Tuesday 22 January 2013

Breathtaking cinema: Life of Pi

This is one of those rare occasions in which the film completely trumps my impression of the book. If you recall the account of my reading experience I posted a little while back, you'll remember that I struggled to read Yann Martel's novel. I was determined to, though, because I wanted to make sure I was prepared when it came to watching the film adaptation of Life of Pi.

However, as you'll see, it did little to prepare me.

I have never seen a film so beautiful and, for once, 3D played a large part in my enthusiasm. Usually I'm not a fan of 3D, but in Life of Pi it adds a more palpable emphasis to the wonder of the film. The animals are also flawless, appearing inconceivably realistic (I had to keep reminding myself that it's not possible to train a tiger how to act so specifically!). The varying phases of the water, the sky, the vibrant colours on the streets of India... every element is represented magnificently.

But Life of Pi goes far beyond breathtaking cinematography and astounding visual effects.

Spiritual elements in the film are prevalent and extraordinarily powerful, without being preachy. They were particularly detectable to me because in my own life, I'm far from being an atheist. But, in saying that, I'm not a religious person either. Rather, I am spiritual. Similar, in ways, to Pi, I like to take pieces from different religions and create my own ideologies. I'm sure to many people this won't make a lot of sense (at times, I'm not even sure it does to me!), but it's something that provides me with a lot of comfort. Comparatively, Pi likes to grab hold of all his chosen religions and utilise their particulars as well as he can. They are fundamental aspects of his life. So, I found the spirituality of the film very difficult to ignore; particularly as Pi is drifting across the Pacific Ocean with one bloodthirsty Bengal tiger!

All components are strikingly enhanced by the soundtrack, which blossoms from the moment the film starts. Honestly, if Pi's Lullaby doesn't win the Academy Award for best for Best Original Song, I'll be pretty annoyed!

It's also very hard to believe that the actor who plays Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) is brand new to the world of acting. What a challenging role this must be: Pi is the person who carries the entire story on his shoulders. If Suraj's interpretation failed, the movie would have been a disaster. But he pulls it off with incredible strength and self-assurance, and I am very surprised he wasn't nominated for an Academy Award for his performance. I highly recommend that you listen to/watch the Meet the Filmmaker podcast with Ang Lee if you get the chance the director provides flabbergasting insight into the ways Suraj was prepared as they were filming.

Visually, audibly, spiritually, and emotionally, nothing will top Life of Pi in my eyes. I hope many others get to see this film and be as touched. Ang Lee has truly outdone himself.

Wednesday 16 January 2013

Review: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter, along with his best friends, Ron and Hermione, is about to start his third year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry can't wait to get back to school after the summer holidays. (Who wouldn't if they lived with the horrible Dursleys?) But when Harry gets to Hogwarts, the atmosphere is tense. There's an escaped mass murderer on the loose, and the sinister prison guards of Azkaban have been called in to guard the school...(via Goodreads)

As I read further into the Potter series, I increasingly realise why these books are so popular with all generations. It's not just the underworld of magic, but also the intricacy of the prose. I love how Rowling plants clues and Easter eggs along the way, gently linking a small event in a previous book to a larger one in the present, building plotlines gently. As a reader, it makes me feel very rewarded.

The Prisoner of Azkaban also surprised me more than the previous two in the series. Again, it's impossible for me not to continously think about the films, having seen them first. But compared to The Philosopher's Stone and Chamber of Secrets, the on-screen version of Azkaban changes much more. I understand why they had to do this: there are many parts of the book which involve characters waiting for events to occur for prolonged periods of time. And unlike in a written story, a film can't constantly illustrate this kind of time lapse in a way that wouldn't seem mundane. So scenes, especially those nearer the end, had to be cut and altered for cinematic purposes.

Anyway, that's another exciting Harry Potter book I can now be happy about having read! Now on to the next four.

Rating: 4 / 5

Friday 11 January 2013

Interview with C.W. Gortner – author of The Queen's Vow

It's a pleasure to welcome C.W. Gortner, author of historical fiction. He's here today to talk about his latest novel, The Queen's Vow, which documents the early life of Isabella of Castile.

You can learn more about C.W. Gortner and his other works at cwgortner.com.

What inspired you to write about Isabella of Castile?
As a novelist, I’m clearly attracted to controversial women. In part, I think it’s because I grew up in Spain during the last years of Franco’s regime and was taught censored history when it came to the role of women; I’ve since discovered that most popular history is, in fact, censored. Though I learned about Isabella in school, I always found her rather forbidding until many years later, when I wrote my first novel, The Last Queen, about her daughter, Juana. In that book, I portray Isabella after the fall of Granada in 1492 –she was the triumphant, middle-aged queen who set the stage for Spain’s emergence as a Renaissance nation through the power-marriages of her children. During my research, however, I also found the rarely told story of her youth and tumultuous rise to power— a tale rife with danger and drama that shows such a different side to this somber queen. I knew then it was a story I had to write some day. I’m always interested in characters who transform in unexpected ways, and Isabella is one of those. She did not start out as the person she became, and in The Queen's Vow I wanted to explore how Isabella became the queen and woman she was. 

What are the challenges presented to a male writer, such as yourself, choosing to write a narrative from a woman’s perspective?
I’m often asked this question. I’m always surprised, though I suppose it is a valid concern. I guess some men don’t write women very well! For me, however, writing is like acting: it transcends the limitations imposed by gender. The challenge is to get away from who you are in order to inhabit the character you need to become. An actor must strip away his or her personality and most trained actors will tell you, being a man or a woman should be something they can do, if need be. Of course, actors also require makeup and prosthetics to create the illusion, while writers, on the other hand, are invisible. Moreover emotion is without gender. We all have felt longing, desire, hatred, love, fear, ambition, sorrow. But society and culture dictates how we can express ourselves, according to our gender. When I write, I engage in preparatory work that helps me slough off the layers of societal expectation and experiences that comprise who I am. It’s an organic process, not easily defined, but when I get it right— and the writing never works until I do— I can lose myself in my character in a way that reveals how she experiences her world. It probably helps as well that I grew up in a family of strong women. I was that little boy under the table, listening to my aunts as they gathered for coffee and gossip, to exchange secrets and sorrows. Perhaps I absorbed something of the language that women employ, the different ways they interact with each other and the world. I find it comes very naturally to me.

How did you go about researching your subject? Was it time consuming?
My research for my books takes years. It’s always time consuming, which is why I impose limits on myself. My bibliographies for each of my novels number in the hundreds, from biographies to multiple volumes about the era, architecture, music, costume, gardening, medicine, hunting, etc. I also research in libraries and consult what we term primary sources, whenever possible— the extant letters, ambassadorial accounts, dispatches, and court paperwork. I seek out everything and anything that will help me flesh out the details of a vanished time. But because this research can be so seductive—one can literally spend years digging around without ever actually writing a word of the novel—I only research enough to have a strong basis with which to start writing; when I encounter blocks along the way, I go back, research again, and continue writing. I find it easier to ferret out details later, rather than know everything upfront. It’s a haphazard way to work, for some, but it works best for me.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading The Queen’s Vow?
I hope readers will come away with a better understanding of who Isabella was and the challenges she faced as a woman and a ruler. Understanding is the key; whether we like her or not is secondary. I’ve always said, I do not judge my characters. Judgment implies condemnation and when we condemn something, we lose our empathy for it. As a historical novelist writing in the first person, my responsibility is to inhabit my character, to see and feel the world through her eyes. I may not agree with her (in fact, I often don’t) but that’s not the point. It’s not about me, it’s about her. Isabella faced tremendous obstacles, both because of her upbringing and her place in her society, yet she succeeded despite these odds; she defied the rules by marrying a man she chose, rather than letting him be chosen for her and they united a fragmented country, for better and for worse. She made controversial choices, which had terrible ramifications that caused great suffering and blackened her reputation. All of these things are true: she was not good or bad, an easily pigeonholed cliché. Like all of us, Isabella of Castile was a complex and contradictory human being. And that, I hope, is more interesting than a legend.

What are some historical novels you enjoy reading?
I enjoy many of the novelists working today; I think the genre is experiencing a revival, a renaissance, if you will, where the old forms and traditions are being subverted. New ways are being found to tell these stories, so that they can find a new generation of readers. History is exciting again, dramatic and passionate; it’s alive, not staged, and despite the furor around anachronisms and inaccuracies and all the rest, I prefer that history be accessible and not intimidating to readers. If they love a novel about an event or a character, they’re more likely to seek out non-fiction accounts. Historical fiction is, in the final say, entertainment, but it can also illuminate the past and restore luster to what is faded or forgotten.

Do you have any words of wisdom for budding writers?
Persevere. Writing is a tough career. You have to want to write more than anything else. It took me thirteen years to get published; I had several agents and hundreds of rejections before I finally broke into the mainstream. I went through my share of despair and doubt along the way, but I never gave up. I had to write because I was miserable if I didn’t. I even tried to stop at one point. I went a full six months before I realized it was worse not to write than to never be published. So, I dusted off my bruised ego, learned from my mistakes and continued working on my craft. Today, of course, we have many choices available to us as writers: publishing has never been easier and yet, conversely, never more difficult. The new mediums offer an array of options to seeing our work to print and hopefully into readers’ hearts, but the same rules apply. Writing is never perfect; we can always do something better. I believe writers still need editors to help shape our work. We need support in order to continue writing, both financially and in the marketplace, which is increasingly beset by its own conundrums.  The old guard is imperfect and always has been, but the new guard is also flawed. I urge budding writers to consider all their options and know what they want from their writing. There are two sides to being a writer: craft and business. It’s important to differentiate between the two and know what you ultimately hope to achieve from each. Success can be measured in all sorts of ways but to become a working writer who makes a living off his or her words, you must be prepared. You must not only study the craft but also the business of publishing itself, and know where you do, or do not, fit in. As more and more writers opt to bypass the traditional route, as more and more books flood an already overcrowded market of dwindling readership, being a good writer is no longer enough. You have to be a savvy one, as well.

Lastly, are you working on any further projects?
The second novel in my Tudor spymaster trilogy, The Tudor Conspiracy, will be released in the UK and the US in July, 2013. I’m currently working on a novel about Lucrezia Borgia, focusing on her early years in the Vatican, when she went from being the naïve illegitimate daughter of an ambitious Spanish cardinal to one of Italy’s most notorious women. Her thrust into notoriety and dangerous struggle to define herself as she battles the rapacity of her own family has offered me another remarkable story of perseverance and transformation. The book will be published in 2014.

Thursday 3 January 2013

Review: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling

Harry, Ron and Hermione have returned to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for their second year. (But Harry and Ron only just made it - they missed the Hogwarts Express and had to get there in a flying car ...!) Soon the threesome are immersed in the daily round of Potions, Herbology, Charms, Defence Against the Dark Arts, and Quidditch.

But then horrible things start happening. Harry hears evil voices. Sinister messages appear on the wall. But nothing can prepare the three friends for what happens next ...

A brilliant sequel to the award-winning Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. (via Goodreads)

I thought I'd have a little break in between reading the first and second books in the Harry Potter series, but I couldn't stay away!

The Chamber of Secrets is just as good as The Philosopher's Stone, but with a deeper sense of suspense. This is also Harry's second year at Hogwarts, so the reader gets to explore more of the castle and its inhabitants along with him, as well as many further aspects of the wizarding world.

New characters are introduced, and one of the most impressionable on me was Gilderoy Lockhart; a famous and very self-absorbed wizard who fancies himself a little too much! He is precisely the opposite of Harry, who is modest and prefers not to boast about his accomplishments. I think this is one of the most distinguishable characteristics of Rowling's writing her ability to create well-developed, vivid characters. It's hard to get one mixed up with another.

However, like I said in my review of The Philosopher's Stone, it's a shame that I can't erase what I remember watching in the films! It certainly takes away some of the excitement.

Even so, I can't wait to read the rest of the books. I'm starting on The Prisoner of Azkaban now, and will read the entire Harry Potter series before I start with anything else (or at least try and read them alongside other books!)

Rating: 4 / 5