Monday, October 16, 2017

A Life by Guy de Maupassant * *

It’s been awhile since I’ve read anything not written in this century, or the end of the last one. Growing up, I was quite taken with historical fiction, mainly Dumas. However, since then I’ve mostly focused on the problems of the modern man. I’ve decided to venture into the world of the classics to see if I’ve left them hastily, and realised I haven’t. While Maupassant’s short novel was okay, I didn’t find it engaging for the present time.
I purposefully didn’t read any analysis of this novel, because I wanted to draw my own conclusions. I did read the writer’s life though. Now, for all I know, I could be completely misunderstanding the text. However, a text always means what it means to you. No one can be in another real person’s head, just in that of their characters’.

The story itself is quite simple. You can see what’s going to happen a mile away. It’s mostly about the life of a moderately wealthy French lower aristocrat woman. It starts the day her adult life begins, and concludes at a point where it changes drastically once more.
There were many themes in the novel, in spite of it being quite short. Morality, religion, child rearing, classes were all touched upon. While it talks about a lot of things, it concludes nothing really. It’s a description of things as they are, and therein lies my problem with it.

Morality in the story is not at a high point. Basically, everyone cheats on everyone, and everyone is sleeping with everyone. Except for the heroine, but she’s different. I’ll talk about her later. Apart from sexual morality, the only other morality it concerns itself with is that of the morals concerning the responsibilities of a child towards their parents. In that regard we see two opposite examples. However, it is left to the reader to draw conclusions from the examples. One is clearly positive, the other negative, but the reader could excuse the actions of the negative example with bad child rearing.
Religion is also a theme. For the story, the role of the local priest is more that of a settler of people’s affairs, than anything really religious. There are two examples of priests as well. From the story, I’m inclined to say that the writer favoured a naturalist deism, than organised religion. However, I did find the part of the boy’s catechism interesting, because it seemed to suggest that everything that happened after missing that was because of the lack of religion in the child’s upbringing.
This leads me to the child rearing aspect of the story. Maupassant himself was brought up in the country, and then sent to school, which he hated. We see three examples of bringing up children in the story, though one we don’t completely see. Both the aristocratic children, the main protagonist herself was brought up with ideas of natural romanticism, where everything feels like a romance novel. The boy is brought up similarly. Both have the problem of not being able to exist in the real world, outside of their own little niché. Makes me wonder if Maupassant felt like a fish out of water as well. The third child’s, the peasant boy’s upbringing was probably different, and more work oriented. He turned out much different. This part also makes the point of the value of hard work, and that with that people can accomplish a lot.
This difference is child rearing also points towards the heavy classism in the novel. The peasants are praised for their hard work, but also not thought of as much. Their morals are loose. One priest says one of his main jobs is that when he sees a peasant girl getting bigger, to find the boy who did it and get them married. It even often mentions that peasant girls almost always get married pregnant. “Jeanne did not belong to the race of peasants who are dominated by their lower instincts.” Their thoughts are materialistic and simple. Rosalie’s future husband’s thought is only towards money, not his future wife. The aristocrats are idle, and mostly don’t do much. While their morals are also described as loose, somehow that feels to be forgivable, and not derogatory. 

I also want to talk about the characters a bit. Jeanne is the main character, it’s basically her life that it talks about. However, the focus does feel to be mainly on the different women in the story. The life of the aristocratic women is idle. They wander around all the time, not doing much of anything. Jeanne did have ideas of maybe travelling, but other than her honeymoon, she never actually left her home. At first she was bothered by this, but as her life found the focus of her son, she lost all interest in anything else. This is what makes the story very boring for me. She just lets things happen to her, but is never an active agent in anything. Not even her own marriage. I know probably a lot of women felt like this in her time, but we know plenty of examples of women who found ways to revolt. In fact, since Maupassant’s mother got a divorce, she seemed to be one of them.

And we reached my real reason why I didn’t like this novel. The whole thing is a description. It’s slow. It’s made up of pictures, but you never actually feel the characters. You know that even in film there are moments when you see someone, they don’t speak, but you can feel what they are feeling. Here you never really get that sense. You are closed off from Jeanne. She’s like a doll. Pretty, blank, glass eyes staring out of an empty head. In fact, most characters just don’t feel real in this story. They are examples. Dolls. Not real personalities, never developing, evolving, changing. Stagnant. I’m not sure if that is on purpose, but it makes me angry. It makes me think that if Maupassant saw people this way, then he never really saw anyone with all their complexities, motivations, histories, struggles and achievements. There is no empathy.

Upon starting this novel, I wondered if it could say something to me. It couldn’t. It gives a detached, simplistic view of the world. It shows things, but doesn’t say much. It never shows a resolution for the problems, or even an attempt to make the situation of the characters, or the world better. What I felt at the end was emptiness.
The 21st century human is not inspired by such stories. If we look at popular literature now, it’s full of people who struggle, fight to make the world a better place. That is what we need. Stories that inspire us to want to change. We can’t be idle. 

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Caliban's War (The Expanse, #2) by James S.A. Corey * * * * *

After reading Caliban’s War, I realised what I missed from Leviathan Wakes. The excitement of not knowing what was going to be next! I’ve seen the TV show, so I knew what was going to happen. However, since the show stops at about half of the book, the rest was a mystery. I couldn’t put it down. Literally, I would walk home with my Kindle in my hand, and just letting my feet take me.

The story went more into politics with the few new characters.

One was Avasarala. Pretty high up in the UN food-chain, those who watch the show know her already. She only gets introduced in the second book, though they wrote her some parts in the first season. I’m really happy they did that, because she’s a great character. I love that she’s like a posh Indian lady, who curses like a sailor. It’s also very interesting to see the point of view of someone who is so politically savvy. Avasarala for President! She’d hate me for that.

The other was Bobby. She’s a Martian, which can sound a bit funny, but she is from Mars. In her story there is a very interesting difference between the TV show and the book. In the TV show she makes a big deal of wanting to see the sea. Which does make sense, since coming from Mars, she had never seen such a thing. It also gives her an opportunity to get to know some of the differences between what she was taught about Earth, and what the actual facts are. In the book there is a similar scene. She doesn’t want to see the sea though, she just needs to go for a walk. She also meets some people, and realises that the people of Earth don’t have it as easy as she thought. The difference is, in the show, Earth is depicted as a much darker place. Yes, in the book they do mention that it’s not that easy to get into higher education, but it’s not as bad as the impression you get from the episode. 

The third new voice is Prax. He’s a scientist, and that’s beneficial for the story line. He also moves everything forward, as his troubles are one of the main storyline. Without giving away too much, I liked how his emotional state was depicted. People who watch the show already know what happened to him, though some of the details are different in the book. I don’t think I’ll be spoiling much, if I say no spacing scene. I really didn’t miss that one. His story was one of the main reasons I actually started the book. 

The politics side on the whole was complex. Negotiations and juggling of different interests, while trying to keep the greater good in sight is hard. The reason why I probably like such stories is because they are so complex and difficult to resolve. 

Overall, great read. Exciting, full of twists and turns. Also clever with the science. I liked the characters, enjoyed reading from their different viewpoints. Okay, now, enough of reviewing, I have the next book to read. I finished this in three weeks, which is extra fast compared to my busy schedule. Though I did have a two-hour delayed plane, and a 3.5 hour plane ride to read a lot on.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Red Pyramid (Kane Chronicles #1) by Rick Riordan * * *

I listened to this story as an audiobook. The funny thing about that is that it's actually the best format for it. The story is actually set as a transcript of tapes that were dropped off for the writer. On the tape, two kids talk about their crazy-sounding adventures with Egyptian gods. So when you are actually listening to two kids talking about what happened, it comes across just the way it should.

The story itself is similar to other books by Riordan. Kids get into an adventure that involves stopping a god, and also travelling through the US. The difference is that on the one hand they are not demigods, and the mythology is Egyptian. Now I'm a great lower of Ancient Egypt, so this was a plus for me.

Overall, this is a great adventure, but I find that I wasn't taken by it as I was with the other books. The characters aren't that complex, and the focus seems to be more on the story and the mythology, than them. That is also why I didn't write about the kids in detail.

Leviathan Wakes (Expanse, #1) by James S.A. Corey * * * * *

 Any book about the future is always also about the present. This book isn't Star Trek. Humans are still petty, after their own interest. So while the setting is space, people act the same way they would on Earth. I guess the old saying of the more things change ... works. I had this thought, but so did the author, that no matter what, we are just primates swinging poo at each other, or poking things with sticks.

The story is about a period of humanity when we have left Earth, but took the problems with us, while staying in the Solar system. We have colonised Mars, some moons, even rocks in the asteroid belt. I loved how living, growing up in space had physically changed people. I also found the way they spoke interesting. A mixture of the different languages of the people who went there. However, the same way as when Europeans colonised the rest of the world, the colonies are treated just as badly. And they want to break away just as badly. Thrown into this tense environment is something unexpected. Without spoiling things for those who are not watching the show, it's big.




Holden

The story itself is told from the point of view of two men. One is Holden. He's a regular guy from Earth. Good childhood, nice parents, and that makes him an idealist. He feels naive sometimes, but he tries his best all the time. The conflict inside is that he expects better from people than they are, and then constantly gets disappointed. There is one point where he doesn't realise that words can be bigger weapons than guns. I'm not sure if he'll ever change. Maybe I don't want him to.




Miller
The other point of view is Miller. He's a belter. Grew up on a station built in a rock. He's also a cop. Kind of a sci-fi Dick Tracy. Even has the hat. He's much more a realist, and I found that I liked him more. He is jaded, and gritty, but he does what must be done. He also has a keen insight to things. They do clash with Holden. The funny thing is, I think Miller sometimes wishes he could see the world the way Holden does, but he's seen too much for that to be possible. 

Compared to the TV show, this encompasses the first season and some of the second. The story is pretty much the same, with some minor changes here and there. 

Overall, I enjoyed the story very much. It has personal stories as well as a grand scale of system wide events and politics. Now, let me finish this review, I have the next book to read.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Black Prism (Lightbringer, #1) by Brent Weeks

I started reading The Black Prism because one of my English students recommended it to me. I’m a big fan of fantasy, and I had been in a book funk lately. Anything I tried, I just couldn’t get into. However, I started to read this book. I put it down, and kept thinking about it, and that was when I knew, I had a series to read. Finally!

The story itself in a way is standard fantasy. There are rich and poor people, a coming war, feuding, magic users vs non-magic users. What sets it apart partly is the magic system. It was very interesting, though at first a bit hard to comprehend. It’s common nowadays to not actually explain stuff, but just have the reader gradually find them out. It did make it hard to understand in the beginning. I often wish people would just have a foreword to explain these things. It makes it a bit hard to get into the story, because you spend your brainpower trying to work out a complicated fantasy magic system. Once I got it though, I do like how it works.

The main reason why I really got into the story was one of the main characters, Kip. An overweight, kind of a loser, barely teen boy with a mouth on him. Usually, the main characters are special. He is kind of special, but he’s also really terrible at most things. I’ve never been a teen boy, but I find it immensely funny how he keeps having inappropriate thoughts in the worst moments possible. I also love how he’s not skinny. Most of my life, I’ve been overweight. He is a lot like me in that he hates his fat, but it’s not really something he can help. So while Kip is special, like most main characters nowadays, he still has qualities that make him more relatable.

My other favourite character is Gavin. Now, my student looked at me kind of funny when I said this, so I may come to not like him so much in the future, but for now, I do. From the first moment, he is kind of a mystery. There are hints that some things are going on in the background that we don’t know about. There had been one big reveal in the book, and I really loved it, since I never saw it coming. However, there are still some unanswered questions. It keeps the reader really engaged, because you just want to find out the answers.

My one problem with the book was the battle scenes. Honestly, after a while, they were dragging on, and I was having a hard time following in my head. It could just be me, because I’ve had a similar problem with other writers. I’m just not a big fan of battles.

Overall, I really liked the book. I recommend it to fans of fantasies with good magic systems, or with big battles. I’m definitely reading on, and already snuck a peek at the next book, even though I should be doing other stuff. It’s on my Kindle now though, so I’m definitely reading more today. I only gave it 4 stars, because 5 stars go to books like Harry Potter. The kind where I never want to let go.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Golden Compass (2007) * * *

I saw the movie several years ago on TV. I couldn't really remember it now, but I did like it, and have wanted to read the book several times ever since. I've been running about a lot nowadays, and I love listening to audiobooks. I have had the audiobooks for quite some time, and this was the perfect opportunity to listen to them, so I did. Once I was done with the first book, a rewatch of the movie was in order.

This movie didn't do well in the box office. Some blame it on the religious theme of the story, others on it not being a very good movie. I quite liked it, though now that I know what they worked from, I can see the problems. For a discussion on the story itself, please read my book review.

The story didn't change much. They did merge a few characters, as it sometimes happens. What was strange was the introduction of the councillors and the Magisterial Emissary. It is remarked in the books that the Magisterium dictates a lot of things, and is half supporting Mrs Coulter, but it is her eagerness for power, which drives the negative events, not the Magisterium, as it appears in the movie. Or so it was my understanding as I read the book. I did wonder why they made it out so, but I couldn't see any justification for it. Maybe more will be revealed int he following books.
Another change as opposed to the book was the revelation of Lyra's parents. In the book, Lyra learns about it under very different circumstances, and much sooner. I think they placed it so in the movie, because it had a bigger impact on Lyra that way, but it didn't seem to matter for the story all that much.
The third big change was the order of the last couple of events, and especially leaving out the last big event. Lyra coming across the children and the bears is the opposite in the book. The only reason I can see for the change is that in the movie the party at Mrs Coulter's house is left out. It is there that Lyra learns of Lord Asriel's imprisonment among the bears, and that's why after the children she goes there. While in the movie she knows nothing about that turn of events, so she would have no motivation to head that way, and therefore has to just happen on that storyline while heading to her original goal.
The fourth big change is that they left out death, that seems to be an important part of the story. From Lyra exploring the catacombs in the beginning, to the end, death is a part of the story. In the movie, it was taken out. Sure, characters die, but not children. We know from the books that the poor boy Lyra finds dies, and yes, I did shed a tear, but that's not clear in the movie. That particular horror is left out, making the tone milder. In a way, the children who die make what is really happening - without giving too much away -, all the worse. That people would do that without a thought, just to keep children from growing up to thinking freely.

The biggest change of all is the milder tone overall that the movie takes. Gone are the references to Christianity. The Magisterium is the big bad, the organisation, while in the book, it was the underlying doctrine, that is the actual problem. I can understand the reason for the change, even though I wasn't pleased by it. The milder tone was also achieved by the ending. Since in the book, Lyra does reach her final end-goal, and in the movie she doesn't. I can especially understand this change, since that still haunts me a bit, and I'm somewhat glad to not have seen it.

The best thing about the movie is really Nicole Kidman. She was picked and persuaded by Philip Pullman himself to play Mrs Coulter. Sure, her hair is blonde, but even the author admitted that he should have described his character as a blonde. Nicole Kidman is perfect for the role. Cold, ruthless, even when trying to care. I'm not a big fan of hers, I think in some things she was terrible. However, I will always see Mrs Coulter as she portrayed her.

The second books was never made into a movie. It can be the problems with the anti-religious tone, or the fact that a lot of people didn't like it. Truth be told, it did feel rushed. All the events were crammed into these 113 minutes, clearly not enough. However, back in 2007 TV shows still didn't have the budget they do now. 2008 did one good thing. TV became more important, as people cut back on going out. Shows became more popular, and therefore more money is poured into them now. This book would have clearly worked better as a TV show. That is what will hopefully happen, as BBC has promised to develop the trilogy as a TV show. I'm sure the books will the in good hands, as BBC adaptations are very high quality, especially in recent years.

Overall, watch this movie. It's pretty good on its own, and if you're unsure about reading the book, it will give you a general idea of it. The CGI is also terrific, and don't forget the real highlight of the movie, Nicole Kidman as Mrs Coulter.

The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, #1) by Philip Pullman * * * * *

I listened to this book as an audiobook. I actually enjoyed it in this format very much. It was mainly read by the author, but it also had a full cast for the characters. Much better than when a male reader tries to imitate female voices. Though sometimes that can be very funny. It reminded me of the fairy tale cassettes I used to fall asleep to as a child.

The story itself is about a girl, Lyra. It's obvious from the first moment that she's one of those destined children so popular in fantasy fiction. She's also 11, which is a common age to start child characters off. Lyra is a smart and cunning child. One of those natural leaders that can be the next Martin Luther King Jr., or the next Stalin. Which one she will become depends entirely on her basic temperament and life experiences. She is also very adaptable, just like her daemon. Whatever environment she finds herself in, she becomes part of it. She does feel like a normal child though. Sometimes children in stories are like mini-adults, but she isn't. I do find it interesting that a man picks a little girl to write about, while a similar destined character, Harry Potter, was written by a woman.

Daemons are the very core of the story. At first, I didn't feel they were properly explained. I got that daemons were the souls of people, but how they could function only became clearer as the story progressed. Daemons were the true forms of souls. They revealed the hidden desires, personalities, thoughts of people. It would be nice to have a daemon in real life. According to a Buzzfeed test, mine would be a cat.

There are some other characters, that were very intriguing, and a joy to read about. My personal favourites were the witches. Interestingly enough, they're the non-Christian characters, though they also seem to have some sort of a religion. I loved how Serafina Pekkala talked about the life of witches, how their longevity was a blessing and a curse.

The armoured bears were also interesting. I was especially intrigued by Iofur Raknison. He is a bear, who wants to be a man to be baptised. In a way, he reminded me of many peoples that decided to convert to Christianity, shunning their own native cultures. It wasn't properly explained though, what his motivations were. Maybe a form of self-hate. Hating being a bear, because he thought being a man would be more. Or he wanted the absolution for the things that he had done that the Catholic Church offers to people. To be free of his sins. Of course, sins can only be forgiven by ourselves if we want to be free of them, and some sins are purely imaginary, like the whole Original Sin idea. Religion tells you, you are sick, and they have the cure. The only trouble is, most people aren't sick at all. If you do have true sins, like Iofur, the forgiveness of others has no real meaning. It can help people to find a way to forgive themselves, which is probably what Iofur is really seeking, but in the end, the matter has to be dealt with on the inside of every person.

The story is about the importance of self, of thinking, free will. The evil people in the story are basically all those religious organisations that try to tell people how and what to think. I'm not completely sure yet what dust is exactly, but I have a few theories. I'm sure the story will be more and more about religion, having listened to Philip Pullman in interviews, but I'm curious as to where he will take the story. I do have the whole series as audiobooks, and lots of time to listen to them as I come and go.

This book can be read two ways. As a child, seeing the adventure, the evil characters, and cheering Lyra on. Or as an adult, observing the underlying themes, thinking about how freethinking has been hampered, progress, imagination stiffened by religion. I know, probably lots of religious parents are scared to give the book to their children, because of the very thing that I've written. However, if their religion is true, should it not withstand the test of reading fiction?

I do recommend this book. It's great fun, though brace yourselves for the ending. In a way, on its own, it was a bit like The Hunger Games' brand of dystopia. Also makes you think. Who ever said that books that made you think about religion had to be boring?

Read my review of the movie as well! I do compare it with the book.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins * * * *

I've been meaning to read this book for a while. I started to do the Popsugar challenge, and this fit in with the murder mystery novel. 

The circumstances under which I started reading were a bit funny. I was on a train to London, heading from one Swan hotel to another. I happen to work in a Swan hotel. If you read the book, you get the hotel bit.

The story itself unfolds in the account of three women. While it jumps around a bit in time, it doesn't feel confusing. The killer isn't impossible to figure out, you get all the clues. I knew who it was around 60%. It's not so bad, I often know around 20%. 

The main character is Rachel, who is a bit of a train wreck. Her life is at a standstill, and she's unable to move on. The funny thing is that getting mixed up in the whole mystery is not a bad thing, possibly one of the best things ever to happen to her. Though from where she is, the only way is up.
Megan is another character we follow. Her life isn't all that great either, though in part it seems like it's of her own making. We can excuse some of her behaviour by the things that happened to her, but a different person would have handled it differently. However, after the initial catalyst some of her actions feel unexplained, like something is still missing. Not vital to the story, but the character.
Anna is the third woman. She's different from the other two, and appears the happiest. However, one must remember that not all that glitters is gold.
Apart from the mystery, that is very much the theme of the book. You see people from the outside, and think their life is perfect, and they’re happy. Then you read their diary, and discover that isn’t even remotely so.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. It didn't have much actual action, but I was curious as to how it was going to play out. If you like action though, this isn’t really for you, since the story is actually a lot of walking around and talking to each other.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Shannara Chronicles (2016) * * * * *

Let me start out by saying that I haven't read the books. So if you're expecting some sort of comparison, not in this review. Though the books have been on my list for about a decade, maybe I'll finally read them.

MTV makes TV shows. It was odd at first, after all, first it was music, then reality shows, and now, TV shows. I was sceptical at first. That is, before I saw Teen Wolf. I kept hearing about it, so one day I decided to give the first season a shot. About 10 hours later, I couldn't stop watching it. Now with The Shannara Chronicles I was hoping for more of the same. Let me tell you, it didn't disappoint. When is the next episode again?

So I'm writing this 3 episodes into the series. Let's start with the visuals. Every good fantasy has to wow us with the visuals, that's sort of a given. It certainly does. One thing I didn't know about the world was that it's actually set on a future Earth. The pictures in the show never make us forget this. Sometimes boldly, like the remains of what I think is the radio astronomy observatory in New Mexico, to a toy in the bottom of a river. There is something poetic about these reminders of us. Then there are the new buildings. The elven palace is just as beautiful as it should be. They sure didn't spare any expense here.

The cast is a mix of relative newcomers and old dogs. While looking at the work of some of the main characters shows that they haven't done too much, they blend in well with the likes of John Rhys-Davies, who plays the king. There is definitely talent there.

The story itself is exciting. Straight from the beginning we are plunged into events that move the story along. No lengthy sitting around wondering about what's going on, but straight into action. I'm someone who likes that sort of thing, so it swept me along right from the first moment. When is the next episode again?

So if you love fantasy, action, magic, this is the show you want to watch. It's probably not going to be the one that tries to resolve the philosophical questions of our age, but who cares! Jump on the horse, and ride along with these characters, because it's shaping up to be one great adventure! Again, next episode MTV? 

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Fifty Shades Darker (Fifty Shades, #2) by E.L. James

In a way, I got desensitized by now against some aspects of this god awful story. The bad writing is a given. The facepalm moments with the Inner Goddess and the subconsciousness are also there. It never really stops being disturbing that Ana basically has three people in her head with their own personalities. Maybe she's actually a schizophrenic in a mental institution and all this is in her head. What an idea! Something like in Sucker Punch. She's actually being abused by a guy there, but in her head he's Grey, and they are having a love affair.

You may be wondering what happens in this book. Actually, I'm kind of wondering about that myself. The only way I could actually finish this thing was by listening to it being read out by Mark. This books is really boring, and about three things happen in it. The rest is sex. I think probably even a porn addict would be fed up. This is where it's obvious that the book used to be fanfiction. Fanfics are updated once a week at best, and that way you get the sex scenes in instalments. Being read one after the other becomes too much, especially because the plot is almost non-existent.

In a way, the first book was actually a lot better than the second. It had more things going on, and there was some conflict. I almost enjoyed that in a "shout at the insanity of the book" way. There isn't too much conflict in this one, and if there is, it gets quickly swept under the rug by either sex or alcohol. Not necessarily by Christian. There is one case where an uninvited guest comes into Christian's apartment, who sends Ana away to deal with it. So far so good. So what does Ana and another person do? Go for a drink.
I just don't have much to say about it, since it's really just glorified porn at this point.

Overall, I'm wondering what I'd rather do; bang my head against a wall, or read this.