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Archive for September, 2010

The main character (and the narrator) of this book is Alice Lindgren, who is loosely based on Laura Bush, wife of former President George W. Bush.  When Alice is growing up in Riley, Wisconsin, with her loving parents and unconventional grandmother, she never imagines that she will end up married to the future President.

When she meets Charlie Blackwell – a man who seems politically, idealogically and socially poles apart from her – they do indeed fall in love and their enduring marriage has both blissfully happy times and desperately sad times.  When Charlie eventually becomes President, she realises that when she disagrees with his policies, she may have to compromise her own beliefs to be seen as loyal to her husband; or she may have to publicly appear to betray her husband, and she is not sure which is worse.

I approached this book with some trepidation, as I was not sure I would enjoy it.  However, I found it to be a gripping read.  The narration by Alice is clean and quiet – she comes across as a thoroughly decent woman, if not always somebody who it would be easy to warm to (especially in the earlier parts of the book), who is conflicted between following her own beliefs, and her loyalty and love for her husband.  Her life is overshadowed by an early tragedy – when she was 17, she was involved in car crash which killed a classmate and the event casts a shadow over her future life and happiness.

Charlie Blackwell – clearly based on George Bush – is portrayed as loud, gregarious, charismatic and a man who gets where he is more due to the talents of others, than any talents or skills of his own.  I was left with the impression of a rather vacuous man, who probably would have been happier in his role as part owner of a baseball team, than he could be in the White House – and a man who ended up in a position which was far beyond his capabilities (in another reflection of real life).

Although the last part of the book deals with Blackwell’s presidency – and just like in real life, the terrorist attacks of 2001 are mentioned, and the resulting war that many Americans believed to be immoral and/or illegal, as well as the controversy surrounding the votes in Florida that led many to question the legitimacy of his presidency – the main bulk of the book focuses more on the marriage, with it’s various highs and lows.

The two main characters are incredibly well drawn and brought to life, and are utterly believable (possibly because they are based on real people, although it should be underlined that many of the events in the book are fictitious).  The differences between Alice and Charlie are clear, but so is the love between them, and it is possible to see why she loves him (although I personally have never been a fan of George Bush).

The writing flows beautifully and I really felt able to lose myself in the story.  I was sorry to reach the end of the book, and will definitely seek out more work by this author.

Highly recommended.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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There have been so many adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels that it can be a bit confusing knowing where to start if you want to watch one.  This version of Emma is not the most well known, but I certainly think it’s worth a watch.

Kate Beckinsale plays Emma Woodhouse – a well meaning, but impetuous girl who likes to meddle in other people’s lives a little bit too much.  She thinks she’s doing them a favour, but she is about to learn that sometimes it’s best to leave well alone.  Her brother in law, George Knightley (the brother of Emma’s sister’s husband) is fond of Emma but is exasperated when she interferes in the affairs of her young friend Harriet Smith, and disastrously tries to set Harriet up with the local minister, Mr Elton.

Emma looks like she may be in for a romance herself when the handsome Franklin Churchill shows up, but it may be that Churchill has his own secrets…and what is the secret that young Jane Fairfax, recently returned to Highbury, is hiding?  Emma thinks she knows, but when the truth is revealed she might be in for a shock.

As far as adaptations go, this one is pretty faithful to the book.  I thought Kate Beckinsale (almost unrecognisable from how she looks today after being ‘Hollywoodised’) played the part of Emma very well, and delivered the right amount of mischievousness and haughtiness (it should be remembered that Jane Austen thought that Emma was someone who no reader would like, but I feel that she was a bit harsh on the character).  However, I did think that the character came across as slightly more ‘bitchy’ or cutting than the Emma Woodhouse of the novel (particularly in her scenes with Franklin).  Mark Strong plays George Knightley – a character I adored when I read the book.  Strong plays the part fairly well, but tended to make Knightley always so intense and angry.  I’m afraid that I was also somewhat distracted by his awful hair style!!  However, the best actors in the whole piece were Prunella Scales as Miss Bates – a character who could have been played purely for laughs, but who here is imbued with a sense of poignancy and wistfulness; and Samantha Morton, who played Harriet Smith to perfection and was exactly as I imagined Harriet would be when I read the book.  Raymond Coulthard is also great as Franklin Churchill, with just the right amount of handsome arrogance and good humour.

The period is brought to life very well, and the fact that I knew the ending did not spoil my enjoyment of the film (in fact, it probably enhanced it).  This film, made for ITV television, is not as famous as the version starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma, but I think it’s well worth a look, especially for anybody who is a fan of the book.

Year of release: 1996

Director: Diarmuid Lawrence

Writers: Jane Austen (book), Andrew Davies

Main cast: Kate Beckinsale, Mark Strong, Samantha Morton, Raymond Coulthard, Olivia Williams, Dominic Rowan, Prunella Scales

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Click here for my review of the novel.

Click here for my review of the 2009 mini series.

Click here for my review of the 1996 film adaptation starring Gwyneth Paltrow.

Click here for my review of the 1972 mini series.

Click here for my review of the 1995 film Clueless (adaptation of Emma).

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Elderly but very spritely Elner Shimfissle is trying to pick some figs when she disturbs a wasps nest and takes a nasty fall.  She is taken to hosital in critical condition, but suddenly finds herself enjoying the adventure of a lifetime, seeing all sorts of wonderful sights and meeting all kinds of amazing people.  Meantime, her family and friends in the small community where she lives in Elmwood Springs, Missouri, reflect on the influence that Elner has had on them, and how she has touched all of their lives. 

This is the first Fannie Flagg book I’ve ever read, and I did really enjoy it.  It is populated with quirky and slightly eccentric characters, not least Elner herself, but it paints a picture of a loving and close community who all pull together when one of their own needs them.  There was a lot of subtle humour in the book, which made me giggle, rather than obvious jokes.  It also made me think about the difference that one person can make in the lives of others, without even properly realising it.

All of the characters are well drawn, and as the book progresses, I did feel that I got to know them all very well, and for the most part they were easy to like.  Elner was a wonderful main character – despite the fact that she is very elderly, she has refused to give up on life, and is definitely young at heart, getting up to all sorts of antics which cause great concern for her over anxious niece Norma.

I can imagine that for some people, this book might be a bit too ‘twee’ and cosy, and it’s not the kind of book I would want to read all the time.  But for curling up with on a lazy afternoon when you want a feel-good read, it’s just about perfect.  I would mention that there were a couple of editing mistakes – one character refers to something about which it is earlier stated that she knows nothing, and a couple of times a character will hear a snippet of news and then pass it immediately to another character, but embellished with facts which they weren’t originally made aware of.  However, this did not detract from the enjoyment of the book. 

Overall, a very enjoyable read, and it definitely made me want to read more by this author.

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I’m not really sure how to write this review…this is an absolutely wonderful book, and I really want to try and do it justice.

Set in Mumbai in the 1970s when India has been declared in a State of Emergency by the Prime Minister Indira Ghandi, it tells the story of four people who are brought together, and the effect that the relationships between them have on their lives.  Dina Dalal is a widow, fiercely independent and determined to support herself, rather than rely on her brother’s financial help, or get remarried.

Ishvar and Omprakash (Om) are tailors from a low caste, who seek work in Mumbai and find themselves working for Dina.

Maneck is a young man, brought up in a loving family in the mountains, who comes to the city to attend college and needs a room to rent.

All of them are from very different backgrounds, but are thrown together as they try to make lives for themselves during what is a very difficult period in India.

The first half of the book centres on the histories of the characters and tells how they came to find themselves in their respective situations.  The second half concentrates more on the bond between the four of them, and the trials that they face as individuals and as a group.

There is also much in the book about life in India at the time, and how difficult it was for so many citizens.

I adored this book.  Each character was so beautifully drawn that I felt that I really knew them, and I certainly came to care very much about them.  The descriptions of some of the horrors that took place were gut wrenching and very distressing to read about – all the more so, because I was aware that such things really did happen.  It certainly made me realise how lucky I am to have the freedoms and privileges that most of the time we all take for granted.  This is a tale of a population which has been failed by it’s government – and when the rulers of a land can’t abide by their own rules, how can anyone else be expected to?  I could only read with trepidation as some of the characters seemed to be drawn along a road that could only lead to heartache.

There are a number of other characters who are relatively minor, but all of whom were fleshed out and were entirely believable.

The writing was beautiful – so eloquent, but also very accessible.  The location and time were really brought to life.

At no point did I get bored – I just wanted to read on and learn more about the lives of these fascinating people, and the ending when it came, took my breath away.

This is a wonderfully written, warm and absorbing read – very highly recommended indeed.  (Don’t be put off by the length – you may well wish it was even longer!)

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Conrad Harrison finds himself in Black Earth, Wisconsin, after having taken a wrong turn out of Chicago.  He then sees an old house and buys it on impulse, without even stopping to ask his wife Jo – who is back at their home in Los Angeles – whether she likes it.

They move into the house, but Jo almost immediately has to go away for eight weeks to do with work.  While she is away, Conrad is given an old photo album with pictures from when the house was originally built in the 1800s.  When he is looking through it, he sees a group of women standing outside the house – and has the shock of his life when he recognises his own wife as one of those women…From then on, things in the house take a frightening turn and it soon becomes clear that there are dark forces at work within his new home.  But who are they – and what do they want?

I’ve read a lot of reviews of this book, and it certainly seems to have polarised opinion with people thinking it’s either wonderful or terrible.  I definitely fall into the latter category.  Unfortunately, I think this is probably one of the worst books I’ve ever read, and the only reason I finished it is because I hate to give up on a book no matter how dire it is.

There is an interesting idea here, with the potential for a great story, but unfortunately the execution was awful.  Conrad is one of the most unlikeable characters I can remember reading about in a long time.  I don’t necessarily think it’s important to have a ‘nice’ main character, but Conrad was too detestable with no redeeming features whatsoever.  It become clear early on in the book that his marriage is in trouble, but after his wife (also a deeply unsympathetic character) goes away, he then develops an unhealthy infatuation with the young and very pregnant neighbour Nadia.  His thoughts seem to revolve entirely around sex and his recent lack of it, so that he comes across like a petulant teenager.

There are also chapters throughout the book dedicated to his first and great love Holly.  While I was expecting some great revelation to come out with regard to her, there was a distinct anti climax when their secret was revealed, and it served no purpose in the main story at all, other than to set the scene for a very long and over descriptive account of how they spent the night together (with every bump and grind accounted for).

Once the story got underway, it seemed to go round and round in circles for ages, and then the ending of the story – when it eventually came – just seemed to go on and on and…..(it certainly got me turning the pages quickly, but only because I couldn’t wait to finish it).

To sum up – and I’m rarely this scathing about any book – this was hokey, boring, with far too many unnecessary references to explicit sex, and not in the slightest bit scary.  Definitely one to avoid.

(Author’s website can be found here.  For more information about this book, please click here.)

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This is such an unusual movie, I’m not sure how to begin reviewing it.  Ryan Gosling plays Lars Lindstrom, a young man living in a small town.  Lars finds it difficult to interact with anybody, including his brother and sister-in-law, who do their best to include him at their meals etc.  So everyone is surprised when he announces he has a new girlfriend – but not as surprised as they are when they meet her…for Bianca is a life sized doll who Lars has ordered from the internet.  However, he is oblivious to the fact that she is anything other than a living breathing person, and has created a whole backstory for her.

Initially the people in the small town where Lars lives (never named, but possibly Minnesota) are shocked and not sure how to react, but due to their affection for Lars, they go along with the charade and eventually find themselves starting to care for Bianca and welcome her as one of the community.

If all this sounds very weird, that’s because it is!  It isn’t however disturbing, and neither does it have any sexual under or overtones (quite the opposite indeed, as Lars explains that both he and Bianca are deeply religious and therefore do not want to have sex).

I thought Ryan Gosling was outstanding as Lars.  In the hands of a poorer actor, this part could have been reduced to a silly comedic part.  However, he brings a real sense of vulnerability to Lars and I found it impossible not to care about him.  Emily Mortimer and Paul Schneider provide excellent support as his sister in law and brother, who feel worry and guilt over the direction that Lars life has taken.  Patricia Clarkson also shines as the doctor who initially advises them to go along with the delusion.  While she essentially plays a supporting role, she creates a fully fleshed character, whose emotions and feelings come through in beautiful clarity.  I’m surprised that neither she not Gosling picked up at least an Oscar nomination for this film.

It’s not a comedy, despite the premise perhaps suggesting that it is.  Instead, this film is a gentle study of a young man struggling to cope with his demons, and his family struggling to accept the situation.  It’s also a lovely (if slightly sugar-coated) portrayal of a small town community overcoming reservations and casting off prejudices to help one of their own.

Unusual and rather lovely, I would definitely recommend this film.

Year of release: 2007

Director: Craig Gillespie

Writer: Nancy Oliver

Main cast: Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider

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