kathleen, Mercedes the mother figure, Lily, the disabled and much loved baby of the family and wild Frances and reaches the next generation. Themes touched on include war, incest, racism, prostitution, family secrets, abuse.  Did I mention family secrets? There are an awful lot of them. That makes the book sound awfully grim, doesn’t it? And yet the characters are so well written and the writing itself so superb that I found it hard to put down. Anne-Marie MacDonald is from Cape Breton so she knows the culture and the people very well.

This is a debut novel and made quite a splash at the time, at least , winning the Governor General’s award. Ann-Marie MacDonald hasn’t written very many full length novels but they are all very well worth reading. (The Way the Crow Flies (my second favourite of hers), Adult Onset) She tends to focus on plays and has a few novellas as well. She acts and has been a CBC presenter on The Life and Times.

This is my second last book to read to complete my Bingo Challenge, as well.