Book Review: The Stand – Stephen King

The Stand

I’ve read a lot of books by Stephen King. Then again, at this juncture, that’s hardly uncommon, as he’s long since become something of a household name, even if his books have not yet punctured the well-established canon. He has a considerable reputation, and it’s a little difficult to avoid coming across even the smallest mention of him. In that context, then, it seemed somewhat inevitable that I would try him out at some point.

Naturally, I jumped straight in at the deep end. I began with IT, hardly recommended for someone of my age at the time, and it left me with a distrustful distaste of bathrooms and the driving need for more. I was hooked. This was horror done in a way I’d never before experienced, so much better than I’d imagined, and I wanted more of it.

Since then, I’ve ranged far and wide through the lot, reading anything and everything with his name on it, and I have, in the main, enjoyed myself. Most recently, however, I came across The Stand, which did not live up to my expectations. Some research on the novel showed me that it was very highly regarded by readers and critics on the like, and so I went into it with high hopes regardless of the fact that I’ve read more than my fair share of dystopian novels over the years, and wasn’t sure whether I’d enjoy another.

My response was less than positive.

Let me explain.

I loved the first half. Truly, genuinely, loved it. I sped through chapter after chapter, barely able to put it down, and almost incapable of thinking of anything else. It was wonderful, full of clever plot movements and character development alongside interesting debates into the nature of humanity and the occasional entirely ridiculous joke, and it was absolutely perfect. It was clear at that point that Stephen King had done it again – had produced a stunningly good yarn that was effortlessly, ceaselessly, engaging.

Then I got to roughly three quarters through, and I was, dare I say it, bored. At first, I didn’t want to admit it, convincing myself that I had was merely distracted in the moments I set aside in which to read it, and that with a more in-depth attempt I would naturally come to appreciate it once more. But, as I continued, the truth became clear to me. It was, to put it simply, just too long. Over one thousand pages of dense text and meaty description, all of which needed to be read, understood, and processed before I continued, and yet which did not seem, in every case, even the slightest bit relevant. It was close to overwhelming, and needlessly so. I finished the book, but only because I skim-read the last hundred pages or so, and I absolutely don’t regret it. (I never skim-read books).

However, my problem with the book doesn’t end there. Consider, now, the characters. In a word: men. Everywhere. From Nick Andros to Stu Redman, male characters dominate the novel, showing considerable signs of character development and story arcs, albeit of different lengths, and most of which were thoroughly fleshed out by the end of the novel.

In contrast, now, the women, beginning with Fran. At first glance, she’s an interesting character. She discovers that she’s pregnant, but despite her mother’s disapproval, and despite the willingness of the father of the child, she refuses to get married, clinging stubbornly to her independence. But when the superflu hits, she travels with Harold Lauder, letting him take charge and make the decisions, meets and falls in love with Stu and ends up doing the same, contributes very rarely to a committee comprised mainly of men, and often changes her mind to agree with Stu despite some misgivings.

Then there’s Nadine, the intended bride of Randall Flagg, the Dark Man. Her whole life, she has dreamed of him, and her story is simple. She meets and then sleeps with Larry, joins up with Harold, and is determined to remain a virgin for her intended husband.

Dayna’s story takes something of a different form, as she enters the story as one of many female prisoners held by a group of men using them for sex. She contributes little to the story, beyond her brave sacrifice towards the end, after being discovered by Randall Flagg, but she is the subject of what I think was a particularly problematic piece of dialogue. We are told that she is bisexual, but the word the other characters use most regularly is ‘lesbian,’ utterly disregarding what they are told by Dayna’s friend. Furthermore, they connect her being a ‘lesbian,’ in itself false, with the notion that she must hate men, simply because she is not attracted to them. It’s an awkward scene, but, more importantly, it’s completely unnecessary, ensuring that Dayna is also defined by men and by her relationships with them.

Why? The above three women are deprived of their own stories to become the footnotes, some larger than others, to the stories of the men around them, and there doesn’t seem to be any practical need for it. Granted, not every character is fully developed, as there are so many, but the men get considerably more attention and considerably more time than the women, and they are defined by their deeds and personality, not by the people they take to bed. Even Mother Abigail, an exceedingly pivotal character, vanishes quickly from the novel, returning only to die.

That is not what I expect from an author as well known and respected as Stephen King, and not what I expect from an author I like as much as I do. Maybe I’m misreading the situation. Maybe I’m over-reacting. Or maybe it was sloppy work with unnecessary exclusions. I don’t know what to think. But I do know that I’m not as impressed as I thought I would be.

Was this a good book? In the main, and excluding the above concerns, yes. Am I going to read it again? For the above reasons, absolutely not.

TV Review: Vikings – 3×08 “To the Gates”

I’ve learned to expect a lot from Vikings. Violence, and lots of it – arguably, it would be somewhat ridiculous for a show named Vikings to be utterly devoid of even the most short-lived, lacklustre fight scene – Lagertha being all kinds of awesome, and Ragnar doing his level best to annoy everyone within a fifty mile radius, usually successfully. Episode 3×08, or “To the Gates,” delivered in fine style on all of the above, and much more besides.

In this episode, an attack is launched on Paris, and it fails. Despite the impressive size and tenacity of the attacking force, and the rumours that preceded it, the French, protected behind strong, high walls, in possession of the tools and the knowledge required to keep it that way, and, finally, given a standard to rally behind by the quick-thinking Princess Gisla, are victorious, exacting huge losses from the opposing force.

It was a strong episode, for a number of reasons. Principally, however, the episode comprised of a lengthy battle, and so it seems reasonable to discuss that first. The show has always benefitted from excellent choreography in its fight scenes, wherever and whenever they arise, and this was no exception. While an episode-long battle might, arguably, be in the hands of another show, rather tedious, watching “To the Gates” was an intense, engaging experience that I finished in a state of high tension. It was violent, brutal, exquisitely placed, and shot through with genuine, important emotion. It is clear to me, at least, that therein lays one of the great strengths of this show: its ability to combine the two to deliver an exceptionally good story.

Plot

This episode’s plot is, admittedly, somewhat sparse. Paris is attacked, the attack fails, it is revealed that Ragnar has not, in fact, forgiven Floki (I totally called it), but is, patiently, waiting to take full revenge on the man that killed his friend, and, additionally, that Ragnar himself believes he is dying, having sustained considerable injury during the attack. In comparison to other episodes, this is, arguably, minimal. On the other hand, ‘Paris is attacked’ paraphrases a great deal of important action, most of which will, most likely, have a significant influence on what is to happen next. Thus, this episode was far from irrelevant filler, and perhaps the only complaint is that it was less densely packed than previous episodes, and that’s not much of a complaint at all. Vikings 3x08 Characters

I have to admit, hand on heart, that I’m a little tired of all this Ragnar/Floki tension. It’s lasted too long now. I miss the old days of the first season, actually, when they were friends in a particularly uncomplicated manner, each appreciating certain skills and talents in the other, ignoring what they didn’t like, and co-existing quite happily. Now, however, they are constantly at odds, and for me at least, it’s beginning to wear a little thin. Been there, done that, and I’ve unwillingly bought the rather unflattering t-shirt, thank-you very much.

Ragnar, however, was brilliant, even if there wasn’t quite enough of him fighting on top of the wall to sate my expectations, and so was Lagertha, especially in her dealings with Kalf. It found his attempt to take advantage of the opportunity seemingly provided to him by saving her utterly cringe-worthy (yes, that is the official term), and was extremely glad when she put him in his place. Lagertha will not let anyone control her, and I love her for it.

Floki and Helga were, in a word…heartbreaking. Ever since Ragnar and Lagertha’s relationship crashed and burned – understandably so, Ragnar you dolt – seeing Floki and Helga in unmarried, and, later, married bliss was balm to my soul. Now, as this episode concluded with them at odds, it’s awful. Give the man a friend!

Family

Arguably, one of the most important themes of Vikings has always been family. Ragnar and Rollo, so often at odds in the first season, could not shake off those oh-so-important ties, drawing together even after experiencing a whole world of hurt while working for opposite sides, Björn, who left with Lagertha when she split with Ragnar always wished to return to his father, and Ragnar adores his children, whoever they were born to. This has continued into the third season, and was strongly emphasized in this episode, through Björn.

His injury worked as a kind of catalyst to bring the divided family together in one space for one reason. Needless to say, I adored the symbolism of that particular scene. By placing them not only together, but also inside a tent, to the exclusion of all others, really highlighted their importance to one another alongside similarities often concealed by their differences. They’re strong, competent people with stubborn opinions and ideas, but they’re a family, too, and in this episode, that latter fact was really hammered home. To finish: while I maintain that this episode was a little light in regards to plot content, it was enjoyable for all the right reasons. Bring on next week!

TV Review: iZombie – 1×04

There are zombies everywhere. Not in your backyard, of course (hopefully, or there’s a real problem on our hands), but in the media, and prominently so. They saturate movies, books, and a variety of TV shows, not to mention their well-established and almost historic position in a whole host of video games. At this point, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to avoid them, should you be less than inclined to venture into that particular sub-genre.

Into the fray comes iZombie, an adaptation of a comic book series by the same name, and a fresh take on the whole idea. iZombie is light-hearted and entertaining, full of brisk humour and undeniably clever, and yet it also delivers well on deeper, emotional scenes, exploring, for example, what meaning life can have when the individual in question is not actually alive or dead, but an awkward combination of the two. The difference seems to be that iZombie is not really about zombies, as such, and offers no tips for dealing with them – three’s a horde – but is, rather, about a girl that just happens to be a zombie, and the life she is forced to live since becoming one.

Episode four, humourously entitled ‘Liv and Let Clive,’ is, in my oh-so-humble opinion (which I do, of course, insist on shoving down your throats), the best installment thus far. The corpse of the week is an ex-gang member that Clive, our friendly neighbourhood detective, knew, and the reported circumstances of their acquaintance, alongside some odd brains-induced visions, are vague enough for Liv to be suspicious.

Plot:

I found the plot particularly engaging this week. The episode followed the structure established in the previous three, producing another murder to be solved, but deviated in that the team – Liv, Babineaux, and Ravi – did not exhibit their usual cohesion. Instead, the murder provided a catalyst for divisions and tensions to appear between the three main characters, and which took until the end of the episode to be fully resolved. Ultimately, however, those moments served to strengthen growing friendships that had, before the episode, remained mostly untested.

iZombie-1x04

The plot also provided a kind of springboard for a dip into Babineaux’s past career with the force, a welcomed insight into his character, and allowed Ravi to take a more central hands-on role, which was equally nice to see.

Characters:

In this episode, we also see more of Major and Blaine, respectively, the latter of which is involved in some increasingly shady brain-dealings. If we are to discover at least one cliché in iZombie it would be the character of Blaine, drug dealer turned brain dealer, and yet a particularly enjoyable performance from David Anders ensures that his side-plot is never staid. If it is a cliché, it’s one used to good effect.

Ravi is one of my favourite characters. He’s a supportive friend to Liv, zombie condition or not, he often provides an entertaining perspective on events alongside an indisputable voice of reason, and he’s not by any stretch of the imagination the silly sidekick, but, instead, a clever, well-rounded character in his own right. In this episode, he plays a more important role than he has thus far, and proves to be a welcome addition to those extra scenes.

iZombie 1x04

General comments:

For all the reasons stated above, and a few others, not least among which is the fact that, if anything, this is a show featuring a particularly gifted cast of actors, all of which do an exceedingly good job, this is a show worth watching. It’s light-hearted enough to alleviate the often-stifling drama of other shows of a similar type, and serious enough to stand its ground against heavily armoured opposition. If the rest of the season is anything like the beginning few episodes, it’ll certainly be worth watching.

TV Review: Outlander – 1×09 ‘The Reckoning’

The ninth episode of Outlander – intriguingly entitled ‘The Reckoning’ – certainly lived up to expectations. (Or my expectations, certainly. I would not presume to speak for yours). Beginning with the cliffhanger the loyal viewers were so painfully left with at the close of episode eight – yes, the hiatus was painful – the episode practically raced along, elegantly avoiding the irritatingly frequent pitfall of establishing the whereabouts of each and every character and thus becoming a ‘filler’ episode in favour of continuing exactly where it left off and answering a good many burning questions. My first: how did Jamie get to that window? Answered. How good is that? Hint: excellent. Furthermore, given that we left the two main characters in such dire straits at the end of episode eight, it was a reassuring start, backed up by a wealth of fresh plot points and worrying tensions as it kicked off the remainder of the season.

The Plot

One of the many things I’ve always enjoyed about Outlander is that it’s difficult to summarise not because it’s overly complicated and thus dull, but because so much happens. Very little – arguably, none of it – passes without comment or consequence, and thus the result is a richly embroidered show devoid of actions somehow taking place in isolation, and for that reason, although its premise may be mysterious time-travel and a lot of vague hand-waving, it feels realistic.

(Or as realistic as a show can get when the dashing young man that emerges as your brave rescuer turns out to not only be dashing but also handsome, intelligent, and in possession of a reasonable sense of humour, because, I mean, come on. What are the chances?).

Outlander 1x09

Additionally, while it is not unjustifiable to claim that Outlander is a love story, it is, arguably, unjustifiable to claim that that is all it is, accompanied by beautiful scenery, a lovely score, and rather a lot of roguish Scotsmen. Outlander may feature a love story, but it’s a story that takes place in a very specific time period, and the largest plot movements are, arguably, not the highs and lows of Jamie and Claire’s relationship, but, rather, the decisions made in regards to the wider context of the war developing around them. That said, the romance in the show is a clear gateway to the full range of emotional, dramatic scenes that so firmly characterised the former half of the season, and for that reason, should not be so easily dismissed.

Nonetheless, it’s made clear in ‘The Reckoning’ that the war that’s been heating up behind the scenes for the entirety of the season thus far is beginning to take a new, important turn, as sides are being chosen and old friends – even family – are finding themselves at odds In the middle of it all are, of course, Dougal and his band of loyal men (I defy you to read that and not think of Robin Hood riding through the glen), Jamie, and Claire, the latter two of which suffer their own disagreement. It’s a tense episode for a multiple reasons, and it is, arguably, clear that even after Jamie’s successful attempt to bring about peace, it’s a volatile situation made worse by quick tempers, and liable to explode at a moment’s notice.

Jamie’s perspective

The most obvious development – or at least to me, your loyal reviewer – was the change in perspective from Claire to Jamie. At first, it was somewhat disconcerting, and I missed Claire’s reactions, but to enter into the thoughts of someone like Jamie, quickly refreshing. All we have seen and, arguably, understood, thus far in the show is what Claire has seen and understood, but now, with the shift to Jamie, we are presented with the opportunity to obtain a fuller, clearer insight into a number of things including the motives behind Jamie’s actions, the politics of the time, and the traditions so often made reference to and so rarely analysed. In this episode, however, they are, via the clear division between Claire and Jamie’s beliefs.

This was particularly ‘striking’ (pun totally unintended, but appreciated in hindsight) during the ‘beating’ scene, which was, I have to admit, difficult for me to watch. Initially, it was amusing – Claire wriggling around, Jamie’s enjoyment, the bizarrely cheerfully music – but I quickly began to find it uncomfortable. Prefaced with a ‘do as your told’ talk, and awkwardly reminiscent of a teacher punishing a pupil for untoward behaviour, Claire was very firmly told that she had to obey without reservation in the future, and that her own beliefs on the matter, however valid to her, were of no consequence. In that context, the music was even vaguely sinister, as the viewer was encouraged to take Jamie’s side and pay no attention to Claire’s very real distress as she was forced into an agreement that she definitely didn’t want to make, beaten for a decision she thought entirely justified, and if that wasn’t humiliation enough, faced the rest of the gleefully amused gang. It was a profoundly uncomfortable moment, arguably made worse by the way Jamie made such light of it, and only relieved by how quickly Claire made it clear that a repeat of that kind of behaviour would not be tolerated. (You go, Claire).

That said, an argument could be made for the fact that because the story has been resumed primarily from Jamie’s perspective, the light-hearted music, and their speedy forgiveness of one another is much more acceptable. From Claire’s perspective, the set-up would have lacked justification given her constant protests and clear displeasure, but Jamie regarded the beating as a necessity, and one that once completed, would allow them to move on. It follows from this that the scene, put together as it was, makes much more sense.

Nonetheless, it didn’t work for me, and I was glad that Claire showed no sign of being actually cowed by it.

To conclude, (quickly now, I’ve written too much) even though I took issue with some aspects, it was a strong, fundamentally enjoyable episode.

Bring on next week.

Fitness: Don’t ‘just dance,’ just Sh’Bam!

Sh'Bam

A new sensation is gripping the nation! And it’s called Sh’Bam!

No, really.

It’s loud, fun, energetic and positive, and it will be your mission, if you choose to accept it.

So what is Sh’Bam, beyond the un-asked for answer to your unacknowledged desires?

It’s simple. Sh’Bam is a dance-based workout utilizing modern dance hits and intuitive choreography basic enough to learn quickly and that leaves considerable space for improvisation, which is not only accepted, but also actively encouraged. Sh’Bam workouts emphasise fun and positivity alongside the importance of getting in shape, and they’re designed for anyone and everyone ready to let loose and have some fun.

Why did I enjoy it?

Primarily, because Sh’Bam is the perfect workout for someone that tends to get bored at the gym, who finds long stretches of time thudding along on the treadmill too tedious for words, and who wants something that gets their pulse jumping. In a word: me.

Secondly, because it doesn’t matter whether you come to Sh’Bam with dance experience, or as a beginner in entirety with nothing more than semi-dubious gym kit and a water bottle on your side. It’s fun, often irreverent (never will I forget the moves brought into being while we danced enthusiastically to Frozen’s ‘Let It Go,’) and left me, at least, ready for more.

Lastly, and arguably most importantly, it is, after all, a workout. It’s tiring, energetic, and demanding, it requires strength and endurance, spades of it, and despite the aforementioned emphasis on having fun, it never stops feeling like a workout. But it’s a workout with foundations in fun and good humour, and with an openly stipulated belief in generating positivity. Sh’Bam’s tag line is: ‘Come as you are, leave as a star,’ and it is clear that this is a workout that cares for the mind as well as the body.

My conclusion? Give it a try. You might just surprise yourself.

Fashion: My first ever trouser suit

Suit up

(Image borrowed from http://wallpaperswide.com/suit_up-wallpapers.html)

My very first trouser suit, neatly and carefully packaged, came by post.

It arrived in the middle of the day, utterly distinguishable, sophisticated even in the relatively extreme amount of wrapped it was protected by, and practically demanding to be unwrapped and worshipped, and yet it sat in my bedroom for at least two days before I finally plucked the beautiful garment from its confines and held it up to the light of day.

(Well, the light of my bedroom, but let’s not get picky)

Why did I leave it so long? Leave it to suffer unacknowledged and uncared for, when it should have been hung up immediately, wrapping discarded, and properly appreciated?

Because it wasn’t just a trouser suit. It was my first trouser suit. Wearing it, I would go forth with ambition and resourcefulness to improve my future and change my life, leaving behind the awkward teenage years to embark upon a new era of markedly better fashion choices and growing responsibility. A terrifying prospect, of course, but with that suit, I would be very well equipped. The trouser suit is a symbol of strength and determination, and I intended to be strong. To do that, I needed to wait for the right moment.

The opportune moment, if you will.

Finally, that moment came. (That moment being the day my mum yelled at me for leaving it as long as I had and endangering the possibility of a refund, should it not fit). I removed it carefully from the several layers of wrapping in which it arrived, put it on, determined that it did in fact fit, and wonderfully, and descended the stairs with as much majesty as I could muster. (Which, if you know me, is woefully little. But, I digress).

I wandered into the kitchen to find my parents, eager for their opinion on what I was convinced was a masterstroke in regards to the first impression I would give in an interview, and was met with the following:

“You look so grown-up!”

Needless to say, that was not the response I’d hoped for. I’d anticipated disbelief, excitement, and perhaps a touch of wonder. But what I got transformed me straight back into that ten-year-old girl buying a new pair of shoes. In other words: it was somewhat less than ideal.

So what did I do, you ask? (Or, potentially, don’t ask, since I have no way of gauging your interest in this little story, and I’m not here to make assumptions – this time)

I persevered. ‘Grown-up’ was something akin to what I had hoped for, of course, so I simply tried again, wearing it to two interviews in the space of about a week.

And you know what? It was great. I felt strong, I felt resourceful, and I felt powerful. The woman in the trouser suit means business, and I felt like I meant business, even if I wasn’t quite sure what that business was or why I meant it.

Buy that trouser suit that catches your eye. Or that blouse. Or those knee-high leather boots that you just know you’ll feel good in. Because when I started writing this, I didn’t intend to leave a profound message, but I did (sort of), and when you wear the clothes you love, you’ll do things you didn’t think you could do as well.

Go forth, friend, and conquer.