27 December 2005

Book to movie review: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

(I only review movies that are based on books, and I do not review them as independent works, but as inter-semiotic translations, interpretations or adaptations of books. Therefore a perfectly good movie (when seen independently of the book) may get a negative review for not being a good adaptation. Note that a “good translation/interpretation/adaptation” does not necessarily mean “scrupulously exact”. The two genres are to a certain extent incompatible and therefore a movie adaptation can never be completely true to the book.)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is a visually great movie, full of action, and the young actors have come a long way from the first movie. The previous three Harry Potter movies could be watched and enjoyed by people who had not read the books, but this movie zooms along at such a great speed that an audience member who has not read the book has a hard time figuring it all out (this has been confirmed by several people), so fast does it flick from one scene to another, almost like a two and a half hour trailer for a longer movie.
Having seen the other movies but not read the books would help a bit, especially with the back-story, specifically the pre-existing relationships between the characters, which are so sketchily shown in this installation in the series that the depth of reference is lost unless you have knowledge of the prequels, and no-one who has neither read the third book nor seen the movie would be able to figure out the business with Sirius Black, which shows that the film-makers know that they already have an audience that knows the stories, and made this movie for them and not for new audiences.

It has been necessary to cut out large chunks of the book, simply in order to make the movie an acceptable length. This keeps those members of the audience who have read the book filling in the gaps and supplying missing scenes in their minds as they watch. For the most part the film-makers have made good decisions as to what to keep and what to discard, and in spite of the missing chunks of story, the movie does manage to preserve the spirit of the book, always a good thing when having to please readers. As a pair, I think book and movie complement each other, the book filling in the exposition and missing scenes in the movie and the movie helping readers to visualise the scenes from the book. If you plan to see the movie, be sure you have at least seen the last movie and preferably read the book. You will be doing yourself a favour.

12 December 2005

Bibliophile and audio books

I have long held a prejudice against certain audio books. Not for the common reason that listening to books is “cheating” – I grew up listening to the daily reading of books on Icelandic Channel 1 radio, and loved it. No, it’s because so many of them are abridged, or worse, retold. Imagine taking Jane Austen’s famous opening line of Pride and Prejudice (one of the most recognised in English literature):

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”,
and changing it to something like: “It is a well known fact that a single, rich man needs a wife”.

I can’t remember the exact wording of the mangling, but this invented example is quite as bad as the one I met with on starting to listen to what turned out to be a retelling of P&P (nowhere did it say so on the packaging). Needless to say, I returned the tapes to the library without bothering to listen to any more.
In spite of my aversion to abridged books, I can listen to abridged audio versions of stories I know well and that are well abridged (i.e. no obvious gaps in the story and missing characters or characters that suddenly pop up without explanation), because I can supply the missing parts in my mind, but with books I have not read before, I want an unabridged, unedited, unmangled version. And some books are just not easy to abridge well.

When I do come across an unabridged audio book in the library, of a book I like or want to read, I jump at the chance to listen to it. I love to sit or lie cuddled up in by bed and read a book, but I also love to listen while I do the housekeeping or work at my craft projects. I sometimes put a DVD in the player or a video in the VCR and listen to my favourite movies while I wash the floors or cook a meal, but an audio book is even better. There are no visual cues to worry about – it is all there in the reading, provided it is unabridged.

I am currently listening to an unabridged audio version of The Lord of the Rings that I got at the library. It is a massive audio book: The Fellowship of the Ring, which I finished listening to yesterday, takes up 16 CDs, and it takes about 36 hours to listen to. That’s about twice as long as it takes me to read the whole book. But it’s brilliantly read, which brings me to the most crucial point of an audio book: the reader.

A good reader can add an extra dimension to an audio book. Rob Inglis, who reads the HarperCollins unabridged edition of LOTR that I’m listening to, is very good, and gives one the feeling of listening to an old-time master storyteller telling stories in the dark. I have an audio book of P&P that is read so well by actress Susannah York that I sometimes quite forget it’s abridged. Some readers can even make you stop listening to the story and listen to the sound of their voice instead. Jeremy Irons is one - I could listen to him read from the telephone directory and not be bored.

Of course, a bad reader can utterly spoil an audio book. Last year, I tried to listen to a reading of Dan Brown’s bestseller The DaVinci Code, but gave up because the reader was so bad. He had the annoying habit of making women’s voices sound shrill, which made it torture to listen whenever the heroine spoke. I didn’t finish listening to it. (I doubt I will ever read the book – I heard enough to convince me that I would not like it).

What do you think? Love them? Hate them? Hardly ever think of them?

06 December 2005

Mystery author # 5: Mary Roberts Rinehart

Here is my second classic mystery author. She wrote before, during and after the Golden Age of mystery fiction (the dates vary, but all agree that it covers the 1920s, 30s and 40s), and several of her books are still in print in spite of some rather harsh criticism of her work (to me an indicator that she probably had a formula that she overused). This, her second novel, is her most famous work and is considered to be one of her finest mysteries.

Title: The Circular Staircase
Year of publication: 1908
Availability: In print, copyright expired. Available for free online at Project Gutenberg
Pages: I read the e-book in Word, using the Geneva font. At 12 points it came to 201 pages. The Dover Mystery Classics paperback edition is 192 pages.
Setting and time: Eastern USA, contemporary to the writing
Type of mystery: Whodunit, country house mystery
Type of investigator: Amateur sleuth & a police detective
Some themes: Murder, fraud, embezzlement, superstition

The story (some may see SPOILERS):
When spinster Rachel Innes takes a house in the country for the summer, she expects to spend her time there in peace and quiet with her niece and nephew, Gertrude and Halsey. However, on the third night the son of the house owner breaks into the house and is shot dead by a mystery person. Halsey and Gertrude’s fiancé, Jack, had left the house in a hurry shortly before but there is only Gertrude’s word that they did. Naturally, suspicion falls on them, especially when Halsey fails to return home for some days and Jack is arrested on suspicion of having stolen security bonds from the bank he worked for and thus bankrupted the bank. After that, mystery keeps piling on top of mystery, until finally the case is solved with the co-operation of Rachel Innes and Detective Jamieson who is called in to investigate the murder.

Review: I encountered something unexpected here: an American country house mystery. I’m used to connecting the country house mystery to England and to authors like Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, perhaps because manors and country houses are such English phenomena. But of course there are country houses in the USA and no reason why there shouldn’t be American country house mysteries.
The storyteller heroine is an odd and entertaining character, contrary as an old hen, brave and scared by turns. There are many claustrophobic doings in the dark and deeds worthy of darkness, and endless twists. An experienced mystery reader will have puzzled together the solution to most of the mystery by mid-book, but it is still interesting to watch it unfold. The “had I but known” foreshadowing device which is used several times by the narrator (although never using those exact words) gets to be a bit annoying by the end, and as a matter of fact it is one of the things Rinehart has been most harshly criticised for.

Rating: A fine mystery in the best country house tradition. 4 stars.

The human torch visits the library

This happened when I was about 15. Every year in December I remember and give thanks that no harm came of it.
We lived a short way from the municipal library and I would go on regular excursions to get something to read. This particular December day was cold and snowy and I put on my brand new warm pink sweater (this was in the 1980s and bright pink was THE colour) and my ugly but warm wool-lined winter coat. I had no idea at the time, but that coat would save me from much harm. Once at the library, I started browsing the shelves. The library is housed in a small room in the basement of the community centre and all the space is used to the fullest, meaning narrow and cramped aisles.
I went up to the shelves next to the librarian to browse and hardly noticed the Christmas decoration she had put on her desk, complete with lit candle. Then I walked over to the display of new books. Suddenly I felt very hot, so I took my coat off, only to discover that the back was on fire. I had obviously stood too close to the Christmas decoration on the librarian’s desk.
I am not the kind who panics easily, so I just held the jacket at arm’s length and calmly – almost serenely - walked out of the room and into the public toilets down the hall and extinguished the flames in the sink. The librarian, who had only noticed the fire at the same time I did, came running after me, pale as death.
I never went into shock because I was too upset about the huge burn hole in my warm, cosy jacket, the melted black spot on my beautiful acrylic sweater and my singed hair, but the librarian had a small breakdown.

Afterwards, I wondered about a few things:
a) what kind of person does not notice someone walking around with their clothes on fire, and the smell of burning wool in the air? Probably the same kind who does not notice her clothes are burning, i.e. a browsing bibliophile.
b) why didn’t the jacket go up in a blaze? I asked my mother, who told me that as well as being warm and insulating, wool also burns badly. It doesn’t really go up in flames, but smoulders. The insulating properties are probably the reason I didn’t feel hot until the fire had burned through the wool lining. The fire was in the cotton part of the jacket, not the wool itself.
c) do I have a guardian, an angel or a spirit? It is a blessing that I didn’t get badly burned or set the library on fire by walking too close to a shelf full of books.

04 December 2005

Mystery author # 4: Edward Marston

Title: The Roaring Boy
Year of publication: 1995
Number in series: 7
Availability: In print
Pages: 291
Setting and time: England: A London suburb, Elizabethan times
Type of mystery: Murder (whydunit*), historical
Type of investigator: Amateur sleuth (crime magnet)
Deaths: 5
Some themes: Murder, acting, playwriting, miscarriage of justice, love, misuse of power

I actually read this right after the Hannah March book, but I wanted to review a different type of mystery inbetween so that I would not be clumping together three English historical sleuths.

Summary (slight SPOILERS):
A stranger approaches theatrical book-keeper Nicholas Bracewell with a draft of a play he wants the group’s playwright to fine-tune and the playgroup to stage. The play is about a miscarriage of justice: an unfaithful wife and her lover have been wrongly executed for the murder of the woman’s husband. His sister refuses to marry her fiancé until the real murderer, a nobleman, has been exposed. We then meet the supposed murderer (hereafter known as the henchman) and his protector, the real villain. They are not prepared to allow the henchman to be exposed (the villain’s involvement is not known to anyone but the henchman and readers at this point), and begin a campaign to intimidate the playgroup into not performing the play and the young couple to withdraw it. When an important witness who can prove the henchman’s involvement in the murders is murdered himself, and then another man, Bracewell realises that there must be something more behind all this than a mere personal dislike by the henchman of the first victim (who defended his sister’s honour against his advances), and he and his actor friends begin an investigation that leads them to the true villain.

Review (with slight SPOILERS):
When I saw that this book had been nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Award, I thought it would prove to be good. In some ways it lived up to my expectations, and in some it did not. The historical detail and supporting characters are beautifully drawn, and the running tooth-ache joke makes for good comic relief of what, at times, is a rather grim tale.
Bracewell is a bit too stereotypical a John McClane type for my taste: big, brawny and brainy all at the same time. Although he is the leading character, he is not the only sleuth in the story – his actor friends take an active part in the investigation, and in fact, it is information uncovered by one of them that blows the case open. The plot is believable, twisted enough to keep one guessing (in my case until I found out what the real villain did for a living), and ties up nicely, although an unnecessary and ugly twist is used to take the girl away from Bracewell (don’t worry, she doesn’t die) when a simple difference in social status would have done it just as well.

Rating: 3+ stars.

*whydunit = why was the crime committed? Derived from whodunit.

03 December 2005

Books Bibliophile read this month

Looks like I’m slowing down. I usually read closer to 20 books per month, but I have had a heavy load of homework this month and pleasure reading has been pushed to the side.

Death in Fashion by Marian Babson. Whodunit murder mystery.
The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants by Ann Brashares. Young adult novel.
On Writing: A memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. Non-fiction: memoir and writer’s manual.
The Worst-case Scenario Survival Handbook: Dating and Sex by Piven, Borgenicht & Worick. Self-help. (I plan to review this with another title from the series that I’m currently reading).
Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter. Novel. (Finally got round to reading it after having seen two films. Not nearly as corny as I expected).
Holiday in Death by J.D. Robb. Futuristic police mystery thriller. With a Christmas theme.

If you would like to read a Bibliophile review of any of these books, let me know.

01 December 2005

Mystery author #3: Marian Babson

Title: Death in Fashion
Year of publication: 1986
Availability: Out of print, available second hand
Setting: England: London, mostly inside a fashion house, mid 1980's
Type of mystery: Murder and harassment (whodunit)
Type of investigator: No investigator
Deaths: 2
Some themes: Fashion, competition, homosexuality, jealousy, malice, daydreaming, practical jokes/harassment, murder.

When someone starts harassing the staff of a London fashion house during Fashion Week, everyone suspects the head designer’s malicious boyfriend. Someone has signed them up for all sorts of services, reported a fire, sent them a funeral wreath and half a ton of gravel. When the boyfriend dies horribly, everyone is shocked – they all wanted to get rid of him, but not in such a terminal way. And the harassment is not stopping...

Review: Well written and entertaining. While it qualifies as a whodunit mystery, it is not a detective story as such. There is no sleuth, the police play a minimal role, and both murder and harassment cases really solve themselves. In this case it is the great characters, the build-up to the murder, and the fascinating look behind the scenes of the fashion world that provides the entertainment.

Rating: 4 stars. Quite good, would not mind reading more by Babson. Maybe one of her cat mysteries?

Currently reading: Balham to Bollywood by Chris England, plus about 9 other books. Also listening to the unabridged audio book of The Lord of the Rings while I do all the Xmas chores.