Thursday, February 27, 2014

Meeting Mr. Hugo: Nothing Like Disney

Disney's adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of my favourite films of all time. It has everything: a sweeping score that sends chills up your spine, endearing protagonists, an epic villain, and absolutely breathtaking visuals. It's an animated film that appeals mostly to adults. It's dark, and while it has some cartoony, silly moments, it's often scary and brutal (I present the "Hellfire" scene as evidence).

But it's a Disney movie. It's written to appeal to kids, and to have a modern sensibility in its storytelling.

The book is nothing like it.

The movie starts with Quasimodo as a baby, being smuggled into the city by his gypsy mother. Claude Frollo chases her down, thinking her bundle is stolen goods, and ends up knocking her over, hitting her head, and killing her on the steps of Notre Dame. He then realizes she was carrying a baby, not something she'd stolen, and the baby is horrible disfigured. He's about to drop the baby down a well when he archdeacon of the church arrives, and charges Frollo with raising and caring for the child as a penance for what he did to the mother. Frollo reluctantly agrees, fearing for his soul, and says the baby must live in the bell tower of Notre Dame forever.

In the book? Well...

The real story starts with a single room. Hugo takes pages to describe the "Grand Salle" in the Palace of Justice, and the massive crowd of Parisians gathering in it on January 6th, 1482. It's a festival day, and there's going to be a presentation of a morality play, a popular form of entertainment in the Middle Ages. Parisians crowd around, waiting for hours and hours to ensure they have a good spot from which to watch the play. There are going to be a number of fancy people there to watch the play, including a lot of noblemen and a noblewoman from Flanders, who seems to be quite a big deal. The fancy people, including a cardinal who everyone is most eager to please, are late, so the play is delayed until they arrive. Everyone gets mad. The regular people start to bicker and grow restless.

The guy who wrote the play is lurking about in the shadows. His name is Pierre Gringoire, and he starts chatting up some girls who think he's really cool for having written this eagerly-anticipated play. Then the fancy people arrive, making a huge fuss, and finally the play gets underway. Pierre Gringoire, who suddenly becomes our main character, starts getting really annoyed when the fancy folk don't pay attention to his play, because the regular folk start paying attention to the fancies, who start gossiping and carrying on. The play is kind of awful, anyway, and everyone goes along with it when this super cool fancy guy suggests they get on with another festival event, the selection of the "Pape des Fous," which translates to "Pope of Fools" but which Disney changed to "King of Fools," because you can't be making fun of the church in a Disney movie apparently. Oh yeah, they also switched Claude Frollo from an archdeacon to a judge in the movie.

Anyway, the play is soundly ignored, and the people turn their attention to the people vying for the title of Pope of Fools. They have this puppet-stage like thing set up for people to pop their faces into and make scary faces at the crowd, hoping to awe and terrify them the most. Gringoire watches in disgust. He's so above them, being a super cool playwright and stuff. He watches as the crowd gasps when the ugliest face peers through the hole and becomes Pope of Fools.

In the Disney movie, everyone is horrified when it's revealed that Quasimodo's face isn't a mask, that he really is that disfigured. In the book, literally everyone already knows who Quasimodo is. The fancy guy who grants the title is amazed by this ape-like, mute, deaf hunchback (oh yeah, he's mute and deaf in the book, from ringing the bells so much -- that actually makes sense), but everyone else kind of shrugs and goes, "Oh, yeah, Quasimodo, that guy." The literal words out of one guy's mouth are "Bonjour, Quasimodo!" They carry him off for fun and games as the Pope of Fools.

At this point, I was like what. The. Literal. Fuck. Way to go, Disney, making the Medieval folk of Paris look like utter jerks for ostracizing poor Quasimodo when they really actually embraced him. And what the fuck, Victor Hugo, what is this? What a bizarre story.

And it's still only the beginning.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Meeting Mr. Hugo: the Beginning

Back in November (I think... was it really that long ago?) my boyfriend and I took a weekend trip to Victoria, BC. It's only about four hours away from home, but it feels like another place entirely. Just a nice place to spend a chill weekend, feeling like you've stepped back in time.

The highlight of the trip, for me, was Munro's Books. It's a really old, independent bookstore in the heart of the city, in a beautiful old building, resplendent with pillars and stained glass and fancy plaster. It's a book lover's dream. I swear I thought I'd died and ended up in heaven.

Needless to say, I busted the piggy bank and bought a sizeable stack of books. Like I usually do, I wandered the store, picking my purchase carefully. Shuffling them around, vetoing some, putting some back to acquire others. Making bargains with myself. Making Boyfriend carry some of my heavier selections. I was just about done when I rounded a corner and found myself face-to-face with a French fiction section, the biggest I've ever seen in a non-library.

I was in a French immersion program in school from age 10 to 17. After a few months of learning the language, 70-95% of my classes throughout that time were in French (minus English classes, of course) -- I even had French gym class. We played "le hockey" and "le basketball." But after graduation from high school, I have barely used my French besides reading cereal boxes and shampoo bottles.

So, as a booklover faced with a wall of books in a language I missed so much, I couldn't resist. I wanted to scoop up everything that looked even semi-interesting, but I settled on one: The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo, or Notre Dame de Paris, its French title. The Disney movie is among my favourites and I've always wanted to read the book and see how it compared.

It sat in my TBR pile for a while, as most books I read do, until I decided it was time. And so, for about a month now, I've been reading Hunchback for an hour or so every night. Sometimes it's slow-going. Sometimes I have my French dictionary open as often as I have the novel open. But sometimes it's fantastic. Sometimes I fly through chapters as easily as if they were English. It's exhilarating, relearning something you used to know by heart, flexing muscles that haven't been flexed in ages, and rediscovering that, hey, I'm damn good with French.

French isn't even the best part, though.

Hunchback is a really, really, really good book. I'm only a few hundred pages in, with a long way ahead of me, but damn. It doesn't get anywhere near the amount of praise it deserves.

And, also... it's fucking batshit insane.

Seriously. Victor Hugo's mind is just... ah! How? Why? WHAT IS GOING ON?

And so, I thought I'd start a bit of a blog series, hashing out this redonkulous book. Because I'm pretty sure Boyfriend is tired of hearing the words "Just guess what Victor Hugo fucking did in this fucking book, it's unbelievable!"

Let's start at the beginning.

But not the real beginning. Because it's hard to tell where exactly this book even starts. It certainly doesn't start in the first 54 pages -- that's just a huge long preface by some French scholar guy. I skipped that straight off the bat. But does it start in the next section, where Hugo writes about seeing some old word graffitied in Notre Dame by some Medieval delinquant. From there, he waxes poetic -- for seven pages -- about why he wrote the book. He wants you to appreciate Medieval architecture. That's his main point. The story isn't just a story, he says. It's meant to get his contemporary readers to look around their 19th century Parisian environment and stop valuing only the new and rejecting everything old. He straight-up admits that there are tons of extra chapters of Hunchback that are just about buildings and have nothing to do with the story. He freely admits that the book is bloated with extraneous information.

Try admitting that as a writer today. Today, Hugo would definitely be one of those writers.

And that's just one head-scratcher. The WTF starts pretty quickly after, in Book One.

To be continued...

Thursday, January 30, 2014

My reaction to the TFIOS trailer

So yesterday, the internet was gifted with the early release of the first trailer for THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, the movie. "Yay!" cried most of the world. "*sob*" was heard soon after.

I had a few thoughts pertaining to the trailer, and since I'm incapable of putting words into cohesive paragraphs right now, here they are in list form:

--Shailene Woodley seems utterly fabulous. I haven't seen any of her previous films or television work, but she seems like the absolute perfect YA heroine for the screen. She looks real. Nothing plastic or perfect about her. I'm excited about the movie just for this reason.

--Ansel Elgort, whose work I know even less about, seems equally adorable. I think my high school self definitely would've had a crush on a boy who looked like that saying things like "I'm in love with you." Oh yeah, I could've gotten behind that.

--That said... some of his dialogue in the trailer comes off a bit stiff. I find myself mentally revising some of his lines and wishing he'd said them a little differently. There's a lot of John Green in his dialogue, it would seem. Which is fine and accurate from an adaptation standpoint, since Augustus is hyper-intelligent and just a wee bit pretentious, very much like John Green, but... I don't know, sometimes I think there's such a thing as "too John Green" :P

--Hazel's parents are going to break my heart on the screen just like they did on the page. Their faces in the trailer, in the hospital... oh God, I can already feel the tears pouring down my face.

--Mike Birbiglia as the support group leader, Patrick = hilarious. I love Mike's standup, and hearing his simpering voice as Patrick is just pure perfection.

Anyways, based on the trailer, I'm anticipating a pretty fantastic movie! It's about time a John Green book made it to screen, and I think this is a good one to start with. I hope it does well at the box office and proves to the world that YA can do this whole blockbuster thing.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Review: FANGIRL by Rainbow Rowell

I don't know if everyone has this experience with reading YA literature, but a lot of the books I read don't feel real. There's something in them that keeps them disconnected from life as I, personally, know it. Usually it's tropes of American high school that don't exist for me in real life, as I'm Canadian. Homecoming. Sadie Hawkins dances. Pep rallies. I find those things alienating. I know what they're like because I've read so many books that include them, but I don't have any real connection there. I find a lot of YA romance to be isolating, too, because I had my first kiss at eighteen and got into my first real relationship a year ago, when I was twenty-one. Still in that relationship. I'm having all my "firsts" as an adult, so reading about fifteen-year-olds having them feels unrealistic a lot of the time.

FANGIRL is not one of those "unreal" books.

Even though it's set in an American college, yet another of those things that feels distant to me, FANGIRL feels like the story of my life, in a lot of ways. I wrote Harry Potter fanfiction for a few years in my early teens and even after I started writing original stories, I went through my teens feeling like Cath. The lame, dorky exception-to-every-rule. The weird basement gremlin who prefers writing about life to living it, and secretly resents everyone else for having what I supposedly didn't. Really, I was making choices that kept myself isolated. But I didn't really know any better, so I forgive myself. And like Cath, I wrote stories about gay boys -- I was obsessed with unavailable men because that way they couldn't hurt me.

I related to Cath's story so much, especially the Levi aspect. Rainbow Rowell doesn't resort to romance writing clichés and shorthands. Instead of wallowing in the hero's eye colour or rippling pectoral muscles, she instead writes about his unconventionally attractive traits. A receding hairline. A wide forehead. A small mouth. Levi isn't just anyone's hunk but he's attractive to Cath. He isn't the strong, brooding silent type. He's an extrovert and has trouble with book learning, rather than being a genius scholar like so many love interests. As their relationship progresses, Cath revels in parts of him that are special to her and only her. His chin is her favourite part of him.

I adored this. This is what loving someone is to me: appreciating the small things that make this person different and special to you. Like Levi, my boyfriend isn't a conventional heartthrob, but I wouldn't change his crooked teeth or wild eyebrows for the world. Rainbow Rowell really gets that feeling like I feel a lot of authors don't.

There's absolutely nothing cliché about this book. Rowell never takes the easy way out in her writing. I can't freaking wait to read more from her.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Review: The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider

The original title for Robyn Schneider's The Beginning of Everything was Severed Heads, Broken Hearts. That's the title I originally saw on Goodreads and the title that initially drew me to this book. Let me tell you, if it had had the abysmal title of The Beginning of Everything from the outset, I wouldn't have even wanted to pick this up. Talk about a bland title. Even my boyfriend, who doesn't read much outside of Stephen King novels, curled his lip at that title when he saw me reading the book.

At first I thought the severed heads thing from the title was just a figure of speech; maybe a metaphor for disconnected, disaffected youth or something. But nope. In the first chapter, the MC recounts the time he and his childhood best friend rode a Disneyland roller coaster and the kid sitting in front of them stood up at an inopportune time and wound up beheaded -- with the MC's best friend holding the head in shock for the duration of the ride.

After reading that first chapter, I was like, "Sign me up, boringly titled book. You've redeemed yourself already."

Unfortunately, it went downhill from there.

The Beginning of Everything is peopled entirely with clichés. The sad, misunderstood male MC. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl he meets and falls head over heels in love with -- BUT SHE HAS A DARK, SECRET PAST. The stereotypically quirky group of "nerds" who belong to the debate club and watch Doctor Who. The Slutty McSlutterson of a cheerleading ex-girlfriend who is villainized for her sexuality. The parents who barely make an appearance. None of these characters ever make it past that initial archetype.

I really can't believe this book. I really can't.

A couple things I can't really articulate enough to write proper paragraphs on:

--The MC, Ezra Faulkner (a very silly name), has a knee injury that shattered his athletic future... but it's never really mentioned as causing him any pain. He walks with a cane most of the time. He cannot play tennis anymore. And yet the most mention we get of how the injury -- which didn't happen very long ago -- affects his day-to-day life is maybe one or two mentions of a dull ache? Maybe one instance where he fancies walking his dog, but can't? I call bullshit. This is the kind of injury that changes your life far beyond not hanging out with your teammate friends anymore.

--The secret, hidden past of the Manic Pixie was WAY TOO EASY to guess. And I am notoriously oblivious and awful at guessing twists. The instant there was a hint of foreshadowing, I was like "Oh, obviously her mom is dead" (not a spoiler, I made that example up). And I was right. Ugh!

--I hate, hate, hate it when bad things happen to animals for no reason. This book gets a thumbs down on that count alone. Also, Ezra's dog. A Standard Poodle, so fairly big. Supposed to be sixteen years old -- which is old for a small dog! -- and still able to run and play fetch? Bullshit. No way.

Aside from the occasional spot of inspired, beautiful prose, this book was dumb.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Review: ARCLIGHT by Josin L. McQuein

I read this book in support of the author. She's a prominent poster on Absolute Write, and her posts often make me think and applaud. It often happens where my main interest in a book is the support of its author, not the story itself.

So that's how I came into this book. Try as I might, I'm not really a sci-fi fan. Except in my love of Star Trek. I've never really been able to develop a sci-fi passion outside of Star Trek. Probably has something to do with my parents taking one-year-old me to a Trekkie convention and meeting Jonathan Frakes (the one childhood memory I wish I could remember).

Josin L. McQuein has another book coming out this year, October's Premeditated, a contemporary revenge thriller that is more up my alley than Arclight was. So earlier this year I bought Arclight hoping it would give me a taste of the awesome to come in that book.

And yeah, Premeditated will be awesome, if Arclight has anything to show for it. Arclight itself? Well... it was awesome, too. In a sense.

This is a very unique book. It isn't your typical YA sci-fi. Hell, it isn't your typical YA. This book has more to say than any other YA sci-fi I've ever read. It isn't just a surface-deep action adventure, although there's plenty of action. This is a book that appears to be one thing, appears to show the world in one light, but the further you read, the more layers are peeled back. This is a book that speaks volumes on war and indoctrination and race relations, and how different groups can be hated -- and murdered -- just for misconceptions and lies spread by their enemies. This book is brave and scary and deep.

But this book is also unclear.

I felt that McQuein's writing could have benefitted from more tell and less show, the opposite of my prescription for most writers. Often, especially in the first half of the book, the reader is left to flounder. It's hard to ground yourself in what's happening because the prose can be so very murky. Rather than tell you that a certain character is another character's brother, four or five hints at a close relationship are dropped within a chapter and it's up to you to gather the facts and figure it out. Sometimes a hundred words are used to show you something that could have been easier summed up by a quick sentence or aside.

The Fade, the creepy-as-hell race of monsters who terrorize the humans who live in the Arclight, are amazing creatures. When we don't know much about them, they're surrounded by this awesome aura of creeptasticness. And when we do learn more about them, when the layers of the story unfold, they're revealed to be an amazingly unique race of people that I'm really impressed with McQuein for imagining. The problem lies between those two states, though. The Fade in the beginning take an awful long time to develop from scary, mysterious monsters into concrete beings that we can see and understand. Point A and Point B are great, but stringing the two together, we get confused and muddled in how we're supposed to be imagining these things.

The main character, Marina, was actually a superbly written protagonist -- blank and dull in the beginning, but there's a reason for this that makes the whole book worth it. I didn't guess the twist in this character at all (but then, I'm notoriously bad for guessing twists, so your mileage may vary here). Other characters were not so well realized, though. Tobin was a complete throw-away of a love interest. Too perfect, too loving, not really well-described enough for me to tell you anything about what he looks like or what his personality is like. And -- this was a real WTF moment for me -- in the beginning he beats a boy almost to death for insulting Marina, and... this is okay with everybody. The boy spends the rest of the book in the hospital with nary another mention, and no one EVER turns on Tobin for this or punishes him in any way. WTF?

So this book does amazingly well on a concept and philosophy level, and the science here is pretty sound, too. Scores on the clarity and characterization, though, are disappointingly low.

Will I read the sequel? Mmm... maybe.

Will I read other books by Josin? Hell yeah.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

I'm baaaack!

Yes, you read that title right: I'm coming back to blogging.

Sort of.

Y'see, blogging tires me out. When I look at other peoples' fabulous blogs, with all those widgets and pictures and pretty things, it makes me tired and sad and like I'll never amount to anything. And trying to keep up with everyone else's super awesome memes and series... forget it. I become a quivering mass of apathy.

But I genuinely do like sharing my opinions occasionally. And I've been a lot better at actually reading books and stuff lately, and wanting to get back into reviewing.

So on this blog I will post reviews. I will post the odd writing-related thing. I will probably blog a bit during NaNoWriMo, which isn't so far away (!!!).

I will not be doing anything that makes me tired or frustrated or confused. I will not be posting pictures (that includes cover pictures of the book I'm reviewing... I hate doing that for some reason), unless I really feel I HAVE to share this picture or I'm just going to die.

So, under this new blog title (Book Rich, House Poor -- because I have a fabulous book collection but almost nothing else to my name, heehee), that's what's gonna happen. Are we excited? I'm excited :)