Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Black Country by Alex Grecian

the Black CountryPeople who own stock art of foggy Victorian landscapes with ominous men in hats must be making a fortune due to this surge in recent Victorian era historical fictions.  Here’s another one! This is a sequel to the book I reviewed earlier this year, The Yard. I believe this will be an ongoing series.

To refresh your (and my) memory, The Yard is about the first real homicide department in existence.  It takes place soon after Jack the Ripper haunted London’s streets, and deals with truly heinous crimes, the gritty city at its worst, and the beginnings of forensic science.  There are a lot of peripheral characters, but a few main characters.  Walter Day leads the new murder squad, and Nevil Hammersmith is his second-in-command, and Dr. Kingsley is their one-man CSI unit.  Day straddles the line between a middle class existence and a living earned in the foulest places you can imagine. Hammersmith was raised in a coal mining village (he happily escaped) and is routinely drugged or knocked unconscious.  Kingsley is your typical Holmes-esque forensic expert. More comfortable with the dead than the living, devoted to science, a bit lacking in tact.

These three main characters are transplanted from their London homes for this sequel, set in the eponymous Black Country, aka the west Midlands.  This is the area around Birmingham, a little past halfway between London and Liverpool. Instead of the bustling London city with its heinous East End slums and glamorous Hyde Park apartments, the three of them are looking for a missing family in a tiny coal mining town, precariously perched on top of those same mines.  Every building in the place is in constant danger of toppling into the ground. Every person is hiding something, is superstitious and secretive, is overwhelmed with a bleak and destitute life.

A husband, wife, and their young child have been missing a few days time when the officers arrive.  The couple’s remaining children have something to hide, but we know not what.  Someone drug’s Constable Hammersmith (not the first time). A mysterious illness has sprung up in town and infected the majority of the townspeople.  An old wives’ tale about ‘Rawhead and Bloody Bones’ has convinced the citizens of Blackhampton that evil lurks in their mist. The Londoners dismiss it as tosh, until Walter Day sees a man with half his cheek missing, his teeth visible through the side of his face.

Like The Yard, this isn’t an overcomplicated book. It’s a mystery, easy breezy and interesting.  I think the pace was a little slower, which meant it took me a bit longer to finish.  But there were enough red herrings and multiple plot lines to keep me interested.  The scenes are very readable; it’s never too taxing.  On the other hand, there were a few flaws.  For one thing, just as with the Yard, I figured out the answer to the mystery with 40-50 pages left to go.  That’s a long time to slog through when you already know what’s happened.  There was one surprise at the very end, but for the most part I was not surprised by whodunnit.

Another problem is that a lot of the scenes described were very physical–lots of searching through forests or mines, or scenes of sifting through a destroyed building.  There’s nothing wrong with writing scenes like that, but I had a very hard time picturing the action in my head.  Alex Grecian is a comic book writer, which means he hasn’t had to rely on describing action in the past.  That may be why his descriptions weren’t always clear enough for me to grasp.  I found it bothersome just because if you can’t picture the thing in your imagination, it takes you out of the action. I tried to read through again to get a better handle on those scenes, but it didn’t work. I just wasn’t given enough information to construct the physical place in my head.

Finally, there were a few plot pieces that never got tied up.  One of the local police officers is killed soon after the Londoners arrive, and there’s hardly a mention of him again.  Once or twice, people inquire after his whereabouts, but that’s it.  No one finds his body, no one seems inordinately worried about him or why he isn’t assisting with the investigation. I found this bothersome. I expected his body to be found at the end, or some other bow to be wrapped around that storyline, but it was just left that way.  Similarly, no mention at the end of what will/does happen to the legions of sick townsfolk. But it’s a series…maybe that will be addressed in the next one?

There’s an American man involved in all this, and we see his history, we see why he’s there, we see him die, but we never find out his name or his story.  Maybe Alex Grecian didn’t think it was particularly important, but I was bothered by the lack of information. There are snippets about him, but after he died I was expecting some revelation about his identity, and nothing came. Nor did we learn much about the man he was trying to kill. I wanted more info!

Compared to The Yard, the Black Country has a pretty miserable ending. A lot more people die, a lot more people are swallowed by grief during the course of the book. It’s darker. Pretty incredible, considering the Yard dealt with male bodies being found in trunks at the train station. The books are a light read, but the subject matter is nowhere near light.

Coal miner towns are such an amazing thing to think about, particularly back in the pre-union times of the 19th century.  I can’t imagine a worse existence, particularly when you consider the fact that people still go down there.  But back in the 19th century, children were down there, men, women, ponies, canaries.  Everyone.  For incredibly long shifts for criminally low wages.  No chance to ever escape that life.  It had never occurred to me that the coal mines, the tunnels they dug, would actually endanger the towns and structures above. It makes sense, obviously, but the idea of the entire town plunging slowly into a sinkhole and the residents casual acceptance of that fact…is hard to comprehend. I’ve read some other things about coal mining towns, particularly by Dylan Thomas, and those accounts can be incredibly moving. This book didn’t aspire to that level of grim realism about the people in those situations, but I think it missed the mark a little even with modest expectations.  It seems more like a 21st-century story transplanted to the past (a mystery is much easier without cell phones and heat sensors) than a story grown from that era.  Understandable, but not all historical fiction has to be that way.  Stories can seem at home in the past.  Mark Twain wrote about King Arthur’s Court, Charles Dickens wrote about the French Revolution.  Someone who understands human nature can put themselves in the shoes of everyone, present or past.  It might be bizarre, it might be difficult, but it’s possible.  With this book it just wasn’t really done.  With The Yard, I think I had almost the identical problem. The difference between the two is that the Black Country seemed a little more tedious to me, and a little less satisfying at the end.  I’m hoping the next one will be back in London, and will be a bit faster-paced.

Also, as I pointed out in my review of the Yard, a bobby actually says ‘wot’s all this then??’ while approaching a crime scene.  Anxious not to let down every stereotype we Americans have of the British police, Grecian has had another bobby say it in this book.  I mean, really?  Did Grecian get his copper talk from this list of stock British phrases? Cor, blimey!

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Cornetto Trilogy: The World’s End

The-Worlds-End-posterThough not really a trilogy, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright have now created three loosely-linked comedies that they’ve dubbed the Cornetto Trilogy.  The first two films were, of course, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.  I love those movies, so I jumped at the chance to see a movie marathon this week.  From 5:30-midnight, we watched all three, culminating with the new film, The World’s End.

Let me just take a minute to say I really like Shaun of the Dead, but I absolutely love Hot Fuzz. It’s one of my favorite comedies of all time.  I don’t think The World’s End will replace it in my top 5, but I still enjoyed the new movie very much. Watching the whole trilogy also gave me a chance to compare and contrast the three movies and the characters each actor plays throughout.  Lots of food for thought there.

In The World’s End, Simon Pegg plays Gary King. He was your typical badass teenager in 1990, leaving school and full of optimism and hatred for authority.  20 years later, he’s…exactly the same person, but a lot more depressed. He wears the same clothes, has the same coat and dyed black hair.  He failed to grow up.  His gang of teenage friends, on the other hand, have all become proper adults with trench coats and nice cars and retirement plans.  Gary convinces himself that the best way to get a new lease on life is to go back and finish the epic quest they started when they were teenagers–a 12-pint pub crawl in their hometown of Newton Haven. The eponymous World’s End is the last pub on the route.

He re-enters the thoroughly normal lives of his former friends and convinces them to go along on this trip.  Though they react to him like an unwelcome re-emergence of herpes, they all show up.  There’s

Eddie Marsan as Peter

The_World's_End_6a car salesman who still works for his dad.  He is your typical bored married man, 2 kids, needs some excitement in his life.

 

Nick Frost as Andy

worlds-end-poster-nick-frost-405x600For once, Nick Frost gets to play the smart guy who is frustrated by his friend’s low IQ/responsibility.  This is a real departure, considering the near opposite roles they had in Hot Fuzz. Andy is a lawyer with a big fancy office, and he’s quite angry at Gary (Simon) because of something that happened when they were teenagers.  A slight flaw in Gary’s plans for a pub crawl is that Andy no longer drinks-at all.

 

 

Martin Freeman plays Oliver

worlds-end-poster-martin-freeman-405x600People forget that Martin Freeman has been in both of the previous movies, but he has!  He had a very tiny scene in Shaun of the Dead, as Yvonne’s boyfriend.  And he was a member of the Metropolitan Police Force in Hot Fuzz. Here, he finally gets a proper part of the action. Oliver is a realtor with a hot sister (Rosamund Pike) and a curious birthmark.  I love Martin Freeman, but I cannot possibly be remotely attracted to anyone with a bluetooth headset, so that spoiled things a bit.

Lastly, Paddy Considine plays Steven

worlds-end-poster-paddy-considine-405x600You should recognize Paddy (though he no longer has the glorious mustache) as DC Wainwright–or was it Cartwright?–from Hot Fuzz. In this movie, Steven is something of a rival to Gary–or that’s how Gary saw it in school–and the two are both interested in Oliver’s sister.  Of course, he’s dating his 26-year-old Pilates instructor, so that’s a little awful, but what can you do.

 

At any rate, the 5 guys get together for a night in the old town.  Gary hasn’t changed at all. His clothes, his attitude about life, even his car–all the same.  He plays an old song from their youth, and Steven points out that he once put that on a mixed tape for Gary.  It’s the same tape; it’s been in the tape player ever since.

Everything else is different.  The town is different.  A few pubs have been turned into soulless outlets of a chain of pubs with the same decor and the same offerings.  The local drug dealer from school is now a suit-wearing businessman. Peter’s worst bully doesn’t even recognize him.  Oh yeah, and the town is now controlled by body-snatcher-style robots filled with blue inky goo.

The movie is many things simultaneously.  It’s a nod to movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Stepford Wives–the robots just want to be model citizens and obey the laws, etc.  It’s a different take on the mid-life crisis movies/bromance drinking movies like The Hangover and Grown-Ups.  It’s a discussion about growing up and changing, and what happens when you don’t do that.  And what happens when you do it too much.

As expected, it was very funny.  I think sometimes the pacing was a little uneven.  Feverish action moments, and then things slowed to a crawl.  When you compare this to the slow build of the other two films, it’s a bit of a weakness.  And Rosamund Pike’s character isn’t given much to do, except to be a girl who exists in this world.  Something to save and a prize for the hero at the end.  These never were movies about women, let’s be honest. And I really don’t know how I feel about the ending.  Unlike Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, this is a proper apocalypse movie with a dystopian future left at the end. I don’t know how I feel about that, except that I feel like I can’t take any more books/movies about Armageddon.

Some of the in-jokes and homages were presumably lost on me because I’m not up on kung-fu movies or comic books.  But the other thing about this trilogy is you catch new jokes each time you watch.  This time through Hot Fuzz, I realized that there is a really blatant reference to the classic Jack Nicholson movie, Chinatown (which, if you haven’t seen, I recommend it but please have some Xanax ready afterward because it is a downer).  But I’d never noticed that before, and it really made me chuckle.  I predict that I will need to watch The World’s End at least 3 more times before I can really evaluate my long-term opinion of it.  But I’m happy to make that sacrifice.

Also, can I end with some ridiculous trivia I have just discovered?  As I said, most of the actors have been in all three movies.  As have a lot of other actors that just come in for brief moments. Bill Nighy was step-dad Phillip in SotD, and the Chief Inspector in HF. He lends only his voice to tWE, but he was there. David Bradley (aka Argus Filch) was in HF and plays the town conspiracy theorist in tWE.  And most amazingly is the story of Rafe Spall.  First bit of strange trivia–he’s the son of Timothy Spall, aka Peter Pettigrew.  In tWE, he has a brief cameo as a man looking to buy a house, but you will remember him from HF as DI Cartwright (or was it Wainwright?!?).

86032_1298092156469_fullIn addition to playing Shakespeare in that heinous movie Anonymous, I stumbled on his part in Shaun of the Dead.  He was the fat obnoxious kid, Noel??

NoelYup.  That kid, grew into this man:

article-2142708-13066EBD000005DC-602_224x423Also, Petter Pettigrew has a son that looks like this?!  What the fuck.

 

Sports vs Sport – UK & US Athletics

soccer-vs-football

When people think of me, they think of sports, right?  Ok, no, they don’t. I am the least sporty person in the world.  But after seeing the 300th commercial for the beginning of the English Premier League on American TV, I thought I might dip my feet in the water and see what all of this nonsense is about.  I’ve been exposed to American sports for my entire life, and have been thoroughly bored and annoyed by them for that same length of time.  But I don’t actually know much about British sport, so I may as well give it a small chance, in case football (soccer) really is so fabulous.  Maybe British sport is just better?  Anything is possible. So let’s discuss the differences. But please excuse in advance all the mistakes of vocabulary I am going to make during this post.  I can barely remember the proper terms for American sports, so if I say field when I mean pitch, do not murder me via angry comments. This entire post is written with tongue firmly placed in cheek, so don’t take it too seriously. Be gentle.

Sport vs Sports- Linguistic differences are so strange sometimes.  In the UK, you play sport or you watch sport.  In the US, you play sports or watch sports.  Where did the s go/come from?  I suspect it was taken off sports so that it could be added to maths.  

Another linguistic fun fact: As much as Brits decry us for saying ‘soccer’ instead of ‘football’, soccer was the original term and it was British in origin.  Soccer was called ‘association football’, to distinguish it from other types of ‘football’ that were played at the time (including Rugby–then called Rugger).  Association football was shortened to Assoccer, and then just soccer. So, it’s not an American thing.  Legend has it an Oxford student coined the term in 1863. That being said, football makes more sense for a sport where you are only allowed to use your feet than it does for our US football, where you primarily use your hands.

And to confuse everyone even more, the Brits often shorten football to ‘footy’, but the Australians call Rugby footy.  How anyone has any idea what game they’re playing is beyond me.  But this blog is mostly about the UK, so I’m not going to delve into Aussie sports now.

In the UK, there are two sports that are in the upper-echelons of popularity: Rugby Union and Association Football (soccer). Of those two, Football is the clear favorite, but Rugby is quite popular in certain geographical areas.

Rugby is very similar to American football, with one big big difference:

Rugby padsIt’s crazy dangerous. At least 110 players have been paralyzed during a game.  There are arguments to be made that all the padding US Football players wear adds to the amount of force that comes crashing down on opponents, but I’d still rather have a helmet if it was me.

The time of the games is different as well.  American football games last approximately 500 million hoursbut a big chunk of that is resetting and stopped time.  In Rugby, they don’t stop the clock unless someone’s injured and unresponsive. It’s a lot more fast-paced, and there’s a longer playing time.  That means leaner, meaner, faster guys. Much faster than American defensive players, who generally run 5-10 feet and then bash into someone with all of their weight.  It’s a different skill set.  To be honest, I’m not interested in either sport.

Other sports in the top 5 include Cricket, Tennis, and something Wikipedia refers to as Athletics. I believe this is what we would call Track & Field.  But really, if you’re talking UK Sport, you’re talking about football.  Unless you’re me, then you’re talking about Quidditch.

So let’s talk soccer/football. There are some things that make it recognizably awesome and the pinnacle of athleticism.  I can’t believe some of the crazy kicks and headbutts they do to get the ball headed toward the correct goal.  No American sport has that kind of gymnastics (except maybe gymnastics). And the crazy amount of running?  Your average baseball player barely runs during a game, your average American football player might run a little over a mile during a game. Compare that to the 7-8 miles a soccer player runs during a match, and you see why they all look like Adonis.

On the other hand, there’s a large percentage of games that end with a score of 0-0, and that sounds pretty boring to a spectator. No wonder they get so excited when a goal finally happens.

The UK version of the NFL/NBA/etc. is the Premier League. For the first time (ever), anyone in American watch any match in the season.  They will be airing the big matches on NBC sports, and then live streaming the rest on their website.  Apparently we have better access to the entire league’s games than the Brits do.  Perfect time for a novice like me to get started with footy. They even have several resources to pick your club and charming commercials with Jason Sudeikis. The most important thing about picking your team is that you can never change it. This is a cardinal offense and I believe they still punish you with a day in the stocks in any proper English village.

Remember that scene in Harry Potter when Harry is trying to talk to Cho, and Ron interrupts to inquire (very loudly and bluntly) whether Cho has always been a fan of the Tutshill Tornadoes, or if she just started supporting them since they began winning.  Lucky for Cho, she’d been supporting them since she was six, or she would have been in trouble.  Same principle applies to Premier League clubs. Of course, if you live in the UK, geography determines a lot of who you support, but we don’t have that luxury here.  It’s a big decision, and one I’ve taken quite seriously.

I’ve decided to support West Ham.  It’s the only football club mentioned in Harry Potter, so that was …pretty much my whole decision-making process.  Other things I know about West Ham: Smithy from Gavin and Stacey supports West Ham.  That’s good(ish).  Green Street Hooligans, a terrible Elijah Wood movie, was based on West Ham fans.  That’s really bad!  Their nickname is the Hammers.  I’m Switzerland on that one. West Ham’s celebrity fans include John Cleese and Barack Obama.  Good.  They also include Rod Stewart and Katy Perry.  Not as good.  Yep, that’s all I know about my chosen team.  I am such a sports fan.  Wait, I also know that they’re not that good.  I’m fine with that, since I prefer to support underdogs.  I could never support Man U.  It’s clearly the Yankees of the Premier League. Also, while I’m comparing football to baseball, Arsenal is clearly the Red Sox. Remember that Jimmy Fallon/Drew Barrymore movie, Fever Pitch?

fever_pitch_01About the guy who was obsessed with the Red Sox?  Well, it was originally a British movie (with Colin Firth) about a guy obsessed with Arsenal.  So, if you’re a Red Sox fan, Arsenal is your team.

If you’re more inclined to back a winner than I am, here’s an article about the top 5 most-likely winners (Arsenal included). Pick one of these and you will have a good chance.

If you’re not quite as informed about football as I clearly am, the IT Crowd has taught me how to fake it.  Just visit bluffball.co.uk for your best tips on how to sound like you know something about football.

The most important lessons include: If Arsenal is playing, you can always say ‘the problem with Arsenal is they think they can just walk it in’.  And, start every football conversation with ‘did you see that ludicrous display last night?’  That lets people know that you are an expert.

So, I have a team and some basic vocab for those inevitable water cooler conversations.  What else do I need? Some basic knowledge of the sport?  Well, I’ve seen Bend it Like Beckham.  Done. I know all about the offside rule: The French Mustard has to be between the teriyaki sauce and the sea salt.

If you haven’t seen BiLB, and you need the most basic primer about soccer in the history of the world, here’s a website designed to help grandparents understand this newfangled sport all the suburban kids are playing.

Also, it’s important to know how the league works. The top 20 teams are in the Premier League, but the bottom 3 of that 20 are ‘relegated down’.  Below the premier league are other leagues of middling and lower-level.  We don’t really have anything like that in the US. It would be like if the White Sox did so badly that they were no longer Major League and were ‘relegated down’ to AAA baseball. The good part about this is if your team is not so great, they still have some nail biter matches later in the season, as they might be fighting to keep their place in a specific part of the hierarchy.

The top 4 spots in the Premier League qualify for the European Champions league, so you get a lot of international competition that we also don’t have here.  And then every four years, you have the  World Cup.  I watched the last World Cup, and my only memories of it are drowned out by the sound of vuvuzelas.  God those were awful. Anyway, the next World Cup is next year.  To turn to yet another Harry Potter reference, it’s very similar to the Quidditch World Cup.  Countries compete, so England tends to bring together its best players from professional teams, as does Italy, Spain, etc.

The amazing thing about soccer is that everyone plays it. it’s the main sport in almost every country except America.  So you can have these massive Olympic-like events where the best players in different countries are competing against one another.  I think that’s awesome. Far better than the Super Bowl, for my money.

The Premier League has a really long season.  I mean, I feel like all sports seasons in the US are too long.  NFL Football is starting again soon. Already?  But the Premier League goes from August to May.  That’s crazy long.  No wonder they’re all in such good shape. Anyway, I can’t guarantee I will be a major soccer fan by the end of the season, or that I will still be watching by then.  I’m not a sports person, by nature.  But, I’m giving it a try, and that’s…more than I would normally do. You should too.

If you think this was a terrible post about sports, from a typical ignorant American, then…you’ve got a point. But! I’m not representative of American soccer fans, and it’s not just Americans who don’t know about international sports.  Take, for example, this video of a (brilliant) Irishman commentating Olympic sailing, and then call me uninformed.

Or take heart that I’m just as ignorant about American sports as all other kinds.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by JK Rowling

jk-rowling-cuckoos-calling-reviewI’m not ashamed to admit that I purchased this book immediately after I heard the news that it was secretly written by JKR.  What on earth else would you expect of me?

I understand why she would publish a book without her name attached to it.  Imagine the incredible pressure she’s under every time she wants to publish a book. Every pseudo-intellectual wants to prove that she (and that Harry Potter) doesn’t deserve so much praise because it’s not Proust.  Every Harry Potter fan inevitably compares all her other work to Harry Potter.  For this book in particular, using not just a pen name, but the pen name of a male author, makes sense.  It’s a male dominated genre, and her protagonist is a pretty butch dude.  Reading 2 different reviews compare him to Hagrid and Alastor Moody (though I see absolutely no similarities) was enough to make me understand why she wanted to be anonymous.  I’m sort of glad she didn’t stay anonymous, though, because I want to read whatever she writes and I’m glad I got to read this.

This sort of mass market crime fiction isn’t really my genre of choice, I’ll say that first.  I’ve read a few Agatha Christie, some of Poe and Conan Doyle’s detective stories, but they are all firmly ensconced in the ‘period fiction’ world and have little in common with your average James Patterson or …I can’t even think of another one. Is Lillian Jackson Braun still putting out those Cat Who detective books?

So, I’m not up on the genre.  But if I look back to Harry Potter, there was a lot of mystery.  And I was almost always fooled.  I remember I spent a good time yelling at everyone while reading Chamber of Secrets, because obviously it was Percy all along!!! Oh wait… And there were always threats of undercover agents and false identities (Mad-Eye Moody, Peter Pettigrew), and just general turncoats (Quirrell, Pettigrew again).  I never saw any of it coming.  JKR is really great at red herrings and distractors, so this sort of book is right up her alley.

The plot of The Cuckoo’s Calling centers around Cormoran Strike, a private detective in London, who has just broken up with his fiance and has his last few dollars sunk into his failing business.  A second protagonist is Robin, his temporary assistant from Yorkshire, who has always wanted to solve mysteries.  Strike gets a case from John Bristow, who grew up in the same small town as Strike.  Bristow wants Strike to look into the apparent suicide of his adoptive sister Lula, who was an up-and-coming model and tabloid favorite before she jumped out of her apartment window to her death.  Bristow is convinced it was murder, despite Lula’s history of bipolar disorder and messy relationships with drug-users. Suspects include her drug-addicted on/off boyfriend, her fashion industry friends, family, her biological parents, her neighbors.

In many ways, it’s your typical mystery novel.  Private detective with personal and financial problems, a seedy and mysterious backstory, convenient police and street connections used to acquire delicate information.  He talks to everyone who knew Lula, he runs down small clues and keeps notebooks of information.  He doesn’t share much with the reader about his thought process.  We see him ask questions, but he keeps his thoughts to himself about their possible interpretations.  He shares no theories, even with Robin. Sometimes it’s a little too much–it’s as if the characters know they shouldn’t give away too much and ruin the fun for the reader–but it’s part of the genre.  The author has to give you just enough that you have a decent chance of guessing correctly, but not so much that you can actually figure out the solution.  I think while I was reading it, the correct villain did occur to me but every other possible combination of perpetrator and motive also occurred to me.

In the end, the ‘who’ and ‘why’ reveal both surprised me and didn’t.  The thought had occurred to me, but I had dismissed it because it made no sense.  I still feel it doesn’t make tons of sense, and that is a little irritating. But I often find that, after a killer is revealed, I don’t feel satisfied by the explanation given, so this may not be entirely the fault of the novelist.  I may just find it hard to accept that so little is required to kill someone.

JKR has already announced a sequel that is written and ready to be published next year.  I will continue to read whatever she writes; that’s a given.  If this was written by someone else, it’s unlikely I would have read it in the first place–I had certainly never heard of it before the day she was ‘outed’ on Twitter.  I enjoyed the book enough to say I will enjoy the sequel. It was certainly much less bleak than A Casual Vacancy. For its genre, the book is enjoyable and well done.  Even though the genre isn’t really my thing, I still liked reading it.

And yet.  As much as I understand why JKR would want feedback on her writing from a position of anonymity, and as much as I comprehend her desire to write different things as she matures as human and as writer…I can’t help but wish.  I liked A Casual Vacancy, and I’d venture to say I liked Cuckoo’s Calling a bit more, but…  I’ll just come out and say it.  It’s no Harry Potter.

One of the most spectacular things about JKR’s writing, and certainly the most important part of her talent for storytelling is her ability to imagine and build worlds full of wonder and beauty and fate and everything we wish was plentiful on Earth, but is somewhat scarce in reality.  She creates amazing worlds that I could spend the rest of my life occupying.  Give me a cottage in Hogsmeade and I’m set for life. I’ll work at Flourish & Blotts and have a wand with unicorn hair and I’ll be happy.

Having her eschew the work of imagination and the worlds of fantasy and magic, to exist in the grim and gray reality that we all occupy, is unsatisfying for me.  It’s unsatisfying because she’s not utilizing a large part of what made her incredibly successful.  Like watching Picasso give up paints and work with washable Crayola markers. Worse, it’s like watching Dali color only in the lines in a coloring book. One of the super-conservative Christian coloring books my grandmother used to give me.

It’s also unsatisfying because I, as a reader, would just rather spend my time at Hogwarts, or the Ministry of Magic, or 12 Grimmauld Place. I enjoyed this book.  But that enjoyment is about .000002% of the enjoyment I would get out of a new Harry Potter short story.  Even a poem.  Even a Haiku!  So it will always be a bit of a let-down, a bit unsaturated, comparatively.

A Primer on the British Royal Family

coatbritI’ve said it before, but it bares repeating–I am not a ‘royalist’.  My interest in British culture does not really extend to the comings and goings of the Royal family.

But it seems remiss to run a blog about English culture and not mention the birth of a new future-king.  I have no reaction to babies (except slight fear) so I won’t be filling this blog post with cooing over little George’s adorable hands or feet.  I thought I would, in the wake of a lot of misinformation, answer some questions about how the whole monarchy thing works.

Starting with the most basic of information:

What does The Queen do? Is she actually in charge?

Over a long period of time, starting probably with the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, the monarch of England has lost more and more of his/her power.  Anyone who has taken a high school history course knows that the middle classes and the gentry take more and more power away as time goes on.  Today, The Queen’s position is almost entirely ceremonial. Britain is a constitutional monarchy, which means the real power lies in Parliament.  Even in Westminster, there has been a gradual shift of power from the House of Lords to the House of Commons.  Today, most of the work is done and decisions made by the HoC.  Peers with ambition have been known to give up their hereditary seats in the HoL in order to run for a seat in the HoC–anyone who has seen What a Girl Wants with Colin Firth will remember this plot line.

The Queen conducts ceremonies related to Parliament and to the PM, but she rarely has any influence on the laws passed. On the other hand, the PM has regular meetings with The Queen, so she gets to make her opinion known when she wants. Primarily, The Queen acts as Head of State, representing Britain in official capacities.  If you need more info on what she does and why, here is an article on her role.

What is primogeniture?

Male primogeniture is an obnoxious policy that was incredibly popular in Europe for the majority of the last millennium. Basically, it means that the oldest son of a couple will inherit the vast majority of the property or wealth, and in the case of title he will be the only one to inherit a title.  The law was originally used to stabilize the transfer of power from one generation to another.  With monarchy, this is incredibly important.  There have been countless wars (or threatened coups) when the line of succession was not always clear.  A famous example is Henry VIII. His only (legitimate)  son died at 6 years old. Henry was already dead, so suddenly the question of the next monarch was entirely open for dispute.  I repeat, this is a dangerous thing.  Henry had changed England from a Catholic country to a Protestant one, establishing the Church of England. After Henry’s son, Edward, died, his daughter Mary I took over for 5 years, and tried to wipe out all of the Protestants during that time.  After that, Elizabeth I became queen and changed the country back to a Protestant nation, which it has remained since.  Lots of turmoil, just for lack of a son.

So a son is important.  Basically, the most important thing you can do as a monarch is have a son ready.  Not just monarchs; anyone with land to leave behind worried about having a son.  Take another look at the first episode of Downton Abbey for more on this theme.  Ideally, couples should have two sons; one would inherit, the other would be ‘the spare heir’.

Two years ago, the UK decided to abandon male primogeniture and go with ‘absolute primogeniture’. That means that if Kate had given birth to a baby girl, that girl would be Queen one day–regardless of any future brothers that might come along.  Given that three of the UK/England’s longest reigning, most stable, and best monarchs have all been women, I can only say that it’s about fucking time.  Of course, maybe I should shut up. England has had female monarchs and female PMs.  Where’s our female president?

What is the line of succession?

Remember what I said about stability earlier?  The most important thing is having a line of succession, so now we have elaborate lists of who would take over in case of disaster.  (See the much-forgotten 1990s John Goodman film King Ralph for more on this. Bonus appearance by a very young Camille Coduri, aka Jackie Tyler from Doctor Who).

Because the change in primogeniture rules only affect those born after the law was changed, it’s still a big list of dudes for the most part.  Here’s the top 10

1- Prince Charles (oldest son of the current monarch)

2-Prince William (oldest son of Charles)

3-Prince George (only son of William)

After that, you go back a step.  So if The Queen, William, and the baby died, it would be

4-Prince Harry

If all of them died (which would be totally ridiculous nowadays, but not unheard of back in the time of bubonic plagues) then we go back to find more children of The Queen. These people really aren’t well known in America at all.

5-Prince Andrew/Duke of York (the spare heir; second son of The Queen)

6 & 7 – Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie (Andrew’s daughters)

8-Prince Edward/Earl of Essex (The Queen’s third son)

9&10 – Edward’s children James and Louise.

But the list goes on and on and on. Wikipedia has 49 people.  Again, stability is the key here. Better to have the longest list possible.

Could Kate be Queen one day?

The titles are a tricky thing, and a little sexist. When William is King one day, Kate will officially be called ‘Queen Catherine’, but her role would be described as ‘consort’.  When William dies, she will never be the monarch.  You can’t marry into the role. On the other hand, if William died and little George was not yet 18, she could act as a sort of advisor to the young king–that’s been done in the past, but I don’t know how it would be handled in the 21st century.  It will most likely be a moot point, because Charles isn’t even king yet, so William is unlikely to be king for a few decades at least.  Still, you never know.

When a Queen gets married (like this one), then her husband is never called the King. Prince Phillip (a Prince of Greek/Danish patronage) was given the title of Duke of Edinburgh upon their marriage, and was later titled ‘Prince of the United Kingdom’.  He will have no chance to reign if she dies, because you really really can’t marry into it.  Usually the Queen gives out titles to family members.  Will used to be Prince of Wales (as Charles is, as Harry is) but upon his marriage he and Kate became Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.  Because, reasons?!  It isn’t always logical.

What’s with the names?

Baby George’s full name is His Royal Highness, Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge.  I thought my name was a handful.  So, what’s with all the names?

Royalty generally have 3 or 4 names. I suppose this evolved in a time when showing your lineage was extremely important. Names are almost always family names.

Is his last name ‘of Cambridge’?  Sort of…The royals don’t really have surnames in the way we common plebeians do. Elizabeth and her descendents are all part of the House of Windsor. Phillip (Elizabeth’s husband) took on the name Mountbatten when he was in the British armed forces, so many of the descendents use the name Mountbatten-Windsor.  Harry and Will have often used Wales as a last name (their father is the Prince of Wales, and they were also titled Princes of Wales).  Similarly, George is George of Cambridge, because his parents are the Duke & Duchess of Cambridge.  When he’s older, I’m sure he’ll get his own Duchy/Earldom and his title will change. It’s all very confusing for those of us without an inheritance, but there you are.

Will his name be King George one day?

Monarchs choose the name they want to use, like popes. It’s called a Regnal Name. Queen Victoria’s actual first name was Alexandrina Victoria. Her son Albert Edward took the regnal name of Edward VII. Elizabeth II’s father’s name was Albert, but he chose George VI as his regnal name. We just have to wait and see what Charles, William, and George pick when it comes to their turn.  I may be dead by the time George takes the throne, come to think of it.  If they chose their real names, Charles would be Charles III, William would be V, and George would be VII.

Could William be the next king?

The Queen is not permitted to just skip Charles.  The constitutional law establishing succession would have to be changed, and I really don’t think that’s likely.  William will only be the next king if Charles dies before The Queen.

The monarchy is a tricky subject.  Sometimes it seems so ludicrous, so old-fashioned and out of touch.  Tons of money goes toward these people to just sit and seem stable and have children. On the other hand, they are all very active in charity work and all of the future-monarchs enlist in the armed forces.  And the tourist draw they bring in is pretty incredible.  Is it enough to make up for the money they use to live a pampered lifestyle?  Difficult to say.  Maybe not on your normal day, but think about how many tourists came to see the Diamond Jubilee and the Royal Wedding, and the media frenzy over the new baby, and you start to see how it adds up to a significant amount of money coming in.