Sunday 27 May 2012

Book review: Montefiore's Goddaughter.

By Elizabeth Brooks.

The strength of the opening of this book drew me in straight away to the dream world of the protagonist and I instantly wished I had a place of haven like that to escape to in my dreams. “Where do you go at night?” It asks, and the now adult Abigail Crabtree relates the description of her dream world to us. It is a place she drifts to when she sleeps in the Waking World and, accompanied by Boris her teddy bear, she has great friends and great adventures there.

But the dream world is not wholly safe and Abigail tells us of how her story really began, the day she saw her first Vulture Man. In this dream forest of cannibals, and now enemies that seem to be hunting specifically for her and her friends, Abigail finds herself tracked not only in Traumund but in the Waking World too, when she is hunted and summoned to her godfather, Ludovick Montefiore.

Montefiore is a wealthy man and wishes to pay for a grand education for Abigail, and without further ado she finds herself at The Institute of Social and Personal Advancement under the scathing tutelage of a headmistress who makes it clear from the offset that Abigail, with her scruffy hair, baggy clothes and teddy bear, is less than welcome there. Now, with no allies, and no desire to spend her days painting her nails and straightening her hair, Abigail must seek solace in the one place she can: Traumund. But the Vulture Men draw closer and the King they serve is closer to Abigail than she suspected.

This is a fantastically imaginative book and comes alive with visual imagery that is so well rendered as to make the reader wish the world of Traumund were real and accessible to all of us. Brooks’ blend of the modern elements of the institute and the grand and ancient feel of Montefiore’s abbey and the world of Traumund is surprisingly effective in reminding us that this is a modern story about a modern girl that we can all relate to in some way.

Imagination itself is a theme of the story, and it really focuses around Abigail’s determination not to conform or give up her dreams and desires in favour of what society thinks she should be doing, wearing, saying and feeling. As a narrator Abigail is pitched perfectly and has those moments of self-doubt, cowardice and indecision that afflict all of us. She is not the strong heroine so often found in stories, she is real, and acts based on what is best for her at the time and within the confines of her environment.

Montefiore’s Goddaughter has a young protagonist and would fall into the young adult bracket, but as an adult reader I certainly related to the story and found myself compelled to read on. Some elements of the action are rather unsettling and there is no lack of excitement or tension throughout the story. The standard of the writing and the phrasing felt quite literary and certainly mature enough to stimulate an adult reader. Overall this book is a highly enjoyable read and the sort of grand story that is perfect for bedtime reading.

Elloise Hopkins.

Tuesday 22 May 2012

Middle Earth Weekend 2012…

And why I expect far more from it. 

Ok so there is a background to this post. I grew up in Moseley, Birmingham – Tolkien’s Birmingham. This is the real Middle Earth where the bog and the trees, the mill and the towers inspired some of his world. Each year the Middle Earth Weekend takes place in the heart of Tolkien’s Birmingham and promises a medieval delve into the costumes, crafts and tales from the world of Lord Of the Rings. Sounds like a winner huh?

Well yes, and so it used to be. In previous years I have attended the festival and seen craft stalls, story re-enactments and readings, sword-fighting and demonstrations, puppetry, gaming, costumes, archery, a train ride, walking tours, a full scale farmers market with stalls selling local produce and organic foods, beer tents and the list goes on. You get the picture. We are talking a weekend of entertainment and appreciation on a spring weekend surrounded by greenery and enthusiasm.

Last year for personal reasons I boycotted the festival. In short, a local children’s entertainment company that ran a successful and popular stall at Middle Earth Weekend 2010 found themselves being refused a stall by the committee for the 2011 festival. The reason cited was lack of space. Given the size of the site and the more than ample volume of green space that is always unused at the festival, it was clearly a political decision and that is something I cannot get on board with. So after a run of  several years enjoying Middle Earth Weekend, in 2011 they disappointed me.

This year I was passing right by the site, having gone home to visit my parents, so I decided to see what was happening. I walked around the same old craft stalls, looked at the artwork, saw readings were taking place and found a cramped marquee with some children’s activities taking place. The archery was still there and there were visitors dressed up, though not as many as usual and I was disappointed not to see the Nazguls on the move this time. The farmer’s market and beer tents were curiously absent and the whole affair had shrunk again this year leaving even more unused space at the Sarehole Mill site. I stopped to watch the mummers for a while and then, disappointed at the general scale and atmosphere, I called it a day.

Tolkien’s legacy is appreciated worldwide. Undisputable fact. His popularity has not waned. Again fact. Yet what could be an incredibly popular annual festival that has potential to attract visitors from across the country and bring revenue into local businesses is, for whatever reason the committee deems fit, suppressed into a very local, ever decreasing in size affair. I cannot think of a single good reason why this is not opened up to become a regular national attraction. People love Tolkien. I love Tolkien. And yet again this year the Middle Earth Weekend felt more like a local pagan wedding on the village green than a celebration of a huge part of our culture.

I would dearly love to see a far bigger, far more embracing Middle Earth Weekend in 2013 and I hope that the organisers will realise the potential of this event and next year do something bigger, better, and dare to invite some new exhibitors and visitors into the mix. It’s not that often that I go on a real rant about something, but this genuinely disappoints me, because it is just a waste of potential.

Elloise Hopkins.

Thursday 17 May 2012

Inspirational Art of the Moment...

I am having a fantastic time at the moment rediscovering my love for graphic novels and am breaking up my copious amounts of reading with some really outstanding releases. Today I am finding such depth of inspiration in Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal Creation Myths Volume 1.

I don’t want to say too much here because I will be writing a proper review of it but it has reminded me just how much I love the artwork, designs and puppets of Jim Henson’s work. Suddenly I am craving another viewing of Labyrinth, which remains one of my all time favourite films.

In Henson’s work, and of course the team that carries on his legacy, there is such personality depicted in every line of the imagery, such a beautiful range of colour and shapes employed to create these wonderful and intriguing characters and landscapes that take your breath away.

It is my intention to draw influence from this style and try to remember, when I am writing descriptions and inventing characters, that it is the smallest details that make the greatest difference and the most memorable and lovable creations. Definitely an inspiration and thus today’s muse.

Elloise Hopkins.

Sunday 13 May 2012

Final Fantasy XIII-2 First Impressions…

I wondered where the story would go after Final Fantasy XIII; a game which, I should add, I thought was fantastic, and Lightning quickly made it into my top ten favourite FF characters of all time. I pre-ordered XIII-2 before it came out and then life, or rather university coursework and novel writing, got in the way. Finally now I have had chance to start playing.

The trailers intrigued me. Lightning was still alive and she looked and sounded as amazing, if not better, than she did before. And her seeming nemesis Caius Ballad looked just as incredible. I decided with these two leading the game XIII-2 would not be a disappointment. The opening credits certainly weren’t, and blew me away. I got shivers when Caius said “Warrior Goddess”. Seriously. For the record, I want that on my tombstone.

So what’s my verdict on the game? Well I’m only a couple of hours in so it is really too early to comment on plot or the overall playing experience. I’m currently running around trying to ‘capture’ a Pulsework Knight for my paradigm pack. Of course before I decided I wanted one they were lurking every time I turned around and now they are conveniently elusive.

Nonetheless I do feel like I’m getting into the game now. To start with I was really disappointed to be forced to play as Serah. She certainly did not seem to be a strong lead to me and her rendering seemed peculiarly off. I have some experience of 3D animating, and the texturing of her clothes and especially her hair looked severely below FF standard. But I’m pleased to report that not too far in I was given the option to use Noel as my party leader, which has appeased me somewhat for the moment.

The action seems to be shaping up nicely, the battle system is more complex than its predecessor and although I am a little perplexed by the Crystarium for some unknown reason – does it seem to be too simple and non-intuitive perhaps? – now that I have switched the game off I am craving more play. Yes, the FF addiction has me again. I need more hours in my weeks.

Elloise Hopkins.

Thursday 10 May 2012

The Hunger Games...

I went to see The Hunger Games movie with a little apprehension. I loved that the book was written in first person present tense and so the reader was right there with Katniss in the midst of everything, experiencing the struggles and fears along with her. I just couldn’t see how that constant sense of danger and urgency would translate well into a full colour, big screen movie. The images I had seen of some of the characters prior to the film’s release had excited me; however, and I was looking forward to seeing the full stylised version.

At a 12A certificate I knew beforehand that certainly some of the more unpleasant aspects of the book would have been eradicated and others seriously toned down for the screen version, so I was expecting to see a very glossy and Hollywood-emphasised film with lots of action and melodrama but lacking in the deeper emotional content.

I am pleased to report that I was partially wrong. The film had me captivated from start to finish and I did still feel that constant sense of disgust at what I was seeing and that sense of disbelief that humans can behave in such a cruel manner towards one another that I felt when reading the book. The stylistic appearance of the rich capital and all of its elements – indulgent dining, futuristic technology, crisp lines and opulent designs – were the perfect contrast to the gloomy shabbiness of the poor districts, and really hammered the message home.

The film just worked for me in every way. Visually I was stimulated, the relationships between characters were not exaggerated and so portrayed the depth of feeling in a realistic manner, and the casting was excellent; all of which produced a believable adaptation of the book even if it did not give me the same gut-wrenching suspense and tension of the prose. I have only read the first of the trilogy but came away from the cinema wanting to read them all.

Elloise Hopkins.

Friday 4 May 2012

Charlie Chaplin with the CBSO…

Recently I attended the Birmingham Symphony Hall Friday Night Classics: Charlie Chaplin and I have been musing about it ever since. Something didn’t feel quite right during the evening and I think I’ve worked out what and why.

The evening began with four short animated films accompanied of course by the famous City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. The films screened were the winner and runners up from a recent competition that charged young animators across the city to create an animation to go with music discovered in the library archives. Watching the Bullring bull rampage along New Street is a sight I may never forget.

The one that stood out most for me was The Banshee by sixteen-year-old Kane Rose, the story of a young boy playing in the woods with his own imagination before a Banshee chases and attacks him. The animation went perfectly with the score and this film was actually the judges’ special commendation; however, I did feel that the point of the film was lost on the audience, which broke into raucous laughter when the monster ate the boy.

Next up was a short Charlie Chaplin film One A.M. This is a classic Chaplin comedy. A drunken man arrives home and has various slapstick incidents with everything from his front door to the staircase, the tiger skin rug to his fold out bed. The audience definitely enjoyed this one, as did I on the whole, but this was my first experience with Chaplin’s full on comedy and I did feel like some of the gags were repeated too many times with not enough variety.

The main feature, Chaplin’s City Lights did not disappoint. In this one Chaplin plays a tramp that falls in love with a blind flower girl, who by a strange turn of fate mistakes the tramp for a wealthy man. The tramp survives a series of mishaps and different occupations and eventually obtains enough money to give to the girl for an operation that will restore her sight.

The film then ends with the flower girl no longer blind and there is a heart-breaking moment when the tramp first sees her and she does not recognise him, seeing him only as a tramp and not the benefactor she fell in love with. First she mocks the tramp, then her good nature allows her to pity him and eventually when she is close enough to him she recognises him by touch and the couple is reunited.

Having the live music accompanying the film was an experience I had never had before, but I think in this instance the power and theme of the visuals just overpowered the orchestra. With the musicians and conductor in the pit they were not wholly visible to the audience, and whilst the music was of an exceptional standard and perfectly accompanied the action on screen, I had to keep reminding myself that I was listening to live music and not a recorded soundtrack. 

So the night of CBSO with Charlie Chaplin was enjoyable and I came away mostly thrilled with just a couple of niggles. Firstly, again during the main feature I felt as though the audience was missing a key point of the film. Some of its more tragic moments were drowned in laughter and the exceptional acting prowess displayed towards the end of the movie seemed lost on the viewers who were content to mock and laugh at inopportune moments. We humans do love to laugh, I concede; perhaps it was nervous or uncomfortable laughter.

Secondly, I did not feel the tingling chills and excitement I had expected to feel from the music, as the music played second fiddle if you like to the movie. I think had the orchestra been on stage below the screen and in my constant eye line, the whole experience would have been more moving and more connected. Nonetheless it was a one off opportunity and I am glad I attended.

Elloise Hopkins.