Thursday, 21 April 2011

Top Ten Favourite Books - Number 1

My favourite book of all time was published in 1960 and was an instant success. I think it's one of those iconic novels that everyone should read. It's a story of family, heroism, evil, grace, gentleness, coming of age; all those things and more put into one great novel and, if I might say so, one great movie (which happens also to be my favourite movie of all-time too). So what is this great novel?

I'm sure most, if not all, people know the story, but for those that don't, the plot summary on the back of this 2006 edition, which I gratefully received as a Xmas present from my sister-in-law, reads as follows:

"Shoot all the Bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but
remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird. A lawyer's advice
to his children as he defends the real mockingbird of this
enchanting classic - a black man charged with the rape
of a white girl. Through the young eyes of Scout and Jem
Finch, Harper Lee explores with exuberant humour the
irrationality of adult attitudes to race and class in the
Deep South of the thirties. The conscience of a town steeped
in prejudice, violence and hypocrisy is pricked by the stamina
of one man's struggle for justice. But the weight of history
will tolerate so much..."

The barest of outlines, but it covers so much. The story is the growing up of young Scout Finch, a young girl just starting out on her life, living with her brother Jem, her lawyer father, Atticus and their housekeeper Calpurnia. Of course other people intersect her life experiences; the secretive Radley family, their friend Dill who visits his auntie each summer and others. Atticus, a respected lawyer in town, although considered somewhat boring by his children, is asked by the local black community leaders to defend a young black man, Tom Robinson, who has been accused by a white family, the Ewell's, of raping their daughter, Mayalla. This court case, with all its ramifications for the time period and area where it takes place, the deep South, forms a backdrop for all of the events that ultimately take place.

Scout and Jem find out much about their father, a gentle hero, in so many eyes. They discover much about the Radley's and also about the poor white and black people from the surrounding area. It's a fascinating, far-reaching story, sometimes so simple as Scout inviting Walter Cunningham Jr to their house for lunch and the ultimate ramifications of that action on future events; to the ultimate meeting with Mr Arthur 'Boo' Radley after a Thanksgiving school event. So many small incidents dovetailed together to make a larger more profound story.

I can't say enough about this book. I've read many times and come away each time, amazed by the story, by the courageousness of Atticus, by the lovely people and the awful people that make up the community. I think as I grow older, I feel and see different things; but it is a great story every single time. I wonder if the world has moved on and learned from this novel and the others like it that express so many profound lessons that should be learned.

As I close, I would like to mention the excellent movie that was created from this story. 

Released in 1962, two years after the book came out, it starred Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, in what I feel is his best role. He portrays Atticus with grace and class and is the quiet hero of the movie.

Mary Badham as Scout was wonderful. She did very little else and this was her first movie, but she was so perfect in the role. I loved her. Phillip Alford, as Jem, was also in his first movie, but, like Mary, was perfect as Jem. There were so many great small roles that were wonderfully acted; Brock Peters as Tom Robinson, Estelle Evans as Calpurnia, Rosemary Murphy as Maudie Atkkinson and Robert Duvall, in one of his earliest roles, portraying Boo Radley so excellently.

The movie was so respectful of the tone and ideas in the book. It was so delicately portrayed; the court case was tense and emotional, the small events wonderfully pictured and the feelings of the South excellently dealt with.

This was as fantastic a movie as the book was a great novel. You need to read the book! You need to watch this film! Classics both and deserving of every award they received!

Saturday, 16 April 2011

More on Comics, Part 3 (Graphic Novels - Alan Moore)

Alan Moore has written some of my favourite comic series. It took me quite a long time to be aware of his work, but various movies; The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and V for Vendetta piqued my interest in his comics. I bought the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen first, mainly as individual comics, but I gradually began to purchase the comics in graphic novel form, such as the Vol 1 and 2 above. Volume 1 tells the story of Allan Quartermain, Captain Nemo, Hawley Griffin, Dr Henry Jekyll, Mr Edward Hyde and Mina Murray, who make up the League. They are recruited by Campion Bond, under orders from 'M' and pressed into service by their empire in a time of need. They must battle the Doctor and his vile plan for world domination.  Volume 2 is set in London in 1898 and this time the League must battle a new threat that falls from the upper atmosphere in gargantuan metal cylinders. Leading scientists claim that the cylinders have travelled from Mars.

Both stories are very adult and quite detailed. Moore's characters are pulled from Victorian adventure stories written by H. Rider Haggard - Alan Quartermain, Jules Verne - Capt Nemo, Robert Lewis Stevenson - Dr Jekyll and many others as he intertwines the characters in great adventures.

There have been two other graphic novels in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series; Century 1910.  In this story, Mina Murray and Allan Quartermain, enlivened by the Fountain of Youth, investigate bloody murders in London's docklands while Janni, the daughter of one of their former colleagues, Captain Nemo, takes her bloody and satisfying vengeance upon the foulest kind of humanity.

This all takes place with Halley's Comet soaring overhead and the nation preparing for King George V's coronation. The hero and heroines must battle a cult trying to create the Moonchild and at the same time a notorious serial killer striking terror on London's dockside.

The Black Dossier is set in 1958. Events take place after the fall of the Big Brother government from George Orwell's 1984. Once again Allan Quartermain and Mina Harker, who are immortal after bathing in the fire from H. Rider Haggard's She, are on a quest to find the Black Dossier, which unravels the history of the now-disbanded League.

Out to stop them is a trio of secret agents from other books and TV series: brutally womanizing young spy Jimmy AKA James Bond, a young agent named Emma Night AKA Emma Peel of The Avengers and Bulldog Drummond. The pursuit takes Mina and Allan from London to Scotland and eventually to the magical world of Prospero.

There were copyright issues with this story and it was not 'officially' put on sale in Canada or the UK.

The next Allan Moore series that caught my interest was The Watchmen. Once again, this was because of the movie. I had seen the graphic novel during many visits to my various comic book stores, and when I saw that there was to be a movie, I bought the graphic novel to familiarize myself with the story and characters.

The Watchmen was originally published between 1986 and 1987. In the story, the Watchmen were famous fighting for the US during the War years but have since been outlawed and are either retired or working for the government. The murder of one of them, The Comedian. This brings out Rorschach who believes he's discovered a plot to kill all of the other Watchmen, so he warns four of them; Nite Owl, Doctor Manhattan, Silk Spectre and Ozymandias.

The story is very intricate and explores the emotions and feelings of the characters, looking at their past and how they have changed or not and moving the story along very nicely. It's an extremely interesting concept and I enjoyed it tremendously. It did help to explain the movie, having read the graphic novel, but I think it was an interesting movie in its own right.

I think my favourite Alan Moore series is Top 10, a cop show set in the city of Neopolis. As it states in the quick write up blurb, 'Imagine a city where every citizen, from poorest slum-dweller to corporate honcho, has unusual powers and abilities - not to mention an alter ego and costume. How would you police such a city? Rookie cop Robyn Slinger is about to find out in her first day as part of Precinct 105.

This is such a great series, quite out there, but with a very deadpan style, reminiscent of the TV series Dragnet, but with characters and police officers you've never seen anywhere else. The drawings are colorful and intricate and the stories have a lovely wit to them that draws you right in.

Alan Moore also did a prequel to Top 10 called The Forty-Niners. This story is set in 1949 and it explains the development of Neopolis, which is under construction to house all of those with extra-human talents and powers. The story this time centers around Steve Traynor, also known as Jetlad, fresh from the battles in Europe and anxious for a new career. Once again, lovely art work and interesting characters and story lines make this an excellent read.

Alan Moore has a knack for an interesting story that explores different worlds and concepts. I have recently begun reading his series begun in Jan 2011, the fourth volume of Neonomicon, a horror story which is quite graphic at times but still extremely interesting as it focusses on H.P. Lovecraft's universe.

If you want to read interesting, different comics, you've got to check out the work of Alan Moore.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Top Ten Favourite Books - Number 2

This isn't the first time I've talked about this book, as I had recently re-read it and discussed it as one of my January book reads. I've also discussed in the various book groups that I joined in my  Goodreads website. To me it's an iconic book in the post-apocalyptic genre. The basic story line is as follows from the summary on the back jacket...

"The last generation.. innocent victims of an accidental war, living out the last days, making plans that will never be carried out, making do with what they have - however temporary it might be - hoping for the miracle that will not come. As the deadly rain moves ever closer, and the world as we know it winds toward an inevitable end."

It's an extremely depressing subject, but Nevil Shute has a way of presenting the story to make even the 'end of the world' not necessarily positive, but to demonstrate how mankind could cope with it in an honourable manner. Not to say that everybody in the story is always positive and dancing around the Maypole. Certain characters drink too much, party too much, live in denial; however these are realistic coping mechanisms. Still, the story is wonderfully presented; there is a gentleness to it that belies the subject matter and Shute never delves too much into the seedier aspects of the situation. They remain on the periphery, with Shute focusing on the main characters and their relationships.

The main characters are -

Commander Dwight Towers, an American submarine Captain, with his submarine, the USS Sawfish, which he has seconded to the Australian government;
Moira Davidson, an Australian woman, living out her time in a state of drunkenness;
Lt Peter Holmes, an Australian Naval officer, who is assigned to the Sawfish as his last assignment;
May Holmes, Peter's wife, who lives in denial, trying to cope with the future, and
John Osborne, an Australian scientist, also assigned to the Sawfish to travel with it and take readings of the atmosphere in that area of Australia where the nuclear cloud has already hit.

The lives of these main characters are gently interwoven by Nevil Shute, each dealing with the future in his or her unique way, each affecting the others in positive ways, affecting their methods of dealing with the tragic future coming their way. Shute presents this 'nightmare' scenario in a manner that, even though the future may be bleak (I won't ruin the story by leaking how it ends), these people try to live their lives on a daily basis, in such a manner that no matter what ultimately happens, they know they have lived with their heads held high.

On the Beach is a book I've read many times and it is a story that I never tire of. I give this book 5 stars (out of five, of course); it is a cautionary tale of the future that everyone should read.

There was also an excellent movie made in 1959 by Stanley Kramer, that I've also watched many times and enjoyed as much as I have the book. It has a great cast, with Gregory Peck more than suitable as Dwight Towers and Ava Gardner as Moira Davison.

At the time, there were obviously not as a great many Australian actors known in the US, as there are now, so the parts of John Osborne, Peter and Mary Holmes were played respectively by American actors, Fred Astaire, Anthony Perkins and Donna Anderson.

However, this in no way detracts from the strength and drama of the movie. Stanley Kramer is very respectful of the writing style of Nevil Shute and presents the story in a very similar style. It was one movie that suitably portrayed the book and was every bit as good as the book.

Other Nevil Shute books/ movies

I must say that I haven't read a great many Shute books. The one that particularly hits home for me is Pied Piper. The picture to the left isn't the edition that I possess, but I was a bit lazy today to take a photograph of it, so I used on online. The basic story is -

"One man's thrilling rescue of seven abandoned children during the Nazi invasion of France in the fateful summer of 1940."

The story is about an old English gentleman, dealing with the death of his son who embarks on a fishing trip to the French Alps and has to return to England because of the Nazi invasion of France. On his way, he acquires his flock of children, who he must deliver safely to England.

This is a fascinating story, told in a similar style to On the Beach. It tells the story of an individual thrust into an astonishing situation, who uses his positiveness, his humanity, to manoeuvre his way through dangerous, life-threatening situations. Another story that I give a 5 star rating.

This story was also turned into an excellent movie in 1942, starring Monty Woolley as John Howard, the Pied Piper, and also Roddy McDowell, Ann Baxter and Otto Preminger. Also a great movie, one that you would enjoy completely.

Currently in my To Be Read book shelf, I have -

Landfall (1940) - A young RAF pilot is accused of sinking a British sub;
The Far Country (1952) - A young woman travels to Australia. A condemnation of British socialism and the national health service;
Most Secret (1945) - Unconventional attacks on German forces using a French fishing boat; and
So Disdained (1928) -  written soon after the General Strike of 1926, reflected the debate in British Society about socialism and considered whether Italian fascism was an effective antidote.

One other Nevil Shute story turned into an excellent movie, that I want to mention, is No Highway. Starring James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich and Glynnis Johns, the movie was based on the novel of the same name and was released in 1951. Stewart plays the role of Theodore Honey, an eccentric "boffin" at RAE Farnborough who predicts metal fatigue in a new airliner.

Stewart is sent to Labrador aboard one of the aircraft to investigate a previous crash of one of the same planes to help prove his theory. It becomes evident that the plane he is flying on is reaching the flying hours where his theory may happen before they land in Labrador.

The movie, as most of Shute's books/ movies, is about the lovely interplay between the main characters, between Stewart and Dietrich and between Stewart and Johns. Once again, his characters are placed in situations that threaten their very existence, but once again, there is a lovely humanity and sensibility that draws you into the plot. Both my wife and I have seen this movie a few times and each time it is as engrossing as the next.

The next time you're looking for an excellent story or movie, you can't go wrong if you choose one of Nevil Shute's. Enjoy!
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