Book #36: Ptolemy’s Gate (2005)

20130711-193118.jpgauthor: Jonathan Stroud
reader: Steven Pacey
language: English
length: 9 hours 59 minutes
finished listening on: 5 July 2013

This was another audiobook that I listened to recently. I was a bit disappointed with the quality of the file itself and the service where I got it from, though, because it was confusingly labelled: it said both “unabridged” and “abridged” in the product description – and it turned out to be definitely abridged, sometimes missing whole chapters when I compared it with an ebook version. That was annoying. At first I thought that by saying “abridged” it just meant they were going to skip the footnotes, which would have been nice, but wasn’t actually what happened in the end. And now, just having looked again to check a couple of details for the top of this post, I’ve noticed that they have started offering an “unabridged” version, although it’s 15 hours rather than 10. There’s a completionist part of me that wants to go back and start again with an unabridged or printed version, which is annoying.

Anyway, as for the story itself, it’s a continuation of the previous books in the Bartimaeus series, which I have covered recently. The same three main characters are back, each alternately taking the point of view in different chapters. The narrator was quite good at this, speaking in a neutral tone for the third-person perspectives, and going into a thicker Londonesque accent for Bartimaeus’s first-person perspective, to show that he himself was narrating the chapters. It emulated the way the book was written nicely.

The story takes a closer look at Bartimaeus’s past – in the previous books, a relationship with an Egyptian named Ptolemy was repeatedly mentioned, and here that relationship is explored more thoroughly, showing a special bond between the demon character and that magician. Some of this relationship is told directly in flashback, while some is teased out by the other characters in various ways.

The other characters have also developed since the last novel – Nathaniel is now referred to consistently for most of the book by his alterego John Mandrake, suggesting that he’s fully taken on the role that the name Mandrake came to suggest in the previous novels, perhaps one of haughty obedience. He’s now still only 17 but is a high ranking cabinet minister (sounds delightful). The girl Kitty has herself taken on various alteregos to avoid detection by the police, and starts learning magic in order to summon Bartimaeus herself.

A lot more of Stroud’s world is explored in detail here. We learn about the “essence” of demons quite a lot – for example, Bartimaeus is kept in the real world by Nathaniel for fear that he will reveal his true name accidentally, and this saps his essence constantly. In his chapters he spends half of his energy complaining about this fact. When he’s sent on dangerous missions, he comes back unable to form into something more coherent than slime.

We learn a lot in this book about what’s possible under Stroud’s magical rules; from the previous books, we already know about binding demons in pentacles and commanding them as slaves, but here he explores new ways of summoning and controlling demons.

Plotwise, a new conspiracy arises out of a realisation from the end of the last book, from the same people who conducted the conspiracies that formed the bulk of the plot in the previous books, but it soon transpires that it’s not that clear – there are other conspiracies bubbling underneath. The magical MacGuffins that were the subjects of the two previous books come back into play and form an important part of the final act. At times, Stroud, as is perhaps typical of the part three of a trilogy, pretty much writes himself into a corner, as on more than one occasion, the characters find themselves in situations so severe that it’s actually incredibly difficult to predict how they’re going to get out of it, and I’m pretty sure a blatant deus ex machina was used more than once. This can work, or it can’t, and this book treads that fine line. Overall I’d say it managed it, but even though it did, Stroud went right back into writing himself into another corner, and that almost got tiresome. I think I feel there are ways that one can have suspense in a novel without it being a seemingly impossible situation all the time.

Again, the setting is nominally modern Britain, but it’s sometimes difficult to reconcile that with the backstory, in which the Empire still exists and America is a rebelling colony. Not enough is made of the “urban” part of the urban fantasy setting. They have cars, but that’s about it. I think if there’s anywhere this series could have been improved, it’s there. As readers, we should be shown that the setting is modern, rather than deducing it simply from the blurb.

The other thing I always found unrealistic was the age of the characters – only but teenagers – and while I suppose this is always going to be inevitable with young adult fiction, to go along with wish-fulfillment fantasies, having a 17-year-old be in charge of a whole sector of government stretches belief for me.

And if you liked the first two books, you should probably be forewarned that (while I don’t want to spoil anything) this book ends on quite a major downer. Or I suppose bittersweet.

It’s a fitting end to a great series, though – it’s just a shame that I had the abridged version and have this niggling desire to go back and fill in the gaps by reading it again, but I don’t think I want to just repeat the same book again. Maybe another time.

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TV: It Could Be Worse (2013)

icbw-season-finalecreators: Mitchell Jarvis & Wesley Taylor
language: English
length: 15 episodes about 6-10 minutes each (total 110 minutes)
mostly watched on: 22 June 2013

This was another gay-themed webseries set in New York that I discovered recently. They seem to be getting more and more popular recently. I think I either watched all the episodes on the same day or the first two or three one day and then the rest the next day, because they were all very short.

The plots of each episode tended to be quite simple, without much resolution in each one. The first episode exemplifies the title, “It Could Be Worse”, as the character’s situation steadily gets worse throughout the episode – I think he has to put up with his whiny, clingy boyfriend, and then finds out he has syphilis (a diagnosis which, as far as I can tell, was forgotten about for the rest of the series and was just played for laughs). Throughout the series, he’s established as a pushover and unable to express what he actually wants for himself. He’s very much one of those characters who I just wanted to shake sense into.

He is also an actor, and much of the series surrounds his life in the acting business – one which I’m not personally aware of much about, and one that I always feel is a little bit self-congratulatory when it is dealt with in media. So a lot of the series turned out to be uninteresting in that respect.

Many of the situations were somehow hyperreal, and this contrasted rather badly with the main character and his gay friends, who seemed like they could easily be real. For instance, there’s a drug-addicted agent who feels like a copy of the boss characters in “The IT Crowd”, and in one episode he gets fired for being drug-addicted – the main character, by this point well-established as a pushover, lets him stay at his apartment, at which point he sets up an office and starts giving yoga classes.

There’s an older diva actress who is the main part in the play that some of the story concerns. She’s likewise hyperreal and full of herself. Her husband looks exactly like Kevin Spacey, to the point where I was very surprised that it wasn’t actually him. His role in the story seems to just be “creepy”.

I didn’t know sometimes how much of the story was supposed to be comedy, to be honest, especially with regards to the actress and her husband. As I said, many of the episodes didn’t really have a proper ending, except just to lead into the next episode, and they sometimes felt non-sequitur. I’m quite glad that more of these series are popping up with gay main characters, so let’s have more of these, please, but perhaps let’s have characters who aren’t actors (or hipsters), because that’s unimaginative and uninteresting unless you’re also an actor.

TV: Orphan Black Season 1 (2013)

OrphanBlack-Blog-1-1024x576creators: Graeme Manson & John Fawcett
language: English (and a bit of French)
length: 10 episodes, 44 minutes each
finished watching on: 20 June 2013

I came across this show via tumblr, where I saw gifs of its gay side-character. I had a quick look at the premise – a woman discovers accidentally that she has genetic clones after an illegal experiment in the 1980s, and a whole conspiracy unravels around her. In many ways it was like the show “United States of Tara” (which I watched last year), in that one actress plays multiple characters, and there are gay side-characters, although at the same time almost completely different.

The main character is Sarah, who is impulsive and experienced in being underneath the law. Unlike her counterparts, she speaks with an English accent (although apparently she came to America at the age of 12, so I’m surprised she hasn’t lost that). She witnesses a woman who looks just like her committing suicide, and decides to pretend to die, and rob the woman’s purse in order to gain some cash quickly, although it doesn’t go to plan, mainly because the other woman was a cop, and she’s forced into rejoining the force in her place.

It escalates from there quite quickly – unlike other American productions, this has only 10 episodes, so character development and plot twists happen almost every episode. She meets other clones in the second episode, and by the end of the season at least 9 clones have been shown or mentioned. The actress who plays all the clones is particularly talented in this respect, as they all have very different personalities, despite being essentially identical twins. Many scenes consist of her having a conversation with herself, which must have been especially difficult to film and act.

The other characters were also great – Sarah’s adoptive brother is Felix, a flamboyant rent boy who lives in a grimy apartment, and like many gay characters, he gets all the best lines. Like her, he’s got a faux-British accent, which sometimes slips and sounds strange to my ears. I think the actors are Canadian. There was the Irish adoptive mother, and then the various other supporting characters too, like the police detective partner, who loses contact with the main character halfway through the season and starts to make his own headway into piecing together the conspiracy. Sarah’s clones are varied too – at least one of those is also gay and has a romantic storyline. Each has their own associates and friends, and it’s shown that some of them are there to spy on them. In the latter half of the season, we also meet the heads of an extreme, very cultish body and genetic modification project who are probably behind the whole conspiracy. And the series ends on a massive cliffhanger.

I enjoyed it a lot. I do have to pace myself, though; I watched something like 8 episodes at once, and then watched the final two the next morning before going to work. I should perhaps get more into the habit of finding shows that I want to watch and only watching one or two episodes at once, so that I can spread the enjoyment out and actually feel some excitement after the cliffhanger of every show. Since the season only finished recently, I now have to wait a year to find out what happens next, and I will probably forget about the series in that time! I mentioned this problem with the recent series of “How I Met Your Mother”, too, which I also pretty much watched in two days. The other problem with watching it all at once is that I then feel at a bit of a loss the next day because I still want to watch it. I now don’t know what I should watch next. But Breaking Bad should be coming out soon so maybe that’s the answer.

Book #35: Tales of the City (1980)

16255author: Armistead Maupin
read by: Frances McDormand
language: English
length: 459 minutes (7 hours 9 minutes)
finished listening on: 18 June 2013

This is actually another book I was given as a present a few years ago, but never got around to reading. Unlike “Neverwhere”, however, I didn’t actually bring it with me to Japan. Instead I downloaded it as an audiobook. It was read by Frances McDormand, whose name I recognized vaguely, but it took far too long for me to remember who she was and put a face to the name (she’s in Fargo and other Coen brothers movies). Because she has quite a harsh American accent and isn’t as talented at changing it for different characters as some other audiobook readers have been in my experience, it was quite a different feel to the last audiobook I listened to.

In any case, Tales of the City is set in San Francisco in the late 70s or early 80s, just as the AIDS crisis was about to hit. It mentions at least one character who was doomed to die, I assume from AIDS, but it doesn’t explicitly say so. It’s also one of those few books to contain gay characters, even if it’s just really one main character and some of his boyfriends. It contains a lot of characters, though, and it took me a while to get used to the onslaught of names to remember (this is more difficult when you’re listening because you have to try not to get distracted). In many ways it resembles a soap opera or something – the story mainly deals with their daily lives and is much more interested in the characters than in having any overarching plot common to them all.

“Tales” seems to have as part of its conceit named chapters without numbers – at least, that’s the way they were read to me. I guess the idea is that each one is a “tale of the city”. It’s also in the “serial novel” genre, with a great many sequels following. I should note at this point that I another book I read recently, “Boy Meets Boy”, did the same thing with its chapters – perhaps a subtle homage to this book? It’s possible!

Particularly regarding gay issues in the book, there are many that were not familiar to me, because I’m reading it thirty years later, but a lot of it was eerily similar, and I could certainly see parts of myself in the gay characters. Regarding other issues, there were a lot of pop culture references that I simply didn’t get because I wasn’t around at the time. But again, not as much as I’d have thought has changed – human relationships still basically work in the same way, Facebook notwithstanding.

As a whole, I enjoyed listening to it, and indeed looked forward to doing so, but a few weeks later writing this review I can remember very little of the plot. It was very transient in nature, gripping for a long enough time to want to keep going but not quite interesting enough to stay in the memory. The characters were all interesting in their own ways, but there were so many that I simply lost track. By the nature of the book, I would hear about one pair of characters one day and another the next, so information retention became difficult. But even so they were interesting, and I would perhaps like to try the sequels – but I have other priorities for the time being, so maybe as a future idea.

Book #34: Neverwhere (1996)

510J9VGDFPLauthor: Neil Gaiman
language: English
length: 372 pages
finished reading on: 9 June 2013

I’ve had a sense that Neil Gaiman was a good author ever since reading listening to Good Omens a couple of years back (the review is on here for those who’d like a bit of digging), but because he co-authored the book with Terry Pratchett, I thought I should read one of his own works. I bought this book in Edinburgh soon after finishing Good Omens, and I remember reading a few pages of it in the park. But I must have gotten distracted by something, and I hadn’t quite read enough pages to be hooked, and I ended up not reading any more of it at the time. Then I came to Japan last year without the book, and thus didn’t read it. Then when I went back to Scotland for Christmas I decided to take a couple of books back with me to Japan so that I could read them – among them was this one. This time, even reading just a little bit further than I had before I was hooked.

Apparently, Neverwhere was a TV show as well, so I’d probably better try and track that down. This book also has the distinction of being the only “director’s cut” edition I’ve ever read: it was actually published around 2001, not 1996, and was an amalgamation of the UK and US editions – the former having been published in a hurry to tie in with the TV show, and the latter having become too bloated by Gaiman adding back in too much detail. So occasionally the book contains phrases explicitly for the US audience, explaining perhaps that Oxford Street is the main shopping street in London, which seem superfluous and shoehorned in just because it was pointed out in the preface.

In Neverwhere, there exists a kind of parallel-universe underworld London, described as the place people go when they fall through the cracks. The hero of the book, Richard, finds himself in this world after he decides to help a girl lying in her own blood on the pavement, who turns out to be very important in the underworld, and has the name Door (spoiler alert: it’s meaningful). It’s variously described as magical, and often for real-world places there is an underworld counterpart, so that in Earl’s Court there’s actually an Earl and a Court (on an underground train) and in Blackfriars there are three black friars, and in Knightsbridge there is a bridge of ultimate night.

Sometimes his world wasn’t suitably described for my imagination, unfortunately. For example, I couldn’t work out whether the whole thing was set basically in tunnels – this was often not explicitly described. I couldn’t work out if “London Below” matched geographically with “London Above” or not – sometimes they seem to have to follow geographical lines, but sometimes they can skip across great distances without much effort, and come out of a door that isn’t normally there.

But most of the time, it was described vividly. Not a lot of information about the world is given at once – we are basically expected to work it out at the same rate as the main character – but a mythology builds up around him as the story progresses. For instance, there’s a “Floating Market” which takes place every so often in different locations, but nobody knows how the location is chosen, as it just goes round by word of mouth. In the story it takes place first in Harrod’s, then on the Cutty Sark, presumably so that they could give a tourist’s eye view of London in the TV show (they also visit the British Museum at one point). It’s implied that literally anything can be bought there, but they barter instead of using cash (I don’t know how that would work to be honest). London itself is described lovingly, as most media about the city seem to do. It makes it seem like a very desirable place to be.

There are strong hints that London Below is a metaphor for the people in the real world who fall through the cracks – drug addicts or homeless people, for instance. Residents of London Below are completely invisible to others unless they talk directly at them and even then, it’s fleeting. The main character has a scene halfway through in which he sees a version of himself as a guy who just disappeared and went off the rails for a few weeks, instead of galavanting around an imaginary parallel London. In the story it’s actually a hallucination, but then it’s challenging which one is real and which isn’t.

Anyway, where the descriptions of the setting sometimes failed to capture me, the characters certainly didn’t – each has their role and a distinctive personality. Sometimes these fall squarely into tropes – Croup and Vandemar, the bad guys, are one such example, as they neatly fit the idea of one brainless strong guy and one guy who thinks he’s clever. But pretty much all of them are well thought out, and I enjoyed reading about them.

So it was good, in general. I just need to decide which book to read next. I’ve heard a lot about his comic books such as “Sandman”, too, maybe those? I’d just have to find them cheaply, though; they’re over $20 in the stores here.

Film #87: Only Yesterday (1991)

only-yesterday_592x299aka: おもひでぽろぽろ (Omohide poro-poro)
director: Isao Takahata
language: Japanese
length: 118 minutes
watched on: 5 June 2013

I’m still filling in the gaps in my Ghibli coverage, and this is one of the final ones (although I still haven’t watched “Grave of the Fireflies”). Predictably, I had good reason to miss it out, because it really wasn’t anything special. Like the other Ghibli films I watched recently, it’s set in high school and deals with domestic situations a lot more than the other films, which are more magical (this has only a hint of metaphorical magic at the end).

The main character is a youngish woman, apparently 29, although she was drawn with lines on her face that made her look older than that. She goes on holiday to visit family somewhere in the countryside in Tohoku. Her problem is that she can’t stop thinking about her 5th-grade self, and comparing situations she finds in the countryside to what happened to her in 5th grade. So most of the film is sort of told in flashback.

I guess I just found it kinda boring in general. The segments about family life in the 70s were interesting (for instance, they buy a pineapple but nobody knows how to eat it, and then everyone finds it inedible anyway), but not very relatable for me. For some reason she’s obsessed with her little failures, like not understanding maths, and her father is so typically-Japanese in his emotional distance that it’s almost comical (and for some reason, being barefoot outside is the worst possible sin?).

The country setting, incidentally, reminded me a lot of “Wolf Children”. Japanese mountains all look the same, basically. The film does examine the main character’s tendency to romanticize the countryside, and I found that interesting. She considers living there, but then realizes she’s only ever seen it in the summer, and being there in the winter might be unbearable.

Also, I’m not sure what’s going on with the title – I’ve seen it written down as “omoide” rather than “omohide” following the hiragana… is “omohide” an old-style spelling? The Japanese title is more interesting, anyway: it basically means memories come tumbling down, or something like that.

From what I can tell, this seems to be typical of Takahata’s work – much more grounded in “reality” than Miyazaki’s – but in that case I prefer Miyazaki’s work. It also just didn’t have quite enough memorable moments – there’s one gif I’ve seen floating around on the internet, but it’s from the final closing scenes.