Posts tagged “reading

A Song of Fire and Ice, Part II : The Stags and the Dragons

Spoilers for Game of Thrones TV series and A Song of Fire and Ice fantasy series below.

HBO’s Game of Thrones series is a marvel. It does not quite compare to the book, but the truth is that the book and the show have become quite seperate, and to criticize the TV series for ‘disappointing’ my expectations is to do HBO an injustice. We are already at episode 6, and each episode just gets better and better – the games of power, the farce of justice at Eyrie, the bloody ceremonies at Vaes Dothrak – the pace is picking up, and we’re being swept along!

The Baratheons : youngest of the Great Houses

The Baratheons are a powerful but reckless house given to extremeties of character. Robert Baratheon, first of his name, Ruler of the Seven Kingdoms and Usurper of the Targaryens’ throne, once “muscled like maiden’s fantasy”, now a fat and ineffective man, is the eldest son of Stefford Baratheon. His second brother, Stannis Baratheon (who does not appear yet), is a strict and puritan man who detests immorality and passion of any sort, while Renly Baratheon, about eleven-or-so years younger than Robert, is a vain, handsome, and powerful man.

Mark Addy does a wonderfully fat, blustering king Robert. During his fifteen years of kingship, Robert’s careless indulgence has squandered whatever wealth and power the Targaryens once had. The Iron Throne is severely in debt, and Robert is cornered by his dependence on the Lannisters’ wealth. Meanwhile, Robert has never let go of Lyanna Stark, Ned’s younger sister and Robert’s only love; his inability to move on has destroyed Robert’s marriage to Cersei and made him unreasonably vengeful towards the surviving Targaryens. The TV series makes prominent Lyanna’s ghost during a heart-to-heart chat between king and queen in episode 5, that never appears in the book. “What harm could Lyanna Stark’s ghost do to us, that we haven’t done to each other a hundred times over?” Cersei asks Robert mockingly. In the book, it is our honourable Ned Stark who asks Cersei why she hates Robert so, and she replies,

“The night of our wedding feast, the first time we shared a bed, he called me by your sister’s name. He was on top of me, in me, stinking of wine, and he whispered, Lyanna.”Cersei Lannister.

Like all things GRRM, character relationships are more intricate than they seem, and thus it is that the relationship between the Baratheons and the Targaryens goes deeper than that of past and present rulers – but to talk of the Targaryens is to talk of the Targaryens, the Starks, the Lannisters and the Baratheons all at once; and here, I think, is where the TV series lacks sufficient explanation. I will try to sort things out.

 

 

The Game of Thrones emblem includes the sigils of the dragon, the direwolf, the lion and the stag, for the whole war begins with them. Fifteen years before the Game of Thrones, the last Targaryen King was Aerys Targaryen, and his son was prince Rhaegar Targaryen. Jaime Lannister, the youngest ever knight in the Kingsguard, was a sworn protector of Aerys. Cersei Lannister was betrothed to, and fell in love with, Rhaegar; however, Rhaegar and Lyanna Stark loved one another while Robert Baratheon’s affection for Lyanna was unrequited. When Robert eventually declared war against King Aerys, the Starks were his strongest ally. Mad with jealousy, Robert killed Rhaegar, but Lyanna died during the battle, too. Jaime Lannister slew his own king and from then on was called the Kingslayer. Jaime handed the throne to Ned Stark who handed it to Robert, because neither of them wanted to rule. Cersei was wed to Robert by her father, Tywin Lannister; Jaime Lannister was pardoned by Robert and made part of Robert’s Kingsguard.

In the game of thrones, you win or you die.

Of the Targaryens who survived the sack of Kings Landing, there were only Viserys and Daenerys, Rhaegar’s younger brother and sister. These two have since grown up in the Eastern Continent of Essos, far away from the Seven Kingdoms, and it is the remaining Targaryen royalty that King Robert now feels threatened by.

And so we are introduced to Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen, last of the Dragons.

The Targaryens sigil is a three headed dragon, and their words are Fire and Blood. The Dragon Kings are a great house, and a mad house. They have ruled for millenia, always marrying brother to sister to keep their lines pure, and from this continuous incest stems their unchecked violence, paranoia and megalomania.

“I’d let (Khal Drogo’s) whole Khalasar fuck you if need be, sweet sister, all forty thousand men, and their horses too, if that was what it took to get me my army.” – Viserys Targaryen to his younger sister, Daenerys.

Played by Harry Lloyd and Emilia Clarke respectively, both Viserys and Daenerys are perfectly as I imagined – except that they forgot to dye their eyebrows silver as well, but that is inconsequential. Viserys’s single minded obsession with raising an army and retake the Iron Throne make him a sick, unlovable character, but Harry Lloyd portrays Viserys’s pitiful, ruthless desperation effortlessly and milks Viserys’s insanity for all it is worth. I think Viserys’s pre-death scene was made incredibly memorable by Lloyd’s half drunken, half fey expression, movement and speech.

Khal Drogo and Khaleesi Daenerys

Daenerys was sold to the great Dothraki warrior, Khal Drogo, by her brother, so that that Viserys might have the Khal’s army to invade the Seven Kingdoms with. With a khalasar (a nomadic kingdom) of a hundred thousand people, and so rich even his slaves wore collars made of gold, Drogo was the most powerful Khal of the Dothraki lands. His warrior’s braid had never been cut, to signify that Drogo had never been defeated in battle.

My version of Khal Drogo was darker, and with an actual braid. Otherwise, yes. The guttural Dothraki language, the size and the quiet ferociousness, it’s all there. Khal Drogo (Jason Mamoa) and his bloodriders are awesome.


A Song of Ice and Fire, Part I : Of Wolves and Lions

 

 “…Characters so venemous they could eat the Borgias.”

 – The Guardian review for George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.
 

House Lannister. "The gold of Casterly Rock and the Golden Tooth has made them the wealthiest of the Great Houses."

I couldn’t say it any better. Martin tells his story by making you a king, a scullery maid, a eunuch, a cripple, a kingslayer, a bastard, a horselord’s slut, a queen, a traitor, a runaway, a knight, and that doesn’t even cover half of his splendid cast. Nobody is good or bad, they are only completely, painfully real, desperate to survive – and to survive, they shy from nothing. It isn’t gratuitous, it’s necessary. Black magic, resurrection, slavery, necrophilia, bestiality, twincest, fatricide, cannibalism, you name it, they’ve done it, to say nothing of murder, manipulation and deception. With five kings waging war for power and an apocalyptic decade-long winter on the horizon, Martin’s story stops at nothing to pull one entirely into the continents of Essos and Westeros.

So when HBO launched a TV adaptation of Ice and Fire, named the series Game of Thrones after the first novel in the series, I was quite convinced that no TV show could ever do justice to Martin’s epic fantasy –  Harry Potter was rather painful and the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, while excellent, deviated from the book by a substantial margin. Misgivings aside, I was still eager to see what HBO could come up with.

The clockwork style opening sequence reminds me strongly of Neil Gaiman and his world-beyond-the-wall, which is an odd, absurd and enjoyable mix of magic, technology and mythology. I love the tilting perspective as the camera sweeps over the map of Westeros and the way each actor’s name is shown with the sigil of his character. After all, to say that Martin did put a lot of effort into making each house distinct is a gross understatement…

 The carousel-ish ‘growth’ of towers and fortresses make each place look very much like gears and cogs of a monstrously sophisticated lego set. I’m quite divided over this, because while the reference to construction and puppetry is on its own original and very well done, I thought it lacked the graphic and visceral style of Ice and Fire.

 

The first scene of Winter beyond the wall was disappointing. I was looking forward to the bone numbing chill, the silent, graceful walkers, a duel between the Others and the men of the Nightwatch. The white walkers were snarling goblin rather than the silent, graceful wraiths I’d hoped for, and the entire chase felt rather cobbled. This was one of those filmed-for-the-sake-of-following-the-book scenes that didn’t add much to the TV series. It wasn’t a promising start. 

 

Benjen Stark, younger brother of Eddard Stark, First Ranger of the Nightwatch

Things pick up once we shift to Winterfell, the fortress in the North. The Starks were Kings of Winter for thousands of years, until they chose not to fight Aegon the Dragon King of Valyria, and swore fealty to House Targaryen.

Winter is coming. The lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.

Ned Stark (Sean Bean), Warden in the North and Catelyn Tully (Michelle Fairley), his wife, are very well played. Their children are Robb (Richard Maden),  Brandon (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), Sansa (Sophie Turner), Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and Jon Snow (Kit Harington). I imagined Ned with a longer and thinner face, but Sean Bean’s sombre demeanour is otherwise very becoming. I thought Robb Stark should have had a more jovial and commanding presence. Benjen Stark has the strongest likeness to my imagination – hard boiled, battle-worn, long faced. Thumbs up to the Stark Household.  

  Hear Me Roar!   

Jaime Lannister, the Kingslayer

Enter the Lannisters and their golden pride. Jaime Lannister, the Kingslayer, the handsomest man in the Seven Kingdoms, the youngest knight ever in the royal Kingsguard, insolent, gorgeous, admired. Cersei Lannister, Jaime’s older twin, queen of the Seven Kingdoms and famous for her beauty and despised for her treachery. Are they physically irresistable? You decide. For all that my fellow fan and I complained incessantly about the Lannister twins’ looks, we agreed on one thing – Jaime’s (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau)  likeable-badass charm is very effective. Cersei (Lena Hadley) starts a little ‘off’ but then slides nicely into her roll. I’m looking forward to more of her poisonous scheming. 

  

 

 

Cersei Lannister, Queen of the Seven Kingdoms

“I’ll kill (your husband King Robert to get you). The singers can make a ballad about it – The war for Cersei’s cunt, they’ll call it.” – Ser Jaime Lannister, the Kingslayer, to Cersei Lannister, his twin sister.

 

The most perfectly played character by far is Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), an unloved blemish in the otherwiseperfect Lannister family. The lecherous, ribald dwarf is an ugly, stunted dwarf whose deformity has been made worse by constant comparison to his beautiful and powerful elder siblings, yet there is (thankfully) none of the tiresome angst and vulnerability that usually accompany such unfortunate characters. A lifetime of ridicule has made Tyrion discerning, sharp tongued and shameless; like his brother Jaime, he has a penchant for morbid and licentious humour. 

Tyrion Lannisters, known also as the Half-man

  

 

“(If I took the Black I’d have to) go celibate; the whores would go begging from Dorne to Casterly Rock! No, I just want to stand on the wall and piss off the edge of the world.”-Tyrion Lannister’s reply with regards to wanting to visit the Nightwatch


Detective fiction – Evil Under the Sun

(Disclaimer : The following is purely my own opinion. No hard feelings intended, and comments always welcome.)

I’ve mentioned before that most would-be-catchy book titles warn me off pretty effectively, but this is largely untrue for Agatha Christie titles. For one, her tried-and-tested ‘old school’ writing style guarantees good language, description and narration – winning half the battle for a good book. For two, (for two?? Is this correct??) Harper Collins (one of my preferred publishers) uses an elegant, quietly confident design for Christie’s books, meaning that even the loudest titles are balanced by subtle colours and fonts. I couldn’t find my edition of Evil Under the Sun online, and in the previous version of this post I used the ‘newer’, standardized Harper Collins edition of Agatha Christie. Then I hit upon the brainwave of bluetooth-ing the image of my book cover to the computer! (I am so tech savvy now!) So here now is the edition of Evil Under the Sun that I have. A pity the old design – apparently the signature edition one – seems to be unavailable now. Good book covers are always worth admiring. I particularly like the embossed “POIROT” on the bottom right corner.  

Evil Under the Sun has been made into a movie, a computer game (Wii??) so far, and it’s often in the “Poirot classics” collection – which says something about it’s positive reviews so far. This Christie involves Poirot investigating the murder of a beautiful actress while he is on a holiday by the beach. Expect the usual set of puzzling clues, the appreciable leisurely character development, the turning of Poirot’s mental cogs and the quivering of his incredible mustachios, and yet another unexpected ending.

However, something about Evil Under the Sun lacks completeness. The story begins with engaging characters and an exploration of some interesting concepts, but once the murder takes place, the book’s focus on clue-finding and suspect-eliminating takes centerstage, cutting short character and concept development. I would have liked more thorough portrayal of evil and predation, which, after all, drives the killer’s actions. To explain it with “it is natural instinct to murder for money” is not only abrupt but disappointing; even if predatory instinct was deemed largely animalistic in Christie’s time, I’d expected a better psychoanalysis on Poirot’s part. Furthermore, while the method of murder itself is ingenius, I find it unbelievable that Poirot was able to unravel the entire sequence of events. For me, the lack of conviction is due in part to Poirot makes one too many “lucky guesses” this time.

As with many Five Little Pigs (can’t generalize with other Christie books), Evil Under the Sun has its characters exploring values like love, loyalty and marriage. In broader terms, Christie’s murders address the conflict of ideals between Victorian society and modern society. It adds suitable societal background to the book without digging up sordid pasts or dwelling on angsty scenes. From Five Little Pigs and Evil Under the Sun, it seems safe to trust Agatha Christie with a tasteful, well written and intelligent mystery. Since the reviews of this book have been largely positive, I would go ahead and recommend it anyway.


Detective fiction – Five Little Pigs (Murder in Retrospect)

Disclaimer : The following is purely my own opinion. No hard feelings, and comments are always welcome.

Other than some devious smart-talking in Powerpuff Girls monopoly, five whole days with the Raju gang has left me severely starved of intellectual activity. Luckily for me, I have enough books to restart my mental faculties, while remaining well within the boundaries of my no-working-only-slacking promise to myself.

So my cloggy innards were itching for a good detective fiction. Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, or Watson and Holmes? I cleave invariably to the funny little Belgian detective with the large moustache and the “little grey cells”, so Hercule Poirot it was – although I’ll admit to having never really acknowledged the quality of Agatha Christie’s writing until only two days ago. Now that I do, my only defence is that I read Agatha Christie alongside writers like R.L. Stine (Goosebumps series) and Enid Blyton (The Wishing Chair, the Secret Seven the Famous Five, etc). That is to say, I read Agatha Christie’s novels when I was around 7 or 8, long before I was mentally ‘equipped’ to appreciate a good detective novel. Other than my favourite Poirot case, Curtain, which I read (and stupidly misplaced) nearly ten years ago, I recall almost nothing of all the other Agatha Christie novels I’ve read.

I decided on Five Little Pigs this time. The alternative title is Murder in Retrospect, which is rather more appropriate a title, since the book involves Hercule Poirot investigating a murder case which was closed sixteen years ago. Carla Lemarchant, daughter of convicted murderess Caroline Crale, is convinced of her mother’s innocence and recruits Poirot’s remarkable detective prowess to clear her mother’s name. Knowing full well that the crime scene can no longer be accessed, Hercule Poirot is nevertheless confident that “psychology doesn’t change with time. The tangible things are gone – the cigarette-end and the footprints and the bent blades of grass. You can’t look for those anymore. But you can still go over all the facts of the case…and then lie back in your chair and think. And you’ll know what really happened.” Thus armed with his formidable and imaginative brain, Hercule Poirot interviews those who were involved in the crime sixteen years ago and pieces together, from their recollections, the truth that will acquit Caroline Crale of any charge.

“…with the passage of time, the mind retains a hold on essentials and rejects superficial matters.

“We are speaking now from the psychological point of view. I do not want bare facts. I want your own selection of facts. Time and your memory are responsible for that selection.”

I have read that Five Little Pigs is the best of Christie’s Hercule Poirot collection, and while I have no other Christie to compare it to, it was definitely a very enjoyable and stimulating read. The crime is covered from ten different perspectives (friends, police reports, lawyer, etc), allowing Poirot to pick out little details and construct his own version of what really happened. As a mark of excellence, Christie does not allow the repetition to become tiresome, but uses the opportunity to capture each storyteller realistically and distinctively. Aside from developing a solid, convincing cast, Christie lets readers compare personality with testimony and judge each character’ on truthfulness (the characters do lie!). Discerning readers will be able to spot the inconsistencies through the multiple-narrative technique, pick up character traits and biasness, and guess the real murderer before the denouement. Furthermore, Poirot – or Christie – has a superb understanding of human psychology and presents, very comprehensively, the human impulses that are often abstract, vague, and not easily described in words. 

“Do you know the way that things suddenly come back to you – after years, perhaps. I was once staying at a hotel. As I walked along a passage, one of the bedroom doors opened and a woman I knew came out. It was not her bedroom – and she registered the fact plainly on her face when she saw me.

“And I knew then the meaning of the expression I had once seen on Caroline’s face when, at Alderbury, she came out of Philip Blake’s room one night.

“I had no idea at the time, you understand. I knew things…but I didn’t connect them with reality. Caroline coming out of Philip Blake’s bedroom was just Caroline coming out of Philip Blake’s bedroom to me. It might have been Miss William’s room or my room. But what I did notice was the expression on her face – a queer expression that I didn’t know and couldn’t understand. I didn’t understand it until, as I told you, the night in Paris when I saw that same expression on another woman’s face. ” – Angela Warren, to Hercule Poirot

And Hercule Poirot himself – what a very marvelous character! – marvelous in the way that Arthur Weasley beams and says of muggles and their ‘ekeltricity’, “marvelous!” By any definition of the word Poirot should be ‘intriguing’ and ‘fascinating’, but these words connote a dynamic and compelling protagonist, which does not square with the quaint, foreign, odd little Hercule Poirot. There are many protagonists who are charismatic and forceful, who can herd and gather and direct the thoughts and actions of others. But Poirot is not one of them, and that is why he is so remarkable. Poirot is a hero who does not convince and does not influence – it is not his job to do so. Poirot goes out of his way to be “despised, but patronised”, a “most impossible person – the wrong clothes – button boots! – an incredible moustache! – a foreigner.”

“Hercule Poirot prided himself on knowing how to handle an ‘old school tie’ (a colloquial term for the usually conservative, slightly exclusive upper-class Englishman). It was no moment for trying to seem English. No, one must be a foreigner – frankly a foreigner – and be magnanimously forgiven for the fact. ‘Of course, these foreigners don’t quite know the ropes. Will shake hands at breakfast. Still, a decent fellow really…'”

My only problem was the unrealistic clarity with which a sixteen-years-ago event is recalled. Facial expressions, standing positions, exact words and phrases recalled in such detail…it’s all rather unbelievable, and while Poirot’s genius is obvious, a few of his conclusions are also based on certain small coincidental words said by the witnesses – without which Poirot would have had a harder time coming to his own conclusions. I suppose, in hindsight, that if these testimonials had been questioned, re-questioned and reconfirmed by the court during trial, then they would be more easily remembered. I would have also skipped a the ‘written record’ of each testimonial as that makes a total of fifteen recounts of the same incident. Other than that, Five Little Pigs is a highly recommended read.


Storytelling fiction – Housekeeping, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and Lighthousekeeping

(Disclaimer : The following comments are purely my own thought. No hard feelings intended. Criticism and opinions are always welcome.)

My experience with literature texts have been mixed so far, but if you like your literature books, it’s usually a treat to re-read them and rediscover the stories and characters you used to study, especially when you don’t feel like risking dissatisfaction with a new, ‘untried’ book. Some texts, like Tenessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, or certain poems like Muliebrity, Before the Sun and Rising Five, have stuck with me over the years, while others I try to un-remember. My latest prose texts were Marilyn Robinson’s Housekeeping and Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. Women’s literature isn’t my usual cup of tea and I approached these two books anticipating unending female rhapsodizing. On my first reading, I found Oranges a little too flighty and incongruous, but Housekeeping was surprisingly enjoyable. They both grew on me, or perhaps it is more fitting to say I grew into them, the way you grow into good books if you put in enough effort. 

HousekeepingHousekeeping is intensely beautiful, expansive and intimate at once, with layer upon layer of texture and emotion in its prose. Ruth and Sylvie, restless and attuned as they are to the overlapping experiences of desire, loneliness and death, tell their stories the way the night sky or a sunset shares itself : simple yet brilliant, moving each person on a level where language becomes … indescribable.

“…I dreamed that the bridge was a chute into the lake and that, one after another, handsome trains slid into the water without even troubling the surface…I dreamed that Sylvie was teaching me to walk underwater. To move so slowly needed patience and grace, but she pulled me after her in the slowest waltz, and our clothes flew like the robes of painted angels.”

 

 
Oranges, on the other hand, is a quirky, skilful blend of allegory and comic realism that I had trouble understanding at first. After getting the hang of the patchwork narrative and the consistently incongruent nature of the text, however, I grew to love it in equal measure. The protagonist, named Jeanette, is an outcast amongst her peers and finds her strength in the Christian church and her mother – until both church and mother condemn Jeanette for homosexuality, punish Jeanette and her lover for their ‘unnatural passions’, and banish Jeanette from their midst. Betrayed by family and lover alike, Jeanette is forced to make her own way in life, questioning the unreasonable rigidity of religious and conventional norms. 

oranges are not the only fruit

“…I miss God. I miss the company of someone utterly loyal. I still don’t think of God as my betrayer. The servants of God, yes, but servants by their very nature betray. I miss God who was my friend.

“As it is, I can’t settle, I want someone who is fierce and will love me until death and know that love is as strong as death, and be on my side for ever and ever. I want someone who will destroy and be destroyed by me…Romantic love has been diluted into paperback form and has sold thousands and millions of copies. Somewhere is is still in the original, wirtten on tablets of stone. I would cross seas and suffer sunstroke and give away all I have, but not for a man, because they want to be the destroyer and never be destroyed. That is  why they are unfit for romantic love. There are exceptions and I hope they are happy.”

 

And since I was in the mood for something humorous and thought provoking, I picked up another Jeanette Winterson novel : Lighthousekeeping. It resembles Housekeeping in more than just the title – both books are highly similar, from the themes of storytelling and the loaded literary references, to the technique of concurrent narratives, right down to the motifs of death, darkness, desire and memory. 

My mother called me Silver. I was born part precious metal part pirate.

I have no father. There’s nothing unusual about that – even children who do have fathers are often surprised to see them. My own father came out of the sea and went back that way. He was crew on a fishing boat that harboured with us one night when the waves were crashing like dark glass.

His splintered hull shored him for long enough to drop anchor inside my mother.

Shoals of babies vied for life.

I won.”

Lighthousekeeping starts off well, promising Winterson’s usual personal and irreverant style of narration. Silver is a familiar ingenue for Winterson’s readers (with the familiar unusual mother and dog), confronted too early with the death of her mother and her ‘destiny’ as a keeper of stories. Lighthousekeeping’s unwavering emphasis on storytelling, intially refreshing, soon becomes cloying, and I felt overwhelmed by the abundance of wordplay and aphorisms that prevents Silver from reaching her point. It feels like a writer’s indulgence. For me, the only redemption is Pew, the blind and eccentric old man who “tends the light” like a mother a child, and opens Silver to the world of light, night, and storytelling. 

 


Metamorphosis juvenile fiction – The Animorphs

This ambling, direction-less lifestyle I currently lead is perfect in that if one plan fails, I make another, no problem : nobody to inform and nobody to decide but me. This is good because I have an endless supply of  inbred inconsiderateness that enjoys being exercised. I also have the time and the money to make my  decisions. Malaysia means being chauffered around and cooked for, and being completely guiltless about guiltlessly enjoying life with my parents’ money. But Singapore means a suddenly sky high transport fare and my own meals. Merely five days here have left me feeling vaguely penniless.

I went to sleep last early morning (2am) planning to spend a day biking by the beach, going as far and as fast as I wanted to. But it was drizzling when I woke up, and the mostly elderly population of Ang Mo Kio, usually given to sitting or walking around the blocks to while away the time, had quit the grounds for shelter. The cool wind and rain received me like the sky the lone eagle. It’s quite flattering, and rather gratifying, to be the only person being drizzled upon.

In view of saving the busfare, I walked to Bishan Public Library, which was pleasingly empty. There was something else I’d promised myself : that I’d return to these bookhavens and read to my heart’s content when my A levels were over. RI’s library won’t read my student card anymore, so I shall turn to public resources, which are reasonably decent.

What in the world, though, does any library intend to do with one Animorph book? How is anyone supposed to get a story out of one book in a series of fifty-four! The Animorph series reads a little like Francis’s Mindfuck in that the science-fiction elements are immediately follow-able and that the characters, like Val Toreth, are unforgettable. Animorphs might be abrupt and cliched at times, with the ‘deadpan one liner’ style characteristic of teenage urban fiction, but somehow, given the gritty, underground element to this story, it’s fitting and believable.  

“We can’t tell you who we are. Or where we live. It’s too risky, and we’ve got to be careful. Really careful. So we don’t trust anyone. Because if they find us … well, we just won’t let them find us. The things you should know is that everyone is in really big trouble. Yeah. Even you.”

A desperately outnumbered resistance force against the advancing Yeerk empire, five kids, Jake, Marco, Cassie, Rachel, Tobia, and one Andalite, Ax, have only two things on their side : anonymity, and the ability to morph into different animals. In spite of – or because of – the odds, they are hell bent on kicking ass, or on going down kicking ass. It is a kid’s book that’s exceptionally well crafted. Bar the appeal of morphing to any proper kid, and Animorphs is still highly enjoyable because the kids remain exactly that – kids. There is kid friendship, kid loyalty and kid bravado, and any regret, fear and anxiety is voiced but pushed aside, the way most kids do. The romances are minimal, bittersweet with the uncertainty of survival and the knowledge that their battle against the Yeerks comes first; no complicated love triangles (the Roswell series), no jarringly inappropriate ‘romantic developments’ (Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance trilogy has stellar examples of romance gone wrong) and no gratuitous declarations of love (Twilight). There is dissension, but ultimately they all remain loyal to Jake, accepting that his decisions are difficult and that he often has no choice. Very thankfully, there is no tiresome teenage squabbling (Harry Potter’s drearying malcontent), and no angst-riddled moralizing that often passes for ‘character development’.

Let kids be kids. All six Animorphs mature through the series, held together by a common understanding of the lives that they lead and the darkness they have had to face. I’d only read one book this time, but it was enough to remind me of a life that I’d forgotten how to live – one that is straighforward, focused, and above all, unrepentant.  Long live the Animorphs.


Fetching Titles – Mindfuck VS the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

 Disclaimer : The following content, and all other ‘book reviews’ that follow (although I do not claim any ability to review any book) is purely my own unenlightened opinion and may contain spoilers of mentioned books. No hard feelings. Comments are always welcome.

I suppose I’ve come to glance past, and even be prejudiced against, books with catchy titles, because of their tendency to disappoint. Off the top of my mind, I found Paulo Coelho’s The Witch of Portobello, complete with beautiful coverpage art, unremarkable and rather too diffusive to sustain interest, just like I found a majority of  my action/adventure/crime thriller reads nothing more than flashy titles and gratuitous excitement. Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, despite having been all over bookstore bestseller shelves, in the lists of book-club recommendations, and made into a Swedish movie, seemed to fall into the same category. Conspicuous title, fragmented blurb, and a strong suggestion, through the coverpage picture, of a badass, attractively no-holds-barred ‘anti-hero’ – all suggesting a book trying too hard.

Lisbeth Salander
Lisbeth Salander

Thus far, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has done little to impress – it is long-winded, disjointed, and unconvincing. The first problem might be my fault as an obsessively critical reader, but the latter two points uproot the appeal of Larsson’s novel almost entirely. Lisbeth Salanders’ “typically-unusual” combination of a dangerous, talented detective from unsavoury backgrounds, flawed but seemingly invulnerable, with a well honed survival instinct and don’t-fuck-with-me aura, is only superficially interesting…and unrealistically so. It seems implausible that Salanders’s employers, colleagues and friends are unquestionably devoted to her, as many readers seem to be. Plotwise, Larsson’s novel is loose and colourless, like a mismatched and unflattering outfit. There are too many things – murder, revenge, cyberhacking, complicated (and complicating) relationships – with insufficient linking and relevance. The development of setting was negligible, the description passable but repetitive. I have been told the book picks up, but having flipped to the later parts, I remain doubtful.

If there is one book that has more than lived up to its title, it has to be Mindfuck, a dystopian science fiction by Manna Francis. Incidentally, Mindfuck and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo both have intriguing but sociopathic protagonists. However, to compare Francis’s Val Toreth with Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander is to liken Hellsing’s Alucard to Twilight’s Edward Cullen. It simply is not done.

There are no bad guys or good guys. There are only better guys and worse guys.
One of the worse guys is Val Toreth. In a world in which torture is a legitimate part of the investigative process, he works for the Investigation and Interrogation Division, where his colleagues can be more dangerous than the criminals he investigates.

One of the better guys is Keir Warrick. His small corporation, SimTech, is developing a “sim” system that places users in a fully immersive virtual reality.
A minnow in a murky and dangerous pond, he is only beginning to discover how many compromises may be required for success.

Their home is the dark future dystopia of New London. A totalitarian bureaucracy controls the European Administration, sharing political power with the corporations. The government uses violence and the many divisions of the feared Department of Internal Security to maintain control and crush resistance. The corporations fight among themselves, using lethal force under the euphemism of “corporate sabotage,” uniting only to resist attempts by the Administration to extend its influence over them. Toreth and Warrick are more natural enemies than allies. But mutual attraction and the fight for survival can create unlikely bonds.

What Warrick (left) and Val Toreth (right) could look like

‘Fetching’ does not do this title justice. ‘Appalling’ would suit it better, or ‘forceful’. Mindfuck, both the title and the story, is intelligently written, is perfectly paced to both engage the the reader’s attention and bring to life the detailed, textured characters. I fell, hard, for Val Toreth, who is selfish, sadistic, and ruthless, but very lovable (sometimes hilariously so. He’s obsessed with his own skincare regime). His trying relationships with the two people who matter to him – his indisposable assistant Sara and the perfectionistic Keir Warrick – are deftly and expertly fleshed out by Francis. The sex is kinky and explicit, but suitably minimal and never gratuitous. There is nothing gratuitous about Francis’s writing; neither the angst nor the sex nor the violence, which is admirable control on the writer’s part. Manna Francis mesmerizes with this short, but potent – very potent – thriller. 

For a better review of Mindfuck, read “topandbottomreviews“. And for the other stories featuring Val Toreth and Warrick, visit Manna Francis’ website. My personal hedonistic favourites are “Boys Toys“, “Mirror mirror” and “Surprises.” Although, given the consistently superb quality of Francis’s writing, the printed books are extremely worth getting.