Saturday, November 30, 2013

Sue's Saturday Suggestions #76

Interesting Books

I have listed these titles in earlier SSS posts: check out my SSS Books Page for links to more reviews:

The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord, review at Bibliotropic

Jack Glass by Adam Roberts, review at Rinn Reads


The Amazing Tad Williams at Bookworm Blues

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, review at The Ranting Dragon

Omnipotence is Impotence: Or Why Control Freaks Make Poor Fantasy Writers by Robert V.S. Redick at Fantasy Book Critic

Science Fiction Book Recommendations at Fantasy Cafe

Top Ten Science Fiction Novels at Rinn Reads

Vampire Book Club’s Best books of 2013


I plan to launch my new blog Veni, Vidi, Legi on Monday, assuming that this stinking cold does not drag on too much. I will run it as a sister site to this one, using it to focus on fiction set in the city of Roman or within the Ancient Roman Empire. I will also try to include factual posts about some of the iconic people, places and events of that period because I want to try to communicate the admiration I feel for this section of history.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Neil Gaiman’s Stardust: Film vs Book?

After the very enjoyable Read Along of this title, Carl added a suggestion that we view the film adaptation and then post a discussion. 

I have to confess that I first watched the film just after reading The Graveyard Book because it was recommended by the others who had taken part in that Read Along and the one of Neverwhere. It was interesting to re-view it after finally tackling the book because I could see that it had prejudiced that reading experience. However, I can safely say that both I and my husband, who was a little reluctant to watch the film, were both very entertained and that it is fairly true to the spirit of the book, even if there are some fairly major changes.

Film Prejudice

Now I know why I had such an intense feeling that one of the brothers was going to fall out of the window in the King’s bedchamber! I actually liked the way that they handled this in the film, because it did seem like such a wonderful opportunity that I am surprised that Mr Gaiman did not take this route himself. It condensed so much story telling into one wonderfully black moment: I loved it!

I did wonder why I was misreading Tristran as Tristan, because I am normally very nit picking in my reading. Apparently they changed the name in the film to make it easier to say, although I do not really see what the problem was.


My biggest dislike for the film was the character of Ferdy, as portrayed by Ricky Gervais. I know that he is a friend of Jane Goldman, the screenwriter, but I did not like his scenes the first time I saw the film and they irritated me even more this time because I now know that they do not appear in the book. I read on IMDB that Mr Gervais improvised his lines, and this could have been the problem: they simply did not fit with the tone of the rest of the film and felt faintly embarrassing to me.

I also wish that they had not named Una right at the beginning. My husband turned to me straightaway and said “So that’s the mother then!” I do not remember making the connection myself the first time around, but I am rather clueless about hints like that in films!

I was rather sorry that they decided to make Victoria so two-dimensional. One aspect of the book that I really enjoyed was the fact that everyone had a journey to make and displayed personal growth.

Slight Criticisms

I was rather sad to see that the man with the black hat, the little hairy man and the copper beech tree were all absent from the film. I can understand that they wanted to streamline the story and minimize the number of characters, so this is not really a criticism, just some things that I would have liked to see. I thought the decision to transfer the tree’s role to the stars was fairly neat and shortened the scene, keeping it magical without the need to introduce another character.

I would also say that I preferred the plotting in the second half of the book to that of the film. The way in which Septimus and the witch defeated each other was much cleverer and more satisfying, as we discussed last week. Yvaine’s treatment of the witch was also more to my taste in the book, as was the choice to have a ‘real’ ending, with Tristan dying of old age and leaving Yvaine alone. However, I can see the need to have a much more dramatic and climactic end to a film, and I particularly enjoyed seeing the second witch getting eaten by ferrets and wolves! The changes were not too out of character so they did not jar as much as they could have. I actually liked the way that the dead Septimus was used to fight Tristan because it made him slightly more sympathetic.


I really enjoyed the use of the landscape, most of which was in Scotland I believe. It was so good to see actors in a real place rather than obviously in front of a green screen. The use of long, panoramic shots was particularly effective and enhanced the feeling of reality that is so present in Mr Gaiman’s writing.

The casting throughout was excellent and I loved the balance between the big star names and talented, but relatively unknown, British actors many of whom are best known for comedy shows.

Really Liked

I thought the choice of the lead actors was spot on. Claire Danes has a very naturalistic style to her acting and yet has a natural inner beauty that made her perfect as Yvaine. Although I was a little disappointed that she did not get the opening line that I was waiting for, I still thought that she nailed all the pain and frustration that we had seen in the book. Charlie Cox managed to be an idiot and rather heroic as required, and still retained an air of innocence that was perfect.

The witches were well done, and I thought it was interesting choice to use two fairly young actresses for the ones who never got rejuvenated (they are 51 and 42 at present). Michelle Pfeiffer did an excellent job of exuding menace and conveyed her advanced age very well. I am always pleased to see an actor that can take a melodramatic part and not spend all their time chewing the furniture. We could feel her power and evil without her resorting to appearing like a crazy person.

High Points

Surprisingly, this is going to be the longest list!

Dare I say it? I think the brothers were much funnier than in the book and the screenwriters took every opportunity to include them in ways that were hilarious. Even Septimus was funny, what with pretending to die at the beginning and then his helplessness at his body being used as a fighting machine. It was good to see Mark Strong getting the opportunity to do something other than just play a totally bad person. Jason Flemying’s Primus was rather sweet and decent, staying close to his character in the book. Meanwhile, Mark Heap’s Tertius was edgy and a bit of a pervert, which is pretty much the type of character that he often plays but he is so good at it. Of course, Rupert Everett as Secundus was a nice nod to the actor’s role as Prince Charming in the Shrek films, so it was fitting that he got his handsome face mashed in.

Also improving on the book was the scene at the inn. I absolutely LOVED Mark Williams as Billy: not a single line but one of the funniest physical performances for ages. Most people will know Mark as Mr Weasley from the Harry Potter franchise, but he has been doing comedy on British TV for years and he is vastly under-rated as an actor. Then there was the feminized Bernard and his ‘interest’ in his own boobs! Such subtle writing, but it really got so much comedy into a potentially lethal and nerve-wracking scene.

Speaking of physicality: how awesome was the wall guard when he went all ninja on Tristan? So totally unexpected and yet so hilarious: especially as the actor looks like a stiff breeze would blow him away!

I really liked the decision to have Tristan take a ‘piece’ of Yvaine across the wall and have it turn to stardust. This was such a dramatic way of informing him of her possible fate: so neat and yet so very effective.

But I have to save my greatest praise for Mr Robert De Niro: you, sir, are a star! I know that the part was written by someone else, but he took it and blew everyone else out of the water. I have no idea how they came up with the idea to take the Captain in that direction, but it was absolute genius. Not only did it allow a nice montage of Tristan learning to fight, whilst giving our heroes time to fall in love, but it also carried a wonderful lesson about being yourself. It seems that, as he gets older, Mr De Niro is getting more comfortable exploring his comedic skills, and I hope that he gets many more opportunities: the image of him dancing about to the Can-Can is one that will stay with me for a long time!

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

My Rating: 4.5 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 4.20 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 4.03 / 5.00

Note: I read this as part of a Read Along.   Week 1   Week 2  

The town of Wall is pretty normal, apart from the fact that it is next to the wall that separates our world from the land of Faerie. Every nine years the Faerie Market is held just on the other side and Wall is inundated with the many strange people who want to visit the Market. Dunstan Thorn is a young man eager to experience something a little different, so he goes to the Market where he meets the beautiful Una who is a slave to a witch who sells magical flowers. She gives him a glass snowdrop in exchange for a kiss and tells him to return later. One thing leads to another and nine months later Dunstan is surprised to receive a baby in a basket.

Eighteen years later, baby Tristan is all grown up (at least that is what he thinks) and is madly in love with Victoria Forester. One night they see a shooting star flash overhead and land somewhere over the border in Faerie. In a moment of madness Tristan promises to find it and bring it back to Victoria in exchange for a kiss and possibly marriage. She agrees because she assumes the task is impossible, but Tristan heads into Faerie full of determination to fulfill his quest. Once there he discovers that he is not the only one seeking the fallen star. The dying King of Stormhold knocked the star from the sky by throwing the Power of Stormhold at it, so his murderous sons are competing with one another to be the one who finds it and claims the throne. There are also three witches who want to capture the star as a way to restore their youth by cutting out her heart and eating it. The star herself is not very happy about any of these alternatives and is actually rather cross at being knocked out of the sky in the first place.

Having only discovered Mr Gaiman’s books last year I can safely say that I am rapidly becoming a rather enthusiastic fan of his writing. While Neverwhere was good it suffered from being the novelization of a television series, but The Graveyard Book was one of my favorite reads last year, so I was eager to read another of his better-known titles. I am pleased to report that I found it as delightful and entertaining as I had expected, making me even more certain of my appreciation for this writer’s wit and sideways look at life.

As with The Graveyard Book we have a story that suggests familiar stories and situations and yet presents them in novel and interesting ways. It seems to be a familiar fairy tale and yet none of the elements are actually all that close to the traditional stories that we have all grown up with. Yes, we have a hero who has a quest to fulfill, but he is not exactly heroic at the start of his journey and after that things just get increasingly complicated for him. He has to deal with other competitors for the star and his prize is none too happy about being dragged across the world just because he wants to kiss some girl in his village. Even the Happy Ever After ending is not standard issue, but that is what I have come to expect from Mr Gaiman and he has not let me down yet.

Our ‘hero’ Tristan is really not a hero at all. It is not that he is an anti-hero; just that he is very, very normal. He does not have any superlative qualities or skills; he is actually rather dull and average. He has a huge crush on Victoria, who is the prettiest girl in the village, but he does not LOVE her in the epic way that heroes are supposed to. It is not so much that she is his True Love, in The Princess Bride way of things, but rather that she is the first girl to catch his attention. She is out of his league and is stunningly uninterested, so that all adds to the pangs of longing that his teenage brain transmutes into LOVE writ large. He makes a stupid, melodramatic gesture to ‘prove’ his love to her and she calls his bluff, which is why he heads into Faerie and starts on the path that finally leads him to self-discovery and real love.

He is really quite endearing because he spends a lot of the story being confused about what is going on and why he is even bothering to continue with his journey. It does not take very long for him to realize that he is on a fool’s errand and that it is only his desire to save face that keeps him plodding along. He does the best that he can and has a good heart, which eventually leads him to mature enough to become a rather useful hero who can fulfill his destiny and save the woman he loves. It takes lots of time and many hardships, but gradually the world transforms him into the Prince Charming of the fairy tales.

On the other hand, Yvaine, the star, does not show as much development. When we first meet her she is a furious immortal who has been ripped away from her place in the sky and it takes quite some time for her to calm down and start to notice the world around her. Gradually she begins to accept her changed circumstances and finally she resigns herself to her life within the limitations imposed by living on the ground. Ultimately, hers is a sad and lonely story, but she finds what joy she can in her life with Tristan, making the most of their time together. Her acerbic wit is very refreshing in a world that normally presents the heroine as a useless and drippy bit of froth who serves no purpose but to be rescued by a hunky male. Yvaine has some great dialogue and refuses to take any crap from anyone, so she is very entertaining to read.

As one would expect, the supporting cast is also full of bizarre and entertaining characters. The Stormhold brothers are hilarious in their attempts to murder each other. This is made all the funnier because the brothers that are already dead get to hang around and comment on their living siblings’ lives. This is all very black, but it does allow some wonderful scenes of sibling rivalry that will have you laughing out loud. However, even though they are all murderous in their intentions, the brothers remain relatively sympathetic characters because they are simply competing to become king and do not actually hate one another. I know that this sounds strange, but they simply do not read as evil psychopaths, even as they are concocting the most elaborate plans to kill each other. This is also true of the three witches. Whilst it is true that they want to cut out Yvaine’s heart to eat it, they also display little overt malice towards our hero and heroine. Again, she is a means to an end and this makes them much more interesting because they have a reasonable motivation and their emotional responses extend beyond the typical cackling of the typical insanely evil antagonist.

I could wax lyrical about the other characters, especially the little hairy man and Billy, the goat-turned-man, but I would rather leave them for you to discover for yourself. Whilst this is not quite as enthralling as The Graveyard Book, it is still an excellent read and I would thoroughly recommend it.

Other Reviews


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

My Rating: 4.5 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 4.70 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 4.21 / 5.00

Note: I read this as part of a Read Along, which was jolly good fun.   Week 1   Week 2   Week 3

Tiffany Aching is a fairly normal child, although she is particularly good at making cheese. She is also very sensible; so that when a monster in the pond attacks her she simply smacks it in the face with a frying pan. As I said, she is very, very sensible, which is even more impressive when you consider that she is only nine years old. But then, she is the grandchild of the great Granny Aching, sheep whisperer extraordinaire and wielder of the Special Sheep Liniment*.

One day Tiffany’s little brother, Wentworth, goes missing, which seems unlikely because he is so sticky that he is usually safe left on his own. However, it seems that the Queen of Faerie has stolen him, possibly because she is determined to rectify his stickiness once and for all, and Tiffany is determined to get him back. Having been convinced by Miss Tick, the travelling Witch, that she should become a Witch herself, Tiffany ventures into the land of Faerie armed only with her trusty frying pan, a talking toad and her fierce intelligence. Oh, and the Feegles: did I mention them? The Nac Mac Feegles, or Wee Free Men, are all roughly six inches tall, covered in blue tattoos and are almost invariably drinki’, figthin’ or stealin’, or some combination of all three. Their language may be fruity but their arms are mighty and they are always good chaps to have with you in a scrap.

*Please note that this so-called ‘medicine’ has not been approved for use as anything other than paint stripper or fire accelerant.

This is one of Mr Pratchett’s many Discworld novels, number 30 I believe, and is the first of four in a shorter series that revolves around our young heroine, Tiffany Aching. I have read several of the other Discworld books, so I was well aware of Mr Pratchett’s writing style and his first YA title, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, is one of my favorites. I was expecting wit and clever humor wrapped up in a story that took the usual tropes and twisted them into amazingly entertaining shapes, and I was not disappointed.

Experienced readers of the Discworld series were first introduced to Mr Pratchett’s concept of Witches back in 1988 Wyrd Sisters and Tiffany and Miss Tick snuggle easily into that version of the practice. There are pointy hats, but that is only because people expect them; there are hairy warts, mainly because most women of a certain age get them; and there are flying broomsticks for some reason that is never explained but there is definitely no cackling. Cackling is something that all Witches strive to avoid and is a certain indication of impending madness. No, Mr Pratchett’s Witches are women who have a keen intelligence and an ability to apply hard work, excellent observation and a mass of headology (a brand of psychology only studied by Witches) to the everyday troubles of the people that they care for. Some have specialties, such as Granny Aching who keeps her Witching almost exclusively to sheep.

Young Tiffany is a great heroine to throw at a person who loves to read books, because she is so serious and bookish herself. She is not like the other children who dash about in a carefree manner: she is an outsider and observer, someone who immediately appeals to the geeky nerd inside all of us who are likely to pick up a book for entertainment. She does all the things that we wish we could have done when we were nine: she is calm in the face of danger and brave enough to trust her instincts; she is doggedly loyal to her little brother even though he is totally obnoxious and she is very, very clever. In short, she has you cheering for her within the first page of text.

Then we have the setting of the Chalk. This rolling grassland covered with sheep is very familiar to me from my childhood growing up amongst the fields of Lancashire, Cumbria and West Yorkshire. Although my part of the English countryside is not laid over chalk, I am very familiar with the traditions associated with sheep rearing, so I felt a certain nostalgia when reading this book. However, I do not think that a lack of this background would be a problem as Mr Pratchett paints a very vivid portrait of the landscape, which plays a large role in the story. I
particularly loved the inclusion of the White Horse carved into the hillside, which I always pictured like this one in Uffington because of its flowing lines and highly stylized form.

As a part of the Chalk, we have the presence of Granny Aching, who is actually dead at the start of the series. However, her influence lingers on and she is one of the most prominent dead characters that I have ever read. She was such a strong personality that the locals have almost made her a god, so that thunder is referred to as ‘Granny Aching cussin’. She lived an almost solitary life in a tiny, wheeled hut up on the hills, with her Jolly Sailor tobacco and Special Sheep Liniment. Although she is no longer present in Tiffany’s life she continues to be a great influence on her granddaughter, and her stubborn, taciturn personality is a constant inspiration for the young Witch. She dedicated her life to protecting the sheep, the Chalk and its people, a path that Tiffany seems destined to follow.

However, there is no doubt that the stars of this book, and indeed the series, are the Wee Free Men of the title. Whilst Tiffany is all common sense and thoughtfulness, they are the exact opposite. They are chaotic and unrelentingly aggressive towards anything and everything unless it is a lawyer, which they find terrifying, or someone they deem a friend. Once you have become a friend of the Feegles they will watch over you until you die, whether you want them to or not. Granny Aching befriended the Feegle Clan that lives on the Chalk, and they extend their protection to Tiffany as part of that friendship. They are impressed by her fighting skills because of the frying pan incident and are awed by her ability to read and think without having to hit herself on the head. She is constantly irritated by them and their behavior, but they prove to be wonderful allies and she eventually develops a deep affection for them.

Once again, my own background feeds into my feelings for the Feegles. I lived in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, for twenty years and the Feegles are based upon tiny, drunk Scotsmen. You can tell this by their bright red hair, filthy kilts and raucous behavior. Their dialogue is all produced in a Glaswegian dialect that I am quite familiar with, so that added to the entertainment value a great deal. There is a glossary included for those less fluent in the slang words, which includes some wonderfully polite definitions. The Feegles are not only entertaining as individuals, but truly come into their own as a group. Due to their hive-like structure, most of them are brothers, which makes them particularly argumentative so fights are a constant occurrence if they have to stand around for more than a minute or so. Only the Big Man gets to breed with the Kelda, who is the lone female in the clan, so he is nominally in charge, although few Feegles ever do what they are told without expressing an opinion.

My only criticism of this title is that the ending seems a little too easy to me. I wanted something a little more dangerous and challenging for Tiffany to overcome. However, this is a minor point to pick about a generally excellent and entertaining story. Plus, it will have you adding words to your everyday vocabulary: Crivens!

Other Reviews

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