Tag Archives: London

The Making of Harry Potter – Warner Bros. Studio Tour

Harry_Potter_Leavesden_entranceYes, I finally made it to the Harry Potter Studio Tour!  And yes, this post will contain 5000 pictures.

First, a few notes on getting there, tickets, etc.  Get tickets early–at least a few days during the off-peak times, and possibly a week or two during holiday weekends and tourist times of year. I would recommend getting the digital guide along with the admission–you can get this ahead of time, with your tickets, or pay for it when you get there.

Speaking of getting there. Their website lists the ways it can be done. Coming from London, you can either take a coach straight from Victoria station, or take a train to Watford Junction and catch a special bus from there to the studio. I did the latter. When you exit the station, turn left toward the group of bus stops. You’ll know when you find the right bus.6879219692_c39133f9fd_z

 

Tickets are timed, so you may have to wait just a bit from arrival before you can go in. They have a Starbucks and you can access the gift shop while you wait.

You’ll be able to see Harry’s cupboard as you queue. Then you’ll be shown into a room and told to stand there–they’ll talk and show a video.  I recommend standing all the way at the far end of the room, next to one of the three doors. Then you’ll be the first out.

…into another room where they’ll show a video. You get to sit down for this one! I recommend finding a seat in the front row, or very close to an aisle. But they will force you to move all the way down each row, so that may not be possible.

The reason you may want to pick a good seat is because of what you’ll see next.  The Great Hall!

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For the rest of the tour, you have as much time as you like, but in this room you are limited, so make sure you see everything you want to see.  The house tables, the goblets and plates.  The costumes!

DSC_2762 DSC_2755 DSC_2746 DSC_2765They display them on slightly creepy mannequin things, but they are the real costumes. House robes, including the wee ones Dan Radcliffe wore in the first movie.  Most of the staff are up near the head table, including Hagrid, Dumbledore, Filch, McGonagall, Snape, Flitwick, and Trelawney.

So make sure you get a good look around before they usher you into the next room.  Also, note for photos: the whole place is pretty dimly lit. If your camera has a mode good for candlelight or low light, you may want to use that. I hate using flash when I’m in a space like this, but it is almost necessary for the photos to turn out.

The rest of the tour is just you wandering–this is when the digital guide comes in handy. You can hear about the specifics of different props or costumes, from the actors that used them or the people that made them. Quite cool.

You wander around a room with sets dispersed within it, as well as small nooks displaying more costumes, props, wigs, architecture. All of it just stuffed in a big space, like the room of requirement with all the junk in it. And it’s all wonderful. There are the Hogwarts gates with the 2 boars:

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Then its straight to the familiar Gryffindor common room and boys dormitory, complete with some more costumes, some comfy armchairs by the fire, and personalized bunks for each of the boys. Dean’s has a West Ham blanket; Ron’s cubby area is covered in Chudley Cannons posters.

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The next sets you’ll see are the Potions classroom, Hagrid’s Hut, and the Burrow.

DSC_2829 DSC_2852Can I say how much I want to live in the Burrow? I wish you could actually walk in, be in the space, but I understand why you can’t.DSC_2864

DSC_2869I did, however, find out the answer to a very important question. If you’re wondering what wizards eat for breakfast, look no further:DSC_2862

Cheeriowls. Of course.

You can sort of walk into Dumbledore’s office, a little, but the upper portion (with all the cool stuff) is roped off. DSC_2843

But you can see the pensieve up close.

In between all of these sets there is just a cornucopia of props, costumes, everything you’ve ever wanted to see. Here are just a few pictures of what is nestled in every corner.DSC_2778 Ron’s dress robes. The robes of prominent and terrifying death eaters, and some of the Order of the Phoenix.

DSC_2901 DSC_2819Muggles in their rightful place, the Black family tree tapestry, Lupin’s trunkDSC_2898 DSC_2876 DSC_2929

There are just tons of things, all over the room.

Also in this room, you can wait in line for a go on the CGI broom experience. I did not feel like waiting in line to make an idiot of myself, so I skipped this. If you don’t mind looking an idiot, it’s probably pretty fun.

The section of this room that I actually loved was all the print media and products that were produced. Books, the Daily Prophet, the Quibbler, anything with text. This one case was one of my favorite parts–these little props have so much detail, for minor use during the films. DSC_2912 DSC_2911 DSC_2907 DSC_2904

Leave me alone and I could read those entire issues of the Daily Prophet. I’d probably enjoy reading the test booklet as well.

After the first building, you can proceed into the courtyard outside. This was home to some of the larger sets. You can walk across the Hogwarts bridge, take a look inside the Knight Bus, and knock on the door of 4 Privet Drive. And you can get some Butterbeer at the cafe. I really like Butterbeer.DSC_2937 DSC_2942 DSC_2941

They also have the chess pieces from Philosopher’s Stone, the ruined home of the Potter’s in Godric’s Hollow, and some of the other vehicles (motorbike, Ford Anglia) that you can sit in/on.

From here, you enter the second building. This one is more devoted to how they made things happen. The creature shop is a mix of CGI and lifelike models that is filled with extremely creepy things.

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You get to walk through a life-size version of Diagon Alley, though this experience may be dwarfed if you’ve been to the expansion at the Wizarding World in Orlando. I haven’t yet, so it was pretty exciting for me.DSC_2975 DSC_2977

And now you can start to see how Hogwarts was created, from drawings, and small models, to filmable miniatures. I found it really fascinating and would love to own some of the concept art they had on display. DSC_2984 DSC_2987 DSC_2988 DSC_2994 DSC_2999

And the big finale.

The final room you’ll see (before the obligatory stop at the gift shop) is a massive miniature of Hogwarts, in its entirety. It’s stupid large, and I would pay a lot of money to be shrunk down small enough to wander through it. The detail is too difficult to see from the viewing area, but apparently they made little torches to line the halls and everything perfectly to scale. Why hasn’t science invented that shrinking thing yet? Rick Moranis, where are you when we need you? The room also cycles through lighting changes, so that you can see the castle during daylight and at night, lit up by the many torches. It’s really lovely and hit me right in the feels, to be honest.DSC_3003 DSC_3010

I really enjoyed the tour, and I loved seeing all of the little details that went into creating the movies, and making these worlds believable. Especially the real costumes. I’d highly recommend it to any HP fan within a 500 hundred miles of London.

That being said, I preferred my trip to the Wizarding World (and would probably prefer it even more now that it has expanded). The thing about this studio tour is that it is showing you exactly how everything was created to look good on camera. That’s very fascinating and I’m glad to see it. But, the Orlando Wizarding World is sort of saying ‘yes, it’s real, and here it is, and you can come in and have a look around’.  And that’s preferable to the part of my brain that will never quite give up believing that it is really real.

 

 

Hard Times by Charles Dickens

Hard_Times-GradgrindAnyone who has read more than two Dickens novels knows what they’re going to get from all the rest.  Just like every John Grisham novel has a morally-upstanding lawyer, every Dickens novel will have a society in disrepair, at least one poor wretch dying before his/her time, and at least 15 characters.

Hard Times was published in the 1850s. Unique for Dickens, it is not set in London. It’s set in fictitious Coketown, a stand-in for all of the industrial towns of the North. Defined by its factories and the working people that file in and file out all day. As is always the case with Dickens, there are very rich characters. Mr. Grandgrind, a mansplainer if ever there was one, runs the local school. He is a utilitarian, and pushes his own children and his pupils to live a life based only on facts. Not on feelings or art or morality, but only and specifically on fact.  His friend, Josiah Bounderby, is a manufacturer/entrepreneur and a very rich man. He makes it a point to tell everyone he meets that he has pulled himself up by his bootstraps. He grew up in a ditch without mother or father, love or affection. Or so he constantly says. Gradgrind’s son, Tom, works for Bounderby, and his daughter, Louisa, marries him. Loo and Tom are about as happy and well-adjusted as you would imagine they are. They are miserable, in other words.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are the poor characters. Cecilia Jupe comes home from Mr. Gradgrind’s school to find her father has deserted her. She must choose to either follow the circus (of which her father was a part) when they leave town, or stay and go to Mr. Gradgrind’s school. She chooses to stay because her father wanted her to be educated. And it’s good that she stays, because everyone in Mr. Gradgrind’s family needs a kind person amongst them.

There’s also Old Stephen, the Tiny Tim of this piece. He is an honest man, a hard worker, shackled to a constantly-drunk wife. She reappears in his life periodically to sleep on his bed and trade his belongings for gin when he’s at work. He gets fired from his job, loses the support of his fellow workers (for not agreeing to join their union), is accused of robbing the local bank, and falls down a mineshaft. He dies. Typical Dickens.

It’s a short book, for Dickens. His shortest, in fact. And I think it lacks a little depth, compared to his real masterpieces like Bleak House. The whole story, and all its characters, relate to this idea of Fact vs Fancy. Gradgrind starts the novel explaining that he only believes in Facts. There’s no room in his world for amusement, art, fiction, creativity, morality. And in the end? His daughter is a nearly-soulless automaton, and his son? He robbed the back.  Gradgrind tries to get his son out of the country, so that he won’t face consequences for his actions. But one of the students of his school, not in the least confused by notions of emotion or frivolity, captures the sun before he can escape.  The whole book shows how a ‘Utilitarian’ society can be corrupt and terrible. I think the whole book is a little obviously manipulated. Coincidence, in fiction, is a delicate thing. Dickens is always walking the line, and I think with this one he steps over it. To manipulate the story into one that punishes Grandgrind and humiliates Bounderby, he sacrifices verisimilitude. And you also get the sense that he’s not as fluent in the lives of the North Country folk. It’s a new world, the North of England in the 19th century. It makes sense to set this novel in the North, but it was a little like taking a tour led by a non-native. For a better account of the North, and labor unions, read North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell.

 

Moving to the UK – part two

So, we’ve covered how to get a visa, finding somewhere for you (and your pets) to live, and some money basics.  What’s next once you get past the border?

Student visas being abused 1. First of all, you have places to go.  How should you get there?

  • Driving license procedures and policies here and here. I’m hoping you realize that they drive on the left side of the road and the right side of the car.
  • London congestion zone info here. Don’t have a car in London unless you need to. If you need further proof, look at the gas (petrol) prices
  • Boris’ bikes (Barclays Cycle Hire, officially) info here.

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  • Public transport info. London has the tube, buses, the overground, and several rail stations. You can look at maps and schedules, plan journeys, and learn about policies at the TFL site. There will usually be special discounted rates for students and for senior citizens. Here is the policy for the London Oyster cards. Other major cities (Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds/West Yorkshire, Liverpool/Merseyside, Glasgow) have similar systems.
  • Travel between cities is fairly easy but not particularly cheap. You can take buses (coaches) or trains–different London train stations go to different locations, do your research online. Buy tickets at least one day in advance and you can usually get them for cheaper.

2. Furnishing your home

  •  I won’t be doing it, but if you want to ship your things across the pond, here is some info on that process. Plan on it taking time and money.
  • In large cities, there are more furnished flats and homes in the UK than you will find in the US. Make sure you consider those homes in your search, but also weigh the extra costs and find what will work for your budget and your length of stay in the UK.
  • If you want to buy furniture when you get there, that is obviously possible, but plan on it taking more trips and more money than you might spend in the US. The thing about shopping in the UK, is that they don’t have large big box stores there (not many, anyway), which means you will not be able to stop at your local Target/Walmart and get an outfit, a futon, your groceries, and an iPad.  You’ll probably have to go to 4 separate small stores.  That being said, here’s a list of ‘equivalent’ UK stores to popular US stores. Also, there are some Tescos called Tesco Extra, and that is the closest you’ll find to a Walmart/Target.

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  • When I moved before, my first stop was the Ikea near Wembley.  Ikea is wonderful, but be warned that none of the London-adjacent Ikeas are easy to get to from public transport.  You may want to rent or borrow a car if you plan to get palette furniture. If Ikea is not for you, here is a list of the 50 best UK furniture stores.

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  • Electronics–there are two items you may need. A power converter and a plug adapter. The power converter actually changes the current going into your device. The plug adapter just makes your US device fit into the UK power plugs. Your US computer should work without a power converter; it only needs a plug adapter. Make sure you check the specifics for your product. Don’t take my word as gospel, because everything is different. For nearly everything I had, I only used the power converter to charge my Nintendo DS.  Everything else could just be used with a plug adapter. One caveat–I highly recommend buying heat devices (hair dryers, curlers, straighteners, etc.) once you get there. These seem the most likely to cause an accident when using adapters and converters, so it is far safer just to buy them once you arrive. Here are some other expat experiences with electronics, including some info on price differences. Expect to pay more for all electronics in the UK.
  • Small necessities – Boots is the place to go for cosmetics and toiletries. Asda can be a good place to get small items (cleaning supplies, trash cans, etc.). For cell phones (called mobiles), your best bet is probably Carphone Warehouse, just because they have so many locations.

3. Where to eat

  • Groceries. The biggest stores are generally Sainsbury’s and Tesco. There are other small stores like M&S Foods, where you pay a little more. Locations vary. Also note, just because it says ’24-hour Sainsbury’s’, don’t expect it to be open 24 hours a day, every day. My local 24-hour Sainsbury’s closed at 5 on Sundays. If you want something really fancy, try the Waitrose or food halls at Harrods or Selfridges. They’ll charge you 5 pounds for a box of Lucky Charms, which is highway robbery. But look how pretty they are:

harrods-food-hall-shop-department-stores-large

  • Eating out. There are a myriad of choices, depending on where you live obviously. Nearly every neighborhood or village will have a pub or gastropub, a coffee shop, and a fast food or chain option. The fast food chains that you will recognize are Subway, McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut, Burger King, Starbucks, Chipotle (These were not available when I lived in London before, so I went through a very long period without any Mexican food. Tragic.), Five Guy’s, and (most recently arrived) Shake Shack. Mmm…Shake Shack.  Other mostly-universal UK fast food options are Pret a Manger (delicious, eco-friendly, but expensive), EAT, Costa Coffee, & Chicken Cottage. Sit down restaurants include TGI Friday’s (but I beg you not to go there), Pizza Express, Wagamama, and approximately 5000 different curry/Indian options. But…don’t go to a chain all the time! You’re in a new country, try something new. If you’re in London, I recommend perusing the Time Out website for reviews and ratings. I had great success picking from their website, including one of the best Italian meals I’ve ever had in my life.

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  • Finding US products. If you just need some Cheetos, Reese’s, or Pop Tarts, and you can’t live without them, there are websites and stores that can get you your fix.

4-Miscellaneous

  • I don’t have kids, so this is miscellaneous for me, but it is probably fairly important to those who have kids.  Here’s a good source of info on moving to the UK with kids.

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  • Shopping for clothing and accessories. Just as with the US, cities contain large chain stores and small avant-garde boutiques. Smaller cities and villages will have fewer options and generally run more conservative. If you’re in London, Oxford Street should be your first stop. If you want something more eclectic, East London or Camden markets are a good place to try. If you have little money and want the best deal, regardless of store cleanliness or line lengths, head to Primark. Some general uk shopping info is available here.
  • NHS is the free health service for anyone in the UK longer than 6 months. But really, anyone in the country can use it. Important vocab note: do not refer to the ER at your local hospital, they call it A+E (accident and emergency department). Students generally use a university clinic.  You have access to doctor’s visits at no cost, and you will only pay something like £7 for any prescriptions.
  • Utilities–I haven’t done a lot of research, since I won’t need to pay them at the dorms. But here is some info from other expats.
  • Some tips and thoughts from fellow expats here, here, and here. Plus a very helpful Buzzfeed listicle here.

Okay, once again, caveat lector here.  I am just putting in this info that I’ve found, not implying that any of it is 100% correct or should be used as a reference. Do research on your specific situation before you take anything for granted. Also, let me know what I’m missing or what I’ve got wrong.

Here’s a link to my first post on moving to the UK, in case you missed it.

 

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Final Lowland cover.inddI read some Jhumpa Lahiri short stories as an undergrad, in my Contemporary British Fiction course.  Her writing style is so beautiful and simple and easy to comprehend–people who write know how difficult it is to produce a simple and effective sentence, without endless clauses and commas. I tend more toward the maximal than the minimal, but I wish I could embrace and produce brevity the way Lahiri does. I haven’t read her other novel, The Namesake, but I did see the movie with Kal Penn, and I remember liking it.  I may need to read the novel because I also enjoyed this book. Lahiri was born in London to parents from West Bengal, but moved to the US with her parents when she was still quite young. She has a unique perspective as an immigrant and emigrant of 3 countries and that is reflected in her writings. She lives in Rome now, but this particular novel is all about India and the US.  It was shortlisted for the Man Booker last year, which is how it ended up on my Christmas list.

I have a tough time with the sort of books that span lifetimes.  This is one of those.  We start with two young brothers, growing up near Calcutta: Subhash and Udayan. By the end of the book, focus has shifted to one of their grandchildren. I’ve read other books that cover this much of a life, or a few lives, and I find it difficult. When you zoom out so far on someone’s life, it is much harder to find the point, the lesson, the change they endure during the story.  It is undoubtedly closer to real life, but I don’t read fiction for real life. I read fiction because at the end of a book there is a sense of order and satisfaction. There was a problem, the person learned to conquer it and then they did.  It doesn’t have the same, or sometimes any, meaning if we follow them for another 40 years of their lives. Often these books are more about the gradual change from bright and energetic youth to tired and sad decline.  And I don’t like that either, because I’d like to think there was some hope for happiness once I’m over 40 or 50.  So that aspect of this book was not my favorite.

But it was beautifully written, very clear and concise and well done.  I believe the slow decline, the overtaking quietness that consumes almost all of these characters stems from one event. A death that no one in the book recovers from. Everything from that point on can be categorized as a ripple effect. The family never recovers, the children inherit secrets and pain that lasts a few generations.

I am pretty woefully ignorant of Indian culture, let me say that straight from the beginning.  Unlike in London, there aren’t large populations of Indian/subcontinent immigrants in the US. There are pockets here and there, much more where I live now than when I lived in the Midwest, but nowhere near as ubiquitous as in the UK. But I have read several books now that focus on immigrant families coming into the UK and the US.  I’ve read Zadie Smith–White Teeth and On Beauty–Salman Rushdie–the Satanic Verses–and now the Lowland. I can’t help but notice similarities.  Most obviously, there are pairs of men, usually related, usually very different (Subhash and Udayan in the Lowland, Magid & Millat in White Teeth, Farishta and Chamcha in the Satanic Verses). Secondly, someone is usually involved in academia or science (Subhash and Gauri in the Lowland, the Belsey family in On Beauty, Magid and Marcus Chalfen in White Teeth), and their counterpart is usually involved in politics or religion. I am not an immigrant, and have never lived in a culture different enough to worry about assimilation.  I don’t think learning to stand on the right and walk on the left in the U.K. exactly qualifies me to discuss the immigrant experience. But, I am pretty good at empathy, and I think I can see a lot of reasons why these relationships keep coming up.  Being an immigrant or of dual ancestry means that you are always considered two different people. An Indian man in London may seem very Indian to his fellow Brits (of a more Anglo descent), but he will seem very British if he returns to India. It’s like the god Janus, one face looking forward and one looking back.  These novels tend to have a character that embraces completely the new culture, and another that leans in the opposite direction and clings to tradition, to the country they consider their true home. In the Lowland, Subhash returns to India with his daughter, and though both her parents are Indian, little Bela cannot stomach the same food, water, or sun that her mother and father grew up with. Life in the US has made her softer than life in India would have. She can’t go back ‘home’ and be with her ‘native’ culture. It implies that immigration is a non-reversible event; once you go, you can’t come back.

There are two events in this book that shape every other character and every other moment.  The death of one of the brothers, and the abandonment of Bela by her mother.  The reviewer for the New York Times found real fault with this event and its aftermath, saying Ms. Lahiri never manages to make this terrible act — handled by Gauri with cruelty and arbitrary highhandedness — plausible, understandable or viscerally felt. Why would Gauri regard motherhood and career as an either/or choice? Why make no effort to stay in touch with Bela or explain her decision to move to California? Why not discuss her need to leave her marriage and her child with her husband?  

I didn’t have an issue with this, because I empathized with Gauri. She didn’t want a child. She couldn’t accept this child in particular, because of what and who it represented.  A child is a massive never-ending responsibility, looking for love and knowledge and entertainment and safety, looking to you every second of the day. I don’t want kids. Not at all. I’m not up for that kind of commitment. Having a pet is the most amount of commitment I can deal with, and I like pets a lot more than I like kids. So for Gauri to run away from this massive commitment, this project that would take up at least 20 years of her life, always reminding her that she lacked freedom and she lacked her own life…I can empathize.  Luckily for me, we have contraceptives and I don’t have to have kids. But I can’t say I find it hard to believe the what or why here. I can imagine the fear that would come from looking at this little person that depends on you for everything, and instead of finding the love and dedication growing inside yourself, you see something akin to a cage.  Like I said, I don’t want kids.

My only real problem with the book is the ending.  After we see the characters age and procreate, and then their child procreates, after all this, and in the last few pages of the book, we are thrust back to moments before the death, from the point of view of the about-to-be-deceased. Ending it that way almost acted as the opposite of closure.  Questions and ideas that had been settled in the denouement of natural events, were re-arranged and had to be re-considered.  And then the book was over.  It robbed me of a sense of ending, and it left a bad (mental) taste in my mouth. I’m not sure why she chose that ending, but I wish it had been left out. I suppose perhaps the point in showing the death again was to solidify the idea that this one death was a spear in the side of everyone mentioned in the book, and continued to affect them far after it occurred and even after it was forgotten. It affected 4 generations of characters, and would continue to affect them. That’s why it’s there at the end, I suppose.

2013 Christmas Specials

Christmas is a pretty special time in the UK, I think.  I theorize.  I’ve never been there at Christmas time, but one glance at the decorations on Oxford or Regent Street tells you what it’s like in London.

90_05_15---Christmas-Lights--Regent-Street--London--England-_webI also haven’t participated in that age-old tradition of the Queen’s Christmas address.  But one tradition I am always happy to indulge is the tradition of the Christmas special.  During busy weeks, particularly in the holidays, TV here tends to come to a screeching halt.  Repeats for weeks on end.  The only exception is (American) football, which is on constantly from Thanksgiving to …February.  Blech.  I’ll pass on that.  But the Christmas special! Something everyone can gather around the TV and enjoy, that (usually) doesn’t involve padding or jock straps.  I can support that tradition whole-heartedly.

This Christmas was a big one for Doctor Who, with Matt Smith’s last episode and Peter Capaldi’s first.  They like to do these transitions on big episodes, don’t they?  And this one was a particularly unusual story.  We saw the Doctor bald, we saw him naked,

matt-smith-nude-the-time-of-the-doctor-band even more strangely, we saw him old.  Doctor’s aren’t supposed to age, are they?  During that stretch of episodes in America, we see the Doctor some 200 years older in one episode than when we see him next, and there isn’t the slightest change.  So exactly how much time did he spend in a town called Christmas, on a planet called Trenzalore, to get to looking like this:

Doctor-Who-11-2959359He looks and acts very Dickensian, which I find rather amusing. He’s always been very Victorian, number 11, with his waistcoats and bow ties and pocket watches.  Being rather fond of that era myself, I am sad to see that go.  I am genuinely sad to see Matt Smith go, which is a big credit to him, since I was weeping over David Tennant’s exit.

This episode was very grand and (is often the case with very grand episodes of the show) it often seemed more concentrated on being big and important, rather than making much sense.  I try to remember what exactly was going on, but I found myself thoroughly confused by a lot of the plot for this one.

The way I understood it, the Time Lords were communicating through the crack in the wall, which reappeared in Christmas.  Their message was heard by everyone, and it scared everyone.  They were asking the Doctor’s name…and if he told them, they would come through.  And this would, for some reason, cause immediate and total war?  The Church of the Mainframe protects the planet from the hordes of Daleks, Cybermen, and every other type of villain that is trying to get in.

I have so many questions from this episode. How are the Time Lords of Gallifrey able to send messages, and then (Deux Ex Machina)  time energy, through the rift when they are stored safely away in a frozen moment of time? How did a burst of time energy reset the clock on the Doctor’s regeneration count? And simultaneously give him power to kill Daleks with a light beam? Why does the regeneration process seem to happen really quickly sometimes (John Hurt’s Doctor to Chris Eccleston’s, Eccleston to Tennant) and sometimes (Tennant to Smith, Smith to Capaldi), it takes quite a while. Most importantly, what’s the point of using the Silence as priests?  Why would you want to confess and then forget you’d done so?  Much better to have a priest who forgets everything you’ve just told him.  And was the episode implying that the Silence were created to be priests?  Or that they were recruited as priests after they were more-or-less killed off on Earth?

I think this episode attempted to do too much, too big, without enough time or weight given to some of the big issues.  And the most important thing, the actual regeneration, took place so late in the episode, that we barely saw Peter Capaldi as the Doctor.  I like him already, I feel I can’t help but to like him.  But with a new Doctor, any new Doctor, he needs to win the audience over nearly immediately.  Now we’ve seen Peter Capaldi for approximately 40 seconds, and now we have to sit and wait until …whenever they decide to air the next series… before we get to really see him as the Doctor?  I don’t like it.  I wanted more, obviously, and I think it’s important to the audience to keep out any doubts over the new Doctor.  I was pretty disappointed to not see more of him, and that’s part of what makes me unhappy and unsettled about the episode as a whole.

And then there was Downton Abbey.

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Another Christmas special that has utterly nothing to do with Christmas?  This time it’s the London Season, where debutantes are launched into society and try to land the richest possible husband. Mary is entertaining multiple suitors as usual, we learn that Bates probably did murder whats-his-name, and the Grantham family has to engage in some clumsy skullduggery to save the Prince of Wales from embarrassment over his affair.  Most importantly, Carson is barefoot in the ocean.  Mr. Carson is the last person I imagine to ever be barefoot. The poor man, I would gladly have gone on his outings. I liked the Science Museum and all the other ‘educational’ outings he suggested.

Rose drove me less crazy during this episode by far.  She’s still silly and a bit dim, but she acted like an adult at least.  Edith and Mary, on the other hand, drove me crazy. Mary is just as spoiled and selfish as she has ever been, and Edith is tedious and dull at best.  I never like indecision, particularly in TV characters. In a story, there’s no point in indecision.  It’s a waste of the audience’s time.  Edith waffling back and forth and being rude to others about a situation she’s created for herself is…just as annoying as I’ve come to expect from her character.  I miss Sybil!

Finally, we got to see Paul Giamatti as Cora’s brother, and I thought he did splendidly.  He always seems to play the same character–the grumpy but charming man who wins over far more attractive ladies.

downton-abbey-2013-christmas-special-shirley-maclaineNo exception here.  I know the ‘Americanness’ of these characters is heightened to the point where they may as well be from another galaxy, but I quite like them.  They get almost all of the minute social niceties completely wrong in every situation–futile introductions to the Prince of Wales, never understanding that they’re supposed to get their own tea or breakfast, not comprehending the practice of downstairs servants being called by the name of the person upstairs that they serve, etc., etc.  But no matter how many times they get it wrong, it doesn’t phase them.  And as an American, I think that’s pretty accurate.  While the Brits are disdainful of our loud voices and lack of manners, we are blissfully apathetic to doing these things the ‘wrong’ way.  Undoubtedly, Harold will tell all his amused friends in Newport about his conversation with the Prince, whereas any Brit who had made the same mistake would probably be mortified.  I know Downton takes place nearly 100 years ago, but I think these are social mores that still exist in each culture.  Brits still have fear of causing offense or inconvenience; Americans generally don’t know or don’t care when we’ve accidentally committed a minor faux pas.  The American in me genuinely likes Cora, her mother, and her brother, for being too independent to care about titles or propriety, and for caring far more about the actual value of a person or an action.  I hope Paul Giamatti is in more than just this one episode, because I like him and I think the Grantham family needs more people to come and ruffle their feathers.  They’ll never survive the changes coming their way if they are allowed to believe the world is going to stay the same.

Bates’ story was the only real menace in the episode.  Mary and Mrs. Hughes know that he probably killed Mr. Green, and they’re not certain if they ought to keep it a secret.  The more I think about Bates, the more I think he’s a villain.  No one can really blame him for wanting to kill Mr. Green.  But to act on it…and I have never been entirely convinced he didn’t kill his first wife.  He seems to be surrounded by characters so evil that no one could really blame him for wanting them dead, but the amount of death that seems to follow him is pretty ridiculous.  Anna seems to be doing much better, but this will tear her apart again, so he is hurting her more than almost anyone.  I don’t trust him or like him anymore, and he’s shown he’s quite capable of lying to cover up his actions.  He’s gotten rid of a lot of problems in his life by acting like a criminal.  It may be safe to say, at this point, that he just is one.  I’m ready for him to be done.

It’s a long time until Downton Abbey starts again, and I’m not certain this episode provided me with a really compelling reason to keep watching.  I enjoyed the 4th season, but there was no particular cliffhanger or massive event at the end of this episode that would make me hungry for more.  But I did like the little moment with Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson, because they’re both lovable and they deserve more fun.  That being said, it seems an odd place to leave your Christmas episode–on a sunny beach.

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!

July 31st and my life with Harry Potter

I was planning to do a post on the Royal Baby today, but I care far more for another British boy, and it being July 31st, I really would rather talk about him.

Happy Birthday Harry Potter!

Happy Birthday HarryAs Joyce fans line up to celebrate Bloomsday every June 16th, Harry Potter fans continue to note and celebrate Harry’s Birthday every year.  It has been over 6 years since the final book was released, but the fandom is alive and well.  Perhaps not as active as they were back in the heyday, but still there nonetheless. There’s a local fish & chip shop here doing a 2 night HP trivia competition. There are special performances of HP-related music and plays in NYC, London, LA tonight.

It should also be noted that J.K. Rowling’s birthday is also July 31st, so Happy Birthday, Jo!

To celebrate the 15th anniversary of the first book’s release, Scholastic has commissioned new paperback editions with new artwork. They just released the final cover image to celebrate today.

Deathly Hallows

So what is it about this book series that has an enduring hold on people? Who better to answer this question than me? I reread these books every year at Christmas. I would say I’ve read the first four books maybe 30 times (each).  I thought I would take today to share a short account of the difference these books made in my life.

My first exposure to Harry Potter was actually through the first movie.  There I was, firmly entrenched in the nadir of my life’s journey.

My mother died when I was 15, and that event had put me on a strange course in life, and led me to a pretty crippling bout with depression.  My aunt and uncle were appointed my guardians (sound at all familiar?), and they were the first people to ever make it clear to me that I was not good enough as I was.  They made me really feel the need for their approval, and (simultaneously) the complete absence of it.  I went to a university I didn’t care for in an attempt to please them, but my perilous emotional state made excelling (or even passing my classes) a bleak proposition.  They controlled the money, so as long as I was in school, I was under their control. So I left university halfway through my second year. I viewed this as temporary; I never wanted to not finish my degree. But life sort of spiraled after that.

So at 20, I was to be found living with a boyfriend who cheated on me, working two jobs to pay my bills, not reading or writing anymore (two activities that had truly defined my childhood), eating $1 frozen meals 3 times a day every day, wasting my entire life.  It was the worst my life has ever been, and I’m pretty confident the worst my life will ever be. Depression is a hell of a thing for making you hopeless and bleak and like you’ll never be cheerful again.

Then I went to see this movie everyone was talking about. I didn’t know anything about the story, I didn’t even know it was about magic.  I didn’t know Harry was a wizard until Harry knew.  I remember that exact moment, and a sense of wonder that broke through the haze of my own desolate mind.  Something literally clicked in my brain, and I remembered the amazing quality that stories have to take you out of your own experience and put you somewhere better.

I couldn’t afford to buy the books, as you might have guessed by the two jobs, $1 meals bit mentioned above.  The next day, during my lunch break, I walked to Barnes & Noble and sat myself down in the kid’s section and started to read.  I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next, so I actually skipped the first book and started the second right away.  I read every day on my lunch break–thank you B&N for not throwing me out–even though it was the holiday season at the Mall of America, and the crowds made me almost literally ill.

The only thing I asked for Christmas was the (then) 4 Harry Potter books.  I remember my grandmother asked me if I wanted to wait until they came out in paperback.  I laughed.  I didn’t want to wait until Christmas, let alone longer.

My family obliged, thank god.  I finished all four books in less than two weeks–impressive when you consider that I didn’t get holiday time off from either job.  Then I read them again.  And again.

At first, it was an escape.  Nothing more, really.  I could be completely immersed in a different world.  I loved the idea of fate, the humor, the fact that every new chapter could mean a totally unexpected event (I remember gasping at Ron’s flying car, and when I got to Peter Pettigrew unmasked as Scabbers, I actually turned back the pages to see if I’d read it wrong.). As an escape, it worked. I wasn’t depressed anymore; no time for depression when you have an obsession.

Over time, I found communities of other Harry Potter fans.  I found great friends (online, but still) to share this passion with. It’s a nerdy period of my life, with nerd keywords like fanfiction, chat room, role playing.  It’s also the period in my life when I found my my joie de vivre. I found my passion again. For reading, for writing, for all the things about the written word and the process of storytelling that have been so important to me since.  Not only did I read and reread Harry Potter, and read and write Harry Potter fanfiction, but I started reading again full stop. I read Jane Austen, Tolkien, Vonnegut, the Brontes, Nabokov, Dickens, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Bell Jar, Fahrenheit 451, and numerous other books that further expanded and changed my world view.  It was this period in my life that defined who I became as an adult.

My first trip to New York City came when I wanted to see J.K. Rowling speak, so she’s responsible for that too. For my first views of the Empire State Building, Washington Square Park, my first proper English beans on toast, my first subway trip.

All the reading and writing also directly led to me going back to school; this time as an English major.  It took me a long time to get back to a university that I liked, but once I did it I really did it right. I graduated with honors from one of the top 5 universities in the country. Harry Potter was the subject of my application essay.

The books led me to resume my own writing habit, and I’m now 65,000 words into my first novel.  When I finish it, I’ll know that Harry Potter led me to that moment as well.

The books led me back into university, but they also led me to study abroad in London–the best 6 months of my entire life. During that time in the UK, I saw 10 countries, 11 plays, approximately 20 museums and 15 churches, participated in a two week program backstage at the Globe Theatre, and got to go inside the Gringott’s Building (across the street from my uni.).

australia house

In fact, Harry Potter led me to my entire obsession with British culture, so it also led to this blog.  It has made an absolutely momentous impact on my life, and has shaped how I am and who I am today. No matter how long I live or how much I change in the course of my life, nothing is going to change how I feel about these books.  They saved my life.  Gave me a life worth living.

So Happy Birthday Harry, Happy Birthday Jo, and thank you both.