Film No 29 (2014) : The Fault in Our Stars

fault in our starsIf you have read the book, you have seen the film. In terms of faithfulness to the original, this screen adaptation of John Green’s novel is virtually unchanged from the written work.

Hazel and Augustus meet at a support group for young cancer sufferers. Their relationship develops slowly; Hazel is unwilling to commit as she does not want to put Gus through the pain of  losing her. However, in the way of all true romance, their love for one another is inevitable and unavoidable. Hazel persuades Gus to read her favourite novel, which ends abruptly when its main character dies. Hazel desperately wants to visit the author of the book to ask him to explain what happens to the characters, after the death of the heroine. With Gus’ help, Hazel makes the trip to Amsterdam to meet the writer, Peter Van Houten, but the reception she receives from him is not the one she hoped for. Following a disastrous meeting with Van Houten, Hazel and Gus take some time out in the city, but their adventure ends in sadness when one of them has to reveal that their cancer has returned. Faced with the reality of terminal illness, the couple returns home and tries to make the most of their time together.

Shailene Woodley (Hazel) plays her part with a natural poignancy which is difficult not to like. Ansel Elgort (Gus) is a relative newcomer to cinema, but this film is bound to shoot him to superstardom. Laura Dern and Sam Trammell star as Hazel’s parents and Willem Dafoe is stunning as the drunk and dysfunctional Van Houten.

As a film, ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ does have a point to make, along the ‘make every day count’ lines. I’m not sure how well the film-makers have achieved the aim of instilling optimism though, as the movie is overhwelmingly sad. (The woman behind me in the cinema was literally sobbing). I might have been moved to tears had I not been familiar with the plot, but as it was, I remained dry-eyed. My main issue with the film, and indeed the book, is that it glamourises and romanticises terminal illness. I am lucky enough not to have had the experience of watching a teenager struggle with cancer, but I can’t imagine it is at all romantic. I’d guess it is God-awful on so many levels, none of which I feel particularly well-equipped to contemplate or comment upon, but I struggle to find teenagers dying a source of entertainment. Whilst watching the film, I was too painfully aware that there are real parents and their teenagers, siblings and friends, struggling with the stress and pain of incurable cancer; ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ offered no meaningful insights. It just felt like a cheap shot.

 

Book No 27 (2014) : After I Left You

after i left youThrough hanging around on the Internet, I discovered ‘NetGalley’. It’s a site which allows reviewers to request complimentary copies of books, on the understanding that in return for the free copy, they
review the work and give feedback to the publisher. ‘After I Left You’ was the first of my requests to be accepted, so I was excited!

‘After I Left You’ is the story of Anna Jones, an Oxford graduate. Having moved on in life after University, an unexpected encounter with a former lover causes her to confront the traumatic events which over-shadowed her final days at St Bartholomew’s College. After so many years, can she gain some closure?

The book is written in the first person, switching between Anna’s current and former lives as she is drawn to reminisce about her student days spent in the company of a close circle of friends – Clarissa, Meg, Victor, Barnaby and Keith. As well as flashback, it uses several plot devices to progress the story, and also has some literary references. There are twists and turns, leading to the revelations of what happened to Anna at the Summer Ball.

I found this novel frustrating. I am extremely familiar with Oxford and felt that Ms Mercer failed to capture the magic of the city or the complexity of student life. Her characters felt flat, one-dimensional. Although the plot draws events to a conclusion, the whole book left me feeling dissatisfied. Sorry, but not a book I feel able to recommend.

Book No 26 (2014) : The Back Road

back roadPsychological thrillers seem to be very popular at the moment. I discovered this as an Amazon Kindle ‘Daily Deal’ 99p bargain. At that price, it wouldn’t have mattered if I only read the first chapter then abandoned it.

Set in a rural village, the book opens with a young girl trying to escape across the fields at night. We don’t know who from, but she is obviously terrified and desperate to get away. She finally makes her way to the Back Road of Little Melham, but is knocked down by a passing car. The driver fails to stop. The focus shifts to Ellie Saunders, her family and circle of friends. As news of the hit-and-run spreads, several villagers fall under suspicion – someone has something to hide.

In lots of ways this reminded me of an Agatha Christie mystery. A well-defined cast of characters, carefully linked by plots. sub-plots and sub plots of sub-plots. Just when I thought I had sussed out one of the mysteries, the narrative took another twist and my deductions were revealed as cunning red herrings. Pleasingly though, the ending drew all the loose threads into an extremely satisfying conclusion. This book won’t change your life, but it might allow you to forget about it for a few hours!

I’ve actually already bought Rachel Abbott’s latest offering, ‘Sleep Tight’ (also for 99p!). I’ll let you know how I get on with it.

Film No 28 (2014) : Little Voice

LVOne thing about Netflix is that it does throw up some classics, despite its somewhat limited selection of films. I had never actually seen ‘Little Voice’, although its reputation was such that I somehow knew it! The film was directed by Sam Mendes and is an adaptation of the play ‘The Rise & Fall of Little Voice’, written in 1992 by Jim Cartwright. Diana Vickers took the lead role in a West End production in 2009/10.

LV, played by Jane Horrocks, is a painfully shy…teenager? (I am not sure, because it was really difficult to pin an age on her character.) Overpowered and belittled by her mother, LV spends most of her time in her room, playing records which belonged to her late father’s collection. But this is not pop music; LV loses herself in the greats – Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Edith Piaf. When LV’s mother, falls for washed-up talent agent, Ray Say (Michael Caine) and invites him to the house, Say overhears LV singing and spots an opportunity to make himself some money. He invests in a stage set, the punters arrive and wait. Literally petrified at first, LV is unable to move, let alone sing. When she finally finds her voice, it turns out to be anything but little. There is a spark within LV, which is ignited when she gets the opportunity to perform on stage. Her performance turns out to be a catalyst as she finds her voice both literally and metaphorically – with some faith in herself restored, LV finds courage to retaliate, sticking up for herself against her bullying mother. Continue reading

Book No 25 (2014) : The Gift of Rain

rainMy favourite book of all time is ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier and my list of top 10 novels has remained pretty much unchanged for quite a long time. However, one recent addition to my Greatest Books was Tang Twan Eng’s Booker-Prize winning ‘The Garden of Evening Mists’. It was with some hesitation that I embarked upon ‘The Gift of Rain’, wondering if I would be disappointed after awarding its successor with the highest personal honour I able to bestow! As it turns out, I need not have worried.

‘The Gift of Rain’ is Tan’s first novel and was itself listed for the Booker Prize. This work was one of those rare things for me – a book which seemed to sink into the very pores of my body. Whilst I was reading it, I was completely transported. Even when I wasn’t actually reading it, the images it conjured were still swimming around in my head. When I’d finished reading, I felt as if a constant companion had suddenly vanished from my life.

Set in Malaya in the 1940s, the novel is the story of Philip Hutton, a young man of Anglo-Chinese parentage. Philip forms a relationship with a Japanese diplomat, Hayato Endo, a master in the martial art aikido who undertakes to teach Philip his skills. When war breaks out, the Malay communities refuse to believe that the Japanese will invade their territory. When Philip learns the truth from Endo, his sole aim is to safeguard his family from the malevolence of the occupying forces. His decision to collaborate with the Japanese sets in motion a train of events which distances Philip from the very people he seeks to protect. But the bond with Endo-san cannot be broken. Their destinies are linked from previous lives until the end of time.

This book was an experience for me, not just a good read. It was almost like watching a weaver work on a loom. As the shuttle moves across the threads of the warp, the author lays down the pattern. But it is only as the fabric grows, that the full picture begins to emerge. You have to see the novel in its entirety to appreciate its intricacies. To begin with the book is subtle and slow-moving, but this pace begins to speed until by the last third of the book, you  are reading a page-turning thriller.

I’d like to be able to think of a natty phrase to end my review but I can’t think of anything fitting. I simply loved this book.