Sunday, August 26, 2012

DVD Movie: Hunger Games

The blockbuster hit, The Hunger Games, was released this past week on DVD and I took the opportunity to view it, having missed it in theatres. The movie adaptation of the first book in Suzanne Collins dystopian YA trilogy is well done and faithful to the novel of the same name.

Briefly, Panem is the new nation forged out of a terrible war. Now divided into twelve districts, every year one boy and one girl (known as tributes) are drawn from each district to battle one another to the death, for the entertainment of the residents of the Capitol, and as punishment for the rebellion of District 13. The winner receives wealth and accolades and returns to live a life of ease in their own district. The games are also a draconian reminder that all must work together to avoid another war.

Katniss and Gale meet in the woods.
District 12 is the poorest of the districts. Katniss lives there with her mother and her sister, Primrose, in abject poverty. In order to survive, Katniss has developed her wilderness survival techniques and is a crack shot archer, killing wild game (which is against the law), to supplement their meager food. She often meets Gale Hawthorne in the woods to hunt and their common interests forge a strong friendship.

When the Reaping is done in District 12, Primrose's name is chosen. Prim's terror causes Katniss to volunteer as tribute. She knows sending her younger sister to the Hunger Games is a certain death sentence. Both Katniss and Peeta Mellark, the baker's son, are to represent District 12. Taken to the Capitol to prepare and train for the games, they are helped by Haymitch Abernathy, District 12's only winner, and Cinna, a stylist. Katniss knows some of the tributes have spent their lives training for the games, but she intends to win. And key to winning is obtaining sponsors to help throughout the game. Haymitch develops a brilliant plan to help Katniss win, one she is reluctant to go along with. But Katniss knows this may be her only way to win against such great odds.

Katniss, the girl on fire!
Jennifer Lawrence is well cast as Katniss Everdeen, despite the initial reservation of many fans of the books. As the main protagonist in the story, Lawrence was able to carry the film quite well, brilliantly capturing Katniss' naivete and goodness when she first arrives in the Capitol, but also her sacrifical and rebellious tendencies. Her strong moral sense was admirably portrayed by Lawrence, making her a heroine.

Strong supporting performances were given by Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy and Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman. Tucci's performance was especially enjoyable as the well coiffed, gregarious host of the Hunger Games. Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark and Liam Hemsworth as Gale Hawthorne also gave good performances.

Katniss and Peeta await their fate.
The film effectively portrayed the vast difference between District 12 and the Capitol. District 12 is deeply impoverished, in stark contrast to the wealth and modernization of the Capitol. The people dress outlandishly, act even stranger and have no understanding or concern of what life is like outside the Capitol. We see that the outlying Districts are essentially slaves working for the benefit of the Capitol.

The movie's opening is a bit slow, but that is mainly due to the presentation of the back story. Once the Reaping occurs, events progress quickly. When the games begin though, the film becomes intense; a mixture of action, suspense, and psychological thriller. Though the underlying concept of the book is quite dark and violent; children fighting children to the death for entertainment, the film was able to portray this without gratuitous violence and without being overly graphic. Deaths were often portrayed off camera, or as brief scenes that flashed by, giving the viewer a glimpse only of what was happening.

Katniss running from one of the maniuplations.
As a movie, The Hunger Games allows viewers to become spectators along with the people of Panem. We have front row seats as we watch Katniss and Peeta try to survive but we also see the sadistic behind-the-scenes manipulation of the games. We see Panem as it really is; a totalitarian society in all it's dressed up, modernized cruelty.

The Hunger Games is a refreshing adaptation of a young adult novel that actually works. There have been numerous movie adaptations of YA books that are characterized by poor script, subpar acting,; Twilight, I Am Number Four, Beastly are just a few. Perhaps the reason Hunger Games works is because Suzanne Collins is a television writer and she got it right for the movie. My only point of dissatisfaction is that I wished the relationship between Katniss and Gale was more developed. Having said that, the film does adequately suggest the close relationship between the two, prior to Katniss going off to fight in the Games.

This movie is worth purchasing and I definitely look forward to seeing Catching Fire in theatres next year, November 22, 2013!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Miracle by Elizabeth Scott

Now they hugged me like I was made of glass. Not like I might break, but like I was something priceless. They didn't hug me like they use to and that's when I knew I wasn't Meggie anymore. I wasn't even Megan.

I was Miracle.
Megan Hathaway is the lone survivor of a small plane crash in the Round Hills National Forest. She is a miracle. Surviving with only superficial scratches, it soon becomes apparent that Megan's real injuries are hidden. When she awakes in the hospital, at first she doesn't really know what has happened to her and she can't remember the crash. When the doctor asks Megan if she can remember the plane crash she says she can because she can see the worry and fear in her parents eyes. Megan doesn't want her parents to worry about her because they already have so many problems with her younger brother, David, who has many health issues.

When Megan is offered counseling prior to leaving hospital she refuses saying she is fine. But when she returns to school things are not fine. Gradually Megan's trauma begins to manifest itself in various ways. Megan finds she cannot sleep, that she has no feelings whatsoever about anything, and that she doesn't really feel alive. Her friends find her withdrawn, detached and uncaring.

For Megan however, the way people now view her is distressing. Her parents continue to talk about how she is a "miracle" and her friends treat her differently asking her opinion about things they never would have before the accident. When they ask her about the crash, they want to know how she became a miracle.

Gradually Megan's distress escalates, affecting every aspect of her life. She has flashbacks of the accident and the terrible fire afterwards, and is afraid of trees. Her schoolwork suffers and she begins cutting classes. Her senior year of high school is unraveling fast and she is soon at risk of not graduating.

Strangely, her parents seem happy to ignore all of this, and pretend that everything is just fine. Megan, is after all, their miracle. God has touched their lives in a special way. Fortunately, there are two people however, who do help Megan in their own way; the handsome boy next door, Joe Reynolds, and a retired teacher, Margaret.

Joe lives with his father. His sister Beth, died as a result of an asthma attack, and because Joe was not home when Beth was stricken, his father blames him for her death. After Beth's death, Joe's family imploded, his mother left to live with another man and his father lost his job. Even after living ten years next to Joe, Megan realizes that doesn't really know him at all. Joe and Beth connect because they have both had to deal with death and the resulting family issues. Joe is still trying to process what happened to Beth, while Megan is trying to remember what happened and understand how she alone survived such a terrible accident. Both are still dealing with survivor's guilt. Both Joe and Megan are also trying deal with problems in their respective families as a result of the tragedies they experienced.

Margaret is a lesbian whose partner, Rose, has also passed away. Both women served in the Vietnam War and both women had trouble coping afterwards with what they experienced. Margaret helps Megan realize that she needs to talk about what she experienced and that she needs to do this with her parents and a counselor. At first Megan doesn't really listen, but she soon realizes that what Margaret is telling her is truly what she needs to do. Margaret, as a veteran of the Vietnam war, is speaking from experience. When Rose had trouble many years ago coping with her own experiences from the war, Margaret tried to pretend that everything was fine. But things weren't and it took Rose many years before she was able to process what had happened to her in Vietnam. It is Margaret who gives Megan both the strength and the permission to confront her family, especially her mother, with her feelings.

When she does finally confront her parents, Megan comes to understand why her mother has wanted things everything to be just fine. Megan was her miracle from God, from the very beginning. She was her proof that God forgave her for hurting her parents. And this miracle was reaffirmed when Megan survived the plane crash too. But Megan's mother realizes that by putting all this onto Megan, she has prevented her from healing from the tragedy. Together they decide to try to help each other and work through what Megan has experienced.

Miracle is a well written, short novel that evokes strong emotions in the reader. It tackles a difficult subject of post traumatic stress syndrome in a forthright and authentic manner. The two people who understand Megan's situation best are those who have experienced an unexpected loss and intense grief in their own lives.

Miracle provides young readers with a good insight into post traumatic stress disorder, a condition they might not be very familiar with but might be hearing more about given the return of soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq. For teens who like realistic fiction, Miracle is a great choice.

Book Details:
Miracle by Elizabeth Scott
New York: Simon Pulse    2012
217 pp.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Entangled by Cat Clarke

Entangled is the story of a life so tangled with psychological and emotional problems that the ending is almost a given. This story is told in the voice of seventeen year old Grace Carlyle. The novels opens with Grace going to a park with the intention of slitting her wrists and ending her messed up life. At the park, she meets a boy on the swings, named Ethan. She knows she just has to bide her time and he will leave and she can do what she came to do.

Eventually Grace passes out and when she wakes, she finds herself in a white room, with white sheets on a white bed in a hospital gown. There is a white table and chair with forty-seven BIC pens and paper. Ethan is also there and she thinks she has been kidnapped and is being held prisoner. Ethan's handsome and he seems to care about her. He takes the time to give her the food she likes and make her feel comfortable. But he also encourages her to write and to face the truth about her life.

So through Gracie's diary entries over the next twenty five days, we learn about her troubled life and why she chose to commit suicide. Grace alternates between her diary entries and her situation with Ethan in the present. As she writes, her story comes out as a first person narration, that is authentic and touching. We see a girl whose life is confused, filled with pain and self-loathing which she tries to numb through drinking; someone desperately seeking love in the numerous hook-ups.

Grace's life has been a difficult one and she has many problems. Her family relationships are seriously disordered. Grace's father abandoned his family by committing suicide and her mother who has also abandoned Grace by never being around for her daughter. Left alone for days by her uncaring mother, Grace becomes sexually active at the age of 14 and becomes promiscuous. She also begins drinking. Grace starts cutting herself at age fifteen and soon has many scars over her arms. When her friend Sal discovers that Grace is a cutter she is shocked. Their friendship takes a blow when Sal gets into trouble and blames Grace for her problems. But they eventually reconcile and things seem to go well for a time. Then Grace meets a boy, Nat, whom she falls for. They begin an intense sexual relationship, as Grace is a needy girl who equates sex with love. Grace manages to stop cutting herself during her relationship with Nat but when she relapses, Nat feels that this is more than he can cope with. They fight and then decide to try to mend their relationship. But when Nat's brother, Devon, leads Grace to discover something about Nat, this betrayal sends her over the edge, out of control and she decides to kill herself. The ending of the novel tells us what has happened to Grace. It is both tragic and heartrending.

The cover of the French edition.
In Entangled, Cat Clarke has effectively captured the life of a certain segment of teenage culture in Britain (and elsewhere); girls without fathers, girls who have disinterested or preoccupied parents, girls who act out through promiscuity and self harm and are desperate for love. As such, Entangled is not a happy read, but it is a fascinating one. It is depressing, sad, and the ending terribly tragic. Without proper guidance by her parents, and having no sense of what is right and wrong, making life choices based on what feels good, it's not difficult to see how Gracie's life slowly unravels into depression, promiscuity, self-harm, and attempted suicide. In this way, Entangled is a pyschological mystery that simply hooks the reader from the very beginning. We keep reading because we want to know how it all ends, even though we suspect we already do.

Grace is not a likable character. She is manipulative, angry, and needy. Each of her bad choices leads to a bigger problem, and yet she seems unable to comprehend this. In this respect, Grace is a typical teenager, lacking the skills or the guidance needed to navigate what is usually a very difficult period in life. But part of that is also her fault. She doesn't reach out to any adult, instead using her peers, who are also struggling, to help her. And near the end, when her friend Sophie offers to help her, Grace makes the choice not to tell her. "I nearly told her. So nearly. But I had to stick to the plan." The only aspect I found unrealistic was Grace being able to ace her final exams despite all the cutting, drinking, and promiscuity. Either she's very brilliant or the school system in Britain is incredibly lenient.

Through her diary entries, Grace eventually does realize what she's done and she's sorry. As Grace's "condition" changes, Ethan fades and dies away. The door isn't locked but all she has to do now is get out of the "room" she is in. He is her subconscious.

Clarke's ending is surprising, very innovative and is one of the greatest strengths of this novel. It is tragic and the reader is left hanging, wondering what will happen to Grace. As a parent I sometimes tell my young adults, "What is the worst thing that can happen?" when were are discussing how to make good choices in life. For someone like Grace, is there a fate worse than death? There just might be.

There is a great deal of British slang in this novel which can make it somewhat frustrating for North American readers. The large amount of graphic sexual content, swearing, and the disturbing cutting behaviour make this a book for more mature teens. Entangled is an exploration in teen life completely derailed.

Not a particularly great book trailer, but the music is quite interesting:

If you enjoyed Entangled and would like to learn more about this author, you can visit her website.

Book Details:
Entangled by Cat Clarke
Quercus 2011
376 pp.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Double by Jenny Valentine

Chap is a sixteen year old boy living on the streets of London. After being thrown into a storage room for fighting at a shelter, he is confronted by two workers, Ginny and Gordon, who believe he is a missing boy, Cassiel Roadnight. Cassiel vanished two years ago from his home and has never been seen again.

When Chap sees the photograph of Cassiel he can hardly believe it - the fourteen year old boy in the picture looks just like he did at fourteen, except that he's smiling and at fourteen Chap didn't have much to smile about. Chap decides to play along, assume Cassiel's identity, and become a part of Cassiel's family. This family includes a mother who's dependent upon prescription drugs, an older sister, Edie, and an older brother, Frank. Frank is a banker and is well off.

Chap must always be on his guard because he doesn't know anything about Cassiel's life. He's afraid that he will say the wrong thing or act wrongly and that will give him away.
"What are you afraid of," she said. "Daylight?"
No. I'm afraid of you. I'm afraid of myself, of whatever it is I'm going to do or say to make it all go wrong. I'm desperately trying to avoid that moment and walking straight toward it, all at the same time.
But if Chap has a secret, he soon discovers that the Roadnights have their own secrets too. There is a mystery surrounding Cassiel's disappearance that no one will talk about. It's only when Chap unexpectedly meets one Cassiel's acquaintances, Floyd, and Helen reveals a family secret, do the pieces start to come together, and Chap learns who he really is and what may have happened to Cassiel. Is he willing to expose his identity and solve the mystery of Cassiel's disappearance?

Told in the believable voice of Chap, Double alternates between Chap's past and his present life. Chap is a well drawn, sympathetic character mainly because of the difficult life he's had. He knows assuming Cassiel's identity is wrong on many levels, but his desire to have a family, an identity, and a life are simply too overwhelming. Through Chap's narration we get a definite sense of his fear of discovery, which at times is overwhelming, and his conflicting emotions about taking on Cassiel's identity.
They spoke at the same time, almost. They were nothing but questions. I couldn't answer them. My disguise was paper-thin. I didn't know who Cassiel Roadnight was or what he'd say. If I spoke, I'd eat away at it, I'd just show myself lurking underneath, the rotten core.
The novel is well paced with author, Jenny Valentine, gradually weaving both stories together, connecting the characters and the events, tying up the loose ends quickly and neatly in what is a complex storyline.

Double which was originally published as The Double Life of Cassiel Roadnight in Great Britain in 2010, touches on themes of identity, loss, abandonment, and love.

Book Details:
Double by Jenny Valentine
New York: Hyperion 2012

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Wild Queen: The Days and Nights of Mary, Queen of Scots by Carolyn Meyer

The Wild Queen is the seventh book in the Young Royals series, written by Carolyn Meyer. This well  researched novel tells the story of Mary of Scotland, who was the rightful heir of both Scotland and England. Mary was born December 8, 1542, at Linlithgow Palace, in Scotland. Her father, King James V, died a few days later. Mary was his only legitimate heir to the Scottish throne. Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland when she was just nine months old, at Stirling Castle on September 9th, 1543. In an attempt to unite Scotland and England, Henry VIII, King of England successfully negotiated a treaty which the Scottish Parliament signed, dictating that Mary would marry Henry's son, Prince Edward when she turned ten.

Fearing for her daughter's safety, Mary's mother moved her to Stirling Castle which was well fortified and far north of the English-Scotland border. When Mary was four years old, King Henry VIII died. Her mother made the decision that she would marry the future king of France rather than England's Prince Edward and so she was sent to France to live at the French court and learn the language and customs of the French people. At this time France had been supporting and protecting Catholic Scotland. Eventually however, protestantism, imported from England, overtook Scotland. John Knox, a strict, dour Protestant preacher was the main force behind the stripping of  Scotland of its Catholic heritage and faith.

Accompanied by her Four Maries, Mary Fleming, Mary Seton, Mary Beaton, and Mary Livingston, the young Mary left her beloved Scotland on July 29, 1548. For the next thirteen years, Mary lived in France, traveling throughout the country as the French court moved from one palace to another. Throughout those years, Mary grew into a beautiful woman, over six feet tall and well spoken. She grew to love the French people but never forgot that she was in line for the Scottish throne.

Mary became the wife of the dauphin, Francois de Valois when she was fifteen years old. Their marriage was short-lived however, when Francois, always somewhat sickly, died from a massive infection on December 5, 1560. Mary was a widow after just two years of marriage. At this point in her life, just days shy of her eighteenth birthday,  Mary decided to return to her native Scotland in an attempt to regain the throne and rule Scotland as queen. Alone, without the support of a husband, or a father or father-in-law, Mary found herself caught in a difficult situation. She was a devote Catholic returning to a country no longer in the faith. She needed to find a strong Catholic prince to marry but there was no one in all of Christendom. Her enemies were many although at first she had a few staunch supporters. From this point on Meyers tells the tragic story of Mary, Queen of Scots as she struggles to rule Scotland, while fighting off traitors, dealing with a murderous and cowardly second husband, and protestant reformers such as John Knox who considered women not fit to reign.

Meyer's novel will appeal to those with a keen interest in history, especially royalty. Her account is remarkably unbiased and is a creative retelling of the life of Mary, Queen of Scots. The novel opens with Mary, facing her day of execution, Wednesday, February 8th, 1587 and then narrating her life's story as to how she came to be in prison, sometimes reflecting on how the choices she made led her to her fate.  The Wild Queen is quite readable, has several maps to help readers understand the setting and at 420 pages, rather lengthy. After all this, some readers may be interested in learning more about this remarkable Catholic woman, who was both courageous and sometimes remarkably naive.

For those who are interested in reading about Mary, Queen of Scots, I suggest Antonia Fraser's Mary Queen of Scots and also Warren Carroll's The Cleaving of Christendom. The latter book is Volume 4 in his History of Christendom series.

Book Details:
The Wild Queen: The Days and Nights of Mary, Queen  of Scots.
New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company         2012
420 pp.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

DVD MiniSeries: Great Expectations 2011

The newest adaptation of Charles Dickens Great Expectations is spectacular, capturing the very essence of Dickens at his best. And the major reason for this is the outstanding performance of actress Gillian Anderson, as Miss Havisham.

The novel Great Expectations, published in serial form throughout 1860 and into 1861, follows the fortunes and coming of age of Philip Pirrip, known as Pip. Pip is an orphan living with his sister and her husband, Joe Gargery, a blacksmith. The Gargery's life is impoverished and Mrs Joe Gargery is always complaining about the time and expense of raising Pip. Joe however, is kindly towards the boy. His foil is the cruel, base Dolge Orlick who works with Joe in his forge. Orlick hates Pip and often threatens the boy.

The movie opens with the escape and recapture of a convict from one of the boats headed to Australia. Pip encounters that convict on the coast and terrified by his threats, agrees to bring him back a file so he can escape his shackles. But Pip not only brings back the file but also a piece of mutton pie, for which the convict is very grateful. Pip's kindness towards the convict will have positive future repercussions.

Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham
One day Mr. Pumblechook, Joe's uncle arrives telling the Gargery's that Miss Havisham of Satis House wishes Pip to come to see her. Both Pip and the Gargery's, but especially Mrs. Gargery, have "great expectations" as to how Pip's association with Satis House will raise them up.Sadly Mrs. Gargery will not live to see these expectations come about.

When Pip arrives at Satis house he learns that he is to come each day to be a companion for a young girl, Estella, whom Miss Havisham has adopted.  Satis House however is a creepy, decrepit place. Miss Havisham is a wealthy spinster who was jilted by her fiance, Compeyson, on her wedding day. She lives in her bedraggled wedding gown, walking through the house in a stupor in her bare feet. Her crumbling estate, Satis House still bears all the decorations of her wedding day, complete with a table set for her wedding banquet and a rotted wedding cake.

Nevertheless, Pip continues to visit Estella, and gradually falls in love with her. As soon as Havisham discovers this she sends Pip away, paying for his apprenticeship to Joe Gargery, the blacksmith. The first part of her plan, creating an attachment between Pip and Estella has been successful. Distraught and disillusioned, Pip settles in again at the forge, until one day, Mr. Jaggers, a London barrister arrives to inform the Gargery's that an unknown benefactor has requested that Pip leave for London immediately to become a gentleman. Pip cannot inquire as to the identity of the benefactor until he comes of age, at eighteen.

Douglas Booth as Pip
In London, Pip rooms with Herbert Pocket who is related to Miss Havisham. Herbert helps Pip fit into London society. Estella also now lives in London and both Pip and Estella continue their friendship. From this point on the storylines begin to converge. When Pip learns who his benefactor is, he is filled with horror and disbelief. He does not want to accept the fortune offered. He also learns more about his benefactor and also who Estella really is.

Meanwhile his love for Estella is unrequited. In a dramatic confrontation Pip learns that Estella will marry Bentley Drummle, a coarse womanizer who does not love her. He is stunned and cannot understand this turn of events. Miss Havisham considers this the perfect contest for Estella who has been trained not to love, but Pip recognizes that  Havisham does not understand men nor love and that it is Estella who will be destroyed, not Drummle.

In the end, Dickens ties all the story lines together demonstrating how interconnected all his characters truly are. Dickens did revise the ending to Great Expectations to make it happier but many consider that the original ending with Estella and Pip going their separate ways to be more stylistically appropriate.

The BBC adaptation of Great Expectations succeeds on many levels. It is a well done period piece about the coming of age of a young man who is ruined and then redeemed again. The miniseries alternates between the gothic atmosphere of Satis House and the dark, damp waters of the coastline.

The character Miss Havisham is brilliantly portrayed by Gillian Anderson who first read Great Expectations while preparing for the series. Havisham is the personification of unprocessed grief and Anderson captures this with her wispy soft voice. She lives in the past and will not move on. Havisham is a tragedy. She could not forgive nor forget and that was her ruin. She could have had another life; one filled with love, a husband and children but she chose to let her grief consume her, as so appropriately portrayed symbolically in the movie when she catches on fire while burning letters. Her grief is a raging, consuming fire.

Miss Havisham uses Estella as a means to exact revenge, not on anyone person, but men in general. By training Estella to be cold hearted, and unmoved by love, she would hurt any man who loved her by not returning that love. Pip was the means to test Estella, to strengthen her against love. But in the end, Miss Havisham does not succeed.

And Estella, raised to be incapable of love, turns out to be terribly vulnerable, something Pip realizes.

Pip is portrayed by the handsome Douglas Booth who has been cast as Romeo in remake of Romeo and Juliet currently in post production. Pip is a thoroughly good person. Even after the terrible evil Miss Havisham does, he still forgives her.

If you haven't read Great Expectations, definitely consider this novel. This is a book that can be read and reread. Whether you read the novel or not,  don't pass up this movie adaptation of the book.

Here is the short BBC trailer for Great Expectations, which ran at Christmas 2011, hence the Christmas carol music accompanying the trailer.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken by Tarquin Hall

The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken is yet another delightful installment in the Vish Puri Mystery series. This time the indomitable Vish takes on not one, but two cases.

Satya Pal Bhalla, a Grade II bureaucrat employed in the Central Secretariat Stenographer's Service and owner of the world's longest moustache is missing one half of his famous facial feature. Drugged after eating channa bhatura, Bhalla went to bed ill, awaking much later than usual to a half shaved upper lip. The thief, who was witnessed by a guard leaving the home, made off with the half moustache and Bhalla is certain it's his moustache rival, Gopal Ragi who's the culprit. But weeks later, when Ragi's entire moustache is removed, Puri knows this isn't a case of competitive one upmanship.

Before Vish can really begin investigating this case, he finds himself caught up in another, one which eventually has a personal connection to his family. Vish Puri and his wife Rumpi and mother-in-law attend a cricket match which is part of a month long tournament in the capital. The Kolkata Colts featuring Pakistani star Kamran Khan are playing the Delhi Cowboys. Puri and his family have come to watch Rumpi's nephew, Rohan Mattu, play. The game is interrupted by a stray dog who wanders onto the field and is shot. After the game, Vish's mother, Mummy-ji joins the family for dinner at the Delhi Durbar Hotel.There Rohan introduces Kamran to his family. Puri's family are somewhat reserved since they are Indian and Kamran and his family are Pakistani. The dinner comes to a sudden halt when Kamran's father, Faheem Khan collapses and dies after eating some butter chicken. Since Vish Puri also ate some of the chicken and was not poisoned, it seems Faheem Khan was targeted, but by whom?

Soon after Vish is approached by James Scott, former Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in London and also formerly of the International Cricket Federation's anti-corruption unit. Scott wants Puri to investigate who murdered Faheem Khan.Scott believes that Khan may have been part of an illegal sports betting syndicate that operates in both India and Pakistan. From what he has learned so far, the British detective believes that believes the Syndicate is run by a man named Aga in Pakistan and that it engages in spot betting - a type of betting where bookies place a bet on individual balls and overs. Puri agrees to take on this case, despite the risk, and despite the possibility that he will most likely have to travel to Pakistan, a country he deeply dislikes.

While Puri begins by running through the guest list at the dinner and eliminating people one by one, his mother has ideas of her own as to who might be the killer. And that's because the events at the Durbar Hotel were shocking not only due to witnessing a gruesome murder but also because of a connection to her past - a past that she has tried to put aside but never quite succeeded.

While Vish Puri's investigation into the Syndicate leads him into Pakistan, Mummy-ji takes "a trip to the holy city of Hardiwar on the Ganges, to consult with the Pandas, the Brahmin genealogical record keepers." This will help her establish the identity of the murderer. The two threads of the investigation eventually link together and Vish and Mummy-ji must work together to put all the pieces of the puzzle in place.

The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken is Hall's best effort to date. Engaging, funny and deliciously rich in the history and culture of India, readers will enjoy this latest book. Hall has said that he doesn't write chilling mysteries about serial killers. Instead, his readers get to read a good story while learning about India. What is unique about this book, the third in the series, is that readers get to explore the relationship between India and Pakistan, as well as their troubled past. The novel tells a little about the partition of India in 1947, which created a Muslim-dominated Pakistan and Hindu India. The Partition was one of the greatest human tragedies in the 20th century. As is often the case, the most vulnerable, the women and children, suffered grieviously. Hall's novel incorporates this tragedy, giving us a o

Hall has stated that he focused more on the plot and it definitely shows. But I also felt that the characterization was the best in this novel, compared with his first two books. Puri is a wonderful character, pompous, intelligent but very capable. His relationship with his wife Rumpi is endearing and there's no doubt he loves her, as he openly admits in this novel. Puri thinks he is in control of his family but it's really the women in his life who "manage" him! The interactions between Puri and his mother are often humourous, yet he quite respects his mother. Hall effectively returned to the humour he captured in the first book, The Case of the Missing Servant, but which was mostly missing in the the second book, The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing.

Back are all of Puri's usual operatives: Handbrake, his skilled driver, Tubecream his beautiful Indian companion, Flash his talented IT expert, and a host of others each with their unique talents. It is through these characters, that Hall juxtaposes the many faces of India, and allows his readers to learn about Indian society. Even descriptions of the food (and Puri's love of eating) allow those of us who have never traveled to India, to gain an insight into this fascinating country.

I highly recommend The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken to fans of light mysteries and stories about India.

For those readers who would like to know more about the partition of India you can check out the BBC website's, History - British History in depth: The Hidden story of Partition and it's Legacies.

Book Details:
The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken by Tarquin Hall
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart 2012

Friday, August 10, 2012

Kpop: Psy

Korean pop artist, Psy, whose latest offering, Gangnam Style has gone viral, is known for his unique style and quirky sense of humour. Thirty-four year old Psy (his real name is Park Jae Sang) who is under the YG Entertainment label, has been around for at least a decade.  Psy's Psy was educated in the United States, having attending Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA.  Primarily a hip hop artist, Psy's style has been somewhat controversial and somewhat unusual, as evidenced by this video and others he done. 

On one level, Gangnam Style is a video parody of the lifestyle of people in the trendy, wealthy Gangnam district of Seoul, Korea.  Gangnam district is south of the Han River which is where S.M. Entertainment and JYP Entertainment, two of the big three Korean record labels are located and is the Korean equivalent of Beverly Hills, where only the uber rich can afford to live.During the day it is the place to shop, at night it's the place to party.

On another level the song is about someone who tries to demonstrate that he has what it takes (calm, savvy but can party when needs to) to get the girl(s) of his dreams (smart, stylish and fun to be with). And he has the "moves". Those moves are the most notorious feature of Gangnam Style; the geeky "horse riding dance" which occurs throughout the video. Psy does this dance everywhere;in boats, elevators, stables, amusement parks, tennis courts and it is hilarious. All this accompanied by a catchy tune, a driving beat and the repetitive "Oppa Gangnam style" chant.

Psy incorporates many well known Korean stars in this video; the major one being Kim Hyun-a who is a popular singer, dancer and rapper currently with 4Minute. Hyun-a is the object of Psy's attention in this video as he tries to convince her he is the stylish man she needs. His meeting with her on the subway is dramatic and comical.

Gangnam Style is the first release from Psy's sixth album, Psy 6 (Sixth Rules). Enjoy this crazy video and expect many parodies:

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

DVD MiniSeries: Mystery of Edwin Drood

The Mystery of Edwin Drood, was to be Charles Dickens final novel, only because it was unfinished at the time of his death. It was due to be published in twelve installments in 1870-71 but at the time of Dickens death, only six were completed. This was most unfortunate because like most of Dickens' novels, The Mystery of Edwin Drood had the potential to become yet another brilliant novel. The fact that it's unfinished was probably one of the reasons I never read it, but after seeing this miniseries, I will definitely find the time to correct this.

The namesake of the title, Edwin Drood, is a young orphan who is on his way to the town of Cloisterham to meet his betrothed, Rosa Bud. Rosa, also an orphan, lives at Nun's House, a boarding school for girls. Edwin and Rosa's fathers arranged their marriage many years ago but neither are too eager to marry. Edwin seems flippant about it all and is only interested in travelling to Egypt where he wants to work as an engineer.

Edwin meets Rosa at Nun's House, and as usual, they do not get along but their quarrels are good natured. He also goes to meet his uncle and guardian, John Jasper, who is choirmaster at Cloisterham Cathedral. Jasper is not the upright choirmaster he appears to be though; he is an opium addict who frequents an opium den run by Princess Puffer. Jasper regularly hallucinates about killing Edwin because as we learn, Edwin is to marry Rosa with whom Jasper is infatuated and whom he deeply desires.

Meanwhile, two young people, Neville and Helena Landless who appear to be from Egypt, arrive for their education with Reverend Septimus Crisparkle. Neville will stay with Septimus while his twin sister, Helena will board at Nun's House with Rosa. Neville and Edwin quarrel over Edwin's lighthearted treatment of his betrothal to Rosa. Neville is angry with Edwin's lack of attention and respect towards Rosa, whom he considers too good for Edwin. Septimus Crisparkle tells Neville he must learn to control his anger and get along with others, especially Edwin.

Meanwhile, Rosa tells Helena that she does not really want to marry Edwin and that she is disturbed and frightened by her music teacher, John Jasper's attentions. Helena tells Rosa that Jasper is in love with her and this further distresses Rosa. When she meets with her guardian, Mr. Hiram Grewgious, she asks him what would happen if she and Edwin did not marry. He tells her that she would remain under his guardianship for another four years, at which time she would receive her inheritance. Grewgious also meets with Edwin, giving him his father's will and also the ring his mother wore. He tells Edwin that if he is serious about Rosa, to give her the ring, but if he is not, he should return it to him.

Now aware that she does not have to marry Edwin, Rosa meets with him, and tells him she would like their love to be like that of a brother and sister. Edwin, relieved, agrees. The young couple leave the church, happy with their mutual decision. This scene is witnessed by Jasper who decides he must act.

He invites both Neville and Edwin to his lodgings for dinner. The dinner passes amicably but the two younger men do not notice that Jasper has consumed large quantities of laudanum. They leave together and venture into the stormy night and enter the crypt where Neville leaves Edwin. At this point, Jasper rushes out of his rooms, and we see him accost Edwin in the sanctuary of the cathedral where he strangles him with his black silk scarf.

Up until this point the movie follows Dickens novel much as he wrote it. The second DVD opens with Edwin having gone missing the next morning and Jasper seemingly despondent. They search the river for signs of Edwin and when nothing is found, Jasper begins to lay suspicion on Neville whom he has perfectly set up to take the fall for Edwin's mysterious absence. Neville is captured by the local townsfolk and brought before the magistrate who agrees to allow Mr. Grewgious to lodge him in his home.

Shortly after this, Jasper confronts Rosa alone in the garden at Nun's House, confessing his deep love for her and when she refuses, he threatens her, telling her he will destroy Neville Landless unless she marries him. Rosa immediately flees to Mr. Grewgious' home. Jasper becomes more and more confused about exactly what happened the night of Edwin's disappearance and seeks out help in Princess Puffer's opium den. When he eventually discovers that Rosa has sought refuge with Mr. Grewgious he goes to the house and confronts her again, only to be faced by Helena. It is at this time that he learns that Rosa broke off her engagement to Edwin. From this point on the movie creates it's own ending for the novel, providing twists in the plot that were hinted at in the first part of the movie.

The prime question is the disappearance of Edwin, whom we assume has been murdered. But there are other questions too. Is Edwin Drood Sr. really dead? And are the Landless twins who they say they are?

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is well cast. Matthew Rhys portrays John Jasper and does a wonderful job capturing the nature of a dissolute opium addict who craves the unrequited love of the virginal Rosa Bud. He is at times, dark and brooding, the complete opposite of the amiable but strict choirmaster. Edwin Drood is played by Freddie Fox whom viewers will recognize as King Louis XIII from The Three Musketeers (2011). His sister, Emilia Fox, played Georgiana Darcy in the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice, and the strong family resemblance is not difficult to miss at all. Tamzin Merchant who was cast as Georgiana Darcy in the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice is a blushing, tender Rosa Bud. Innocent on the outside, Rose is determined to resist the unwanted advances of Jasper. There are a host of other characters, typical of Dicken's novels, Princess Puffer who operates the opium den and Deputy the homeless boy who loves to throw rocks and has multiple run-ins with Jasper.

The series has a gothic atmosphere that helps to deepen the mystery of Edwin's disappearance and Jasper's role in it. Viewers will enjoy the twist at the end, although some might feel it too convenient. Overall though this was a good effort that hopefully will encourage viewers to read this novel, and the many other interesting stories Dickens wrote.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

DVD MiniSeries: Moby Dick 2010

The 2011 movie adaptation of Herman Melville's 1851 novel, Moby Dick, is generally well done and exciting, thus providing a new generation with the opportunity to become familiar with this classic tale. The movie which was filmed in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, contains a cast of well known actors including, William Hurt as Captain Ahab, Ethan Hawke as First Mate Starbuck, Charlie Cox and Ishmael, Eddie Marsan as Second Mate Stubb, Raoul Trujillo As Queeqeg, and Gillian Anderson as Elizabeth Ahab. Although there is some dramatic license taken with Melville's storyline, the essence of the novel remains.

Melville's lengthy novel tells the story of the whaling ship, the Pequod captained by veteran whaler, Captain Ahab. Ahab is on a mission to hunt down and destroy an enormous, white whale, named Moby Dick which destroyed his boat and bit off his right leg. Moby Dick is known by whalers as a malevolent leviathan that must be destroyed. Ahab has sworn vengeance to kill this whale no matter the cost. His incredible obsession with Moby Dick borders on madness.

The story of Ahab and his quest to destroy Moby Dick is told by Ishmael, an itinerant sailor who signs on to the Pequod, along with many others, ignorant of Ahab's real intention for the voyage. Ahab is joined on the voyage by his devout Quaker and First Mate Starbuck, Second Mate Stubbs, and Third Mate Flask. Each of these mates chose a pagan harpooner for their boats. Ahab rallies the crew to his mission of hunting the rogue white whale, although Starbuck does not wish to participate is such an undertaking. He wants to hunt whales for their oil and hopes to see his beloved Mary and Nantucket again. After a first sighting of Moby Dick, As the Pequod sails on its way to the Pacific Ocean, meeting many whaling ships including the Rachel which had an encounter with the white whale. In that deadly encounter the captain of the Rachel has lost his youngest son in one of the boats while pursuing the whale. Undeterred, Ahab sails his ship onward in search of this evil white whale. They finally sight Moby Dick and after two days of pursuit, a final, devastating confrontation occurs.

Melville's novel is in part based on real incidents that occurred in the early 1800's in the whaling industry. In 1820, the Essex, a whaling ship out of Nantucket was rammed and sunk by a giant sperm whale off the coast of South America. Only one crew member survived, First Mate Owen Chase, who wrote about the incident. In the 1830's there was a large white whale, named Mocha Dick, was said to attack ships in a premeditated way off the island of Mocha, near Chile. Mocha Dick was normally docile until provoked by an attack. He would then defend himself in an intelligent and vigorous manner. This whale was thought to have been an old bull whale. These incidents were not the only ones recorded as whaling ships were sometimes attacked. Melville drew upon these incidents to write his novel, Moby Dick.

Considered part of the Western canon of literature, Moby Dick is both an adventure story and also a book that describes in great detail the whaling industry as it existed in the 1800s. There are numerous themes throughout the novel, including those that touch on the limits of human knowledge, revenge, religious beliefs, the role of prophecies and fate, and death. It's difficult for us today to understand 19th century society's acceptance of the butchering of whales in the thousands. Whale oil was an important commodity in American life, used to light homes.  The whale was a fearsome animal to be used by man, with little understanding of the ecological effect of whaling on ocean ecology. However,  this wasn't the only species hunted without mercy during this era. In North America, the bison, wolves and beaver suffered a similar fate as did many animals native to Africa and Australia. The mindset of taking whatever we wanted from nature without counting the cost and effect was dominant during the 1800's and early 1900's.

This newest miniseries is relatively faithful to the main elements of the storyline but there are exceptions. Elizabeth Ahab is not part of the original novel and the major character, Fedellah, a harpooner Ahab has brought on board the Pequod, is not in this movie. Nevertheless, this adaptation captures the obsession and madness that overcomes Ahab in his pursuit of Moby Dick, and his inability to turn away even when it is evident such will cost him his life. William Hurt is well cast and gives an excellent, believable performance as Ahab.  At times Hurt's Ahab is overly melodramatic, but that seems to be the fault of the script rather than the acting. Ethan Hawke is also excellent as a foil to Ahab, being the signature voice of reason against Ahab's mad intent. My favourite character was Raoul Trujillo's Queequeg, who was captivating as the cannibal, tattooed harpooner with his creepy body art and mild demeanor. Queequeg and Ishmael form a close bond that sees them through many tough times on board the Pequod.

The action scenes involving Moby Dick were realistic and remarkably well done. I was interested to see how CGI would present the whale and for the most part Moby Dick was believable, being portrayed as an enormous whale whose presence instilled fear in even the most hardened whaler. The final epic battle scene between Moby Dick and the crew of the Pequod was very well done and exciting.

Directed by Mike Barker, screen play by Nigel Williams, Moby Dick is a movie worth watching.

For a description of Mocha Dick, and an accounting of his brutal death by a whaler's harpoon read The Knickerbocker or New York Monthly Magazine, Vol. 13. I have no idea if this account is embellished fact or if it is a work of fiction.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Age Of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

"We didn't notice right away. We couldn't feel it.
We did not sense at first the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath skin....

Summer ended. A new school year began. The clocks ticked as usual. Seconds beaded into minutes. Minutes grew into hours. And there was nothing to suggest that those hours, too, weren't still pooling into days, each the same fixed length known to every human being."

Eleven year old Julia wakes on a Saturday morning that begins like many other Saturday mornings in the past; her friend Hanna is over for a sleepover, she has a soccer game in the morning, and her parents are at the dining room table reading the newspaper. But this Saturday is soon unlike any previous Saturday nor like the ones that are to come. Julia and her mom and dad, along with everyone else learn that the Earth's rotation has gradually been slowing and the days are getting longer. No one knows for sure why this is happening or specifically what will happen as the days lengthen. All they know is that if the earth's rotation continues to slow they can expect radical changes in the weather, earthquakes and tsunamis, possibly mass plant and animal die-outs with  the oceans shifting toward the poles.

Each of the characters respond to the impending crisis in different ways. Julia's mom, a former actress begins hoarding food and other necessities, and she soon begins suffering from slowing syndrome. Her father, a doctor, generally a more calm and cerebral person, seems to be coping well until Julia makes a shattering discovery about where her father has been spending time. Her grandfather at first believes the situation is a diversion from military action in the Middle East. Julia, who tends to be quiet and watchful, has more and more difficulty fitting in with her classmates. It seems, crisis or not, being eleven years old is just a difficult time of life.

As the days get longer, society divides into people who live on "real-time" and those who follow the 24 hour clock. For the latter like Julia's family, this eventually means getting up at night to catch the bus to go to school in the dark or trying to sleep during the day in full sunlight. In San Diego, California, where Julia lives, as the days lengthen, the sun bakes the plants and crops. Birds begin dying, the oceans change, foods that were once common become scarce, forests die and catch fire and insects proliferate.

Humankind continues to struggle on however, as do Julia and her classmates in their own little corner of the world. But gradually society begins to fall apart. More and more children stop attending school, and things that people once took for granted no longer exist. Food must be grown in greenhouses and power, rationed. Despite all this, Julia meets her first boyfriend, Seth, and they struggle along together trying to understand what has befallen them, what their place will be in society, and what the future holds for them. Some of the discussions between Seth and Julia are particularly haunting; they are a generation facing the possibility of no future in a dying world. And so they ask one another which way they would prefer to die. Walker does a great job of focusing on Julia's reality; that of an eleven year old dealing with the inexplicable loss of her best friend, the alienation of her classmates, a first crush, and her mother and father's struggling marriage. This is typical pre-adolescent fare set in an apocalyptic time.

The Age of Miracles follows in detail a year of Julia's life as the catastrophe deepens when the Earth's rotation gradually slows and the days get longer and longer. The last chapter tells how things have fallen apart and generally what life is like on Earth for Julia as an adult of at least 23 years of age and other survivors. It is a tale of survival and adaptation yet the ending is depressing and provides no closure for the reader. In some ways it reads like a eulogy to a dying world.

Overall, this was good read but I felt in some ways Karen Walker did not develop this story to its full potential. Slowing of the earth's rotation, especially to the extent revealed in this novel, would have profound effects on the earth and all life inhabiting the planet. Walker tries somewhat to convey this but often it comes across in Julia's narrative as vague and muted. Other times we feel the full force of what Julia and her family are experiencing especially when the birds begin to die off and also later on when the magnetic storms begin to batter the atmosphere.The Age of Miracles is really two storylines; a coming of age and an apocalyptic disaster that mostly works. In the end though, the reader is left feeling distraught and hopeless.

Book Details:
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
Toronto: Bond Street Books       2012
272 pp.