Monthly Archives: January 2014

The books of Jasper Fforde

fforde_setI just finished reading yet another Jasper Fforde book, I think the 9th one I’ve read.  While not a household name, Fforde has a very devoted following among certain sects of peculiar readers.  The sort of people who can read Bronte and Dickens, then switch over to Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett without batting an eye. His books are often re-workings of classic stories, fairytales, even nursery rhymes. He has no fear when it comes to taking well-known characters and stories, and changing them.  It’s the sort of thing that might be posted on a fanfiction website in a strange corner of the internet, if it weren’t actually in book form.

While not Nabokov or Proust, Fforde has a few qualities that make his books extremely interesting and very different from what you normally find on the bookshelf.  For one thing, he’s a world-builder.  Like J.K. Rowling, he can introduce a new set of rules and parameters, a new way of looking at a familiar place. There are always rules to his worlds, and they make sense in your brain.  Suddenly, you begin to think it could all be a possibility, the same way you think, maybe if you stand in the right place in King’s Cross, you can see someone disappear into Platform 9 3/4.  His most famous character, Thursday Next, becomes part of a police force that operates inside books.  Jurisfiction, it’s called.  Thursday can travel inside books, right into Netherfield or Manderley or Thornfield Hall.  Of course, if I had this ability, it would be straight to Hogsmeade for me.  But I digress.  Fforde is very good at establishing these worlds, their rules. Just strange and nonsensical enough to be new and exciting, just familiar and rational enough to make it relatable. Fictional characters can easily jump from their own books to visit others.  But if someone is reading their book, they have to stay put and play their parts.  Apparently, a 1st person story is much harder on the protagonist, since it demands that his/her words, actions, and thoughts match those written in the book. A 3rd person story allows the characters much more freedom. It’s like an acting job they can never quit, in that sense.  Very interesting way to think about it.

Thursday Next has starred in 7 books so far: The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots, Something Rotten, First Among Sequels, One of our Thursdays is Missing, and The Woman Who Died a Lot. During that time, she alters the ending of Jane Eyre, her brother Mycroft becomes Sherlock Holmes brother, and Thursday spends some time in a half-written, long-forgotten novel, stored in the Well of Lost Plots, inside the ‘Great Library’, where all the books are stored.

Another series Fforde has written/is writing, is called the Nursery Crime series.

148809A detective named Jack Spratt (who could eat no fat; his wife could eat no lean) investigates the deaths of nursery rhyme characters. His first case, called The Big Over Easy is the apparent suicide of Humpty Dumpty, who took a fall. His next case involves the death of Goldilocks, and is called The Fourth Bear.

These plots sort of mirror the Thursday Next series, delving into the world of fictional characters and finding new ways to look at old stories.

The book I just finished was called Shades of Grey. Not to be confused, ever, with 50 Shades of Grey. This book takes place in a world where human beings can only see one color, rather than the entire spectrum. The social hierarchy is entirely dependent upon what you can see.  Purples rule the roost, because they fall at the good end of the Roy G Biv color spectrum.

shadesofgreyGreys are colorblind, and are the serfs of this society.  The society is also very 1984, with a pretty serious, if totally nonsensical, set of rules. No new spoons can ever be made–that’s probably the weirdest one. No one can marry a complimentary color (red/green), I believe because of the fear of any offspring being Browns.

Fforde’s other enduring quality is his humorous turn of phrase.  It reminds me of Douglas Adams, but not quite as wonderfully strange–but no one is quite as wonderfully strange as Douglas Adams. He does have a quirky way of looking at the world.  Here are a few quotes from his books:

Books may look like nothing more than words on a page, but they are actually an infinitely complex imaginotransference technology that translates odd, inky squiggles into pictures inside your head.

there is no problem on Earth that can’t be ameliorated by a hot bath and a cup of tea.

the Real-World was a sprawling mess of a book in need of a good editor

In my opinion, the key to enjoying a Fforde book is a pretty extensive knowledge of literature in general.  These books were written for book lovers.  If you can’t appreciate a reference to Miss Havisham’s yellowed wedding gown or understand why Heathcliff won the ‘Most Troubled Romantic Lead’ award without some googling, you won’t get these books. They aren’t for you.  They’re for people who would, let’s just be honest, prefer to live in the world of a book than to live anywhere else. Shades of Grey doesn’t rely as heavily on that sort of book knowledge, which might make it easier for a beginner Fforde fan to get into.  On the other hand, I didn’t enjoy it as much as the others, partially because there weren’t so many winks and nods I felt pleased to understand.

I mentioned the adoring Fforde ffans, yes?  They’ve started a quasi-yearly event in Swindon (Thursday Next’s home, near London), called the Fforde Ffiesta. Fforde shows up and gives readings, but mostly people re-enact strange customs from his books. Favorites include ‘Spot the Lobster’, ‘Celebrity Name that Fruit’, and speed reading of Hamlet. I’m not quite that extreme (look, if I’m going all the way to the UK, I’m not going to go to Swindon), but I think it’s all quite lovely that people a-read his books, b-like his books, and c-embrace the strangeness of his imagined worlds so fully that they want to make it real.  As someone with a wand and a Ravenclaw scarf, I can comprehend that idea all too well.

 

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

9781250024176I’ve been considering reading this book for over a year–since it won the 2012 Man Booker Prize.  I base most reading decisions on the Man Booker prize winners.  I read the first novel in this trilogy, Wolf Hall about a year ago.  I wasn’t overly fond of it, I’ll be honest.  For one thing, the 3rd person narration is abnormal.  Thomas Cromwell narrates the story, but his thoughts and his words are always described with ‘he’ or ‘his’.  It doesn’t say “Thomas Cromwell went to see the King.”  It says “he went to see the king”.  Sometimes, when Cromwell is alone, this is no large problem.  But the majority of the characters, just like the majority of people of note in the 16th century, are men.  So you get a lot of sentences like ‘he said to him’.  Confusing.  Sometimes, you can follow it.  Other times, not so much.  Mantel occasionally clarifies, but she does so in a strange way.  As the New York Times described it, “Where necessary, “Bring Up the Bodies” helpfully deploys the phrase “he, Cromwell,” dispelling a lot of syntactic confusion.” I find this to be rather stupid, to be honest.  If you’re going to say ‘he took the pen; he, Cromwell’, why not just say ‘Cromwell took the pen’?!?!  this ‘he, Cromwell’ rubbish is very tedious.  On the other hand, sticking to the ‘he’ pronoun does create a unique reading experience. This is a subject simultaneously so familiar (who hasn’t heard of Henry VIII and his many wives?) and simultaneously very alien (who can comprehend life in 1536 as readily as they can comprehend in 1936, or even 1836?).  So that unique reading experience achieved through the pronoun use in some ways adds to the feeling of delving into another time, another frame of mind, another way of organizing the world.  In conclusion, I’m on the fence about the whole pronoun issue.  I hated it in the first book, but it was far more easy to follow in the second.

Bring Up The Bodies was, in almost all respects, an easier and breezier book.  Not as demanding, not as tiring, more enjoyable.  Shorter, faster, and (I think), better.  The New York Times said that it’s less surprising, and that Cromwell sinks in our estimation from the first book to the next.  I don’t think I agree.  He was never particularly high in my estimation, nor do I think Cromwell is the type to care. He’s a practical person, a realist, and not in the business of charming anyone.

In the second book, he is the same person, with the same ruthlessness and terrifying, cold pragmatism.  The difference is his mission.

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In Wolf Hall, Cromwell’s mission was to make it possible for the king to marry Anne Boleyn.  He sees Cardinal Wolsey, his mentor and friend, fall from power into disgrace and death–and don’t think he’s ever going to forget those that made this happen–but he also uses the changing tide to his own advantage.  Cromwell assists the king in every possible way to get his marriage to Katherine annulled, and to make way for his marriage with Anne.  This means reformation of the church (which allies with Cromwell’s personal beliefs), and it means being allied with the Boleyn family.  But his mission is to get the king married to Anne, and he succeeds.

In the second book, Cromwell’s mission is to get rid of Anne so that the king can marry Jane Seymour (not the actress from Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman).  Though they may seem the same, the situations are different.  Anne will not accept an annulment, she is not the type of woman to go quietly.  She’s more like Cromwell.  Henry is so angered and upset with her, with her inability to give him a son, with her emotional trickery and her lack of proper obsequiousness, he begins to suspect her of witchcraft.  He has been ensnared by her, and has been taken out of favor in God’s eyes.  His thoughts turn to plain, shy, virginal Jane Seymour. She is the antithesis of Anne in nearly every way.  Henry wants Anne to never have happened.  At first, it seems an annulment might be enough this time, as it was before, but no.  He wants her to never have existed. She needs to be dead, if he’s going to be happy and fortunate again.

Cromwell does his best to make the king happy.  That’s the same in book one and book two. It’s the king, and what he wants, that shift to a much darker place. His darker nature is reflected in his body, fat and sweaty, with a recurring wound to his leg.  He is turning into an embarrassment, where he was once an astonishingly bright and energetic figure. Accordingly, this book ends, not with a happy couple and a fortuitous baby bump, but with the public execution of Anne Boleyn, and the 4 men accused of sleeping with her. With a downturn, a hint of things to come.

Ah, but it’s not just Henry that goes darker and meaner.  Cromwell handpicks the four men who will be killed, and, shocking coincidence, they are the four men who publicly mocked Cardinal Wolsey before his death.  His motive, revenge, is incredibly clear.  Another man is rumored to have slept with Anne, but he is Cromwell’s friend, and is spared a conviction.  Free to go. I don’t deny that revenge is his motive, but I do think that the king’s changes have given Cromwell the opportunity to act on both of their worst instincts.  If the king were magnanimous and forgiving, Cromwell would find lesser punishments for his rivals.

We also see an older Cromwell, a more tired and less ruthless version of the man we learned of in Wolf Hall.  A few sections stuck out to me, so much that I dog-eared the pages to reference them later. He ‘falters’ in his course, as he describes it, when feelings overcome him.  He hides it.  But he ‘did falter, but no one knows it’, no one saw him walk away from Weston’s interrogation.  No one saw him when ‘Anne laid her hand on my arm and asked me what I believed in my heart’.  He feels the weight of his own hypocrisy, and his corruption. At one point, he compares his power struggles with a dance.  ‘He has spun his enemies to face him, to join him: as in a dance. He means to spin them away again, so they look down the long cold vista of their years: so they feel the wind, the wind of exposed places, that cuts to the bone: so they bed down in ruins, and wake up cold.’

That is an incredibly detailed thing to wish on your enemies. And only someone who has been forced to do the same, in his own life, would know the pain that would come with those circumstances.  As someone gets older, the value of warmth and comfort are more important, and the unstoppable threat of negative thoughts are less avoidable.  Though Cromwell has sent many a man (and woman) to their deaths, that paragraph is the scariest he’s ever seemed.

But he’s also pensive and emotive, and full of a strange wisdom. This paragraph cut my heart when I read it.  One of the characters claims he will ‘die of grief’.  Cromwell shakes his head and says the man will live.  ‘He once thought it himself, that he might die of grief: for his wife, his daughters, his sisters, his father and master the cardinal. But the pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm. You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs. You must thrive in spite of yourself and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone’

My dog died a few weeks ago, just as I was reading this book.  I’m a wreck.  When I read that paragraph, I recognized the same feelings, the same sighs and same anger and slow bitter resignation that I feel now.  That I know I’ll feel again, the next time I lose something I love.

I connected with this book pretty significantly, and my reading experience was a good one. I’m glad I slogged through Wolf Hall, and I’m even more glad I decided to read the sequel.

Sherlock, series 3

mast-Sherlock-Benedict-Martin-COVE-hiresI have waited almost two years for the next season of this show.  It’s amazing how much you can anticipate something, and then you blink and it’s over.  Just like Christmas.  This season started on January 1st, and was over less than 2 weeks later.  Three episodes, even if they are 90 minutes each, doesn’t seem like it should qualify as a full series.

Past here, there be spoilers!  You have been warned!

In episode one, The Empty Hearse, we see Sherlock return to London, and admit to being alive.  We also see John’s terrible mustache.

imagesThankfully, it’s short-lived.  I’ve never been less attracted to Martin Freeman.

The mini-episode at Christmas gave us a taste of what has been happening to our characters since the last season. Anderson has grown a terrible beard, lost his job, and become a Sherlock conspiracy theorist.  John has moved out and is very sad and makes me feel all the feelings.

In The Empty Hearse, Sherlock comes back and assumes all will be the same, assumes nothing interesting can have happened since he wasn’t around. John’s reaction to seeing him again is pretty intense.  The more Sherlock explains who knew he had faked his death (Molly, his parents), the angrier John gets.  Who can blame him? My reaction would have been far more wrathful, but John has a soft spot for Sherlock, and I think his relief outweighs his anger pretty quickly.  That being said, Sherlock deserved a good punch in the face.

The most brilliant part of this episode were the various theories on how he faked his death.  The first one, the very first scene of the episode, had me going for a split second, and it made me very angry. It made no sense at all! But the second one? with Sherlock and Moriarty on the roof? Hilarious.  And a scenario that has no doubt already appeared in at least one fanfiction in a dark corner of the internet.

In episode 2, we see John and Mary’s wedding, with Sherlock as the best man…

sherlock-wedding-john-mary-sherlockJust looking at this picture makes me feel the need to improve my posture. I liked this episode, but in it, Sherlock seemed too normal. Too able to and willing to be charming.  One could argue that he was putting on his best behavior for John and Mary (who he obviously likes).  But he’s cultivated a personality that is callous and rude, because he truly thinks he is more important than the average riff raff he encounters. I find it hard to believe he could turn on the charm and flirt with the maid of honor and etc.  Of course, when I saw episode 3, his behavior toward her made more sense. And, I suppose he has been able to affect normalcy before–e.g. when he pretended to be a vicar who had been attacked outside Irene Adler’s building.

And episode 3? What the hell was that?!  Before it started, I was complaining to my boyfriend that we’d barely seen this supervillain Magnussen, and it wasn’t a very good way to build up the tension.  Moriarty had been discussed in every episode of the first two seasons, and had been like a shadow hanging over all of them.
And this Magnussen?  What did we know about him going into episode 3? Almost nothing.  Of course, turns out he only took about 3 seconds of screen time to completely repulse me in every conceivable way.  I was so disgusted I think some of my innards turned inside out…

lars-mikkelsen-charles-augustus-magnussen-600x398Gross, gross, gross. Why is he so plastic looking and terrifying? I had nightmares about him!

But was he a supervillain?! no.  He wasn’t even the most villainous person in this episode, despite being the human equivalent of the word ‘moist‘.  I feel like bleaching my skin just thinking about him. But the real shocker in this episode was not him, obviously.

I feel like (and I’m hesitant to criticize Sherlock as a whole, but) Mary seemed to earn her forgiveness extremely quickly.  Our acceptance of her is based on a-Sherlock saying she had ‘saved his life’ by not killing him and by calling the ambulance, and b-John being ‘attracted’ to sociopaths because he is an adrenaline junkie.

a- is hard to stomach.  Couldn’t she have just knocked him out?  Or shot him in the shoulder or something?  And why not just shoot Magnussen, instead of shooting Sherlock?  I just don’t buy it as some great act on her part to show she’s a good person.  Yes, calling the ambulance was good, but not shooting him would have been better. He almost died even though she was trying not to kill him, so not a great plan.

and b?  It’s true.  No matter what iteration of these two characters (Sherlock, Elementary, House, etc) you enjoy, you start out thinking ‘how does this Watson guy/girl put up with it all?  (S)he is so normal comparatively’.  But eventually, you realize that people get into these relationships because they want to. And they stay in the relationships because they get something out of it.  Probably a relief from boredom.  Much like what we get out of watching someone like Sherlock.  On the other hand, I think it’s a little ridiculous for everyone to say ‘Oh, of course you married a killer, John, you’re attracted to psychos’.  This is only the second unbalanced person we’ve seen John with, so it’s not exactly an established pattern.  He was clearly bored with his ‘normal’ girlfriends in the previous series, but this is  bit extreme.  I really liked Mary’s character, and I like the actress (Freeman’s real-life partner). I just find her deception and her actions unforgivable, and I can’t trust her as readily as John and Sherlock seem to.  Of course, it’s easy for Sherlock to trust people, because he usually knows more about them than they do.

And I have one major gripe about this episode.  One thing that makes no sense to me.  Magnussen apparently had no actual proof of anything he used to blackmail people?  So killing him (a pretty serious breach of protocol from our hero that is glazed over very very quickly) destroyed all the ‘evidence’ in his mind?  Even if you accept that he somehow saw/found enough proof to blackmail seriously powerful people, and that blackmail worked on them even though he didn’t keep any records, and that killing him would end his threat..there’s still a problem.  He showed the letters to Sherlock.  Had them in his pocket.  So he obviously had evidence of those in hard copy, not just in his mind palace.  I suppose you could surmise that they were just random scraps of paper bound together, rather than the actual letters.  That’s conceivable, but you have to let your audience know that, otherwise it just seems like a mistake.

My only other complaint about episode 3 is the serious lack of Lestrade! Give that man more to do, even if it is just to be humiliated and called ‘Graham’ or ‘Gavin’ by Sherlock.

But of course, there are only two big important moments in episode 3.  The moment we realize the truth about Mary, and…the bit after the credits.  I hope you watched until the end of the credits?

sherlock-his-last-vow-moriarty-miss-meCan I just say that I am so happy and terrified of this, all at once?  I don’t care why or how he’s back, I just want to see more of him.  Andrew Scott, you are the most terrifying and wonderful villain ever.

Gatiss and Moffat have confirmed that there will be a series 4, to start filming as soon as the actors have room in their schedule.  Some people are speculating a premiere as early as Christmas 2014.  I hope it’s that soon, but I don’t really care when it is.  Even when this show isn’t at its best, I would still wait years and years for the next episode.  Each episode has enough moments that are shocking, affecting, funny, and scary; each one is worth waiting for.

Edward Rutherfurd’s London: a novel

be00b51a11d5543c09f732bc009e87f6The most important thing to note about this book is that it is really long. It was over 1200 pages on my iPad version.  It’s a long book.

And wouldn’t it have to be? To begin to encapsulate the several millenia of history centered in and around the 1 square mile that is ‘the City’.

Neither a historical nonfiction, nor a straight novel, this book is something of a hybrid.  Rutherfurd has used this same format to tackle the histories of New York, Paris, Russia, Salisbury/Stonehenge, and Ireland.  This particular book came out in 1997, so I’m coming to the party a little late on this one.  What can I say? I was still in high school in 1997.

Starting with the earliest Celtic civilizations in the area now known as London, Rutherfurd takes the reader through the important epochs of the city, all the way up through the late 20th century. Each chapter follows the lives of a few families, traceable by their distinctive qualities–red hair or webbed fingers–as they adapt to the changing shape of London society. All of the families are fictional, but real people are intermingled with their stories.  Kings and conquerors, as you’d expect, but also Chaucer, Dick Whittington, Shakespeare, Marlowe, etc.

This book is described as a novel, but I think it’s really more of a hybrid between nonfiction and fiction.  Though it is structured as a novel, there are many instances where the narrator breaks ‘the fourth wall’ and describes things in a way that you don’t find in a novel.  Narrators in novels don’t say ‘like most families of the era, the Bulls wore xxx and lived in yyy.’  Or ‘John would have been quite shocked to learn his family brewery was managed by a woman, 3 generations back’. At first, I found these moments very jarring.  I couldn’t get too settled in with the characters, because I was always being pulled back to look at these overarching truths about the historical period I’ve been dropped in.

And though the families are occasionally discernible by their webbed fingers or long noses, I found it very difficult to keep track of who was related to whom.  Even if they shared the same name, there were a lot of marriages between the families he was mentioning, so I found it quite confusing to discern who was who.

That being said, I think it’s a good way to learn about the everyday lives of historical populations.  A nonfiction book about the history of London would probably tell me about Londinium, about Boudica’s siege, William’s Conquest, the Great fire, etc.  All important.  It wouldn’t tell me about the clothing or habits of everyday citizens from different classes.  It wouldn’t tell me where they lived or how they might have felt about the Puritan Roundheads or the Royalist Cavaliers.  It helps humanize an era when you see how people truly lived, not just the major battles and royals.

But things are sort of uneven in this book.  No historian is equally well-versed in every era, and even if (s)he was, (s)he would still have favorites.  I’m not sure if it’s lack of expertise or lack of interest, but Rutherfurd didn’t give much attention (in the form of pages) to the era before the Romans, or the late 1200s, or the era of the Great Fire (only 26 pages!), or the mid 19th century.  That last one disappointed me, because I’m most interested in the 19th century.  Other eras got very long chapters.  The chapter dealing with the English Civil War was almost 100 pages.  So you don’t get a fully rounded view of the entire city’s history, but you get snippets in every so often.  Some notable events are omitted completely–no mention of Boudica, though she razed the city to the ground.  Henry VIII gets his share, but there’s almost nothing of the previous Henry’s–quite important in their own right.

I learned a lot of fun tidbits from this book.  The word sheriff comes from the word shire (county) + reeve (tax collectors). The Domesday Book, revolutionary and historical as it was, would often be inaccurate because those monks taking down the count of Englishmen did not generally speak English.  William the Conqueror, upon his death, was too ‘corpulent’ to be squeezed into his coffin.  Richard the Lionhearted was a pretty terrible king.  Blackfriars got its name because the Dominican monks living there wore black robes. Charing Cross’s name is a really interesting story.  King Edward’s wife had died in the north. He wanted her body brought to Westminster to be laid in the Abbey. It took 12 days and nights to make the journey, and at every night’s stop, the king had a cross erected.  Charing Cross was the very last stop, from the old English word for that street.

I really enjoyed learning these tidbits, but I don’t know that I’ll remember most of them in another week.  It added to my enjoyment of the book, but the constant ebb and flow between fiction and expository narration was off-putting. I would probably recommend the book only if you are very interested in London history.

The whole book is centered around the River.  And there’s good reason.  The Thames is why London exists. This particular spot on the Thames has been picked for a civilization many times, by different groups of people, because it is an ideal location. The first place from the channel that you could cross the river easily at high or low tide.

Before the Romans, the Celts used the river as part of their worship.  The Romans recognized the spot (now known as London Bridge), as the perfect area to cross the Thames.  It became a shipping hub and, accordingly, people moved there. There was just the one bridge for many years, sometimes destroyed and rebuilt. It was just the perfect place in all of SE England, to build a town. Henry II commissioned a new stone bridge during his reign. It held homes and shops, and a chapel dedicated to Thomas Beckett. It probably looked like the Ponte Vecchio in Italy (though with a more medieval British feel)

Ponte_Vecchio_Firenze

There used to be heads on pikes, and around 200 buildings on the bridge by the Tudor era. Famous heads on pikes included William Wallace and Sir Thomas More. On the north side, there was the respectable City area, with Westminster still being built further upriver. On the South side was Southwark, where men went to visit prostitutes, watch bear-baiting and dog fighting and boxing, and to see Shakespeare’s plays performed.  Southwark wasn’t held to the same laws as the City, so all sorts of rabble-rousing went on there. Later, there were many bridges across the Thames, and the real London Bridge made its way to Arizona for a strange tourist attraction.  All of the English civilization is centered in London, and all of London exists because of the River and the spot easiest to cross.  I like the idea that this city was absolutely always meant to be there, and independent societies repeatedly came to the conclusion that this spot was the only spot for them.  Even as it grows ever larger, in all directions, London’s heart is on two hills–one at Westminster, one in the City–with the river alongside them all the way.

 

 

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

movies-the-hobbit-desolation-of-smaug-posterI’ll go see Martin Freeman in just about any movie he cares to make, so, dutifully, I’ve gone to see the second Hobbit movie in the theater.  Before you complain that this is not a British movie…I disagree.  Tolkien was British, and (besides Martin) there are a plethora of Brit actors in the cast–Ian McKellen, ex-Doctor Sylvester McCoy, Orlando Bloom, Richard Armitage, Stephen Fry (!), and Benedict Cumberbatch (as the eponymous dragon, Smaug).

I was disappointed with the first Hobbit movie last year. Part of this was due to the high frame rate technology they used to make the film.  It was difficult to watch and made some actions seem slow and others preternaturally fast.  I don’t think they used the same technology on this film, because I didn’t notice anything strange about watching it.  I ended up enjoying it, partially because my expectations were a bit lower this time around.

I still dislike that it is spread across 3 movies.  I know there are a lot of extra storylines from the Appendices and maybe the Silmarillion that have been added to flesh out the story, but I think it was better without the extra stuff.  But it’s been so long since I read the book, that I can’t be certain what was in it anymore.  I don’t think Legolas made an appearance in the book, but he is certainly in the movie.  The elves of Mirkwood imprison the dwarves along their journey to the Lonely Mountain.  We see their great forest home with a truly impressive and ridiculous throne, upon which sits their king, Thranduil.  And honey, you should see him in a (ludicrous) crown:

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I must confess that in looking for that picture, I’ve stumbled across some pretty horrifying Thranduil erotic fanart.  Pass me the eye bleach when you get a chance…

We also meet Tauriel, played by Evangeline Lilly (Lost), a character completely made up by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, showing that he’s gone (literally) off-book.

220px-EvangelineLillyAsTaurielLook, we all know that Tolkien didn’t include many female characters in his stories. Hardly surprising, when you consider how much of his writing was based on his experiences in World War I. I’m glad to have a badass lady in the mix, but I am not a fan of Evangeline Lilly.  I haven’t been since Lost.  So I didn’t feel much attraction to her character, though her skill (with bow and with medicine) did come in handy. On an unrelated note, is it just me, or did they dress her like Robin Hood?

The story of the second movie weaves and wavers through time a bit.  We see Thorin Oakenshield when he first meets Gandalf and we see that this entire quest happened at Gandalf’s urging. In the present, the company of dwarves (plus 1 wizard and 1 hobbit) is running from a band of Orcs, and also from a wolf (actually a skin-changer named Beorn). Shortly after, Gandalf goes off toward Dol Guldur, to investigate reports of a dark power there.  (Spoilers: It’s Sauron.  It’s always Sauron.) Bilbo and the dwarves head through the Mirkwood forest toward the Lonely Mountain.

We see Bilbo use the ring to protect himself, use the ring to save his friends (from giant spiders, imprisonment, etc.), but we also see him kill to keep the ring in his possession.  He kills some sort of underground giant arachnid thing, so it’s not exactly the same as if he killed Gandalf or something.  On the other hand, it’s perfectly clear that he is killing for the ring, to keep it.  IF it weren’t clear, they make it even more clear when (picking up the ring again) Bilbo looks at the dead spider, points at the ring, and says ‘MINE’. It’s a wonder the guy could hold onto it for another 60 years without being a total monster.

After the spiders, they’re imprisoned by the elves.  They escape in empty wine barrels, and what follows is a slightly ludicrous, slapstick action sequence as they whitewater raft barrel down the river away from Mirkwood. Kili (aka the cute one) is hit with a poison arrow, thus making me very upset.  They happen upon a bargeman, Bard, who agrees to take them (secretly) into Laketown, the nearest town to the Lonely Mountain.  During this time, Gandalf gets himself captured by Sauron and his forces, so he’s of no use whatsoever.  He’s always getting himself captured at pivotal moments.  And if he ever claims he’ll meet you at this place or that place, he never shows up.  Properly unreliable.

In addition to a Peter Jackson cameo (still eating a carrot in Bree, even 60 years before the Fellowship?) and a Stephen Colbert cameo, we see Stephen Fry as the Master of Laketown, doing his best impression of many a corrupt 17th century English monarch.  We have to endure a decent amount of foreshadowing about how it was Bard’s ancestor who failed to kill Smaug during the first attack. We get it, he (like Aragorn), will prove he is better than his ancestor.  There’s also some foreshadowing about Thorin–the Arkenstone corrupted his grandfather the king; will it corrupt him too, etc., etc.  It’s a little heavy-handed, to be honest. Not so much foreshadowing as fore-neon-signing.

Finally, it’s just down to Bilbo in the Lonely Mountain, searching the halls of Erebor for the fabled Arkenstone. He awakens Smaug (of course he does) and all hell breaks loose.

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We get a bit of the dwarves pulling together to help Bilbo, but they cannot defeat Smaug.  We all know why (because of the foreshadowing!).  Smaug, very aggravated, heads off for Lake Town to kill everyone.

Most of the reviews have included lines like ‘better than the first’ or ‘not as bad as the first’.  I agree, it was better than the first one. Partially because there are no ludicrous choreographed dance numbers that make you feel as if you’re in a kid’s movie.  But I still think it’s too long, and there’s something missing with almost all of the characters.  Even though it’s too long, we don’t seem to get to know anyone or to feel empathy for them.  Bilbo is charming and comic, but there’s something about the way they’ve edited the story, or maybe the way Martin acts, that lacks any seriousness.  Very very different from Ian Holm in the same role. Part of the problem is that the Lord of the Rings films were so good. They struck all the right notes, bouncing effortlessly from gross comedy (usually involving orcs, or Merry & Pip) to the love lives of immortal elves, and included believable moments with humanized characters.  That just seems to be lacking here.  The dwarves are too comedic, the elves too aloof.  Gandalf has spent more time off on his own than with the dwarves, so that it’s no wonder they don’t care to wait for him to finish their quest.  I did enjoy this movie more than the first, but I also spent more time (especially in hindsight) wishing it was as good as the LotR trilogy.  And that makes me sad.