Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Book Review: The Strain by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan

The Strain

Written by: Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan

Published: 2009

Synopsis: A Boeing 777 arrives at JFK and is on its way across the tarmac, when it suddenly stops dead. All window shades are pulled down. All lights are out. All communication channels have gone quiet. Crews on the ground are lost for answers, but an alert goes out to the CDC. Dr. Ephraim "Eph" Goodweather, head of their Canary project, a rapid-response team that investigates biological threats, gets the call and boards the plane. What he finds makes his blood run cold.

In a pawnshop in Spanish Harlem, a former professor and survivor of the Holocaust named Abraham Setrakian knows something is happening. And he knows the time has come, that a war is brewing.

So begins a battle of mammoth proportions as the vampiric virus that has infected New York begins to spill out into the streets. Eph, who is joined by Setrakian and a motley crew of fighters, must now find a way to stop the contagion and save his city - a city that includes his wife and son - before it is too late.

“for in the absence of God he had found Man. Man killing man, man helping man, both of them anonymous: the scourge and the blessing.”

After finishing NOS4R2 on our US/Canada trip Tom and I decided to give Guillermo Del Toro's vampire book a go. I've really loved some of Del Toro's films and he seems like the kind of guy who is really passionate about folklore or mythic creatures, but then likes to twist them into something new. This actually isn't his first attempt at the vampire genre, his film Cronos is an amazing representation of vampiric conventions and themes. It was also where his working relationship with Ron Pearlman began, who happens to be the narrator of this audiobook, and a big reason why we decided now was the right time to finally read this book.

In some ways The Strain is a very good book. It deftly weaves vampire lore (of the Stoker variety) with a more modern take, the vampire as disease/parasite. It nods to Stoker with its older vampire-hunter Setrakian (as loveable as Van Helsing, but more badass), head vampire coming to the "new world" over the ocean (this time via plane and known as Master, not Dracula), a few Renfield type characters and perhaps a Mina/Johnathan relationship (however at this stage I'm not sure if that's between Eph and his (ex) wife or his colleague Nora). The more modern elements take this from a traditional horror into thriller territory, with Eph and Nora - working for the CDC in a speciality team dedicated to unknown biological threats - fighting a losing battle to keep New York City from succumbing to the vampires.

Unlike the sexy vampires in Twilight, Anne Rice books and, to an extent, Dracula itself, Del Toro*'s vampires are hideous. Transformation doesn't simply give them a few pointy teeth and a thirst for blood, their body begins to change into something new. They feast on blood via a spike that erupts through their mouth. There are no delicate ladies left in bed drained of their blood. This is messy, wild and animalistic. The disease/parasite wants to spread, so once someone is turned they return to their home, to their loved ones, and turn them too. Aside from the Master, none of the vampires seem to retain any semblance of their earlier life or personality, they're simply handy chunks of meat the parasite requires to survive. They're like a combination of the xenomorphs in Alien, zombies and the vampires from 30 Days of Night.
“What you fought was a dead man, possessed by a disease.""What--like a pinche zombie?" "Think more along the lines of a man with a black cape. Fangs. Funny accent. Now take away the cape and fangs. The funny accent. Take away anything funny about it.”
The thriller side of the book, where Eph and Nora try to understand how a plane lands and subsequently "goes dark" killing everyone on board (bar 4 survivors) with no sign of cause of death, was pretty interesting. Knowing that the answer is 'vampire' takes some of the fun out of their meticulous attempts to understand something new and obscure, but I did really enjoy the more scientific approach to a sub-genre that is almost always driven by emotion instead. The scenes at the airport, the morgues and the science labs were some of the best in the book. Their slow steps towards discovering the mythical cause of their mystery, their confusion and hesitation over symptoms and evidence that make no sense in our rational, scientific world. Not to mention the struggle Eph and Nora have to go through to accept the prognosis of 'vampire' from Setrakian, even when their research, and eyes, shout out in agreement. Perhaps most interesting of all, and something I rarely think of when reading books of this kind, is the trouble Eph and Nora have in accepting that they need to kill the vampires. Setrakian, a survivor of the holocaust and the Master, grew up with stories of the vampires and encountered their destructive forces often. For Setrakian, severing the head of the vampires and burning the bodies is simply what must be done. But Eph and Nora have grown up thinking that vampires are just stories, even witnessing the transformation of a person into the vampire doesn't allow them to happily accept this as anything other than murder. They have to fight against their better judgements, while always wondering if they're actually doing what's right, wondering whether there is a better, more scientific method that they're missing.

But this is where we start to run into the problems. It felt very clear to me while reading/listening to this book, that Del Toro is a filmmaker. Writing a book and writing a screen treatment are very different things, and I imagine it takes a lot of work to get good at doing both. In a book you should be following the "show don't tell" rule, but when you're writing a treatment, something that's basically used as a blueprint for the film, you occasionally need to tell instead of just show, so that down the track you now what it is you're wanting, visually. There are a few occasions where far too much information is given by Del Toro and it would take me completely out of the moment. Sometimes it was far too much information about a character given at once, sometimes it was a far too detailed description of the gun (which would be perfect for film, where you need your prop department to know exactly what you want in the scene) and other times it was just feeding too much background information about something fairly obvious. For instance, Eph and Nora are part of the canary team. Their role is basically to go in and assess the risk before other CDC teams or the police get involved. I'd hazard that most people know about the use of canaries in mines to detect harmful gases, but even if people don't it isn't going to ruin the book if they pass over that little reference. What we get though, is a hefty paragraph about how the canaries were used in the mines and why Eph's team is named after them. They've just been called in to investigate a complete mystery, they're the first of the scene, they're doctors and scientists and they work for the CDC. Even if you don't know the canary link, their role is pretty clear. It just comes across as clumsy writing or, at other times, as padding -as though they were told the book had to be 100,000 words and nothing less would be accepted. It weighs an already over-long novel down and adds chunk to a narrative that should be sleek and stream-lined.

I don't know if listening to this book, as opposed to reading it, exacerbated the problems I found in the book. It's possible that if I'd just been reading it I would have glossed over the over-explained areas and wouldn't have had as much of an issue with them. Or perhaps without Ron Pearlman's narration - which was really quite fantastic - I would have sighed and given up reading it all together. Del Toro's take on the vampire is dark and brutal and gory, and I loved that. Positioning the story as a biological threat to New York, almost akin to 28 Days Later, was also a brilliant idea. There is a really fantastic book between the covers of The Strain, it's just hidden between extraneous plot and detailing and some awkward narration. A television adaptation is coming this year and I have a sneaking suspicion it'll actually be pretty great. The graphic novel adaptation has already fixed a lot of the structure problems and info dumps, so perhaps Del Toro simply needs the visual in order to make his ideas work.

*I'm not exactly sure what the partnership between Del Toro and Hogan was when writing the book, but I'm just using Del Toro instead of Del Toro and Hogan.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Graphic Novel mini-reviews #17

Runaways: Teenage Wasteland (Volume #2)

Written by: Brian K. Vaughan; illustrated by: Adrian Alphona

Published: 2004

My Thoughts: I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about this series. The basic story progression is interesting enough as is the struggle the kids are having coming to terms with their new found powers and their parents real identities but there is still something lacking. I do love that it seems to realistically tap into that conflicting moment when teenagers realise their parents are people with a life outside their role as mother/father and that adults aren't automatically to be trusted or relied upon. These real life struggles woven into a superhero/fantasy setting work really well, the hiccups seem to be the sudden additions to the fantasy world that come without warning. Take for instance the main story thread in this volume. A kid who appears to also have dodgy parents turns out not to be what he seems and while it isn't completely out of left field (there are definitely hints) there also isn't anything to make me believe it wasn't a plot chosen purely for the shock factor rather than adding anything to the world. I'll keep getting them from the library though, especially since the Joss Whedon arc is coming up.

Fables: Arabian Nights (Volume #7)

Written by: Bill Willingham; Illustrated by: Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, Jim Fern, Jimmy Palmiotti, Andrew Pepoy

Published: 2006

My Thoughts: I'm well and truly into the Fables series now and really loving it. While the previous volumes have mostly centred around Fabletown with mentions (and brief looks) at the Homelands from here on out we start to learn about how far this world actually spans. In this volume characters from the Arabian Fables (think Sinbad, Aladdin etc) journey to Fabletown to try and forge a relationship that will unite them against the adversary. But there are factors that work against this potential truce, cultural expectations, language barriers and nefarious dealings going on behind the scene. It felt a little too "cultured and wise" white America vs "ignorant and aggressive" Middle Easterners at times (there were some definite cringe moments) but I think they managed to extricate themselves from that awful dichotomy eventually and with an interesting resolution. The extra story "The Ballad of Rodney and June" about the love and sacrifices of two of the Adversary's wooden soldiers, I'm not so fond.

iZombie (Volume #1)

Written by: Chris Roberson; Illustrated by: Mike Allred

Published: 2011

My Thoughts: I had seen volumes of this series in my library and comic book store but it was the news that it was being made into a TV series by Rob Thomas (Veronica Mars) that finally got me interested. It's an interesting concept, a female zombie eats brains once a month to stop herself from degrading to the Night of the Living Dead level of zombieness while living also trying to live the life of an early-twenty woman. She's joined by her friends, a go-go ghost and were-terrier and there's a mysterious Egyptian mummy man. It's kind of ridiculous but it really commits to how absurd the concept is, so even when things make me want to roll my eyes at time (a were-terrier...really?!) I still thoroughly enjoyed it. It also set a couple of really interesting mystery based story threads up for the next few volumes so I'm excited to see where it heads.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Monday Links

**I watched season 1 of House of Cards on a couple of the flights I took to/from America so I was pretty excited about Season 2 airing. Can we talk about how awesome/terrible Netflix's release-everything-at-once system is? Because yes, I am so happy not to have to wait a week between episodes but gooooodbye productivity! Is it even possible not to binge-watch when there's a brand new series available in its entirety?

**I know most of you are cursing the snow and feeling sad about the cold but it is SO HOT RIGHT NOW. I do not like 36 degree days with 10,000% humidity. No I do not. Especially when I'm working from home with no air-conditioning and no ceiling fans. I do not understand why so many people build houses in the freaking tropics and don't automatically install fans. It's like they're intentionally trying to stop me from getting a good night sleep for 3 months straight.

**This video is the absolute most adorable thing ever. His excited sigh when Supes starts gathering energy to fly made me awwww so hard my ovaries skipped a beat.


*Publishers are taking a leaf out of Netflix's book and want you to binge-read series. (Via Jezebel)

*More quizzes! What It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia character are you? I'm Sweet Dee! (Via Buzzfeed)

*NOPE. It is unfair how talented these artists are. (Via Viral Nova)

*Caitlin Moran discussing feminism and her book How to be a Woman at The Royal Library in Denmark. It's over an hour of awesomeness. (Via Youtube)

*yeesh, talk about kicking it out of the park. A kickstarter by Lightspeed Magazine for an all-female issue called "Women Destroy Science Fiction" has absolutely dominated. Looks like we're finally recognising the need for more female writers in the genre fields. Huzzah! (Via i09)

*Sigh, another reason to be embarrassed by my government, we made a condescending graphic novel to ward of asylum seekers arriving by boat. (Via Buzzfeed)

*Ooooh, Martin Starr reads us the sexy letters written by James Joyce. Dude was filthy. (Via Jezebel)

*Aled Lewis is a man after my own heart. An illustrator by trade, he decided to depict some iconic TV/film slaps and punches and made them into 16-bit art pieces. (Via Gammasquad)

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Book Review: Moranthology by Caitlin Moran


Written by: Caitlin Moran

Published: 2012

Synopsis:‘In How To Be a Woman, I was limited to a single topic: women. Their hair, their shoes and their crushes on Aslan from The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe (which I KNOW to be universal).

‘However! In my new book Moranthology – as the title suggests – I am set free to tackle THE REST OF THE WORLD: Ghostbusters, Twitter, caffeine, panic attacks, Michael Jackson’s memorial service, being a middle-class marijuana addict, Doctor Who, binge-drinking, Downton Abbey, pandas, my own tragically early death, and my repeated failure to get anyone to adopt the nickname I have chosen for myself: ‘Puffin’.

‘I go to a sex-club with Lady Gaga, cry on Paul McCartney’s guitar, get drunk with Kylie, appear on Richard & Judy as a gnome, climb into the TARDIS, sniff Sherlock Holmes’s pillows at 221b Baker Street, write Amy Winehouse’s obituary, turn up late to Downing Street for Gordon Brown, and am rudely snubbed at a garden party by David Cameron –although that’s probably because I called him ‘A C3PO made of ham’. Fair enough.

‘And, in my spare time – between hangovers – I rant about the welfare state, library closures and poverty; like a shit Dickens or Orwell, but with tits.’

“A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination.”

For about as long as I've known Laura (of Devouring Texts) I have heard about how brilliant Caitlin Moran is. I went as far as to follow her on Twitter, but since her columns (all three of them) are hidden behind Murdoch's wall of pay I never got any further than to respect her awesome hair and enjoy her in 140 character bursts. I finally picked up one of her books* which, to my delight, turned out to be the one full of essays from her columns so SUCK IT MURDOCH.

Moranthology made me laugh so hard my stomach ached, it made my sigh with sadness and it made be nod my head vigorously and poke Tom saying "see! She gets it. She knows". By the time I finished the final essay my copy of the book had more orange highlighter on the pages that not on it. Everything is just so on point and so well written, I just want to get the whole book tattooed across my body. Because it's comprised of essays from her three columns (Celebrity Watch, weeklyTV and a, I want to say, general whatever she wants to write column) it touches on just about every subject, from visiting the Doctor Who set to what it's like to grow up poor to getting drunk with Lady GaGa to feminism to commenting on the Royal Wedding. It's a window into Caitlin as a woman, mother, wife and journalist while also giving a brilliant insight into English life or, at least, life from an English perspective.

I'm not sure if I could name a favourite essay in the collection. I loved the interviews with celebrities because even though they're musicians/actors/people who have been interviewed and discussed to death (Lady Gaga, Paul McCartney, Keith Richards), she seemed to get something completely new out of them and they seem so real. They don't sound like super-wealthy super-famous celebrities, they sound like people who have passions and insecurities and get silly after too many drinks. I love her articles about feminism and welfare because she brings so much intelligence and perspective to the subjects and puts forth brilliant arguments. But I also love the silly articles, the ones about the conversations she has with her husband in bed or the 800 words on why humans hate fish and fish hate humans. You really do get a little bit of everything in this book and even if you never thought you needed an intense breakdown of what vegetable should become England's national veg, by the time you finish reading Hello, English Rose (from Part One) you'll wonder how you never asked yourself the same question.

Reviewing books of essays is hard because it's not exactly like I can tell you about the plot or the success of the characterisation or the major themes. So instead I figured I'd share some of my favourite quotes and prove to you how wonderfully wonderful she is**.

On sexism:
“I have a rule for working out if the root problem of something is, in fact, sexism. And it is this: asking 'Are the boys doing it? Are the boys having to worry about this stuff? Are the boys the centre of a gigantic global debate on this subject?”
From the introduction:
“The motto I have penned on my knuckles is that this is the best world we have--because it's the only world we have. It's the simplest math ever. However many terrible, rankling, peeve-inducing things may occur, there are always libraries. And rain-falling-on-sea. And the moon. And love. There is always something to look back on, with satisfaction, or forward to, with joy. There is always a moment where you boggle at the world--at yourself--at the whole, unlikely, precarious business of being alive--and then start laughing”
On Usher at Michael Jackson's funeral:
"Ironically, Celebrity Watch can imagine Usher using "Jiggle the Lid" as the title of his next album. It has a tone of urban suggestiveness"
 Her husband's perfect end to an unwanted conversation at 1am:
"Good night, Puffin. You demented fucking bitch"
On pro-life rhetoric:
"But surely a gift is something wanted? Something suitable? A stranger's hand putting something in my pocket is the same as a stranger's hand taking something out of my pocket. Really, there should be no hand there at all.
"Babies being 'given' to women as gifts makes the women sound powerless."

Now that I've finished 300+ pages of these columns I kind of want to subscribe to The Times so I can continue to read them, but since I'm not made of money I think I might just look into getting a copy of How to Be A Woman, watch the videos of her on Youtube and cross my fingers really hard that she releases another book soon. But whether you succumb to Murdoch*** and pay to read her columns each week or simply buy this book and read it over and over, you should definitely read what Moran writes. Because it is truth - weird, wacky and wonderfully wordy truth.

*I literally just grabbed it when I saw it sitting on the shelf at the bookstore and ran to the counter.

**Apparently not everyone thinks so. She is currently on Tumblr's shitlist. I was looking to see if there were any gifs of her talking or giving interviews and apparently reading some Sherlock fanfic at a BFI event with the cast made people lose their minds. It's kind of insane actually.

***Sorry, I just really fucking despise Murdoch.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Holiday Photo Diary: Toronto

Today marks the final photo diary from my mammoth North American holiday. *tears up* It's been a lot of fun reliving the holiday back here in sunny Queensland, especially all those snow pictures. It makes the humidity somewhat more bearable.

Toronto was our last stop (other than the two days in LA) and I think that really showed with our schedule. We were pretty exhausted at this stage, so we spent a lot of time just hanging out and operating at a much slower pace. Which was actually really nice. We still saw plenty of the sights and got to know the city fairly well, but we didn't have the same frantic pace that we had in New York City. We also picked a pretty good time to visit. The extreme colds don't hit until January and February, and apparently the few snows we got to experience in Toronto (once on Christmas day!) is quite rare for this time of year. So it seems we got all the best parts of winter.

Toronto was also a bit of a testing ground to see if a move to Canada could potentially be in the books for the (near) future. It's ideal for both Tom's and my career so it's been on our list of potential new homes for awhile. And I've got to say, from our short stay (about 11 days) I could see myself at home there. It's a larger, more creativity-driven Brisbane, has actual seasons, is pretty central for trips elsewhere in Canada and the US and my nana and aunt live there. So hey, maybe I'll be a North American blogger before long!

Once again we really lucked out with our hostel's location. Not only were we really close to the subway and Spadina Ave but we had a cinema around one corner and the TIFF Lightbox around another! TIFF had a David Cronenberg exhibit open which was amazing. Cronenberg is Tom's favourite director and we both love The Fly (amongst countless others) so to see props, costumes, scripts and learn about Cronenberg's creative process was literally the best thing ever. If you're in Toronto and want to check out TIFF (it's such a great space, and they have films - current and older - playing throughout the day) then go on a Tuesday when tickets are half priced. It isn't overly expensive regularly, but why pay more if you don't have to?

Toronto isn't a particularly iconic city, appearance wise, or at least not in the same way as somewhere like New York is but it's such a hub of creativity. It is literally on every surface of the city. Whether it's an alleyway dedicated to graffiti artists, gorgeous coffee shops, colourful shop fronts in Kensington Markets, the gorgeous TIFF Lightbox building or the hundreds of buildings dedicated to TV studios, special effects companies and game studios the city breathes creativity. There is a real openness and understanding of how important creativity is to every field and workplace, which is like a breath of fresh air amidst the anti-creativity government policy here in Australia at the moment. Another upside to a creative city? The best bars and restaurants.

Because we were in Toronto and my aunt is a mad hockey fan, we obviously had to go to a game. We had the best seats in the house (maybe not literally, but still) right up in front of the glass. I jumped SO much when the puck hit the protective glass in front of me. It's terrifying though, more power to the actual players - pretty sure I'd be in the foetal position on the ice crying the whole game. I'm not a big sport watcher but hockey is AMAZING! There's so much violence and speedy black pucks and they do it all while skating on ice. It's the greatest spectacle, and the crowds are amazing to watch as well. Canadians are so super polite they're even nice to the opposing team. In Australia...we're not so nice. Also, Chris Hadfield was there and he led the crowd in the Maple Leafs team song*. It was pretty great. Oh, did I mention we were on TV? One of the camera guys was right in front of us, so any time the Leafs scored he'd flip around and film us and the people around us. We found the 2 second spot when we rewatched the game the next morning. Again, that night was pretty great.

One of my favourite days in Toronto was also one of our busiest. At this stage we'd moved to my aunt's place (she was down in Texas with her partner) so we got to sleep in and eat breakfast in our own time. Does anyone else find it impossible to sleep in or feel comfortable at hotel breakfasts? Just me? Oh... okay. We headed down to the harbour front to see Lake Ontario and to finally go ice skating. I knew Lake Ontario was big, but guys, Lake Ontario is really, really big. The parts of the lake around the harbour were completely frozen. I don't know how solid the ice was but I have seen photos of people skating across from Toronto Island into the harbour which can't even imagine how awesome that is to someone who has grown up in the tropics. We went skating at a little outdoor rink (Natrel Rink) right on the harbour, so while we skating around we got a gorgeous view of the lake and the surrounding area. It was my first time skating since early high school so I was pretty embarrassingly bad when I hopped on the ice but by the end I think I'd managed to look a little less silly. Of course, the Canadians skated literally rings around me but I expected nothing else.

Me, standing on the ice for the first time. Haha

After skating we headed to the Steam Whistle Brewery that was a short walk from the harbour. The brewery is in the old Railway Roundhouse and right next to the CN Tower, Roger's Centre and the new Ripley's Aquarium. The brewery tour was great, for $10 we got our weight in beer (I've never seen a brewery so happy to give away samples on samples on samples), a half hour tour around the brewery and quick lesson on how their beer is brewed, and a souvenir beer glass or bottle opener at the end. The tour needs to be booked in advance (or at least it did over the Christmas season) but there's also a bar inside where you can take a seat, drink a good beer and have a break before rushing off to the next tourist attraction. After the brewery we walked down to my nana's apartment and visited with her and some neighbours late into the night. It was nice to see my nana after so many years, and get a look at embarrassing baby photos of my dad that he'd NEVER share with us.

On our last full day we hopped on a bus and headed out to Niagara Falls. We'd been told that we didn't need to spend too much time up there, but we booked our tickets in advance and I probably wish we'd had either longer so we weren't constantly worrying about getting back to the bus stop on time or had just booked our trip once we were done looking around and had made it back to the station. Anyway, Niagara the town is kind of depressing. The area around the falls is full of chain restaurants and overpriced tourist shops and the glitzy grossness of the casino. The town that falls outside of an easy walk from the falls in grey and sad and in disrepair. It's actually really sad to see what a tourist hotspot (and for a legitimise reason, the falls are extraordinary) can do to a town.

But the falls. The falls are amazing. They were a little disappointing at first, only because, I think, they're so built up in your head that they can't possibly live up to the expectation. I had the same experience on the Great Wall of China. But once you get past that initial reaction, they're really enormous. They're also gorgeous in the winter. Apparently a few days later they completely froze over, but while we were there they were still rushing with water. The spray is so cold that every surface nearby is covered in a solid inch of white ice. It looks amazing. Even though we were there on the first of January there were still crowds of tourists snapping photos of the falls. It was terrifying how many of them were perched up on the icy rails, I wonder how many people slip over each year. Actually, scratch that. I absolutely don't want to know a terrifying statistic like that.

*We also saw him outside on the way into the stadium and Tom was jostled against him. Ergo, Tom has now touched Space.

Film Trailer: The Double (2014)

A new two minute trailer has been released for Richard Ayoade's (The It Crowd, Submarine) film adaptation of Dostoevsky's The Double. I'm fairly sure I shared the earlier, shorter trailer when it came out but I couldn't help myself from sharing this one too. I'm not a huge Eisenberg fan but this does look like the perfect role for him. God knows if this will ever make it to Australia, but even if I have to accept that it'll only ever be a dvd viewing I'm looking forward to seeing if the film is as intriguing as the trailer.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Monday Links

I've decided to try something a little different this week. I've had an itch to talk about things I'm reading or watching that don't quite justify an entire blog post on their own. So I'm going to start integrating them into my Monday posts. There'll still be plenty of links each week but now you'll have to also deal with me prattling about things happening in books, tv shows and life.

ugh... After Tom and I finished watching Orphan Black (which you should all be watching btw) I decided to start on Scandal.  It's a lot trashier than I imagined (it is by the creator of Grey's Anatomy though, so I should have expected as much) but I do like how much it really commits to its over-dramatic nature. My problem isn't that the woman who says "I don't allow crying in the work place" always seems to be on the verge of tears, but that the central story plot, the relationship between Olivia and President Grant, is kind of... rape-y? I know it's supposed to be the kind of relationship where their attraction is so strong that they can't help but bone even when they know it's wrong, but if I have to watch a scene where she says no over and over only to have him stick his hand up her skirt and her give in to him - UGH. Seriously, do the writers not see how problematic this is? It doesn't matter if she loves him and that she really wants his hand up her skirt, she says no and he never EVER hesitates. It's super skeezy and a real bummer on an otherwise innocuous series. Has anyone else watched Scandal? 

JFC... Philip Seymour Huffman's death last week provided the perfect example of why I hate the internet sometimes. A man is dead, leaving behind three children and a partner and all people can say is "why should I care, he was a junkie". When did we stop feeling empathy for other people? When did it become okay for people to blurt things out without taking a minute to think about who could read it? Can you think dying by overdose is a senseless, meaningless way to die? Yes. Does it mean you can't empathise with the man who relapsed after staying sober for 20 years? Does it mean you can't put yourselves in the shoes of his children or of the countless people who might read your tweets who have had loved ones succumb to addiction? Why does the death of a person need to be made into a statement? If we aren't telling people not to feel sorry for addicts or suicides, we're cheering for the death of a drink driver or speeder or rolling our eyes because someone took too long to see a doctor or chose alternative medicine instead. Do people die because they make stupid mistakes or decisions? Of course. But why can't we take a week, a month, or a year before we start saying they aren't worth our tears because they succumbed to their problems. /rant

Bon Voyage... On a more positive note, I'm off to Japan! I had to wait ages to get everything OK'd by the university but it's all a go now. In late February I'm going to be heading over for the Yubari Film Festival and to do some research for my PhD. I can't wait! I went to Japan a couple of years ago so even though I probably won't have much time to sight-see,  I'm hoping to catch up on some of the places I missed last time. And I get to go back to the snow!


*Actually a really wonderful article about love in the Harry Potter series and why (in the author's opinion) the Ron and Hermione relationship was so important. (Via Think Progress by way of Meg)

*Ooer, looks like JKR might have been slightly misquoted last week in her interview with Emma Watson. It's a little more forgiving when you read the actual interview (Via Muggle Net)

*Because I am a sucker for babies and books, here are a bunch of babies posed as characters from books we all love (Via Buzzfeed)

*Architect Federico Babina created a poster series of the interiors of some famous films. They're really gorgeous, minimal and retro - I think Bell Book and Candle is my favourite. (Via Fast Company)

*It's winter olympics time! It seems like everything that could go wrong in Sochi is going wrong - but what if the games were in New York? (Via New York Times)

*Lionel Shriver teaches us how not to read. (Via The Guardian)

*GUYS! Science has finally done something worthwhile - here's the perfect way to hold a hamburger, as proved by SCIENCE! (Via Kotaku)

*These fandom themed Valentine's gifs are the BEST. (Via Buzzfeed)

Friday, February 7, 2014

Book Review: The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (hehehe)

The Cuckoo's Calling 

Written by: Robert Galbraith

Published: 2013

Synopsis: After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator. Strike is down to one client, and creditors are calling. He has also just broken up with his longtime girlfriend and is living in his office.

Then John Bristow walks through his door with an amazing story: his sister, the legendary supermodel Lula Landry, known to her friends as the Cuckoo, famously fell to her death a few months earlier. The police ruled it a suicide, but John refuses to believe that. The case plunges Strike into the world of multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers, and it introduces him to every variety of pleasure, enticement, seduction, and delusion known to man.

“How easy it was to capitalize on a person’s own bent for self-destruction; how simple to nudge them into non-being, then to stand back and shrug and agree that it had been the inevitable result of a chaotic, catastrophic life.”

When The Casual Vacancy came out I baulked at reading it because JK Rowling IS my childhood. At the end of the day I'm a pessimist. My immediate reaction was worry "what if it had sucked so bad that I couldn't look at Harry Potter again?"  It was absolutely not fair on her (and by all accounts it sounds like it was a good book) but I wasn't ready to say goodbye to the Boy Who Lived and move on to Rowling's adult fiction. And then JKR solved that problem for me. By releasing The Cuckoo's Calling under a pseudonym (even one that was eventually revealed) I was able to disconnect JKR the wizarding writer with JKR the crime writer enough to not spend the entire time wondering when Harry* would run in and save the day.

It might have taken me a few years to be able to accept JKR as someone other than the woman who wrote Harry Potter but I'm now more than happy to embrace this version of JKR. The Cuckoo's Calling is good. I don't read a lot of crime fiction any more, but it's always been my mum's favourite genre so over my life I've read my fair share of Ruth Rendell, P.D James and Minette Walters. The Cuckoo's Calling measured up to these writers and Cormoran Strike could easily become a new favourite detective of mine.

So as the synopsis describes, Cormoran Strike is a struggling private eye who is basically offered an easy way to pay his rent and keep his debtors of his ass. John Bristow wants Strike to investigate the suicide of his sister, a model with a recent diagnosis of bipolar and history of bad choices. From the start it seems like a pretty obvious suicide (spoiler alert: it's not a suicide) but Strike takes the job seriously - even if he's just doing it for the large cash advance. The investigation is very much at the forefront of this book but it's also something of an origin story. As Strike delves into the case, parallels with his own life and upbringing become apparent and add a more personal angle to the investigation. It's actually very smartly entwined, never diverging from the case in hand but setting up story points for future books**.

Cormoran is a fairly run of the mill detective, he's grouchy, threatening and has pretty dark moods but the back-story helps differentiate him from the hundreds of others that came before him. I couldn't help but imagine him as a younger Mad Eye Moody (Strike also only has the one leg) which probably coloured my enjoyment of his grouchiness and detective strategies (CONSTANT VIGILANCE) but that's hardly a bad thing. It also meant I imagined him looking a little like David Tennant thanks to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire*** and that DEFINITELY isn't a bad thing. The personal touches aren't all good though, I found the B story about his (now) ex-fiancĂ©e baffling.  I don't think JKR is great at writing romantic relationships  (*cough* Harry and Ginny *cough cough*) but this one was just so shoe-horned in - at no point did I understand why Cormoran would be intoxicated by this absolute cow of a woman. She keeps describing Charlotte as beautiful but also showing her to be a vindictive and compulsive liar who plays with Cormoran's affections. I had no idea if I was supposed to understand why they spent 15 years on and off together or if I was supposed to think, as I did, that it sounded like a rubbish relationship. I just hope it isn't something that drags on in future books, I have no desire for soap opera level relationship drama in my mystery fiction thank you very much.

While Charlotte was a monster Robin, the secretary/sidekick, was pretty fantastic. She signs on as a temp at the start of the book who has a pretty awkward meeting with Strike (it involves nearly dying and having her boob grabbed) but is instantly attracted to the private detective life. As she finds ways to stay on longer than her temp position necessitates she becomes almost a protective sister to Strike while he's at his most vulnerable (essentially homeless after Charlotte kicked him out) and plays an important role in helping solve the crime. The relationship between the two is set up so nicely I can only hope it continues to develop as such and doesn't turn into a relationship somewhere down the line. It's not often that you get to read about a man and woman who accept and respect each without wanting to smoosh their bodies together. My fingers are crossed that JKR manages to balance it as well as Elementary balances the relationship between Sherlock and Joan, or as JKR herself balanced the friendship between Harry and Hermione (pre-JKR stomping on all our hearts obv).

The book is a fairly formulaic but fun detective story which really excels in the areas JKR has always excelled in - character and world building. True this is just regular old London and not fancy-hidden-magic London but she really brings the place to life. Since I haven't been to London perhaps it's not at all realistically depicted but she brings a London, full of colourful people and cafes and fancy clubs, to life within the pages. There is also a brilliant monologue at the end when Strike "catches" the bad guy which screams of Harry's confrontation against Voldemort in Deathly Hollows, she obviously loves having smart protagonists proudly tell the villain how stupid they are and the multitude of ways they screwed up and gotten themselves caught. It's extremely satisfying to read and if I hadn't already know JKR was the author it probably would have set off flashing lights and sirens in my head immediately. I tried really hard not to compare everything in this book to Harry Potter, but when you know that series as well as I (and most of you) do it's impossible to completely separate them. This is a brilliant adult mystery novel but there's no escaping the past. HP provided JKR with a brilliant place to hone her skills and develop her voice so there'll always be a touch of magic in her writing.

*Thanks to some genius idea of Hermione's obviously.

**I assume there will be future books since it's listed as Comoran Strike #1 on GoodReads.

***I don't really know why I imagined him looking like Crouch Jr, maybe because that was the only younger man associated with that character or maybe I just look for any opportunity to imagine David Tennant in roles.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Holiday Photo Diary: Montreal


Montreal might have been one of my favourite visits over the holiday, although that might be coloured by the fact I got to see my little sister for the first time since my holiday to China the year earlier. It also might have been the Quebec X Toronto feel, snow and boardgame cafes we kept stumbling upon.

We were really lucky during our entire holiday, every hotel and hostel I picked and booked turned out to be really close to both the transport system we were using (bus, train etc) and central to all the best sights. I'd like to say this was because I was so well organised, but in most cases I just looked for the place with a decent rating online and the right (read: cheap) price. This was especially the case in Montreal. The hostel we stayed at was only ok (warm, clean and safe - so I can't really complain) but it's location in the Latin Quarter was perfect. We were a stone's throw from a million cheap and tasty restaurants and only a short walk from the main shopping streets, harbour and old town. We spent the first day and a half catching trains before we realised we could walk to the places we wanted to visit just about as quickly.

Our first day was really a first evening, so we walked towards the shopping streets looking for a cinema. I don't think I've mentioned just how much Tom and I went to the movies on our holiday. In Australia we get all of the US and UK films a few months behind their international releases, if they come out at all. So we were determined to catch all of the small indie films or bigger films that wouldn't be in Australia for months. Needless to say we ended up at the cinema a whole lot. By the way, you guys do movie food RIGHT. I feel like we're ripped off at the movies here in Australia in more than one way now. I'm going to start petitioning for Tim Hortons and soft pretzels and nachos immediately. So that first night in Montreal ended up spent in a Mexican restaurant and catching a late showing of American Hustle. Which I thought was a lot of fun, especially Jennifer Lawrence's role. I'm a little surprised at the heat it's been receiving but I'm guessing that's the usual Best Picture Oscar nomination backlash.

My sister wasn't arriving until the following afternoon so Tom and I decided to take the train up to Saint Joseph's Oratory of Mont Royal. It's a minor basilica and shrine and I *think* I read that it was the largest church in Canada. In the early 20th century Brother Andre began the construction of the small church and it soon required further construction and expansion to meet the growing stream of visitors. Brother Andre (now Saint Andre) reportedly performed many miracles at the church, and as you walk through one part you actually see a huge (and I mean several hundred huge) collection of crutches that were left behind by the pilgrims after they were healed. I'm not a religious person but I always seem to gravitate to churches and shrines on my holidays. This place really is a must-visit, it has a votive chapel and Saint Andre's tomb but it also has a reliquary displaying Saint Andre's heart and a walkway that actually opens to the rocky mountainside and drips with melted snow. The only part not worth visiting is the little museum located within. The actual church is far more interesting and has plenty of signage if you're interested in learning about the history of the building and the

The next day we ended up travelling down to the Old Montreal/Old Port to see Notre Dame Basilica (but refused to pay the $5 entry, so we only saw the outside) and the older buildings in the city. We just wandered aimlessly looking at the beautiful buildings until we were accosted by a Christmas elf. Apparently all around Montreal there were Christmas events and markets happening and it was the elf's job to let people know about it. She pointed in the direction of a huge Christmas market and said there would be free hot chocolate and cider so obviously we stepped to and went searching. Except we came up empty. We walked for a good hour but never found the supposed markets that were meant to be impossible to miss. Either her English wasn't as good as it sounded and she mixed up left and right or she was actually Loki in disguise and was causing mischief. It didn't really matter we were walking around an area we'd planned to check out anyway - I just wish we'd gotten some free hot chocolate.

After our not-visit to the markets we walked down to Chinatown for lunch and had about eleventy billion dumplings at Qingchua before heading back out to navigate the super snowy streets back to the Latin Quarter. Montreal was a great place for meals and bars. To celebrate meeting up with my sister again we went to a Diablo's, a southern-style bar and restaurant which served the most earth-shatteringly good fried chicken I've ever eaten. Also, these portions put every other restaurant to shame. I could have lived off my meal for at least three days, it was mental. Qingchua (mentioned above) had about 60 different dumplings to choose from at a very, very reasonable price. Mache was also near our hostel in the Latin Quarter and a diner-style restaurant that made sandwiches, burgers and poutine. The poutine was the reason for the visit, but the pulled pork sandwich I had was so much better (sorry Canadians I just don't like eating cheese curds with my chips and gravy). Near the base of Mont Royal there's an Australian pie shop called TA which was amazing, just like home. It was the tastiest, flakiest pie crust and the most tender meat. And they also sold them frozen so you could take them home and reheat them when you wanted, what a good idea. And they sold minties, which I know means nothing to you guys, but minties!! Also awesome? The huge amount of boardgame cafes basically outside our door. Chez Geek was basically just a boardgame and comic store which had a room next door that you could sit and play games in for the cost of a drink (which wasn't even mandatory). Randolph's was more of a proper boardgame cafe. There were walls of shelves filled with boardgames and them two levels of tables that you could sit and eat, drink and play games at. It was about $5 to play for as long as you want and they had a bunch of cocktails, wines, beers, non-alcoholic drinks and light meals that you could order. And their cocktails came in beakers! I can't even explain how much I loved this place - friends, boardgames and a cold glass of cider is the absolute best way to spend an afternoon/evening.

Our last day in Montreal was a dedicated snow day. We wanted to go ice-skating but when we got to Mont Royal park we realised how big the place is. We were on the other side of the park from the ice-skating rink and just no. The snow was over a foot deep and that walk would have been LONG. So instead we climbed into the woods and made snow angels and threw snow around at each other and took a bunch of pictures. It was a lot of fun but it was cut short when my boot fell apart. The sole came unstitched at the back and there was no way I was hanging out in the snow with my socked foot sitting in snow!


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