Welcome to the HOURGLASS

It’s an exciting time in YA fiction; in fact, it has been for a long time. Blockbuster series have been rolling in with beautiful regularity and increasing frequency, from the original powerhouses HARRY POTTER, TWILIGHT, and THE HUNGER GAMES, to a new wave of thrilling sequences, including THE MAZE RUNNER (James Dashner), MATCHED (Ally Condie), DIVERGENT (Veronica Roth), and DELIRIUM (Lauren Oliver).

To that illustrious list we can now add a new time-twisting teen series in the form of HOURGLASS, by Myra McEntire. This extraordinarily accomplished first novel is, wonderfully, a more-than-worthy addition to this new, conceptually thrilling, thrill-seeking school of YA.

Not only is the narrative powerful, sneaky and full of reversals & shocking twists, powered as it is by a mind-bending conceptual heartbeat, but the novel as a whole is beautifully, poetically rendered. Achingly so.

On its surface, HOURGLASS is a love story, a Southern romance. But this is a novel that is all about what lies beneath and beyond those beautiful, shimmering, flowing surfaces: broken lives, sadness, darkness, loss… and life-changing passion and desire.

Especially that.

Emerson is a struggling teen, still coming to terms with the deaths of her parents, and the fact that she’s pestered by persistent hallucinations of people from the distant past (Scarlett O’Hara types, this being the South and all). The visions are getting worse, and so her brother Thomas reaches out to the Hourglass, a mysterious organization who claim to be able to help with the strange experiences Emerson is enduring.

Which is where Michael comes in.

Just older than Emerson, he represents the Hourglass. As Michael gets Emerson to talk about her past, and the people that she sees, the novel shifts gears. The easy rhythm of small town life gives way to electrifying chemistry and stunning revelations. HOURGLASS becomes a full-blown time-travel mind-bender of a book. With all its lovely and elegantly timey-wimey stylings, it’s like McEntire has taken a sonic screwdriver to the Southern romance genre and juiced it up into a starkly emotional and reality-bending tale.

Fantastic!

As the book plunges deeper into layer after narrative layer, we get drawn into the maelstrom of Emerson’s world, which is gorgeously, unflinchingly drawn. As more characters are revealed, the plot deepens, and the scope and implication of the time-rips that Emerson experiences gets wider.

HOURGLASS is elegantly powerful and fearsomely page-turning. Fortunately, it’s just the beginning: McEntire announced today that the title of book two is TIMEPIECE. As if that wasn’t enough, McEntire also just unveiled a deleted scene (containing possible spoilers) on her blog. It’s an alternate take from a key character’s perspective, which is not only illuminating, but also reveals just how many awesome secrets and revelations are lurking for the rest of the series.

Making it even harder to wait for book two.

So, yeah; a time machine would be useful right about now!

Overall rating:

Five out of five TARDISes  

(TARDII?)

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How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying

Every now and then a perfect cultural storm rolls into the complex intersection between TV, film, stage, music, pop culture and even the economy, drawing on all of them simultaneously to create a truly unique moment. One such occurrence is happening now on Broadway, with a shiny new 50th anniversary revival of Frank Loesser’s 1961 hit How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, starring erstwhile boy wizard Daniel Radcliffe, TV star John Laroquette, and the droll, non-giggling tones of Anderson Cooper in a culture-blending mash-up that draws from Star Trek and Mad Men as much as it does from Broadway history.

Following on from his critically acclaimed performance in Equus, Radcliffe has returned to NYC for his second Broadway starring role. Where Equus was a dark psychological analysis of a disturbed youth, How To Succeed is a brightly colored, infectiously energetic and hugely charming confectionary that belts out its song and dance numbers amidst ever-moving, coolly glowing TARDIS-like sets, and elevates the material in a raucous, entertaining manner through to its triumphant finale. Radcliffe has no problem shifting gears from one to the other, giving the impression that he was born and raised on the Broadway stage, American accent and dance moves comfortably in place. And he can belt out a tune with the best of them.

Image courtesy of derekmclane.org

While we’re still in the immediate, globe-spanning, culture-changing aftermath of the theatrical release of the final Harry Potter movie, the potentially disconcerting contrast of seeing the Boy Who Lived leaping around in a lively Mad Men-esque musical actually creates a unique & powerfully charged atmosphere in the theatre. Naturally, Radcliffe’s first appearance in the play is greeted with a massive roar from the crowd, and the energy in the room only goes up from there.

The play follows Radcliffe’s character, J. Pierrepoint Finch, as he reads from the self-help book (dryly voice-overed by Anderson Cooper) that gives the play its title, and attempts to carry out its lessons in how to make it in the tough world of Wall Street. It’s a funny, smart play, with the lyrics by Loesser and the book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert full of sly one-liners, quick banter, and still-sharp observations. It marries the whip-smart back and forth of old Hollywood movies to huge-chorused Broadway numbers, and it does it with a frankly excessive amount of charm to which it’s impossible not to succumb.

The dialogue, songs, actors and sets are constantly on the move in this highly kinetic production that never slows down, building to a finale in which Radcliffe runs, flips, dances and hurls himself throughout a number that keeps increasing its momentum, and causes the crowd to cheer and applaud numerous times before it all finally comes to a close.

Image courtesy of http://www.derekmclane.org

The original 1961 production was itself an adaptation of Shepherd Mead’s 1952 novel. Although the novel was already a comic work, the stage adaptation, produced by the team behind Guys And Dolls, upped the satirical and romantic angles, and brought in the legendary Bob Fosse to choreograph the dance sequences. The play has been revived many times since, recently in 1995 with Matthew Broderick in the starring role, and even in 1996 with former Karate Kid Ralph Macchio taking the lead. However, from a cultural perspective, director and choreographer Rob Ashford’s current revival may be the most fascinating of all. It has an edge over all other versions in that it comes after Matthew Weiner’s era-defining TV drama Mad Men changed the way we look at the New York office life in the 50s and 60s. It also exists in a post-Office Space/The Office world. All this adds extra layers of meaning and resonance. The current revival takes this proto-Mad Men world and fuses it with Derek McLane’s coolly-lit, elegantly retro-futuristic set designs, which come across as though Apple designed the interiors of the USS Enterprise of the original Star Trek series. The choreogaphy is wild and energetic as the actors hurtle around McLane’s beautiful-looking, imaginative multi-leveled sets, and the dance numbers are huge and deceptively complex. Added to that are the venerable, twinkling presence of  John Laroquette as big boss J.B. Biggley, and the undeniable star wattage of Radcliffe, their easy and occasionally improvised camaraderie ably supported by an excellent, charismatic cast of Broadway and TV regulars.

With this new production, Ashford has curated a heady, unique mix of past and future, of Hollywood and stage, which has an extraordinary energy as the cultural influences interact and become something far more than the sum of their parts. It’s both thoroughly entertaining, and, with this cast, it’s also an utterly unique cultural moment in time.

“These are dark times, there is no denying…”

In late November 2010, the David Yates-directed Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part I and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy were released. Two works of art that seemed to capture the moment with their raw immediacy, multi-layered complexity, roughness and beauty, emotional resonances and a wild sense of creativity and innovation at full throttle with ideas to spare. Two cultural phenomena that thrived on guest performances to enhance the core roles: just as Kanye brought on Jay-Z, Pusha T, Nicki Minaj and others, so David Yates did the equivalent with the continuous Harry Potter guest star roll-call of British acting royalty: Nick Moran, Bill Nighy, Peter Mullan, Rhys Ifans. West and Yates have given free rein to their creative interpretations of their material, while always maintaining absolute control of the big picture, the final product. Both Hallows and Fantasy are in some ways the ultimate expression to date of their creators’ mastery of their chosen art form, and are vehicles for their creators to innovate wildly within a solid architecture and structure.

On My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West accesses excess, melancholy, and the crazy highs and lows of fame, in an ultra-confident, tour-de-force performance powered by absolute bravura and assurance. Along the way, he takes time to tear down the conceptual frameworks of fame, celebrity, and wealth, at the same time flaunting all of them. It’s a complex, contradictory work, this album, but it is multi-layered and rewarding, almost a concept album in its consistent presentation of Kanye West’s interior world, already revealed to us by his Twitter feed and the steady stream of free tracks from his recording sessions earlier in the year. He can tear himself apart, as in Runaway, exult in his status, as on Monster, or do both, as he does in Power, while underlying the whole is a sad, melancholy ambience, perhaps best summed up by one of his tweets from earlier in 2010: “Seems like I miss my loved ones the most when I stare out the jet window… There’s a nostalgia in the skyscraper lights.”

Melancholy is an emotion that is not in short supply in Deathly Hallows Part I, which is easily the bleakest, most emotionally brutal Potter movie to date. The seventh and penultimate film in the Harry Potter series begins with a close-up of the troubled eyes of Bill Nighy as the new Minister for Magic, describing the dark times that have befallen the world. Dark times indeed – this is without a doubt the darkest and most visceral Potter to date, thanks to J.K. Rowling’s unflinching vision, Steve Kloves’ subtle adaptation, and the thrilling, eerie direction of David Yates.

Yates has a keen eye for the urban and the gritty, married with an extraordinary sense for beautiful and lonely shot composition. Together with Kloves, he has added some great cinematic flourishes to Rowling’s narrative: whether it’s Hagrid and Harry escaping along a motorway with exploding caravans and cars flipping around them, or an enraged Voldemort bringing down miles of crackling pylons stretching off into the night, Yates has a strong, nuanced grasp of the translation from page to screen, knowing when to disappear, and when to enhance.

West’s grasp of when to disappear into the material is evident in Fantasy. On the guest star behemoth of the album, All Of The Lights, he weaves his vocals among the textures of no less than eleven others, including Rihanna, Elton John, Fergie, and John Legend. Also firm is West’s grasp of how to spin darkly psychological and fantastical tales, and when to foreground one or the other. Many years ago, I was fortunate to have the chance to talk with Philip Pullman about the His Dark Materials trilogy (Northern Lights / The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass). He told me that while writing it, he had been looking to bring a darker psychology to the fantasy genre, something West does with acuity on Fantasy. A fierce psychological clarity is something that Pullman justifiably gets much credit for in his trilogy, but it is something that many critics miss when assessing J. K Rowling’s seven-book series.

The Harry Potter novels are sometimes held to be somehow softer than Pullman’s. This is not true; Rowling’s works are often chillingly dark, taking an unflinching look at loss, death, and the transformation of goodness into evil. David Yates’s direction of Order Of The Phoenix, The Half-Blood Prince, and The Deathly Hallows, lays this starkly bare. He foregrounds the bare-bones cruelty and horror and wrenching sense of loss, and makes it clear: when Rowling starts her novel with an epigraph containing the phrase “the grinding scream of death,” she means it.

But the Harry Potter series is not just about death and darkness: it is about warmth, hope, the power of true love, the beauty of friendship, and survival. Yates and longtime Potter screenwriter Steve Kloves understand this. The screenplays and films are full of lovely grace notes, some from Rowling, some added by Kloves and Yates.

Particularly effective was the addition to Deathly Hallows of a scene in which Harry starts an impromptu dance with Hermione when all seems lost. It’s a rare moment of release and joy in a bleak journey as they dance to Nick Cave’s O Children, before the signal fades into static on the radio they are listening to, and the hopelessness takes over once more. This scene is a brilliant textural touch, and also recalls another part of Rowling’s epigraph, the plea to the “blissful powers underground – answer the call, send help. Bless the children, give them triumph now.”

Yates is a master of such texture, such subtlety. West shows similar mastery of textural control on Fantasy, sampling Mike Oldfield and King Crimson, weaving the wistfulness of Bon Iver into several tracks, unleashing Raekwon’s angular chaos on Gorgeous, enlisting the RZA on opening track Dark Fantasy, and generally bringing together beats, sounds and guests raps with the inspired craziness of Doc Brown in Back To The Future, which could have been a subtitle to the album, just as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy could have been the subtitle for Rowling’s series, or the subtitle to anything writers write, because deep down, this is why we do it – to remake our interior worlds outside ourselves, and exult in them.

One of Yates’s great strengths as a director is to access subtle truths in the performances of his actors; beautiful, naturalistic moments, often almost imperceptible. Gary Oldman’s wink to Harry at the Grimmauld Place table in Phoenix; Alan Rickman’s anguish conveyed in the absolute stillness of his face in Hallows; Jason Isaac’s twitchy, desperate despair. Ralph Fiennes’ many flickering emotions; there, then gone. Yates draws from all his actors the most heartfelt and minimal expressions. He has also coached superior performances from all three leads. Emma Watson in particular has accessed new levels of truth and reality in her portrayal of Hermione, more so even than Dan Radcliffe and Rupert Grint, although they too have become fully settled in their characters, able to do things in Deathly Hallows that would not have been capable of before now. Under Yates’s eye, actors’ faces become quiet, minimalist symphonies of expression.

Like Fantasy with its moments of reflection amidst the grandstanding beats, for example, following a quiet orchestral interlude with the rollicking All Of The Lights, Deathly Hallows is a film of contrasts: all beautiful stillness and furious motion. Visually, Yates has no equal in the way he conjures the visual architecture of isolation. His shot compositions are eerily beautiful and achingly lonely, and he has an unmatched eye for the “active tableau” – perfectly framed moments of stillness, full of promised motion in the convergence of their lines.

Of all the directors in the series, David Yates has brought the most effective blend of the magical world with the real, contemporary world. He has understood more than any of the others how to reveal Rowling’s truths with textural nuances; and he has committed to film some of the most realistic, if that’s the word, depictions of magic in the series to date, filming magic as a raw and dangerous energy, like a live power cable snaking with energy, unstable and violent in unskilled hands, beautiful and fluid in the hands of a master. Like the stuff of Rowling’s novels in the hands of the directors. Like West’s many muses, like his control of song structure, sampling, beats, raps and atmospheres.

West and Yates have proved to be the greatest wizards of all.