Happy New Year

With New Year fast approaching I am between the Venetian mass kissing tradition and the Romanian bear dancing tradition. The Spanish grape eating tradition sounds a little boring. But I was wondering, how many people are going to be effected by too much grape drinking and end up kissing a bear?

Guess it is time to make a few new traditions. Got any good traditions you would like to share?

In the meantime, let me just thank you for reading and wish you a very happy New Year.

Good Read or Bestseller?

Did you buy Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer prize winning novel, The Goldfinch? Did you know it was 400 pages? Did you make it to the end? How far did you get?

According to a study recently commissioned by the ebook seller Kobo, only 44% people actually finished The Goldfinch after buying it from Kobo. I would be also interested to know how many people haven’t even started the novel in the first place. I have always had more books than I have been able to read and the fact doesn’t stop me from buying more.

Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave fared even worse with only 28% of readers finishing the novel. But then this one isn’t a surprise. They bought the book after watching the film which would do nothing to increase the motivation to read for most, even though the commonly slung adage ‘the book is better than the film’ has held true for almost every film adaptation I’ve seen.

Interestingly, the book that had the highest completion ratio was Casey Kelleher’s self-published thriller Rotten to the Core (given the success it is no wonder Kelleher is getting a book deal).

The problem with any set of statistics is context. A well-paced thriller is going to have more readers than a Pulitizer prize winning novel and of course, a self-published novel with a lower number of readers who have had to find the novel in the first place is likely to have greater number of committed readers than a widely advertised bestseller which is going to have a higher number of impulse purchases.

The comparison is unjust.

Now I’m not saying that Tartt is an amazing author or that the Booker and Pulitizer aren’t without inbred assumptions about quality. Tartt has her strengths, one of which is the ability to provide challenging and complex situations. And I’m not saying that Kelleher isn’t able to weave an engaging thriller. What we are talking about is two different types of reading.

I can’t count how many novels I have read quickly because they had pace and action and then a couple of months later couldn’t tell you anything important about the novel. It was a thrill ride, which is very different from the challenging books that have stayed with me. The kind of book that was less like a rollercoaster and more like an interesting lecture. These books have not always been easy, but these are the books I have kept. As opposed to the books I have deleted after finishing or given away. The challenging books are the one I keep and want to read again. Is The Goldfinch a keeper and Rotten to the Core and deleter? Maybe, maybe not, but they represent the kind of scope that needs to be read and are not comparable with statistics.

My zen moment for the day:
A Bestseller does not necessarily mean a good reading and an easy read isn’t necessarily intellectually and emotionally challenging, but there is room for both on your bookshelf, or your kobo.

Femme Fatale: Xenia Onatopp

There is no doubt that opinions are divided about who is the best James Bond and which is the best James Bond film. One thing it is easy to agree on is there are some great female characters. Among the best is Xenia Onatopp from Goldeneye (1995), Pierce Brosnan’s first Bond film and the Bond film that arguably reinvented the franchise. In my opinion, it is without doubt the best Brosnan Bond film, an accolade that is enhanced in no small part by the presence of Onatopp.

Ignoring the only-in-a-Bond-film nature of her name, Xenia Onatoppa is a character with all the charm of a great Bond girl and all the vicious malevolence of a great Bond villain. She is brutal and cruel and fun. She wants to play. The only problem being the games she wants to play are dangerous and sexy.

The audience’s first encounter with Onatopp involved her, a scene which takes emphasis away from the fact she brutally murders a group of innocent people and focuses instead on her rather excited reaction to mass murder. She is one sick and yet interesting character. Bond encounters Onatopp in the luxurious setting of an isolated spa and the introduction if a mixture of sexual friction and all out violence. Unlike Roger Moore and Grace Jones, when she played Mayday in A View to a Kill (not exactly the best Bond film), Brosnan cannot actually have sex with his woman because she the epitome of a black widow spider or praying mantis. Once she’s got what she wanted, her male partner dies. (Arguably the same thing happens when the knight encounters the woman without mercy in Keats poem).

As far as female characters in Bond films are concerned, she can hold her own with the men. She likes to drive fast cars, making first contact with Bond in a red Ferrari and beating the pants off him in a race down mountainous road. She goes toe to toe with him in the casino, flirts openly and then leaves him swinging in the wind with nothing more than a late night call to Miss Moneypenny who tells him where to sling his hook.

I must admit feeling a little disappointment when she was defeated by Bond. She remains one of the few women he has killed and one of the only women he kills face to face. In The Spy who Loved Me Bond kills Naomi with a rocket from his underwater car-submarine. A little phallic but not as hands on as Xenia’s death.

If you haven’t seen Goldeneye, go out and watch it as soon as possible. If it has been a while since you saw the film, the Christmas season is approaching, a perfect time for a Bond film.

(There is much to say on the subject of the Bond girl villain. I won’t bore you now, but if you are interested check out The Journal of Popular Film and Television Volume 37 Issue 4 (2009).)

The Librarians: Do we need them?

I liked the Librarian films. They had a certain lazy Sunday afternoon movie feel about them, like the young Indiana Jones movies. But a series?

I’ve just watched the first double bill pilot of the Librarians and I have my reservations, the biggest of which is everyone looks like they are have been signed up out of charity.

Noah Wyle looks more and more like his Falling Skies character and less and less like the reckless and excited librarian from the films. Rebecca Romijn is a shadow of her former fashion model/Mystique self. Did you see her in Brian De Palama’s Femme Fatale? It can’t be the same woman in The Librarians.

I love but Bob Newhart and his appearance is the mirror just fills me with sadness. I had to watch Elf twice just to wipe the tears from my eyes (ok, tears is a little much). John Larroquette and Matt Fewer look like walking talking reruns of their previous roles. The only actor that looks like he is actually present is Christian Kane and his character looks two-dimensional in comparison to the edger and tormented Eliot from Leverage.

The cast aside, I can’t help thinking that since the Librarian films started ten years ago there have been so many series with much stronger casts, better production values and more original storylines (next week it is the minotaur). Five years ago, this would have been great, now I think it is time to catch up on reruns of Warehouse 13.

Femme Fatale: La Belle Dame Sans Merci

You can’t away from a little French when it comes to femmes fatales.

John Keats’ ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ or The Beautiful Lady Without Mercy is no different. In fact, Keats is said to have taken the title from a 15th century French poet, Alain Chartier, which stands to reason as the poem is very much set in the 15th century world of knights.

Not up for a bit of poetry? If you are, stop reading my drivel and go straight to the source.

If you’re not up for some poetry, shame. Let me fill you in on the details.

A knight is wandering around a bleak and lonely landscape only to be confronted by a woman with wild eyes who is more sprite than woman. He makes her some gifts and put her up on his horse. That is medieval courtship for you. She makes him something to eat, tells him she loves him and takes him back to her place. You know the drill. The details have changed but the format is the same.

Once they get back to her ‘elfin grot’ she gets a little upset and lulls the weary knight to sleep. At that point dream and reality merge. He dreams of death-pale warriors and kings (I think he is trying to say they are dead) who warns him that he has been seduced and bewitched by the woman who does not have any mercy. At this point, the knight himself is left inhabiting a ghostly place and we are left wondering whether he is dead or just dying.

Bleak stuff. The knight is attracted by the supernatural powers of the femme fatale. She appears vulnerable and quickly emotionally manipulates the knight who requires little provocation to provide her with gifts and take her for a ride on his horse.

Is Keats making a comment about unthinking chivalry or maybe the hidden seductive powers of women? Either way, the woman has no mercy and the guy has no future. Welcome to the world of the femme fatale.

A little change from the poetry, the next femme fatale on the hit list is Xenia Onatopp from the James Bond Classic Goldeneye.

Gotham: Faith Renewed

When I heard that the episode was called ‘the Spirit of the Goat’ I was a little dubious. I mean the goat? Seemed to me like the writers had taken out their long list of no-go animals (bat, cat, penguin, crocodile) and said, “Hey what about the goat?” This came at a time when Gordon seems to be having no impact whatsoever on the endless tide of Gotham corruption. Come on, wasn’t this whole series about how Gordon rises in the ranks and establishes his own morally respectable status? No wait, it was just an opportunity to make more Nolan-esque stories without the big budget and big names.

Gotham isn’t meant to be a happy place, but is there a conspiracy looking to push the viewing public into worldwide depression by presenting endlessly miserable TV? Did I miss the boat or aren’t Batman and Gordon characters who resist the almost inevitable hopelessness and provide us with a sense of almost inhuman determination?

Anyway, back to the goat. This was a good episode. There was always the problem with this series that the established Batman plot would work against the new storylines. The Spirit of the Goat suggests that the two can work in tandem. We were offered a little more insight into Bullock and the sense that despite his current involvement in the corruption of Gotham, he has the potential to join the light of Gordon’s character and avoid becoming Detective Flass (Gordon’s corrupt partner in Batman Begins). And a good, albeit basic, serial killer back from the dead to kill again storyline (Bullock’s reaction to having to solve a case he had already solved was honest and human).

We were also offered part of the mythology and psychological reasoning that informs the creation of Batman. While Bruce had little contact with the Goat, the audience gets the idea of the sense of threat offered by a seemingly undying symbol. The need people have for an idea that encourages them, with a little negative reinforcement, to make good decisions. Not only did the goat set up the concept, it also highlighted the crucial different of Batman, the decision not to kill, which then brought us, with superb precision, to the end of the episode. Maybe a little heavy handed, but the connection with Gordon not killing Copplepot brings the Batman story we all know into line with Gordon’s Gotham.

Oh yes, and the mention of the Liberty Penny. Can’t forget the Liberty Penny, the massive trophy in the Batcave. A little macabre in the instance, but hey, you can’t have everything.

The Return of Serial Fiction

A hundred years ago the nature of the novel was changing. In the mid-nineteenth century, novels were so expensive, stories were broken down into sections and published in monthly magazines. Which meant most of novels had not been finished when the first section was published. As prosperity grew, the novel became affordable and those serial publications slipped away.

The publishing of the novel is continuing to change with the rise of ebooks. Several authors, I won’t name names because I think they are nothing but money hungry blood suckers looking to exploit their readers, publish a story in sections. So, you read what you think is a complete story and it turns out to be a 10,000 word section that ends with an instruction to buy the next part if you want to know what happens. I am not a fan of this serialisation because it is rarely upfront. The author rarely tells you that the story is incomplete and instead presents their work as the more common form of serialized fiction, the novel series.

We live in a world that embraces sequels so readily that the majority of authors don’t see novels as single stand alone forms of fiction, but merely the first part in a series of novels. Ebooks have provided a pace to novel publication that means it no longer takes months, even years to get a novel published. You can do it in an afternoon.

Expectations have changed. Living in a world of TV shows where we follow characters from one situation, we expect our investment of interest to be returned with more stories. Possibly because we are lazy, possibly because we grow attached to characters.

In the past, several authors had novels that used the same characters, but the sense of continuing series and consistency were never prime concerns. Raymond Chandler didn’t set up a character in one novel that he then returned to later in another novel. Each novel was an isolated story separate and distinct from the last. Consistency between novels was irrelevant. Ian Fleming created a continuing cast of characters, but consistency was hardly high on his agenda. With Bond’s consumption of cigarettes and alcohol, he would have ceased functioning after two novels.

So, you are asking, novel series, good or bad? To tell you the truth, it just is. It is a more prominent part of current published, but it isn’t new. Just look at Asimov’s Foundation series. But then Asimov was so good, he could have done anything and made it work.

How we read novels have changed. How novels are published have changed. What hasn’t changed is the difference between good writing and crap writing. The only obstacle we have is increased volume has made getting to the good writing more difficult, but that is a discussion for another time.