Friday, August 28, 2009

Love and Punishment, Wendy Harmer

Posted by lea at 12:06 PM 0 comments Links to this post
The heroine of Love and Punishment, written by comedian-turned-author Wendy Harmer, is an everygirl called Francie – a normal, not overly-ambitious, somewhat mousy agony aunt columnist, who is dumped by her long-term boyfriend Nick, an aspiring actor. Having supported him for years and ready to bear his child, Francie is devastated when he takes up with cougar Poppy Sommerville-Smith, the doyenne of Australian film and theatre. Pushed to the wall, Francie finally breaks out and takes revenge – a breathtakingly nasty piece of revenge.

Love and Punishment is a humorous book that is easy to read and has a refreshing approach to chicklit – rather than the usual empty-headed love story with impossibly attractive characters, this realistically frazzled heroine is seriously pissed off and needs to learn how to deal with this huge impact point in her life. There are no obvious goodies and baddies, just people trying to live life, find love and make their way in the world.

Although at times Harmer's writing slips into 'telling not showing' (a flaw for many first-time writers), Love and Punishment is an enjoyable quick read, and Francie's journey is both humorously and poignantly developed. Recommended reading for people who enjoy a bit of quality chicklit.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke

Posted by lea at 12:07 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is the work of first time author Susanna Clarke, and appears to have caused quite a stir in the world of fantasy fiction since its publication. A behemoth at 800 pages, this novel would have benefited from tighter editing of its lumbering footnotes and meandering episodic forays that don't contribute towards the main plot.

The story, however, is intelligently told and well written: a parallel magical history of England during the 1800s and the revival of English magic by two of its foremost practitioners of the day, the book's namesakes, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. There are touches of the usual fantasy elements of prophecy and fate, but it's not so much about magic and its technical aspects as it is about these two men and their all-consuming desire to learn and re-introduce magic into the English realm. But where fantasy heroes often have redeeming characteristics, these two are not particularly likable, and are kept from the reader at an arm's distance by Clarke's writing, which makes it difficult to really get into the book. Mr Norrell, in particular, is a character who is genuinely hate-worthy. His insecurity, pride, jealousy and narrow-mindedness are maddening.

Where the book really loses out is its lack of focus and forward movement. It moves laterally so often and for so long that it's one of those books that are easy to put down and not pick up again. But that would be a mistake, because the ending is extremely intense (unlike so much of the book) and enjoyable. The climax comes very suddenly right at the very end, with an emotional connection that most of the earlier part of the book fails to achieve. It still leaves a few questions unanswered, but it is a good reward for having gotten so far and read so much.

Overall, it was a good read, a great effort for a first-time author (although fairly damning for its editor) but would have been twice as good if it had been half as long.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

District 9, movie review

Posted by lea at 2:53 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Unlike every other big alien movie, the aliens in District 9 do not target New York or any other city in America - instead it has landed over Johannesburg, South Africa, and the aliens are not a destructive force of superbeings. Something has gone wrong, the ship cannot return to its home, and the one million-strong malnourished, dirty aliens are rescued/herded into an area (District 9) which quickly becomes a slum. Fascination turns to impatience and anger and the humans, led by the MNU (Multi-National Unity), are now on a mission to drive the 'prawns', as they are derisively called, out of the city and into a designated area set up much like a concentration camp.

The central storyline follows Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), as he leads the MNU team into the slum to serve eviction notices to the aliens. Director Niell Blomkamp (a South African who based the film on elements of his childhood experience during the apartheid) begins the movie as a documentary with the shaky hand-held camera affect, but evolves it seamlessly into movie-mode as a tragedy envelopes Wikus and takes him beyond his limits.

District 9 is didactic in its racial commentary through its portrayal of the very worst of human nature in its dealings with the aliens, but it's done in a way that's fresh, real and very confronting. As Wikus' story unfolds (I won't give away the crux of the story), we see a man - an ordinary man - pushed to his extreme limits in every manner possible. With every new assault, with every push to break him down, we begin to see true humanity emerge.

This movie is absolutely gripping and, in my books, absolutely brilliant. And not just for its portrayal of racial division, but just as a movie. As my 14 year old nephew said afterwards, 'How good was that? I think there was some sort of politics going on in there, but I don't really care. Did you see those heads explode? Those alien guns were awesome.'

Interesting facts:
  • Neill Blomkamp was set to direct the movie version of Halo before it fell through.
  • Apparently Peter Jackson and his wife bankrolled much of District 9 themselves to get it started.
  • Never heard of Sharlto Copley before? That's because he's a high school friend of Neill Blomkamp's who had never acted before. I find that unbelievable because he did such an amazing job as Wikus.
  • The slum used to film District 9 were real slums in South Africa, and many of the inhabitants were still in the process of being evacuated into better housing by the government when they started filming.
  • All the aliens (except the carcasses in the MNU test lab) were CGI - an amazing job once you've seen the movie. And more kudos to the actors for a brilliant job.
Okay, enough proselytising - go out and see it if you haven't already.

La's Orchestra Saves the World, Alexander McCall Smith

Posted by lea at 2:41 PM 1 comments Links to this post
My love of Alexander McCall Smith is tempted to rate this novel higher than I otherwise might, but I must be honest. It's lovely and gentle and slow but not a riveting read.

The central character is La (short for Lavender), a British woman who finds her life upturned when her husband leaves her for another woman. Not the type to hold a grudge, she moves to a cottage in the countryside and begins to contribute her small part towards the war effort - one of her endeavours being to start a village orchestra. Based on the title of the book, I'm led to believe that McCall Smith may have meant the theme to be about the power music, but I didn't really get that sense as a reader. The orchestra (and the war itself) seemed rather incidental to the central storyline... and I use the word 'storyline' very loosely because there really isn't much of one. She ponders, she meanders, she wonders and thinks, and while it's all very lovely, it isn't exactly the stuff of literary genius.

The saving grace of the novel is the slight romance between La and Feliks, a 'Pole' displaced by the war and now working for the British Army. It's not hot and steamy by any means, but very adult and genteel, much like the rest of the book.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Ugly Truth, movie review

Posted by lea at 10:23 AM 1 comments Links to this post
With a better script, this could've been a smarter movie. As it is, it relies heavily on the good looks of the two leads, the funny but misogynistic and shallow comments of Gerard Butler's character and Katherine Heigl's ability to embarrass herself. In short, it gives you exactly what you could expect and nothing more.

There are some very funny moments, like Katherine Heigl hanging upside down from a tree, but the plot is like something out of a sweet dreams book (does Kiss Me Creep ring a bell for anyone else?) extracted for an older audience with the addition of some crude humour – although when that crude humour is delivered by Gerard Butler, you can't help but be charmed by the smarm. The Ugly Truth tries so hard to be a funny movie that the attempt to bring in some depth towards the end flounders entirely and becomes psych 101 cliché. Anyway, who's going to believe that someone who looks like Katherine Heigl is a loser at attracting guys?

But it is a funny movie – the audience laughed a LOT during the showing I was at – and a particularly good date movie for its feelgood factor and gender-balanced humour.

Friday, August 7, 2009

G.I. Joe, movie review

Posted by lea at 12:28 PM 0 comments Links to this post
G.I. Joe had one redeeming factor: it increased my endorphin levels. I couldn't stop laughing at the terrible dialogue, hokey plot, lame accents and one-dimensional characters. At one point, the evil geniuses (genii?) are two bald, burnt men hobbling away by foot – yeah, scar-ee. You couldn't help but feel sorry for Dennis Quaid, who is lumped with a few clichès and a pretty thin hapless part in his role as the head of the Joes – supposedly an elite fighting squad, who somehow manage to stay one step behind the villains all the way through the movie, despite their fancy gadgets and high tech weaponry. Channing Tatum does a credible brooding job as Duke, the central character and one of the newest Joe recruits, but Sienna Miller... what's with the catwalk strut all the way through the movie? Is she normally that bad an actor or was she simply embarrassed to be part of this film? Marlon Wayans gets a few laughs in his black-sidekick role, but it doesn't come near the calibre of Chris Rock, who perfected this part a long time ago.

Questions (spoiler alert):
  • Why was the US buying the nanomite weapons in the first place, knowing that they're so destructive that the rest of the movie is made up of trying to stop the bad guys from using it?
  • Why do weapons need to be 'weaponised'?
  • How is it possible that so many ppl on the two opposing 'elite fighting teams' have random ties to one another?
  • If the Baroness is suddenly meant to overcome her mind-control device at the end when she suddenly recognises and remembers her previous life with Duke, then why, at the beginning when they cross paths, does she say, 'you of all people should know'?
  • Why the hell would her younger brother suddenly turn into an evil genius after one bomb blast?
  • Why are the martial arts flashbacks set in Japan, but the kid (Storm Shadow as child) speaks Korean?
  • Doesn't a white ninja suit defeat the purpose of being a ninja in the first place (to be unseen)?
  • As much as I like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who the hell cast him as the evil mastermind? He still looks like a 12 year old.
Rating: Go watch it if you need a laugh, but if you want a good tight action film, look elsewhere.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Miracle at Speedy Motors

Posted by lea at 3:49 PM 0 comments Links to this post
"Fat lady: you watch out! And you too, the one with the big glasses."

Wise, traditionally-built Mma Ramotse and her high achieving assistant Mma Makutsi begin receiving threatening letters at their agency. Who could be behind them? And why? This mystery is one of several sub-plots in this wonderfully warm ninth instalment of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall-Smith.

I've already written several reviews about this series, including In the Company of Cheerful Ladies, The Kalahari Typing School for Men and Tears of the Giraffe, so I won't bore you with another panegyric of what a wonderful writer McCall Smith is and how lovely and touching his books are. Suffice to say it's a quick and easy read that leaves an impression on the reader about the beauty and expanse of Botswana and its people. Mma Ramotwe is a wonderful literary creation - may the series live long and prosper.

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