Book #87: The Casual Vacancy (2012)

61gz0etPJoL._SL300_Author: J.K. Rowling
Language: English
Length: 1069 minutes (17 hours, 49 minutes)
Finished listening on: 9 June 2015

After a five-year hiatus, this was the first book that J.K. Rowling published after Harry Potter, and it’s one that came out during my first year in Japan, so I missed it when it came out. Having actually caught up with Rowling’s more recent murder mysteries, that came out under a pseudonym and have previously been reviewed on this website, I thought I should actually get around to this one too.

The Casual Vacancy seems to be the book that Rowling has been denied the chance to write during her time writing Harry Potter; while Potter does get very dark towards the end of the series, it sticks to the fantastic, but the book attempts to cram in as many adult themes as its pages can withstand – things such as poverty, drugs and teenage pregnancy.

It struck me as I was reading this that I’ve recently seen or read a lot of things romanticizing small-town life in America, and this, as a depiction of small-town life in middle England, is anything but. It’s as if Rowling decided she wanted to write a full novel about the Dursleys. It’s full of class posturing, snide remarks, and backstabbing.

The central plot is that a councilman from a parish council dies suddenly of a brain haemorrhage. The rest of the village’s residents start competing for the place on the council – this is important because the dead man was a key figure in a long-running dispute over whether to try and hand back a rundown council estate to the neighbouring city. It’s pretty inconsequential, and yet not that easy to describe the plot. It’s like car crash porn for those who like feeling smug that their lives aren’t so sad that they’d have to care about such things.

The book has no central character (again, perhaps a deliberate departure from Harry Potter), and often jumps confusingly between characters’ perspectives, sometimes even for only a few paragraphs. The closest thing to a central character is Krystal, the bright daughter of a heroin addict on the estate, who is used as a pawn by the councillors and whose arc the book is most primarily concerned with. The next closest is perhaps Andrew, a boy with an abusive father who starts sabotaging his father’s council bid by hacking into the website, kickstarting another major subplot. Among the adult characters, however, there is no particular identifiable focus, which I believe is a shame.

I think that criticism can then be extended to the rest of the book – in particular, I already mentioned the lack of focus in theme. Not an awful lot happens in the book – there is a lot of character drama, which Rowling does write very well, and it eventually leads to a climax at the end. But I do think this style of jumping between characters would be more suited to a soap opera – and fittingly, the book was apparently adapted into a miniseries by the BBC (again I completely missed this by living abroad).

Ultimately I think it was important for Rowling to write this book. She puts a lot of her own life into the book – the stuff about the extreme poverty and being on benefits is directly from her experiences, after all – and I feel like she’d been itching to write about adult themes. I think this book allowed her to get that out of her system and write better books, like the Cormoran Strike books. And that’s not to say this wasn’t good. But I know she can do better.

Film #148: I Killed My Mother (2009)

jai_tue_ma_mereaka: J’ai tué ma mère
Director: Xavier Dolan
Language: French
Length: 96 minutes
Watched on: 22 May 2015

This film is rather famous now among gay films – indeed, it’s got a sex scene in the middle that, while tame, involves a lot of paint and is pretty much iconic by now. Naturally this piqued my curiosity enough to pick it up when I was rifling through some DVDs back in the UK (on which note – it was nice that most bookshops and DVD stores there now seem to have an LGBT section, something I’ve discovered a grand total of once in Japan).

Not knowing that much about Xavier Dolan before watching this, I was a little surprised to discover that he was the first-time director and twinkish lead of the movie. And if this movie is any reflection on Dolan himself, he’s got serious mommy issues, as if the title of the movie didn’t clue you in on that already. As a side note, I’ve noticed that his latest movie, straightforwardly named Mommy, still seems to be dealing with similar themes.

Dolan’s character’s sexuality is also very incidental to the story – a fact that I’d find ground-breaking had it not made the film forever pigeonholed as a “gay movie”. It’s a shame really, although taking into account that it’s French-Canadian, it probably wouldn’t have much widespread appeal anyway.

Basically, then, the whole movie is the teenage main character throwing shade and having explosive arguments with his controlling mother, and ranting in his diary about how much he hates her. I got bored of his character quite quickly, if I’m honest – he came across as whiny and self-centred. She doesn’t come off any better, though. As a portrayal of teenage life, I guess it has a grain of truth, but can’t be something to aspire to.

So, realistic enough but with annoying characters, but still I think what will and perhaps should bring anyone to the movie is the gay stuff, which is a side plot – at the same time, I think it’s a strong first feature, especially from someone the same age as me, and I think it can and should have wider appeal than the gay stuff. On balance I’d recommend it.

TV: Brooklyn Nine-Nine, season 2 (2015)

brooklyn-nine-nine_612x380Creators: Dan Goor and Michael Schur
Language: English with some French
Length: 23 episodes, roughly 22 minutes each
Finished watching on: 22 May 2015

Brooklyn Nine-Nine was a new contender in the TV scene last year, coming in with a strong first season. Its second season is a worthy continuation of that. The writing is tight and the jokes come fast and readily, helped in no small part by the excellent comedic timing of its actors.

As a sitcom, there isn’t a whole lot in the way of overarching plot, although there is more this time around than in the first season. As a result, each story seems a bit disjointed, and no one story is particularly memorable. But overall it’s an enjoyable series and something that’s easy to look forward to after a long day at work.

Also since it’s a sitcom, character development is pretty limited and usually serves to emphasize the characters’ distinctive traits – but it’s worth noting that enough real character development is done to keep the series feeling a bit fresh, even if occasionally I got the feeling that the lessons characters were learning by the end of the episode were just going to be forgotten by the next.

I was pleased with this season, in any case – I’ll be continuing to watch it next year. In fact it should be starting again in September, so I have something to look forward to.

Book #86: Bear, Otter, and the Kid (2011)

BearOtter&KidAudMEDAuthor: T.J. Klune
Language: English
Length: 740 minutes (12 hours 20 minutes)
Finished listening on: 5 May 2015

I put this book off for a long time, despite having seen it in the gay fiction sections of Amazon and Audible repeatedly. A lot of that is to do with Sturgeon’s law regarding diminishing returns: ninety percent of gay fiction is awful. Plus, this book has a really bad title, as if the author sat down to write a clickbait title. How do we attract gay people to this book? I know, let’s make the main characters have nicknames that are straight out of gay culture and refer to their body type! But it was getting good reviews, has two sequels, and is popular enough to justify recording as an audiobook (to be fair, this isn’t much of an indicator, but it can act as a weak litmus test), so I gave it the benefit of the doubt and went for it.

The title’s explanation turns out to be rather unsatisfactory, as well, because the titular characters Bear and Otter, despite being named after gay body types, are nothing of the sort. A quick primer in case you’re clueless about gay male culture and still reading this: a bear is a very hairy and probably chubby and/or muscular man, and an otter is hairy and thin or younger than a bear – it’s the middle ground between a bear and a twink (a bear’s polar opposite, a young hairless guy). Why gay men have to name and compartmentalize body types in such a way I will never know – it frustrates me – but rest assured they have a standard meaning, so when the characters here are described and they’re nothing like their namesakes, it’s confusing at best. Indeed if anything, they’re the opposite, as Otter is the large burly one who is older. The names are supposed to be misheard by a younger character, then become the nickname of the older character.

The Kid is fairly self-explanatory, though, to a degree. It seems to be a standard-ish arc of stories about gay families that the main character becomes the custodian of a young child (usually with some degree of unwillingness, to preserve a sense of conflict in the story). In this case, Bear (actually Derrick, and called Bear after his brother mispronounces his name) comes into custodianship of his brother Tyson after his mother ups and leaves. The gay aspect comes in a bit later as Bear finds out he’s in love with Otter (actually Oliver, and so named because Bear misheard his name as a kid too) and goes through something of an explosive coming out process.

It’s funny how I seem to end up reading stories of parental abandonment (I wonder what that says about me?) – there are some very obvious parallels that I can draw with Hirokazu Koreeda’s Nobody Knows, which I watched this year, with the mother leaving her children, or the book with the long title by Dave Eggers that I listened to last year, in which a young man has to raise his significantly younger brother after the death of his parents – except both of those are true stories. More directly looking at the gay side, many people reviewing this book on other sites pointed out that the plot is almost exactly the same as the film Shelter, although I haven’t seen that, so I’ll offer the Spanish film Bear Cub, or Cachorro, which also has a similar plot and actually features real gay bears.

Now that the basic plot background is out of the way, I have to point out that the book is fundamentally flawed in a few ways. It’s told from the first-person perspective of Bear, who has a lot of angst during pretty much all the book, and as a result it uses a lot of rambling stream of consciousness (though not to the degree of the aforementioned Eggers book, which was basically one long confusing stream). Bear’s conscience is basically another character referred to mysteriously as “it”, taunting his actions from the sidelines. The story itself is a bit confusingly told too – I think the author attempts to use the technique of in medias res at the beginning, but it doesn’t work well, and thereafter, there’s a lot of jumping back and forth. The audiobook presentation, I should add, helped a lot with some of these problems, as it gave the impression of the main character having a conversation with me. I think I’d be less forgiving if I was just reading this normally.

Then without intending to spoil too much, there’s a poor third-act twist involving the return of Bear and Ty’s mother and a rather poor justification for an eleventh-hour crisis of confidence in the relationship. This is the standard story trope, and I don’t blame the author for using it, but there are good and bad ways to do it, and this book picked the wrong one. In general I found a lot of the storyline decisions unrealistic, perhaps because I was convinced that if everyone in the story just sat down and talked about it honestly, there’d be no problem.

So in that and many other ways (like I’m always a bit wary of someone having a “single target” sexuality, and Bear constantly protests, especially at the beginning, that he’s not “like that”), the book is flawed, or at least gives the distinct impression of a first-time author still trying to find his feet. What kept me going with the book – and incidentally, kept me hungry for more in the firm of the sequels – were the characters. Without exception they were lovable, especially the Kid, who is a wise beyond his years clever brat. The characters and the situations far outweighed the poor writing style. For example, Bear’s inner monologue may have been annoying after a while, but I could find a lot of myself in that character, and even after I put it down, I was anxious to know that he’d be okay. It also feeds into a recurring joke where the monologue comes spilling out, to the confusion of all around him. Such light comedy interspersed with drama is the way this book goes, and in that aspect it’s definitely strong.

I also have to quickly mention that I enjoyed very much the idea of making your own family, the main theme of the book. I guess I feel that I haven’t quite got to that stage of life yet, where the line between friends and family is blurred, so I liked setting such a depiction in gay fiction.

So I don’t know what it is that does it, but these characters and this storyline manage to get under your skin and stay in your thoughts long after they’ve finished. With the caveat that writing needs some polish, I definitely have to recommend this book to anyone who’d be interested. Give it a try!

Book #84: Stardust (1998)

stardustAuthor: Neil Gaiman
Language: English
Length: 382 minutes (6 hours 22 minutes)
Finished listening on: 15 April 2015

Oops… what with a family wedding recently I’ve kind of let this hobby slide. And maybe it’s only me who cares, but I actually finished this before the last book I reviewed, and somehow they got mixed up. At least the number is correct! It’s been a while, so welcome back everyone.

Today I’m going to think about the book Stardust by Neil Gaiman. Stardust was previously a movie that I watched on a plane a couple of years ago on a whim having known nothing about it. This time it was also a reintroduction of sorts to audiobooks, as I renewed my subscription to Audible again recently (managing somehow to grab a three month half price deal).

First off I want to say that it’s disappointing that there were no cross-dressing pirates in the book – there were pirates though, at least. In fact, I think the same goes for a lot of this: it’s that rare book that suited being made into a film, as that lent it a particular visual style that it didn’t have in the written form.

I’m sure that Gaiman’s descriptions are perfectly adequate, but the book was pretty short and has somewhat of a road trip structure to it, as the characters travel across the land of Fairy, so it darts around very quickly between different scenes and situations, without pausing much for breath.

Of course, the book does allow an insight to the characters’ minds that a film doesn’t afford its viewers, and basically it was fine. I think I possibly understand why this book and movie aren’t so well known or aren’t Gaiman’s most popular, however, and I guess that’s how cutesy it is. The saccharine central relationship almost got a bit much, and the main character insufferable for being unable to detect it.

As a piece of fantasy, incidentally, I think it works very well. I’d recommend reading it, overall. Whatever flaws it has are mitigated by the short length.