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Thursday, 29 March 2012

Blackest Night by Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis, Oclair Albert & Joe Prado

As you can probably guess, this is a bit of a departure for me. I mean, I do like comic books, but as of yet I haven't ever managed to collect a series long enough for me to review anything like this. So when my sister decided to lend me her copy of the collected issues of the Green Lantern mini-series Blackest Night, I figured that this would be a good opportunity to try out my reviewing skills on comics. Plus, I think part of me just wants to be like Linkara.

Blackest Night is probably not the best place for me to have started reading within the DC Universe. Don't get me wrong, my knowledge of comic book lore is surprisingly up to date for someone with little opportunity to read them, mostly down to the aforementioned Linkara, but I can see this being quite confusing for complete newbies. The plot focuses on Hal Jordan, one of the more famous of the Green Lanterns to inhabit Earth (the one that the movie was centred on, if anyone was wondering), as he teams up with various allies and enemies to fight against the threat of the Black Lanterns. For those of you wondering, the basis of the Green Lantern powers is that there are powers based on a range of emotions, each of which can be equated with a colour from the colour spectrum: for example, green is will-power, yellow is fear, red is rage, etc etc; it sounds silly, but the colour spectrum does become important later in the plot. The black lanterns represent and control death, a power that is greater than any one colour on this power spectrum, necessitating the allegiance of all the different coloured Lantern Corps in order to save the universe from dying. If that explanation seems convoluted, then that's because of the huge amounts of continuity that there is in this comic; my explanation only covered the absolute basics. Other continuity bits include the deaths of various superheroes and supporting characters which are more important in past mini-series (such as the significance of Sue Dibny and Jean Loring in Identity Crisis), the resurrections of characters like Barry Allen/The Flash (Final Crisis/The Flash: Rebirth) and Hal Jordan himself (Emerald Twilight/Zero Hour/Green Lantern: Rebirth), as well as many other minor things. Regardless of the huge amount of continuity that proceeds this, Blackest Night does a reasonable job of bringing the reader up to speed with the main plot threads, although this does occasionally lead to some moments which are obvious exposition dumps, mainly in Hal Jordan's narrative.
Okay, so I've complained a heck of a lot about the sheer amount of past knowledge that is necessary, or at least advisable, to know in order to appreciate this comic, but I haven't really touched on whether the plot itself is any good. It's certainly made me more interested in reading more about the Green Lantern Corps. In terms of DC superheroes, I was always more interested in reading mini-series about Batman and the Teen Titans, as they were the stars of the cartoons that I grew up with as a kid; in terms of the other main heroes of the universe, particularly Superman and Wonder Woman, they just seemed a bit too perfect for me to get too interested in them. This comic combated that by giving the Green Lantern more depth and complexity than I had first given him credit for. The comic did two other things that I can recommend it for. First, it talked about something that always bothered me about superheroes: the number of times that some of them have died and come back to life; with the Black Lanterns bringing back dead heroes and villains as the undead, resurrections are brought to the fore and the consequences are more fully explored and exploited. The second thing that the comic did that I particularly liked was the focus on some of the more minor characters in the universe, such as Ray Palmer/The Atom and Jonathan Crane/The Scarecrow as opposed to the main three heavy hitters, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman; it was nice to see the more minor characters have their time to shine, regardless of how short. It even leads to one of my favourite moments, when Scarecrow has been given the power of a yellow ring of fear, which is somehow rather funny.
In terms of visuals, I have no real complaints. The style is clear, with no moments that seemed overly out of proportion or the like. The presence of the colour spectrum is well utilised, with a variety of brightly coloured superhero get-ups contrasting well with the dark greys and blacks of the zombies raised as part of the Black Lantern Corps.

Overall, a solid story with equally solid visuals. I would only recommend it for those with at least some knowledge of recent events in the DC Universe, as those reading a DC comic for the first time will most likely completely lost with the continuity references. 3.5/5

Next review: Life: A User's Manual by Georges Perec

Signing off,

Henry VI Part Two by William Shakespeare

It is time once again for me to get too big for my boots and review the work of Shakespeare with the continuation of the Henry VI plays. Obviously the last play ended with the tone set for much political intrigue and turmoil to come, so I was expecting bigger and better things. I got them.

In the second instalment of the trilogy, the action is squarely focused on England and the escalation of political factions and ambitions that go unnoticed and unchecked by the eponymous Henry VI, who is ill-equipped to handle life at court. And it is incredibly entertaining. Personally, I do love political intrigue and uncertain allegiances, as it allows for incredibly complex plots to be hatched as well as equally complex character interactions. This play has it in abundance: first in the combined efforts of court figures to rid themselves of the Duke of Gloster, Lord Protector, in order to forward their individual ambitions, as well as the Duke of York working to make his claim as rightful heir to the throne. Stuck in the middle of all this is Henry himself, a young man more suited to the life of the clergy than that of royalty, and his inexperience and timidness encouraging the more sly and ambitious of his courtiers. It's a recipe for disaster, and it's a glorious sight to behold.
In the last Shakespeare review, I mentioned the staging in the BBC adaptation; this is a practice that I will continue in this reviews as well as others to come. With this adaptation, it follows the same format, with one sound stage for all the different locations, but I felt it worked better in this second part, as the scope wasn't so wide as it was in the first part. The performances were overall a solid affair, with only the occasional moment which seemed suspect which brings to mind mainly Frank Middlemass' decision to ham it up for Cardinal Beaufort's death scene; a particularly strong performance would be Julia Foster's Margaret, who I thought captured her slyness and selfishness perfectly. The only odd decision made in this adaptation that really stuck with me was the incredibly odd editing style in the battle between York and Old Clifford in the fifth act: never before have I seen slow motion shots so strangely, and in this case poorly, utilised.

Overall, this was a marked improvement over Henry VI Part One, both in terms of the writing itself and the adaptation. This may well be my preference for politics over big battle scenes, but it nevertheless feels stronger for the comparative lack of fighting. I look forward to the conclusion of this trilogy. 4/5

Next review: Blackest Night by Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis, Oclair Albert & Joe Prado

Signing off,

Thursday, 22 March 2012

The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

This is one of those books that I picked up on a whim really. I'd heard it mentioned on a blog somewhere, but otherwise knew nothing, and I suppose it appealed to the part of me that likes to learn about other cultures, considering the obvious Indian viewpoint. So I went into this completely blind, and more than a little tired out from How the Dead Live as well as more essays than I could count. I think this was the change of pace that I needed.

The Mistress of Spices follows an Indian woman named Tilo who runs a spice shop in California. On the surface, she's a normal old woman, if unusually observant. What her customers don't know is that she is the eponymous Mistress of Spices, which means that she can communicate with the different spices in her shop and use their latent mystical properties to help the Indian immigrants who visit her shop. There are, however, certain rules that Tilo must follow in order to stay in the spices' favour and thus keep her powers, such as staying impartial, dispensing wisdom and help equally to those who enter the shop; this rule in particular is broken as the novel progresses, as she gets intimately involved in the lives of several of her customers, especially that of an enigmatic American who arouses in her the most forbidden of feelings for a Spice Mistress: love. 
I will just state this so that it's out of the way. I love the use of spices as a medium for magic ability. It creates a sense of structure that tends to be missing in a lot of books involving magical realism. Pretty much every event in the book can be traced back to a moment in which Tilo made use of particular spices. The outcomes can usually be traced to how the spices consider Tilo at any one moment too: while most of her spells at the beginning go pretty much as expected, the more rules she breaks and the more emotionally invested she is, the higher the likelihood is that they will backfire on her in some way, particularly if she has to actively impose her will on to the spices. I think that the fact that the spices could be considered this kind of multi-headed/hive mind character makes the magic system really interesting and different. 
In terms of characters, this is an ensemble cast, so even if you don't like one character, there's bound to be maybe two or three others that you do like in their place. The only ones who get any real in-depth characterisation though are Tilo and the American (whose name you do find out, but I shan't spoil it for you). 
With Tilo, the reader gets the majority of her backstory in the first few chapters, covering her journey from her home village, where she was lauded as a mystic and feared by the rest of her family, to her life in the guise of an old woman in California. The American's past is more drawn out in comparison, as he decides to tell Tilo about his life through several different meetings. Both are fairly sympathetic, yet incredibly flawed people, and their attraction to one another is, if a little odd when you consider them as a couple from a more objective viewpoint, very sweet and with good chemistry. 

Overall, I really liked this novel, especially following the utter loss I was at after How the Dead Live. I would be more than happy to recommend this, as it is incredibly readable and very well written. 4.5/5 

Next review: Henry VI Part 2 by William Shakespeare 

Signing out, 

Sunday, 18 March 2012

How the Dead Live by Will Self

Oh boy, where to begin with this one? Will Self is one of those authors that I've known about for a long time, but had little actual information on his work. I'd seen him a few times on the rare occasion that I watch TV nowadays, but that was about as far as my knowledge went. So when I saw How the Dead Live on sale, I figured that there was little harm in trying it out. Now that I've actually read it, I'm not sure how much more I know about him.

How the Dead Live follows the late life and afterlife of the narrator Lily Bloom, a generally cantankerous and unpleasant old woman. In life, the reader sees her deal with her two daughters: Charlie, the elder daughter who is pretty much a non-entity amalgamation of everything that is socially acceptable, and Natasha, a needy and manipulative junky. In death, she has to contend with a calcified foetus obsessed with pop songs from the 70s, three manifestations of all the fat that she's lost, gained and regained through years of dieting and the angry soul of her long dead son. From that description, it sounds pretty damn interesting. And at times it is. But for the most part, it just left me confused. Not confused in a plot sense: in that respect it's pretty straightforward. It left me confused as to how I'm meant to feel about all of this. For instance, the spirits that Lily has to exist with make it sound as if the afterlife is some incredibly strange Twilight Zone type of place; it's really not. All the afterlife is in this is normal life, except you don't need to breathe, eat or sleep. After a while she even begins to ignore or forget the weird manifestations around her. Considering she's the narrator, that means that the reader begins to forget them too, which I don't think should be the case; they're what interested me on the blurb, so for them to be forgotten so easily is really disappointing. Although I suppose that that may be the whole point: have an afterlife that is exactly the same as life, and you minimise the fear and reverence surrounding it. I guess my main problem with this book is that at times it seems clever and witty, but there's always an underlying current of irritation at the very cleverness that typifies the novel's tone; much like my opinion of what I've seen of Will Self, now that I think about it. I think the only thing that I really genuinely enjoyed was the ludicrous nature of some of the deaths. Take Lily, for example. She is diagnosed with terminal breast cancer at the beginning of the book. After a few chapters, it spreads to the brain, thus making her demise imminent. It's when the cancer hits her brain that it gets funny; she begins to rave and lose control of her actions, thoroughly freaking out everyone around her. That doesn't sound all that funny, but if you have even a passing knowledge of cancer symptoms, it's pretty damn obvious that this is not how cancer works. Generally, when you've got a brain tumour, you get some headaches and then you die; quick and relatively quietly, not gibbering like a loon. That was pretty much the only thing that I liked without reserve, simply for the ridiculousness of it. Otherwise, I'm still not sure what to make of this. I don't dislike it, but then I don't particularly care for it either. I feel like it provoked something for me mentally, but I couldn't tell you for the life of me what that thing could be. I guess all I can say is that I feel uneasy because of this lack of knowing. Maybe that was the point all along.

I honestly don't know what to say about this overall. I don't feel I can really say either way whether this is a good or bad book. I guess if you're looking for a "clever" book or you like Will Self, then yeah I could recommend this. Otherwise I'd probably give it a miss. 2.5/5

Next review: The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Signing off,

Friday, 16 March 2012

A quick update

Hey guys, it's been a while since I updated this, huh? I noticed how long it's been since I wrote anything for this, so I figured that I owed you an explanation as to where I've been and how I'm getting on with How the Dead Live.
In terms of what I've been doing, it's been the month of essay writing for uni. I've hardly stopped for weeks. I am getting to the end of them though, so there should be more activity from me very shortly. As for the book, I'm getting there, slowly but surely. I imagine that I'll finish it over the next week or so. Hopefully.
Sorry about the long silence there, but things will be catching up soon, I promise.

Signing out,