January 2013

The Well of Lost Plots

The Well of Lost Plots (Thursday Next, #3)The Well of Lost Plots by Jasper Fforde
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is book three in the Thursday next series. Swindon has become too hot, and so Thursday decides to hide out in book world, where she gets a job within the Well of Lost Plots (where unpublished novels languish) as part of the Character Exchange Programme, as a character in the unpublished novel, Caversham Heights. (funnily enough, I was in Caversham earlier today…)

We get all the witty dialogue and characters out of classic literature that we’ve seen in the previous books (not that this, or anything else will ever persuade me to *like* Dickens or Bronte – the horror of them is too deeply embedded), but the discussion on the “had had and that that problem” was simply priceless.

But I knew I was going to like this as soon as Thursday set foot aboard the one-engined Sunderland she called home. Why? Because my mum worked on Sunderlands for Short Bros during the war, and consequently it has long been one of my favourite aircraft, and any book with a flying boat in it (even a non-functional one!) will automatically get my vote!

Fforde’s sense of humour tickles me in just the right places, and although I haven’t read (and don’t necessarily intend to read) all the classics he references, that doesn’t in any way diminish the experience. Can’t wait for the next one.

BTW the version I “read” was the unabridged audiobook from Audible.co.uk, narrated by Gabrielle Kruger, and I’d definitely recommend this format and narrator if you’re interested in listening rather than reading.

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Django Unchained

Certificate 18, 2 hours 45, ★★★★★★★★★☆

Quentin Tarantino likes his red sauce, and Django Unchained has plenty of it. The film starts when bounty hunter and former dentist, Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz – Inglorious Basterds, The Green Hornet, Water for Elephants) buys the slave Django (Jamie Foxx – Collateral, Miami Vice, Horrible Bosses) to help him track down the Brittle Brothers in exchange for his freedom. Along the way, Schultz is persuaded to help Django find and free his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington – Boston Legal), who had been sold to ruthless plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio – Inception, Titanic, J Edgar).

It’s been a while since we had a decent Western, and Django Unchained kickstarts the genre with a brilliantly fresh, witty – and violent – way. Schultz is a silver-tongued, suave cynic, who believes that bounty hunting – bringing in criminals dead or alive – is a flesh for cash business just like slavery. When Schultz discovers that Django’s wife speaks German, he decides to help reunite them.

The performances from the cast are astounding. Foxx, Waltz and DiCaprio as the three leads surely delivered oscar-worthy performances, and Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen the house-slave delivers a masterful performance that is both funny and someone that you’ll come to really detest. There are many other big name actors taking on minor roles, such is the pull of a Tarantino movie. The music was brilliant, and the violence was extreme but artistic in a way that reminds you of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill and most definitely reminds you that this is a Tarantino movie.

Is this the best film Tarantino has ever made? No, that crown is still held by pulp Fiction. But this is close. Damn close. Awesome.

The Serpent in the Glass

The Serpent in the GlassThe Serpent in the Glass by D.M. Andrews
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On his eleventh birthday, Thomas Farrell finds out that his dead parents have left him a glass orb containing a mysterious serpent, and a scholarship to the Darkledun Manor school for gifted children. But the school turns out to contain a portal into a mystical and mythical land…

My first impression of this book was “Harry Potter meets Narnia”, but the more I read, the more i was reminded of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, although for a younger audience. This is aimed squarely at older children, or the younger end of the YA scale. We don’t get wizards and magicians, but instead worlds based on myth and legends, with a cast of mystical creatures and things that are not always what they seem.

If I have to be picky, I’d say that the book takes its time to get started, and then when it eventually does get going, it ends. At the end of the book we’re left feeling that things have only got started. On the plus side that leaves us longing for more, but on the minus side I feel we could have had more.

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Word Cloud

I recently discovered word clouds – graphical representations of the words in a piece of text, scaled by the number of times they occur, and arranged in aesthetically interesting ways. They occur frequently in the sidebars of blogs and forums, but we can also generate word clouds for anything, thanks to www.wordle.net. All you need to do is copy and paste your text into the text box on the Create page, and hit the Go button. That’s what I did with the first draft of Hunted, and this is what I got:
Word Cloud

Now, there’s a whole bunch of things you can change, both aesthetically (font, colours, word orientations etc) and informationally (number of words shown, suppressing common words etc). You can also get complete word counts (the word ‘the’ occurs 5499 times, for example).
Looking at the cloud for Hunted, my four main characters (Flick, Shea, Adam, Rosie) are obviously large, but there are some other, smaller words that appear to be rather prominent, and maybe deserve to be looked at in the second draft to see if they are being over-used (back, just, looked, around, like, well…)

Life of Pi

Life of PiLife of Pi by Yann Martel
My rating: 2 of 5 stars


Like many, I enjoyed the film and was conned into reading the book. It had “Booker Prize Winner” emblazoned on the cover, and that really should have been warning enough: nothing worth reading ever won the Booker, and this is no exception.

In it’s favour, it helped me get to sleep several times. Currently it’s available in the Kindle store for 20p, which is cheaper than a packet of Nytol.

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Gangster Squad

Rated 15, 113 minutes   ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

Reuben Fleischer directs Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Peña, Robert Patrick and Nick Nolte in this 1940s era gangster noir set in the streets of Los Angeles.

In 1940s LA, gangster Mickey Cohen (Penn) has got most of the town sewn up. The cops are in his pocket, and anyone who tries to cross him is fed to the dogs – literally. Until one grizzled, hard drinking police chief (Nolte) decides enough is enough. He instructs Sgt John O’mara (Brolin) to put together a covert team (“no badges, no names…”) and drive Cohen out of town.

Brolin has a touch of the Dick Tracy square jaw about him, and his team is a suitably oddball assortment of characters: Kennard (Patrick) and Ramirez (Peña) form a double act with Peña’s character being the sidekick ‘Hopalong’ to Patrick’s moustachioed gunslinger. Ribisi is a slightly nerdish surveillance expert and Ryan Gosling’s “Jerry Wooters” (yeah, right!) plays Face Man out of the A Team in a scorching romantic subplot with Emma Stone’s good time girl.

The script is often witty, with some cracking one liners (many of them rude), and there’s plenty of action and blazing tommy guns. Sean Penn’s psychopathic villain steals the film, and is absolutely worth the price of admission. This is no Untouchables, even though the plot has many similarities, and it doesn’t pretend to be, but it’s a solid 113 minutes of fun-toting action.

World War Z

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie WarWorld War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

You know that scene in Silver Linings Playbook where Bradley Cooper’s character gets so infuriated with Hemingway’s A farewell to Arms that he throws it through the window? Well that’s what i wanted to do to this. Only i didn’t because it was on my iPad, and that would be really expensive, yet alone the cost of fixing the window…

Global Zombie Apocalypse as told by the survivors, what’s not to like? On first sight, the oral history premise seemed really interesting (I’ve avidly listened to many of the WWII remembrances that the BBC has played over the years as part of their WW2 People’s War project – I’m a big fan), but frankly – and sadly – this came over like a political report, dull and lifeless (no pun intended). You only need to read the first couple of accounts, and you basically have the whole story. yes the others add little dribs and drabs of info here and there, but there’s no excitement or tension, or indeed anything driving or encouraging you to keep going.

The one good thing? The zombies didn’t sparkle.

There’s a movie coming out later in the year, but judging by the trailer, it has an actual story and isn’t a direct adaptation of the book. So it might actually be worth seeing.

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Les Misérables

Rated 12A for moderate violence and language, 158 minutes ★★★★★★★★★☆

Tom Hooper directs Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sascha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Eddie Redmayne in this adaptation of the musical by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer, from the novel by Victor Hugo.

There probably isn’t anyone in the country who hasn’t at least heard of Les Mis or the song I dreamed a dream (even if it’s only the Susan Boyle cover), regardless of whether they’ve seen the West End show. Now, it’s probably fair to say that if you hated the musical (or the song…), you’ll hate the film. but if you loved the stage show, boy are you going to lap this up!

The film is based on the show, which is based on the book by Victor Hugo. Jean Valjean (Jackman) has been imprisoned for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread. When he breaks the terms of his parole, he is mercilessly hunted by Inspector Javert (Crowe). Determined to turn his life around, Valjean becomes mayor and a factory owner. Here he crosses paths with the tragic Fantine (Hathaway), and vows to take in and raise her daughter Cosette. Some years later, the grown-up Cosette meets and falls in love with the revolutionary Marius (Redmayne), just as Paris is about to explode into violence…

The movie opens with a sweeping shot over wrecked ships of the line, blasted by waves on the beach and being dragged into a dry dock by hundreds of prisoners pulling on waterlogged ropes and singing the first number, Look Down. This sets the tone and scale of the film: Vast and sweeping; epic. It’s grim and gritty, brutal and relentless. The songs rip your heart out and then come back for more.

The film is very much in your face — literally — with the camera pushing in to extreme close ups. Not only do we get to see what the actors had for tea yesterday, but we also see the passion and commitment they bring to their part, often with throbbing veins to boot. Jackman and Crowe are the only real constants in the 17 years that the film spans; the other characters appear only for a much shorter time. Jackman carries the film, and although his singing is not to the standard of, say, a professional singer, it is competent if a little wobbly at times. Anne Hathaway makes but a brief appearance as Fantine, but her rendering of I dreamed a Dream, live and all in one take, is worthy of an Oscar (she already got the Golden Globe) and will be the standard for years to come.

Mention must also be made of Sascha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the comic relief villains Mr & Mme Thénardier, the evil innkeepers. Comic villains are somewhat of a speciality, and the pair are well suited to the parts.

If I have to find a criticism, it would be the sets. Particularly in Paris, and especially the barricade, look out of place compared to the rest of the film. They seem very small and static, giving the feeling that the action is taking place on a stage rather than in the streets of a big city.

Raw and slightly rough around the edges, nevertheless this movie has “Oscar” written all over it.

Man the barricades!

Old Man’s War review

Old Man's War (Old Man's War, #1)Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s John Perry’s 75th birthday and he has just two things to do: Visit his wife’s grave, and join the army. The Colonial Defence Force is recruiting. They only recruit from the elderly, and in exchange for ten years of your life (assuming you survive – there is a war on, after all) they will make you young again. But there is a catch: You will be declared legally dead, and must leave the Earth, never to return.

John signs up and is shipped out up the space elevator (or “beanpole”) and into a new life as a soldier. In the process he meets a bunch of new friends (“the Old Farts”), gets his rejuvenation, goes through training and off to fight the aliens.

In one sense, this reads like Robert A. Heinlein‘s Starship Troopers but with old people. And indeed Scalzi acknowledges Heinlein’s influence in the introduction. The characterisations are good, although in the early stages of the book, the Old Farts don’t seem to be as old as they should be – there’s less “oldness”; creaking limbs, bad eyesight/hearing, complaints and general crotchetyness than I was expecting. The aliens are mean, vicious, nasty, and not something you want to meet on a brightly lit battlefield yet alone in a dark alley.

It’s not a funny book, yet there is much to laugh about and Scalzi has a humourous twist to his writing. There are moving and poignant moments too, because ultimately this is a war story, and there are battles and not everyone survives.

There are several more books in the series, and I shall definitely be reading them.

I picked up this book as an ebook in a Humble Bundle deal late last year, and it’s the January pick over at Sword & Laser (which gave me a good excuse to read it – and I’m glad I did!)

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See the wrap-up video: http://timarnot.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/old-mans-war-update.html