Saturday, October 1, 2016

Gaiman Gala

Last fall as I was rereading American Gods in anticipation of my first visit to House on the Rock since I last went right out of high school I thought once again how much I associate this time of year with the works of Neil Gaiman. He is among a handful of authors, including Shirley Jackson and Stephen King, who I think are mandatory reading for October. I had once or twice in the past toyed with the idea of doing an October theme month dedicated to this great author but I never seemed to get around to it. With all the hype surrounding American Gods finally becoming a television show, helmed by that genius of televisual geniuses, Bryan Fuller, now seemed the precise time when a celebration was in order. But not your typical celebration, instead a true gala. Gone are the expected reviews and star ratings, in their place are going to be remembrances and toasts! I, along with my friends, are going to raise a glass to that most unique of authors and I hope you will join us. Here's to Neil Gaiman! Hip hip hooray let's dance the Macabray!

Friday, September 30, 2016

Book Review - Jacques Tardi's It Was the War of the Trenches

It Was the War of the Trenches by Jacques Tardi
Published by: Fantagraphics
Publication Date: 1993
Format: Hardcover, 120 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy

With three horizontal panels per page we are given graphic snapshots, little glimpses into the lives and deaths of the French soldiers in the trenches during World War I. Some are given names, some die unremarked. Their bodies strewn across no man's land effecting morale. Their poignant struggles to survive sometimes highlighted by the words of greater authors. Binet sees his comrade in arms Faucheux go into no man's land and not return. During his few days leave away from the front he can't help but think of what happened to Faucheux. When Binet returns to the front he foolishly goes in search of Faucheux and meets his same fate, death at the hands of the Bosches. But at least dying at the hands of the enemy isn't as ignominious as being executed by your own men. Killed because you were scared or just didn't understand or they assumed you were colluding with the enemy. Or even shelled by your own country as a reprisal for cowardice, to stop a mass retreat. In that instance instead of the entire division being killed three random men were singled out to die for the greater good. Survival is the only thing that matters, as rats become a delicacy, only to later have the rats feast on the flesh after a shell takes out the trench and all its men. Some, like Bouvreuil, think of his wife and the future, but the truth is you have to have the will to survive, to not run into no man's land and get the fate you think you deserve. Gas, death, injury, all the peoples of the world dying in those trenches.

Years ago because of my burgeoning interest in Steampunk someone recommended that I read Jacques Tardi's Adele Blanc-Sec books. Seeing as only the first four adventures, released in two volumes, have been translated into English and published, this was a near futile endeavour. Yet I still picked up those available stories and what's odd is the lasting image I have isn't anything to do with the plot but when the author would break the fourth wall to comment to the audience. In one of these comments he very angrily states that you, the reader, probably don't know what's going on because no one read his other book, The Arctic Marauder, and that was integral to the plot. I'm sorry, but breaking the forth wall to lecture me on a book I did eventually read to see if it shown any light on the previously read book isn't kosher. Maybe people didn't like the book and that's why it didn't sell? It's just not cool to lecture and berate your readers. Ever. Sometimes when reading an author's writing you get this instinct that you would not like them in real life and they are quite possibly really jerks. I get this feeling from Tardi, much like I did from Orson Scott Card. I was hoping that in going to a book so outside the themes of his books I have read that I might see another side to him. Nope. He's still angry and bitter and his books just ooze rage.

The thing is, you'd think that the rage would work in his favor in a comic that is basically a diatribe against war. The whole "rage, rage against the dying of the light." The senselessness of war. The unnecessary death. Instead it works against the comic. It Was the War of the Trenches is just so pessimistic and outwardly hostile. The conscripted solider is an outlet for the rage so that you come to hate any character introduced. Tardi has written many books on World War I and while he is obsessed with this topic I might also put forward that he is a little jaded by it as well. Everyone, even the innocent soldier in the trenches is a target for him. But the truth is he actually doesn't show many "innocent" soldiers. Most of the characters he concentrates on seem to underscore the fact that man is a hateful being who is willing to kill and connive to survive. He will kill his own, he will kill police that piss him off. He will use the war as a great equalizer, a way to settle scores, and all the while he will inexplicably hate the countryside. And I'm not sure if Tardi was trying to say that war made them into this or they were this way to begin with. Because it's a pretty bleak outlook on life to think that man's nature is to kill and war, despite all it's horrors, allows him to revel while suffering. But perhaps this is just another reason why Tardi and I would never get along.

One problem with graphic novels is that there needs to be a strong visual with a connection to the text. I feel like It Was the War of the Trenches failed on both fronts. One reason the visuals might have been flat to me is that given the age of this comic, written over the eighties, the bounds of what could be done visually had not really been stretched yet. So this story is told in a very traditional way. Other issues I have are that the complete black and white nature of the book lacks visual interest, how about a spot color every now and then? Also, a complaint I've made about his books before, all the men look the same! So how can I tell who is who if he doesn't bother to show that? Though it was the writing that really let down this book. I don't know if it was the translation that effected it so or Tardi's writing style evolving over time, but it was oddly written, almost stilted. Skipping from the first to the third person randomly was annoying, but the writing itself was simplistic. It wasn't like it was purposefully being written for child, but more like the writer was talking down to you, something that I think is unforgivable. The prose starts to gel about half-way through the book, my guess is that it's at exactly the part where it's the newer text. It becomes more concise, more clear, and I have a feeling that the first person narrator might just be Tardi's grandfather, or someone that is representing Tardi's grandfather, like an avatar. So at least that solved the first person mystery.

In the end you can see glimpses of the jumbled narrative almost working. Like the avatar of his grandfather bringing a more through line to the comic, there are instances where the book works. Where Tardi is able to take complex concepts and hone them to just one page. Succinct ideas that could be expanded on to make the book have a more sure footing. There is this undercurrent of war being the decision of the many, of the countries, not of the individuals who given a chance, one-on-one, could work it out. This is highlighted by the military industrial complex shown in the first few panels of the book. War is there to breed innovation and profit with humans being nothing more than coal to fuel this progress. In all Tardi's jumbled asides about war being used for vengeance, for death, for destruction, underneath is the real purpose of war, progress through death. The world changed because of this war, and in a jumbled way Tardi gets this across. The world changed not just because of the amount of death and destruction but from what emerged from the war. Much like how the nuclear bomb would forever change warfare in World War II, World War I changed the world. Therefore there's a part of me that thinks this book has merit in that behind the curtain it gets to the nub. But then I think, what if you were teaching this book to students? At first I thought, yes, it would be a good introduction, but the more I thought on how steeped in anger and rage this book is that the historical horror would be lost among the overriding emotions of the author, no matter how justified they are.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Movie Review - War Horse

War Horse
Based on the book by Michael Morpurgo
Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Matt Milne, David Thewlis, Robert Emms, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Patrick Kennedy, David Kross, Celine Buckens, Niels Arestrup, Nicolas Bro, Toby Kebbell, Julian Wadham, Liam Cunningham, Eddie Marsan, and Pip Torrens
Release Date: December 25th, 2011
Rating: ★★
To Buy

Young Albert Narracott's dreams come true when his father, drunken and surly, outbids their landlord for a young colt. The Narracott's were in desperate need of a plow horse but Albert has spent months watching the young colt grow, spying through the various fences of Devon, and knows that he can train him because they were destined to be together. Against all odds Albert succeeds only to lose his horse, Joey, because their crop failed and his father had no other recourse, drunk and bitter from the Boer War, he sells Joey. Another war has begun and Joey is sold to a Captain James Nicholls, an upstanding solider who promises to return Joey to Albert after the war. Albert begs to accompany Captain Nicholls but is too young to join up. Tearfully he promises Joey that they will be reunited. In France Joey a has steep learning curve, especially when it comes to being around other horses. But he quickly bonds with Major Jamie Stewart's black stallion and the two are inseparable, even as their riders are mowed down by German gunfire they remain together behind enemy lines. It is a long war and soon Albert is old enough and enlists and is stationed abroad. Will he find Joey or will they forever be separated?

War Horse, by it's episodic nature following Joey through all his adventures is reminiscent of Black Beauty. Therefore you could basically call this film Black Beauty Goes to War. The problem with this kind of storytelling is that you really have to be invested in the character of the horse. And while the horse who played Joey could easily be singled out as one of the best actors in the film, it still didn't make this film work. The main problem I had was that the film seemed to be taking it's subject matter too lightly. This could be seen in every frame with the overly perfect shutters and thatching on the Narracott's overly large farmhouse to the goose being used as comic relief. I don't think that Spielberg got the memo that England is supposed to be a little gloomy and run down. Instead he artifically lit most scenes, seriously, look at the two light sources in almost every scene! Oh, and that spotlight on Emily Watson when she leans out the window? What the hell? This was the best lit war EVER! The problem with this is that it literally felt like you were watching Babe or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, forever waiting for the animals to start talking or a Teletubby to wander by. I would also totally recommend those films before this one.

This overall stylization makes for a very sanitized Disneyfication of World War I. Yes, I know the lack of blood and the cunning use of windmill blades was to secure that ever important family friendly PG-13 rating to make this the holiday film of 2011, but still... why? Why the hyper exaggerated colors? Why this muted horror? Why tone down The Great War!?! This is an event that forever changed the world and this movie almost makes light of it. Yes, there are moments that pull on your heartstrings, but I don't think it gets across any important message that could be said about this war. If you wanted to really make this film right, don't pull punches. I mean, would you ever seriously imagine the director of Schindler's List pulling punches? This film could have opened up a dialogue with the younger generations who didn't know about the war and everyone could sit around sipping eggnog and discussing the atrocities. Instead it focuses on the more "romantic" nature of the war, wherein instead of soldiers putting down their weapons on Christmas and meeting in no man's land to have a sing-a-long and a game of football they all unite to save Joey from the barbed wire, even with comedic throwing of wire cutters. There shouldn't be comedic throwing of wire cutters people!

Speaking of the comedy... this film highlights the fact that comedy shouldn't be banned from the saga of war, just look to Blackadder! Comedy can be used if done right. Which is why I must hang my head in bafflement that this film was co-written by the co-writer of Blackadder! Richard Curtis! YES! I was just as shocked as you are, I'm assuming you're shocked here by the way. I couldn't believe that a man who handled the first world war with such insight, such nuance, could produce this schmaltz. SHAME ON YOU RICHARD CURTIS! You have let the schmaltz take over. Let's look to your IMDB credits shall we? Comedic and insightful genius through the eighties, I particularly love The Tall Guy and Rowan Atkinson's performance in that. The nineties are a little rockier, I hate Mr. Bean but my love of The Vicar of Dibley outshines anything because it's one of my favorite shows ever. The turn of the century started off strong with Bridget Jones's Diary and then it quickly went to hell in a handbasket. Love Actually, yes I know I'm alone in my hatred of that but I can't be alone in my hatred of the Bridget Jones sequel! Oh, and The Girl in the Cafe! You Richard Curtis have turned into some sort of romantic bleeding heart that has to have a "message" in their work. What happened to the quality of the work emphasizing the message versus the work being solely about the message? You have failed me sir, and you have failed War Horse.

Because the thing is, everyone I know who has read the book or seen the stage adaptation has been moved by the brilliance of War Horse. This wasn't brilliant, unless you are talking about the lighting. You can kind of glimpse what made the book stand out if you look for it. What I did find interesting was that by tracking Joey's journey we get to see the war from both sides. It's kind of like he is a prisoner of war, yet the English, aside from the stalwart Captain Nicholls, are just as barbarous and uncaring to their animals as the Germans. So buried deep there is the message hidden from sight that despite their differences, despite being on different sides, both sides are the same, just young boys being killed by the great war machine that cares little for them or animals. So I guess I could say it was nice that this wasn't all one-sided? We saw not very nice Englishmen, and some very nice Germans. And that poor French girl and her grandfather did a nice job representing those caught in-between the conflict. So, I guess what I'm trying to get at is that all the pieces where kind of there, just put together in such a way that the whole didn't work. It was too jumbled, too scattered, too toned down, too saccharine. And the thing is, the movie has kind of turned me off ever wanting to see the play or read the book and what if they really are as brilliant as people say? Then I'm just losing out because of some misguided desire of Spielberg's to make another war movie, but this time for the whole family.

I also can not lie about the fact that I really had to see this movie eventually because of the Hiddles/Cumberbatch confluence. Now, I'm not trying to be biased here, there are performances of theirs I haven't liked so I'm not always fawning on them. Hiddles was in that awful A Waste of Shame and was in the abysmal Cranford sequel, and I can not forget the mess that was High-Rise. As for Benedict... avoid Tipping the Velvet, Starter for 10, Atonement, and all those "Hobbit" but not really The Hobbit movies. Oh, and Parade's End! So when I say they were a highlight of this film I'm NOT playing favorites. But their appearances were more bitter than sweet, because for just a second you could see what this movie might have been. They are true actors, they fully physically embody the characters they play. In fact Benedict's performance as Major Jamie Stewart was fabulous because I one hundred percent hated him. The brusque voice, the posture where it always looked like he had a stick up his ass. This wasn't Benedict in all his goofiness, this was Major Stewart, and he could have been an interesting character if given more screen time. As for the naivety that Hiddles brought to Captain James Nicholls, the ability of him to show the horror of the realization that he is about to die using just his eyes... perhaps the most touching and real moments in this entire film. And there's not much reality to be had here.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Tuesday Tomorrow

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo
Published by: Henry Holt and Co.
Publication Date: September 27th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 560 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Kaz Brekker and his crew have just pulled off a heist so daring even they didn't think they'd survive. But instead of divvying up a fat reward, they're right back to fighting for their lives. Double-crossed and badly weakened, the crew is low on resources, allies, and hope. As powerful forces from around the world descend on Ketterdam to root out the secrets of the dangerous drug known as jurda parem, old rivals and new enemies emerge to challenge Kaz's cunning and test the team's fragile loyalties. A war will be waged on the city's dark and twisting streets―a battle for revenge and redemption that will decide the fate of the Grisha world."

Anyone else think duologies are cool because you don't have to wait as long for the full story? Just me?

A Change of Heart by Sonali Dev
Published by: Kensington
Publication Date: September 27th, 2016
Format: Paperback, 352 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Dr. Nikhil 'Nic' Joshi had it all—marriage, career, purpose. Until, while working for Doctors Without Borders in a Mumbai slum, his wife, Jen, discovered a black market organ transplant ring. Before she could expose the truth, Jen was killed.

Two years after the tragedy, Nic is a cruise ship doctor who spends his days treating seasickness and sunburn and his nights in a boozy haze. On one of those blurry evenings on deck, Nic meets a woman who makes a startling claim: she received Jen’s heart in a transplant and has a message for him. Nic wants to discount Jess Koirala’s story as absurd, but there’s something about her reckless desperation that resonates despite his doubts.

Jess has spent years working her way out of a nightmarish life in Calcutta and into a respectable Bollywood dance troupe. Now she faces losing the one thing that matters—her young son, Joy. She needs to uncover the secrets Jen risked everything for; but the unforeseen bond that results between her and Nic is both a lifeline and a perilous complication.

Delving beyond the surface of modern Indian-American life, acclaimed author Sonali Dev’s page-turning novel is both riveting and emotionally rewarding—an extraordinary story of human connection, bravery, and hope."

I got to see Sonali speak at an event back in February that I went to for Lauren Willig and have been meaning to pick up one of Sonali's books since then. Actually I would have gotten one at the event, but really rude booksellers tend to put you off. But now there's this shiny new book that looks really good. Can not wait.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Book Review - Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden's Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire

Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden
Published by: Spectra
Publication Date: August 28th, 2007
Format: Hardcover, 304 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Captain Henry Baltimore led a night attack in the Ardennes that would forever change the world. As his entire battalion is cut down he survives the initial onslaught but is left to die with a leg wound. Out of the night sky comes large bat-like creatures, carrion eaters to feast on the dead. But there's something not right about them. One sees Baltimore and decides that he will be his feast. Lashing out Baltimore injures the creature but in return the creature destroys his leg. Later in hospital, a man appears beside his bed, and Baltimore knows he's one and the same to the creature on that battlefield. This "man" tells Baltimore that he knows not what he has done and the world will pay for the injury Baltimore inflicted on him. After this incident there are three people that Baltimore confides this story to, his three friends; Captain Demetrius Aischros, Thomas Childress, and Dr. Lemuel Rose. They know not of each other until one night when Baltimore asks them to meet him in a pub whose air of decrepitude and despair matches that of the rest of the world since the plague took hold and the Great War became of no consequence in the face of this new threat.

There they sit, waiting for Baltimore. In the interim they tell their stories because it is obvious that in order to have believed Baltimore's story, without hesitation, they too must have had some experience of this supernatural evil that walks the earth. Dr. Rose, besides treating Baltimore, also treated a man who believed he was responsible for the death of all the men he was stationed with. Dr. Rose couldn't believe this to be the case, but after a night in the woods keeping watch, believing Baltimore later was a given. Captain Aischros helped escort Baltimore home after he was invalided out of the war, if he wasn't convinced by what he saw on Baltimore's island home he was by an experience years earlier. Aischros recounts a tale from his youth when he was walking the coast of Italy and came upon the town of Cicagne, famed for their puppet shows, and barely escaped with his life. Childress is the last to tell his tale, having grown up with Baltimore on Trevelyan Island, he knew Baltimore all his life, but it was an incident while working for his own father's company in Chile that opened his eyes. They talk and wait hours, the pub becoming oppressive. They aren't sure if Baltimore is going to show, but they feel the final battle with the monster from that day in the Ardennes is at hand.

If you are a fan of good art and good storytelling then the only explanation for not knowing who Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden are would be that you've spent the last few decades under a rock. While I knew of them individually, in fact meeting Christopher Golden at a Buffy the Vampire Slayer Convention in upstate New York and fangirling over his videogame script, it was in a roundabout way that I learned about Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire. Before I started this blog I was very cunning in getting press passes for events. In February of 2007 I was supposed to go to the New York Comic Con with a friend of mine but the train from Chicago to New York was snowbound and the trip was cancelled because I wouldn't be able to make it in time. I insisted that my friend go and meet Christopher Golden knowing she would love him as much as me and it so happened that he was signing posters for a new collaboration with Mike Mignola. I still have the signed poster on my office wall next to my computer. Beautifully enlarged drawings from Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire of the church in Reveka and the church interior at Cicagne, and a weeping angel that would forever slightly freak me out after the Doctor Who episode "Blink" aired later that year. THIS I knew was a book written and illustrated just for me.

What is interesting about these two authors collaborating is that both are very familiar with vampires. Mike Mignola worked on the inadvertently hilariously awesome Bram Stoker's Dracula as well as Blade II, and the Angel comics. Whereas Christopher Golden, besides writing the scripts for both Buffy the Vampire Slayer Video Games also wrote comics and books for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. So their individual and combined vampire street cred could hardly be surpassed. But what struck me so much about this book was that it wasn't just a way to shoehorn vampires into the first world war, a time when these opportunistic creatures could flourish, instead it was almost a reinvention of the vampire for a new generation. They were carrion eaters awoken by the violence of men further spurred onto creating a destructive plague by violence against one of their own, The Red King. They lived in a symbiotic relationship with man, feeding off their dead and dying. Rarely are vampires shown as creatures there to keep the balance, keep the scales from tipping. The Red King in fact lays all the vengeful ills that have befallen mankind on Baltimore lashing out to save himself on that battlefield. It's almost as if the plague is a result of hurt pride, making the vampires pitiable more than anything else.

This spin of the morals of the vampires isn't the only way that this book stands head and shoulders above the rest. The main attraction for me was that this book reeked of Victorian Christmas ghost stories. The three men thrown together around a fire while the bleakness of the day bares down on them and they tell their terrifying stories couldn't have been more Dickensian if Dickens had written it himself. I literally couldn't contain my joy as a read this book into the late hours with chills going down my spin thinking that finally someone had written my own personal The Turn of the Screw, but with vampires and the Great War and totally not a lame premise! Seeing as I read so many stories with vampires predictability of plot and worldbuilding becomes problematic. You either have it modern, which can work, though I often like it without the tweaks to our world, or you can go all Bram Stoker. It's like there's an either or switch and you're not allowed in that middle ground. But that middle ground is where the best stories can be found. Think of one of the best episodes of Angel ever, "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been." It was set during the height of McCarthyism and was approached in a whole new way. It wasn't Victorian stodginess and it wasn't new and hip. Much like here, we have a new spin that is quite fascinating and is able to harken back to the origin story yet while still keeping the feeling of another era.

This ability of the authors to not only capture but understand the era they are writing about and tweaking just made me giddy. Let's look at the basics. The Great War resulted in the 1918 Influenza Pandemic which actually killed more people than the war itself. So World War I is forever linked to a horrible plague, The Spanish Flu. But what Golden and Mignola do here is to cleverly expand on this. What if the flu had been worse? What if this plague was supernatural in origin? What if it wasn't just supernatural but was a vampire with a severe grudge for getting his face a little scarred? The truth is, they have taken real events and made a believable extrapolation of events to their worst possible outcome. I know I shouldn't be so happy about a vampire plague descending on the world, but they just wrote it so well. They made a compelling alternate history. If you want to extrapolate further you could even take this into World War II. Now you're probably thinking I'm talking crazy, but think about it. World War II was inevitable as soon as we placed such hard sanctions on the Germans. We created our own worst enemy and we made Germany want another war. Here Baltimore by lashing out at The Red King to save himself creates the plague. Sometimes in trying to protect we make matters far worse and the ramifications impossible to foresee. Plague, World War II, you see?

With all that this book has going for it, the feeling of Poe, the more relevant yet completely original vampire, the Dickensian Christmas, I wonder if perhaps the drawings weren't a step to far. Yes, I don't think it would be a true collaboration without the drawings, but I don't really think there needed to be so many. More judiciously used illustrations better positioned would have worked better in my opinion perhaps with some red as a spot color. Yes, this seems counter intuitive with me picking up the book in the first place because of the illustrations, but they just don't really work for me. I felt they were unnecessary. My main problem was that these images were forcing us to view the story in a certain way and that's not right. Words evoke images in the reader's imagination and it's the work of these readers to create the scene in their heads. To people the world of the book as we see fit. But here we are meant to view the language in a proscribed manner. Thus making the book closer to the graphic novel end of the spectrum. Don't get me wrong, I love graphic novels, they just use a different part of the brain, one where image is primary and text is secondary, and if we're lucky they merge into a cohesive whole. Instead here Mignola's illustration would draw me out of the text make me think allowed that that isn't how I saw it and also realize that if you've seen one skull or one peaked rooftop you've probably seen them all. I am interested to see how they transitioned this book into a series of comics... perhaps that will be the proper outlet for the drawings. Whereas the story? The story is something you shouldn't miss. Just never mind that skull or that one or that other one.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Television Review - Blackadder Goes Forth

Blackadder Goes Forth
Starring: Rowan Atkinson, Tony Robinson, Hugh Laurie, Tim McInnerny, Stephen Fry, Stephen Frost, Gabrielle Glaister, Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Miranda Richardson, and Geoffrey Palmer
Release Date: September 28th, 1989 - November 2nd, 1989
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

When Edmund Blackadder decided on a career as a solider it was made when the most dangerous fighting he could expect to see was a native with a sharpened mango. He didn't expect the Germans and their war machine, no one did. He would never have signed up if it meant spending all his time in the mud with two dimwits praying that his baaahing mad General, Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett, KCB, doesn't decide for them to go over the top or pay for the death of his beloved pigeon, Speckled Jim. All Blackadder's time is spent trying to conceive of ways to get as far away from the front and the trenches as possible, though hopefully not by being removed and placed in front of a firing squad as the Flanders Pigeon Murderer. Blackadder is forever hindered by General Melchett's nefarious adjutant Captain Darling. Combine Darling's antipathy with Blackadders two disastrously dysfunctional "friends," Baldrick and Lieutenant George, and if they survive the war it will be a miracle. If only they could put on the best music hall showcase and decamp to London. Or perhaps a stay in hospital is needed. Then there's the flying corps. So many schemes, can one of them save them?

One Christmas my friend Sara gave me the first half of Blackadder the Third on VHS and we promptly sat down and watched all three episodes. I immediately had to have the second half of the season and over the years I have rewatched those tapes so many times that I wore them out. Sara grew up with a love of all things relating to British Comedy thanks to her older brother Paul. Once they became a part of my life my British Comedy horizons expanded. Paul was forever searching for the elusive Blackadder: The Cavalier Years. It just so happens that I was the one who found it on eBay. I remember as we watched the grainy bootleg tape Paul's disbelief that this young girl who was rapidly gaining in British Comedy knowledge had somehow beat him to the punch. It was an odd little tape made up of Comic Relief Sketches and a music video of Cliff Richard singing "Living Doll" with The Young Ones. But it also had one episode of Blackadder on there that I hadn't seen. I was very strapped for cash at the time and most of my money was going towards my Red Dwarf purchases so I hadn't yet gotten Blackadder Goes Forth. Figuring I knew enough about Blackadder I watched "Goodbyeee" and was just floored by the episode.

The episode is so poignant as I watched these characters die. Sure, we'd seen certain characters bite the big one before on previous seasons, but this was just so much more. This was the final goodbye. Blackadder Goes Forth was the final of four series and we had come to know and love these characters over many years and here they were leaving us forever. How could the writers give the perfect send off while also doing right by their creations? At the time when it was revealed that this final season was to be set during World War I it was criticized for being inappropriate. But I defy you to find any show that shows the horrors of the Great War so heartrendingly. When the show fades to black and white and then the field turns into a field of poppies, I dare anyone not to cry. It does justice to the war by showing how these characters we love reacted to it. It makes so much sense to end the show when the world forever changed. Each season was a different epoch, but I don't think anything quite got the point across to me that history was forever changed by the advent of World War I than a single episode of a rather silly British Comedy.

While people were initially concerned that this series would trivialize the war it not only forged a closer connection and understanding to the war with viewers but it continued the honorable tradition of using humor to shine a light on the truth. Yes, who would have thought that a show based on sarcastic put-downs and sex jokes would show the true horrors of the war? It's not like there was precedence? Oh wait says 'Allo 'Allo, Dad's Army, F Troop, Hogan's Heroes, M*A*S*H*, McHale's Navy and others. Comedy is, in my opinion, the best way to understand a situation but also to make it bearable. Humor is healing. Just as I said when I read Nancy Mitford's Nazis satire, Wigs on the Green, by taking something scary and laughing at it we take away it's power. We memorialize while putting the pain in it's place. But Blackadder Goes Forth does so much more. I remember when I first watched this last episode I couldn't believe that a show that had made me laugh so hard could also make me cry so much. Could make me really care about the Great War. For all those history books I read and even for my love of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles for some reason I never got the human element, it was all larger than life. It was the humor that revealed the humans.

But it's the asides, the throwaway jokes that shed a light on what World War I was really like. You might laugh at Baldrick saying he's grateful for the new trench ladders because they had kindling for the first time in months, or how rat is what is on the menu, cooked in a variety of fashions that are all eerily similar, or drinking coffee that is actually just mud, but the truth was the war was full of privations and attrition. We may think of it now as beautiful fields of poppies and heroic men and women who gave their lives, but it was mud and diseases these heroes faced. Plus, the humor used doesn't just aid in understanding the war but in understanding how the soldiers probably survived. If they couldn't think like Blackadder and use a little dark humor now and again how could they survive without all going wooble? Just look at the terrifying thought of the flying squadron? The 'Twenty Minuters.' Called such not because of the length of a mission but because that was the average life expectancy of a new pilot. While this might be stretching the truth a little, it's not by much. Remember, the planes they fought in were mostly made of canvas!

The show also tackles the problem of the "old boys club" that was the military at the time. World War I was the last war where rank was almost solely decided by social ranking. The upper classes taking on the more senior leadership roles, no matter how inept they were. I mean, how messed up was it that you could buy your commission? Pompous, childish, incompetent, and rather dim we see this "club" in the interactions between George and Melchett who speak in their own weird language at the top of the ladder. George is even given a "get out of jail free card" when Melchett offers him the chance to leave the trench before the big push. George though isn't just of the "old boys club" he also embodies the idealistic young men who joined up in a group thinking they'd all be home for Christmas. George is in fact the last one left of the tiddlywinking leapfroggers. When he talks about all the others he joined up with, and their ludicrous nicknames, you see the idealism that was the start of the war. The fact that George has been able to hang onto that throughout is something of a miracle. That he didn't turn into a cynic like Blackadder just goes to show that the war was made up of many good men, of all different kinds, that did what had to be done, even if it seemed contrary to just walk at the guns, they did it for liberty and their loss will be forever felt.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Tuesday Tomorrow

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd by Alan Bradley
Published by: Delacorte Press
Publication Date: September 20th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 352 Pages
To Buy

The official patter: "In spite of being ejected from Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Canada, twelve-year-old Flavia de Luce is excited to be sailing home to England. But instead of a joyous homecoming, she is greeted on the docks with unfortunate news: Her father has fallen ill, and a hospital visit will have to wait while he rests. But with Flavia’s blasted sisters and insufferable cousin underfoot, Buckshaw now seems both too empty—and not empty enough. Only too eager to run an errand for the vicar’s wife, Flavia hops on her trusty bicycle, Gladys, to deliver a message to a reclusive wood-carver. Finding the front door ajar, Flavia enters and stumbles upon the poor man’s body hanging upside down on the back of his bedroom door. The only living creature in the house is a feline that shows little interest in the disturbing scene. Curiosity may not kill this cat, but Flavia is energized at the prospect of a new investigation. It’s amazing what the discovery of a corpse can do for one’s spirits. But what awaits Flavia will shake her to the very core."

A new Flavia De Luce book makes EVERYTHING right with the world. 

Pushing Up Daisies by M.C. Beaton
Published by: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: September 20th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 288 Pages
To Buy

The official patter: "When Agatha Raisin left behind her PR business in London, she fulfilled her dream of settling in the cozy British Cotswolds where she began a successful private detective agency. Unfortunately, the village she lives in is about to get a little less cozy. Lord Bellington, a wealthy land developer, wants to turn the community garden into a housing estate. When Agatha and her friend Sir Charles Fraith attempt to convince Lord Bellington to abandon his plans he scoffs: “Do you think I give a damn about those pesky villagers?” So when Agatha finds his obituary in the newspaper two weeks later, it’s no surprise that some in town are feeling celebratory.

The villagers are relieved to learn that Bellington’s son and heir, Damian, has no interest in continuing his father’s development plans. But the police are definitely interested in him―as suspect number one. His father’s death, it seems, was no accident. But when Damian hires Agatha to find the real killer, she finds no shortage of suspects. The good news is that a handsome retired detective named Gerald has recently moved to town. Too bad he was seen kissing another newcomer. But when she is also found murdered, Gerald is eager to help Agatha with the case. Agatha, Gerald, and her team of detectives must untangle a web of contempt in order to uncover a killer’s identity. "

And if my mom wasn't happy enough with a new Flavia, there's a new Agatha Raisin book this week too!

The Girl Who Fought Napoleon by Linda Lafferty
Published by: Lake Union Publishing
Publication Date: September 20th, 2016
Format: Paperback, 442 Pages
To Buy

The official patter: "In a sweeping story straight out of Russian history, Tsar Alexander I and a courageous girl named Nadezhda Durova join forces against Napoleon.

It’s 1803, and an adolescent Nadya is determined not to follow in her overbearing Ukrainian mother’s footsteps. She’s a horsewoman, not a housewife. When Tsar Paul is assassinated in St. Petersburg and a reluctant and naive Alexander is crowned emperor, Nadya runs away from home and joins the Russian cavalry in the war against Napoleon. Disguised as a boy and riding her spirited stallion, Alcides, Nadya rises in the ranks, even as her father begs the tsar to find his daughter and send her home.

Both Nadya and Alexander defy expectations—she as a heroic fighter and he as a spiritual seeker—while the battles of Austerlitz, Friedland, Borodino, and Smolensk rage on.

In a captivating tale that brings Durova’s memoirs to life, from bloody battlefields to glittering palaces, two rebels dare to break free of their expected roles and discover themselves in the process."

Napoleon, Russians, based on fact! Yes please!

Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter
Published by: Tor Teen
Publication Date: September 20th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 304 Pages
To Buy

The official patter: "Vassa in the Night is an enchanting, modern retelling of the Russian folktale “Vassilissa the Beautiful” for young adults by the critically-acclaimed author, Sarah Porter. Leigh Bardugo, New York Times bestselling author of the Grisha Trilogy, calls it, "A dark, thoroughly modern fairy tale crackling with wit and magical mayhem."

In the enchanted kingdom of Brooklyn, the fashionable people put on cute shoes, go to parties in warehouses, drink on rooftops at sunset, and tell themselves they’ve arrived. A whole lot of Brooklyn is like that now―but not Vassa’s working-class neighborhood.

In Vassa’s neighborhood, where she lives with her stepmother and bickering stepsisters, one might stumble onto magic, but stumbling out again could become an issue. Babs Yagg, the owner of the local convenience store, has a policy of beheading shoplifters―and sometimes innocent shoppers as well. So when Vassa’s stepsister sends her out for light bulbs in the middle of night, she knows it could easily become a suicide mission.

But Vassa has a bit of luck hidden in her pocket, a gift from her dead mother. Erg is a tough-talking wooden doll with sticky fingers, a bottomless stomach, and a ferocious cunning. With Erg’s help, Vassa just might be able to break the witch’s curse and free her Brooklyn neighborhood. But Babs won’t be playing fair….

Inspired by the Russian folktale “Vassilissa the Beautiful” and her years of experience teaching creative writing to students in New York City public schools, acclaimed author Sarah Porter weaves a dark yet hopeful tale about a young girl’s search for home, love, and belonging."

So, you MIGHT think I was doing a Russian theme here at the end, and while yes, I did thing that was cool, it was more hearing that this book was reminiscent of Leigh Bardugo than anything else that sold me...

Friday, September 16, 2016

Book Review - Mata Hari's Last Dance

Mata Hari's Last Dance by Michelle Moran
Published by: Touchstone
Publication Date: July 19th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 272 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

The woman formerly known as Lady Margaretha MacLeod has come to Paris to reinvent herself. Styled as Mata Hari, the "Eye of the Dawn," she has been trying to get work in the various dance halls. But she is too exotic, too foreign. Little do they know she's just a girl from the Netherlands who can spin a tale. At the last place she auditions, the disreputable L'Ete, she is once again turned away, but her luck is about to change. Edouard Clunet, a respectable and successful lawyer saw her dance and wants to act as her agent. The dance halls aren't the place for Mata Hari, she needs a select and refined audience, one Edouard can introduce her to. Her first production is for Clunet's client, Guimet, who has built a library to house his extensive collections and wants to have a ceremony with two hundred guests to open his Place d'Iena. Mata Hari's dance is a sensation. Her storytelling, her risque dances, they electrify the audience and soon she is coveted by all of Paris to perform at their function. But Clunet is clever, he only chooses the best venues with the best hosts, concerned just as much with Mata Hari's image as with her abilities.

Soon Mata Hari is performing one of a kind shows for the Rothschilds, Jeanne de Loynes, and Givenchy. Her habit to also occupy her host's bed lets Mata Hari accumulate beautiful possessions and living quarters, those that her pricey performance fees don't quite stretch to. She is the name on everyone's lips, so of course she is given opportunities beyond Paris which she jumps at. Madrid, Berlin, never did she think she'd play such lavish locations! But now that she has everything she could ever have wanted she realizes what she misses most, that which she ran away from. Her daughter, Jeanne Louise, whom she left behind with her husband when she fled after the death of their son. She has spent so much of her life telling tales and reinventing herself that to open up to Edouard, to tell him a truth, raw and painful, is a revelation. Her success will continue longer than she ever imagined, but it's her past she can never recapture that she wants most. As time goes on her habits with her lovers and her ability to spin a yarn will catch up to her with the most dire of consequences. Everyone has to face the music in the end.

When I was younger I didn't quite know who Mata Hari was. But then again, being told of a great courtesan doesn't seem like the kind of tale you'd tell as a bedside story to a child. So I had these wild ideas about who she was. A seductress, a storyteller, and a spy, all with the most amazing outfits. Someone out of The Arabian Nights like Scheherazade. Someone from antiquity when Gods walked among the deserts. A grand heroine of myth. The truth is she'd probably like the myth in my mind. It wasn't until much later that I learned the truth of her tragic life. Ironically I didn't learn about Mata Hari in any history class but in the episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles that was written by Carrie Fisher, which should have been subtitled "Indy Gets His Groove On." Here was the beginning of the truth I never knew. The woman I thought relegated to dusty tomes was a "spy" during the first world war! While there are those who'd argue that this is old, to me, if a person was alive in the same century I was born that's pretty recent news. Gone were The Arabian Nights delusions and in their place was this woman who defied convention and died for the greater good.

I think where my erroneous impressions of Mata Hari came from was the fact she was a courtesan. Courtesans seem of an older era, when Kings walked through Versailles and a Maharajah took a woman to bed bedecked with jewels. When you think of the turn of the past century when a woman slept around or had a lover she was a mistress or worse. But mistress doesn't do Mata Hari justice. Neither does any of the more derogatory slurs that could be mentioned. She was a true courtesan. She was well educated, skilled, and able to tell the most intoxicating stories. So she accepted gifts of jewels and property, these were never payment, they weren't even really a transaction of any kind, more a thank you for a good seduction. She lived outside the expectations of society. Or at least the expectations of a woman in society. She acted more like a man when it came to whom she took to bed. It was all about desire, hers and theirs, and if they happened to look really fabulous in a uniform, all the better.

By living outside of the proscribed norms it was interesting in how I related to Mata Hari. As in, I didn't relate to her AT ALL. I mean, sure spending a night on your back or a day dancing to be draped in jewels might be some people's ideal life, just not mine. The truth is, she's not the most likable person. It's not just that her morals don't jive with mine, it's something more, something deep down that while I can be fascinated by her I would never like her. In fact, I found it interesting that Mata Hari kind of reminded me of Linda Radlett from Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love. They are both very acquisitive beings who like the finer things in life and don't scruple when it comes to what they want to do. While I like to view myself as carving out my own life, I'd never go for such a drastic trailblazing method. But that is what makes Mata Hari so interesting. She goes big or goes home. More than that though she really knows how to craft a tale. Her lies are so intoxicating and fascinating, that while you might balk at her life choices, you have to admire her style.

Where Moran's storytelling surpasses Mata Hari's is in showing the real purpose of all Mata Hari's storytelling, to mask her pain. Mata Hari's life growing up as Margaretha Zelle, later MacLeod, wasn't the smoothest of journeys to be sure. The situations that she was forced into by the abandonment of her family at a young age eventually resulting in her early marriage would be events best forgotten. When this is compounded by the death of her beloved son you can see why she ran away and rewrote her own story. Many people would give anything to be able to rewrite their past, even pasts not nearly as traumatic as that lived by Mata Hari. A new city, a new name, a new past. She did a marvelous job reinventing herself and creating a legend. But legends are rarely relatable. Through her writing Moran lets us see behind the veil and while you might never quite come to terms with and like Mata Hari, you really feel for her. Her struggles, her pains, her decisions, even the atrocious ones, you just get it, and that's what historical fiction is about, connecting to another person in another place and time.

As for whether Mata Hari was killed because she was a spy? Well, I'm not of the harsh opinion Wikipedia holds that she was too naive and stupid to be a double agent. Because if anything her reinvention shows that she was a clever woman who knew what she wanted and got it. I agree with Moran's inference that Mata Hari's downfall was a judgment on her as a person versus any knowledge or secrets she might have held. Mata Hari didn't fit into the standard mold. She was a woman who lived her life as she wished. Certain men in power couldn't handle this. The world was at war and people were expected to toe the line and behave or all would be lost. Mata Hari went from being a juicy topic of conversation used to titillate to a wanton woman who was out to steal your husband. She was judged for what she did and paid the ultimate price. So what if men did what she did all the time, she was a woman and therefore her death was for the greater good. Yes, her ability to spin stories did come back to bite her on the ass, because she had a honeyed tongue and could make anything sound like truth so how could you believe a word she said? But what this book made me realize is that her story still resonates. She was a woman who lived her life outside of societies expectations and paid for it. Therefore I give you Mata Hari, a true feminist icon! She died for the cause, and can that be said about Isadora Duncan?

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