Wednesday 30 May 2012

GBR Occasional Mid-Week Show Review - The Woman in Black

“We’re off to see The Woman in black next week.”

“Oh, so you’re the ones who haven’t seen it yet.”

Thus was the response of a family friend on hearing of the next instalment of the GBR Occasional Mid-Week Show Review.

First a book, then a West End play, then a film starring Harry Potter, this has gone through a few incarnations. Its decades long stint on the West End has probably raked in a few bob, and with most locals having now seen it at least once (ourselves excluded of course) the crowd was packed mainly with tourists and school trips.

Which was the first problem. There was at least one lot of drama school teens intent on having their own screaming competition. Even at things not intended to scare. The lights going down at the end of a scene elicited a round of shrieks. An inadvertent shadow on stage prompted a few howls. Each followed by a round of giggles. To their credit, it didn’t seem to affect the actors. But it did me. I found myself transformed into the old, disapproving guy at the front of the bus.

That’s not to say there weren’t moments where screams were justified. The reason Mrs GBR and I turned up to this in the first place was because most people we’ve spoken with about it said it is one of the scariest things they’ve seen. And there were one or two (ok, I admit it, three) points where my heart raced and I was begging the actors not to go through the doorway.

But (a little like The Ask in fact) this is a play that’s been mis-sold, and possibly over-sold. Yes, it was scary in parts, but it didn’t have the constant fear and tension I was expecting. Hard to create on stage of course. On screen, it’s easier. Close ups, special effects, hurried glimpses - none of it’s available on stage. Instead, they had to rely on the shock factor - the sudden bang and whatnot - which they employed well. But I won’t go around town telling people this is the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. Possibly the scariest thing I’ve ever seen on stage, but that bar is set rather low.

The strength of the play for me was more in the chemistry of the characters, and the clever way in which they work the stage and the script. There’s only two actors (not including the Woman in Black herself), and they bounce off each other impressively and with energy.

The structure of the play is novel. Not entirely unique - the idea of watching actors on stage pretending to be actors on another stage is replicated in a few places (like Noises Off) - but it’s fun to watch all the same. There were fairly predictable plot developments, and not really any twists that shake you, but it’s tightly written and convincingly delivered, so it certainly holds your attention and keeps you entertained. If it wasn’t for the school trip screaming competition, I’m sure I wouldn’t have rolled my eyes once.

No GBR ratings for the Occasional Mid-Week Show Reviews, but I’d recommend going to see this (if you’re in town and happen to be one of the population not to have seen it yet). It’s a lukewarm recommendation, and be prepared to be annoyed by a school-trip somewhere, but the quality of the acting and the handful of heart racing scares are worth the ticket price.

Sunday 27 May 2012

The Ask - Suzi Hightime's favourite ever book

The Ask by Sam Lipsyte (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2010) A comic novel following the slow decline of Milo, a middle class American struggling to keep afloat emotionally, economically and socially. His life gets taken wildly off course after an old college chum asks for a favour.

A recurring point of discussion between Mrs GBR and I are the one-line endorsements on movie posters (we lead unbelievably exciting lives).

You’ve seen them, right? The big quotation marks, hugging an out of this world thumbs up from some respectable observer.

Except that’s the thing. They’re not always respectable. Too often, a film will be sold with a six foot high “this will change your life” quote. Then, underneath, you’ll find in size 8 font the quote came from Suzi Hightime, a painfully chirpy cub reporter at the West Pontefract Weekly Review who thinks the whole world and everything in it is just brilliant.

So Mrs GBR and I have learned to take these one-line endorsements with large doses of salt (and often openly point and ridicule them in public). All the more so since I learned Jonathan Ross once had a competition with a fellow reviewer to get his quotes on the movie poster for Godzilla, and won by calling it the “best film I’ve ever seen - period” (or something like that).

The Ask has five such quotes on its front cover (and a bunch more on the inside cover), all saying this is one of the funniest books of all time. To be fair, the sources are more respectable than Suzi Hightime. No less than Vanity Fair said this is "so funny you might lose an eye". Despite all my cynicism of this marketing tactic, I still opened the first page expecting to have a laugh.

I did not. Do not be fooled - this is not a fall-out-of-your-chair-laughing book. It has comic qualities, and it’s witty, but roll-in-the-aisles funny? No.

It’s a shame they marketed it this way, because it has so many other good qualities. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s been lauded by critics the length and breadth of the internet. It’s been compared to Joseph Heller, acclaimed as one of the great books of the modern age, and Lipsyte has been labelled as a voice that will define the next decade.

I’m not sure I’d go that far. It’s good, no doubt. The satire is brilliant and is couched neatly into the story. It never oversteps the mark into pomposity or arrogance. There’s a lot to agree with in his view of things, and plenty about the flawed central character with which to sympathise.

Lipstye also pulls of one of those great author tricks - he makes you see the world differently. Only a little, and it wears off, but he touches on so many of the nerves in modern society that you can’t help but look at the world through his eyes for a few days.

But the plot meanders without much noticeable point. Lipsyte struggles to juggle the page-turning author in him with the societal critic - the two sides of his persona fight for room on the page, and neither ever gets a satisfying victory.

And there’s no real wow factor to his prose. It’s neat and it’s tight and it’s bold in places, but nothing really leapt off the page and smacked me in the face. And everyone likes a refreshing face smacking every now and then.

Above average. Way above average, really. But a generation defining novel? The next legendary comic voice?


No. Really good. But not "a masterpiece" (Dazed and Confused review, circa 2010)

Next week (if I finish it in time) a bit of history.

Sunday 20 May 2012

The Hunger Games - going off-road

Our copy is out on loan, so I
had to steal a pic from Amazon.
Sorry, Amazon
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic: 2009) In a post-apocalyptic America, children are forced to fight to the death by an all powerful ruling elite. Their battles are the reality TV event of the year for a blood-thirsty public. But when Katniss Everdeen, a 16 year old from one of the poorest districts, enters the arena, her battle to stay alive puts her on a collision course with authority.
I tried to write this last Sunday, but gave up. I got half way through, then slumped. I read what I’d written, and decided it was best for everyone if I just shut the lap-top and walked away. I saved you from one there. It stunk.
I found it tough because I wanted to make a point with it. But it got a bit preachy. A bit shouty. So let’s try again.
I’ve had a couple of comfortable GBR weeks. Glen Duncan followed by PG Wodehouse. Safe and safe. Time to off-road a little. Step up, young-adult fiction (or YA to those in the know).
You’ve heard of this book. It’s no point denying it, I know you have. It’s one of those cultural phenomenon things. You don’t know where you heard about it first, but it’s come into your life. And for most of you, it’s forced you into a choice. Open the mind, give something new a go, try to understand why millions of fans like it. Or go the other way, judge the book by its cover, assume YA fiction isn’t for you, and look down on the millions of fans that have gone a bit potty about it.
See what I’ve done there. I’ve painted one of those as the good choice, and the other as the bad choice. Not subtle, I know. But you should have seen my first try last week. You’ve got off lightly this time around.
Let me be clear – I’m not a YA cheerleader. But I am a fan of trying new stuff. Haven’t always been, but I am now.
The Hunger Games goes to the movies
Here’s a book, a franchise, that’s exploded. It’s spawned at least one box office smash, and has the kind of devoted fan base that is difficult to ignore. There must be something to it, right? At the very least, it’s worth reading to find out for myself. Ignoring it as a kid’s book, as a genre that’s not meant for me, as something unworthy – that’s too easy. It’s won too many people over and has too many intelligent defenders (Mrs GBR amongst them) to dismiss it like that. It’s earned a look.
And, having looked, I confess - I enjoyed it. That’s got to be the first (and probably most important) thing. I resisted a little, but I was gripped. I knew the basic plot and setting going in, but that didn’t make it boring. Collins keeps you uncomfortable from the beginning to the end, never lets you get to grips with the world she’s created.
Which is a good thing – it means you slurp up page after page in your quest to get your head around it all. It means the whole environment of the book is fascinating. Despite myself and my cynicism, I did start to care about the characters and their fates. I did start to react to the bad guys. I did feel the unfairness. I became tense in all the right places.
There’s the YA flavoured downsides too though. There’s a lot said about the “darkness” of this series, about the macabre concept of kids fighting to the death. And yeah, it is a dark idea, but not one that Collins ever really succeeds in making pitch-black dark. She could have gone gothic with it, but the teenage girl voice that drives the narrative holds it up. The idea and the events made me uncomfortable (which, like I say, was a good thing), but the constraints of the genre stopped it ever making the leap to disturbing believability.
Collins also tries to create knots of moral ambiguity, of complex questions, but it’s all set against a simplistic back drop of good vs evil. There are the instantly recognisable good guys (with their love for each other and strong sense of right and wrong) and the cartoon bad guys (with their complete lack of empathy and their blood lust). It’s a lazy formula, and one that skips any attempt to understand where the good and the evil comes from.
There’s the clumsy love element to the story too. And it really is clumsy. Maybe it’s because I was never a teenage girl, can’t identify with it, but there were bits that had my eyes rolling until they could roll no more. And it’s not because I’m unfeeling. I’ve read books about love and been moved by them. But not here. Here, it’s cutesy and rose-tinted.
But that’s what this genre brings. Young adult books are written for young adults, so there are always going to be bits that jar for the rest of us. But if you can get over that, there’s plenty for adults too, especially when they’re as well written as this. The Hunger Games world really is incredibly constructed. The plot has a rhythm and direction that you can’t help but get on board with.
I raced through the book, and kind of want to pick up the next one. I enjoyed it. It brought out reactions from me. I can forgive it its young-adult flaws, because it had the best of the genre too. It had excitement. It had imagination. The pages practically turned themselves.
Classic fence sitting score.  I haven’t quite drunk the YA cool-aid, but I’m getting thirstier. I can say hand on heart there were parts of The Hunger Games I hugely enjoyed.
You should definitely read this. Some of you will love it. Some of you will just quite like it. And some of you will still end up hating it, but at least you can say you gave it a try.
Next week, something that will hopefully make me less preachy.

Sunday 6 May 2012

Over Seventy - the sixth biscuit

Over Seventy by PG Wodehouse (Herbert Watkins: 1957) A self proclaimed "autobiography with digressions". Wodehouse pontificates on pretty much everything, using his status as a septuagenarian to wisely survey the world before him and the life he's led

Having decided to treat myself last week, I couldn’t resist more of the same. I never could leave it at just one biscuit. Just one scoop of ice cream. I always had to have two. Or more often, three. Occasionally four. Five once or twice, but never six.

So the treat this week was Wodehouse shaped. I love that guy. Like most people, it started with Jeeves and Wooster (courtesy of Fry and Laurie). But once I decided to read some of the books, I was hooked in whole other way. Read about it right here (for those GBR novices amongst you).

This, though, isn’t another typical Wodehouse book or short story. This is a memoir of sorts. Not for ole P.G. the introspective story of a life well lived. Not for him the listing out of events and friendships that spanned his years. Instead, Over Seventy is his 200-odd page response to a request from a journalist asking for some of observations of the world now that he was officially an old gent.

I was chuffed that the opening of the book does at least go over some biographical details. I wanted to know how it all started for Wodehouse, and I was given the facts of the matter in fairly short form. I even found out one or two things about his “process” that surprised me (you’ll have to read it to find out for yourself).

But then the book deviates. As Wodehouse argues, any book of his life would largely be taken up with “and then I wrote another story, and people liked it. And then I wrote another story, and people liked it. And then I wrote…” and so on.

So instead, we’re treated to his musings on any number of topics and trends, generously interspersed with an anecdote here and a by-the-way there.

It’s warming reading. It really is. It has the same escapism and old world humour that his fiction does. It wraps its arms around you, deposits you in an old leather armchair, lights the fire, puts a glass of port in your hand, locks the world outside, and does a thoroughly good job of entertaining you. It’s easy, and that’s its power. It comes off the page in the honeyed tones of your granddad.

All the more impressive given the work that’s gone into this. Wodehouse admits himself that he goes through small forests worth of paper in planning his books. Each sentence is formed, reformed, redrafted, edited, reshaped. He went to a lot of trouble to make his writing what it is.

There is a Wodehousian downside though, and one I’ve not come across before. With his other stories, there’s always a strong sense of “what next.” The scenarios he concocts are often complex and tension ridden. With this though, there was no real point. No end game. It’s more a collection of what he thinks about stuff.

Endearing, funny, clever, insightful in parts. But nothing to make you grab it and thirstily drink up a few pages, nothing to make you absolutely positively have to find out what happens. I wouldn’t dare go as far as to say it dragged (this is Wodehouse, after all) but the lack of urgency was an occasional but definite drawback.

Still huge amounts of fun though. Still something I loved. Still a writer that makes me feel wonderful to read.


Go read some Wodehouse. Now.

Next week, I may have to go back to reading something I don’t already love. I guess.