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Spotlight: BBC’s Call The Midwife

Something different to start off the new year; not a book, but a television show – Call The Midwife. For those in the UK or with access to BBC iPlayer, the first eight series are all available now, and Series 9 has just begun. For everyone else, the first seven series are on Netflix and presumably they’ll get the rest in due course.

The show tells the story of a group of nurses and midwives in a very poor area of London through the 1950s and 1960s. Around half the (very talented) cast are Protestant nuns of the medical order of St Raymond Nonnatus (don’t worry, the religion isn’t shoved down anyone’s throats); the rest are a diverse body of young nurses from all walks of life. It’s based around the memoirs of Nurse Jenny Lee, one of the main characters for the first couple of series, and most of the stories are true.

As you can guess this means the show has to be accompanied by warnings. There’s a lot of childbirth (obviously), and it’s real, not the usual sanitised television version. There’s blood and gore, kept to a minimum with camera angles. There are sad stories, with birth defects and complications. There are other medical cases not related to birth. There are stories concerning death and disease, abortion, prostitution, addiction, poverty, racism, mental illness, rape and abuse, and many don’t have happy endings.

You’re likely wondering why I’m recommending it, given all that (and given that I emphatically don’t do small children unless they have fur and four legs). Despite the sometimes grim content, it’s still overall a wholesome, hopeful show. More stories end happily than badly, particularly in the later series as medical science advances over time. The characters are fantastically portrayed (I will fight to the death for Shelagh) and most of the non-medical stories are sweet and with just the right amount of humour. Even when the main plot of an episode ends in sadness, it still often makes you smile. It’s gentle rather than grim, while still not shying away from the facts; real without being edgy. A great many authors could take notes – this is what real mature storytelling is.

It’s historically accurate, too. My parents grew up in this era and while they were far better off than the people of the borough of Poplar they’ve confirmed a lot of it, as have many reviewers. Those who read my fics may see some of my inspiration for certain backstories. A lot of it highlights just how fortunate we are in the modern era, and how far science has come in a relatively short space of time, and I appreciate the sense of wonder they bring to things I’ve never bothered to think about.

Also, the romance (yes, there’s romance). Again, authors should take notes. There are examples of bad romance tropes, abuse and unhealthy relationships, and they’re all reserved for patients who are only around for an episode or two; and all are called out and speculated about and discussed by the nuns and nurses. They’re not dismissed as acceptable, though often there’s an acknowledgement that it cannot be changed – yet. And the romance stories concerning the main cast are all sweet and believable and feelgood, even the ones that end badly, without being sappy or naive.

They try to be as inclusive as the setting allows, but Series 1 takes place in 1957 and at the time of writing Series 9 has just begun in 1965. Homosexuality is illegal, transgenderism is unheard of and racism and misogyny are rife. They introduce characters of colour to the main cast as soon as it’s plausible for them to do so, and there is one onscreen gay relationship, mainly dealing with the struggles of having to keep it a secret.

The soundtrack is great as well, by the by. There was a lot of fantastic music around at the time.

If your mental health can cope with the dark and sad moments, I encourage you to give it a try (maybe keep some cartoons or animal videos on standby for after the worst moments, if you need to, or watch with your furbaby if you have one). It’s overall a wholesome, sweet series, and there’s a sense of gentle optimism and strength that I think everyone can use more of these days.


A brief note – no more attempts at a schedule because life kicks my teeth in every time I try. I’ll do a spotlight whenever I have something to recommend. I’m still mulling over ideas for a new series, and there’s whatever we end up doing about Harry Potter. Time will tell.

 
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Posted by on January 14, 2020 in loten

 

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Monthly Spotlight: Good Omens

I wasn’t going to do this. I mentioned this book way back during the Terry Pratchett spotlight, and that was going to be it, even though it’s one of my favourite books of all time. It’s not as if it needs my recommending it, I’m sure 99% of you have already read it anyway. But then the TV adaptation was released a month ago, and here we are because it’s amazing and I love it.

So what did I say about it in the past?

My favourite non-Discworld work is without question Good Omens, co-written with Neil Gaiman, which almost got a full post to itself. Whilst I do enjoy Mr Gaiman’s works, he’s probably not going to feature here again, but Good Omens is a work of genius. I can’t really talk about it too much without giving away the plot, but the short version is that an angel and a demon team up to try and stop the Apocalypse because they quite like Earth. Featuring the Antichrist, the Four Horsemen, dire prophecies and all the old classics, and I guarantee none of them are what you’d expect.

A television series is currently in development, hopefully coming out on Amazon later this year. I am very excited about this. There’s also a very good BBC radio adaptation.

Well, that’s all very true. Let’s go a little further now. Just in case there somehow is anyone reading this who hasn’t read it, I’m not going to go into too much detail about the plot.

[Before Loten gets too far into a plot overview, I think it’s also worth doing a quick thematic one. Good Omens has a few things at its core: a silly comedy of errors, a well-deserved parody of Christian eschatology, a fundamentally humanistic message, and (depending on your goggles) a story about deep friendship or gay romance. None of these things are particularly surprising if you know anything about the authors, really, but it’s worth pointing them out nonetheless. I do think the humanism is an important aspect of the story and one I don’t see discussed as much; it’s also not a religion-antagonistic humanism, so even if you’re not an atheist, give the story a chance, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.]

Our joint protagonists are the demon Crowley and the angel Aziraphale. They both live on Earth and follow the orders of their respective superiors, tempting and blessing humans at various points, ostensibly opposing one another and trying to win souls to their side. In reality they first met in the Garden of Eden, they’ve known one another for six thousand years or so, they realised a long time ago that they have more in common with one another – and with humanity – than with their fellows, and would much rather be left alone to enjoy life.

Then Crowley is handed the baby Antichrist and ordered to kick off the end of the world. Both Heaven and Hell are very keen that this should happen because they want to fight each other and are of course each convinced that their side will win. Crowley and Aziraphale would really rather not, thank you, and decide to help bring up the Son of Satan with a more balanced view of the world in the hope that he’ll decide not to destroy it when he comes into his power.

Of course it doesn’t work the way they planned – human error is a far stronger force than any divine power – and eleven years later they find themselves racing to try and avert the apocalypse with no idea of what’s going on and with their own teams trying to stop them. The rest of the cast include the Four Horsemen, the descendant of the last witch in England (who foresaw all this), the last witch-finders in England, a few people in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the Antichrist himself.

It’s a fantastic book. It’s funny the whole way through, the drama moves at a good pace and the characters are wonderful. And the recent Amazon Prime adaptation is easily the best TV adaptation I’ve ever seen.

It ought to be, really, since it was written by Neil Gaiman and co-produced by him and Rob Wilkins on behalf of Terry Pratchett. Getting Good Omens to the screen was one of Pratchett’s last requests and nobody’s been allowed to mess with it too much, and it’s obvious that everyone involved loved what they were doing. (I’ve seen a few reviews complaining that it’s too faithful to the book, which confuses me since to my mind the point of adapting a book is to transfer the book to the shiny screen, not to retell it in the process.)

There are some additions, particularly Aziraphale’s superiors in Heaven, who were taken from the sequel that was sadly never written. There’s additional material covering more of Crowley and Aziraphale’s history and an ending dealing with the consequences of their defiance. Sadly some things were cut – the Other Four Horsemen just didn’t have time to ride out, and the Antichrist himself has reduced screen time apparently because of the regulations around child actors. Almost all the jokes made it in, even if some of them wouldn’t be noticeable to someone who hadn’t read the book.

[I do think there were a few things that didn’t quite work well in adaptation, and some of the things that were cut (like the bikers) really were an unfortunate loss because that was one of my favourite moments in the book, but it’s still damn good and one of the best book adaptations I’ve seen in a long time. I do think that people unfamiliar with the source material might struggle to understand (or just miss) some things, or be confused why some jokes or plotlines are getting focus relative to others. Also, YMMV as to whether all of the jokes land: in order to preserve the wordplay and jokes that only work verbally, they chose to have the series be narrated by the Voice of God. That allowed them to get a lot of things in that couldn’t have worked otherwise, but it can feel a bit pedantic at times (I didn’t mind it at all the first time through, but it can grate a little on repeat viewing).]

The casting is absolutely superb. David Tennant is Crowley, completely. I wasn’t sure about Michael Sheen as Aziraphale when it was announced but the first trailer sold me immediately. Ned Dennehy as Hastur nearly stole the show [he absolutely did for me] and almost everyone else was spot on, with some cameos that probably escaped most non-British viewers.

[There are some other things worth discussing about the casting, too. They clearly went out of their way to have a diverse cast both in terms of race and gender, which I did find occasionally jarring, but usually in a good way; it was just such a pleasant surprise to see how committed they were to it. I don’t want to go into too much detail here, but this might be worth discussing further in the comments. Anathema being American was the one we found strangest, but it’s not as though it actually harmed anything.]

And, of course, the show is its own fanfiction. (I wish I could take credit for this line, I can’t remember who said it because I’ve read quite a lot of reviews for this show by now.) It’s really about the relationship between Crowley and Aziraphale, with the apocalypse happening in the background.

The vast majority of the fandom ships them to some extent. Not always sexually, but you know, fandoms gonna fan. The official stance of the writers has always been, more or less, “Well, we didn’t actually intend it that way when we wrote them, but we can see why.” (One reason I love both authors is that they’ve never lashed out or mocked their fans for having different headcanons.) Gaiman decided to lean hard into it and Tennant and Sheen happily played along.

Tor’s review says it all (beware spoilers if you haven’t watched it yet): https://www.tor.com/2019/06/04/the-good-omens-miniseries-is-a-love-story-and-i-will-never-recover-from-it/

I could go on for pages about this, I have a lot of FEELINGS, but I’ll refrain. If you haven’t read the book yet, do it now. If you haven’t seen the show yet it is absolutely worth finally taking that free trial Amazon keeps waving in your face – it will be coming to DVD eventually but it’s more than good enough to justify seeing it as soon as possible. It makes me very happy and I’ve already rewatched it more than once. [So have I.]

As a final addendum, there’s inevitably been some backlash from a lot of very angry Christians who missed the point completely (watched with some bewilderment by a lot of other Christians who possess basic comprehension). Bless their little cotton socks, the group who started a petition to cancel it must be feeling a little silly now after approximately half the population of the internet pointed out that none of the 20,000 frothing balls of blind outrage who signed it had spotted that the petition was aimed at Netflix, rather than Amazon Prime.

Netflix very nicely promised not to make any more.

Amazon offered to cancel Stranger Things if Netflix cancelled Good Omens.

Neil Gaiman just enjoyed watching it happen, as did a lot of other people.

Now go watch the show again.

 
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Posted by on June 28, 2019 in loten

 

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Monthly Spotlight: Naomi Novik’s Temeraire

One day I will get around to the next spotlight on my planned list, I swear. But last week I picked up the first Temeraire novel and he is the most adorable dragon ever and everyone needs to read these books immediately.

Captain Will Laurence is serving in the Navy during the Napoleonic War when his ship defeats and captures a French vessel that has a dragon egg on board. When it hatches the baby dragon will only accept a harness and a name from him, so he has to leave the Navy to join the Aviation Corps as a dragon rider. For some reason he’s initially not very happy about this, but the dragon – who he names Temeraire after a famous ship – wins him over through sheer cuteness, more or less. Temeraire is very intelligent, and he is incredibly curious about everything, very enthusiastic, and sweetly attached to his rider.

All I knew about these books going in was ‘Napoleonic War with dragons’. Nobody told me how goddamn cute said dragons were. Inevitably for a Fantasyland-esque protagonist there’s a degree of Sueishness – Temeraire is not only a rare breed but the rarest of the rare with all the special things ever, and Laurence easily sees and solves all sorts of problems none of the veteran aviators do – but I don’t care, because dragons.

Novik is a great author with a good eye for detail, and she’s managed to balance the addition of dragons to the war. There are still ships and cannon and everything else, and it all makes sense together; not everything is explained but there aren’t any obvious holes. The rider training is handled more sensibly than a lot of books do it and there’s a decent variety of characters, human and dragon. The dragons feel convincing as well; they’re not just big scaly humans, they don’t necessarily share their riders’ views or values, and there are a lot of different breeds with different abilities and levels of intelligence. Most of them don’t breathe fire but have a nice variety of other skills.

The combat is pretty epic too. Hard not to be excited by fighting taking place on dragonback.

I’ve currently binged my way through the first three and a bit books – there are nine in total. It’s going some very interesting places. Laurence and Temeraire haven’t spent all that much time actually dealing with the war; they’ve been travelling, dealing with various diplomatic issues arising from Temeraire being a Chinese dragon, gifted to France, who was never meant to end up in England, and they’ve seen a lot of other cultures and how they treat their dragons. Abolition is being debated in human society at the time and Temeraire’s getting very interested in the question of dragon rights. I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes because I don’t think it’s going to be the predictable and unrealistic fairytale solution that most series would throw out.

Why can’t someone adapt awesome stuff like this for TV instead of producing utter garbage? I saw the trailer for the upcoming His Dark Materials show recently. They’ve clearly rushed to do it on a very, very small budget and it looks awful. Given the great source material it’s surprising nobody’s managed to do anything half decent; this may be the worst attempt yet. And we’re not even going to talk about Game of Thrones. Though I can’t complain too much, Good Omens is coming out at the end of this month and looks amazing.

 
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Posted by on May 23, 2019 in loten

 

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Harry Potter, going forward

It’s time to address the elephant in the room that is the Harry Potter series. I keep getting asked whether it’s going to continue, which is understandable given how long it’s been. (Incidentally, I see all comments, not just the ones on the most recent posts. If your comment isn’t about the newest post, please try and leave it on a relevant post instead.)

The honest answer at this point is that I don’t know. I want to keep going but every time I think of starting up the next chapter I just don’t have the motivation. When we started, it was supposed to be fun; we were supposed to enjoy at least the first two books and gradually ease in to the bad stuff later on, and slowly pick it apart over time while still preserving the good parts. Yeah, that didn’t happen.

I never thought these books were the most amazing literature to ever grace the earth, but I really didn’t think they were this bad, and part of me doesn’t want to keep going because I don’t want to end up actively hating them. This series has been a huge part of my life and had a tremendous impact on who I am, dumb as that is, because of what it led to, and I don’t want to lose that or taint the memories. I’m also still planning to write more fanfics someday (ah, the elusive someday), and while I don’t think I’m ever going to end up hating my favourite characters specifically, I’m not going to be able to write about them if I hate literally everything about their entire universe and canon history.

Rowling is really not helping matters by her constant gleeful abuse of a very, very dead horse. Everything she says about the franchise makes me dislike it more, which makes me harsher when analysing it, which makes my opinion sink further.

So I don’t know. I’m doing some thinking and juggling some ideas, I’ll try to come up with a way to keep going without burning out and ruining things for me (obviously in consultation with Mitchell). It might be that he takes over and I just drop the occasional comment, though he’s not much more motivated than I am at this point. It might be that we stop doing every single chapter and just cover scenes we think are worth discussing. Not promising anything, it might well be that we stop completely.

[Honestly, the most likely outcome is that I take over so that the brunt of the impact falls on me. It helps that I’m more comfortable hating them than Loten is, so that particular issue isn’t a deterrent for me, but it’s still a matter of not knowing when I’ll have the energy. I’ve tried to start the next chapter on my own a couple of times and didn’t get anywhere, but I’m not giving up yet. One of the reasons we started this project was that it was something to do together, after all, and doing it separately is less appealing. There are a lot of things in the series I do think are well worth getting to, but I guess we’ll have to see.]

I am aware that most of you are only here for Harry Potter content and that the other stuff gets far, far less attention, but so it goes.

 
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Posted by on April 16, 2019 in loten, mitchell

 

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Character Development vs Character Assassination, a Failure Mode Analysis

Well, hello there. This is Mitchell, the person you’ve probably forgotten exists because I’ve barely written anything substantial for the better part of two years (fuck depression and fuck the ability of politics to exacerbate depression), but technically this is my blog too. I’m back to talk about a story about wizards and how it disappointed me. No, not that one, sorry. The other one.

Over two years ago, I wrote this post, and, more significantly, the Magic: the Gathering fanfic I link to in it. That context may be helpful to understand the rest of this post, but I’ll try to write this in a way that is comprehensible without it. I mainly want to use this opportunity to talk about character development, what makes it work and ways it can go wrong, but in order to do that I’ll need to go into detail about this particular example.

Honestly, writing about this at all is a bit self-indulgent, but please bear with me, I think there are some useful lessons to take from it.

Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on April 9, 2019 in mitchell

 

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Monthly Spotlight: A J Scudiere’s NightShade Forensic Files

Something a little different this month with this modern urban fantasy crime series. I wasn’t originally going to put these in a spotlight; they’re a decent example of the genre and a good read, but I didn’t think they were anything exceptional, until I had two quite strong reactions to certain plot beats. It’s rare for books to catch me like that any more and for that alone they deserve some time to shine.

And really, there is a lot to recommend them.  The author has written a lot of books that I’ll probably end up checking out sooner or later, but we’re focusing on these – Under Dark Skies, Fracture Five, The Atlas Defect, Ember and Echo, Salvage, Garden of Bone, and the upcoming The Camelot Gambit.

The basic premise is an FBI division, NightShade (I admit the capitalisation grates on me a little) staffed by agents with supernatural abilities, though many of the crimes they investigate are completely mundane and ordinary. It’s been done, but this is definitely the best take I’ve read. The author’s background is forensics and biology, and it shows; the detail comes from experience rather than research and it makes it feel natural and real.

The various agents all come from different backgrounds and areas of expertise, so discussions of crime scenes and evidence end up being natural-sounding explanations rather than stilted ‘as you know, Bob’ exposition or endless inner monologues. I genuinely felt like I was learning things, which is neat. I’m (hopefully) never going to need to know how to start to identify racial heritage from teeth or estimating age from assorted bones, but you never know when that sort of thing might come in useful.

One of our two main protagonists, Donovan Heath, is a werewolf (except he hates the word) and I was very impressed by the series’ take on them. Every aspect of how he shifts into a wolf is medically explained – in-story Donovan is a medical examiner who primarily went into biology to understand what he was and how it worked. There’s a lot of great science nerdery modelling everything, from elongated shoulder blades and tendons that don’t anchor to quite the same places on various bones to points in his skull where the plates never fused as he grew and the precise way most of his joints are double-jointed, and it makes it feel really plausible. I’ve read a hell of a lot of werewolf fiction over the years and this is definitely the best planned and explained (though there’s a lot to be said for ‘fuck it, it’s magic’ as well).

Our other main protagonist, Eleri Eames, is… well, we’re not completely sure yet, six books in. She’s still learning what she is and what she can do. She’s in NightShade due mostly to supernaturally good hunches, but there’s a lot more to it than that, and her arc is mainly concerned with recurring dreams of her sister who was kidnapped as a child. Recent events are pushing more strongly towards voodoo, and while I’m no expert on the subject, thus far everything seems as well researched and carefully detailed as everything else has been.

There is romance, but shockingly not with each other, and mostly offscreen. It’s actually a nice change of pace. The leads manage to develop a really close bond that is 100% platonic, and there’s very little relationship drama of any kind. What there is feels natural and not overblown and is dealt with sensibly.

Side characters include another werewolf, various flavours of psychic (including one who made me genuinely uncomfortable when her power was explained, the first of the two reactions I mentioned at the start; I was very impressed by the creepiness) and more recently a couple of vanilla but very useful humans. The agent in charge is certainly telekinetic, jury’s still out on what else he can do.

Each book deals with ostensibly separate cases, but they do gradually begin to tie together as the series goes on to form a bigger picture. I’m not sure how it’s going to continue since book six ended with one of the major plot threads being resolved, but I’m interested in finding out, which is always a good sign.

 
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Posted by on March 30, 2019 in loten

 

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Monthly Spotlight: J Zachary Pike’s The Dark Profit Saga

Once again my planned spotlight for this month was thrown aside due to me being very impressed by something new. The series isn’t finished yet but I’m recommending it anyway; these books are fantastic comic fantasy, and you should read them immediately. They have a very Dark Lord of Derkholm feeling and touches of Pratchett, and really there’s no higher praise than that.

The Dark Profit saga currently comprises two books, Orconomics and Son of a Liche – the titles alone should give you some idea of what the series is like. I’m now waiting impatiently for the third and final book, Dragonfired.

The series is set in a world where DnD-style campaigns are real, essentially – there’s an official Guild of Heroes who operate under licence and the economy depends on a stock market driven by quest speculation and shares of loot tables. It gets as silly as you might expect, but it’s also thoroughly worked out and well plotted rather than just being a joke. Various firms navigating and/or manipulating this market is one of the… four, I would say? main story threads.

The primary story follows our band of protagonist-adventurers; two mages, a ranger, a bard, a cleric, a fighter and a berserker. The party interactions are deliberately reminiscent of someone’s DnD group but it’s not over the top; they’re all developed enough to be people, and we’re given just enough backstory and time in the heads of most of them to understand them without it all being vomited at us. In the first book they undertake a fairly standard quest; in the second book they try to deal with the fallout after it all goes horribly, horribly wrong.

There’s also an undead army with a very strong marketing department holding recruitment drives and forming committees.

Under all the jokes – and they are fantastic jokes; my favourite scene in the series is someone making a veiled dig at the old Lord of the Rings saw about why didn’t they just take the giant eagles to Mordor, and the response is that the giant eagles are unionised and the Heroes’ Guild can’t afford their fees – is an actual serious plot founded in Fantasyland racism. Races in this world are divided into Lightlings – humans, elves, dwarves, halflings, gnomes – and Shadowkin – goblins, ogres, orcs, trolls, kobolds, gnolls, gremlins. At the start the Shadowkin are able to apply for NPC status, letting them get jobs in Lightling settlements and giving them papers protecting them from hero attacks, but that’s affecting the money generated from the system, so various factions start doing shady things to stir up conflict. As the story develops we see a few main characters slowly understanding the racism the Shadowkin have endured that they never noticed before, and the message about class privilege is very well done.

There’s also possibly the best pun I’ve ever encountered, regarding a book called the Retconomicon. It’s been a long time since I literally laughed out loud, especially in public.

Really can’t recommend these enough. They can’t quite decide if they want to be satire or if they want to have an actual serious plot, so they do both, and they do it very well.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have Pokemon Generation 8 spoilers to scrutinise very closely.

 
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Posted by on February 27, 2019 in loten

 

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