Kindle Fire HD

When Amazon announced last year that they were bringing out a tablet, I was very excited. I got my Kindle 2 years ago and I loved it so much that I really expected their tablet to be something special. So I was disappointed when initial reviews were lacklustre, to say the least.

This year, they seemed to have got it right. The reviews I read were good, the demonstration models in Tesco and Waterstones were very impressive. And when Beloved Husband gave me a Kindle Fire HD for my birthday on Sunday I was beyond excited!

Being Apple enthusiasts and using an iPad regularly, the Fire had quite a lot to live up to. After using it for a couple of days, I think it’s a real rival for at least the new iPad mini. The screen is beautiful with very sharp, clear text and graphics. You can scroll very quickly and there’s no lag on the graphics.

Typing is good, and one thing I really like about the keyboard is that you can press and hold a key for special characters, just like iOS, but also the top row of keys gives you numbers without needing to switch to a number keyboard, very handy if you just need 1 or 2 numbers in a sentence.

The web browser works quite nicely, though this is the one bit where I’ve noticed a few glitches and it had trouble loading a couple of pages. In general though very few problems, most pages load fine and pretty quickly. This blog post was typed entirely on the Kindle Fire HD, for example.

App-wise, yes the Amazon App Store is much less content than iTunes. Not surprising, really, it’s several years younger! All the major apps are here – twitter, Facebook, Skype, Pinterest, WordPress etc. And, of course, Angry Birds! Mail gets my gmail quickly and unobtrusively pings to let me know, bringing with it my google calendar and contacts. I think given time there will be more than enough apps for everyone!

Navigation is the most obvious difference to iOS. In the centre of the home screen is a carousel with large icons of everything on the device, the most recently used being first. Along the top of the screen is a category menu where you see all your apps/books/music etc by pressing on the category. Along the bottom are related items, depending on which icon is displayed in the centre of the Carousel. For example, if it’s an app, the bottom row will show other apps customers bought after buying the featured one. If the web is central, the bottom row shows trending web pages. If Mail is highlighted, the bottom row gives shortcuts to New Message, contacts and calendar. All of the category-view pages show either apps/books on the device or in the Amazon Cloud; when you register your device your books appear in the Cloud but it’s quick and easy to simply touch the book you want and it’s on the device in seconds. Similarly, buying an app is quick and easy. Too easy actually, it doesn’t by default ask for your password before purchasing so I’d recommend setting this up in Parental Controls! Again, quick and easy to do.

Something that keeps catching me out is the lack of physical home button. I’m not saying this is good or bad, it just takes some getting used to! To get to the home screen you need to click on the home button on-screen; sometimes you need to touch or swipe the side of bottom of the screen to get this menu, depending on which app you’re in. This menu also gives you a back button and sometimes an in-app menu and search button. On every screen there’s also a star button which takes you to apps which you have designated as favourites, very handy.

The build isn’t as posh as the iPad. Rather than the brushed metal, the Kindle Fire has the rubberised body of the Kindle. It doesn’t feel luxurious but it does feel solid and robust. I’m not going into tech specs, I wouldn’t know where to begin, but it has plenty of memory, works well and is a lovely experience. Better, I have to say, than I expected an Android tablet to be.

How about reading? It is a Kindle after all. The most obvious differences are the weight and the lit screen. The device is still light and small enough to be held in one hand, although I think the Kindle ereaders would be more comfortable for extended periods of readjng. The screen doesn’t glare too much and the brightness can be easily adjusted which is useful.

The one area I think Amazon have been a bit naughty in is the pricing structure. The HD is amazingly good value particularly given how good it is and I definitely recommend that people pay the extra £30 to get the HD rather than the Fire. BUT you then also get the option to pay £10 to remove sponsored adverts, and the only charger you get in the box is a USB to charge through your computer which takes about 10 hours longer than a regular plug. To get a plug you pay another £18 for the Fast Charge. So it’s not QUITE as cheap as it makes out but still, you do get a brilliant tablet at about a third of the cost of an iPad.

I absolutely love my Kindle Fire HD and I can see myself getting loads of use out of it for a long time!

Adaptation Troubles

After my rants of recent posts, this one is a little more light-hearted, you will be pleased to hear. Or maybe you won’t. Anyway.

I’ve recently finished re-reading all of the Harry Potter books. I do love that series. I have to admit I resisted reading them until they’d been out a while (I think it was when The Prisoner of Azkaban was out that I read the first one) as I have a bit of an aversion to hype, and I’m generally more likely to avoid something that’s massively raved about. I know, I’m awkward. But when I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone I was hooked and have been ever since. The reasons WHY I like Harry Potter so much could fill another post (and probably will at some point) but I imagine they’re the same as most people.

THIS post is not about the books in themselves but more about adapting books for film. Or vice-versa. There’s four specific examples I’m going to talk about here – Harry Potter, A Little Princess, Disney, and The Polar Express. 

I quite happily watched all the Harry Potter films until The Order of the Phoenix. Granted, there were things I had seen differently (Sirius just wasn’t Gary Oldman in my head, I’m sorry, and the floo network didn’t quite work in my humble opinion), and The Goblet of Fire was rather different. But then The Goblet of Fire is an incredibly long and densely-packed story so obviously they had to change it to fit to the strict time limits of a film. After all, isn’t that what ‘adapting’ something for film is all about? That’s fine, I’ll allow that. But when it got to Order of the Phoenix, I have to admit I was very disappointed. It wasn’t just that they’d cut stuff. They didn’t rearrange what they’d left to make it work. It felt like it lacked cohesion and depth, which I emphatically argue the books do NOT. It just did not do the book justice, not by a long shot. And I’m not talking about effects and ‘magic’ here; that was there in bucketloads. The special effects were pretty good and it sorted out the problem I’d had with the floo network. My problem was it just didn’t have the emotional punch of the books, and that’s not because it was on film as there are countless films that have the same gut-pulling heart-socking effect as the Harry Potter books. Now, it’s ages since I’ve seen The Half-Blood Prince and I haven’t seen either of the Deathly Hallows yet so I’m hoping they’re back on form. A problem with little children and a lack of nearby grandparents is that you see films about a year after everybody has finished talking about them.

A particular bugbear of mine is A Little Princess. This has always been one of my favourite books and when I watched the film I wanted to cry. First of all, why change the setting, both place and time? What purpose did that solve? The book was perfect in Victorian London and the distinctions of class and money and the skydive of Sara’s social status made absolute sense. Don’t change things for the sake of it, PLEASE! And another thing – Sara’s father is dead. Not missing, dead. She is orphaned. It makes her strength stronger, her pathos more pathetic and her eventual rescue more wonderful. Children can cope with this. You do not need to keep her father alive to make it more suitable for children. Here, they’ve diluted the magic (magic does NOT equal special effects, I think I was quite firm about that with Harry Potter) and juggled things around for no reason. Pah.

The problems aren’t just one way though. Grolier produce storybooks of the Disney films which make me want to rip out my eyeballs and conk my head off a cement floor. I like Disney films. They may be diluted versions of gruesome fairytales and they may perpetuate stereotypes of girly-girly glittery princesses (again, a debate for another post…) but I like them. I like the songs, the magic, the stories, most of the characters. Beauty and the Beast is my favourite, The Lion King, The Jungle Book and The Sword in the Stone follow behind with Cinderella taking up the rear. I also like reading books to my son and I love fairytales, so you’d think this would be a win-win situation. Unfortunately the books are dull, turgid and far far too long. They’re no good as picture books or reading aloud books, they take so long to read that you’ve fallen asleep before you’re half-way through. They’re no good as early readers as they’re so boring to read that the same thing happens. Basically, it’s taken the bare bones of the story and stripped away the magic.

I know I’ve talked about magic in all three examples so far. But it’s important; whether we’re talking about actual magic, conjuring like in Harry Potter’s world or Sara Crewe’s or simply the key ingredient that makes you sigh happily at the end of a Disney film, magic is the secret part of the puzzle that grips you when you read or watch a story and makes you want more. And that, surely, is why we turn books into films or films into books. So are there any examples where I think they’ve (the mysterious They!) got it right?

The Polar Express. We watch this every year with Daniel – the first year we didn’t realised it had been a book first; last year we did but it was just a little too advanced for him but this year he’s devouring books by the dozen and when he saw Polar Express in the library last week he just had to have it and we’ve read it together nearly every day. The film was enchanting. The animation was really good but also the characters were charming, even the annoying one (ask me if I still think that when it’s been on fifty times by Boxing Day), and the story was a nice balance of action and reflection. It’s a full-length film, so obviously they’ve had to stretch it out a bit from a picture book but it didn’t FEEL stretched. The book, when I read it, was a joy to read. It used lovely lyrical language and the main character was engaging. Comparing the film to the book you could understand why the extra characters and scenes had been introduced but the essence of the book was still in the film. That’s the difference, in my opinion, between this and the other examples above. The people responsible for the adaptation had lost the essence of the story . I understand that changes have to be made but it’s no good losing the soul of the story along the way. I guess that’s something I need to watch out for in my writing – the soul of the story. The thing that if it were lost would ruin the magic.

Anyone got any thoughts? Or any examples of book/film adaptations that have worked either spectacularly or spectacularly badly?



Miss Saigon and the Unreliable Narrator

I’ve listened to and loved Miss Saigon for about twenty years. I know every word and I identify with the characters – well, as much as I can without actually being an American GI or a Vietnamese prostitute forty years ago – so much that my pulse still races building up to the finale or when Kim and Chris sing out all their hopes and fears in The Last Night of the World. 

Despite that, it still took me until only a couple of years ago to realise something quite important. Kim isn’t a reliable narrator. Actually, she doesn’t do most of the narrating. If you ask me, The Engineer keeps the story moving along and to be honest he’s far more reliable. If you overlook the fact that he’s a self-serving, greasy pimp. He is pretty much upfront with his motives and he gives us an eye into what’s happening both in Kim’s story and in the wider setting. Plus he has his own humour and charm which make him a likeable and sympathetic character without the tormented heroism of Chris or the tragedy of Kim.

Anyway, the narration. One of the most crucial parts of Kim’s story is what happens at the Fall of Saigon in 1975, and we get to see this in Act 2. The thing is, for years I listened to this and watched this as if it was a flashback. But it’s not – it’s a dream (and hey Sherlock, it’s there in the song title – Kim’s Nightmare. D’oh). That changes things – it’s not what actually happened, it’s what Kim remembers as happening. She was on the other side of the gates from Chris, and has had no contact with him for three years at this point; she has no way of knowing what he was thinking or doing and she fills in the gaps with her imagination in the guise of a nightmare.

The reason this is important is that it provides her whole motivation for getting through what happens to her after the American evacuation. She hides herself and her son, murders her cousin and flees from Vietnam because she’s clinging onto a certainty that Chris loves her, promised himself to her and will return for her as soon as he can. Now if you take her point of view, which for years I did, this makes more sense; a Love-in-Adversity sort of theme. And you are full of sympathy for her and less so for Chris, who went off and married someone else, the cad.

When the penny finally dropped with me and I realised how unreliable Kim is as a narrator – basically she is deluded for most of the story’s action – it changed my perspective on their characters. Kim is no less sympathetic but for different reasons, and I can no longer rely on her view of Chris. Instead of being a hero who changes into a cold-hearted scallywag who abandons Kim to her fate to go off and marry someone else, he’s a flawed man who had unexpectedly deep feelings for Kim but basically got on with his life. I’m not saying he wasn’t in love with her – he shows how much he was in love with her by the snatches that are revealed of him after he left Saigon, the way he had nightmares and what John says when he meets Kim (He [Chris] went crazy when he lost you, Spoke to no-one for a year) – but in the end He [Chris] finally said ‘I’m home now, My life has to go on here.’ For all we know, he regrets his impulsive offer to take her away to America and by the time the helicopters are leaving, maybe he’s ready to leave with them instead of the struggle that Kim imagines him having with John. And you couldn’t totally blame him. He’s obviously been messed up by the war, Why God Why reveals some of his struggles, but it does change how you view him.

Re-listening to Miss Saigon with this in mind adds a sense of tragedy to earlier scenes that wasn’t there before. When Kim explains her reasons for surviving before you realise how deluded she is, you have hope for her happy ending. Listening to her again knowing the truth adds poignancy (not to mention a certain amount of wanting to shake some sense into her). It also changes how rational her final choices are. If she’d not held this idealistic view of Chris fighting all odds to come back for her and play happy families, she might have been able to accept the provision for her and Tam that Chris and Ellen were offering. Instead, I think she loses what little reason she had left and it has devastating consequences.

All of these things are a great example of how the reliability of a story’s narrator can have  huge impact, both on how the story goes and how it affects the reader/audience.


from nopo_11 on PhotobucketThere’s a scene in Moulin Rouge which is possibly in my top ten film scenes ever – The Emergency Rehearsal. Christian (Ewan MacGregor)is unexpectedly pitching the show they need finance for to The Duke, and he says it’s about love. The Duke sneers until Harold hastily adds more licentious details. Well, excuse me, M. le Duc, but I’m with Christian when he says “Love is a many-splendoured thing, love lifts us up where we belong, all you need is love.” I reckon some of the most powerful stories in the world are love stories, and some of the most beautiful songs in the world are love songs. Not the watered-down number 1’s produced by cloned boy bands but real, moving songs. Which, funnily enough, can often be found in musicals.

Take “Love Changes Everything” – it talks of the contradictory way you feel when you’re in love, the way it transforms you for ever, and the song just soars and takes you with it. I think I want it played at my funeral – obviously the Michael Ball version (is there another?).

Obviously there’s the whole range of love – romantic love, parental love, love of country or a cause… all of these have been covered spectacularly in musicals. Off the top of my head, Love Changes Everything from Aspects of Love, I’d Give My Life for You from Miss Saigon and Do You Hear the People Sing? from Les Misérables respectively. What I’m really looking at in this post is different ways romantic love manifests itself, as demonstrated spectacularly in Notre Dame de Paris by Richard Cocciante and Luc Plamondon. I don’t think it’s widely known in England although it did have a run in London with Dannii Minogue, and was featured on the Royal Variety Show one year. It’s not one of the blockbusters anyway, although it deserves to be – it’s stirring, powerful and has a modern edge whilst retaining the atmosphere of the time in which it’s set. (Quick disclaimer – to my shame I haven’t yet read Victor Hugo’s original book, so all references to story and characters here are entirely based on the musical).

The story features Esmeralda the gypsy and the three men who love her in their different, yet ultimately destructive, ways. Quasimodo, the hunchbacked bellringer, who loves her the most unselfishly and tries to protect her; Frollo the priest, whose lust overcomes his morals and eventually leads to Esmeralda’s execution; and Phoebus, the Captain of the King’s Archers who selfishly pursues her and takes advantage of her love for him despite being betrothed to another girl, and who betrays Esmeralda when she needs him even though she has risked her life to love him. These three men show the different facets of their love in the song Belle, in which they variously turn their back on the Church that has sheltered them, their priestly vocation and vows and their vows of fidelity to another woman. It’s the first time you get to know exactly how each of them feel about Esmeralda, whilst I have an image of her flitting just out of reach. It shows the power a woman could have over men even in an age dominated by man – each man is completely enthralled by her and breaks the rules they have set themselves in an effort to claim her.

Quasimodo alone recognises her free spirit – “A bird stretching out its wings to fly” is how he describes her at one point. His is the ultimate unrequited love, and he actually does die of a broken heart. He is the only one who wants what’s best for her even though he longs for her so much, to the extent that he murders the man who has raised him, the only one who has ever shown concern for him until now. His love for Esmeralda overcomes the love he has for Frollo, who he loves “more than any dog ever loved its master”. I think if you really want a heartbreaking love song, you could do worse than listen to Quasimodo’s Dieu Que Le Monde Est Injuste (God You Made the World All Wrong in the english version) – on YouTube here (ignore that the title says Vivre). Garou’s voice is perfectly imperfect as he mourns his own hopeless situation, the contrast between his ugliness and poverty, Esmeralda’s beauty and Phoebus’ wealth and handsomeness.

Frollo is the Bad Guy. In Belle he blames Esmeralda for inciting his own lustful thoughts. He basically admits that he wants to break his celibacy vows, he knows how wrong it is, yet it is Esmeralda who “is the devil incarnate” and who carries the weight of original sin. Belle is a foreshadow of Tu Vas Me Detruire where he sings of being torn apart by his obsession, of how he thought himself as hard and cold but consumed by lust and haunted by the gypsy’s eyes. And again he he blames Esmeralda and curses her. In the end, of course, he does destroy himself, and Esmeralda and Quasimodo alongside him. If Quasimodo’s is the ultimate unrequited love, Frollo’s is the ultimate destructive love.

Phoebus is a bit of git, really. I found when listening to first the English then the French, that Phoebus is far more sympathetic and distraught in the English. In the French he is much more calculating, quite determined to have his cake and eat it. His part in Belle sets out his plan to be unfaithful to Fleur de Lys and his fairly slimy nature comes up again and again in the show. In Le Val D’Amour he reveals that he frequently sleeps with prostitutes; in Déchiré he describes himself as ‘torn apart’ to a gang of his soldiers but he’s loving every minute of it. He also shows how little he knows of Esmeralda – despite the fact that she is young and innocent, he sees her as a stereotypical gypsy and mistakes her exotic-ness for loose morals. He shamelessly exploits her love but casts her aside for the wealth and stability of Fleur de Lys, leading to Esmeralda’s death. Phoebus shows the ultimate selfish love; and you just know that it’s not going to end well, however much Esmeralda wants to “live for the one she loves”.

I haven’t touched here on the fraternal love of Clopin or the platonic love of Gringoire the poet. But it’s indisputable that the power of this story is due to the importance of love.

Despite what The Duke thinks.

Here’s Belle. And if that’s a bit intense, let’s finish where we started, with the gorgeous Christian in Moulin Rouge.

Belle on YouTube Elephant Love Medley on YouTube

Not very Misérable

Ok, I’m sorryabout the pun. But I couldn’t really pass up the opportunity.

I decided to buy the DVD of Les Miserables: Live at O2 since I had some birthday money left, and it really is one of all my all-time favourite shows. And I have to say what I think – absolutely blown away.

I’ve got the 10th anniversary concert, and I enjoyed that. The cast was great (I mean, Michael Ball, Ruthie Henshall, Lea Salonga, and of course Philip Quast against Colm Wilkinson) and you quickly got used to the concert format, where the actors stood at microphones rather than moving around the stage, and only the principals were costumed, with a huge choir in Les Mis t-shirts behind. I want one of those t-shirts. I’d be willing to swap husband for t-shirt if anyone’s interested; he’s pretty good, more or less housetrained and hardly ever eats the furniture.

The new one, celebrating the 25th anniversary, was on another level. Repeating the concert format, but improving on it by having some props, costume changes and a little background action, it seemed to be fresher and livelier. I think this was helped by the new orchestration (aforementioned husband isn’t keen on that but I love it, brings it a little up to date without changing the power of the music). I also, though don’t quote me on this, think that both orchestra and choir are miles bigger than 15 years ago. Same conductor though, I noticed; I do like him.

So, casting. As I said, 1995 was a pretty good cast. I am still unsure whether anyone can beat Philip Quast as Javert – the power and contained fury are fantastic – but Norm Lewis was excellent. As far as Jean Valjean goes, I’m a bit of a blasphemer; I like Colm Wilkinson, but he’s not my die-hard Valjean. Alfie Boe is a strong contender for that, as here he was mesmerising, excellent focus and a soaring tenor. And I thought his journey was utterly believable, right down to his little headshakes when the Bishop of Digne tells him to become “an honest man” or his falter when he reads Marius’ letter and realises that Cosette has been keeping her own secrets.

The Thénardiers – now this was where I was expecting to grumble. Jenny Galloway is my all-time favourite Mme Thénardier, with brilliant timing, expressions in both face and voice and brutality towards little Cosette, so I was delighted to see her reprise the role. But when I heard that Matt Lucas was going to play her oh-so-charming husband, I was very disappointed, thinking the producers were going for a cheap celebrity shot and that he would just play it Little Britain style (and I’m really not a Little Britain fan I’m sorry to say). I warmed to him after watching a documentary about the production, but watching him actually do it has won me over as a new fan. He was Thénardier to the core – vile, slimy, in his own particular way, and bouncing off Madame perfectly. I would probably rate him now as my favourite in the role, and a real highlight of the show, just as Boubil & Schonberg envisaged all those years ago.

For the women, again I was delighted. Samantha Barks was vulnerable yet feisty as Eponine, and I really wanted to see more of her, and Cosette managed to not be too twee. She had a pretty soprano voice that never shrieked, which I was pleased about. Lea Salonga, who is ALWAYS fantastic, pulled off a minor miracle. Fantine is, in my admittedly limited experience, always played too old, too frumpy, too whiny and her bits are the part where you don’t mind needing to go to the loo. But when Lea Salonga did it, she brought Fantine to life. You could see her being young yet prematurely aged; I believed that men would want to seduce her; I felt pain and longing and memories of a happy youth when she was singing. Major respect to Lea for playing Fantine as she exactly should be played.

My one let down was Marius. Nick Jonas just didn’t seem big enough for the role. He looked far too young for a start, even next to Cosette, and his voice was terribly disappointing. It was very nasal, had no power and both his face and his voice seemed to convey a rather pained concentration without any joy of being in love, youthful idealism at the ABC Café or agony of losing his friends. I’m perfectly willing to believe that with lots more training and maturity he can grow into the role, but he was certainly the weakest link on that performance by far. On the other hand, Ramin Karimloo was a stunning Enjolras. He had the intensity needed, the voice to lead numbers like Red and Black or Do You Hear The People Sing? and was the kind of student every teenage girl dreams about.

Actually, I have two let downs. The second is that I am so greedy, I want more. I know that what was on the DVD is not the entire performance of Les Misérables; what I don’t know is if that is because a redacted version was performed at the event at the O2 and we are actually seeing what the live audience saw, or if clever editing has cut out bits so that to see the whole thing you had to be there. Either way, I would have been over the moon to see the whole 3 hours of Les Mis as I know it on the DVD. It was magical from start to finish. And the buzz I got from seeing the special finale just on DVD was amazing, I can’t imagine the adrenalin of actually being there!

Here’s the link to Amazon if you’ve enjoyed my review; highly, utterly recommended.

As an aside, I’m thinking about doing a regular blog post about musicals. Not always, or even often, a straight review like this, but my tuppence’orth on different aspects of my favourite shows. Whaddya reckon? Comments appreciated, as always.