Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Books Made Into Movies (page 2 of 14)

Persuasion – Jane Austen

I’d decided that Persuasion was going to be my next Austen read even before that trailer dropped, but it was a helpful reminder to hurry up. Before it was a Dakota Johnson rom-com, it was Austen’s last completed novel, written “in a race against her failing health in 1815-16”.

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So, apparently, Persuasion was at least partly inspired by Austen’s own brother, Charles, who bore a lot of similarities to the leading man Captain Wentworth. According to scholar Sheila Johnson Kindred: “both began their careers in command of sloops in the North America station at about the same age; both were popular with their crews; both progressed to the command of frigates; both were keen to share their prize money with their crews, though Captain Wentworth ended up considerably richer as a result of his prize money than did Captain Austen”.

Another fun fact: Persuasion was the first Austen novel to feature an older woman in the lead. (Well, she’s twenty-seven, but by Regency standards that’s practically ancient.) Some Austen academics have drawn the conclusion that this shift, towards older protagonists, was a reflection of Austen’s own age (see above: careening towards death) and her desire to challenge the notion that a woman’s life was over if she didn’t marry before her wisdom teeth came in. One of her biographers, Claire Tomalin, called Persuasion Austen’s “present to herself, to Miss Sharp, to [her sister] Cassandra, to Martha Lloyd…to all women who had lost their chance in life and would never enjoy a second spring”.

So, we’ve got an “elderly” leading lady in Anne Elliot, and the charismatic captain Frederick Wentworth, who has successfully climbed the career ladder. Now that we’ve met the players, lets see what it’s all about.

Persuasion is basically the O.G. second-chance romance. Anne and Fred were engaged to be married back in the day, but she was pressured into dumping him by her snooty family and friends – and she stayed sad about it for ten years. Now, her family and friends are considerably less snooty (in bank balance, if not in attitude) and facing a significant reduction in circumstances when Fred comes back to town. It would seem he’s been living his best life without Anne, and she is MORTIFIED.

It hardly constitutes a spoiler to say they end up together (fight me), but we take many a long and winding road to get there. Fred spends a lot of time ignoring Anne and flirting with her in-laws, Anne’s cousin comes out of the woodwork and sets his sights on her, there’s a near-fatal head injury and plenty of dinner parties.

Persuasion is much darker than Pride And Prejudice or Emma. Austen was so scathing, such a savage, that at times I literally covered my mouth as I was reading. There’s not as much of the sparkling dialogue; it’s far more introspective, and I suppose that’s why it seems meaner (even today, in the age of Twitter, we all think things we wouldn’t dare say out loud). I found it harder, too, to keep track of all the characters and their relationships to one another – perhaps as a result of their minimal on-page interaction.

I think, like much of Austen’s work, Persuasion has a slow-burn effect. I can’t say it blew me away at my first reading – but nor did any of her others. Over time, though, I’ll find myself thinking about it more and more, and referring back to it more and more, and before I know it I’ll be a convert. (Hopefully not before the new adaptation comes out – I want to be able to enjoy it without poking holes.)

Persuasion is really one for the true fans, often too severe to be funny (and occasionally fat-shamey, by the by) and subtle in its treatment of quite dramatic turns. I wouldn’t recommend starting out with this one, if you’re new to Austen, but if you’ve already read her others, you’re well placed to give it a go.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Persuasion:

  • “I find her writing dry, humorless, dull, and always the same themes. It’s the constant talk about class, and who is good enough for whom, and the woman and man who just can’t seem to get together until the very end when they admit their mutual love. It’s all very tedious.” – LINDA LEVEN
  • “Chinese water torture? Sounds like a welcome diversion from this boring redundant work of “art” to me. I feel for the trees that were wasted in the process of creating this horrendously boring soap opera in paperback. It is possible that I missed something while reading this work because I spent most of the time trying to stay awake. However, in the future if I want to read something of this caliber I would write NBC and ask for the script of their least watched daytime “soap”. In conclusion, not only do I NOT recommend this novel, but I pledge to do my best to begin an anti-Persuasion League, to prevent the widespread development of narcolepsy in high school students who are forced to read worthlessly painful novels.” – James Gibbs

Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

It’s some kind of miracle that Never Let Me Go wasn’t spoiled for me before I finally got around to reading it. Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian alternative reality novel was published nearly 20 years ago, and I’d heard some vague hints giving rise to suspicions about the Big Twist, but I still went in with no firm idea as to what was about to happen. That’s important, because you’re not supposed to know Never Let Me Go is dystopian science fiction until Ishiguro wants you to.

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Ishiguro drip feeds the story to the reader, mentioning something offhand and then paying it off satisfyingly quickly (usually in the next chapter). It makes Never Let Me Go very just-one-more-chapter-y, which is a good thing if you’re looking to be sucked into a book, but not so good if you’ve got an early morning and it’s past your bedtime. If you want to go in unspoiled and enjoy that experience for yourself, exit this window now.

It all begins with Kathy H, who describes herself as a “carer”, talking about looking after organ donors. As she describes her twelve years in the role, she starts reminiscing about her days at Hailsham, a boarding school where the teachers were called “guardians” and the children’s art was selected for display in a gallery owned by a mysterious woman known only as “Madame”.

In her time at Hailsham, Kathy became particularly close to two other students, Tommy and Ruth. Kathy was Tommy’s confidant, supporting him through periods of bullying and depression, but through the usual social politics of adolescent, he ends up being Ruth’s boyfriend instead.

The first clang! reveal comes around 80 pages in, where it’s revealed that the children of Hailsham are effectively being farmed for their vital organs. That’s why the teachers- excuse me, guardians – have been so intense about not smoking and taking care of their bodies.

All the children know about their futures – and all we, the readers of Never Let Me Go, know – is gleaned through rumour and supposition, and the occasional slip-up where one of the adults in charge reveals something they “shouldn’t”. One of the guardians, Miss Lucy, is fired and removed from the school for telling the students too much.

That’s why horror author Ramsey Campbell called Never Let Me Go one of the “best horror novels since 2000”, a “classic instance of a story that’s horrifying, precisely because the narrator doesn’t think it is”. In large part, Never Let Me Go is a boarding school novel, a dark academia story about cliques and gossip and young romance, but the world that it’s taking place in is completely bonkers.

The next clang! comes at 140-ish pages, where Ishiguro reveals that all the children at Hailsham (and other similar schools around England) are cloned. So, this is kind of like the real-life situations where parents genetically engineer new babies to act as organ donors for their existing children who are crook. It’s dicey territory, ethically – to say the least.

As Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy age in Kathy’s recollections, they move out to a kind of halfway house and they start venturing out into the real world. This leads to some pretty harsh realisations: that they’re not going to have the kinds of lives or careers they see people leading in magazines or on television, that they’re going to have to undergo surgery after surgery only to die (or “complete”, as they euphemistically call it) very young, that they likely weren’t cloned from the creme de la creme of society (i.e., that underprivileged people – “human trash”, Ruth calls them – were exploited for their DNA).

Never Let Me Go comes to a head when Ruth “completes”, and Kathy and Tommy believe they finally have a shot at being together. They seek out the mysterious “Madame” from their school days, to see if maybe she can give them a stay to delay their donations so that they might spend more time together. Now, this is where Never Let Me Go first really disappointed me. I didn’t like the big clump of exposition that came around page 240. It’s a huge info dump where Madame and Miss Emily (the former Hailsham principal) explain to Kathy and Tommy why the school existed, and how society views them. It’s straight out of a B-movie playbook, akin to a hacky villain monologue in the penultimate scene.

Still, there’s a lot of very clever stuff in here – it’s easy to see why Never Let Me Go is favoured by Book Clubs For Smart People, you could talk it over for hours. Look at the role of “carers” like Kathy, for instance, in the reality Ishiguro has created. For the clones, being a “carer” is the only alternative to becoming a donor oneself, the only version of agency they have in their lives. The whole system is engineered to prevent them from thinking too much about what is happening to them and rebelling in any way (not to mention that it keeps a safe, convenient distance between the people who donate and the people who benefit from the donation). You don’t have to look too hard to find the parallels in our actual reality.

For some reason, even though they’re very different, Never Let Me Go made me think about Tender Is The Flesh. I think it might’ve been the contrast between the reader’s experience of the clones as human (having one narrate the story was clever!) and the apparent view of the world they inhabit that they aren’t (or, even if they are, that they aren’t afforded the same rights and privileges) that brought it to mind.

It’s easy to see, in terms of tone and style, that this is the same author who wrote Klara And The Sun. They’re like two halves of the same whole. I can basically guarantee that if you liked one, you’ll enjoy the other. I can’t speak to the 2010 film adaptation – I haven’t seen it yet, but of course now I want to – but this is an intense, smart, compelling read with a lot to say about the reality we live in.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Never Let Me Go:

  • “It’s a real downer book about sex, clones and dying. I do not recommend it.” – Louise P
  • “i let go of this book after chapter 1, it sukcs” – Gage Miller
  • “It was neither entertaining nor thought provoking. Run from it. If you’ve give this book as a gift to someone, shame on you. This book is the Emperor’s New Clothes.” – Steve Miller
  • “This author must hate humankind. This book is a grim slog through the trivial lives of doomed, boring characters who repeatedly fail to rise above their own pettiness. Ugh. Recommend it to someone you don’t like.” – Ron Daily

Notes On A Scandal – Zoë Heller

Notes On A Scandal (marketed as What Was She Thinking?: Notes On A Scandal in the U.S., don’t ask me why) is a 2003 novel by English journalist and writer Zoë Heller. I vaguely remember seeing the film adaptation years ago, and being captivated by the performances of both Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, but really nothing about the plot. So, aside from having some strong visuals for the main characters, I felt like I didn’t know much about this one going in.

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Heller has said that Notes On A Scandal was inspired by the real-life case of Mary Kay LeTourneau, an American teacher who had “an affair” (read: plead guilty to two counts of child rape) with a student. So, that should give you an idea of the relevant trigger warnings.

The story is narrated by Barbara, a veteran teacher at a London comprehensive school, and a lonely spinster in her spare time. How to put this delicately… she has trouble making friends. As always, the smallest details make the character, and Heller’s talent for it is gob-smacking.

My name is Barbara Covett. (From time to time one of my colleagues will call me ‘Barb’ or, even less desirably, ‘Babs’, but I discourage it.)

Notes On A Scandal (page 4)

If the Vibes haven’t already tipped you off, you know for sure that something is Not Right with Barbara by Chapter 3. Her story begins with the arrival of Sheba Hart, a new and apparently-naive (though very privileged) art teacher. Barbara intuits that they are potential BFFs, though Sheba barely seems to realise she exists at first.

Slowly, Barbara ingratiates herself into Sheba’s life – first with lunches off campus, then dinners at her home. Unbeknownst to Barbara, however, Sheba is doing some ingratiating of her own, “falling in love” with her 15-year-old student Steven Connolly. It’s the same old story: Sheba feels “unfulfilled” in her perfect upper-middle-class life, Steven is vulnerable and deprived of affection, and before you know it…

Barbara eventually finds out about the “affair” (I really hate to use that term, because it’s not an affair, it’s abuse, but I’m trying to communicate the perspective of the narrative here, so please forgive me). Rather than being, say, appalled, or reporting Sheba to the principal (or the police!), Barbara is deeply wounded and betrayed. How could her BFF have done something so scandalous and not even told her? Because, you see, this is all about Barbara. These are her Notes On A Scandal, after all.

Barbara offers a rather clinical and detached account of the events of the “affair”. The passion in her prose is reserved for her own relationship with Sheba, and her own magnanimity in forgiving Sheba’s treachery. That makes Barbara an unreliable narrator, naturally, but often she reveals more than she really intends to.

The good news is that Sheba is eventually “outed” as a predator. In a jealous fit, Barbara gives another teacher at the school (appropriately named “Bangs”) a very thinly veiled hint about what has been going on, and he goes straight to the principal. Sheba’s life quickly falls apart; she’s fired, she’s confronted by Steven’s mother at her home, her husband kicks her out, and the newspapers have a field day.

All of this is excellent news to Barbara! She finally has Sheba – vulnerable, scared, lonely Sheba – all to herself, and completely reliant on her for support. That’s when, unbeknownst to Sheba, she starts penning her little memoir, her Notes On A Scandal, about the matter.

Notes On A Scandal evoked The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie for me, with its English school setting, its compact length, and its themes of betrayal and intrigue. For obvious reasons, it also brings to mind Lolita. In fact, imagine that Humbert Humbert was a woman and his story was narrated by his stalker, and you land somewhere pretty close to this one.

It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003, and The Guardian ranked Notes On A Scandal at number 70 on their 100 Best Books Of The 21st Century. The film version (which I really must watch again, now that I’ve read the novel) was released in 2006, and received four Academy Award nominations. A lot of close-but-no-cigars all around, really.

I don’t see why Notes On A Scandal didn’t make a bigger splash. The subject matter is repellent, of course, but it’s an intense and fascinating read with superbly crafted characters, each and every one of them delightfully hateful. Well paced, cleverly choreographed, guaranteed to stay with you – well done, Heller!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Notes On A Scandal:

  • “But that darn Barbara though. She had issues.” – QTEEPYEE
  • “I think Barbara actually feels betrayed that Sheba chose a young man over her. Barbara’s fixation on Sheba is so over the top, but she justifies it in the book and in the movie because she’s “lonely.” Please. Get another cat, crazy lady! Volunteer somewhere! Just. Get. Away.” – Rhonda Filipan
  • “If you like British authors you will love Notes on a Scandal. Two women both wanting something and neither one getting it.” – Jeri Jordan

The Cry – Helen Fitzgerald

I was truly blown away by the TV series The Cry when I caught it by chance on the ABC a few years ago. I didn’t actually realise it was adapted from a book until I came across a copy! So, even though the ending is “spoiled” for me (I couldn’t forget it if I tried, it’s brilliantly plotted), I was still eager to read The Cry and see how it unfolds on the page.

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From the blurb: “When a baby goes missing on a lonely roadside in Australia, it sets off a police investigation that will become a media sensation and dinner-table talk across the world. Lies, rumours and guilt snowball, causing the parents, Joanna and Alistair, to slowly turn against each other.”

Naturally, the premise of The Cry evokes Madeline McCann, for the tender age of the child and the worldwide scrutiny of the parents in the case, but also Azaria Chamberlain for its Australian setting. It’s a modern take on the missing child, told in the style of Liane Moriarty and Gillian Flynn (if you’re fans of their books, you definitely want to pick this one up).

The family at the heart of the story – Joanna, Alistair, and baby boy Noah – are embarking on a long-haul flight from Glasgow to Melbourne when The Cry begins. Joanna is a first-time mother, and the former mistress of British Labour spin-doctor Alistair. The nine-week-old child cries the entire flight, so Joanna is understandably stressed (to say the least) while Alistair remains remarkably calm and actually manages to get some refreshing sleep (typical). Joanna is relieved that when they reach Melbourne, now that the ordeal of the flight is over and Noah is finally asleep.

Of course, the ordeal is only beginning. Baby Noah goes missing, taken from his car seat while Joanna and Alistair were picking up a couple of items from a grocery store.

All of this is told from a close third-person perspective in Part 1, but it shifts in Part 2 to alternating first-person perspectives (more on that in a minute). The timeline of The Cry also shifts back and forth, from events in a courtroom where a trial is taking place back to the events around The Incident, before it settles into a roughly chronological rhythm.

The blurb doesn’t exactly advertise what I’m going to say next, so I’m not sure if it constitutes a “spoiler” – so, heads-up etc. if that would bother you.

The first-person accounts are those of Joanna, and Alistair’s ex-wife, Alexandra. The Cry actually offers a lot more insight into Alexandra’s perspective than I recall being in the TV series. She’s a natural suspect in Noah’s disappearance, if only for the fact that the reason for Joanna and Alistair’s trip to Melbourne is to fight a custody battle for a child from his first marriage. In the book, we can see more about her role in what’s unfolded and her conflicted feelings.

What’s great, though, is that The Cry isn’t a “woman v. woman” thriller. Even though there’s not much love lost between Alexandra and Joanna, Fitzgerald doesn’t pit them against each other in the sympathy stakes.

Both are harangued by the press and the public in the wake of Noah’s disappearance – though Joanna, obviously, more so. It feels sadly realistic and believable, the way that Joanna is picked apart. She’s too distraught, she’s not distraught enough, she shouldn’t smile, she should cry, what’s she wearing, why did she behave this way… It’s a public stoning we’ve seen play out all too many times.

The Cry isn’t a police procedural, so you won’t find any hard-drinking detectives declaring they’re “too old for this” or they “won’t rest until they find Noah”. In fact, the police are increasingly baffled by Noah’s disappearance (and they do a piss poor job of communicating with the parents and the public, to boot).

The ending didn’t punch quite as hard in the book as it did on-screen, but I put that down to Jenna Coleman’s incredible performance as Joanna and Glendyn Ivin’s masterful direction, rather than any fault in Fitzgerald’s writing. The Cry still has a brilliant twist (or two), no matter which way you experience it.

It’s a dark, psychological thriller with a gripping moral dilemma, perfect for anyone who enjoys a story about good people doing bad things. I really want to emphasise that The Cry isn’t just for thriller readers; anyone who likes ethical grey areas and/or the complexity of modern families will rip through it. Clearly, there’s some triggering content (child/infant loss, mental illness), but if you can cope with that, it’s definitely worth a read.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Cry:

  • “This was an interesting and puzzling story. I enjoyed the writing style of the author and the basis of the plot. What I didn’t like was the character of the mother…whiny, weak, and worn. Often, I put down books written about women who are ‘man crazy’ and lose their own souls just to have a guy pay attention to them. Plus, why did this baby cry ALL THE TIME? Take it to a Dr.” – onecarolinagal
  • “If you’ve not lived with a psychopath then you might not appreciate this book.” – Lovinavidadaluz

The Importance Of Being Earnest – Oscar Wilde

I am dipping, once again, into my Complete Works Of Oscar Wilde collection. The first time, I read and reviewed The Picture Of Dorian Gray, and this time I’m taking a stab at one of his plays: The Importance Of Being Earnest. I didn’t realise until after I’d read it that it is subtitled A Trivial Comedy for Serious People – though, as a rather unserious person, I can tell you that didn’t inhibit my enjoyment of this ridiculous romp at all.

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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At the time of writing The Importance Of Being Earnest, Wilde was coming off the back of wild success (pun definitely intended) of his plays An Ideal Husband, and A Woman Of No Importance. He was stuck with his family on a summer holiday in 1894 when he began work on this new venture, borrowing names and places from people and places he knew in real life. The play was finished in time for its first performance at St James’s Theatre in London, on 14 February 1895.

The play is set in “The Present” (i.e., 1895), and revolves around two young men who create fictional excuses to escape tedious social obligations (relatable content!). Act I opens with Algernon receiving Jack (whom he calls “Ernest”) at his home. Jack is planning to propose to Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen, but Algernon discovers his secret – that his name isn’t Ernest at all (spoiler, it’s Jack), and Ernest is a rapscallion “brother” that Jack has invented as a reason to visit the city and a cover for his own bad behaviour.

But, plot twist, Algernon has a similar deception of his own. Whenever he needs an excuse to get out of something, he says that his friend Bunbury is very unwell and he must attend to the invalid’s bedside. He calls this Bunburying, the old-timey equivalent of “my mum says no”.

When Gwendolen shows up – with her mother, the formidable Lady Bracknell, in tow – Jack forges ahead with the proposal, and to his delight she accepts… because his name is Ernest (as far as she knows). She says she had always planned to marry a man by that name, and Jack resolves to have himself re-christened immediately, so that she never need know he’s deceived her.

In Act II, Algernon heads to Jack’s home in the country to meet his ward, an attractive young lady called Cecily. The devious rake presents himself as Ernest, Jack’s troubled brother, and in that guise himself proposes to Cecily. She, too, is particularly fond of the name Ernest, so Algernon also arranges to have himself christened accordingly.

Naturally, their deceptions are exposed and it takes some fancy footwork for Algernon and Jack to dance their way out of trouble. This collection has the full four-act version of The Importance Of Being Earnest, which includes the solicitor who comes to arrest “Ernest” for unpaid bills back in London. Apparently, the manager of the first production asked Wilde to cut it down, and some critics argue that “the three-act structure is more effective and theatrically resonant”… but I disagree.

Wilde’s wit and insight shines at full strength throughout The Importance Of Being Earnest. Take, for instance, this surprisingly timely gem:

ALGERNON: Oh! It is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and one shouldn’t. One should read everything. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.

The Importance Of Being Earnest (Page 360)

That’s something that U.S. governing bodies and school boards would do well to remember, eh?

And while the plot satires and skewers the social conventions of the time and Victorian propriety (the name Earnest might have been an in-joke, suggesting that a man might be gay in the same way that being “musical” did at the time), Wilde steers away from the more serious political matters and sinful behaviour in his earlier plays. The most sinful scene of The Importance Of Being Earnest involved Algernon gluttonously gobbling a platter of cucumber sandwiches intended for his guest.

The farcical premise and witty dialogue have made The Importance Of Being Earnest Wilde’s most enduringly popular play. It’s still beloved by critics, readers, and theatre-goers alike, and I’m happy to join them in singing its praises. It’s a quick read, remarkably clever, and delightfully ridiculous.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Importance Of Being Earnest:

  • ” The book is good and the movie with Colin Firth is about as good but cant be used in class as reference.” – Mads Stokes
  • “Got it but never wanted to read it” – chelsey
  • “The cover’s gross. In England they break their necks and hang em. That’s against constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment. That’s nutty.” J. Kim
  • “Terrible play. Pretentious characters. Predictable plot.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I got 5 pages into this before I gave up.
    I dislike plays at the best of times; with shakespeare you can’t understand it, with this you’re bored to death!
    Cumber sandwiches and tea? “Oh how dreadfully spiffing!” This just fuels the negative snooty-tooty stereotype of us Brits!
    Tell me what is funny about some cagey weirdo with two names and a secret relationship/aunt having his cigarette box stolen and then somehow not knowing what is inscribed on his own property?” – Girlie
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