Monday, 26 March 2012

Reading challenge book seven: The Search by Nora Roberts

Book seven in my challenge to read one book (I haven't read before) a fortnight in 2012 is The Search by Nora Roberts.

Let me say from the start, I know this reading quest has the word challenge in it, and reading a book by Roberts, queen of romantic fiction, is hardly a challenge. Let me also say that I am not a book snob. I'll give anything a try, and I quite dislike people who will look down on you because you happen to be reading a children's book, a summer blockbuster, or, horror of horrors, some chick lit.

Roberts, as already said, is queen when it comes to chick lit. All her books (and I have read many) follow a certain formula - individual looks for romance, meets someone, they fall in love, there is a challenge of some sort to their love, they overcome that challenge and there is a happy ending.

But formula is no bad thing. Roberts' books offer great comfort, an easy read and a break from reality. They differ from each other because each of the characters, while sharing traits such as strength, intelligence and determination, also differ greatly because of their pasts, their presents and their futures.

The Search follows the story of Fiona Bristow, living as a dog trainer/search and rescue worker on a small island near Washington. Fiona is independent, a hard worker, strong, loved by family and friends and above all, brave. For those who look down on chick lit, surely the qualities displayed by Fiona aren't to be sneered at, and like the character, don't we all strive to be the best we can? Sure, she's an idealised version of ourselves, but still a version that can be achieved.

Into Fiona's life comes Simon Doyle, headstrong, creative and not looking for love. For those expecting a tale of a woman wearing a man down until he loves her, think again. Simon is not the challenge in The Search, and the romance is not what this book hinges on.

That honour belongs to a serial killer, murdering girls in a style similar to that of a man jailed for murder, and the attempted murder of Fiona, who was the one who got away. Weren't expecting that, were you?

The Search is fun, dramatic, dark, tense and romantic by turns. It's not a read for someone looking for serious fiction, but it's a good book for someone looking to get away from it all, and get caught up in a world where you can be safe in the knowledge it will all work out - even if it doesn't feel like that when women are being kidnapped and tortured to death every few chapters.

Roberts, a prolific writer, brings her usual easy style to The Search. Despite its formula, it's a good read, and one of those books that is perfect to read when you're all curled up in the warmth and the wind is howling outside. And for those who feel it's beneath them to read chick lit? Get over it, Roberts and her chick lit have spent close to 200 weeks at the top of the New York Times Bestseller List. So there.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Film review: The Hunger Games

One of the most anticipated films of the year, it's easy to think The Hunger Games - based on the teen novel of the same name- is going to be two and a half hours of teen angsting and unrequited love, with a side order of fighting.

It's anything but. This film is dark, gloomy and tough on the emotions, and so, so good.

It follows, as the book does, the story of Katniss Everdeen, who volunteers to take part in the Hunger Games - a contest to the death - in place of her younger sister. Her fellow tribute from District 12, where she lives, is Peeta Mellark, who has been in love with the tough Katniss forever.

The book is told purely through Katniss's eyes, as she battles to stay alive - both outside the arena and once she gets into the Hunger Games. The film adaptation gives viewers the chance to see the world around Katniss through their own eyes, meaning we get a wealth of detail the books can't provide.

There are some chilling scenes with President Snow, the cruel ruler of Panem who has spent years suppressing those living in the outlying districts. And as opposed to just seeing what happens inside the arena when the 24 tributes are battling to the death, we also get to see the arena being created and decisions being taken as to what horror to inflict upon the children next, and how the privileged people of the Capitol bet on the contestants. All these scenes outside of what Katniss sees give the viewer a better understanding of the Hunger Games themselves, and make them even more horrifying than they already are.

Among the highlights which don't feature in the book is a chilling scene at the end featuring gamesmaker Seneca Crane, which will leave you so cold you'll need copious hot drinks, a wood-burning fire and three jumpers to warm up again.

The film is remarkably faithful to the book. There are a few changes made, and some extras included, but they all enhance the viewing experience. I can't imagine even the most avid fan of the books being displeased with the film.

Unlike the book, the film is not told completely chronologically but this, coupled with some scenes shot using handheld cameras, add to the story, make it easier to understand for those not familiar with the book, and saves a lot of boring exposition.

It's difficult to criticise The Hunger Games, but if I had to, I would say I wanted to see more of Haymitch, played by Woody Harrelson. He brings comedy and tragedy to the scenes he is in, with his manner and his speech. Should the next book be made into a film, and I have no doubt it will, I'd like him to feature more.

Like Harrelson as Haymitch, the other supporting roles are also filled well. I love Elizabeth Banks as the anything but ditzy (no matter how she looks) Effie, Liam Hemsworth is perfect as the hunky best friend Gale, who has a bigger role in the next two books in trilogy, while Lenny Kravitz is pretty good as Katniss's unlikely confidant and stylist Cinna.

So to our leads, Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss and Josh Hutcherson as Peeta.

Lawrence, while looking healthier than I imagined Katniss to look, embodied the character's tough, no-nonsense, cynical side well. Throughout the first book Katniss's aim is to stay alive for her family, and even after she has won she doesn't let anyone else in. Lawrence plays this well, and even in the final scene in which Katniss features, we can see that cynicism and hunger to stay safe, and keep her family safe, in her eyes.

Hutcherson is a perfect Peeta, a mix of sweet, shy, brave, clever and, of course, love-struck. Hutcherson's best scene is undoubtedly when he shares the stage with Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), the two riffing off each other before the talk turns more serious. Hutcherson goes from fun and flirty to mournful in the blink of an eye, and it all seems so real. I'm definitely Team Peeta. 

The Hunger Games, a bit like Katniss, was fearless, determined and hit you right where it hurt. I found myself laughing, tearing up, gasping in shock, jumping in fear (don't have any drinks in your hand towards the end otherwise they'll end up in your lap), and left wanting to see the next film straight away.

So, to end, there's only one appropriate quote to use from The Hunger Games: "May the odds be ever in your favour."

They certainly were when it came to this film.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The Great Harry Potter Rewatch: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

I am a huge fan of the Harry Potter books and (yes, I'm a geek) I've probably read them hundreds of times. Having purchased the box set of films, I've decided to have a Harry Potter rewatch (until we get to the last two films, which will just be a watch as I've not seen them), to see if I can learn to love the films as much as the books (doubtful, but I'll try).

Up next is Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. This is my favourite book in the series. It's where things start to get serious, it's the only book in which Voldemort doesn't appear (more ominous than an appearance might have been), and it's a slice of what's to come, and of what came before.

Unfortunately, this is also my least favourite film. I remember seeing it at the cinema with a friend and just being horrified at how bad it was. What makes it worse is that everyone was raving about how this was a great film, it was darker and had more depth than the two that came before. Yes, that is true, but I think making it "darker" also involved sacrificing some of the great storytelling at the heart of the book.

I went into my rewatch of this film apprehensive, but willing to give it a chance, putting my previous dislike down to youth and the stubborness that comes with it. I thought the opening scenes were good, but as soon as the Knight Bus appeared I remembered exactly why I hated this film.

The Knight Bus is meant to be a bit of comic relief after Harry's serious encounters with Aunt Marge and what he thinks is a sighting of the Grim. It's meant to be a bit of magic after a summer of no magic. Instead, the Knight Bus is freaky. Stan Shunpike, far from being loveable and gullible is instead just plain weird. Ernie the bus driver is more in character, but any positives the Knight Bus in the film has are drowned out by the creepy head that insists on giving a running commentary to everything. It's not funny, it's not dark, it's just stupid.

Things only got worse for me when Harry got to The Leaky Cauldron. Instead of a comfortable place to spend the rest of his summer, with pleasant barkeep Tom keeping an eye on him, Harry arrives at a dark, eerie pub where Tom is a hunchback. 

The Knight Bus and the Leaky Cauldron feel like this film is trying too hard to be more grown up, and it bothers me. The film doesn't need to try hard, because the story is dark enough on its own, and that's even before the Dementors get involved.

Here, at least, the film gets something right. The Dementors, with their ghost-like black bodies and the cold that signifies they are coming, are suitably scary.

Azkaban introduces us to three characters of great importance - Lupin, Sirius and Petigrew. On first view I remember not really liking Lupin, but I warmed to him during this rewatch. David Thewlis strikes a good balance between the man struggling to reconcile his normal life with his werewolf one.

Sirius is also well played, by Gary Oldman. The scene where he and Harry bond over the thought that they could be a family is a gorgeous quiet moment in an otherwise rather busy film.

Timothy Spall plays Peter Pettigrew perfectly as the snivelling man who spent years living as a rat.

These three, along with Harry's dad James, are integral to the third book. The gang of four have an interesting story, but unfortunately this is never told in the film. We don't hear how Sirius, James and Peter learnt to become Animagi to keep Lupin company, or how their roaming of the castle and its surroundings led them to create the Marauder's Map, even though the Marauder's Map is used extensively by Harry in the film. And most importantly, although we see Harry's stag Patronus, we never learn in the film why it is a stag - it's what his dad used to transform into as an Animagus.

If the story of Harry's dad and his friends is missing, the other integral story in the book might as well have been, for all the prominence it was given. That story, told by McGonagall in the book, reveals how Sirius and James were best friends, and how everyone believes Sirius gave James and Lily up to Lord Voldemort. It is told in the film, but very badly. In the book there's a great build up to the final reveal, but the film's script offers no such subtleties.

The missing/badly told stories in the film make me sad, since they're not only important in Azkaban, but also in the rest of the series to come. They form our understanding of the relationship between Harry's parents, their friends, and of course Voldemort, and lend another dimension to the relationship between Harry and Voldemort. Without these stories, everything has a little less meaning.

There are some great moments in the film. I love Dawn French as the Fat Lady, Hermione's growth from bookworm to tough girl is fun to watch, and Tom Felton, as always, is brilliant as the sneering Draco Malfoy. In fact, all the young actors have improved considerably since the first film, although there are still occasional moments of: "Oh, I must ACT, quick face, look angry/sad/happy!"

Overall, I found Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban a really unsatisfying watch. If you've never read the book, I imagine it's a fun story with plenty of mystery. Unfortunately, I have read the book, and all I can think about when I see this film is just how much is missing. Films always have to sacrifice something, but I felt in the case of Azkaban, it was the wrong things. I'd rather have sat through a longer film that told the story properly than a shorter film which tried to create drama when there was no need - the story was good enough to sustain itself.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

In pictures: snapshots from a news editing week

Some people believe journalists live hugely glamourous lives, getting free clothes, tickets to all the latest events and bylines on the cover of Vanity Fair every day. I guess it's like that in the films (see How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, The Devil Wears Prada etc), but in real life, not so much. Here's a little taste of reality, with some pictures of life as a news editor of a weekly paper in London.

The diary for the week includes a visit to a school to talk about a project my company has launched - I may be a grown woman, but speaking in front of teenagers still terrifies me. Meanwhile, reporters cover court on both Thursday and Friday, and usually come back with some decent stories, which readers love.

A meeting between news editors and photographers in the afternoon gives both sides a chance to air any problems or issues - both sides have plenty.

Sometimes life on a weekly is glamourous (rarely though), and you get to go to the launch of London Fashion Weekend and get a goodie bag - never underestimate the pull of free stuff for journalists. It's just a pity there were no pens in the bag.


Plans for the week's paper start off largely blank, and get filled with ads as we go, so trying to anticipate how much space I'll have for stories is often a guessing game - one that I succeed at only 50 per cent of the time. By the way - ROP=run of paper.

A visit to the local MP's office always results in some interesting stories. Thursdays and Fridays are a good chance for me to get out of the office and get writing, as after the weekend I'm chained to the desk trying to meet deadlines. Seeing one of our local MPs is also a chance to see her office cat, which is always asleep whenever I visit. Must be a Friday afternoon thing - I know plenty of journalists who wish they had the same luxury.

I spend a lot of time in my car, commuting between home and work or travelling between the office and patch. Luckily, my car is cute, of a colour that's not easy to miss in a car park, and full of everything I need - shoes for any occasion, a collection of music and a good heating system for when I'm stuck in the cold on the motorway.

A colleague on a sister paper makes a heated point about old style telephones and 999. I believed her, and you've got to admire her conviction, even if a quick search on Google shows she was wrong.

It's rare, but we do manage to escape the office for lunch at times. When the day is getting stressful, Turkish food is the only thing that helps. There's really no need to see the menu though, a lahmacun (Turkish pizza) is always the way to go.

I've yet to go to a film premiere, but I do get plenty of screeners for films I've never heard of that I watch at weekends so I can write reviews on them for our what's on guide and for this blog. Surprisingly, this one - Welcome to the Riley's - was actually quite good.

Monday mornings, ahead of rapidly looming deadlines, I like to try and ease into the day with breakfast (healthy hot water with lemon, unhealthy pain au chocolat) and a magazine. I believe this issue of Time is about a month old, so I'm playing catch up. And unlike Warren Buffet, optimistic is not how I usually start my week.

Much of Monday is spent putting together the front of the book, reading reporters' copy and placing it on pages. It's a task that can be frustrating due to the system we use, which always seems to go on the blink just as the paper is at the most crucial point. CTRL+S is the most important computer command in my life, and one I use constantly.

Once the paper has gone to press on Tuesday afternoon, the week starts again. And usually with some meetings that involve me doing some waiting, and staring at my feet.

A quote about books to finish the week off. If we're applying this to newspapers, then local newspapers unfortunately probably fall in the first half of the quote.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

DVD review: Machine Gun Preacher, starring Gerard Butler

So let me start out by saying that the name Machine Gun Preacher didn't exactly do this film any favours by making me want to watch it.

Luckily, I decided to try and ignore the name, and actually discovered a film that, while it might not win any prizes, was actually quite a compelling watch.

Machine Gun Preacher is inspired by the true story of Sam Childers and his efforts to save children in South Sudan who were targeted by Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).

If those names sound familiar, that's because in the last week or so the internet has been buzzing after Invisible Children released a film in an effort to make Kony famous, to expose what he has been doing (kidnapping and killing children, forcing them to serve in the LRA or marrying them off to his "soldiers") and result in his arrest.   

Machine Gun Preacher's release is therefore unintentionally well-timed, although it largely ignores Kony in favour of his victims, and is really the story of one man, not one man against another.
Played by Gerard Butler, Sam is released from prison intent on going back to his boozy, drug-filled days.

The film starts slowly, and I found my attention wandered during the scenes where Sam slipped back into old habits, eventually robbing a house of drug dealers at gunpoint and stealing drugs so he can get high.

The first section of the film culminates in a scene where Sam and friend Donnie (Michael Shannon), having robbed the house, are driving home while high, and discover someone in the back seat of the car.

Unfortunately, having become a little bit bored, I have no idea who this person was, but he was beaten to a pulp by Sam before being thrown out of the car.

Finally feeling guilty about something, Sam gives in and goes with his wife and their daughter to church, where his transformation into upstanding citizen begins.

On a visit to church Sam hears from a preacher working in East Africa, and decides to go to the region and do some work there, helping to build homes.

This is when the film really picks up. Sam, inspired by the suffering he has seen on a visit to a local hospital, comes back home and builds a church to help all those who don’t feel comfortable in a regular church - drug addicts, prostitutes and his friend Donnie.

In addition to the church in his home town, Sam makes plans to build an orphanage in Sudan. Trips back to the country only draw him deeper into a tense political situation, and Sam himself becomes the victim, as arsonists attack his first attempt at building an orphanage.

The film has some really harrowing scenes - in particular one where Sam goes back to collect a group of children and discovers they have all been killed. That is probably the film's darkest moment, and you may want to have a tissue or two handy just in case.

But the darker moments are interspersed with lighter scenes of happiness, as the youngsters find a home at Sam’s orphanage.

Machine Gun Preacher has two narrative threads - what Sam is doing in Africa, and the life he lives and leaves behind in America.

Every scene back in America shows him become increasingly frustrated with those who care so little for what is happening on their own planet. Particularly memorable is when he is invited to a barbecue held by a local businessman he has asked for a donation. When that donation arrives, a mere $150, Sam storms out of the party, ranting to his wife and daughter that the man has spent more on salsa for his party than on saving human lives.

The increasingly frantic nature of Sam’s quest affects his family life, so much so that he almost sacrifices one for the other. It comes to a head with a scene Despite its bleak subject matter, Sam's narrative thread does end relatively happily.

Machine Gun Preacher had a much gentler ending than I expected, with two emotional scenes featuring Sam. One in particular, brings the film full circle, and involves a beautiful bit of acting from one of the film's child stars.

Despite its name, Machine Gun Preacher is an emotional journey through the troubles of northern Uganda and southern Sudan, an area that is still suffering today.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Reading challenge book six: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Book six in my challenge to read one book (I haven't read before) a fortnight in 2012 is Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy.

Katniss Everdeen's story, started in The Hunger Games, continues in Catching Fire. Having overcome the Capitol once, Katniss is now faced with doing so again.

Back home and living the life of a victor, Katniss is unsatisfied, feeling trapped and fearful in the knowledge that President Snow is unhappy with her.

Rather than this just be a book about Katniss and her close friends and family, Catching Fire starts to spread out into the larger world of the Capitol and the 12 districts. As Katniss and Peeta - still pretending to be lovers, Peeta wanting it to be so and Katniss just unsure - make their victory tour round the districts, they discover all is not happy.

The districts are showing signs of rising up against the Capitol, and the Capitol knows only one way to punish Katniss for sparking the uprising - put her back in another Hunger Games.

It takes half of Catching Fire for us to get to the stage of another Hunger Games being announced, when it could have taken half the time. Still, when we get there it's worth the wait. The 75th Hunger Games, a Quarter Quell, feature previous victors as competitors. Here, we get to meet some new characters, and some really interesting ones. I particularly love Finnick, who I think has an interesting background, one I hope to find out more about.

Peeta continues to be a compelling character. He's so good, and that could be so boring, but it's actually refreshing to meet a character who always strives to do the best. In fact, his one fault is that he is too selfless.

There's something a bit strange going on in the Quarter Quell, and it takes Katniss much, much longer than it takes the reader to work out what it is. In fact, Katniss never works it out, it takes Haymitch telling her right at the end to make her see that she is the Mockingbird that is her symbol, that she is the spark for a total revolution, not just some small uprisings in the districts.

In a way, I find it difficult to believe that moody teenager Katniss is the inspiration for a revolution, but in another way it makes perfect sense. It's not Katniss who is the inspiration, it's everything she stands for - dissatisfaction, rebellion, an anger at the Capitol.

I found it a little difficult to picture the arena for this Hunger Games in my head, but once I'd read it again, I thought it was a really clever tool from Collins. Time is a powerful metaphor, and the tick tock of the clock becomes more ominous as the book continues because it refers not just to the arena, but to something much more important.

Catching Fire is not as good as The Hunger Games, and it's really one long build-up to the third book in the trilogy, Mockingbird. But it sets an interesting stage for book three, where the arena is no doubt about to get a lot bigger than those used in the Hunger Games.


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