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Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Book Review: Murder in the Afternoon by Frances Brody

Murder in the Afternoon is the third book in the Kate Shackleton series of mysteries that I've become rather addicted to (see reviews of Dying in the Wool, A Medal for Murder and A Woman Unknown). Set in Yorkshire in the 1920s, this novel blends the personal with the professional for amateur detective Kate. In the middle of the night she is visited by Mary Jane Armstrong who asserts that her two children found the body of their father at the quarry where he works. However, the body has since disappeared and the police aren't taking the matter seriously. Kate's discovery that Mary Jane is her sister leads not only to her taking the case but also visiting the mother who gave her up for adoption as a baby. Once again, Kate is determined to solve the mystery but this time there's more at stake.

Something I've enjoyed in previous books - the intimate descriptions of the Yorkshire locality - jumped to the fore in Murder in the Afternoon. A large proportion of it is set in and around Wakefield and I was thoroughly delighted to be following Kate through areas I know so well, allowing me to catalogue the differences a century can make. There's something about finding a book with locations you recognise that makes you feel closer to the text and it's definitely contributed to my overall love of the series.

As for the mystery itself, the familial tinge makes this novel different to the others. Kate's interactions with her hitherto unknown niece and nephew are particularly interesting, as is the contrast between the life she's had and the one she could've led. To offset this biological family there are more appearances than usual by Kate's adoptive parents in some amusing scenes involving their house being used as bait in a matrimonial trap. All this gives Murder in the Afternoon a distinctive flavour, while there's still a mystery at the heart of it.

Did I guess the killer this time? I suspected, but only because Brody wanted me to I think. I was nowhere near the 'why' and the unravelling at the end of the book was enjoyable in that respect. However, what I ultimate took from this book was a greater sense of Kate Shackleton the character - along with some brilliant depictions of 1920s Wakefield.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Book Review: Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell

This novel follows Sylvia Robson, a farmer's daughter, as she grows into adulthood in Monkshaven (a fictionalised version of Whitby) against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. Although loved by her cousin Philip Hepburn, Sylvia falls for the charms of sailor Charley Kinraid, However, despite their urge to be married he has to first return to his ship and disaster strikes. Much more information would ruin the twists and turns of this book for anyone who hasn't read it so I'll refrain.

Perhaps the first thing to say about Sylvia's Lovers is how visually evocative it is, from the bedraggled farm distant from the village to the coastal paths that play such a pivotal role in the story. The setting is irrevocably woven into the narrative - without the stench of fish hovering around Sylvia the main points of the novel just couldn't occur. Gaskell draws vivid connections between character and setting and, in truth, the latter is more memorable than the former. Something also to note is that there is a lot of regional dialect in the book - I'm from Yorkshire and I was having difficulty with it so I don't know how others might cope!

This novel is a tragic story, there's no question of that. It begins in the shadow of the press-gang and the gloomy atmosphere pervades the novel. However, it is a little uneven. Gaskell spends a lot of time building up Sylvia and Kinraid's relationship then the conclusion feels a little haphazard. Similarly, the perfunctory ending of Hepburn's story jarred with me. One thing I did appreciate about the novel, though, was the way I see-sawed between who I wanted to succeed in the battle for Sylvia. That said, she's a very limp character, who only felt interesting to me when she was resisting something. The cautious friendship between her and Hester Rose (Hepburn's colleague who is in love with him) is fascinating and certainly proved to be one of the elements that kept me interested in this one.

Ultimately, everything's wrapped up a little too quickly in Sylvia's Lovers for my liking. Even so, the scenes of Monkshaven will stay with me, as will the fates of some of the smaller characters who captured my interest.

This book was read as part of the 'Women' reading challenge, details here.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Book Review: Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown

First published in 1973, Rubyfruit Jungle is a bawdy romp through one woman's childhood, adolescence and early adulthood as she explores her sexuality and tries to find her place in America without making any compromises. Molly Bolt is the adoptive daughter of a poor couple, a disappointment to her mother, and aware of her sexuality from an early age. This leads to problem after problem but Molly refuses to fit into any mould - she doesn't want a relationship or to settle down, she just wants to get on with her life.

I had mixed feelings about this one. I probably wouldn't have read it if it hadn't been for the reading group I'm a part of and Molly's philosophy isn't really one I'd ever subscribe to. As a critique of contemporary views it works quite well with homophobia and attitudes towards sexuality in general thoroughly examined. However, I did start to lose track of who everyone was as Molly flitted from one relationship to the next. In that sense it's a very episodic narrative, though I appreciated the loop around at the end that grounded me a little more as a reader.

It's an easy read that whooshes along quite rapidly. It's also evocative, particularly the childhood sections before Molly's conquests started to blur for me. While I doubt I'll be rereading it, I'm at least glad I came across it and thanks to my reading group for that.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Classic Film Review: Kismet (1955)

Kismet tells the story of Hajj (Howard Keel), a beggar poet who finds himself in favour with the Wazir (Sebastian Cabot) whilst unwittingly scuppering his beloved daughter Marsinah's (Ann Blyth) romance with the Caliph (Vic Damone). Complicating matters further is the fact that Hajj is himself attracted to the Wazir's wife Lalume (Dolores Gray). How will he get out of this situation alive?

On the surface, this film has everything: a brilliant cast, luscious costume, vivid sets, Vincente Minnelli at the helm with help from Stanley Donen and it came out of the illustrious Freed Unit at MGM. However, there's something missing. Perhaps the problem is that the film meanders and, while it has a few amusing moments, there's a lot of dross included. Howard Keel is at the height of his powers but it doesn't translate to a brilliant film. The two songs that have endured from this score - 'Stranger in Paradise' and 'Baubles, Bangles and Beads' - are easily the best of the bunch. Some of the dance sequences are over-long and add very little to the plot and Vic Damone is no prize-winning actor. I would say, that Ann Blyth and Dolores Gray make up for these deficiencies to some extent. In my time-honoured fashion of finding actresses who only made a handful of films the most engrossing, Dolores Gray captured my heart and all of my favourite scenes contained the character of Lalume.

Maybe it's me. Maybe to others Kismet is a brilliant film. However, I just got the sense that it was made by numbers, with all of Minnelli's artistic flair but without the love that you need to make that work. I wanted very much to like this film but I just couldn't.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Book Review: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters's sixth novel returns to the complexities of historical lesbian romance, set this time in the years following the Great War. While some people complained that her last novel The Little Stranger didn't have any lesbian characters, I rather enjoyed it. However, I did appreciate the intricacies of The Paying Guests and I put off reading it for quite some time to prolong the pleasure. I always remember one comment on Fingersmith saying that there are some books you envy people for not having read yet - I think this is another one from Waters.

Frances Wray and her widowed mother are forced to take in lodgers when their once-majestic home on Champion Hill becomes unaffordable. These 'paying guests' are Lilian and Leonard Barber, injecting life into the house that Frances and Mrs Wray find difficult to deal with. Against expectations, Frances and Lilian strike up a friendship. This, however, leads to complications which, in turn, leads to something so unexpected that I almost put the book down to applaud before going back to marvel at the foreshadowing.

To say I enjoyed this book would be an understatement and I don't want to say too much about it. What I will say is that the atmosphere built in this novel teeters on the right side of claustrophobic and the characterisation is brilliant, from the protagonists down to the incidentals. The Paying Guests is a sumptuous novel and, yes, I do envy those yet to read it.

This book was read as part of the 'Women' reading challenge, details here.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Book Review: Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature by Emma Donoghue

This fascinating non-fiction book examines the representation of desire between woman in literature in six section: 'Travesties', 'Inseparables', 'Rivals', 'Monsters', 'Detection' and 'Out'. While it's full of detail and so will please any scholars interested in the subject, Inseparable is also an easy, sometimes amusing, read for non-academics. Donoghue infuses her non-fiction analysis with the same edge of humour that I enjoy so much in her fiction. Though, for me, this subject could never be dry and boring, she ensures it isn't so.

The 'Travesties' section looks at cross-dressing within texts from 990 onwards, including brief discussions on Shakespeare, Margaret Cavendish and Theophile Gautier amongst others. It examines the recurring depictions of 'The Female Bridegroom' and 'The Male Amazon' in a chapter that looks at the causes and consequences of cross-dressing and its heyday in the drama of the seventeeth century.

'Inseparables' begins with the Biblical account of Ruth and Naomi and covers the representation of love based on similarity. As this is one of my areas of interest, I perhaps found this chapter the most interesting, particularly the discussion on Charlotte Bronte's Shirley. It also highlighted some works I want to read, both for pleasure and study - as every chapter did.

'Rivals' is a fascinating analysis of what happens when a woman and man compete for the same love. It starts with Sappho and goes through Shakespeare, Richardson and some rather brilliant-sounding French texts before moving on to discuss what happens when the rivalry bubbles over. It examined some texts I was already familiar with, such as The Rainbow and The Fox, but, again, the ones I found most intriguing were the ones I've yet to read, most notably The Bostonians.

Perhaps the chapter on 'Monsters' contains the themes most familiar to observers of fiction about desire between women. It's interesting to see the texts these stereotypes stemmed from then we take a short tour through Dickens, Hardy and others. This is quite an uncomfortable chapter, though I particularly liked the section on ghost stories.

The fifth chapter on 'Detection' provided me with plenty of books I want to read somewhere down the line. Again, desire between women is a theme pretty familiar to readers of the crime genre and it looks at writers including Ruth Rendell, Agatha Christie and P.D. James. Given my sensation fiction roots, I was also pleased to see a discussion of The Woman in White in this chapter followed by an examination of two novels by Sarah Waters.

'Out', the final chapter, looks at the 'awakening' motif in texts from George Moore onwards. It's a nice shift in tone from the other chapters, looking at declared love instead of coded texts, but it also highlights the complexities of modern life. There's a section here on 'first love' which covers several texts I was already familiar with and, once more, a number of works mentioned in this chapter are now begging to be read.

Ultimately, Emma Donoghue has written a book that is both informative and fascinating. Her subject knowledge is exemplary and her style engaging. I've already referred back to Inseparable for academic work and I have no doubt I'll be doing that again fairly frequently. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Classic Film Review: Funny Lady (1975)

The sequel to Funny Girl (1968), Funny Lady continues the story of Fanny Brice (Barbra Streisand) and depicts her relationship with showman Billy Rose (James Caan) following her divorce from Nicky Arnstein (Omar Sharif). During the Depression she struggles to find work but she and Rose work together, reigniting her career and teaching him a few things in the process. The film also stars Roddy McDowall as Bobby Moore.

Given how wonderful Funny Girl is, this sequel was always going to struggle. However, for me, it does a good job in many respects. Streisand's portrayal of Brice as someone matured by her experiences with Arnstein is compelling, as are the scenes where she accepts that she still loves him. Perhaps the best scene of the film comes when Brice is ruminating on her relationship with Rose while singing 'Isn't This Better?' As an acceptance that a marriage/friendship that works is more useful than a passionate love, it's a poignant moment. I also enjoyed the big numbers, especially 'Let's Hear it For Me' and 'How Lucky Can You Get'. Like the original film, Funny Lady switches gear between comedy and tragedy rapidly, and manages to pull it off.

James Caan as Billy Rose works very well. His interactions with Streisand before their marriage are brilliant and snippy, especially when he believes he knows best. For example, the catastrophic opening night which has scenery crashing everywhere and Brice trapped in her dressing room is comedic gold. The chemistry works in that it has to be one-sided - Rose adores her but Brice is still in love with Arnstein. It was also good that Sharif returned to hover in the background of this film. He was a link to the first film along with the brief appearances by their daughter, and I like that sort of grounding. Actually, I was a little disappointed that Brice's mother didn't make a small appearance since she was a memorable part of Funny Girl.

Ultimately, this is a bittersweet love story that showcases Streisand's talents and, as far as sequels go, it's a pretty good one.