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Archive for December, 2013

Zadie Smith’s third novel focuses on two rival academics, Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps, and their respective families.  While these two men are feuding, their wives are making friends and their children are struggling with adolescence and responsibility.  There are too many threads to cover here, but this is a story of family, race, infidelity, forgiveness, unrequited feelings, and much more.

I really REALLY enjoyed this book.  The characters seemed so completely real, each with their positive and negative, but always very human traits.  They may not always have been likeable (I actually found Howard Belsey to be never likeable), but they were identifiable.

Smith writes so beautifully, with such a wonderful, spot-on turn of phrase.  She also has an incredible eye for observational humour, with sometimes just a few words or one line making me laugh out loud.  At times I was frustrated with the characters, at times angry, and sometimes sympathetic, but whatever my feelings, I always wanted to know what was going to happen to them.

It’s not a story with a neat beginning, middle and ending – things are not necessarily wrapped up neatly; it’s almost like a snapshot of a certain period of these families’ lives.  I thoroughly enjoy it, and definitely recommend it.

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This four part adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel, stars Romola Garai as the titular Emma, a precocious, well-meaning but interfering young woman, for whom matchmaking is a hobby.  Jonny Lee Miller plays her long-time friend, and eventual husband (and brother-in-law) George Knightley, and Michael Gambon is her worrisome father, who is so frightened for the health of those he loves that he is scared to let Emma out of his sight.

I thought this adaptation was WONDERFUL, and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it.  Romola Garai – an actress who is always watchable – was absolutely a perfect choice for Emma, and captured Emma’s playfulness and personal growth exactly as I imagined it should be.  Mr Knightley, who is probably my favourite Austen hero, because of his very essence of goodness and decency, can nonetheless sometimes come across as stern or unbending, but Jonny Lee Miller made him everything that Knightley should be and more.  He clearly adored Emma – and the romantic love between them seemed far more natural and organic in this series than it has done in other adaptations – but was not afraid to stand up to her.  But Miller also showed a more playful and witty side to Knightley.  I also loved Michael Gambon who made Mr Woodhouse a sympathetic rather than a frustrating character – the affectionate relationship between him and Emma was very sweet to watch; Tamsin Greig as the silly but well-meaning Mrs Bates; and Robert Bathurst as their neighbour and friend Mr Weston.

A four hour mini-series will always be able to develop the characters and storyline at a more gradual pace than a two hour film, and it really worked here, with all the characters getting the screen time they deserved, and relationships being shown in all their stages, especially between Emma and Mr Knightley, with her realisation that she is in love with him seeming a natural development.

The series was moving at times, but also showed the wit in Austen’s writing, with several very funny scenes.  It was colourful and sweet, and for my money, probably my very favourite Austen adaptation.  Just wonderful, and all fans of the book, or good period drama should watch it!

Year of release: 2009

Director: Jim O’Hanlon

Producers: Rebecca Eaton, Phillippa Giles, George Ormond, Michas Kotz

Writers: Jane Austen (novel), Sandy Welch

Main cast: Romola Garai, Jonny Lee Miller, Michael Gambon, Jodhi May, Robert Bathurst, Louise Dylan, Blake Ritson, Tamsin Greig, Dan Fredenburgh, Poppy Miller, Laura Pyper, Rupert Evans

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Click here for my review of the novel.

Click here for my review of the 1996 film adaptation starring Kate Beckinsale.

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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Told in 24 short chapters which are each assigned a date from 1st – 24th December, this book was apparently designed to be read like an advent calendar, with the appropriate chapter being read on the specific date.

On 1st December, a young boy named Joachim is given an unusual advent calendar, and behind each door contains a chapter of a story.  As the story unfolds, Joachim (and his parents) learn about a young girl named Elisabet who disappeared from Norway years earlier, and a pilgrimage of angels, shepherds and wise men who travel across land and time, to be present when Jesus was born.

Unfortunately, I did not particularly enjoy this book.  Although I am not religious, I can enjoy reading books about religion, but I felt that this particular story was preachy and sanctimonious.  Also, while it might be considered a magical tale of a pilgrimage, it could equally be seen as the story of a young girl who was tempted away from her mother by a cute animal, and led away with an angel who promised to look after her, but instead took her away from her home, and left her mother wondering for years about what had happened to her daughter.  (Which to me anyway, sounds a bit sinister.)

I do think the idea was quite a good one, because it could be a useful tool for learning about the history of certain places, but I just couldn’t connect with it at all. There was no characterisation – I didn’t know Joachim or his parents any better by the last page than I did on the first page, and I felt the same way about Elisabet.  The writing just seemed too simplistic, and the story was also somewhat repetitive, and the ending was – possibly deliberately – a bit unclear.

I should add that I have only read one other book by this author, and I didn’t enjoy that either.  Plenty of reviewers have loved this book, so it may just be that I am not the right reader for Jostein Gaarder.  I wanted to enjoy this, particularly reading it at Christmas time, but sadly, was just not able to.

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Londoner Amanda Price is unsatisfied with her current relationship, and finds solace and happiness in reading her favourite book, Pride and Prejudice.  Although she feels as though she knows the characters intimately, she is astounded to find the book’s protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet, in her bathroom – and even more surprised when, after stepping through a door in the bathroom, Amanda finds herself in the Bennet household at the turn of the 19th century, right at the beginning of the story of Pride and Prejudice….but without Elizabeth present, the storyline goes awry and despite Amanda’s best efforts to remedy matters, nobody is falling in love with the right people!  Can Amanda ensure that everyone gets their proper happy ever after?  And will she ever make it back to modern day London?

Well!  I can see why some Austen fans did not like this mini-series (four episodes), because it totally plays around with the storyline of one of Britain’s best-loved books.  Although I do love P&P, I did find this series amusing, and thought it was, in the main, cleverly done.  Jemima Rooper plays Amanda, who captured that ‘fish out of water’ feeling very well.  Elliot Cowan certainly looked perfect for Darcy, and portrayed Darcy’s discomfort and awkwardness in social situations.  Morven Christie and Tom Mison played Jane Bennet and Charles Bingley respectively – although in this series, Jane ends up married to the odious Mr Collins (much to Amanda’s – and Jane’s – horror), and both were very much how I imagined the characters to be.  However, the stand-out turns for me were from Alex Kingston, who was brilliant as the fussy, silly Mrs Bennet, and Hugh Bonneville as her long-suffering and infinitely more sensible husband.  Both of these brought a lot of humour to the series, with Kingston stealing most of her scenes.  Gemma Arterton played Lizzie Bennet, but only appeared in two episodes of the series, and in one of those, her appearance was a brief one.  It’s a shame, because I could really see her as Lizzie, and did feel that I would have liked to have seen more of her coping in modern day London – which is where she is while Amanda is at the Bennets’ house – somehow the lack of Lizzie in London feels like a missed opportunity.

Chaos and laughter ensue as Darcy starts to fall for Amanda – as indeed does one other surprising character – and Wickham, far from being the dastardly charmer which he is in Austen’s book, actually seems to be quite a lovely guy (helped by a charming turn from Tom Riley).

I intended to watch one episode per week, but ended up watching the second, third and fourth episodes in one chunk, because I really wanted to see what happened.  My only complaint is with the ending of the series.  I won’t say too much because to do so would be to give away big spoilers, but the final few minutes of the last episode did not turn out the way I either expected or wanted them to.  But apart from that, the series was thoroughly entertaining, sweet, and funny.  I would suggest that it is better to know the basic storyline of P&P before watching, because comparing what is supposed to happen, with what actually does happen, is part of the fun, but I  would still say that it would be enjoyable to anyone who likes a bit of offbeat comedy.

Year of release: 2008

Director: Dan Zeff

Producers: Guy Andrews, Michele Buck, Hugo Heppell, Damien Timmer, Kate McKerrell, Brett Wilson

Writers: Jane Austen (inspired by novel ‘Pride and Prejudice’), Guy Andrews

Main cast: Jemima Rooper, Elliot Cowan, Hugh Bonneville, Florence Hoath, Alex Kingston, Morven Christie, Perdita Weeks, Tom Mison, Ruby Bentall, Christina Cole, Tom Riley, Guy Henry

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Click here for my review of the novel Pride and Prejudice.

Click here for my review of the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

Click here for my review of the 1995 mini series adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

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This Shakespeare play revolves around two pairs of lovers – Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) and Hero (Kate Beckinsale), who find that because of the deception of others, the path of true love does not always run smoothly; and Beatrice (Emma Thompson) and Benedick (Kenneth Branagh), who have an antagonistic relationship and fall in love almost against their own wills.

Kenneth Branagh directs, co-produces and stars in this adaptation, and what a truly wonderful adaptation it is.  It is full of colour and life, and left me with such a feeling of happiness afterwards, that it should be available to view on prescription!  Denzel Washington has never looked more handsome than he does here as the Spanish Prince Don Pedro, Richard Briers as Hero’s father Leonato and Brian Blessed as Leonato’s brother Antonio are both wonderful in their roles, and Kate Beckinsale is sweet and lovely as Hero.  It hardly needs to be said that Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson are both note-perfect as the squabbling Benedick and Beatrice, making perfect use of Shakespeare’s sharp and witty banter.  It’s worth mentioning Michael Keaton’s small but important part as police constable Dogberry, which he certainly makes the most of, stealing most of the scenes he is in.  The casting isn’t perfect – Keanu Reeves is an odd choice for the villain Don John, who leads Claudio into mistakenly believing that Hero has been unfaithful, and Robert Sean Leonard is rather wooden as Claudio.  However, there is so much to enjoy in this film that it hardly matters.

Although it does contain dark themes – the aborted first wedding of Claudio and Hero is upsetting, particularly as the viewer knows that Hero has been slandered – it is mainly cheerful with a happy tone throughout.  I’d recommend this to fans and non-fans of Shakespeare alike.  It is definitely one of my favourite Shakespeare adaptations.

Year of release: 1993

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Producers: Kenneth Branagh, Stephen Evans, David Parfitt

Writers: William Shakespeare (play), Kenneth Branagh (screenplay)

Main cast: Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Kate Beckinsale, Robert Sean Leonard, Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, Richard Briers, Brian Blessed, Michael Keaton

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Click here for my review of the televised live performance of Much Ado About Nothing at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre (2011)

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The narrator of this book is Stevens, a loyal butler, who has worked at the grand Darlington Hall for most of his adult life.  Set in 1956, when Stevens receives a letter from former housekeeper Miss Kenton, who left Darlington Hall several years earlier to get married, he sets out to meet her.  En route, he reminisces about his time at Darlington Hall, specifically the years when he served the now deceased and disgraced Lord Darlington, in the years between World War I and World War II.

I found myself being drawn into this book, and ended up being very moved by it.  The characters – principally Stevens himself and Miss Kenton are believable, and if not always completely likeable, are certainly shown as two very decent people, who may have both missed the best years and opportunities of their lives.  (Such as when Stevens meets some villagers on his journey and allows them to believe that he had more influence over world affairs than he ever could really have hoped to have had.)

The dual narration works well, and while most of the book is devoted to Stevens’ time serving Lord Darlington, his present day narration show how those earlier years have affected him, despite his seeming never to want to show emotion.  Tellingly, on a couple of occasions in the present day narrative, he denies having worked for Lord Darlington, due to Darlington’s reputation as a Nazi sympathiser.  At times I wanted to shake Stevens and tell him to allow himself to show his feelings; not to miss out on an opportunity.  He was a perfectly drawn character, sometimes frustrating to read about with his fastidiousness and his occasional obtuseness, and ultimately a sympathetic character.

Also, this book is surprisingly funny at times.  Stevens attempts to teach Lord Darlington’s godson about sex (under Lord Darlington’s instruction) had me giggling, and his occasional referrals to the art of banter, and his attempts to learn this art, were also very amusing.

In the end, the message behind the book is a simple (and obvious) one, but this story is so beautifully told and so absorbing.  It’s no surprise that this book won the Man Booker Prize…I would highly recommend reading The Remains of the Day.

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I picked this book up a few years ago in a charity shop, because (a) it was ridiculously cheap, and (b) I like Jane Austen.  I finally got around to reading it because I watched the film adaptation a few weeks ago, and really enjoyed it, and I wanted to see how the book and film compared.  Of the many reviews I’ve read of this book since finishing it myself, the vast majority are unfavourable, but while I can see what might put people off, I actually enjoyed it a lot.

Six friends start a book club which meets once a month, to discuss the novels of Jane Austen.  Each takes their turn at hosting, and while the novel does discuss their meetings, it takes much more time to describe each character’s back story, and the issues which they are facing in their current life.  The narration is quite unusual – it is as if the book club has a collective consciousness, and it is from the point of view of this consciousness that the story is told; I can see how that could irritate, but for me anyway, it worked.  I did think that the characters were pretty well drawn, although two of them – Prudie and Bernadette – seemed slightly set apart from the other four, this possibly being because the other four had connections between them that excluded Prudie and Bernadette (this may also explain why these two characters were my least favourites).

It’s a very charming book, if slightly predictable.  Not entirely predictable however – the resolutions of Sylvia’s and Allegra’s stories were not what I had expected (or at least in Sylvia’s case, it would have been unexpected, but I knew what happened, only because I had seen the film).  However, as each chapter is devoted mainly to one character (that being whoever is hosting the book club that month), it almost feels like a series of separate short stories which relate to each other through shared characters.

I wouldn’t say that you need to like, or even to have read any Austen novels to enjoy this book, as in truth, only small parts of the books are devoted to the actual book club meetings – in fact, you could probably have written this book about any author’s works (Karen Joy Fowler is clearly a big Austen fan, as she notes in her acknowledgements) – but I do think it helps, as I found myself nodding along with the assessments of certain Austen characters.  I enjoyed it a lot, but on balance, I’m not sure I would read it again, while I would certainly watch the film adaptation again.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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Click here for my review of the 2007 film adaptation.

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